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Review: The Blind Spots, by Thomas Mullen

8 hours 37 min ago

Thomas Mullen is an author I’d never come across before, but his other books have gotten rave reviews. And this one had an intriguing premise: imagine a world where in the course of a few months, every human being is blinded. (That’s a lot easier to do now after the COVID pandemic.) The next step is a little bit less plausible: imagine that scientists come up with a way, using a device implanted in your head, to allow people to see again.

That’s implausible not because scientists can’t create amazing solutions, but because of the very possibility that such devices, connected to the net, could be manipulated. And that’s the heart of this imaginative science fiction / police procedural set in the near future.

A device that not only replaces your vision but “enhances” it by showing you the nearest restaurants, the local weather and so on is almost certainly going to be used for evil purposes. And it is.

I won’t give the main plot line away — suffice it to say that this is a well-crafted, gripping novel with characters that have some genuine depth. The author has taken a sci-fi premise and run with it, imagining all the issues that would come up in such a world. A world, by the way, that I would never want to live in.

The dark side of IKEA

Wed, 2023-03-01 02:44

As a company based in Sweden, which is home to some of the world’s most powerful unions, you would think that IKEA would be an employer that understood the importance of workers’ rights.

And if you read what the company says about itself, it sounds wonderful.

On their website, IKEA says that it takes into consideration “at a minimum” the following: “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.”

That’s quite a mouthful. And it means nothing.

IKEA has a long and unpleasant history when it comes to respecting workers rights and indeed the use of forced labour.

A decade ago, following some very negative publicity, IKEA commissioned an accounting company to look into its practices in East Germany during the Cold War. To no one’s surprise (certainly not a surprise to the people running IKEA) it turned out that both political and criminal prisoners in the Stalinist state were used to manufacture the company’s iconic flat pack furniture. The accountants determined that IKEA was almost certainly aware that political prisoners were used to make their products. From the company’s point of view, hiring what were effectively slaves ensured a higher rate of profit, certainly lowering labour costs compared to what they might have had to pay in Sweden. IKEA apologised, insisting that this would never happen again.

But just three months ago, IKEA was in the news yet again. The last remaining fully Stalinist state in Europe, Belarus, was the focus of attention this time. “Over the past several days, news reports in various markets have focused on the presence of IKEA in Belarus prior to 2022,” stated the company, “including allegations of the use of forced prison labour connected to sub-suppliers. We, at IKEA, take these reports seriously, and are concerned. We are investigating the claims.”

There is little doubt that IKEA will once again publicly apologise.

But even before the Belarus prison labour scandal had time to subside, IKEA once again stood accused of violating the most basic workers’ rights — this time in Poland. At the end of November, Dariusz Kawka, a leader of NSZZ “Solidarność” in IKEA’s Polish operation and a member of IKEA European Works Council, was dismissed from his job on disciplinary grounds without a notice period.

This was despite his union activity which protects him from dismissal without prior approval of the company’s trade union organisation. After an inspection by the State Labour Inspectorate, it was reported that the employer had grossly violated labour law. Despite exchanging letters with the employer, including the corporation’s board of directors, and many other actions to protect Dariusz Kawka from dismissal, IKEA remains unmoved.

That ILO Declaration which IKEA is committed to? It calls on employers to recognise “freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining”. As I understand it, sacking the leader of the workers’ trade union is hardly compatible with that. It is also a gross violation of the labour law.

Dariusz’s union, NSZZ “Solidarność”, has launched a global campaign on LabourStart demanding that IKEA respect the basic right of its workers to join and form trade unions. Please take a moment to show your support for that campaign here:

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity and also on the website of the Arthur Svensson Foundation.

Review: Everyday Hate: How Antisemitism Is Built Into Our World And How You Can Change It, by Dave Rich

Sun, 2023-02-26 10:33

This is a very good and important book, and it deserves a wide audience. I read a lot about this subject and I still managed to learn things I didn’t know before. (I didn’t know, for example, that there’s a correlation between German towns that experienced anti-Jewish pogroms in the Middle Ages and voter support for the Nazis in the 1920s. Wow.) I’m also persuaded by Dave Rich’s explanation why we should write “antisemitism” and not “anti-semitism”.

David Baddiel is the author of another recent book on antisemitism in Britain. He praises this book in a cover blurb and I have to say that Rich’s is the better book. Unlike Baddiel, Rich doesn’t play up the idea that “we British Jews are not responsible for Israel’s crimes” — instead, he explains the close relationship between British Jews, and Jews everywhere, and Israel, the Jewish state. He also compares stuff Israel has done with other countries and wonders why Israel gets so much more attention than, say, Saudi Arabia or Syria.

Well researched and clearly written, this book makes a powerful case that antisemitism is on the rise, especially among young people, and something needs to be done about that. The only problem with the book is that the final chapter — which is sort of the “how you can change it” part of the title — is the weakest part of the whole book.

Review: Medea, by Euripides

Sat, 2023-02-25 12:21

I bought this book and read it just before seeing the play in London last week (starring the amazing Sophie Okonedo). Reading it and then seeing it made it absolutely clear to me why a play written almost 2,500 years ago is still being performed — and still shocking audiences. This is the ultimate revenge fantasy, a play about women and men, about racism and immigration, about power and corruption. The violence, which takes place largely off-stage, is horrific. This play will give you nightmares. Highly recommended.

Review: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, by David Graeber

Sat, 2023-02-25 12:03

Five years after buying this book, I finally sat down to read it. It is very good. Unfortunately, the author passed away in the meanwhile and we will hear no more of his incisive — and often very funny — observations. Graeber was one of the key figures in the Occupy movement, worked as an anthropologist and was a self-described “anarchist”. In his view, capitalist society can function perfectly well if everyone worked just a fraction of the time they now work. To keep everyone employed all the time, however, required the creation of “bullshit jobs” — jobs that contribute nothing to society and that are usually hated by those who do them. The jobs are just as likely to be found in the private sector as the public one. The book is an extended version of an essay Graeber wrote and the many responses he received from people who do bullshit jobs and hate them, mainly in the USA and UK. Recommended.

The tragedy of Clara Zetkin

Wed, 2023-02-22 04:54

As International Women’s Day approaches (8 March) some mainstream media will run their usual articles about the day and its history. Some may point out that the original name was International Working Women’s Day and that it was decided upon at a 1910 socialist congress in Copenhagen. It may be mentioned that one of the proponents of the holiday was Clara Zetkin, a little-remembered German socialist today who was, at the time, a household name.

Among some of the famous revolutionary women of that time, Zetkin stands out. Her friend Rosa Luxemburg was an early critic both of Lenin’s ideas about the revolutionary party and later of the October 1917 Bolshevik seizure of power. But Luxemburg was murdered too early to know how she would have reacted to the increasingly dictatorial Soviet regime in Russia. The American anarchist Emma Goldman, on the other hand, actually visited Soviet Russia and returned deeply disenchanted.

Unlike those two, Clara Zetkin became an enthusiastic Communist, remaining loyal to the Stalinist regime right up until her death in 1933. She was, among other things, a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist International during many of those years. She was complicit in the crimes of the Stalinist regime in that period, including serving as one of the prosecutors in a trial of a rival socialist organisation in 1922.

While she disagreed with the Soviet leadership on minor issues from time to time, on the whole she could not have been more loyal (which explains her survival during a period when so many socialists were falling victim to the Stalinist regime).

One example of this loyalty happened in August 1924. Lenin had died earlier in the year and Stalin was tightening his grip on the Communist Party. In Georgia, which the Red Army had invaded in 1921, a long-awaited armed uprising broke out against Soviet rule. Though the rebellion only lasted for a short time, it was followed by a bloodbath. The local secret police (the Cheka) massacred several thousand Georgians, including political prisoners who had nothing to do with the rebellion, as well as family members. The local Social Democrats and their allies were killed, deported or jailed. A young Chekist named Lavrenti Beria made his name with his ruthlessness towards the opposition.

Things got so out of control that the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party called in Stalin’s crony, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, who was in charge of the whole South Caucasian region, to explain himself. “Perhaps we did go a little far,” he admitted, “but we couldn’t help ourselves.”

That admission came behind closed doors. Publicly, the Communist Party never owned up to what it had done in Georgia in the late summer of 1924. And to support its assertion that it had done no wrong, and that there was nothing to be ashamed of, the Comintern sent the esteemed veteran socialist Clara Zetkin to Georgia to write up a report.

Her report was published in 1926 in a book called Imbefreiten Kaukasus — In the Liberated Caucasus. Among other things, she asserted that “only” about 300 Georgians died during the rebellion. Researchers today give a much higher number, some arguing that over 12,500 were shot by the Soviets.

Zetkin’s line was that the rebellion was insignificant. But Stalin had a different view. In a speech not long after the rebellion was crushed, he declared it had been a threat to the Soviet regime on the scale of the Kronstadt or Tambov rebellions. But that too was said behind closed doors. The official regime line was that the 1924 rebellion was a minor episode of kulaks, aristocrats and bandits, backed by western imperialism. That line did not change until the Soviet regime was toppled nearly seven decades later.

Clara Zetkin was a tragic figure, like so many who started their lives as morally decent revolutionaries but who wound up as servants of a blood-soaked dictatorship. This is not how she is remembered today by those who do know her name, like the Die Linke party in Germany. But it is a part of her legacy — a significant part — that should not be forgotten.

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

Arming Ukraine: Lessons from history

Wed, 2023-02-15 05:41

Everyone knows that the only way to end the war in Ukraine — to really end it — is to ensure a Ukrainian military victory over the Russian aggressor. A decisive victory by the Ukrainians would almost certainly lead to the toppling of the Putin regime. The result would be a de-fanged Russia, one that poses far less of a threat to its neighbours.

Everyone also knows that Ukraine needs the latest tanks and aircraft to achieve that goal. The Russians have been hurling their best weaponry at Ukrainian cities. Ukraine has been fighting back with what they have on hand, mostly Soviet-era tanks and planes.

Everyone knows that — and yet NATO has been slow to arm Ukraine properly. For months, Germany has refused even to allow third countries such as Poland to re-export their Leopard tanks. Now, finally there has been some movement on this.

But as President Zelensky pointed out in his recent whirlwind tour of European capitals, what Ukraine really needs now is fighter jets. And that, for most NATO countries, is a bridge too far.

Poland’s President, Andrzej Duda, speaking to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, said sending F-16 fighter jets would be a “very serious decision” that was “not easy to take”. In other words, he stepped back from the brink. And Poland was perhaps Ukraine’s strongest ally in NATO.

Why the reluctance? The Poles and others are worried that every time NATO supplies Ukraine with more weapons, they run the risk of Russia considering these to be an act of war. The Russians have already threatened to bomb NATO countries that provide Ukraine with advanced weaponry. So far, that has been a bluff. It may not remain a bluff forever.

There is a history to this which Ukrainian leaders ignore at their peril.

During the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s forces were aided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, who used the opportunity to test their latest weapons. The major Western democracies, including Britain, supported a ban on providing weapons to the Spanish Republic. The result was inevitable: the Republic was crushed, and Spain suffered four decades under Franco’s dictatorship.

In 1956, during the first major uprising against Soviet rule in an Eastern European country, the Hungarians overthrew the Stalinist regime that had been imposed upon them. The Soviet response was to invade the country. As Western powers, including the United States, had been encouraging the Hungarians to rebel against the Soviets, many Hungarians naively expected NATO to come to their rescue. There are stories of Hungarians standing on roof-tops in Budapest, scanning the skies for signs of American aircraft. Those planes never came. Thousands of brave Hungarians died and many more fled the country.

The Ukrainians have been cheered on by NATO and most of the world for an entire year now. Everywhere Zelensky goes, both in the real world and online, he is greeted as a hero. But as Ukraine faces an imminent and long-expected Russian counter-offensive, his biggest ask has been answered with a deafening silence. No one wants to rile the Russian bear, to provoke an increasingly deranged Putin to do something mad. So no one, not even the Poles, are in any hurry to give Ukraine the tools it needs to finish the job.

Everyone knows that for the war to end, Ukraine must get the latest equipment, the best weapons that NATO can offer, including fighter jets. Without those, the Russians might turn their fortunes around. But NATO is hesitating.

A year ago, the blue and yellow Ukrainian colours could be seen all over the Western world, including in the UK. Public support for Ukraine is undiminished. But now that support has to be transformed into mass campaigns involving thousands and demanding that governments do more than applaud Zelensky and the undoubted bravery of his people. Ukraine must not suffer the fate of Spain or Hungary.

Socialists and trade unionists should march in the streets in the run-up to the anniversary of the Russian invasion and on their banners and placards should be the clearest possible message: Arm Ukraine!

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

“Delilah” and domestic violence

Wed, 2023-02-08 03:52

The Ed Sullivan Show was a weekly television programme which was watched by millions. It helped define popular culture for decades to come by introducing groups like the Beatles to an American audience.

In 1967, the Rolling Stones were due to be guests on the show. They wanted to play their hit song “Let’s Spend the Night Together”. This offended Sullivan’s sense of decency, and he reportedly told Mick Jagger and his band that the lyrics were unacceptable. “Either the song goes, or you go,” is what he said. The band changed the lyrics to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” and were allowed to perform the song.

A year later, a young Welsh singer named Tom Jones got his moment on Sullivan’s show. The song he sang was called “Delilah”. “Delilah” tells the story of a man who stalks his ex-girlfriend, watching her with another man who spends the night. In the morning, the song records, “I crossed the street to her house and she opened the door. She stood there laughing. I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more.”

As misogynist lyrics go, that really can’t be topped. “Delilah” is a song about a jealous man butchering a defenceless woman with a knife.

Unlike the Rolling Stones song a year earlier, the censors had no problem with the lyrics of this song.

For reasons I cannot understand, “Delilah” has become in recent years the unofficial anthem of Welsh Rugby, and is traditionally sung by male choirs at matches. But this has understandably provoked controversy.

In 2014, a former leader of Plaid Cymru called for fans to stop singing the song. He said that the song trivialises “the idea of murdering a woman”. Two years later, Welsh Labour MP Chris Bryant asked that “Delilah” not be sung by rugby fans, correctly pointing out that the lyrics glorify violence towards women.

Tom Jones — who did not write the song — felt compelled to defend it a half century after he first recorded it. Those singing the song, he said, are not “really thinking about it … If it’s going to be taken literally, I think it takes the fun out of it.” He told The Guardian that “Delilah” is “not a political statement.” The woman in the song, he explained, was unfaithful to her man and he “just loses it … It’s something that happens in life.”

Last week, the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) finally put a stop to the singing of “Delilah” at matches. A spokesman for Principality Stadium was quoted as saying that the song was “problematic”.

Meanwhile, Tom Giffard, the Welsh Tory shadow sport minister called the decision to ban the song “wrongheaded” and “virtue signalling”. Demanding reforms in Welsh Rugby, Giffard denounced the WRU for banning “a much loved Tom Jones song.”

Hardly a day goes by when we don’t read about domestic violence and the murder of women. And with all that, Tory politicians can still talk about banning “Delilah” as “virtue signalling” rather than as a long-overdue and necessary action.

It is incredible that even now, singers like Jones can defend the song as being about some poor bloke who “just loses it” — rather than being what it actually is, a song about domestic violence from the point of view of the perpetrator.  It is a song about power, toxic masculinity and violence.

Saying that the song describes “something that happens in life” doesn’t excuse the song’s lyrics. Tom Jones wouldn’t record a song from the point of view of a serial killer, or a child abuser, though those things happen too. Audiences at rugby matches probably won’t be singing songs from the viewpoint of Fred and Rose West or the Yorkshire Ripper. But the imagined butchering of a woman who dared to laugh in the face of a man — that’s alright, because, you know, we can all “lose it”.

There is something really sick and depraved about a society in which people take pleasure in singing together about these things. Men need to speak out against domestic violence and not be cowed by accusations of being “woke”.  On the left, and in the unions, we should show zero tolerance for domestic violence and a society that tolerates such things, in life and in song.

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

Review: Final Girls, by Mira Grant

Tue, 2023-02-07 13:05

Mira Grant has written post-apocalyptic books about zombies, a couple of novels about killer mermaids, and the like. Her stories are often (always?) about empowered women, contain lots of blood and gore, and healthy doses of humour. Final Girls is a novella about a psychologist who claims to be able to “cure” individuals (and families) of mental health issues by plunging them into a virtual reality horror movie, while injecting them with a cocktail of drugs. The other main characters are a young female journalist who is deeply skeptical and another woman who — well, the less said the better. My favourite bit: her dedication. It’s to a friend, “who, like me, would probably enjoy therapy more if it came with a chainsaw.”

I enjoyed the book, including its ending, but this is not her best work. If you’ve not read Mira Grant before, start with a different one – perhaps the “Newsflesh” trilogy.

A spectre is haunting Putin

Wed, 2023-02-01 05:07

A spectre is haunting Vladimir Putin — the spectre of Andrei Sakharov.

Sakharov was a physicist and the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. He later became a world-famous campaigner for peace, democracy and human rights. He spent several years in internal exile as the regime did all it could to silence him.

In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev phoned him up to say that he and his wife could finally return to Moscow. Sakharov swiftly took advantage of the democratic reforms which were then transforming the Soviet Union. When free elections were held for the first time since 1917, Sakharov was elected to the the All-Union Congress of People’s Deputies. Three years after his return to Moscow he died.

The organisations he helped to found, and the ideas he promoted, have declined dramatically in recent years. There is no sense in which the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, the Moscow Helsinki Group or the NGO ‘Memorial’ today represent a serious threat to the Putin regime. And yet that regime has declared war on all those organisations and above all on the legacy of Sakharov himself.

It was not always thus. Just five years ago, Putin congratulated the Moscow Helsinki Group Chair and human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, during a ceremony to present her with a state award in the Kremlin. Sakharov was one of the founders of the Moscow Helsinki Group.

But last week Russia’s Prosecutor General designated the Andrei Sakharov Foundation as “undesirable” and closed the Moscow Helsinki Group. Memorial was closed even earlier despite being, like Sakharov himself, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Back in the 1970s, the Soviet dissidents were a tiny group, largely unknown in the USSR. From time to time, some of them might try to stage a protest in the streets or write a document that would be shared informally. The response of the Stalinist regime was always repression — jail, prison, mental institutions, internal exile, and expulsion from the country. In some cases, dissidents were murdered too.

But they persisted, and the world learned about their work. Though they could not mobilise large numbers of people in the Soviet Union, they represented a moral force. And they were, in the end, a force to be reckoned with.

Putin’s efforts to recreate the Soviet Union do not consist solely of his armies invading Ukraine. He is also attempting to restore the kind of totalitarian society that existed for more than seventy years in his country. And that society tolerated no dissent, not even from the country’s greatest physicist, Andrei Sakharov.

As the Ukraine war enters its second year in February, we can increasingly see just how frightened Putin has become. He’s afraid of the Ukrainians, whose soldiers have fought with incredible bravery and skill against the Russian invaders. He’s afraid of NATO and arms from Western countries that are far superior to what the Russian army can put into the field.

But he’s also afraid of his own people, the Russians who have shown again and again throughout their history that they can only stand so much. When their tsar, Nicholas II, waged a stupid and pointless war against Japan in 1905, Russia experienced its first modern revolution, which forced the regime to make concessions. In Febuary 1917, the Russian people rose up again — and this time they finished off that regime.

But it is not only masses in the streets and mutinies in the army that Putin fears.

He also fears the existence of small groups of brave dissidents, the kind of people like Andrei Sakharov and Lyudmila Alexeyeva. That’s why he has turned on the organisations that preserve their legacy — including Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group. He represses them because he fears them. And he fears them because he knows that their ideas are more powerful than his repression.

In the end, Sakharov won. His successors today in Russia, even if they are only small groups of dissidents and anti-war activists, will also win. And that is Putin’s nightmare.

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

Review: Just One Thing: How simple changes can transform your life, by Dr Michael Mosley

Sat, 2023-01-28 15:10

Dr Michael Mosley’s latest best-seller (or soon-to-be bestseller) is one of a number of new books that promise massive improvements in your life — if you just do one tiny little thing. And yet — he’s right about so much.

I’ve already added a number of his suggestions to the daily tasks on my to-do list. (If you see me on early morning walks, doing deep breathing while staring at a tree, you’ll know why.). And he’s certainly changed my shopping list for this week. If there’s a shortage of beetroot juice or Pink Lady apples in your local supermarket, blame him.

I was happy to see that I already do a lot of the things that he suggests, though at least now I know why. Like many of you, I stand on one leg while brushing my teeth, alternating legs every 30 seconds. I mean, most people do that, right? Apparently, that helps avoid falls which is a good thing as we get older.

And singing aloud — in my case, very loud — in the shower is also a good thing. I don’t remember why, but if it improves my health, of course I’ll do it.

This is a very short book, disguised as a much bigger one. Very short chapters, two pages announcing the chapter title and another full page with a quote from the (very short) chapter. I’m not complaining; I like short books. And this is one that can be read in a couple of hours, so why not?

The Tories, Russia and Lord Palmerston’s Ghost

Wed, 2023-01-25 05:43

Nearly 170 years ago, Britain was at war with Russia and Karl Marx was convinced that the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, was colluding secretly with the enemy.

During his research in the British Museum Marx examined hundreds of British diplomatic documents. His conclusion, according to his biographer Boris Nicolaevsky, was that the documents “revealed a secret connivance between the cabinets in London and St Petersburg dating from the time of Peter the Great.” In other words, for more than a century.

Marx went even further than this. Palmerston, he told Friedrich Engels in a letter, had “for several decades … been in the pay of Russia.”

I am reminded of Marx’s views on Palmerston in the wake of the recent revelations about the “Conservative Friends of Russia.”

This week, it was revealed that a former BBC journalist and Tory party activist named Sergei Cristo has lodged a formal complaint alleging that MI5 refused to investigate an attempt by a Russian spy to infiltrate the highest levels of the Conservative Party.

The spy is Sergey Nalobin and the story goes back to 2010. At that time, Cristo claims he was approached by Nalobin, then the political first secretary at the Russian Embassy, in a meeting at the Carlton Club. That’s a private club in St James, London, where the Conservative Party was founded in 1832. Lord Palmerston may well have dined there with colleagues.

Nalobin had learned that Cristo had connections to the treasurers’ department of his party and he made a suggestion to the Tory politician. Maybe he could make introductions to allow Russian businesses to donate to the Tories.

Cristo understood that this could not be right (or legal) and reported the approach to the police, who did nothing. He shared it with a Guardian journalist, who went public with the story. As a result of the subsequent scandal, Conservative Friends of Russia … changed its name. It became the Westminster Russia Forum. Alas, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine a year ago, it had to dissolve completely — for now.

Nalobin’s connection to the Russian intelligence services is now beyond doubt. His father is a former KGB general and according to Marina Litvinenko, the general was her husband Alexander’s boss in the 1990s when he was an FSB agent.

As Tory blogger Paul Staines described Nalobin in The Spectator, “His Facebook photos showed him at a fancy dress party dressed in a Russian military uniform with ‘KGB’ written on his hat — handgun in one hand.” Nalobin’s “sense of humour” was also evident on Twitter where he described himself as a “brutal agent of the Putin dictatorship :)”. Which, it turns out, he apparently was.

The Home Office eventually withdrew his permission to remain in the UK. And last year, the Estonians did the same.

The Russian intelligence services had an ongoing operation to cozy up to the Tories. They were keen for Putin’s United Russia party and the Tories to work closely together as sister parties. And they wanted to make certain that the Tories’ criticism of the Russian regime were muted. They threw lavish parties to which Tory politicians were invited, Boris Johnson being one of them.

I doubt we’ve seen the last of collaboration between the Tories and Putin’s Russia. Boris Johnson and others were happy to be wined and dined by the likes of Sergey Nalobin at a time when the Russian state was killing off its opponents on the streets of London. Nalobin had access to top Tory politicians even when Putin’s forces invaded Georgia. Growing human rights violations in Russia itself had no effect on those Tories who were accepting free travel to visit Moscow.

Some of Marx’s biographers thought that he may have exaggerated a bit in his view of Palmerston. And maybe it would be too much today to speak of “collusion” between senior figures in the Tory party with the Russian state.

Still, I think that Labour MP Ben Bradshaw may be on to something when he speaks about the “Conservative party’s Russia problem,” which he called an ongoing threat to Britain’s national security. It is also a moral disgrace.

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

Review: Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper – Case Closed, by Patricia Cornwell

Tue, 2023-01-24 13:03

Patricia Cornwell is a very good writer of crime fiction. I have enjoyed several of her novels featuring Dr Kay Scarpetta. But I think she should have stuck to the fiction. This 365-page tome is full of speculation, but completely lacking in evidence. It was widely panned when published and Cornwell’s response was to write an even longer version, still without any evidence.

There are many theories regarding who was the infamous Whitechapel murderer who terrorised London in the 1880s. The idea that the painter Walter Sickert may have been the killer had been around for a while when Cornwell wrote this book. None of those authors proved Sickert’s connection to the crimes. Cornwell did not succeed either. The case is most certainly not closed.

The Israeli Opposition – from Politics to Protest

Wed, 2023-01-18 04:31

I had the opportunity last weekend to do something I’d rarely done during the years that I lived in Israel. I got to speak directly to leaders of the Israel Labour Party and Meretz. The occasion was a one-day conference in London organised by the Jewish Labour Movement. One session featured a live Zoom call with Merav Michaeli, the Labour Party leader. The other was with Mossi Raz, a former Meretz member of Knesset.

Michaeli spoke about the results of the recent elections in which her party was reduced to a historic low. In the elections to the first Knesset in 1949, Labour’s predecessor won nearly 46 seats (out of 120). With less than 4% of the vote this time, Labour barely managed to enter the Knesset, winning just four seats.

Labour’s traditional partner, Meretz, did even worse, winning just over 3% and thereby falling below the threshold — thus earning no seats in the Knesset.

The two parties had won 13 seats in the previous election. It was a catastrophic result and can be blamed on many things. One of them was Labour’s persistent fear that people might mistake it for being a left-wing party — which drove the party to say nothing at all about the Occupation. Another was Michaeli’s refusal to consider forming an electoral bloc with Meretz, which it too considered to be too left-wing.

When she finished her speech, we were offered the chance to ask questions. I used the opportunity to point out that had she agreed to Meretz’s proposal for an electoral bloc, she would be speaking to us today as a government minister — and not as the leader of a small opposition faction. The audience applauded my question. Michaeli responded angrily, saying that her job was to lead the Labour Party, not the entire Israeli Left. It’s not her problem if Meretz struggled to get votes.

That surprised me. Surely all the parties currently in opposition to the far-right Netanyahu government should welcome ways to work together and bring that government down. But for the Israel Labour Party leader, that was a secondary concern. The important thing was that her party had — just barely — survived.

Meretz’s Mossi Raz also proved a disappointment. Though he spoke about the Occupation, and repeatedly contrasted Meretz’s social democratic vision with that of the Labour Party, he seemed to have no ideas about how things might be turned around. He told the British audience that the Israeli left needed unity. He wanted Labour, Meretz and Hadash (the Communist-led party) to unite. But he was convinced that this was unlikely to happen. That being the case, he didn’t see any reason for Meretz to compete again in Knesset elections.

That, too, surprised me. Meretz won over 150,000 votes, getting within a few thousand of entering the Knesset with four seats. Meretz may not have won any seats, but it still has a constituency of 150,000. One would think it should be laser-focused on learning the lessons of its defeat and making the extra push required to get those votes next time.

One party which had challenged the mainstream left parties and focused attention on the Palestinians was Da’am. But it chose not to run in these elections after winning barely 500 votes the last time it competed.

The far Right did not make these mistakes. On Netanyahu’s orders, three parties united in a single bloc and won 14 Knesset seats. The Left could learn a lesson from this.

Meanwhile, sections of the Israeli public are taking a different approach. While the Labour Party seems content to have squeaked into the Knesset and Meretz seems racked with despair, this weekend, some 80,000 Israelis protested in Tel Aviv against the new government.

I am reminded of the reaction of many Americans to Donald Trump’s election in 2016. While the establishment Democrats led by Hillary Clinton licked their wounds and blamed Bernie Sanders, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest. The Women’s March and, later, the Black Lives Matter protests were the correct answer to Trump. Without them, the Democrats would never have recovered, gone on to win elections two years later, and then recaptured the presidency.

The smugness I heard from Merav Michaeli and the hopelessness Mossi Raz projected are dead ends for the Israeli Left and Israeli democracy. The right place for progressives and democrats to be is in the streets.

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

And just 11 years later …

Mon, 2023-01-16 04:51

I have learned that an article of mine from The Guardian appeared in this book, which was published in 2012. It might have been nice to have heard that from the publisher, but …

Review: The East German Rising – 17th June 1953, by Stefan Brant (K. Harpprecht)

Wed, 2023-01-11 07:03

Barely eight years after the end of the Second World War, and with much of Berlin in ruins, workers in the Soviet Zone launched an extraordinary uprising. The trigger was an increase in the demands for productivity — what might today be called “speed-up” — by the ruling Communist Party. What had initially begun as an industrial action, which was itself unusual in a totalitarian state, quickly evolved into a revolution with demands that the government resign, the freeing of political prisoners, free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. What started as a walk-out by construction workers in East Berlin quickly spread across all of East Germany.

Though initially quite successful — panicked Communist officials fled their offices, which were ransacked by angry protestors, and jails were successfully opened to release prisoners — the uprising lasted for barely a day. What the local Communists could not do on their own they were able to do with Soviet help. Soviet troops and tanks which had so recently liberated Germany from the nightmare of Nazi rule were used to impose a new totalitarian regime which remained in place for another 36 years.

A foreword to the book by John Hynd, a British Labour M.P., referred to the revolt as a “quite unprecedented rising of the working people and peasants of a totalitarian country against their oppressors”. He neglected to mention the August 1924 uprising in Georgia, led by the Social Democratic Party, which lasted longer than the East German revolt and had many more victims.

The common thread uniting the two revolts was the character of Lavrentiy Beria. In 1953, Beria became one of the Soviet Union’s top leaders following the death of Stalin. He pursued a reformist policy in East Germany, which helped prepare the ground for the uprising. Three decades earlier, as a young and ambitious Chekist in Georgia, he spearheaded the bloody suppression of the revolt.

Qatargate: What the scandal reveals about the global trade union movement

Wed, 2023-01-11 06:15

In early December, the newly-elected leader of the International Trade Union Confederation, Luca Visentini, was arrested in Brussels as part of a major police operation targeting members of the European Parliament. Visentini was released conditionally after a couple of days and temporarily stepped aside from his new job.

The scandal — quickly branded as “Qatargate” — involved large payments in cash from the Qatari government to leading figures in the European Parliament, mainly from the centre-left Socialist & Democrat (S&D) faction. The most prominent figure arrested was Eva Kaili, a Greek politician who did little to hide her support for the Qatari regime. She publicly called Qatar a “frontrunner in labour rights” after meeting with the country’s labour minister.

Though the ITUC’s Visentini denied any wrongdoing and announced his eagerness to clear his name, he admitted that he had received tens of thousands of Euros in cash from the NGO at the heart of the scandal. The money, he claimed, was used primarily to support his campaign to be elected ITUC leader, including funds to pay travel expenses for delegates who were likely to support him at the Melbourne congress. That Visentini thought this explanation would suffice is shocking.

The ITUC got barely a mention in mass media coverage of the arrests. This is because its media profile is so low that most journalists covering the story have probably never come across it before. And yet the organisation represents most of the world’s national trade union centres, including the British TUC and the American AFL-CIO.

The ITUC has been relatively weak on the subject of migrant workers’ rights in Qatar, having engaged for a long time in “quiet diplomacy” with the regime. Unlike Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and groups supporting the rights of migrant workers, the leading body of the world’s labour movement was largely silent on human rights violations in Qatar while praising “progress” being made there.

There is even a video made available by Qatar’s Labour Ministry showing the previous ITUC leader, Sharan Burrow, praising the efforts being made by the regime — and encouraging doubters to come to see this for themselves. This all pre-dates Visentini’s election.

The ITUC came under fire from several Nordic unions and others, including the German trade unionist Frank Hoffer. Hoffer wrote a blistering attack on the organisation’s leadership which was widely circulated. The Building and Wood Workers’ International, one of the global unions which has done the most in support of migrants in the region, was swift to react: “It is always extremely serious when those with public responsibilities are charged with corruption,” they wrote. “It is even more outrageous when those who are allegedly bribed are … claiming to stand on [the] workers’ side.”

The ITUC General Council decided not to sack Visentini nor to call new elections for the post, even after he admitted to taking the cash to fund his campaign. Instead, it announced that it would suspend him for three months and that its General Council would meet again. The statement concluded by saying that “this in no way implies any presumption of guilt.”

Meanwhile, the Greek party PASOK and the European Parliament had already taken much more dramatic steps to expel those arrested by the Belgian police.

On one level, the core of the problem is that the ITUC leadership, which was well aware of large-scale, persistent human rights violations in Qatar, chose not to campaign openly nor to mobilise its millions of members. Instead, it met behind the scenes with Qatar’s rulers, securing some concessions on paper.

But at another level, the problem with the ITUC is structural. It is a confederation of national trade union centres. That means that while on paper, it claims to represent hundreds of millions of workers, the reality is that only very few of those workers have heard of the organisation.

Its decision-making process is opaque. Compared with how the ITUC has handled this scandal, the European Parliament has been open and transparent — words I never thought I would write.

The leaders of the ITUC’s affiliated national trade union centres, including the British TUC, should be demanding a full accounting not only regarding the bags of cash that Visentini admits taking but also of its long-standing policy of engagement with the Qatari regime. We should be demanding complete openness and transparency from the ITUC, starting with live video-streaming of its next General Council meeting.

The migrant workers in Qatar, many of whom died in the years leading up to the FIFA World Cup, should have been able to count on the full support of the world’s unions. Instead, they were betrayed by some who we entrusted with leading our movement. Shame on them.

This column appears in today’s edition of Solidarity.

Operation Basalt featured in Aurigny’s in-flight magazine

Wed, 2023-01-04 07:37

The in-flight magazine of Aurigny (Guernsey’s airline) is running a two-page feature which I wrote about the 1942 British commando raid on Sark – Operation Basalt. Download the PDF here:

Review: Only Dull People Are Brilliant at Breakfast, by Oscar Wilde

Mon, 2023-01-02 14:10

A very short (52 pp) collection of the wit and wisdom of the witty and wise Oscar Wilde. Much of what he wrote here is nonsense, but much of it is the opposite — and often relevant to us today. In many ways the world has changed very little in the 123 years since Wilde died. One of my favourite sayings from this book: “Anybody can make history. Only a great man can write it.” I like that.

Review: Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin and Russia’s War Against Ukraine, by Owen Matthews

Tue, 2022-12-27 13:17

This is a brilliant book. Owen Matthews, a veteran journalist covering Russia, tells the story of the run-up to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 and the months that followed. The book was completed at the end of September, which means the author managed to reach the point in the war where it first began to seem that Ukraine might actually win. Writing a work of history while the events are taking place is an almost impossible task, but Matthews does it with aplomb in this very readable book. Highly recommended.