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Cambodia: Union leader jailed – international solidarity needed now

Wed, 2023-05-31 06:07

Six months ago, a woman trade union leader from Cambodia was on her way home from Melbourne, where she attended the world congress of the International Trade Union Confederation. Chhim Sithar, the leader of Labor Rights Supported Union (LRSU) of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld, was was arrested at Phnom Penh airport. She stood accused of violating her bail conditions by travelling overseas. (She and her lawyers deny this.)

Last week, she was sentenced to two years in jail while eight of her colleagues received lesser sentences. Sithar and her fellow union leaders were found guilty of “incitement to commit a felony or disturb social security” . She has been transferred to prison.

Sithar and her union have been embroiled in a bitter dispute with a casino company known as NagaWorld, going back several years. NagaWorld used the COVID crisis as an excuse to sack a large proportion its workforce. Among those sacked were pretty much all the union members, including the entire leadership. It was union-busting under the cover of a deadly pandemic.

The workers responded with non-violent protests, but they were attacked by police who, like the government itself are is acting in collusion with the employer.

A key element in the story is the role of international trade union solidarity. Sithar stands accused of travelling to Australia to meet not only with her colleagues in the global trade union movement, but also with local politicians in Canberra.

The International Union of Foodworkers (IUF) launched an online campaign on LabourStart at the beginning of 2022 demanding the release of the union leaders. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) Director General at the time, Guy Ryder, expressed deep concern over the arrests and called for the immediate release of those detained. The campaign attracted significant support — over 15,000 supporters signed up in more than 20 languages. The IUF followed up with a formal complaint to the ILO, which in turn called upon the Cambodian government “to ensure that NagaCorp respect labour and trade union rights”.

The 2022 campaign was seen as a limited success. As the IUF explained at the time, campaign supporters were thanked “for this fantastic expression of international solidarity. Without doubt, every single protest message sent through the Urgent Action on LabourStart added to the tremendous pressure brought to bear on the Cambodian authorities, resulting in the release of the union leaders and activists from prison.”

But a note of caution was also sounded. “While the charges have not yet been dropped and the struggle for reinstatement continues, it is clear that the urgent action played an important role in winning their freedom.”

Unfortunately, that freedom did not last and things have gotten considerably worse. Major human rights organisation have now issued public condemnations of the Cambodian government — including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The Australian Council of Trade Unions have launched an online protest campaign. The International Trade Union Confederation and the IUF have issued a strong statement. And the IUF has created a new campaigning website.

It is not clear that any of this will be enough. As we have seen in country after country, from Belarus to Myanmar, authoritarian regimes have gone on the offensive in their war on workers’ rights. It is of course a good thing that large and powerful unions and other organisations issue strong statements. But Chhim Sithar will only be released from jail if it can be shown that tens of thousands of trade unionists and human rights activists around the world are aware of this terrible injustice — and are prepared to fight.

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

Review: The Last Dance, by Mark Billingham

Tue, 2023-05-30 12:31

Mark Billingham was taking a real risk writing this book. After two decades of turning one excellent crime novel after another featuring North London’s Tom Thorne, he’s now put that series aside (he says temporarily) and has created an entirely new series set in — of all places — Blackpool. He’s chosen to go with several well-worn tropes including the quirky hero (he keeps pet rats), the sidekick who is a perfect fit because she’s his opposite in every way, and a back-story involving the unsolved murder of the hero’s wife. This could have gone terribly wrong. But Billingham is too good a story-teller to get it wrong. Instead, he’s written an outstanding novel full of likeable (and unlikeable) characters and stories you actually care about. My only gripe is that book ends with a cliffhanger — of course it does — and we’ll have to wait a whole year to find out what happens next.

Review: ‘Big Bill’ Haywood, by Melvyn Dubofsky

Tue, 2023-05-30 12:16

Melvyn Dubofsky wrote one of the great books about the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and followed it up with this short biography of the IWW’s most famous leader, ‘Big Bill’ Haywood. It’s a good, concise introduction to the life of Haywood, though one walks away from it wondering what exactly made Haywood into a legend. He moved in and out of the IWW and the Socialist Party, sometimes excelling at leading strikes, sometimes leading them into dead ends. He fled the US at a time when the government was busy jailing or deporting radicals (or worse) and wound up in exile in the Soviet Union. He seemed to be a brilliant administrator, which is interesting, as one imagines him more as a fiery orator than as an efficient office manager. Haywood presided over the militant union at a time of spectacular growth. Had the state not intervened to crush it, one wonders what might have happened. Recommended.

Review: The English Führer, by Rory Clements

Tue, 2023-05-30 12:02

I was not aware when I purchased this book that it was the most recent in a series featuring American-born Cambridge professor (and spy) Tom Wilde. The good news is that knowing that, I’ve saved myself a lot of time as I have no intention of reading another book in the series. While the opening scenes are gripping — a Japanese submarine making a secret delivery to the English shore in the final days of the Second World War, for instance — they quickly fade away and this becomes yet another thriller-by-numbers, with chase scenes at night through the English countryside, evil Nazis and *spoiler alert* even more evil Communists. The characters are wooden, the plot non-existent. Don’t waste your time.

Review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, by Mark Manson

Tue, 2023-05-30 11:50

I admit that it’s a great title. And the opening few pages are kind of cute. And then — nothing. The book has absolutely nothing to say. And it’s based on nothing, other than Mark Manson’s life story which is, frankly, not all that interesting. It’s written in a blokey, sexist way — almost as if, foul language excluded, it could have been written in the 1950s. I have absolutely no idea why over ten million copies of this book were sold. Manson has, apparently, written a sequel or two. But I couldn’t give a fuck. Don’t waste your time.

Qatar, the ILO and the unions

Wed, 2023-05-24 00:41

Six months ago, news broke that Belgian police had arrested the newly-elected general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) as part of the “Qatargate” scandal. The government of Qatar was accused of paying bribes to several members of the European Parliament — and to Luca Visentini, the ITUC leaders — in exchange for softening criticism of the Gulf state’s record on labour rights. Visentini’s predecessor, Sharan Burrow, had increasingly expressed support for “reforms” carried out by the Qatari regime, though she was not implicated in the scandal.

In the months that followed, the ITUC removed Visentini from his post and is trying hard to distance itself from the scandal. But the issue of Qatari influence in the labour movement is bigger than the ITUC, as the Guardian reported last week.

According to the newspaper, the International Labour Organization (ILO) “is facing a backlash over the nomination of Qatar to chair its flagship annual conference” which takes place every June in Geneva.

Leading the criticism of the ILO for giving such prominence to the Qatari government is the ITUC itself. According to the Guardian report, the acting ITUC General Secretary Luc Triangle “has written to the UN body to express ‘strong concerns’ about Qatar’s likely presidency of the conference” and warns the ILO of “reputational risk” if it goes ahead with the appointment. The ITUC letter specifically mentions “allegations” that “attempts have been made to influence decision makers in the European Union in a highly inappropriate manner” though without, apparently, naming its own former General Secretary, Visentini.

The ITUC letter is not available on the organisation’s website, but a press release from just two months ago reflects a somewhat different view of the ILO role in Qatar. “The ITUC recognises the ILO’s role in striving to ensure the rights of workers in Qatar, especially migrant workers,” it said.

Under Triangle’s leadership, the ITUC has clearly taken a more critical approach. He told the Guardian that with “this letter we wanted to make clear to the ILO president that we are absolutely unhappy with this proposal because it undermines the credibility of the ILO.”

The ILO seems completely unfazed by the criticism. Just a few days before the publication of the Guardian report, the ILO website announced that an important conference on the subject of “occupational heat stress” had been held — in Qatar. Among those speaking were ILO officials and representatives of the Qatari government. One of those was Ali bin Samikh al-Marri, the Qatari Minister of Labour who has been implicated in the Qatargate scandal.

To be fair to the ILO, discussing heat stress in a country where large numbers of migrant workers died building facilities for the FIFA World Cup might have made sense — except that it is not clear if any workers actually attended the event. The ILO press release mentioned “workers’ representatives” from the Arab states participating, but the only group named was the “National Committee of Labour Committees of Saudi Arabia”. That organisation is not part of the ITUC and a Google search for it produced no results. When I wrote to the ILO press office to enquire which other “worker representatives” participated in the conference, I received no reply.

The decision of the ITUC’s new leadership to distance itself from the previous policy of shameless whitewashing of the Qatari regime is a good beginning. But unions must do much more — and pressure on the ITUC must come from below, meaning from national trade union centres like the TUC in Britain and its affiliated unions.

As for the ILO, its tripartite character means that collusion with authoritarian regimes seems to be baked into the organisation, despite all the good work it does to promote workers’ rights and better conditions for working people.

Unions have successfully put pressure on the ILO to not recognise dictatorial, anti-worker regimes like Belarus and Myanmar. But much more needs to be done — including making sure that the International Labour Conference next month is not chaired by a Qatari minister implicated in the cash-for-influence scandal in Brussels.

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

An emergency appeal for help from LabourStart

Wed, 2023-05-10 06:21

Let’s start with the good news.

At the end of April, we held the most successful Global Solidarity Conference ever. Nearly 300 trade unionists from 30 countries gathered in Tbilisi, Georgia in an impressive display of solidarity.

I’ve just published a short report which you might want to read.

And now, the bad news.

Despite our best efforts to run the conference on a tiny budget, several big and unexpected expenses have come up.

For example, the university which offered to host the conference for free neglected to mention that they would charge us a substantial amount for things like security.

And while the costs of interpreters was covered, the costs of the equipment hire was not.

Overall, we wound up paying €6,000 (£5,200) more than we had planned.

We need to raise this money quickly as otherwise our ability to pay our ongoing costs will be endangered.

I am writing today to ask you to do two things:

First, please give generously yourself if you can.

Click here to do so.

Second, please ask you union to make a donation as well.

Please share this message with your friends, family and fellow union members.

Thank you very much!

Eric Lee

Tbilisi: Meeting at a time of wars, crises and catastrophes

Wed, 2023-05-10 02:27

I’ve just come back from an international conference that could not have happened thirty years ago. And it’s a conference that might also prove impossible to hold in just a few short years.

LabourStart’s Global Solidarity Conference on the theme of ‘trade union internationalism today’ was held on the weekend before May Day in Tbilisi, Georgia. The vast majority of the nearly 300 participants came from countries which within living memory had no legal independent trade unions.

The post-Soviet world was represented not only by a large number of Georgian trade unionists, but also by representatives of unions in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. In many of those countries, the very existence of independent trade unions is now under threat. In Belarus, the unions have been crushed, declared illegal by the courts, and their leaders jailed and exiled.

In the opening plenary, I spoke about the challenges of meeting at this time. I mentioned that in 1909 Karl Kautsky had written that we were living in a time of “Kriesen, Kriege, Katastrophen” – crises, wars, disasters. “He could have been describing our time, more than a century later,” I said

The conference provided an opportunity for trade union leaders and activists from nearly 30 countries to show their solidarity with our comrades in those countries and more.

The LabourStart conference is unique. Any trade unionist can attend. Top leaders from global unions and national trade union centres participate, as do rank and file workers, students and pensioners. In Tbilisi, we had representatives from several global unions and national trade union centres, mostly from Europe.

Many more trade unionists would have attended, but almost none from the global South were able to get visas, despite help from our hosts in the Georgian Trade Union Confederation. But we were able to bring over trade unionists from Iran, Israel, Palestine and other countries.

The conference opened with a minute of silence to mark International Workers Memorial Day on 28 April. Several speakers addressed health and safety issues throughout the three-day event.

The sessions on Ukraine, and the presence of women trade unionists from that country, were particularly important. Trade unionists from Spain came over to help build a European network in solidarity with Ukraine.

The conference took place shortly after the launch of major online campaign to mark one year since the crushing of the independent trade union movement in Belarus. A number of exiled trade unionists from Belarus were able to come and speak about the struggle for freedom in their country.

There were important presentations on Myanmar, with the participation of a leading figure on that country’s trade union movement, now in exile. A representative of the International Labour Organisation reported on their current project to revitalise trade unions around the world. Two different workshops focussed on how Israeli and Palestinian trade unionists can work together — with international support. Two workshops addressed the ongoing revolution, led by women, now taking place in Iran. One panel gave the Georgian and Israeli union leaders present the chance to speak about the labour movement and the struggle for democracy and against creeping authoritarianism in their countries.

Many of the speakers mentioned the role played by LabourStart campaigns in putting pressure on employers and governments. These included speakers from Poland, Georgia and Belarus who addressed current campaigns, while others spoke about past struggles in Lithuania, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

A highlight of the conference was the announcement of the decision by the Norwegian trade union movement to award the annual Arthur Svensson Prize for International Trade Union Rights to Elizabeth Tang and the International Domestic Workers Federation. That would have been a special moment in any event, but was all the more moving because Tang was recently arrested in Hong Kong and is currently prevented from leaving the country.

The conference could not have taken place without the leaders and activists from the Georgian Trade Union Confederation. They were superb organisers and hosts. And the conference gave everyone a chance to demonstrate solidarity with striking Wolt couriers in Georgia — the subjects of yet another LabourStart campaign. The day after the conference many of the international guests remained in the Georgian capital to join with the local trade union movement for a march and demonstration in front of parliament, demanding a big increase in minimum wages to help lift working families out of poverty.

The noisy march had many features that would be familiar to trade unionists in other countries, including a Georgian language version of the song ‘Solidarity forever’. But the sea of blue flags — not red ones — was a reminder of how decades of Stalinist rule in the country made many symbols of the Left toxic and therefore unusable.

The conference — the first in seven years — was critically important in strengthening the network of personal relations that makes LabourStart’s work possible. Thanks to COVID, we have missed these vitally important face-to-face meetings. Many people asked where the next conference would take place.

In the final plenary session, I gave my answer. We should hold the next LabourStart Global Solidarity Conference in Kyiv, once all of Ukraine has been liberated and the aggressor expelled from its territory. I for one would not miss that conference for the world.

This column appears in Solidarity, 10 May 2023.

International working class solidarity in an age of crises, wars and disasters

Tue, 2023-05-02 12:09

The following was my opening speech to the LabourStart Global Solidarity Conference – Tbilisi, Georgia – 28 April 2023.

Tbilisi, Georgia: Opening plenary of the LabourStart Global Solidarity Conference, 28.4.23.

Friends, brothers and sisters, comrades.

First of all, I’d like to thank Irakli and the GTUC for hosting this event and partnering with us. I also want to thank the university for allowing us to use this wonderful space.

The German social democratic thinker and writer Karl Kautsky — who was a great friend of the Georgian people, and who visited here during the time of the First Republic — warned in a 1909 book that we were entering upon an age of Kriesen, Kriege, Katastrophen – crises, wars, disasters.

He could have been describing our time, more than a century later.

We meet today at a time when a major war has been unleashed upon Europe, a war in which tens of thousands of lives have needlessly been lost, including many innocent civilians.

We meet during a climate emergency the likes of which the world has never seen before. We no longer speak about stopping or reversing global warming. Instead we are now focussed on mitigation — and specifically, saving lives. Meanwhile fossil fuel companies are reporting record profits, which is obscene.

We meet as more and more democratic nations face the threat of authoritarianism. Though Trump and Bolsonaro are no longer in power, others are, including Orban, Modi, Lukashenko, Netanyahu, Putin and the theocratic dictatorship in Iran. Governments in many countries are attempting to trample upon democratic rights — including workers’ rights.

The cost of living crisis, the COVID pandemic, the rise of irrational and anti-scientific thinking, the persistence of poverty around the world — all this fits perfectly into Karl Kautsky’s description of a world of crises, wars and disasters.

This weekend, here in Tbilisi, we are going to talk about these things. Among ourselves, as trade unionists and as workers. We are going to speak honestly and not pretend that all is well, that we have everything under control, that there is nothing to fix and nothing to change.

We are going to look at the world with eyes open. We are going to admit to our strengths and our weaknesses. We will talk about our victories and also about our defeats. We will be honest about where we stand as a movement.

And we will honestly discuss where we need to go from here.

The central message of this conference is an old one. Back in 1909, Karl Kautsky would have recognised it. It’s the message of international working-class solidarity.

Look around you and you will see trade unionists from dozens of countries. One might ask what a trade union leader from Myanmar has in common with one in Belarus. This weekend, we will find out.

Let us not pretend that we agree on everything when we do not. Let us accept and even embrace our differences. Let us discuss without fear the things that matter — but let us do it in a spirit of mutual respect, friendship and comradeship.

When the first International was founded in London in 1864, the first truly global workers’ organisation, there was a banner on the stage. It read ‘all men are brothers’. Today, we would certainly update the wording. All men and all women are brothers and sisters. The meaning remains the same.

Knowing that, acknowledging that, living our lives as if that were true — as if we were really all one family — that kind of solidarity is an enormously powerful tool.

The labour movement invented the idea of solidarity. It is the key to reviving our movement, making our unions stronger, defending our democracies, and dealing with the wars, crises and disasters that all of us living on this planet face.

I wish you all a successful and productive conference.

Long live international working class solidarity!

Review: The Man Who Lived Underground, by Richard Wright

Wed, 2023-04-19 01:22

The opening pages of this book by one of America’s greatest writers were a shock both to Richard Wright’s agent and publisher. They were so violent and painful to read that the book could not be published when first written in the early 1940s. It has taken some 80 years before the full text can finally appear. And what was the shocking bit? The book opens with the arrest of a Black man accused of a murder he did not commit, and the brutal beatings and abuse he suffers at the hands of white policemen. No wonder the book is being hailed as relevant to our time.

But anyone expecting a realistic story will be disappointed, because Wright has ambitions far beyond telling a story of racial injustice, which he had done before so successfully. As he explains in a long essay at the end of the book, this novella is an attempt to get inside the head of the author’s grandmother who raised him. A deeply religious woman, she lived in a world of her own making as does the main character in this book when he literally goes underground.

An unusual book, painful to read in parts, but intelligent and gripping as well.

Review: Making History, by Stephen Fry

Fri, 2023-04-07 10:32

I must be the last person in England to have never read anything by “national treasure” Stephen Fry, but this book came up in conversation recently, so I have now done so. The book had two things I love to read about: time travel and Nazis. The good news is that Fry (surprise!) writes really well, has a good sense of humour and an obvious intelligence. And the point he is making (if there is a point) is that the horrors of the Third Reich were not the work of one man acting alone. He underscores this by referencing Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, at the end. The bad news is that he needed an editor — the book is overly long with much that could be cut. Still, how wrong could you go with a novel about travelling through time to prevent Hitler from being born?

Review: Character in Georgia, by Aka Morchiladze with Peter Nasmyth

Fri, 2023-03-31 10:48

This short book feels like a much longer one, as it covers some of the long history of Georgian culture, focussing on the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a book about poets and other writers, painters and actors, bandits and terrorists. It ends with the failed 1924 insurrection against Bolshevik rule, which had three years earlier brought an end to the first attempt at creating an independent Georgian republic, led by Social Democrats.

To say that the Georgians portrayed in the book are ‘characters’ is an understatement. The most famous Georgian painter, Pirosmani, is an almost textbook example of an artist who only became truly famous and successful following his death. The Bolshevik bomb-maker Kamo managed to escape a long imprisonment by faking mental illness. The writer Ilia Chavchavadze towers over many others and to this day is considered by many to be the ‘father of the nation’ — his life cut short when murdered just a few years before the independence he dreamed of became a reality.

And lurking sometimes in the shadow of this story is the most famous Georgian of modern times, maybe of all times — Josef Djugashvili, better known as Stalin. If Stalin is the only name you recognised there, read this book. If all you know about Georgia is that it was part of the Soviet empire, read this book. This beautiful, tragic land is full of stories — and ‘characters’ — some of which are well told by one of Georgia’s greatest living writers, Morchiladze, aided by the writer/publisher/bookseller Nasmyth, who has done more to popularise walking in Georgia than anyone.


Review: The Blind Spots, by Thomas Mullen

Sat, 2023-03-25 00:49

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.