Eric Lee's Blog

Syndicate content
Updated: 16 hours 9 min ago

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.