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Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

Timir Basu on labor in India-interviewed by Farooque Chowdhury

Posted by admin On May - 3 - 2019 Comments Off on Timir Basu on labor in India-interviewed by Farooque Chowdhury


‘Unions must provide political education or labor will find itself more powerless than ever before’—Timir Basu on labor in India

Posted Apr 30, 2019 by Farooque Chowdhury and Timir Basu
Topics: Labor , StrategyPlaces: India
Labor around the world is facing a hostile situation to the extent and intensity unprecedented in labor’s history. At the same time, labor in the Global South and Global North is theoretically, organizationally and politically unarmed. In this interview conducted in April 2019 by Farooque Chowdhury, Timir Basu focuses on labor in India, a large economy in the Global South. Basu, once a revolutionary who organized among the poor peasantry, spent years in prison, during which time he focused on organizing prison labor. He has been an editor of Frontier, the radical weekly published out of Kolkata, ever since.

Farooque Chowdhury: You were actively involved with organizing the poor peasantry along revolutionary line. That was days of organizing armed struggle, years ago. Then, after getting out of prison, you actively got involved with organizing unions. You were simultaneously writing on labor and unions/labor movement in two famous weeklies—Economic and Political Weekly and Frontier. Later, over the years, as editor of Frontier, you keenly observe the labor and labor movement in India. What’s the present condition of (a) the labor, and (b) the labor movement in this south Asian country?

Timir Basu: Labor has been on the defensive everywhere since the 1990s, more precisely since the beginning of ruthless aggression of neo-liberalism. And, the South Asian region is no exception.

As for India, labor here is doubly disadvantaged because of a backward manufacturing process inherited from the British colonial rulers. Indian big business houses never tried to modernize their industry despite tremendous advance in technological up-gradation in manufacturing in Europe and America. Indian business tycoons are industrialists with feudal mindset. Also, they never tried to explore and expand market beyond a certain point. Unlike the Chinese capitalists who are latecomer in the race, they remained satisfied with captive market. They were always apprehensive of losing control over their family business empires in case of expansion. But with rapid march of globalization, technological up-gradation became the buzzword in new corporate culture dominated by Ambanis and Adanis, in place of old Tatas and Birlas. They began to automate their production lines with the sole purpose of cutting labor cost, not the improvement in quality of products. This is the main reason why Indian goods are not competitive in international market despite the advantage of cheap labor. Indian economy is not immune to global recession. Despite pompous claim of high growth rate and fairy tale of GDP, joblessness remains the perennial headache of all governments irrespective of color. Barring services sector the much-touted organized sector has been witnessing systematic killing of jobs.

Trade Union movement in general even in the organized sector finds it increasingly difficult to arrest the falling membership and boost the sagging morale of workers who are in constant threat of losing job. They work under the state of fear-psychosis, always encountering uncertainty and insecurity. The old way of placing charter of demands with major thrust on wage revision and compensatory allowance in proportion to rise or fall in consumer price index no longer works. Labor offensive in the form of strike in isolation here and there, quite often fails due to lack of solidarity support.

The phenomenal growth of services sector has created a new generation of employees who are essentially footloose, and May Day has very little meaning to them unless they are politically motivated. They are not interested in the past but what they fail to grasp is they cannot protect their future without knowing their past. Labor in the era of digital economy looks more fragmented and the “cybertariat” is yet to stand on its own feet.

What’s the major hindrance—theoretically or politically or organizationally or assault by capital/opponent classes—the labor movement in India is facing now?

For the decline of labor movement what is theoretically valid for workers in the West is equally valid for workers in India. The collapse of Soviet Russia gave employers, more precisely corporate employers, extra leverage to curb their bargaining power. The model of’ socialist societies’ where workers used to enjoy better living standards and social security was no longer there. Socialism itself became a dirty word. The post-Soviet situation also helped right-wing forces organize trade unions under their banner of reactionary and backward ideology. Reversal in China gave them extra teeth to coerce labor and brakes on trade union rights.

Tragically, most workers in the organized sector came under the sway of political right while the left continued to wander in ideological wilderness. In truth, they are still in search of an appropriate strategy in the changed context. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) controlled Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) and [Indian National] Congress controlled INTUC together control most organized membership of unions and don’t allow workers to go on strike even in case of gross violation of workers’ rights.

Which class dominates the labor movement in India?

The middle class as a whole dominates Indian labor movement. It doesn’t matter whether unions are left controlled or rightist led, leadership always comes with middle class background. Communist and socialist outfits deploy whole-timers to organize trade unions. Rightwing forces too do the same. This tradition has been continuing since beginning of trade union movement in the 1920s. For economically sound big unions, trade union bureaucracy is a nightmare to ordinary workers. The trade union bureaucracy is part of the management now. In the name of maintaining industrial peace, this leadership sometimes openly works against the interests of workers. It’s not that leaders from the working community are rare. But in course of time, they too acquire the status of middle class. Once P C Joshi, the secretary of undivided Communist Party of India, made a unique observation—“workers being promoted to leadership become babus”, the well-off Indian middle class. Declassed in reverse order!

The system of “recognized unions” is a nice device to corrupt TU leaders who do nothing in workplace, but provide consultancy to management. Their sole job is to keep vigil on aggrieved workers on behalf of management and pacify workers at the time of unrest.

Divisive/sectarian politics by factions of the dominating capital is a crucial issue in this big economy. This divisive/sectarian politics of the dominating capital produces an equal and opposite reaction—concentrating on issues in the way, which is also essentially divisive/sectarian, and increasingly confining into another form of divisive/sectarian slogans. Both of these are acting as a tool in the hands of the dominating capital, and harming unity of the working classes, the wage-slaves, the exploited. Do you find slogans—program/demand/movement—from the labor that stand against all forms and colors of divisive/sectarian politics irrespective of appearance and sound, and stand on class line?

It is the basic weakness of labor movement in India that even the far-left, not to speak of official left, does raise the question of class. Nor do they educate wage laborers on class line. Frankly speaking, they consciously keep trade unions free from politics. As a result, it is no problem for capital to divide workers by manipulating divisive and sectarian issues through their paid agents when it is necessary. When the ruling parties spread war hysteria, no protest emerges from workers’ platform as if workers are not affected by such propaganda.

In India one major problem affecting workers and workplaces is caste. Despite toiling for decades side by side in an establishment workers remain vulnerable to caste and religious prejudices. They remain immune to progressive ideas—no change in their outlook. They come with prejudice and they go back with prejudice. Management encourages prejudice and obnoxious religious practice as Marwari businessmen would patronize in building up Hanumana, the monkey-chief who was an ally of Ramchandra during Rama’s Lanka expedition, temple inside factory premises so that their workers could worship there.

Despite encounter with modern urban life, workers assiduously nurse feudal values. Once a permanent worker in Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation’s mains department summed up the situation nicely: “the parcel that came from Bihar went back to Bihar after retirement without being opened”.

Should the labor with a heroic history of trampling divisive/sectarian politics tolerate and give space to a seemingly pro-people, but fundamentally divisive/sectarian politics as an answer to the divisive/sectarian politics of the dominating capital/factions of the ruling classes in this economy with many competing components/regions/sections?

As workers are not politically trained, they sometimes get swayed by divisive maneuvering of capital. Workers talk politics not at factory gate. No doubt, they discuss elections but they do it as common people, not as workers. So the working class perspective is totally missing in their discourse in roadside teashops or shanties where they live.

The country with its geo-strategically important position and vying for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council is a hot bed for meddling/cajoling/pressure by imperialism. What impact is this making on the labor?

Labor being apolitical they do hardly bother about India’s quest to get a permanent seat in UN Security Council. For one thing, they definitely take interest in Pakistan-bashing. Jingoism is a time-tested tactic to divert public attention. Again, leftists don’t counter it from their workers’ platform.

Do you find the so-called NGOs, which are, in essence, longer and informal arms for implementing parts of foreign policy of a number of powerful states, influencing/intervening/organizing unions?

Yes, NGOs are operating throughout the country. Most people, not to speak of workers separately, do hardly question NGO’s source of funds and NGOs’ action program. But their influence among workers, particularly in TU movement is negligible. It’s basically a middle class enterprise trying to have their presence felt among rural people and marginalized communities.

How the radical unions are reacting to the imperialists’ moves at different levels of life in India including the areas of manufacturing and trade?

Radical Unions’ response to global capital’s anti-national activities and naked interference in some cases is too inadequate to be taken seriously. One area that is totally neglected by radical unions and their rightist counterparts as well is ecology and climate. Imperial capital means unlimited plunder of natural and human resources, and in the process, they destroy ecological balance, inviting climatic catastrophe and engendering future generations. Tragically enough, radical unions don’t consider destruction of ecology as a serious threat to humanity. They talk about it very casually. It’s not on the agenda of their party. Nor is it on their TU agenda. In this area, some NGOs work in their own way and highlight climate change and its adverse impact on society and economy. But their target audience is educated middle class. So workers in Vedanta’s aluminum smelting plant are least bothered about the disaster brought about by their company in indiscriminate mining of alumina bearing hills. However, these mining activities are displacing thousands of tribal inhabitants and killing small rivulets and streams, which sustain life in the hilly region.

Suffering of the farmers chained to credit capital, and their protests in India are now widely known. Bollywood, it should be Mullywood, has produced at least one feature film on this suffering. How the labor in the industrial part of the economy is reacting to these suffering and protests, i.e., expressing solidarity, joining the marches, etc. or having a position of onlooker, indifferent, no move to build up an alliance, etc.?

Communist parties have been propagating the concept of worker-peasant alliance since their inception. But in practice they do precious little. It’s just a theoretical proposition to be discussed in party congresses and conferences. Jute workers struggle against retrenchment and arbitrary shutdown, but plight of jute growers is not their headache.

The idea of worker-peasant alliance cannot grow in isolation. Political parties and unions they control, never try to develop any common program, so they can be work jointly. Workers at best are onlookers, rather passive onlookers even when farmers march in thousands in scorching sun. Communists formulate this worker-peasant alliance strategy by borrowing from classical Marxist literature, but what they practice in the field will never succeed in building worker-peasant alliance. In the recent farmers’ long march to Mumbai, many middle class people showed sympathy to marchers—but no central TU came forward with a clear-cut strategy to support their cause. That TUs are asking workers to withdraw labor even for a day to protest farm suicides is unthinkable.

What are the major (a) successes, and (b) failures of the main part and radical part, if identified in this way, of the labor movement in this country?

Some labor welfare schemes have been incorporated in some labor acts. These are successes. But the present dispensation is trying to take away these hard-earned rights under the garb of “labor reforms”. And here unions of all shades, including unions owning allegiance to the ruling parties, are protesting rather half-heartedly. Here they fail miserably to put up a united fight without which workers are going to face medieval tyranny.

The development of an ever more technological complex manufacturing process is root cause of re-skilling of labor force. What they call fourth industrial revolution is all about maximization of automation. Maybe, automation has reached its limits after massive introduction of robots, negating physical presence of labor that was unthinkable at the beginning of the 20th century. Trade unions yet have no answer to automation beyond a certain point. They cannot oppose technological up-gradation. Nor can they resist the advent of labor-eating process even in areas where labor-organizing could have made decisive impact on the broader aspect of bargaining.

Do you like to suggest/propose any step—ideological question, political struggle, relation between unions and radical political party of labor, leadership, inner-union democracy, political education of union members, literature—to the radical part of the labor movement in India?

Well, in the organized sector, TU bureaucracy must be fought out. Even radical unions are not free from this virus. It acts as a brake on labor movement. TUs must raise political issues frequently at workers’ meet, even at plant level, instead of agitating to achieve sectarian goals. Unless TUs educate workers on political lines, this apolitical approach will lead to a more complex situation in which labor will find itself more powerless than ever before.

Capital is global. But now, labor’s resistance is strictly localized, failing to cross the national boundary and make solidarity a reality even at the regional level. Thus, unions become powerless despite prolonged strikes in some work facilities. Gone are the days of international federations and regional or industry-wise groupings. So May 1 is one more ritual, having no lasting impact on the wretched of the earth. Internationally, both left-wing and right-wing labor consolidations hardly make any news these days; they are in limbo. Only revival of socialist outlook internationally can give boost to rebuilding international labor federations without which corporations cannot be confronted effectively.

Thank you for the interview discussing issues related to the labor in India.

Thanks. I like to express my hope that the spirit of May 1 will mend many loose ends that stand in the way of building up powerful labor solidarity across the world.

About Farooque Chowdhury
Farooque Chowdhury is a freelance writer based in Dhaka. His books in English include Micro Credit, Myth Manufactured (ed.), The Age of Crisis, and The Great Financial Crisis, What Next?: Interviews with John Bellamy Foster (ed.), Dhakha: Books (2012), 190 pp.
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Secrets held in archives-A.G. NOORANI

Posted by admin On April - 19 - 2019 Comments Off on Secrets held in archives-A.G. NOORANI


A collection of documents that throw light on how Indian leaders contrived to keep Kashmir in India.
India’s archival policy is an outrageous mess. The authorities in the National Archives of India are extremely helpful. But files are not released speedily to them by the government for perusal by scholars. Our academics seem uninterested; otherwise, they would have waged a sustained, spirited campaign for access to records, which are open in every democratic society—except in India. An Indian scholar who wants to study the Simla Convention of 1914 and the drawing of the McMahon Line has to go to the British Library in London. In India, access is barred to records after 1913, though there are nearly a dozen books, Indian and foreign, which have drawn on the records in London. The doyen of scholars on the India-China boundary dispute, Professor Parshottam L. Mehra, had to consult British archives to write his excellent book on the McMahon Line.

The 30-year rule is on paper. Records of border areas are closed from January 1, 1914, while those relating to Jammu and Kashmir are open only up to December 31, 1924. The Indian Historical Records Commission should bestir itself.

For more than 10 years, the editor of the volume under review, Lionel Carter, was a member of the team that produced the British government’s series Documents on the Transfer of Power to India, 1942-47. From 1980 until 1999, he served as Secretary and Librarian of the Centre of South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge. Apart from this work, Carter has published 15 volumes with Manohar: Chronicles of British Business in Asia, 1850-1960 (2002); Mountbatten’s Report on the Last

Viceroyalty (2003); five volumes of Punjab Governors’ Reports (2004-2007); three volumes of United Provinces Governors’ Reports covering 1936 to 1939 (2008-10); two volumes entitled Partition Observed, which relate to the months August to December in 1947 (2011); two volumes called Weakened States Seeking Renewal (2013) which document South Asia from January to April, 1948; and, most recently, Completing the First Year of Independence: British Official Reports from South Asia, 1 May-17 September 1948 (2016).

Sadly, he has not decided to produce a similar volume on the Kashmir dispute from, say, 1946 to 1953, on the basis of British records, to wit, reports, until 1947, of British Residents in the State, from members of the British High Commission and Deputy High Commission in India and Pakistan, and, not least, from the Reports of Lord Mountbatten, Governor-General of India. He freely and most improperly shared with the British High Commissioner in New Delhi, Sir Archibald Nye, former Governor of Madras Presidency, the secret deliberations of the Nehru Cabinet. So did the Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Roy Bucher. His predecessor, General Sir Robert Lockhart, was unceremoniously sacked because he did not reveal to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru information of a tribal raid into Kashmir which he had acquired from his Pakistani counterpart, Sir Frank Messervey. It is more than likely that if the information had been transmitted to his bosses, the raid would have been aborted and there might have been no Pakistan Administered Kashmir (Major K.C. Praval, Indian Army After Independence, Lancer, page 49).

Archival research is indispensable in the pursuit of historical truth. Public figures show one face in public and another in private. From 1947 to 1953, Nehru beat his breast publicly in affirmation of his pledge to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir. In private, he ruled it out at the very outset, notably, when he met Pakistan’s Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan in Paris on October 30, 1948. The British High Commissioner in Pakistan, Sir Lawrence Grafftey-Smith, conveyed to the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, Philip Noel-Baker, on November 11 a message by Liaquat Ali Khan to the British Prime Minister Clement Attlee: “He (Nehru) put forward the proposition that either Pakistan should accept the U.N. Commission’s resolution of 13th August without any proviso regarding conditions for a free and impartial plebiscite, or should accept the existing line of division between Azad Kashmir and the rest of the State as permanent. These two alternatives really mean the same thing since if the Commission’s resolution is accepted without any qualification regarding a free and impartial plebiscite, the existing line of division will in fact become permanent.” Nehru repeated this publicly at a rally in New Delhi on April 13, 1956.

Archives also reveal interesting and unsuspected bits of information. On November 15, Sikkim’s ruler told a British official in Calcutta (now Kolkata): “The Chinese have made no further move to contact Sikkim although the Maharaj Kumar confirms that Bhutan hinted to Nehru that if he did not give them satisfactory terms in their Treaty, they might look for better terms from China.”

Kashmiris and their leader, Sheikh Abdullah, were systematically cheated by Nehru. The volume establishes that there was not the slightest possibility of Kashmir’s independence at any time, which is understandable, or of a plebiscite, which is indefensible. Nehru had set his face against a plebiscite from the very outset. The United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP), which was supposed to hold one, was a house divided. Its members reported to the British and the Americans in secret. It had no enthusiasm for a plebiscite, either. Note these steps.

1. The Deputy High Commissioner in Karachi reported to London on September 22, 1948: “Dr Lozano of the Kashmir Commission told a member of my staff yesterday evening that Commission was thinking more and more in terms of partition as the only feasible solution and hinted that this would be recommended to Security Council in report which Commission proposes to prepare in Geneva. He did not indicate the lines of partition.”

2. The Deputy High Commissioner in New Delhi, Alexander Symon, reported on September 24: “India would probably argue that the predominantly Dogra areas must form part of the Indian Union. She would also press her claims for the Vale of Kashmir and Ladakh, though she perhaps might agree to their future being decided by a plebiscite. India would also lay emphasis on her strategic requirements; the need for a natural and easily defensible frontier.

“Pakistan would presumably lay claim to a much larger part of the State (a) on grounds of religious affinity and (b) because of her long-term strategic and economic needs. It seems certain that she would inter alia take the line that the canal system of the West Punjab is vital to the very existence of Western Pakistan and therefore that (1) the territory in which the various headworks are located—in some cases they are in Kashmir—must form an integral part of the Dominion of Pakistan and (2) where the headworks are in the West Punjab but are fed from rivers flowing through the Indian Union, India must give a guarantee (perhaps to be filed with the U.N.) that there will be no diversion or shutting off of water as happened earlier this year in the case of the Sutlej. In addition Pakistan would probably lay claim to the mineral deposits of the Kashmir State (e.g. coal in the Riasi District).”

3. Karachi was Pakistan’s capital then. The High Commissioner in Pakistan, Grafftey-Smith, wrote to Sir Paul Patrick, Assistant Under-Secretary of State, Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO), on November 13: “To us here, the only feasible line seems to be the Chenab River. The fact that there exist, as the sketch attached to your letter of 27th October shows, two small areas south of the Chenab in which there may be a small Muslim majority and one area north of the river in which, according to the 1931 census, Hindus predominate, does not make it impossible to adopt this as the best possible boundary between Pakistan and India. The transfer, for example, of the Hindu population north of the Chenab to those parts of Riasi and Udhampur south of the river, in which there is a possible Muslim majority, and vice versa, is not a matter of such difficulty as to make adoption of the river as a boundary an impossibility. The Ladakh Tahsil, in which there is a large Buddhist majority, would, of course, be entirely cut off from India if the river Chenab became the boundary between India and Pakistan; but it is in any case so isolated that I do not think the question of its future should affect the partition issue. It would be out of the question to hold a plebiscite in Ladakh as part of the combined scheme of partition-cum-plebiscite, because it can only be readily approached through the Kashmir Valley, and a decision in the Kashmir Valley in favour of Pakistan would make it impossible to implement a vote in favour of India by the Buddhists of Ladakh and vice versa. I fear that the last sentence in paragraph 5 of your letter of 27 October may encourage over-optimistic thinking. Reliable reports suggest that Muslim majority areas have already been converted into non-Muslim majority areas by persecution and mass migration.”

4. Opponents of plebiscite were no wiser than the proponents of a plebiscite. It was a facile knee-jerk reaction. Frederick Mainprice, formerly of the Indian Political Service, told an official in the High Commission in Karachi on December 15, 1948. that he was opposed to a plebiscite. But read this: “Mr. Mainprice rules out the possibility of partition altogether. He was not impressed by the argument that the original Hindu areas of Jammu (roughly speaking, the area south of the Chenab River) should revert to India, bringing forward geographical, economic and strategic arguments against any portion of Jammu, except possibly a small strip along the south-east border of Kathua district, being ceded to India. The geographical and economic argument is that the Chenab Valley and communications to the south of it in the Jammu Vale all lead down toward Gujarat and Sialkot in the West Punjab. Jammu’s normal economic outlet is by the railway and road leading out direct to Sialkot. The strategic argument is that partition along the Chenab would give India control of a further lengthy dangerous salient into Pakistan; it would, furthermore, put India in complete control of the Ravi headworks at Madhopur and possibly enable her to interfere with the Chenab.”

His alternative was absurd: “Since Mr. Mainprice had thus ruled out both plebiscite and partition, I asked him what political solution he had to offer. He suggested that the future of the State as a whole should be decided by a U.N. Fact Finding Commission. It would be necessary for the Commission to be briefed in detail regarding the nature of the enquiries it was to make and the basis on which it was to form its judgment and, of course, for both parties to the dispute to agree in advance to abide by its findings—a procedure very similar to the partition of India and not, therefore, particularly likely to commend itself to either side. The principal factors on which the Commission should base its findings were, in Mr. Mainprice’s view, in their order of importance: (i) Geography, (ii) Economics, (iii) Strategy, (iv) The will of the people, and the Commission must be careful to enquire into the position as on 15th August. It was Mr. Mainprice’s idea that the Commission’s brief would have to be laid down authoritatively by the Security Council itself, and India’s and Pakistan’s agreement to accept the Commission’s findings, if necessary forced on them by the Council.” The absurdity of this approach is evident.

5. Dr Alfredo Lozano of the U.N. Commission was a particularly active and slippery character. He met Nehru on December 20, 1948, and reported to the British High Commissioner, Archibald Nye, who in turn, reported all that to London. “He (Nehru) pointed out that the previous proposals provided for both a plebiscite and for direct negotiation between the two governments and these suggestions had been placed side by side as more or less alternative plans, whereas in the new proposals the plebiscite was given priority and he did not like this. Lozano pointed out to him that the new proposals did not exclude the possibility of an agreement between the two governments if the arrangements for the plebiscite failed; it merely placed the different methods of solution in an order of priority.”

Why then did Nehru accept the UNCIP’s resolution of January 5, 1949, on plebiscite which laid down all the details of a plebiscite? The next day he told Sheikh Abdullah that a plebiscite would not be held but that he should keep this to himself. Given this incontrovertible historical record, are you surprised that Kashmiris are in revolt today?

Sheikh Abdullah’s regret
There is incontrovertible evidence that Abdullah bitterly regretted accession to India within days of the event. In Nehru’s presence, he suggested accession to both countries to a British Minister, Patrick Gordon-Walker, on February 21, 1948. At the U.N. Security Council in January-February 1948, he approached Pakistan’s delegates but was snubbed. He complained about this to President Ayub Khan in May 1964. This volume confirms that he was a committed Kashmiri to the marrow of his bones.

In this, as on much else, Pakistan sinned against the light, hubris prevailing over sense. Robert Burnett, the Deputy H.C. in Karachi, informed Noel-Baker on September 18: “The Pakistan government had good reasons to believe that Abdullah was anxious to come to terms with Azad leaders and would do so if the Indian government would countenance a settlement. Could not H.M.G. intervene and persuade India now to make a gesture which would bring peace to the subcontinent and allow both governments to devote their energies to the many very urgent matters requiring their attention.”

Abdullah was always for a pact with Chaudhury Ghulam Abbas, leader of the rival Muslim Conference. Brigadier J.F. Walker, Military Adviser to the High Commissioner in Pakistan, gave to Major-General H. Redman, Director of Military Operations at the British War Office, a detailed assessment, on September 24, 1948, in which he revealed: “I asked the D.M.O. if he knew anything about the reported approach by Abdullah to Ibrahim. Sher Khan told me that the approach had been made through him (he did not say how). Apparently what Abdullah suggested was an Independent Kashmir with Ghulam Abbas and Ibrahim at the head and Abdullah holding some post in the Government. This was NOT Pakistan’s or Azad’s idea of a settlement, but it proves that Abdullah has been working behind the scenes.”

UNCIP’s role
The UNCIP comes out very poorly, indeed. The United States State Department freely sent instruction to its American member, Jerome Klahr Huddle. One “instructed the American delegate to make sure that the Commission reported on the plebiscite question as the main issue and did not indulge in dangerous legal speculations. It may perhaps be relevant to refer to a dispatch dated 3 October from the New York Times Geneva Correspondent which appeared in the Lahore English papers on 8 October. The American journalist stated that U.N.C.I.P. had no useful suggestions to make for the future settlement of the Kashmir dispute, but that its report to the Security Council ‘would probably contain no condemnation of either India or Pakistan’.”

The United Kingdom’s High Commissioner in New Delhi told Noel-Baker on November 29: “General Bucher indiscreetly admitted to my Military Adviser on 26 November that all the papers of the Kashmir Commission when they were in Srinagar had been borrowed without the Commission’s knowledge and copied for the Indian government. Those filed included General Gracey’s own confidential and detailed appreciation for the Pakistan Army’s role in Kashmir hostilities, prepared for the Commission’s information and guidance.”

One man who emerges with great credit in all published documents is V.P. Menon, Secretary in the Ministry of States and Vallabhbhai Patel’s right-hand man. He was close to Mountbatten and succeeded in helping him to avert India’s attack on Pakistan in September 1947—on, of all places, Junagadh. He dined with Alexander Symon, Acting High Commissioner, on October 6. Menon said: “As regards Kashmir, we have had a series of high-level discussions, and have considered our alternatives: (1) Kashmir to remain independent; (2) Kashmir to decide the issue of accession to one Dominion or the other by an overall plebiscite; (3) The issue to be decided by independent arbitration; (4) Division of the State between Pakistan and India.

“After discussion, the first three alternatives were rejected. I may mention that on the question of a plebiscite I put forward in discussion that we could not settle the issue on this basis before the end of 1949. This leaves the sore open for another year, and I deprecate this with all the emphasis of my command. The only practical alternative therefore is division. Departing from the proposal I put forward to you, namely that the predominantly Muslim areas in Poonch, Mirpur and Muzaffarabad to go to Pakistan, and the rest of Jammu to go to India, with a plebiscite under neutral agency in the Vale, I now propose very strongly that we should divide on the basis of the territories at present occupied or controlled by Pakistan or India as the case may be. In these discussions both Panditji and Sheikh Abdullah were present. What I was anxious to obtain in these discussions was a natural boundary between India and Pakistan. If agreement on this basis is reached, the military authorities on both sides should, I feel sure, be able to delimitate [sic] a boundary which will take into account the defensive and strategic requirements of both sides. I may mention for your own information that what Pakistan is most anxious to get is a portion of the forest on the northern side of the Kishanganga river. It does not matter to me whether Muzaffarabad town is given to Pakistan or not.”

Nehru’s breach of faith
None cared a bit for the people’s views. If it were not for Nehru’s pledges, Kashmir would not have come to India. It is a part of India only because he backed out of his pledges. He was no idealist but a ruthless hardliner—on Kashmir as well as the boundary. India has reaped and still reaps the fruits of Nehru’s breach of faith, while Kashmiris refuse to reconcile themselves to their fate. That is the root of “the Kashmir problem”.

There are some 30-odd pledges on plebiscite by Nehru from 1947 to 1953. Patel concurred publicly. Here is a sample of five pledges:

1. “Our assurance that we shall withdraw our troops from Kashmir as soon as peace and order are restored and leave the decision about the future of the State to the people of the State is not merely a pledge to your government but also to the people of Kashmir and to the world.” White Paper on Kashmir, page 51.

2. Vallabhbhai Patel said in a speech at a public meeting in Bombay on October 30, 1948: “Some people consider that a Muslim-majority area must necessarily belong to Pakistan. They wonder why we are in Kashmir. The answer is plain and simple. We are in Kashmir because the people of Kashmir want us to be there. The moment we realise that the people of Kashmir do not want us to be here, we shall not be there even for a minute.”

3. Nehru said in a speech at Calcutta on January 1, 1952: “There is no doubt about it that he is the leader of the people of Kashmir, a very great leader. If tomorrow Sheikh Abdullah wanted Kashmir to join Pakistan, neither I nor all the forces of India would be able to stop it because if the leader decides, it will happen…. Since the matter has been referred to the U.N., we have given our word of honour that we shall abide by their decision. India’s pledge is no small matter and we shall stick by it in the eyes of the world (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Volume 17, pages 76-78).

4. Nehru said in Parliament on June 26, 1952: “And I say with all respect to our Constitution that it just does not matter what your Constitution says, if the people of Kashmir do not want it, it will not go there.”

5. Nehru said in Parliament on August 7, 1952: “… ultimately—I say with all deference to this Parliament—the decision will be made in the hearts and minds of the men and women of Kashmir, neither in this Parliament, nor in the United Nations, nor by anybody else.”

Nye, the British High Commissioner in India, informed Noel-Baker on November 5, shortly before the ceasefire on January 1, 1949, for which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) still attacks Nehru: “In confidential conversation today General Bucher told me that before Nehru left for United Kingdom he asked Commander-in-Chief to prepare a military appreciation to show the possibility of Indian forces being able to clear Kashmir of Pakistan troops and tribesmen by offensive military action. Result of this appreciation, which has been communicated to Sardar Patel, is that it will not, repeat not, be possible for Indian forces successfully to clear Kashmir either during winter or later when the weather improves. In the opinion of the Commander-in-Chief, whilst certain minor offensive operations may successfully be undertaken, from a broader point of view they are confronted with a military stalemate. I think it follows from this that the possibility of war between the two dominions breaking out as a result of successful military operations in Kashmir penetrating into Pakistan, is improbable.

“Commander-in-Chief informed Sardar Patel that the only effective military steps which could be taken to deal with the Pakistan troops in Kashmir was by attacking their bases in Pakistan itself, a course which would lead to unrestricted warfare with all its dire consequences and one which could not therefore be contemplated. With this view Sardar Patel agreed.” The BJP’s hero was privy to the ceasefire.

In the first week of November 1948, addressing a special convocation of the Nagpur University, the Sardar declared that after the creation of a separate State for Muslims, those who remained in the Indian Union were all Indians, irrespective of caste or creed; it was “sheer narrow-mindedness”, he said, for Hindus to suppose that the present government was partial towards Muslims and that Hindu culture was in danger. There was at present, he continued, a “vacancy” for the leadership of Asia, and if India made herself strong that leadership would naturally devolve on her. The dream persists still.

Deputy High Commissioner Alexander Symor wrote to Noel-Baker on October 5: “This week’s Janata, the official Socialist organ, has an article on this subject by one of their leaders Achyut Patwardhan.”

Janata is still growing strong. It is published from Bombay. Its editor is Dr G.G. Parikh, a committed socialist and follower of its founder, Jayaprakash Narayan. This volume, like all the others, is superbly edited. It serves as a model for editors of collections of documents.
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We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Dealing with Pakistan Needs a Grand Strategy-Zorawar Daulet Singh

Posted by admin On April - 1 - 2019 Comments Off on Dealing with Pakistan Needs a Grand Strategy-Zorawar Daulet Singh


Zorawar Daulet Singh (zorawar.dauletsingh@gmail.com) is a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and the author of Power and Diplomacy: India’s Foreign Policies during the Cold War.
For the past few decades, India has adopted a lopsided Pakistan policy with engagement as the only means to reorient Pakistan’s foreign policy. India must transition to a realpolitik approach backed by a range of power instruments, along with creatively leveraging the international environment. India should pursue cultural and commercial ties with liberal constituencies inside Pakistan, and remain open to dialogue with political forces that are reconsidering Pakistan’s role in the region.
The February 2019 Pulwama attack against Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian government’s willingness to take fight to the Pakistani heartland is a clear departure from the policy of strategic restraint. Even if the main impetus for this strategic shift was an impending national election in India, the geostrategic consequences will outlast this phase.

Stripped to its core, India’s emerging approach can be described as a counter-coercive strategy, since it aims to deter Pakistan from engaging in coercion through targeted terrorism in Kashmir. The next challenge before the Indian leaders is to incorporate this approach as part of a grand strategy. What could be the principal elements of this broader strategy? What goals should India seek? What are the possibilities for reorienting domestic political incentives inside Pakistan? How do other pieces of the geopolitical puzzle in terms of Pakistan’s patrons and allies fit into India’s aims and interests?

A Comprehensive Approach

India’s strategy has been shaped by goals that have sought to alter the situation on three interrelated levels. First, changing Pakistani behaviour so it ceases or decelerates cross-border terrorism. Second, changing Pakistan’s internal structure and its imbalanced civil–military relations that perpetuate a structural confrontation with India. Third, changing how the international community, particularly the United States (US) and China, perceive India’s predicament and are willing and able in their self-interests to restrain Pakistan’s proxy war. And then, what are the instruments or means that have been envisaged to pursue these three goals?

Until a few years ago, it was the primacy of a diplomatic instrument that stood out in the Indian toolkit. Dialogue with an elected civilian leadership has usually been presented as part of strengthening the process of the embryonic and fragile democracy in Pakistan that over time would rectify the domestic imbalance and weaken the security establishment’s near total control over Pakistan’s foreign policies. There is also a deterrent component, which includes maintaining a conventional posture backed by a credible capacity to inflict costs on Pakistan in the scenario of a Kargil-style adventurist intrusion into Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), or in other theatres. Finally, there are interested third parties—the US given its long-standing alliance with Pakistan, and China with its renewed involvement in Pakistan over the past five years—who are very influential behind-the-scenes players in the India–Pakistan relationship and with whom India seeks to further its counter-terrorism goals.

It should be apparent that India’s approach has essentially been a persuasion-based one to advance the twin goals of changing Pakistan’s external behaviour and its domestic politics. The military instrument has so far been visualised either as a passive defence instrument—that is, fighting the incoming proxies on Indian soil—or as a broader deterrence instrument to deal with audacious conventional surprises. Yet, to be effective in this case and instil confidence to the civilian side of the Pakistani equation in its aspiration for democracy, persuasion actually requires parallel counter-coercive instruments in India’s toolkit. Aside from India’s restrained military defence posture to hold firm on the frontiers and the Line of Control (LoC) in J&K, there has been little so far in India’s repertoire to alter the Pakistan Army’s irredentist behaviour. There has been no known cost imposition strategy to reshape the incentives of Rawalpindi. The 26 February air strikes were, therefore, a first step in exploring options that impose costs before they occur (India’s casus belli presented the move as a “pre-emptive” one) and, equally importantly, a signal to the adversary that Indian restraint is no longer a taken-for-granted assumption when the Pakistani deep state is plotting plans to stir trouble in Kashmir. Put another way, by its recent actions, India has introduced an element of ambiguity and uncertainty in the Pakistan Army’s calculus, which, henceforth, cannot count on strategic restraint from the other side.

At some stage after the 2019 national elections, a new Indian government would explore diplomacy with an elected regime in Islamabad. Let us assume that the Indian overture is reciprocated. Such engagement would be sustainable only if it were accompanied by a parallel strategy to blunt and weaken the Pakistani deep state and its military. This dual game, somewhat ironically, would become even more imperative if India’s engagement with the civilian regime develops apace since the Pakistan Army will in all likelihood employ sub-conventional tools at its disposal to ratchet up terror strikes in India to disrupt or modulate the détente process according to its own preferences. And, this pattern will continue to repeat until the missing link in India’s toolkit is addressed.

If we assume that the civil and military groups in state and society have diverging goals and visions for Pakistan (the degree of these differences is a question of legitimate debate and disagreements in the strategic community)—and India would like to provide an impetus to the civilian side via diplomacy and a predictable dialogue process—the parallel side of anticipating and blunting the lashing out by the security establishment in Pakistan cannot be ignored. For, how can we expect Pakistan’s civilian leadership and civil society to place its confidence in a modus vivendi with India if it finds the Pakistan Army can slap it down at home on foreign policy issues and continue to bleed India at will? There have been numerous instances of this in the past: the Vajpayee–Nawaz Sharif engagement before the Kargil war, the engagement process prior to the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, and the brief Modi–Nawaz Sharif bonhomie that was dramatically cut short by the 2016 Pathankot attack on an Indian air base. Any rational Indian leadership sensitive to domestic public opinion cannot but abandon the engagement process after a violent backlash from the Pakistani deep state.

Historically then, India has placed far too much burden on the civilian side in Pakistan to change the domestic structural dynamic, without, in any meaningful way, also sharing responsibility of changing the incentives of institutions such as the Pakistan Army which thrive on controlled confrontation with India. Most debates on India’s coercive options treat it as a mutually exclusive process—a false choice between engagement and containment—rather than as a vital component of a grand strategy. If India seeks more than fleeting success, it needs to develop a policy strategy that is logical and consistent with the two mutually inclusive goals that have shaped Indian thinking for decades: the transformation of Pakistan’s regional behaviour and its internal power structure.

At whatever levels it is pursued, civilian engagement must be supplemented by a strategy to impose costs and undermine the prestige of the Pakistan Army. This would involve a more robust internal security framework, including the introduction of more advanced counter-terror capabilities that seek to substantially minimise Indian military casualties in operations in J&K (since 2008, over 740 security forces personnel have lost their lives1), developing covert proxy capabilities that impose reciprocal costs on Pakistani security institutions, and a more sophisticated conventional military posture that can offer the political leadership a variety of highly limited and targeted options to degrade the flow of terrorist networks while also presenting the Pakistan Army with a costly choice to escalate to a bigger conventional clash.

Leveraging the Global Situation

As early as 1947, South Asia had become entangled in a wider geopolitical setting. In the ensuing decades, major powers acquired enduring stakes in the strategic interactions between India and Pakistan. The subcontinent’s nuclearisation has merely reinforced international interest in strategic stability and impelled external powers to strike a fine balance between the vital interests of both countries.

Getting the international situation right is important for two reasons. Pakistan’s incentives to alter course would be closely linked with its expectations of international support. And, any moves by India to raise the stakes in its quest for legitimate security would only succeed if Pakistan’s benefactors do not obstruct or constrain Delhi’s policy. The recent crisis showed that both Washington and Beijing did not necessarily play a negative role and increased their involvement to defuse the stand-off when events appeared poised for a costly regional escalation. Tellingly, US rhetoric even endorsed the idea of India’s right to defend itself in a proactive fashion from cross-border terrorist attacks.

If we step back and evaluate the India–Pakistan equation over the past five years, what stands out is that both sides proceeded from a perception that each holds an advantageous position. India’s confidence emanated from Modi’s 2014 victory that yielded a strong central government and expectations of stable ties with all the major powers. Mostly overlooked in India, Pakistani analysts and former officials too have displayed confidence that the international environment was moving in a direction that opened options for Pakistan that were unavailable in the previous decade. This included the renewed patterns of Pakistan’s ties with the US and China, and the latter providing their reassurances to Pakistan and most importantly to the army on their respective strategic commitments and bilateral partnerships. In Washington’s case, this appears to have been undertaken somewhat discreetly to avoid ruffling Delhi’s feathers, with the result that the enduring aspects of US–Pakistan ties remain obscure, but still very real. That Pakistan has symbolically managed to also advance its public diplomacy with Moscow is seen as further proof of its geopolitical relevance. Much of Pakistan’s leverage can of course be traced to the ongoing phase of the Afghan conflict. It fended off the most dangerous phase when US policy might have shifted in an adversarial direction, or instability in the tribal frontier areas might have completely exploded. Thus, the Pakistan Army probably perceives itself in a position of reasonable strength where Washington, Beijing, and Moscow have recognised Pakistan’s role in a future settlement on the conflict in Afghanistan.

So, both India and Pakistan perceive themselves to be in a comfortable strategic position. At any rate, the evolving roles and interests of third parties are becoming significant again, and how Delhi leverages the international environment will determine the success of its grand strategy.

Both Washington and Beijing have overlapping interests in regional stability and avoidance of a major subcontinental conflict. While each maintains deep ties with Pakistan for different reasons, it is unclear to what extent their longer-term interests coincide with India, which seeks a structural transformation in Pakistan’s domestic politics and external behaviour. The US and China appear content with, or probably prefer, a Pakistan with a strong Rawalpindi, along with competent civilian governance structures and an elite with a wider world view. A Pakistan that looks beyond South Asia could be a useful potential partner in burden sharing, ironically for both the US and China. For Washington, the Pakistan Army is an insurance card for persisting security challenges such as regime survival for US client states in West Asia as well as for the containment of Iran. For China, a stable Pakistan can be a partner in the Belt and Road connectivity projects and future continental industrial and energy corridors. As Andrew Small (2015: 200) underlines, Beijing’s large economic investments “come with some clear expectations about the choices that Pakistan’s political and military leadership make about their country’s future.” Pakistan “will not have the free hand that it used to enjoy.”

In sum, both the US and China seek a strong, stable, and secure Pakistan that controls its destabilising behaviour because that undermines their wider regional interests. For the US, a revisionist Pakistan pulls India inward and away from potential cooperation on Asian geopolitics. For China, it undermines its industrial and connectivity projects in Pakistan, while negatively impacting India–China ties. Hence, evolving interests of the great powers in South Asia might not necessarily portend an adverse geopolitical setting for India in the medium term. This is even more plausible if the widening comprehensive national power gap between India and Pakistan make the latter’s traditional role as a balancer or spoiler unattractive in the eyes of the great powers. As Pakistani scholar Hussain Haqqani predicts, “You can try to leverage your strategic location as much as you like, but there will come a time … when strategic concerns change” (Lammon 2019).

So, while it is reasonable to forecast that both the US and China benefit from a more normalised Pakistan, Indian policymakers should also remain clear-eyed that neither country would be willing to expend much strategic capital in an ambitious policy to reorder the domestic scene or civil–military relations in Pakistan. Not yet, at least. In any case, Indian agency is essential to reorient perceptions of the great powers. Maintaining that India has the right and the capacity to adopt an active defence posture—that is, blocking the flow of cross-border terror by proactive operations on the LoC along with reserving the option for more ambitious punitive strikes in response to major terrorist attacks on Indian military targets—would play an important part in shaping how third parties view Indian interests and thereby assume constructive roles in managing Pakistani behaviour.

In Conclusion

India’s future Pakistan policy must strive to cultivate deterrence and change the calculus of the Pakistani security elite in their use of proxy terror as an instrument of statecraft. To this end, India’s posture must remain unswerving even as the tactics remain flexible. India should also creatively leverage its growing bilateral stakes with the US and China to adapt their Pakistan policies, and together contemplate a vision of Pakistan that is in consonance with their main geopolitical interests and concerns. Finally, India must take the longue durée and remain sensitive to the prospect of change inside Pakistan—however modest and incremental—to develop societal, cultural and commercial ties with liberal constituencies, and engage in dialogue with political forces that are reconsidering Pakistan’s role in the region. A sophisticated grand strategy backed by a range of power instruments and nimble enough to adapt to changing circumstances would not only enable India to reduce cross-border terror, it could open unforeseen windows to a more stable subcontinent. The surrounding politics of the recent crisis must not distract Indian strategists from moving the needle in new directions.


1 South Asia Terrorism Portal, https://www.satp.org/.


Lammon, Adam (2019): “Pakistan and India Can’t Escape the Conflict Cycle,” National Interest, 18 March, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/pakistan-and-india-cant-escape-conflict-cycle-47972.

Small, Andrew (2015): The China–Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, Gurgaon: Penguin Random House.

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This web site may contain copyrighted material the use of which we are making only for educational purposes. This is a non -profit web site and does not accept any type of advertisement, paid or otherwise. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance the understanding of humanity’s problems and hopefully to help find solutions for those problems.

We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

The Left and the Democratic Party :The Experience of Almost a Century-Dan La Botz

Posted by admin On March - 19 - 2019 Comments Off on The Left and the Democratic Party :The Experience of Almost a Century-Dan La Botz


What can socialists today learn from the experience of the left in the past as it grappled with the issue of electoral politics? Over the last 50 years, American leftists have in general adopted two alternative strategies for dealing with the question of electoral politics. On the one hand, some attempted to build a movement to reform or even to take over the Democratic Party, while others chose instead to work toward an independent political party to the left of the Democrats. Each of these strategic approaches has encountered tremendous difficulties in making headway in the American political system. Today, with Donald J. Trump as president, with the Republicans controlling Congress and most state governments, and after Bernie Sanders’ remarkable campaign for president and the astonishing growth of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), debate over political strategies is more intense than it has been for decades. So we turn here to look at the first of these strategic approaches, the attempt to reform the Democratic Party, to influence it, or simply to use its ballot line.

The idea that the left should work to reform the Democratic Party in order to defend democratic rights and the standard of living and social benefits of the working class, as well as to prepare the ground for a struggle for socialism, actually has a long history that goes back to the 1930s. The Communist Party (CP), which had been founded in 1919 and been illegal and underground until 1921, finally emerged in the mid-1920s with a legal organization prepared to engage in political campaigns. Communist candidates in the 1920s received only a tiny number of votes in those elections.1 In 1922 and 1923, the CP attempted to take over the Farmer-Labor  Party movement, but ended up driving out other labor groups.2 With the stock market crash of 1929, followed by the beginning of the Great Depression, Communist strategy began to change.

The Communists ran William Z. Foster, one of the country’s leading labor union strategists and organizers, as their candidate for the presidency of the United States (his third campaign) in 1932. Foster strongly opposed Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt that year and also opposed the first New Deal; following the ostensibly revolutionary line of the Communist International at that moment, American Communists warned that FDR could become a fascist.3 Their slogan was, “Fight for Socialism, or the Blue Eagle [symbol of the New Deal’s National Recovery Act] Will Wear a Brown Shirt.” But after Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party took power in Germany in 1933, virtually unopposed because of the disastrously sectarian stance of the German Communist Party as well as the passivity of the German Social Democrats, Joseph Stalin, who had become the leader of the Soviet Union, changed the Communist International’s line. In 1935, the Communist International adopted the Popular Front strategy, arguing that the Communists should form a bloc with all other anti-fascist parties, including capitalist parties, to oppose fascism and to pressure their governments to strengthen their military forces and form alliances with the Soviet Union.

The Communist Party of America had some difficulty for a few years attempting to figure out what this new Popular Front policy meant for the United States, where neither a parliamentary system nor political coalitions existed, and where two capitalist parties, Republicans and Democrats, dominated. In the mid-1930s, the Communists once again worked with other leftists in an attempt to form a Farmer-Labor Party, but in 1936 they also ran Earl Browder as a Communist candidate for president and unofficially and tentatively began to support the Democratic Party.4 When a group of Socialist Party (SP) members broke away and created the American Labor Party to support Roosevelt, many Communists in New York State voted for Roosevelt on the ALP line.

Led by Browder, the Communists decided by 1937 that Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition was the “specific form of the Popular Front in the United States.”5 The Communists argued that their role in the Democratic Party was to strengthen the New Deal wing of the party against more conservative Democrats and to push for a foreign policy of “collective security” against the Axis powers. Then, when Stalin signed the Nonaggression Pact with Hitler in 1939, collective security was abandoned, and Roosevelt was suddenly denounced as a warmonger. After Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, however, the Communists, principally to support the USSR, became fervent supporters not only of Roosevelt and the Democratic Party but also of the U.S. government and its war effort. Support for the war led the Communists to work to suppress workers’ strikes and to oppose  black civil rights protests or demands that might weaken support for the U.S. government, disrupt war production, or undermine the fight against the Axis powers.6

The Communists’ commitment to the Democrats in the late 1930s also made them opponents of building any party to the left. As Browder explained to the CP’s tenth convention, held in 1938, the Democratic Front was not fighting for a socialist program, but,

If we cannot have socialism now, and obviously we can’t until the people change their minds, then in our opinion, while the present capitalist system exists, it is a thousand times better to have a liberal and progressive New Deal, with our democratic rights, than to have a new Hoover, who would inevitably take our country onto the black and sorrowful road of fascism and war.7

This argument, calling for support for the Democratic Party as the lesser evil, together with the view that the Republican Party was ultimately the party of war and fascism, has been the CP’s fundamental position from the 1930s until today. And even when, in the 1930s and again in the 1970s, the Communists ran their own candidates for president and vice president, the party and its members often actually worked in the Democratic Party and supported its candidates. From the view that the Democrats were the lesser evil flowed the Communists’ opposition to the creation of a labor party or any other left party. In the later 1930s, the Communists opposed “launching artificial third parties, which can only split the people’s ranks.”8

The CP ran no candidate in 1944, unwilling to challenge Roosevelt even symbolically while he led the United States, which was allied with the Soviet Union during World War II. When, as the war was ending, Roosevelt died and the more conservative Harry Truman succeeded him, Congress began to turn to the right and the Cold War began. The Communists suddenly rediscovered independent political action. Particularly motivated by the change in the U.S. government’s hostility toward the Soviet Union, the Communists supported the presidential bid of Henry Wallace, Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture. Communists played a very large role in the new Progressive Party created to be the vehicle of Wallace’s campaign, which had a platform calling for national health insurance, an expanded social welfare system, nationalization of the energy industry, and, most important for the CP, a friendly posture toward the Soviet Union. The Communists became the principal organizers of Wallace’s campaign, though many of the party’s union leaders refused to go along, arguing that it would lead to greater division in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In the end, Wallace won only 1,156,000 votes out of about 49 million votes cast, a demoralizing defeat for him and the CP.9

The Wallace campaign, however, represented an aberration; the Communists soon returned to support for the Democratic Party. The Communists’ consistent if sometimes critical support for the Democratic Party and its presidential and congressional candidates through all of the vicissitudes of the Democrats’ history meant that, even if it preferred progressives, it usually ended up in the general election backing the Democrats’ regular capitalist candidates, virtually all of whom were defenders of American militarism and imperialism abroad and of exploitation and racism at home.

The political efficacy of the Communists’ strategy, beyond the occasional election here or there of a more progressive congressional representative, mayor, or city councilperson—such as Vito Marcantonio10—is extremely difficult to measure, but certainly it has not been significant. During the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, the period of the McCarthyite persecution of the Communists—as well as of the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution and Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—the party, reduced in size and influence, had virtually no political impact. From 1968 to 1984 the CP once again ran its own presidential candidates, though as before the party simultaneously continued to support Democrats. Their support for Democrats had no impact on the rightward movement of the Democratic Party from the 1940s to today. Yet, the CP continues to have a strategy of working within the Democratic Party with the goal of pushing it to the left and strengthening the progressive forces within it.11

The Socialist Party and
Independent Politics

Let’s turn further back now to look at the experience of the Socialist Party of America. The SP actually had a long history of independent political action dating back to its early years. As the party’s most popular leader and perennial presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs, said himself, “It is for me to say to the thinking workingman that he has no choice between these two capitalist parties, that they are both pledged to the same system and that whether the one or the other succeeds, he will still remain the wage-working slave he is today.”12

Debs was the SP’s presidential candidate in every election from 1900 to 1924. In 1912 he received over 900,000 votes, 6 percent of the total, a record never equaled again by himself or any other leftist candidate in a U.S. presidential election. Presbyterian minister and SP leader Norman Thomas picked up the mantel in 1928, but received only 267,000 votes that year. After the stock market crash and the Great Depression, in 1932 voters turned against Republican Herbert Hoover and elected Franklin D. Roosevelt by an overwhelming 22.8 to 15.7 million votes. Thomas’s vote total in that election reached 884,000, nearly as large as Debs’ vote in 1912, but with a much larger population and many more voters, it represented a far smaller percentage than Debs had achieved.

The SP declined throughout the 1930s, principally as a result of the attraction of Roosevelt and the New Deal, but to a lesser extent because of the loss of part of the organization—all of the California Socialist Party—to the Trotskyists who had entered the party and ran away with a significant piece of it.13 The SP’s “Old Guard” split away, and its most prominent labor leaders, Sidney Hillman and David Dubinsky, and labor attorney Louis Walman created the American Labor Party in 1936. Their plan was to make support for Roosevelt palatable to socialists who didn’t want to vote for him on the “bourgeois” Democratic Party line.14 That year of Roosevelt’s greatest victory, Thomas received only 188,000 votes. As Thomas’s biographer writes, “The Socialist Party lay in ruins.”15

During the rest of the Norman Thomas era, the SP became ever smaller and weaker. Thomas’s vote declined to only 98,560 in 1940. Thomas did worse in 1944 and a little better in 1948 with about 160,000 votes, but by the mid-twentieth century, the SP seemed unlikely to break out of its marginal position. After the outbreak of the Cold War, Darlington Hoopes stood as the party’s candidate in 1952 but received only 20,000 votes, and the SP put forth no presidential candidate in the period from 1956 through the 1960s. With the SP out of the picture, the old Socialist Labor Party and the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party ran candidates, but their candidates received a miniscule number of votes.

The Realignment Strategy

What then, after such a debacle, should be socialists’ political strategy? In 1958 Max Shachtman and a group of his comrades from the Independent Socialist League (ISL) entered the SP bringing with them a new political strategy.16 Shachtman, a former Trotskyist and leader of the ISL, soon became one of the dominant figures in the SP and offered the party a way out of the political doldrums in which it had been stalled for more than twenty years. His theory was that the SP could play a key role in transforming the Democratic Party into a progressive force for social change.

In the postwar period, Shachtman, a former revolutionary socialist, had begun to rethink his politics. He came to believe, for example, that the Labour Party government in Britain “had demonstrated the possibility of expropriating the bourgeoisie by parliamentary means.”17 He had begun moving toward the Democratic Party in the late 1940s and early 1950s.18 By 1961, Shachtman for the first time actually advocated that Socialists support a Democratic Party candidate, and soon he was suggesting that his followers work in the Democratic Party reform clubs, a message he carried into the civil rights movement as well just a few years later.19

Shachtman now developed a broad political strategy, which came to be called “realignment.” His realignment strategy was based on the idea that the SP could be the catalyst of an alliance between the labor unions and the civil rights movement within the Democratic Party. As part of that strategy, Bayard Rustin, a member of Shachtman’s organization, worked with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to organize the March on Washington, which was supported by Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers and the progressive labor leaders and their unions. In the mid-1960s, Shachtman’s strategy seemed to have legs.

Shachtman and his followers actively pursued this strategy while also modifying it. Initially oriented toward the progressive, formerly CIO unions, by the late 1960s he and his followers became supporters of the conservative union leader George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, as well as of the more moderate wing of the  black movement led by Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph. Most important, Shachtman and his group, breaking with the socialist tradition of opposition to imperialism, became supporters of the U.S. war in Vietnam.20 They did so not only because of their belief that Stalinist Communism (in the Soviet Union, China, and other Communist states) was a system more reactionary than capitalism, but also because of their affinity with the Johnson administration and the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. In the 1972 presidential election, this view led Shachtman to first support candidate Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, a hawk. Then when Jackson was eliminated in the primaries, Shachtman rejected George McGovern’s anti-war campaign and backed the liberal Hubert Humphrey, who had the endorsement of the AFL-CIO.

Michael Harrington, a protégé of Shachtman and a supporter of his Democratic Party realignment strategy, had long been disturbed by his mentor’s rightward drift and finally broke with Shachtman in 1972 over the Vietnam War, calling for a negotiated peace—but not, like the anti-war movement, for immediate withdrawal. Harrington and his supporters opted to back the liberal anti-war candidate George McGovern for president. The split between Shachtman and Harrington effectively destroyed what remained of the old SP, and Harrington went off to form a new organization in 1973, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, which later merged with the New American Movement to create DSA in 1982.21

Harrington, however, continued to believe leftists should be, as he often said, “the left wing of the possible,” which meant in practice the left wing of the Democratic Party. Harrington had become close to Democratic Party leaders in the 1960s as a result of his journalism. His book about poverty in the United States, The Other America (1962) was an enormous success and gave him personal entrée to the highest echelons of the Democratic Party. He came to work with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s aides Sargent Shriver and Frank Mankiewicz and had opportunities to meet with Cabinet members. As Harrington wrote, “It was all very heady and exciting to be arguing with Cabinet officers and indirectly presenting memos to the president.”22 All of this led him to turn right. “By 1960 I had begun to understand how wrong I had been to accept the simple, revolutionary scenario of the young Marx. The change began when I first made real contact with workers and  blacks and realized, among other things, that the Reutherites were the genuine, and utterly sincere and militant, left wing of American society.”23

In his book Socialism, published in 1970, Harrington argued that under the impact of the labor upheaval of the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic Party had been transformed into a social democratic party. Subsequently, during the postwar period, Harrington argued, the unions had built “a political apparatus which is a party in everything but name. … Then in the elections of 1968, special circumstances revealed the extent to which the unionists had become a political party in their own right.” And, he added, “As a result the unions were the decisive element in the Humphrey campaign in a way that had not been true in the Kennedy and Johnson races of 1960 and 1964.”24 Harrington recruited to his new group, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, not only many United Auto Workers officials, but also other labor leaders such as Jerry Wurf, head of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and William Winpisinger, top official of the International Association of Machinists.

Harrington’s central political realignment strategy remained fundamentally that of Shachtman, but now with a new twist: Socialists could be the catalyst that would fuse not only labor and the  black civil rights movement, but also anti-war liberals, and could make the Democratic Party a labor party capable of bringing socialism—by which Harrington now meant social democracy—to America. Economic and political developments, however, did not go as Harrington had foreseen.

The Democratic Party:
Crisis and Reaction

The Democratic Party that emerged from the New Deal era of the 1930s and existed until the early 1960s was, as it had always been, firmly under corporate domination. But it also included a congeries of interest groups: wealthy capitalists, professional politicians, leaders of the corrupt big-city machines, southern white racists, labor union officials, and northern  black leaders. The decisions about the party’s candidates and its platform were made in the famous “smoke-filled rooms,” where a handful of white men struggled to advance their groups’ interests. Though some states held party caucuses and a few others held primary elections—in the South they were “white primaries” that excluded  black voters—nevertheless, the choices of candidates and rulings on policy were made by a handful of power brokers and generally confirmed at the national convention by delegates who were professional politicians and loyalists.

The enormous social upheaval of the 1960s—the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, together with the ghetto rebellions that burned cities across the country as well as the emergence of the women’s movement—began to challenge the Democratic Party leadership as well as the old structures and policies. Before 1972, though  blacks represented 12 percent of the U.S. population, they had only about 2 percent of delegates at the Democratic Party’s National Conventions. In Mississippi, where  black people were routinely denied the right to vote, civil rights activists organized a rival state party convention in 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). They elected delegates and sent 64 representatives, led by  black activist Fannie Lou Hamer, to the Democratic Party National Convention. The Democratic Party Convention, however, refused to seat the MFDP delegates, so liberal Senator Hubert Humphrey and party leader Walter Mondale arranged a “compromise” to seat two MFDP delegates alongside the all-white regular delegation. The MFDP refused the insulting offer. This enormously increased the pressure on the Democratic Party. Lyndon Johnson’s support for the civil rights acts of the mid-1960s drove many southern whites out of the Democratic Party and attracted the newly enfranchised southern  black voters. They wanted a voice and vote in party decisions. And  blacks were not the only ones demanding greater representation; so too did the party’s anti-war activists and the newly organized feminists, as well as increasingly active young people.

In 1968, after incumbent Lyndon Johnson—facing tremendous opposition because of the Vietnam War—had withdrawn from the race, Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic Party’s nomination, defeating peace candidate Eugene McCarthy despite the fact that Humphrey had not won a single primary in his own name. His victory at the convention took place as Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s police department beat and arrested left-wing protestors outside in what a U.S. government report called a “police riot.”25 The scandal of Humphrey’s nomination led the Democratic National Committee to create a special commission—the McGovern-Fraser Commission—to rewrite the rules of the party. The commission’s new party rules did three principal things. First, they reduced the role of state party officials as delegates to no more than 10 percent and restricted the number of political office holders. Second, they relaxed the rules for choosing delegates, eliminating literacy tests and residency requirements used particularly in the South to exclude  black voters. Third, they established criteria for affirmative action to insure the inclusion of racial minorities, of women, and of young people proportional to the population. These rules were accompanied by an expansion of the political primary system to more states, 40 out of 50 (the others using party caucuses).26 These rules had a dramatic effect on the 1972 Democratic Party Convention, which was effectively taken over by the party’s left wing—with disastrous results for both the party and the party’s left.

In 1972, at the peak of the anti-war movement, the liberals—using the new rules—succeeded in winning a majority of the delegates to the Democratic Party National Convention and chose the liberal, anti-war South Dakota Senator George McGovern as the party’s candidate. Faced with the insurgent rebellion, the party leadership, which remained deeply committed to the war in Vietnam and largely opposed to a greater role for  blacks, rebelled. The Solid South’s politicians and white voters accelerated their exit from the party, migrating en masse over the following years into the Republican Party. The big-city machines abandoned McGovern, who had betrayed them by throwing Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley out of the convention and replacing him with a delegation led by the  black leader Reverend Jesse Jackson. Under the leadership of George Meany, the AFL-CIO for the first time in its history did not endorse the Democratic Party candidate, taking an official position of neutrality in the contest between McGovern and Nixon—while Meany, who refused to meet with McGovern, went golfing with President Nixon and his Cabinet,27 thus making his preference clear.

The Black Political Convention of 1972 also failed to endorse McGovern. Utterly abandoned by the Democratic Party—with the exception of California and Washington, DC—McGovern went down to defeat, winning only 37.5 percent of the vote to Richard Nixon’s 60.7 percent, while the Electoral College vote was an astounding 520 for Nixon and 17 for McGovern, the 17 being the votes from the state of Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. The lesson of 1972 was clear: If the Democratic Party’s left wing succeeds in taking control of the convention, the party organization and the unions will walk away, preferring to see a Republican victory than to yield control to a left-wing insurgency. Harrington’s realignment strategy had been given a practical test and had failed.

The result of the disastrous 1972 election was that in less than a year the Democratic Party repealed some of the McGovern-Fraser reforms and went on, over the next several years, to reinforce the power of the party’s central leadership. In 1981 the report of the Hunt Commission, chaired by North Carolina Governor James Hunt, led the Democratic Party to create the so-called “superdelegates,” and so by 1982, the party leadership was firmly back in control. The superdelegates were described in 2016 as “the embodiment of the institutional Democratic Party—everyone from former presidents, congressional leaders, and big-money fundraisers to mayors, labor leaders, and longtime local party functionaries. Nearly six-in-ten are men, close to two-thirds are white, and their average age (as best we could tell) is around 60.”28 The superdelegates, who were pledged to no particular candidate, made up almost 15 percent of the Democratic Party National Convention that year; there were 4,765 delegates of whom 714 were superdelegates. Democratic Party reform had been crushed. Was reform still possible at all?

Things had not developed as Harrington had projected. His plan did call for driving out the southern racists, but it did not work out as expected. Following Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, most of the Solid South’s white voters gradually left the Democratic Party, which in some areas became a party of the  black minority. Almost the entire region became Republican. At the same time, the Democratic and Republican parties both turned to television advertising, diminishing if not eliminating the significance of the big-city machines. As for the radicals and liberal activists, by 1975 the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement were both practically dead, and those forces largely evaporated.

The labor movement, on which Harrington put the entire weight of his strategy, had begun to come under attack in the late 1960s, a process that continued relentlessly and mercilessly into the 1980s and beyond. By the late 1970s, employers were closing plants and moving production to the South or overseas, demanding contract concessions, opening new non-union workplaces, and wherever possible eliminating unions altogether. The unions’ leaders, including those aligned with DSA, provided no vision, no strategy, and most important, no action to defend the working class.

The premises of realignment strategy had completely disappeared. Nevertheless, DSA continued to pursue its orientation to the Democratic Party, though without any real strategy or clear goals. Harrington’s biographer writes that in 1976, “Harrington was prepared to support virtually any candidate the Democrats nominated that year, except for [the Southern racist George] Wallace.” Harrington would work to influence the platform.29 During the period from the 1980s to the 2000s, DSA’s position on American elections differed little from that of the Communist Party. It worked to support liberals in the primaries, but then backed virtually any Democrat against the Republicans while the entire Democratic Party slid to the right.

The Inside-outside Strategy

The Maoists developed another strategy, or at least a variant of an old one. When in the early 1960s the Soviet Union and China fell out, Mao accusing Nikita Khrushchev and his successors of having followed the “capitalist road,” the world Communist movement also divided. The pro-Soviet Communist parties split, as the Maoist factions went off to found their own communist parties that flourished between 1960 and about 1980. Initially extremely sectarian and ultra-left, some Maoists became interested in electoral politics by the 1980s. As descendants of Stalinist Communism, even if some were critical of that experience, the Maoist groups—and there were many—tended, once they became interested in electoral politics, to pursue the old pro-Soviet Communist Party’s Popular Front approach of working in the Democratic Party.

The campaign of the  black Representative Harold Washington for the mayoralty of Chicago in 1982-1983 was a turning point for the Maoists. Washington—a longtime member of the Chicago machine, never a civil rights activist, an opponent of abortion rights, and not even a liberal—was running as a Democrat against both the Republicans and the racist Democratic Party political machine of which he had been a part.30 The Maoists rallied to his campaign as a struggle against racism, which it absolutely was, providing operatives and foot soldiers. After his hard-fought victory, Washington chose some of the Maoists to serve in the new city government.

So, with the Washington experience under their belt, in 1984 when Jesse Jackson ran for the presidential nomination in the Democratic Party on a progressive platform, the Maoist organizations quickly moved to support him. This was the old Communist Popular Front, but with a difference. Some of the Maoists also worked to build Jackson’s campaign organization, the Rainbow Coalition, as an independent organization or social movement.31 Jackson put forward a very progressive platform, and he and the Rainbow Coalition appeared at the sites of struggles against racism and at labor union picket lines around the country. That year he won 3.2 million votes, 18 percent of the total, carried two states, and sent 358 delegates to the convention—a quite significant showing, though some on the left viewed Jackson as a protest politician whose authority derived not from the  black working class, but from recognition by the business and political elites.32 Jackson and his supporters went on that year to back the Democratic candidates in the general election.

Jackson ran again in the 1988 primary campaign involving five candidates, which was won by Michael Dukakis with ten million votes (42 percent), while Jackson came in second with nearly seven million votes (29.4 percent). Jackson’s supporters on the left hoped that with such a spectacular showing he would run as an independent candidate, but he went to the Democratic Party Convention and made his famous speech, the heart of which was this passage:

Common ground. That’s the challenge of our party tonight—left wing, right wing.

Progress will not come through boundless liberalism nor static conservatism, but at the critical mass of mutual survival. It takes two wings to fly. Whether you’re a hawk or a dove, you’re just a bird living in the same environment, in the same world.33

Jackson had made it absolutely clear in this abject capitulation to the party’s establishment that he wanted his followers to remain in the Democratic Party, to back its candidate—the neoliberal Dukakis. A part of the left, among them many Maoists, had kept the Rainbow Coalition alive from 1984 to 1988, but when Jackson returned to the Democratic Party, the Rainbow disappeared, and shortly afterwards so too did most of the Maoist parties. Now much smaller, Maoist groups continued into the 2000s to support Democratic Party candidates while also building independent social movements outside the party, but without any general strategy for changing the Democratic Party itself.

In the 1984 Democratic primaries, DSA declined to support Walter Mondale and also failed to support Jesse Jackson, though many DSA members worked on the Jackson campaign. Only after Mondale won the nomination did DSA endorse him. In 1988, DSA endorsed and worked hard for Jackson in the primaries. The two Jackson campaigns briefly revived the old hopes of realignment among some DSA members, though by the 1990s the left’s influence had declined dramatically and the neoliberal Bill Clinton’s star was rising. At present, no left group appears to believe, or at least no group takes an official or public position, that it or some coalition it might lead could take over the Democratic Party.

In practice, by the 1990s, there was little difference between the strategies of Communists, Maoists, and DSA. All backed Democratic Party progressive candidates in the primaries and called for voting for the Democrat against the Republican in the general election. Those with better connections in the labor,  black, or women’s organizations attempted to influence the platform, for what that was worth. Most worked to build social movements outside of the party, though when Election Day arrived, they often attempted to turn those movements out to vote for Democrats. Yet, while most of the small American left was working to push the Democrats to the left, the party now led by Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council continued to move, apparently inexorably, to the right. Interestingly, in 2000 the DSA membership was torn between Democrat Al Gore and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and consequently failed to endorse anyone.

Socialist Candidates
in the Democratic Party

The Bernie Sanders Democratic presidential campaign of 2016 suddenly offered another possible model for the left. Sanders ran as a self-declared “democratic socialist” candidate in the Democratic Party. His campaign had an enormous impact on the country and especially on the broad left, leading thousands to join DSA. Furious at the Democratic Party for its treatment of Sanders, frightened by Trump, and inspired by the Sanders campaign, some DSA activists now propose to run openly socialist candidates within the Democratic Party with the goal of building from these experiences a future independent socialist party. So far, DSA has endorsed only a few such candidates, so this strategy remains untested. And other DSA members have remained committed to the old strategy of supporting progressive Democrats.

What Are the Chances of
Changing the Democratic Party?

Some still believe the Democratic Party can be reformed, but socialist Kim Moody argues that “the Democratic Party appears even more impregnable” than it did in the past. It is ever more centralized, and, as he writes,

The party has become a well-funded, professionalized, multi-tiered hierarchy capable of intervening in elections at just about every level. It selects candidates, provides funding, furnishes endorsements, offers media relations, and supplies computer and digital campaign and get-out-the-vote services. In Congress and most state legislatures, its leaders impose a high level of party discipline, such that for the last two decades 90 percent of floor votes in both houses have been along strict party lines.34

In the first half of the twentieth century, the Democratic Party’s precinct work was done by armies of labor union and community volunteers who staffed phone banks and went door-to-door campaigning and then getting out the vote. Today things are quite different. By the 1960s, radio and television ad campaigns had begun in many areas to carry the burden of campaigning. Today, “paid consultants, mass mailings, pollsters, computer experts, media gurus, and services from profit-making outfits specializing in campaign wizardry have replaced the old clubhouse (or reform club), union, or county foot soldiers.”35

With the growth of economic inequality, Democratic Party donors, flush with hundreds of millions of dollars, exert enormous influence on the three major committees that disperse their money: the Democratic Party National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Large corporations such as Microsoft, Pritzker, Time Warner, and Blackstone Group, and wealthy individual donors, contribute far more money to these committees than do the labor unions. Crowdfunding, managed by groups such as ActBlue, is supposed to have democratized political fundraising. But it becomes another source of money from business and the wealthy because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows corporations, labor unions, and individuals to give as much money as they wish to Super PACs, which can advocate for or against candidates. As Moody writes, “All of this adds up to a party that, even more than in the past, is both highly undemocratic and structurally tied to the business PACs and wealthy donors that fund their committees and preferred candidates.”36

As Moody suggests, few challenges to incumbent Democrats are successful: “Since World War II, only between 1 and 2 percent of congressional incumbents have lost a primary challenge, with the rate of incumbency hovering above 90 percent.” Bernie Sanders’ campaign confirmed the Democratic Party leadership’s commitment to the organization and opposition to challenges from the left. Moody points out that of 712 superdelegate votes, Sanders won only 44 and a half, just over 1 percent. Of the 232 Democrats in both houses of Congress, only ten endorsed Sanders, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, with 75 members, gave Sanders only one endorsement. Finally, “of the 3,170 Democratic Party state legislators, Sanders won the endorsement of just 91, less than 3 percent.”37

The Problem of the Democrats’ Influence on the Left

Beyond the issues raised by Moody about the virtual impossibility of having an impact on the Democratic Party, there is the question of the Democratic Party’s influence on those leftists who attempt to work in it. Given the Democratic Party’s organization, its fundraising capacity, its size, and its influence, it would be naïve to think that one could work in that party without being seriously affected by it. After all, when one enters an organization, one becomes subject to its rules, to one degree or another accepts its program, forms relationships with its leaders and members, becomes involved in its activities, and may become dependent upon its organizational and financial resources.

Consider the Democratic Party principle that all primary candidates are expected to endorse and work for the winner of the primary, who becomes the candidate in the general election. A progressive Democratic candidate opposing a regular Democrat with the usual problems—neoliberal politics, belief in austerity, support for militarism and imperialism—must now endorse and work for that same person. Of course, one can on principle refuse to do so, but that will certainly make that person an enemy of the party, which will in the future be on guard and take revenge. The party platform, almost surely full of fine phrases about equal opportunity and a better life for all, also often contains commitments to balanced budgets, a strong military, and defending America’s interests abroad. What does one do?

Take the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a DSA member whose victory in a Democratic Party congressional primary in New York in June 2018 stunned the country and thrilled DSA members. Just a few weeks later, she came out for all Democrats, which included Andrew Cuomo and all Democrats. The New York City DSA leadership criticized Ocasio-Cortez for her endorsement of Cuomo and other Democrats, writing, “We reject the illusion that the Democratic Party is, or will become, an institution serving the interests of the U.S. working class.”38 Nevertheless, the candidate that DSA had endorsed turned to support a devious and conservative Democratic Party governor.

Leftists thus sometimes find themselves backing candidates whose principles and programs they oppose, providing a left cover for the candidate while discrediting themselves.

There is another problem as well. As leftists in the Democratic Party form relationships, they will be exposed to the blandishments and perquisites of power, the easy availability of money, equipment, cars, and other resources, as well as further access to even more influential people with more to offer. The temptations are many, and while not all succumb, the Democratic Party can exert a powerful negative force on left groups and individuals.

Today the Democratic Party liberals are doing everything they can to keep the Resistance from becoming an independent movement. The Democratic Alliance, a foundation made up of liberal donors that wishes to move the Democratic Party to the left, is giving millions of dollars to groups such as Indivisible, which now has a staff of 40 and 6,000 volunteers. Billionaire George Soros is giving large donations to progressive groups such as the Center for Community Change, Color of Change, and Local Progress. The clear if unstated goal is to keep Resistance activists voting for liberal Democrats, rather than setting out in an independent direction.39

We have more than a hundred years of socialist electoral experience in the United States, and some 80 years of leftists attempting to influence or reform the Democratic Party. The history suggests that there is little if any chance of ever doing so. The history of the nineteenth century suggests that only a genuine national crisis, accompanied by a massive national movement—in that period a movement for the abolition of slavery—can lead to a realignment of the political parties. And the experience of the twentieth century suggests that only in periods of tremendous mass upheaval do we see even the beginnings of independent political action, a subject that we will turn to in a future article.



The Communists ran William Z. Foster and Benjamin Gitlow for president and vice president in 1924 and again in 1928; out of about 30 million votes cast in 1924, the Communists received 36,396, and in 1928 with about 36.5 million votes cast, the Communist candidates received 48,770 votes. (See the Encyclopedia Britannica accounts of the elections available online.)
Theodore Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia: The Formative Period (Random House, 1986 [1960]), 29-51.
In 1932, Foster won about 100,000 votes out of approximately 38 million votes cast. (See the Encyclopedia Britannica online for accounts of the elections with votes cast for each candidate.)
Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, The American Communist Party: A Critical History (Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1957), 332. In the 1936 election, Browder won just over 80,000 votes out of 63 million votes cast.
Cited in Fraser M. Ottanelli, The Communist Party of the United States: From the Depression to World War II (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991), 115.
Charlie Post, “The Popular Front: Rethinking CPUSA History,” Against the Current, July-August, 1996.
Cited in Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade (Basic Books, 1984), 210.
Cited in Howe and Coser, 332.
Howe and Coser, 470-78; James Barrett, William Z. Foster and the Tragedy of American Radicalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 232-35. The Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party candidate Farrell Dobbs got only 13,613 votes that same year.
Alan Schaffer, Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress (Syracuse University Press, 1966), 52. Earl Browder first insisted that the Communists back Marcantonio.
John Bachtell, “A radical third party? I agree!” People’s World, January 22, 2015. Despite the title, Bachtel, Chair of the Communist Party USA since 2014, argues for working politically through the Democratic Party.
Eugene V. Debs, “Outlook for Socialism in the United States,” International Socialist Review,September, 1900.
David A. Shannon, The Socialist Party: A History (The Macmillan Company, 1955), 253-54.
Robert J. Fitrakis, The Idea of Democratic Socialism in America and the Decline of the Socialist Party (Garland, 1993), 185.
S.A. Swanberg, Norman Thomas: The Last Idealist (Charles Scriber’s Sons, 1976), 206.
Peter Drucker, Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey Through the “American Century” (Amherst, New York: Humanity Books, 1994), 262, 271-77.
Max Shachtman, “Aspects of the British Labor Government,” New International (17, January-February 1951), 12; Labor Action, July 23, 1951, cited in Maurice Isserman, If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (Basic Books, 1987), 56.
Drucker, 242-43.
Drucker, 270-71.
Drucker, 288-89.
Maurice Isserman, The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (Public Affairs, 2000), 256-302.
Michael Harrington, Fragments of the Century (E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1973), 175.
Harrington, Fragments, 178-79.
Michael Harrington, Socialism (Bantam Books, 1973), 306, 324-25.
The Walker Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, summary here.
Judith A. Center, “1972 Democratic Convention Reforms and Party Democracy,” Political Science Quarterly (Vol. 89, No. 2, June 1974), 325-350.
Bruce Miroff, The Liberal’s Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2009), 184-89.
Drew Desilver, “Who Are the Democratic Superdelegates?” Pew Research Center.
Isserman, The Other American, 330.
Florence Hamlish Levinsohn, Harold Washington: A Political Biography (Chicago Review Press, 1983), passim. Hamlish Levisohn makes it clear that Washington was not only not a radical, he was not even very liberal. Gary Rivlin, Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race (Henry Holt and Company, 1992), passim.
Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso, 2002), 275-78.
Adolph L. Reed Jr., The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 123-26.
Jesse Jackson, Democratic Party National Convention Address, 1988.
Kim Moody, “From Realignment to Reinforcement,” Jacobin, January 26, 2017.
“NYC-DSA Statement on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Endorsement of Andrew Cuomo and ‘All Democratic Nominees,’” www.socialists.nyc/statements/ocasio-cuomo/.
Kenneth P. Vogel, “The ‘Resistance,’ Raising Big Money, Upends Liberal Politics,” New York Times, Oct. 7, 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/07/us/politics/democrats-resistance-fundraising.html.
Posted Electoral Politics, Left Politics, United States
About Author
DAN LA BOTZ is a co-editor of New Politics. This article is based on a chapter in his book Le nouveau populisme Americain: Résistances et alternatives à Trump (Paris: Syllepse, 2018).
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The state of the Palestinian struggle :25 years since Oslo—Toufic Haddad interviewed by Phil Gasper

Posted by admin On March - 19 - 2019 Comments Off on The state of the Palestinian struggle :25 years since Oslo—Toufic Haddad interviewed by Phil Gasper


Last year marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. ISR editorial board member Phil Gasper spoke to Toufic Haddad about what has happened since then and the current state of the Palestinian struggle. Haddad is the author of Palestine Ltd: Neoliberalism and Nationalism in the Occupied Territory (I. B. Tauris), released in paperback in 2018.
It’s twenty-five years since the Declaration of Principles (DOP) was signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Looking back now, this agreement, [which was the first of several reached between the two sides, and which are commonly referred to as the “Oslo Accords”] is totally in tatters from the point of view of the Palestinians and the aspiration to set up any kind of independent Palestinian state. Can you give us some of the history of where Oslo came from, how things have developed in the last twenty-five years, and how we got to the situation today?

There’s a lot to address in that question but I will start by debunking the impression that surrounded—and continues to surround—the accords, and that propagates the notion that they represented a bona fide peace agreement between the Israeli government and the PLO. Not only does the track record of what happened belie this, but twenty-five years on we have a lot more evidence indicating that what was happening was anything but a form of historical reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinian people that was intended to lead towards peace or Palestinian statehood. On the contrary, a “peace process” mythology was deliberately cultivated to obfuscate clear shortcomings of the accords themselves, the context in which they were reached and implemented, and the ends toward which these agreements were employed. Analysis of these dimensions ultimately discloses far more problematic—in fact, sinister—agendas, not only of Israel and the US, but the entire Western bloc of states that politically and financially backed, and continue to back, the “peace process.”

One would expect, at the very minimum, that a bona fide peace process would work to at least nominally address and amend the historical sources of conflict between the parties, ending the atrocious human rights situation the Palestinian people have lived in since 1948 within historical Palestine and beyond, with the majority of the population displaced from their land and homes, and those within Palestine existing under conditions of military occupation and hardship since 1948, denied the right to self-determination, etc. But the DOP does not even mention the word “occupation” let alone indicate that a Palestinian state is to be its end game. These suspicious elisions should be read in parallel with the failure to adequately address political critiques of the accords themselves, which were voiced most eloquently at the time by prominent Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. In fact, whole strata of Palestinian intellectuals and elites from most political factions, including some within Fatah, were against the accords, and understood very well that they were taking place within a context of gross power asymmetry. It was also well known that the PLO was politically and financially cornered at the time. The movement’s main international allies —the Eastern bloc and the nonaligned movement—had collapsed by the time of their signing, which was the height of a unipolar world under US hegemony. In this regard, the Oslo process was very much a move on behalf of US imperialism to consolidate an arrangement in its favor, to take advantage of the historical opportunities that had arisen, especially after the 1990-91 Gulf War, when the main Arab funders of the PLO stopped supporting the movement, blaming it for having sided with Iraq—a characterization that wasn’t entirely accurate but one the Arab states used to rid themselves of the Palestinian issue, which they had long sought to do.

If you read the biographies of the main negotiators, it’s very clear that the PLO was also financially bankrupt. Abu Alaa (Ahmed Qurei), for example, who was a negotiator and in charge of the PLO’s finances, recounts in his biography that the organization had less than two months’ funding before it was penniless at the time Oslo was signed. The PLO had already cut 70 percent of its budget for its “state in exile,” and was teetering on the verge of collapse. This financial pressure would also come on the backdrop of a larger historical decline of the movement whereby the PLO had transitioned from a more emancipatory political agenda in its earlier days, towards a “pragmatic” alignment within the “international consensus” by the late 1980s, including accepting the two-state solution and UN resolutions—even though institutions like the UN were gravely implicated in the creation of the Palestinian problem to begin with. So, this sort of rightward shift in Palestinian politics starting in the early 1970s reaches its apex around the time of Oslo, where the PLO was desperate for options that could ensure the movement’s survival. Here, the non-democratic practices that had been institutionalized in the PLO over the years of the movement’s rightward shift, would severely impair Palestinian strategic positioning, insofar as the survival of the personage of Arafat and the rule of the Fatah party over the PLO was equated with the survival of the  movement overall.

Keep in mind that in the early 1990s, the US, through the Madrid Process and the Washington Process, had a formal peace process going, but still considered the PLO a “terrorist entity” that was not recognized by Israel or the US. Independent Palestinian representation in negotiations was thus denied, and still only formally took place through Jordan, which had its own designs on Palestine. Knowing that the PLO was cornered financially and politically—not just from the West, but now from its backers—the US and Israel “put the squeeze on”. Acting through Norwegian diplomacy, the US allowed for the creation of a back door “escape” path for Arafat, through the Oslo channel, where the surrender on important political positions could take place away from public scrutiny or democratic oversight. Through this back channel, the PLO would de facto concede on two significant positions that continue to haunt the movement today. First, it accepted the concept of self-rule in the occupied territories without a full end to the Israeli occupation or guarantees that this was the final outcome of the process. This functionally meant that it was the groundwork for eventually creating an autonomy scenario, with no assurances that the process would lead to statehood or sovereignty. It’s important to underscore here that this was a long-standing aim of the US and Israel, as their own solution to the Palestinian issue. Second, the PLO also accepted through Oslo an agreement that contained no solid guarantees that settlement construction or expansion would end. This too would prove catastrophic as it allowed Israel to build settlements while negotiations continued, changing the strategic map that supposedly was being negotiated.

Did the PLO raise this at all in the talks?

In the case of accepting the principle of autonomy, this was fundamental to the accords and could not be avoided. Either the Palestinians accepted it, or there would have been no accords. From the Palestinian perspective, acceptance of the principle of autonomy was interpreted as accepting a state that was only temporary, without considering if temporariness became permanence. As to the issue of settlements, the PLO believed its ability to obtain a clause within the accords that stressed the agreement of both sides to “not prejudice final status negotiations”—one of which was settlements—meant that they were protected from Israeli settler expansionism. But Israel simply claimed its settlement expansion was due to the “natural growth” of the settler population, because settlers have “large families,” and it was unreasonable to prevent it. Irrespective, while the PLO was aware to varying degrees of the dangers of the agreement and its loose wording that was reliant upon “good intention,” it certainly did not anticipate how Israel would interpret and implement the accords, nor Washington’s wholesale backing of this interpretation/implementation. Perhaps more importantly to stress, though, is the fact that the PLO had very little leverage to change the conditions on offer. The leadership’s very survival and return to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) from exile, was thus seen as the best the movement could achieve under the circumstances, and Oslo allowed for this. So they went with it.

This brief and general description of how some aspects of the accord came about sheds light on how the entire character of the negotiations between the parties resembled a situation whereby Israel was the party which actual held all power, and was internally deciding what it was conceding on and what not, rather than actually negotiating things with the Palestinians. In fact, there is a quote from Shimon Peres in 1994, who said when they were negotiating the economic accords that “we are negotiating with ourselves”—because the Palestinians had zero leverage to influence this internal Israeli debate.

Here we need to shed light on Israeli and US interests as well. We know the Palestinians wanted an end to occupation and their larger demands around national self-determination realized. But Israel and the US always ideologically and strategically rejected Palestinian national self-determination because it represents a strategic competitor to the Zionist narrative and project and was considered part of the “radical Arab national” camp tied to an anticolonial, anti-imperial agenda. Israel and the US were concerned instead with how best to manage the large Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza that Israel “governed” (through military occupation), and which had become increasingly rebellious during the First Intifada,1 and represented a long-term challenge to the principle of the “Jewish democratic state.” The historically dominant political faction in Israel (the Labour Party) that led the Oslo process thus had envisioned “autonomy” for Palestinians as the best way to manage their “Palestinian problem,” at least in the near term, and saw the Oslo process as an avenue for realizing this. Autonomy differed from sovereignty, as it retained Israeli power over the autonomous zones and created a scenario whereby Palestinian affairs could be managed indirectly through a leadership willing to administer autonomy. In other words, it was the logic of subcontracting and leveraging the autonomy leadership to address Israeli security, political, and economic goals, while allowing for Israel to continue its settlement impetus. This was to allow Israel to continue its long-standing policy of attempting to unite the conquests of 1948 with the conquests of 1967. Autonomy allowed for Israel to nominally get the Palestinians off the Israeli “books,” and if the Palestinians didn’t like it, they could simply leave, or might be encouraged to do so, through some means or another.

But it’s important to recognize here that there’s a contradiction in Israeli policy and even in American policy insofar as, on the one hand, Israel and the Americans want the Palestinians off the Israeli books and out of their direct control, financially, demographically, and security-wise, etc., but, on the other hand, they can’t entirely let go of the Palestinians, because doing so creates the basis for the nucleus of a national project and its organizing and strengthening. So US, Israel, and Western donor approaches to Palestine have constantly been structured by this tension of “separation and control.” This has had repercussions on the nature of the entity created through the accords, the Palestinian Authority (PA). It has meant that the PA has been shaped by contradictory forces. It is designed to provide a singular body to cater to Israeli subcontracted needs vis-à-vis the five hundred villages and cities of the West Bank, and the two million people in Gaza. But allowing this singular body to have too much power creates problems for Israel and the US, insofar as it can serve, in theory at least, as the basis of continued Palestinian national aspirations and organizing.

It should also be emphasized of course that the Oslo accords contained no guarantees that the whole process was to be run according to international law or UN resolutions, which were, and are, important cards the Palestinian movement holds, at least morally and legally. But not only was the process not being governed by these principles, but the accords themselves created no forms of independent arbitration within them. If any disagreements arose between the parties during negotiations, the only arbiter Palestinians could defer to was the US, or a committee that Israel also had to agree to. This created a self-referential system, where the Palestinians had no effective leverage to have somebody adjudicate differences independently, according to international legal norms. In this respect, the entire process reproduced all the power asymmetries of the situation on the ground around the negotiations table, and we see that in all aspects of the agreement that came about: in terms of security, economically, politically, etc.

On top of all this, was the mythology built around the Oslo process, which attempted to characterize the process as a bona fide peace process. This came in the form of the historic handshake on the White House lawn, and the provision of Nobel Peace Prizes to Peres, Rabin, and Arafat, which all aided in mystifying this process.2

The real benefit of this, from Israel’s perspective of course, was that Israel was able to pocket the concessions of the Palestinians from the get-go, while the Palestinians were forced to accept an arrangement whereby their national claims could, in theory, one day be addressed in “final status negotiations,” albeit without any guarantees that this would take place in accordance with their legal rights and historical claims. Among the key achievements Israel was able to pocket were: the PLO’s recognition of the state of Israel, and all that meant in terms of “security”; Israel’s realization of an autonomy scenario through the creation of a Palestinian Authority with delimited self-governing powers, with no requirements to turn this into anything bigger; and, just as important, the ending of the international boycott of Israel, which at the time, was much more powerful than the BDS movement today. Consider for a moment that the PLO had more international recognition than Israel before the peace process. This effectively ended with the accords, allowing Israel to integrate into world capital with access to markets in India, China, and beyond. Israel thus pocketed all these important economic, political, and security achievements, and the Palestinians were left hanging on to a process that was toothless to realize their national liberation aspirations. In fact it was designed to abort it. The “separation and control” model that Israel was able to achieve through Oslo effectively laid the cornerstone of implementing apartheid, though the world characterized this as a step towards peace.

It’s also worth highlighting that once Israel pocketed its achievements through Oslo, it had an interest to freeze the process overall, lest it lead to pressure to address Palestinian claims, as the latter hoped. My research has shown that Israel instigated events that created a security pretext, allowing it to freeze the political process with the Palestinians and, moreover, to implement “closure” over Palestinian towns and cities. Closure was not the only answer to Israel’s security dilemmas, but also was a convenient way in which Israel could separate and control Palestinians behind a security pretext, while building settlements in areas from which Palestinians were prevented from now accessing thanks to the accords’ Orwellian division of the territorial map—dividing the OPT into Areas A, B, and C, H1, H2, etc. The Palestinian suicide bombings of the mid-1990s enabled Israel to say, “You know, Israel has to have its security, before it can have peace.” But the suicide campaigns were part of ongoing conflict dynamics on the ground, where far more Palestinians than Israelis were being killed daily during the 1990s. More significantly though, Israel dramatically escalated tensions in the middle of the peace process––assassinating top Palestinian political and grass-roots figures. Some of these assassinations were even against members of Fatah, and thus sent clear messages that Israel intended to do what it wanted on the ground irrespective of the accords and the nominal “peace” it was pursuing. When some Palestinian factions responded to these provocations and attacks, it allowed Israel to put the brakes on the peace process overall, beneath the guise of security, and with the Western states backing them in this freeze. This, of course, generated even more explosive conditions on the Palestinian side, because there were already large doubts amongst the factions and elites regarding the extent to which Oslo could work. Alternatively, Israel’s security pretexts led to scenarios whereby it now sought to negotiate new agreements to implement already existing agreements. The political return for Palestinians was getting less and less, while Israeli leverage over the Palestinians only increased institutionally, and was backed by the Western donor community who were now bankrolling the Palestinians leadership.

When things finally came to a head in the summer of 2000 at the Camp David summit, Arafat was effectively presented with a fait accompli by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and US President Clinton, who pressured him to accept the parameters of a final solution that negated all of the main Palestinian demands—statehood, return, Jerusalem, the end of settlements, etc. When the Palestinian leadership rejected this, Israel and the US effectively reverted to their pre-Oslo approach to the Palestinians, boxing them in and smearing them as “not a partner to peace.”

Then, the Israeli government allowed one of Israel’s biggest war criminals—Ariel Sharon, architect of some of the worst massacres in Palestinian history—to enter the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, in yet another major provocation. It is this act—together with sending thousands of police the next day to the compound during Friday prayers, killing seven worshippers—that ignited the Second “Al Aqsa” Intifada. It is this context that allowed Israel to further entrench the system it created through Oslo, and eventually to get rid of the pretense of negotiating with the Palestinians at all.

Here it is worthwhile noting the cunningness of what took place when seen in a historical perspective: beneath the guise of a peace process Israel and the Western donor community, led by the US, facilitated Arafat to build the Palestinian Authority under extremely politically sensitive conditions for the Palestinians, based upon vague notions that it could lead to the achievement of Palestinian rights. In his weakness, Arafat accepted the role of going down this path, even though the principle of “self-governance under occupation” had been rejected by the PLO since the 1970s, and was seen as treasonous. The creation of the Palestinian Authority, however, was not designed to lead toward a Palestinian state, but toward its prevention and that of other Palestinian rights. Only Arafat had the ability to build the PA under these sensitive conditions, and he was to be exploited by donors and Israel toward that end. Arafat’s personal charisma and historical legitimacy supposedly insulated the process from being accused of conceding on Palestinian rights and being a collaborator government. However, once he rejected the political diktats of Camp David, he no longer was considered a “partner to peace,” but became an “accomplice to terror.” Moreover, Israel used the Second Intifada to pull out the guns, and basically eradicate any institutional, political, or military resistance to their aims—on the popular level, and within the PLO, as well as within the leadership, including ultimately Arafat himself.

This is where the World Bank and Western donors come in, because in the early period—1993 to 2000—the donors funneled billions of dollars into the Authority, some on-budget and some off-budget, so that Arafat could create the PA and “buy-in” from sufficient sectors of the population, and particularly local Fatah organs, into the Authority to be the governing party. He needed this money to carry out the controversial task of constructing an authority under such sensitive conditions. Once he became a political enemy of the Israelis however, donors stopped funding him, and the World Bank and the IMF came in and accused Arafat of corruption and lack of “good governance.” In truth, it was the donors themselves who actually facilitated the “corruption,” because it was they who facilitated off-budget accounting and “buy-ins.”

Arafat thus became politically expedient after his rejection of the Camp David diktats and after he constructed the PA, the main apparatus implementing autonomy. After that he was killed—first politically as “not a partner of peace,” then institutionally by the World Bank and IMF, who forced institutional reforms on the PA which marginalized him from the apparatus of the authority. While his final physical elimination is still shrouded in mystery, focusing on his actual death overlooks the significance of the elimination of Arafat historically, politically, and institutionally.3 Death through assassination simply ensured that this was permanent.

It is worth underscoring how the World Bank and IMF used neoliberal theories around good governance to push reforms of the PA from 2000 to 2004 that marginalized Arafat from the structure that only he could have created. These supposed reforms entailed the creation of the position of prime minister (which was then filled by Mahmoud Abbas—also known as Abu Mazen) and the redirection of all funds to an IMF-audited Ministry of Finance account, away from the powers of the President (Arafat). The World Bank and the IMF pressured Arafat to agree to all these “reforms,” which he did, believing they would ensure his political survival. In truth, they laid the grounds for his elimination, while clarifying the line of succession for who would follow him.

During my research I came across classified documents from 1993, just around when the Oslo process was taking place, which reveal that the US government used a kind of “game theory” to analyze who would be the winners and losers of the Oslo process under different potential scenarios. Here the US backed scenarios that, according to their own analysis in these documents, would lead to Israel and Jordan becoming the institutional winners of the Oslo process. This means that not only was peace, statehood, or justice never in the cards for the Palestinians, but that the US never really changed its position vis-à-vis the movement, and believed in scenarios that ultimately saw Israel and Jordan being the real mediators and governors of Palestinian claims, indirectly leveraged through the PA. These powers never cared for Palestinian nationalism, a Palestinian state, or a genuine independent Palestinian leadership. The process overall was not supposed to lead to statehood; it was supposed to allow Israel to continue to dominate the West Bank and Gaza, while facilitating the management of the “Palestine problem” through some form of Jordanian-Palestinian mix of powers locally on the ground. In practice, the accords have indeed led to Israel “winning” institutionally, while the role of Jordan has also become increasingly important. In fact, the Trump administration has begun to actively float the idea of reviving a Jordanian suzerainty over the Palestinians.

So, this whole process, with Arafat’s marginalization, accelerated the transformation of the Palestinian leadership, which came to play a different role. Maybe you can talk a little about that, as well as what it reveals about the class divisions in Palestinian society.

It’s important to emphasize that donors wanted the Fatah party to be the only viable political entity that could play the role of administering the self-governing areas within the Palestinian Authority-Oslo arrangement. Fatah was seen as a secular nationalist party, very much aligned with the regional order of “moderate Arab states.” Donors identified Arafat as politically controllable, because Fatah’s ideology did not believe in interference in internal Arab affairs and did not hold to larger ideological socialist, communist, or Islamist ideology. It was very much a pragmatic movement. So, Fatah was identified by both the Arab regional order and the West as the party to take charge. Oslo facilitated this Fatah domination of the Palestinian Authority structure. Moreover, Arafat always attempted to run the PLO within a neo-patrimonial logic—namely, with himself as the charismatic leader at the top, personifying everything within his person and his brilliance (or non-brilliance!) and avoiding the creation of institutions with democratic controls. This ensured his maneuverability on top. His methods of rule also crucially relied upon control over finance, with his personal signing of checks used to pay a layer of various Fatah elites who could control the show on the local level for him. Donor financing of Arafat allowed donors to get in on this game as well. Occupying the commanding financial heights over the PA donors essentially gave Arafat political and financial “rope” to construct the PA as a crucial apparatus necessary for managing Israel’s “Palestinian problem.” When these powers moved against him, taking away that rope, it was crucial to save the baby from the bath water. Eliminating Arafat however was necessary since his continued survival meant that he might radicalize, once he was boxed out.

Abu Mazen had his own political differences with Arafat, particularly because he believed Arafat was an opportunist. Indeed, that Arafat spoke out of both sides of his mouth. On one hand, he was not naive to Israeli and US intentions, and this is important to say, because part of his legacy is that people say Arafat was a collaborator and did all of these things for the Israelis. Fair enough: there was security coordination with Israel and he did agree to Oslo, etc. But on the other hand, when the Second Intifada happened, partly out of fear of losing the “streets,” Arafat did not attempt to crush the uprising in rivers of blood, as he was requested to do by Israel and the Western powers. Instead, he actually covertly allowed for a military dynamic to develop within parts of Fatah, with that task basically taken up by Marwan Barghouti, who at the time was Secretary General of Fatah in the West Bank. Although it was never Arafat’s intention to engage in an open military campaign, and it had more to do with him not wanting to lose the street, and looking to making tactical gains to improve the Palestinian strategic position in negotiations, it is important to acknowledge that Arafat was mercurial and not under anyone’s thumb, particularly. Ultimately, Israel launched a massive military campaign that went after the entire nationalist camp engaged in the Intifada and attempted to crush it, with moderate success. The reconstruction of the post-Arafat PA thereafter was to be much more strictly controlled by donors and Israel, with World Bank and IMF reforms facilitating that. But the point to emphasize is that Arafat tried to play both sides, attempting to survive on both the international stage and on the local stage, under impossible conditions.

Abu Mazen felt Arafat’s approach was flawed, and a strategic mistake. He didn’t feel that armed struggle had any enduring political relevance for the Palestinians after it had played its historical role during the movement’s early years. Instead, he felt that the movement needed to invest strategically in nonmilitary means, because, in his logic—and there is a basis to it—Israel would love to destroy the Palestinian movement and wipe it out. Military struggle, in the context of such gross power asymmetries and the war-on-terror logic that was prevalent at the time (and which preceded it as well), would give the basis for Israel to use its overwhelming power to crush the Palestinian movement. So, Mazen was strategically against militarism. This of course was popular with donors, plus he was no less a neo-patrimonial leader than Arafat. He too needed funds and could be allotted political and financial “rope” of his own to perform the task of administering the autonomy scenario. But his ability to take control and perform this task effectively in the context of the denouement of the Intifada was complicated.

The international community’s attempts to consolidate a new post-Arafat era by supporting elections in 2006 resulted in the massive victory of Hamas in the Legislative Council elections. This was a catastrophic failure for donors, who correctly understood it as a threat to the entire Oslo project. Their only way to deal with it was to back Israel’s moves to isolate and crush Hamas, preventing it from taking power. All the high-toned theory used to justify good governance, elections, and democracy so as to marginalize Arafat, was now thrown out of the window by the donors. They reverted to directly financing the presidency (under Abu Mazen’s control) rather than the institution of the prime minister (which they pushed to create) and the ministry of finance, because both were expected to be under Hamas control after elections. Let’s not forget that the CIA also got involved and tried to instigate a coup against Hamas, ultimately leading to the division of the West Bank and Gaza under different Palestinian leaderships. Donors then began to pour finance into the West Bank, while cutting off Gaza and backing Israel’s aggressive siege and military maneuvers there.

When we thus talk about the larger question of the transformation of political leadership of the Palestinian movement, what we essentially see is Fatah and Abu Mazen fighting for their political survival, and being kept afloat by donor aid and the cronyistic arrangements they were able to erect locally.  But because they are tied to the Oslo process and tied to its financial lines, Palestinians can see little return from backing it politically any more, if ever they did so in the first place. (Let’s recall, Oslo never had a local referendum, let alone a national one). This political bankruptcy led inevitably to the emergence of new political actors on the scene, attempting to fill the political and leadership vacuum. Hamas played this historical role, given its  headstart as the most viable political alternative to Fatah at the time, that already had an anti-Oslo agenda, that had independent financial lines, and that also developed a military potential during the Second Intifada. Moral and political legitimacy increasingly shifted towards Hamas, which filled the massive hole in Palestinian politics created by the failure of Fatah and its bet on the Oslo process to fulfill Palestinian rights, not to mention the weakness of Palestinian left forces, which is another discussion.

One should bear in mind that the Hamas/Fatah division is actually of great benefit for Israel, because it essentially lets it off the hook for engaging in negotiations. Moreover, Israel actually has different strategic interests in the West Bank and Gaza, and has historically approached each territory differently: the West Bank is much more important to Israel ideologically and strategically, while as far as Israel is concerned, Gaza can “sink into the sea,” as Rabin once said. The division, and Israeli and donor fostering of it, has important implications in turn for the Palestinian leadership, and particularly for Abu Mazen, because one of the main cards he has in his hands is that the PLO represents the “sole legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people.” Donors feared Abu Mazen’s weakness and lost political ground to Hamas, and hence ended up more than doubling the amount of aid they give to the PA, even though it was “half” the political territory (without Gaza). This pretty much explains the existing scenario, whereby donors maintain the buoyancy of Fatah and the PA in the West Bank, while Gaza is this territory that is to be contained and beaten, with the “lawn mowed” there every few years so as to prevent the contagion of this model spreading to the West Bank.

The heavy pumping of money into the West Bank entrenched a sclerotic Abbas/Fatah regime, with the expected class dimensions this entails. Moreover, because Fatah is the only power allowed to really operate there, and because the neo-patrimonial logic of Fatah rule is even worse under Abu Mazen, we witness the bloating and degeneration of Fatah. Functionally, governance of the West Bank became a fight between different branches of Fatah over which parts of the movement would enjoy the pie, given that no external party was really going to challenge them. In one village I went to, Fatah had splintered into six different clusters all vying for control over the local municipality. This speaks to the decadent political and financial culture that has been fostered in the West Bank under Abu Mazen and donor backing of him.

Initially under the peace process, there was this mythology that the donors would fund viable economic projects within the logic of a “Marshall Plan” (their words), and which could anchor and nourish political peacemaking. Of course, no Marshall Plan ever materialized. What happened instead was donor support for Fatah elites and its cronyistic system designed to ensure the movement’s survival and administration of autonomy. The only capitalist investment to take place was politically determined (namely filtered through Israeli and donor political and economic interests) and then further filtered by the neo-patrimonial interests of competing Fatah subordinates. Capital was directed toward the most speculative, lazy, and predatory endeavors, given that no “rational” capitalist would invest in a place like the OPT given its political uncertainty, and Israel would not allow any competitive industries to emerge, consistent with its longer historical efforts to “de-develop” the OPT.  This also explains why we see today the evolution of the Authority taking on more and more repressive qualities locally in its control of the West Bank, because it very much sees the West Bank as its last bastion. From the PLO-Fatah-Abu Mazen perspective, they used to control the diaspora and the whole PLO movement, but today don’t control Gaza, and see the West Bank as their last stronghold.

We’re basically at time, so perhaps you could wrap up on where things are going. The strength of the Palestinian movement has always depended on support from other parts of the Arab world, but the Arab uprisings have been pushed back and much of the Middle East is in chaos. So where does that leave the next steps for the Palestinian movement?

The Palestinian movement used to be the flagship movement of the Middle East and of the Arabs—supposedly—but since the Arab revolutionary process in 2010, it has been significantly marginalized, even in nominal terms. The onset of strong regional counterrevolutionary forces, together with the internal political divisions, have also led to an extreme deterioration of the situation. Certainly, Gaza is on the front end of this, in terms of the three military campaigns, getting clobbered in the siege, leading to explosive humanitarian conditions that are the worst in fifty years of occupation without question. So, this explains why Gaza is exploding right now, because there’s no political horizon and the situation on the ground is desperate. Gaza is a poisoned environment: it’s the world’s largest concentration camp, the water is not drinkable, 80 percent of the people are food dependent, and unemployment levels are the highest in the world. The West Bank, though marginally better off economically, is also a churning volcano that is equally unstable, but has no organized political actor to harness these dynamics. This is why the West Bank continues to witness upheavals that fail to gain traction and sustainability towards clear political ends. These efforts are aborted by Israel first, and Fatah second. These dynamics of course are exacerbated by the policies of the Trump administration, and the acceleration of Israeli settler colonial designs on the West Bank, empowered by the former.

The Palestinian movement overall is thus in a moment of genuine political crisis without a clear path forward. The Oslo “bet” failed, while the militarization of the Intifada also failed. Now we see political actors in Gaza experimenting with popular demonstrations and forms of nonviolent protest and struggle that try to reassert the Palestinian movement, and put it back on the political stage. While these struggles are inspirational, and show significant transformations in popular organizing, they have a long way to go, because the movement has so many external enemies and remains divided internally as well. Fatah, in particular, is resisting Hamas gaining political fruit from these actions and seeks to squeeze the movement financially by cutting finances of public sector employees it was still paying in Gaza, for the past decade. Israel and the donors aren’t making any major political concessions on the question of Gaza, either, and simply want to avoid a situation at this stage that spills over to Israel or the West Bank. The main thing we can say at this stage is that we see new shifts in the Palestinian movement to think outside the box of the preexisting structures, and to try and see what is possible by, in part, asserting a new kind of politics, while waiting to see what happens with the revolutionary dynamics in the Middle East.

At this stage, the region’s revolutionary processes are in retreat and are not in a position to support the Palestinians. I find it fascinating that Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh4 gives speeches now in front of political billboards that have Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela on them. This is because Hamas is forced to actively think outside the military model it had relied upon, to try and reassert the human dimension to the Palestinian cause. Here Hamas is not leading, but following the popular grass-roots efforts to rethink Palestinian national activity and its tactics and strategies, with dynamics in Gaza at the forefront.

A significant factor in the success of these efforts will be determined by the extent to which solidarity can be built around this activity internationally and particularly in the West. Here I believe a new periphery of allies can be won to the Palestinian cause, embedded in the new social movements emerging to challenge the Trump agenda and the broader right-wing populist swing we witness globally. It’s helpful to keep in mind that Palestinians are still on their land, still demanding their rights, and still demonstrating a willingness to sacrifice for it. Toward this end, they seek and need political allies that can help them in their effort to reorient their struggle to meet the challenges before them. Without this solidarity, it will be difficult to make significant gains and sustain the momentum of struggle, with its heavy losses. In this regard, building the BDS movement in the West, and educating a new periphery of political actors will be important. Part of doing this will entail making the connection between Israel as a reactionary, pro-US satellite in the Middle East and the role that Israel plays globally, and even in Western capitalism, in terms of the influence in the war on terror, on securitized politics, on domestic policing, etc. We see the Harvey Weinstein case, for instance, and the use of Black Cube, an Israeli consulting firm used by Weinstein to conduct investigations against women who made accusations against him. Cambridge Analytica was also using Black Cube and another Israeli consulting firm, all of which are run by ex-Israeli Mossad and Shin-Bet personnel. All of these technologies and techniques of repression, which are used in typical military engagement theaters, are now being applied in civilian matters to address the concerns of powerful capitalists in the US, together with local government and big government. They have been used against the Palestinians for years, but their migration to the West is bringing the war home, so to speak. Building a movement against this kind of politics will entail building a critique against this logic, in which Israel plays a large part. I think these are some of the important avenues where we can make connections, in addition to the very clear and direct fact that US tax dollars are being used to support Israel, to the tune of more than three billion dollars a year. Since 1948, Israel has received more than 250 billion dollars from Washington, which obviously could have been used toward much better ends domestically.

These are the connections we need to be making in an era characterized by the collapse of the political center, and economic stagnation post-2007. The world economic crisis has created potential to build new movements, and reeducate people, because the traditional structures, narratives, and political constellations that used to run the show are collapsing, delegitimized, and weak. It’s also clear that there is new movement happening at the base. The politics of Palestine needs to be part of these new movements and this new process of reeducation, if we really want to build an alternative to US capitalism, US imperialism in the Middle East, and to finally see an end to this bloodshed, which is to the benefit of Israelis and Palestinians and all the people of the Middle East. Right now, we have a system that’s just aligned around militarism, domination, and colonialism, which is veering domestically towards fascistic, or increasingly nationalistic kinds of politics. It is very scary. So, this is the political challenge before us. Palestine has a lot to offer those movements. It hasn’t left. It’s still there, and it continues to provide an inspiration to become engaged politically and struggle for what you believe. We need to take advantage of the new tools that exist to rebuild our movements, and make success possible. Palestine, and world survival, may depend on it.

Thanks to Adam Fendos for transcribing this interview.

An uprising by Palestinians in the Occupied Territories which began in December 1987.
Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin were respectively the Israeli Foreign Minister and Prime Minister at the time of the Oslo negotiations. Together with Yasser Arafat they were awarded the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.
For the last two years of his life, Arafat was prevented from leaving his Ramallah compound by the Israeli army. In late 2004 he became seriously ill and was allowed to travel to Paris for medical treatment. He died there in November 2004. There has been persistent speculation that he may have been poisoned.
Haniyeh has been the political leader of Hamas since May 2017.
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The legacy of Maoism in India-Review by Samantha Agarwal

Posted by admin On March - 19 - 2019 Comments Off on The legacy of Maoism in India-Review by Samantha Agarwal


India After Naxalbari:
Unfinished History
By Bernard D’Mello
Monthly Review, 2018 · 384 pages · $27.00

The success of a counter-hegemonic challenge to Hindu authoritarian rule in India will require a critical assessment of the successes and failures of the nation’s left forces, including the Maoist movement. The release of Bernard D’Mello’s India After Naxalbari could not be better timed. D’Mello’s tour de force is both a history of modern India and its “rotten liberal democracy,” including the left’s challenge to it, and a fine-grained look at India’s Maoist movement. It combines a sharp historical account with critical analysis, along with some original theoretical insights.

The legacy of princely rule and colonialism following independence left the Indian countryside highly stratified along caste and class lines. D’Mello’s account begins with the post-World War II peasant uprisings that he views as the “precursors” to Maoism in India. In their short lifespan these struggles posed a significant challenge to the power of the former landlord class, along with overturning some of the most pernicious practices of the caste system (such as vetti, the caste-based system of bonded labor in Telangana). The Communist Party of India (CPI) played a leading role in some of these struggles, most notably those of Telangana (1946–51) and Tebhaga (1946–47).

While the armed uprisings of this period had already engendered significant internal divisions within the communist movement, it was not until the following decades that these contradictions became irreconcilable. While D’Mello does not go far into the history of the 1964 split, which resulted in the creation of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), we know that the dominant current in the party was in favor of a parliamentary path to power (“national democratic revolution”) through an alliance with the progressive sections of the Congress Party. By contrast, party dissidents eschewed the parliamentary path in favor of a “peoples’ democratic revolution” through mass work led by the workers and peasantry.

The radical rhetoric of the CPI-M was quickly put to the test—once again by the self-activity of the masses. In March 1967, in the village of Naxalbari (in West Bengal) a revolutionary Krishak Samiti (peasant organization) within the CPI-M undertook a political program to abolish landlordism, including the burning of land records, the looting of food grains, and the seizing of promissory notes and other legal records related to the debt peasants had incurred over the years. Armed with bows, arrows, and spears they formed defense squads and peasant committees, in which women played a prominent role, in several villages. The movement awakened Indian society to the “intolerable conditions of economic oppression and social humiliation” of the poor and landless peasantry (Banerjee).

Meanwhile, the CPI-M, which had for the first time assumed control of the West Bengal state government through a United Front coalition, quickly turned against the revolutionary movement and launched a counterinsurgency. The nascent struggle was no match for the repressive apparatus of the state. Seventeen people were killed, and hundreds more were arrested. The leaders of the Naxalbari uprising and many of its supporters were summarily expelled from the party.

Undeterred, the party rebels went on to form the CPI-ML in 1969 under the leadership of Charu Mazumdar. What was to follow were a series of “Naxalbaris” from roughly 1969 to 1975, which, as D’Mello points out, were fairly heterogenous, including in their level of adherence to the “annihilation of class enemies” line. Perhaps the most controversial of these political eruptions was that of Kolkata 1970–71, where party leaders incited urban youth to destroy all symbols of bourgeois education, including monuments and statues of nationalist writers and poets, and relocate to the countryside to join the class war.

It is in his discussion of the CPI-ML (People’s War), formed in 1980 in the state of Andhra Pradesh as an outgrowth of CPI-ML, that D’Mello provides the clearest exegesis of the theoretical and strategic considerations of the early Maoist movement. The People’s War group, following the ideas of the Chinese Revolution—as formulated by Lin Biao in his 1965 pamphlet—believed that revolution could only be won through a “protracted peoples’ war” (PPW). The PPW would begin with a “new Democratic stage led by the workers in a worker-peasant alliance and could only transition to socialism after taking power at the national level.” This would tactically be built through the formation of revolutionary bases in the countryside from which they “can go forward to final victory.”

As it played out, Maoist praxis looked very different from its theory—and in the first phase of the movement it faced staggering defeat. D’Mello provides a laundry list of reasons for defeat including the “neglect of long, hard and patient underground work that should have preceded the launch of armed struggle,” the neglect of military requirements, the failure to pursue the “mass line” or to build organization among the urban proletariat, and the lack of a democratic process in the movement. But D’Mello seems to understand these outcomes as the result of a failure to adhere closely enough to the principles of the Chinese Communist Party, rather than an inherent contradiction in the strategy itself—a major weakness in D’Mello’s analysis, to which I will return.

During the second “phase” of the Naxalite movement (roughly 1977–2003), D’Mello suggests that the “mass struggle” line—missing from the first period—gained greater purchase. As the Emergency was lifted in 1977, mass organizations affiliated with various offshoots of the Indian Maoist movement including CPI-ML (PW) in AP and CPI-ML (Liberation) and CPI-ML (Peoples Unity) in Bihar began to thrive. Notably, SIKASA, whose base consisted of workers and peasants around the coalfields of Singareni in Northern Telangana, organized not just on issues of the workplace, but also on those of the “hearth” (against-slum demolition) and “bread.” Similarly, MKSSS, part of the CPI-ML (PU), organized Dalit landless laborers against caste-based exploitation, mostly in the Jehanabad subdivision of Gaya District.

Yet the promising mass-based activity of this period quickly degenerated as state reaction and repression intensified. According to D’Mello the “mass organizations were, in effect . . .  driven underground.” Importantly, during the mass activity phase, underground activities—namely the building of a guerilla base in the border areas of Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, and Orissa continued apace. The tactical retreat to these guerilla areas beginning in the 1990s intensified during the “third phase,” taking us up to the present moment. After the 2003 merger of the two largest Maoist outfits (CPI-PW and MCC) under the umbrella of CPI-Maoist, the movement was characterized by episodic guerilla attacks and raids met with heavy state violence. D’Mello displays impressive knowledge of this period of state repression—which has afflicted not only the Maoists and their supporters, but also many more civilians who are unaffiliated with the Maoists—undoubtedly in part thanks to his longstanding participation in India’s civil liberties and democratic rights movements.

Does D’Mello draw the correct conclusions from the history of the Maoist movement? In part, yes. On the question of strategy, he rightly criticizes the Maoists’ overemphasis on armed struggle to the neglect of mass work. But D’Mello does not go far enough in dealing with the difficult question of armed struggle. Although he does not state it clearly in his final chapter “Reimagining New Democracy,” one can gather that the author is of the view that the armed struggle must continue alongside the development of democratic activity. Herein lies his weakness: building up strong, democratic mass movements in any modern society—where the state has an indisputable monopoly of violence—necessitates open political activity. This is particularly true of India where the state has for many years been acting with complete impunity against its “greatest internal security threat”—the Maoists—and mowing down anyone who comes in its way. The embrace of violence prior to the construction of a mass base has foreclosed in many parts of India the possibility of mass-based revolutionary activity. And, as argued by Kunal Chattopadhyay in his excellent article “The Path of Naxalbari” (2010), it paves the way for what Trotsky called “substitutionism”—where the party substitutes itself for the self-activity of the masses.

D’Mello’s other main critique of the Maoists is also accurate. The Maoists completely failed to build up the “workers” part of its peasant-worker unity—in other words, it has no meaningful base among workers in the urban core. Yet, D’Mello could have gone further and considered how this might be accomplished in the future. He recognizes that the Indian labor movement is plagued by the “peculiar differentiation” of the Indian working class along lines of status (regular/casual), caste, religion, ethnic origins, and gender, and also by the ever-expanding reserve army of labor. But how might the Maoists go about bringing together these heterogeneous sections of the Indian proletariat that often display contradictory interests? Clearly this would be a central part of climbing out of the current impasse.

Finally, while the author correctly argues that the future of the Maoist movement must pay more attention to gender, caste, nationality, and religion, he curiously avoids historicizing the Naxalites’ failure to systematically take up these “special oppressions.” Here, one would have to turn to the work of others, such as Krishna Bandyopadhyay (former member of CPI-ML) who contends that the party never took a stand on gender liberation, nor did it develop an adequate mechanism to deal with gender oppression within the party. Rather it peddled the line—common to almost every left party in India— that “women will automatically become free when society is liberated.” Likewise, Sujatha Gidla’s recent book, Ants Among Elephants, illustrates how the Maoists prevented local Dalit leaderships from taking up the mantle of caste annihilation, and how both casteism and sexism were deeply engrained in the internal culture and norms of the party. Grappling with these past blunders is an essential part of building a new and vibrant left.

These omissions aside, India After Naxalbari is required reading not only for those with an interest in Maoism, but also for anyone invested in building a counterforce against India’s neoliberal order and the growing menace of Hindu authoritarianism.
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This web site may contain copyrighted material the use of which we are making only for educational purposes. This is a non -profit web site and does not accept any type of advertisement, paid or otherwise. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance the understanding of humanity’s problems and hopefully to help find solutions for those problems.

We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is only for reading purposes that included information for research and educational purposes. For the original source we are providing “url” of that article which is a ‘fair use’ of anything you find on this web site. However, if you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

1968 and the troubled birth of the Turkish left-Carol Williams

Posted by admin On March - 19 - 2019 Comments Off on 1968 and the troubled birth of the Turkish left-Carol Williams


The 1960s and 1970s were years of the most intense class struggle in modern Turkish history.1 It was a period bookended by two military coups. The first, in 1960, opened up a liberal period in which socialist ideas flourished and working class organisation grew. But politically unstable governments were unable to contain the forces it unleashed. After the warning shot of the 1971 “soft” coup failed to rein them in, the 1980 coup slammed firmly shut the space to organise. The following three years of military rule largely destroyed the left and re-stabilised the system, establishing a less tolerant political atmosphere for the imposition of neoliberalism. A turning point had been marked in 1968, when the student occupation movement politicised a generation of students, pulling many into radical politics. Sparks from the movement ignited the working class, ­transforming the sporadic struggles of the 1960s into protracted industrial action. But the left, dominated by Stalinist and Kemalist politics, drew the young activists into guerrilla warfare and street clashes with fascists and was unable to build out of the confident, combative working class struggles.

The Turkish nation-state was formed out of the decaying Ottoman Empire and declared a republic in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Heading the one-party (Republican People’s Party, CHP), bureaucratic, authoritarian regime, Atatürk set out to fashion, with a series of reforms, a modernised, secular nation in which a capitalist class could develop and take the country into the 20th ­century. In doing so he pitted modernism against “backward” religion and cleaved the nation along ideological lines—Kemalism against Islamism—such that the development of modern Turkey has been carried out as an ideological, and at times physical, tug of war between the two, encapsulated today by the CHP and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But by the time of Atatürk’s death in 1938 there had been little progress, the country remaining poor and undeveloped, relying on agriculture.

The country’s fortunes changed dramatically after the Second World War as Turkey’s access to Soviet shores on the Black Sea via the Turkish Straits made it central to Cold War geopolitics. Having hedged its bets during the war, Turkey now committed firmly to Washington and the West. In accepting the terms of the 1947 Truman Doctrine—aid from the United States in return for democratisation and a liberal economy—the regime that had ruled Turkey since the First World War voluntarily made way for bourgeois democracy and introduced multi-party elections.

In 1950 the opposition Democrat Party (DP), headed by Adnan Menderes, won a landslide election victory that marked major political, economic and social changes. Flush with American money and electoral success, Menderes set out to rebuild Turkey. A 1958 Time article called him “the Impatient Builder”, referring to his frantic building schemes of dams and factories,2 which made the 1950s Turkey’s first period of sustained economic growth and structural development.3

In the second half of the 1950s, the economy faltered, as Menderes’s “planless industrialisation”4 led to huge deficits, massive debts, inflation and a thriving black market, and he began to lose support. In response he cracked down on dissent, even using the Kemalist armed forces against the Kemalist CHP (famously sending in the army to prevent the opposition leader speaking at a regional rally), and appealed to religious sentiment. The CHP had become more tolerant of religion after 1947, but the Democrat Party extended the relaxation of secularism, for example, allowing the return of the Arabic call to prayer and increasing the number of religious schools and the building of mosques. Such moves were seen as diverging from Kemalism. While they increased Menderes’s support in the countryside, they struck fear into the hearts of the intelligentsia and military.

On the morning of 27 May 1960 junior officers of the armed forces staged a coup. A statement announcing the military takeover was broadcast over the radio by General Alparslan Türkeş, who would later go on to build the Turkish fascist movement. Menderes’s Democratic Party was banned and he and two other ministers were hung for treason. The president was imprisoned and the military and universities were purged.

The coup was a watershed. Uncharacteristic of military coups but in concert with the general global trend of Keynesianism and consensus politics of the time, the new 1961 constitution liberalised the political system, allowing for the formation of socialist, but not communist, parties. But the CHP was unable to benefit from the liberalised atmosphere. In the 1965 elections the Democrat Party resurrected itself as the Justice Party (JP), headed by Süleyman Demirel, an engineer in charge of dam building under Menderes, and won 52.9 percent of the vote to the CHP’s 28.7. Demirel represented a new layer of the bourgeoisie, the self-made men from the countryside and the fast-growing provincial towns (the DP had been more city based).

The economic downturn of the late 1950s was brief and growth returned and increased throughout the 1960s. With a series of five-year plans that pushed import-substitution industrialisation (ISI) policies, the industrial sector grew steadily at an average of 10 percent per year.5 “By the end of the 1960s, the character of Turkey’s economy and society had changed almost beyond recognition”.6 In 1945 nearly 85 percent of employment was in agriculture and just over 15 percent in industry and services. By 1970, agricultural employment had nearly halved to just under 47 percent while the numbers employed in industry and services more than tripled to just over 53 percent.7 The modernisation of agriculture, including the importation of thousands of tractors and a growing road system financed by the Marshall Plan, sent migrants, mainly Kurds,8 flocking from the countryside to the major towns and cities, in particular Istanbul and Ankara. Between 1950 and 1960 some 1.5 million (1 in 10 villagers) migrated and the population of the four largest cities increased by 75 percent.9

In addition to these material changes to people’s lives, the American military presence was highly visible in all areas of the country. Under the Truman Doctrine the US took over financial support for Turkish military modernisation from Britain. Over the 1950s as well as the İncirlik Air Base, where strike aircraft armed with tactical nuclear weapons were stationed and which continues to be a NATO base, other military bases, radar stations, communications nodes and naval facilities were constructed all over the country. In addition was the Sixth Fleet based in the Mediterranean which, in the late 1960s, ­consisted of “more than 4,000 sailors stationed on two attack carriers with more than 150 combat aircraft, escort ships, nuclear submarines, an amphibious task force and supportive service ships”10 which made regular rest and relaxation stops at Turkish ports. “By the late 1960s, there were almost 30,000 US military personnel on Turkish territory. For a country which was proud that it had never fallen under the colonial yoke, this was no small feat”.11 The extent of the American military presence gave a visible focus to the resentment of US involvement in Turkey’s economic and political life and became the target of protests in the 1960s.

The left

Before the First World War there existed in Turkey a vibrant, multi-ethnic left that was destroyed by the Armenian genocide and the expulsion of the Greek population. The left that emerged in the 1960s was no reflection. The ideas that dominated throughout the period were a product of the Kemalist state and the Stalinist regime, a synthesis of Kemalism and Stalinism.

The relaxation of censorship under the new constitution saw a flourishing of left-wing literature, newspapers and journals, and translations of texts from Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin and Mao Zedong, as well as Harold Laski, John Strachey, Roger Garaudy and Herbert Marcuse.12 The major discussion on the left throughout the decade was how Turkey could develop and what forces could lead that process. The entire debate was framed in Kemalist terms of development—ridding the country of feudal, backward forces of reaction—and independence from US imperialist interests that were holding the country back.

With communist parties still banned, the Turkish Communist Party (TKP) operated abroad as a foreign bureau of Moscow throughout the 1960s. Despite its distance, however, its Stalinist politics were to play a central role through the next two decades and key members, unable to operate openly as communists, joined the first legal socialist party, the Turkish Workers’ Party (TİP). TİP was initially set up in February 1961 by a group of trade unionists with the intention of “bringing all workers together in a single party to save them from being controlled by other political parties”.13 A year later, without the weight of a mass movement behind it, TİP stalled and Mehmet Ali Aybar, a well-known left intellectual and lawyer, was approached to head the party. He attracted other intellectuals, most notably Sadun Aren, Behice Boran and Mihri Belli, all ex-TKP, and fashioned the party into a reformist, electoral machine.

TİP was distinct and radical in two ways. It was the first class-based party representing the working class (contrary to the Kemalist notion of populism, which denied the existence of class). This forced other parties to reassess their class basis, particularly the CHP which, after TİP’s electoral gains in 1965, made a swift left turn rebranding itself as left of centre. TİP’s second unique feature was contrary to the Kemalist ideal of nationalism: it embraced the Kurdish issue, providing a political home for Kurdish socialists and students and integrating for the first time the Kurdish movement with the left.14 TİP challenged the secularism/Islamism dichotomy that Kemalism had created. But rather than make a clear break with Kemalism, the party instead insisted it was Kemalism’s true face.

TİP’s programme was based on Kemalist concerns that the backwardness of the countryside and the uneducated villages constituted an ever-present threat of reaction. In order to create the conditions to eradicate feudal elements and educate the countryside, economic development was of prime importance. Key to achieving this was economic and political independence from the US, which had restrained Turkey’s industrial development by prioritising its comparative advantage in agriculture. It argued for an economy run by the state in the ­interests of working people.

However, ideological differences within the leadership of TİP meant it was never able to create a united perspective and it was confused over key concepts of socialism, class and party. This left it vulnerable and within it a strong Stalinist faction, led by Belli, developed. It argued for a national democratic revolution (NDR) to overthrow feudal elements and complete the Kemalist “revolution”.

In many ways the NDR line was the same as TİP’s focus on development based on independence from the US. The major difference, however, was that of agency. For the NDR, the tiny working class, still in the initial stages of developing class consciousness and organisation, could not bring about socialism in Turkey. Believing the Kemalist armed forces were progressive, they insisted on an authoritarian, top-down military regime to implement and run socialism and argued the time was ripe for such a move—the army had proved its credentials in the recent coup.

Aybar argued vociferously against a military intervention, counterposing the NDR line with a “socialist revolution” (SR). While the 1960 coup had resulted in a more open society, he believed another coup would result in fascism. But a more class-based, theoretical opposition came from Boran who argued there can be no short-cut to socialism. For her, socialism required the active participation of the people:

According to the advocates of a “short-cut”, popular support can be maintained by doing things that benefit people and that would eventually become a people’s rule. Those who support such views misunderstand that rule of the people, as they take it as the passive support of the people… A regime that really depends on the people, however, is a form of regime where the people actively participate in all decision-making processes, in governing, the preparation of reforms and their execution.15

Boran was unique in this period in having some conception of contradictory consciousness. She argued that without a long-term struggle to organise and generate working class consciousness, any authoritarian regime “would have to deal with the masses who would cling to their old political beliefs and traditions…and as the masses would have to make economic sacrifices when realising reforms, how would they then support this new regime?”16 But, however radically sections of TİP spoke, their programme and strategy was determinedly reformist. TİP’s democratic socialist revolution would be won through participation in parliamentary politics.

In 1965 TİP won an unexpected 3.2 percent (270,000 votes) and 15 seats in parliament. This was a substantial success for such a new party and Aybar proclaimed “never before has a socialist party taking part in elections for the first time won so many seats”.17 Socialist representation in parliament for the first time created an electric atmosphere among the left. But the reality was that TİP’s vote was very small. The 15 MPs were the result of an election system that favoured small parties—an anomaly of an arrangement designed to prevent ­authoritarianism. (After TİP entered parliament the electoral system was swiftly changed, contributing to TİP’s much reduced vote in 1969.)

The success and weakness of TİP’s election results gave Belli the confidence to attempt a coup at the party’s third congress in 1966 in Malatya. In a very heated and public faction fight, he fought for the NDR perspective. When put to the vote Aybar won and the NDR faction was expelled, but the party came out of the congress severely weakened. Belli began a new journal, The Turkish Left (Türk Solu), which brought together all those opposed to the official party line, and used it to attack Aybar. The internal divisions that would prise TİP apart in the heat of 1968, under the pressure of first the militancy of the student movement and then the invasion of Czechoslovakia, had been exposed.18

Rising tensions

In the shift from Atatürk’s one-party regime in 1946 to multi-party democracy, the ban on trade unions was lifted, although the right to strike remained outlawed. In 1952 many unions came together in the Confederation of Turkish Trade Unions (Türk-İş), formed with funds, advice and training from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the American Federation of Labour. From the start the American-styled Türk-İş declared itself a “non-political union”, emphasising its “absolute independence” from political parties and commitment to nationalism, even banning union officials from taking official positions in political parties.19

In the more open atmosphere following the 1960 coup, the growing working class was confident and militant. The first sign of this militancy and the developing organisational strength of trade unions came just six months after the new constitution was approved. The 1961 constitution included the right to strike but there were delays in passing it into law. In December, 100,000 workers from the most industrialised centres of Turkey marched in six columns to Saraçhane, Istanbul, for a mass meeting to protest against the delays, chanting slogans such as “strikes are a right not a favour” and “a trade union without strikes is like an army without guns”.

Union organisation developed steadily throughout the 1960s. In 1961 there were 511 unions with a little under 300,000 members. By 1970 there were 737 unions with nearly 820,000 members.20 Throughout the decade the number of strikes and strikers involved in action steadily grew.21 A clear sign of workers’ militancy was the number of unofficial strikes, which one estimate (there are no official figures) puts at 38 involving 70,000 strikers between 1963 and 1968, many of them taking place in larger factories of over 1,000 workers.22

In this increasingly militant atmosphere, the Türk-İş leadership’s ­determination to maintain good relations with employers and government was repeatedly exposed. One example was the Kozlu strike in the Zonguldak mining region in 1965 when 6,000 miners walked out in protest at unequal distribution of bonuses and barricaded the mine for three days. Security forces attacked, shooting dead two miners. Rather than defend the miners, the Türk-İş leadership denounced the strike as illegal and accused strikers of being communist provocateurs.23 From 1965 the number of trade unions leaving Türk-İş grew and it was becoming increasingly clear that many among the rank and file no longer trusted the federation.24

Resentment with Türk-İş came to a head in 1966 with the strike of 2,200 workers at the Paşabahçe glass works in Istanbul. A union at the plant attempted to break an existing agreement but Türk-İş did a deal with management. Ignoring the official Türk-İş position, five unions formed a strike support committee25 and raised a substantial 46,000 lira and 10 tons of fruit in solidarity.26 At the end of the strike the leadership suspended the unions for their role; four of them went on to establish an alternative organisation, the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions (DİSK), in February 1967.

The formation of DİSK was an important development in the workers’ movement. It grew rapidly in private sector factories that had grown in the 1950s and 1960s concentrated in the big industrial centres of Istanbul, İzmir and İzmit in the west of the country. Türk-İş membership remained concentrated more in the old state industries that grew in the 1930s, in steel, textiles, cement, coal and sugar which, due to state planning, had been distributed around the country. After DİSK’s formation there was a sharp increase in the number of strikes and growth in unofficial strikes, many of them struggles to join a union affiliated to DİSK.

While the working class was finding its feet, the student movement was taking an active and militant role in national politics throughout the 1960s. The student movement was born an ideological movement, an ally of the Kemalist bureaucracy.27 In Atatürk’s newly forged nation-state, schools and universities were not only about producing the future elite, they were also important in instilling in the youth their role as defenders of the nation. In his 1927 “Address to Youth” Atatürk appealed to youth to defend the nation not only from foreign invaders but also from national leaders who “may unite with the political ambitions of the invaders for their personal interests… Your first duty is to protect and defend forever Turkish independence and the Turkish Republic… The strength that you will need is present in the noble blood that flows through your veins!”. Such was the import of the elite role delegated to youth that some see them as a distinct “caste” in Turkish society.28 It is little wonder that the power of this message struck a chord with students at key junctures.

Student confidence to take up the role Atatürk had vested in them had already been boosted when a mass student protest in defence of university autonomy appeared to spark the 1960 coup. A proposal from the Menderes government in February 1960 for political science faculties to come under the Ministry of Education provoked a major student demonstration on 28 April 1960, which police attacked, shooting one student dead. The protests spread to Ankara and on 11 May the Military Academy and thousands of universities and high school students took to the streets. It was two weeks later that the military took control of the country. The coup had been planned for some time and whether or not it was sparked by the student protests, their proximity to the coup makes it easy to appreciate the students’ sense of agency in affecting political change.

Students increasingly took to the streets to intervene in national politics as defenders of the Kemalist project. In 1962, 10,000 protested in Istanbul against the suggestion of amnesty for the DP ministers of the deposed government and again in 1963 at the proposed release of the deposed president Celâl Bayar from jail. In response to the Cyprus crisis in 1964, when the US intervened to prevent Turkish forces invading Cyprus in defence of the Turkish population, tens of thousands of students protested in Istanbul calling for the “army to Cyprus” and 20,000 in Ankara where they stoned the Greek embassy.

The discussions being carried out on the left regarding the road to Turkey’s development and, crucially, its independence from imperialist forces struck a chord with student Kemalism. TİP’s electoral success in 1965 and its persistent challenges in parliament regarding the scale of the US military presence gave it a growing influence among students. TİP set up a student organisation, the Ideas Clubs, under the umbrella of the Confederation of Ideas Clubs (FKF), as an alternative to the staid and “semi-corporatist” student unions.29 FKF grew rapidly and TİP members won all the elections. Under the influence of TİP’s more radical politics students began to take more direct action.

In 1965 students at Istanbul University began a “Use Turkish Oil” campaign, accusing the US of “exploiting” Turkey, and a month later a boycott saw Coca-Cola banned in university canteens. Such was the students’ concern for the national economy that when petrol workers announced a strike, 5,000 students occupied the headquarters of the petrol workers’ union demanding the strike be postponed as it would damage the competitiveness of Turkish oil.30

Throughout 1967 TİP became more influential in student politics and, through the FKF, its student activists were able to pull around them wider groups of students. But TİP’s embrace of Kemalism pandered to the students’ nationalism. In the second half of 1967 the Sixth Fleet visits to Istanbul and İzmir became a target for students. At the end of June, 4,000 demonstrated in Istanbul, with the slogan “Army and youth, hand in hand”, and in October students attacked US soldiers in İzmir. The return of the Cyprus issue in November 1967 saw left-wing students join a right-wing protest of 100,000. While the right-wing slogans attacked Greece and Cypriots, the left attacked both US imperialism for preventing the Turkish government from intervening and the Turkish government for its passivity and kowtowing to US imperialism.31

TİP’s influence among the students would not last, however. Its passive, reformist commitment to parliament meant its influence among students would be seriously challenged in the heat of 1968.


The electrical sparks of student struggle that jumped from terminal to terminal across Europe in the spring of 196832 struck Turkey in June and ignited the tensions that had been building throughout the decade, first among students and the following year among the working class. The Turkish press had been following in detail the European student uprisings and alarm was raised about their similarity with the student complaints in Turkey. The country was “waiting for the uprising”33 and it broke unexpectedly in one of the most apolitical faculties on 10 June. A group of students at the Language, History and Geography Faculty of Ankara University surrounded the head of the Student Union demanding changes to the examination system. A student called out “Let’s boycott!”, “Let’s do what the students are doing in Europe!” “Without any organisation or instruction, suddenly, as if previously planned in detail, around a hundred students spread out around the exam rooms calling on students to leave. It was as if they had been waiting for the call. Suddenly the exam rooms were emptied”.34

News of this spontaneous occupation and the support it had received reached Istanbul. Two days later Deniz Gezmiş, an activist who would become a legendary figure on the Turkish left, strode into a lecture theatre in the Law Faculty of Istanbul University and gave a rousing speech calling for support for the Ankara occupation—the lecture theatre emptied. Within days the occupation movement had spread throughout most universities, technical schools, private academies and teacher training institutions. Demands centred on university reforms, both general, for example, freezing university fees and the inclusion of students in the university administration, and local, for example, Istanbul University students demanded cheap, set course books and an end to oral exams.35 Right-wing students attempted to attack the occupations but these initial attacks were small, unorganised and easily fought off. On the whole these first occupations were met with some sympathy from public opinion and the CHP initiated discussions on university reforms. University adminstrations conceded many of the demands, bringing the occupations to an end by the end of June.

The spontaneity of the occupations wrong-footed the TİP dominated FKF, which had been planning a series of modest campaigns for the autumn, and it hesitated about whether to take part, sparking accusations of passivism from NDR students. Within a few days, however, the FKF re-orientated and took a leading role that was to make it the leading student organisation.36 But its hesitation exposed tensions within the movement that were to be central to the first splits.

The movement broadened the discussions among students, from university reforms to national problems, particularly the fight against American imperialism. The ideological confusion within TİP, however, was reflected in the student organisation, with divisions between supporters of Aybar’s SR line and Belli’s NDR. In the FKF these differences were expressed in base terms between passivity and militancy: with a focus on parliament, SR students argued for peaceful protest; with a more revolutionary perspective, the NDR students encouraged militancy. In an atmosphere of growing confidence, having successfully occupied their universities and fought off right-wing attacks, the militancy of the NDR students began to resonate with students and protests began to take on a harder edge, and attract a more violent response.

On 15 July students attacked US sailors in Istanbul in several separate incidents, resulting in 15 arrests. A protest against the arrests was followed by a 4.30am police raid on a student dormitory in Istanbul. During the raid a student was either pushed or fell from a window and died from his injuries a few days later. On 17 July in an angry protest at the police attack and the visiting Sixth Fleet, around 1,000 students gathered outside the campus in Istanbul near Taksim Square. TİP student leaders tried to hold back the militant mood and argued not to march the one kilometre down to Dolmabahçe where the Sixth Fleet was docked. The fighting talk of NDR students, however, connected with the mood and the angry protest marched to the dock, where a number of US sailors were thrown into the sea and the fleet was forced to leave. The incident became symbolic of the tenacity of the student movement.

At the beginning of the new academic year in the autumn of 1968, as it became clear the administrations had failed to implement the demands of the summer, a second wave of occupations hit the universities. They were still spontaneous but were now led by socialist students and began with more radical demands: rather than “revolution in education”, the demand was now “education for revolution”. (It should be borne in mind, however, that the revolution most students had in mind was that of Kemalism.) Alarmed at the continued radicalism, the right wing increased their attacks, and this period saw the beginning of violent clashes on the campuses as left-wing students defended themselves against fascist violence.

The growth of the far right

The occupation movement of June had burst into an electric atmosphere fuelled by events in Europe. Their spontaneity and rapid escalation alarmed the right wing which led attacks on the occupations. While at first small and disorganised, they were the beginning of what was to become a 10-year period of fascist organisation, mobilisation and growth.

The fascist movement was built by Türkeş, the pan-Turkist and Hitler supporter who had made the radio announcement of the 1960 coup. He headed the fascist National Action Party (MHP) and formed its paramilitary wing known as the Grey Wolves.

From 1968, the “Grey Wolves” (Bozkurtlar) were increasingly in evidence in the streets of the larger cities, particularly Ankara and Istanbul. Numbering between several hundred to a few thousand, their uniformed marches and demonstrations and their violent clashes with leftist groups attracted much interest in the press… which did not fail to draw comparisons with fascist and Nazi youth groups.37

In August of that year the existence of commando training camps came to light, where, Türkeş claimed, 1,000 young men were being trained in street fighting to combat the communists.38 While Türkeş was responsible for the growth of the fascist movement in Turkey, it was the US that was responsible for Türkeş himself. He had been enlisted by the US under Operation Gladio, a covert NATO operation during the Cold War creating “stay-behind” armies to support official NATO forces in the event of Soviet invasion and to counter internal enemies. Türkeş’s Special Warfare Department, formed in 1965, is considered to be the one of the key founding organisations of Turkey’s “deep state”.39

It was not only fascists who attacked the student occupations. Right-wing Islamists, encouraged by the anti-communist rhetoric of Demirel’s Justice Party (AP, successor of the Democrat Party), often joined the Grey Wolves in their attacks. On 23 July, on the eve of anti-US demonstrations planned by teachers and students in the small town of Konya in mid-west Turkey, a group of 3-4,000 far-right Islamists rampaged through the town attacking teachers’ associations, left-wing bookstores, the local newspaper, casinos and night clubs.40

The birth of the revolutionary left

A further explosion of student occupations erupted in 1969 with regular university closures and increasingly violent right-wing attacks on campuses. Police were regularly called in to make arrests and search for weapons, making hauls of sticks, guns, Molotov cocktails and even dynamite. By the autumn, the attacks had become shoot-outs and a number of students were killed. In February 1969, on what would become known as “Bloody Sunday”, a protest of 20-30,000 students and trade unionists against another Sixth Fleet visit was attacked by 10,000 Islamists and fascists with sticks and knives killing two and injuring 200.41 Throughout 1969-70 the Grey Wolves increased their attacks on the left, resulting in thousands of deaths on both sides.

At the beginning of 1969 the NDR students were pulling the FKF into more militant actions, for example burning the car of US ambassador Robert Komer. The increasing number of demonstrations, particularly over Sixth Fleet visits, increased tensions between SR students who wanted to keep the protests peaceful and NDR students who were pushing for each demonstration to become a confrontation. At the fourth FKF Congress in October 1969 NDR students took control of all positions, expelled SR students and renamed the organisation Dev-Genç (Revolutionary Youth). But while the militant rhetoric of the NDR had found an echo among students frustrated by the passivity of parliamentary politics, as the violence increased the militant students found themselves increasingly alienated from the main student body. This became clear in March 1970 when attempts to organise events to celebrate the Independence War of 1919-23 were overshadowed by further fascist attacks, shootings, police raids and university closures. What was to have been a mass demonstration brought just 3,000 together at Istanbul University; it was cancelled when it was known that fascists were waiting to attack. It was the end of student politics. Campuses had become war zones. Activists now looked beyond the universities to the growing workers’ and peasant struggles.

The NDR takeover of the FKF at the end of 1969 not only ousted the SR from student leadership. It also exposed a split within the NDR that had been growing throughout the year, the basis of which was the NDR’s inconsistent practical radicalism—leading and pushing militant actions—combined with its view that the revolution would be carried out by radical soldiers.42 This left a passive role for the youth who were simply to prepare the conditions for the army to act. As the student movement escalated, radical students influenced by the ideas of Che Guevara, Carlos Marighella and Régis Debray as well as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao took a leading role. Together with the active role ascribed to students by Kemalism in defending the nation and the increasing confidence they had gained from leading occupations and taking up arms against fascist attack, they began to see their self-organisation as the basis for a revolutionary movement, and the ideas of Latin American guerrilla tactics became increasingly attractive.

One student leader who arose from the occupation movement was Mahir Çayan, a Maoist who stressed the need for an autonomous revolutionary party. He led a split from NDR and formed the People’s Liberation Party-Front of Turkey (THKP-C) in 1970. The need for self-organisation was supported by another group around Gezmiş, more influenced by Guevarism, which argued the vanguard party would arise from the revolutionary army. They left the NDR and formed the Turkish Peoples’ Liberation Army (THKO). The remaining NDR followers stood behind Doğu Perinçek (who today leads the nationalist Patriotic Party—Vatan Partisi), from which a group led by İbrahim Kaypakkaya, the Revolutionary Workers’ and Peasants’ Party of Turkey (TİİKP), was later to split. Kaypakkaya was also a Maoist and the only leading activist to break fundamentally with Kemalism.

The idea of a peasant war was encouraged by an outbreak of land occupations which drew the young Maoist activists, who helped organise demonstrations and meetings. In the village of Atalan occupations called for the equal distribution of state land controlled by six large landowners, in Urfa peasants occupied and planted state land, and in Söke 100 villages occupied to demand land reform. Throughout 1971 and 1972 the guerrilla groups carried out a series of attacks, kidnapping US military personnel in order to protest against the US presence and staging bank robberies to fund the “peoples’ war”. But just as the young revolutionaries were taking to the countryside, the working class was beginning to organise.

The workers move

The energy and confidence of the 1968 student movement fed into the workers’ movement, turning the sporadic struggles of the 1960s into more concerted action.43 Union membership had continued to increase throughout the decade, from 446,000 in 1963 to nearly 767,000 in 1969, with an average union density over the period of 60 percent. Strike statistics give the impression that the period 1968-70 was not especially militant; 1968 saw a low in the number of strikes, 54 from the 101 of the previous year. The average number of days lost to strike action per year between 1964 (the first full year when strikes were legal) and 1967 was nearly 339,000. Between 1968 and 1970 it was little over 210,000, with 1968 registering just 175,000, the lowest number of working days lost to strikes in one year since 1964.44

But these figures should not be mistaken for a lack of worker militancy. After the formation of DİSK in 1967 there was a rise in the number of unofficial strikes and “resistances”: stoppages, slowdowns and sit-ins, and, crucially, occupations, a new tactic that did not register in strike statistics and that was a clear influence from the student movement.45 A wave of occupations that continued throughout 1969 began with the Derby Factory in Istanbul in 1968 over workers’ attempts to join the DİSK-affiliated Tyre Workers’ Union (Lastik-İş). Fearing their reduced representation in the tyre sector, Türk-İş set up an alternative union, and pressure and intimidation from management, including threats of the sack and holding back wages, was put on workers to join. When Derby management announced it was about to sign a deal with the Türk-İş union, workers occupied the factory, welded the doors shut and posted patrols and look-outs. The occupation was visited by students, who chanted “Workers and youth, hand in hand”. Four days later bosses gave in to the demand for a referendum, which returned an overwhelming vote for Lastik-İş, forcing management to concede all the demands.46

The successful Derby occupation was the first of a wave of occupations that continued the following year, many over the right to join a DİSK-affiliated union. At the Singer factory in January, 520 workers occupied in protest at the sacking of three workers who had left a Türk-İş union to join DİSK. At the DemirDöküm cast iron factory in Istanbul the police and armed forces were used, for the first time, to break an occupation. Workers at the factory had resigned from a Türk-İş union to join the mineworkers’ Maden-İş, affiliated to DİSK, and demanded employers sign an agreement. Management refused and used intimidation and scare tactics, firing five workers and beating others up. On 31 July, of the 2,500 workers at the factory, 1,850 went into occupation. After five days, the water and electricity were cut and police attacked with sound and smoke bombs. When families and friends outside the factory beat the police back, 4,000 gendarmes, 10 tanks and 15 armoured vehicles were brought in to surround the factory. Workers finally agreed to leave but, still defiant, refused to return to work and employers eventually gave in, agreeing to pay workers for their time in the occupation and to raise wages.47

The US military bases were also affected by strike action. In April 1969 workers began a six-week strike walking out at the İzmir base demanding wage increases. The strike spread to facilities in Istanbul, Ankara and Adana. Timed to coincide with bilateral negotiations over the status of US forces in Turkey, the action caused alarm in the US Congress, which demanded from Turkey protection of its bases from strike action.48 Despite the earnest actions of the guerrilla groups, it was strikes rather than military personnel kidnappings that contributed most to reducing the US presence.49

The militancy spread also to the growing middle class. Teachers and civil servants did not have the right to strike. In December 1969 the left-wing Union of Teachers of Turkey (TÖS) and the Primary School Teachers’ Union (İlk-Sen) organised a four-day countrywide strike involving 109,000 teachers, demanding the right to strike, getting rid of foreign, mainly American, educational experts, and the reinstatement of sacked trade union activists. In a clear sign of the conflict between the bureaucracy and the government, and of the growing weakness of Demirel, when hundreds of teachers were suspended, the Council of State overturned the decision, and when the government applied to the courts to close the two unions, the courts rejected the application. In an attempt to pacify civil servants, Demirel designed a new Personnel Law proposing significant wage increases at both lower and upper levels of the bureaucracy. However, judges, public prosecutors, non-commissioned officers, civil police, technical personnel in state enterprises, state accountants and post office workers all rejected the plan. The Civil Servants’ Union (Türk-Persen) called a protest in Ankara on 14 June 1970 at which thousands of the educated middle class took to the streets in revolt.

But it was the manufacturing sector that was posing a serious threat to industrial capital. In a rapidly developing economy, with a private sector heavily subsidised by cheap credit and cheap resources provided by the state sector, industrial struggles quickly won improved wages. Between 1963 and 1970 there was a 26.7 percent increase in real wages.50 But what employers could not tolerate was interruptions in production due to strikes and occupations. With wages rising, production slowing and the newly formed working class developing in militancy, employers became increasingly alarmed. Together with Türk-İş, the government devised plans for changes in trade union laws with the express aim of wiping out DİSK.51 A meeting of DİSK workplace representatives called for a protest.

The response of the working class to this attack took even DİSK by surprise. On 15 June 1970 tens of thousands of workers (estimates vary between 70,000 and 150,000) across Istanbul downed tools and walked out. They marched from four points of the city, pulling workplaces out along the route. Traffic on the main arterial route between Istanbul and Ankara was brought to a halt as workers marched toward the centre. The following day the protests continued and grew in number, as marchers aimed to converge in the city centre. What began with a peaceful, festival atmosphere turned violent, however, as the state determined to prevent the marchers coming together by erecting police barricades and closing the bridge across the Golden Horn. Workers broke through the barricades, forced the release of arrested marchers and at one point attacked a factory belonging to the Demirel family. Police attacks saw five people killed, including one police officer, and 200 injured. Although centred on Istanbul, the protests drew solidarity actions in other, mostly industrial areas. In İzmir 12 workplaces held sit-ins, in Ankara workers occupied the National Press House. Protests were held in the industrial areas of Gebze and İzmit, and the small towns of Adana and Gaziantep in the south-east of the country.

As workers were taking to the streets to defend their union, DİSK officials were meeting with the Labour Minister. Startled by the strength of support, the union that tens of thousands of workers turned out to protect turned tail and DİSK chairman, ex-Communist Party leader Kemal Türkler (who was assassinated by fascists shortly before the 1980 coup), announced on the radio the protests “should be peaceful and respect the constitution” and called on protesters to return to their homes.52 Later that evening martial law was declared. The DİSK leadership had in one swipe cut the head off the movement. It was repaid when, under martial law, DİSK-affiliated union offices were raided by police, documents seized and officials arrested. Protests were banned and many districts were put under surveillance and factories cordoned off by the military. Yet some factories in and around Istanbul refused to return to work, for example the Derby Factory and DemirDöküm. But the state and employers would take their revenge by sacking and blacklisting over 5,000 workers, the majority of whom were activists who had years of experience in trade union struggle. The dilution of this leadership seriously weakened the working class in the following struggles.53

The 15-16 June protest was highly significant. The government called it a dress rehearsal for revolution.54 An absurd exaggeration, but it was a glimpse of a revolutionary force. It was a purely political action in defence of a trade union federation that involved not just DİSK members; a large proportion were members of Türk-İş-affiliated unions and un-unionised workers.55 The make-up of the protests also cut across the Kemalist-Islamist cleavage with supporters of the CHP and AP marching together. It was the first time many of the strikers had taken action and it took strike action to areas that had previously not been involved in industrial struggle. And, crucially, it demonstrated the existence of a confident and militant working class in Turkey.

While TİP members joined the protests, the TİP leadership did no more than announce its support. By now TİP had fallen apart. In its second electoral test in 1969 it did badly with a loss of 60,000 votes and a reduced parliamentary representation from 15 MPs to two. This was partly due to changes in electoral laws, but the continuing public faction fights weakened the organisation. More damaging was the loss of support from DİSK when Aybar shifted the party’s focus to the peasantry after the disappointing working class vote in 1965. The hope of working class unity that TİP had represented was now lost as political confusion saw the party implode with differences “among social classes and social strata, between intelligentsia and workers, and workers and peasants”.56 The intelligentsia split between the two main blocs, the Aybar bloc and the Aren-Boran bloc, the latter gaining the leadership at the October 1970 Congress. Aybar resigned.

Faced with growing class struggle, the Demirel government was paralysed. Pressure from the bureaucracy and right-wing defections from the party left it incapable of dealing with the growing political crisis. In March 1971 the military intervened for a second time in Turkey’s turbulent modern history with a “coup by memorandum” demanding Demirel “end the ‘anarchy’ and carry out reforms ‘in a Kemalist spirit’”.57 Demirel resigned.

Apart from TİP, this second military intervention was initially welcomed by almost the entire left. But the post-coup repression was to end any illusions in the progressive potential of the Kemalist armed forces. Under the cover of martial law the army led a vicious witch-hunt against not only the left but anyone with progressive liberal sympathies; when the Israeli consul was kidnapped and killed, over 5,000 leading intellectuals were arrested.58 Included in the mass arrests were the leadership of all left organisations, including TİP, NDR and the Kurdish movement. Left political parties were banned, trade unions suspended and a bloody counter-guerrilla operation carried out. By 1974 Gezmiş, Çayan, Kaypakkaya and many other brave, but ultimately mistaken, revolutionaries had been executed by the state.

The 1971 military intervention temporarily halted but did not deflect the trajectory of events. Despite its temporary success in swiftly smashing the revolutionary left, by the time the activists were released from jail, when an amnesty was declared in 1974, the mass youth following of the left had grown enormously.59 A number of new parties were formed and while none made any electoral in-roads, election results showed a distinct leftward shift from which the CHP benefitted. “With enviable strategic vision [Bülent] Ecevit tried to renovate the base of the CHP by channelling the new working class militancy which had been revealed in the 15-16 June demonstrations and which the left had so far tragically ignored”.60 In 1973 he took the CHP to election victory with 33.3 percent of the vote, but it was not enough to form a government so they went into coalition with the newly formed Islamist National Salvation Party (MSP) led by Necmettin Erbakan.

What is notable, however, is that while the CHP failed to win enough votes to form governments, over the years of industrial struggle it did increase its nationwide share of the vote, from 27.4 percent in 1969 to 33.3 percent in 1973 and 41.4 percent in 1977. More significantly, the CHP was particularly successful in working class and poor neighbourhoods in the larger cities. In the shantytown areas of İzmir and Istanbul, for example, its vote increased from 22.6 percent and 21.8 percent in 1969 to 44.2 percent and 47.5 percent in 1973. What’s more, there was a dramatic shift away from electoral support for the AP in the notoriously conservative coal mining area of Zonguldak, with gains mostly going to the CHP. In this region the AP’s vote declined from 55.6 percent to 38.2 between 1969 and 1973, while the CHP’s increased from 30.7 percent to 39.8, rising further to 45.7 percent in 1977.61

The revolutionary left, however, were not in a position to benefit from this. Three years in prison had led to a frank soul-searching and general agreement that guerrilla activities had been a military and political failure and led to the loss of some of the best cadre, and that activists were not connected to, and therefore could hardly claim to represent, the working class.62 But this reassessment of their politics and strategy and tactics was made in the absence of a class-based analysis of Turkey. The militancy of China’s “people’s war” trumped Moscow’s passive reformism and Maoism became dominant. But as the movement grew, the left split. The Çayan group broke into myriad grouplets, the biggest being Perinçek’s Proletarian Revolutionary Enlightenment (PDA) and Revolutionary Path (Dev-Yol), which would go on to be the main organisation to confront the fascists.

The splintering movement was now developing a destructive sectarianism involving physical attacks. Dev-Genç more than once stormed TİP offices, attacking its leaders and destroying party material, and rival groups would physically attack others to prevent them from selling their papers.63 It is generally thought that it was left rivalries that the police were able to exploit to ignite the 1977 May Day disaster in Istanbul when shots fired drew a police response and a stampede in which at least 34 people were killed.

While the revolutionary left were splitting into small sects, the reformist left were splitting into small and ineffective political parties. After the amnesty four new socialist parties were set up: the Socialist Revolution Party (SDP) around Aybar; TİP, in a new form set up by Boran; the Turkish Labour Party (TEP), a continuation of the NDR set up by Belli that fizzled out in the mid 1980s; and the Socialist Workers’ Party of Turkey (TSİP). Sections of them all, by different routes, would come together in the still active Freedom and Solidarity Party (ÖDP) in 1996. One notable development in this period was the return to the scene of the Turkish Communist Party (TKP), which, as the recognised sister organisation of Communist parties worldwide, grew quickly.

The ruling class strike back

The second half of the 1970s saw both a quantitative and qualitative shift in class struggle. Union membership continued to grow and working class morale and confidence remained high. Between 1974 and 1980 the average number of days per year lost to strike action was a little over 911,000, with peaks of over a million in 1977, 1979 and 1980. The debt default as a result of the 1977 oil crisis sent Turkey back to the IMF for fresh funds, which brought also austerity measures and wage controls. But these were met by fierce resistance. Strike activity rose in 1979 and jumped massively in the first half of 1980. On the eve of the 12 September coup, hundreds of thousands of car, rail and textile workers were due to walk out.64

This period was the high point of DİSK’s organisation as it took over from Türk-İş as the dominant federation.65 With industrial expansion continuing in central Anatolia, DİSK was able to broaden its organisation nationally and among municipal, textile and metal workers. Whereas pre-1971 strike action was by and large limited to the private sector in the industrialised centres in the west of the country, the second half of the 1970s saw a marked growth in public sector action in workplaces throughout the country and many were political in nature. In February 1975, teachers’, local government auditors’, engineers’ and architects’ associations held demonstrations in 52 provinces (out of 67) over trade union rights, collective contracts, unemployment and the cost of living. In March 1976, education personnel, telecommunications workers and auditors held a demonstration in Ankara over “fascist” oppression and in January and February 1977 demonstrations were held in Denizli, Bursa, Zonguldak and Ankara over economic and democratic rights.66

Attempts by governments to hold back the workers’ movement provoked a number of large-scale struggles. A major political strike began in 1976 when the National Front government proposed to retain the state security courts, established under military rule after the 1971 coup. Some 100,000 workers responded to DİSK’s call for a general strike and demonstration in opposition.67 The proposal was shelved. The following year a major confrontation broke out between the employers’ organisation MESS and DİSK-affiliated Maden-İş. After nine months of failure to reach agreement, 10,000 workers at 31 workplaces began strike action. Workers eventually won a partial victory with wage increases and improved bonuses, but “group contracts” were imposed, effectively derecognising the union.68

By now DİSK was controlled by the fast growıng TKP, which had taken over all the key positions at the 1975 conference, shifting the entire balance of influence within the Turkish left. But, rather than focus on building and strengthening its organisation in the new areas it had gained, the TKP bureaucracy focused on ensuring its domination of the federation and carried out sectarian purges of all other left influence, “acting virtually as a political police force within DİSK to prevent all other socialist ‘infiltration’”.69

Weakened by internal wrangling and dominated by the reformist TKP, DİSK feared the growing militancy of the working class. A strike in January 1980 at Tariş, an agricultural processing complex near İzmir that employed some 10,000 workers, exposed the now spineless DİSK leadership. Over the previous few years, several socialist organisations had established a presence among the workforce. The strike erupted when workers heard that the AP government planned to sack some of them and employ its own supporters, including many fascist militants, in their place. It turned into an occupation and soon gathered wide support from the surrounding working class districts. The government sent in 10,000 troops, equipped with armoured vehicles and helicopters, to break the occupation and pitched battles erupted and spread to the surrounding neighbourhood, where barricades were erected and holes dug to prevent the movement of tanks. But, rather than build on the energy of the spontaneous action, DİSK retreated in the face of the military might of the state and sent a delegation of officials in to encourage workers to end the action, to which workers replied: “if you break the resistance, we’ll break your head”. But left isolated, the strike went down to defeat and hundreds were sacked and arrested.70

Pre-1971 workers’ actions had been offensive and had won gains in improved wages and work conditions. In the second half of the 1970s, struggles were defensive, and the bosses and the state turned to direct state violence in order to defeat major struggles. But capital was not united enough to present a unified political response. The military, after the 1971 coup, had been unable to either establish a coherent and stable regime or address the divisions between industrial, commercial and landowning capital. These divisions were reflected in the plethora of political parties throughout the 1970s71 and the continual changes in unstable coalition governments (nine in nine years), often with the fascist MHP or Islamist MSP holding the decisive vote, which boosted the confidence of the fascist movement.

The few years that followed the formation of a National Front coalition government in 1975, with the MHP and Türkeş as deputy prime minister, saw a marked increase in armed groups and fascist attacks. Between 1975 and 1978, deaths from political violence rose from 35 to nearly 1,000, and by 1980 the figure was 3,500.72 As well as daily street violence the right wing carried out vicious massacres. Largely believed to have been sanctioned by the state was the Kahramanmaraş massacre in a Kurdish region of south-east Turkey. In a week-long attack, Grey Wolves and Islamic fundamentalists burned and slaughtered 111 men, women and children, not only attacking Alevi Kurds but also known leftists. In Çorum in the north of the country the same groups carried out a massacre between May and July 1980 killing over 50 Alevis and leftists. On a local level, whole neighbourhoods became known as the stronghold of fascists or leftists, and the left, particularly Dev-Yol, became embroiled in political violence.

But the left were blinded by Stalinist politics into seeing the fascist assaults as attacks on left-wing organisation rather than attacks on the working class. There was no political strategy for fighting fascism: “The left groupings never undertook anti-fascist struggle as part of the struggle of the working class… Despite their rhetoric the anti-fascist struggle was waged solely as a means of establishing their dominance in any particular locality”.73

It was on the pretext of political violence that General Kenan Evren announced the military’s most violent coup in September 1980. In reality it was a number of factors including the inability of governments to rein in industrial action and the fear of a rising Islamic fundamentalism (with an eye to the 1979 Iranian Revolution) that led to the army intervening for the third time in 20 years, bringing to an end the political crisis sparked by 1968.


The Turkish left emerged at the same time as the rising student and workers’ movement, when it was still trying to understand itself and the conjuncture into which it had been thrust. The tragedy of the Turkish left was not that the pre-existence of Kemalism prevented a Marxist analysis of Turkey when it was most needed:74 we make our own history but not under circumstances chosen by ourselves.75 The tragedy was the Stalinist politics that rejected the working class as a revolutionary force and played into Kemalist ideas that saw Turkey as a colony under the yoke of imperialist forces. The scale of US political, economical and military involvement certainly helped to fuel such perceptions. But Stalinism offered no alternative to Kemalism. Instead it fused with Kemalism and dragged a generation of activists into a rancid nationalism that still pervades much of the Turkish left today, and saw the revolutionary left fragment into groupings fashioned along the only lines offered at the time, Maoism and Guevarism. Stalinism created the confusion within TİP, which knew itself as an organisation of the working class but was shaped by nationalist politics, and left it vulnerable to the factionalising that finally tore it apart.

The result was that the potential of the left to unite the working class was destroyed, instead exacerbating religious and ethnic divisions, weakening the movement. From 1973 Kurds built their own autonomous organisations and went through a rapid process of radicalisation that led to the formation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1978.76 Moreover, the lack of an effective left in Turkish politics meant the uncontested rise of political Islam; as the left weakened, political Islam grew. What is more, the failure to recognise the fascist movement as an attack on the working class and mount an anti-fascist campaign left the movement to grow so that, today, the fascist MHP is the third party in Turkish politics and the Grey Wolves remain a live organisation.

There was an inevitability to the trajectory the left took. But it was only partly derived from the conjuncture of existing forces. What determined it ultimately was what was absent; revolutionary politics based on the agency of the working class that could have drawn the most radical student, worker and Kurdish activists together to help drive an anti-fascist movement and build working class organisation. In 1968 the Turkish left was finding its feet in the heat of the struggle. It has the space now to ensure its political clarity before the fire next time.

Carol Williams is a socialist living in Istanbul.


1 Thanks to Alex Callinicos, Roni Margulies, Camilla Royle and Chris Stephenson for their comments and advice.

2 Time, 3 February 1958, quoted in Bali, 2010, p15.

3 Zürcher, 2003, p238.

4 Aydın, 2005, p30.

5 Aydın, 2005, p38.

6 Quoted in Mello, 2010, p24.

7 Tanrıvermiş and Bülbül, 2007.

8 McDowall, 2013, p401.

9 Keyder, 1987, p137.

10 Holmes, 2014, p69.

11 Holmes, 2014, p51.

12 Landau, 1982, p25.

13 Ünsal, 2002, p76.

14 Bozarslan, 2012, p2.

15 Quoted in Ulus, 2011, pp67-68.

16 Ulus, 2011, p68.

17 Quoted in Lipovsky, 1991, p97.

18 Ünsal, 2002, p296.

19 Algül, 2015, pp118-119; Koç, 2010, p171.

20 Millioğulları, 2007, p56.

21 Millioğulları, 2007, p65.

22 Salâh, 1984.

23 Sosyalist Barikat, 2004.

24 Atesoğulları, 2003, p8.

25 Ateşoğulları, 2003, p8.

26 Sosyalist Barikat, 2004.

27 Alper, 2009, p208.

28 Mango, 1999, p261.

29 Alper, 2009, p351.

30 Alper, 2009, p285.

31 Alper, 2009, pp316-317.

32 Harman, 1998, p38.

33 Alper, 2009, p355.

34 Zileli, 2000, p289.

35 Alper, 2009, p360.

36 Alper, 2009, pp358-359.

37 Landau, 1982, p594

38 Alper, 2009, p374.

39 Holmes, 2014, p53.

40 Alper, 2009, p373.

41 Alper, 2009, p404.

42 Alper, 2009, p430.

43 Many thanks to Nuran Yüce for our discussion on this period.

44 Millioğulları, 2007.

45 Koç, 2010, p231.

46 UID-DER, 2016.

47 Sosyalist Barikat, 2006.

48 Holmes, 2014, pp75-77.

49 Holmes, 2014, p204.

50 Millioğulları, 2007, p61.

51 Ulus, 2011, p119.

52 Ateşoğulları, 2003, p35.

53 Koç, 2010, p234.

54 Ulus, 2011, p120.

55 Ateşoğulları, 2003, p35.

56 Ulus, 2011, p86.

57 Zürcher, 2003, p271.

58 Zürcher, 2003, p271.

59 Samim, 1981 p73. Ahmet Samim was the pseudonym used by political commentator Murat Belge in the repressive conditions after the 1980 coup.

60 Samim, 1981, p74.

61 Mello, 2010, p18.

62 Salâh, 1984.

63 Ulus, 2011, pp113 and 119.

64 Salâh, 1984.

65 Millioğulları, 2007, p68.

66 Koç, 2010, p268.

67 Salâh, 1984.

68 Yurtsever, 2008, p240.

69 Samim, 1981, p79.

70 Yurtsever, 2008, p242.

71 Aydın, 2005, p41.

72 Mello, 2013, p102.

73 Salâh, 1984.

74 Samim, 1981, p64,

75 Marx, 1977, p300

76 Bozarslan, 2012, p3.


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Alper, Emin, 2009, Student Movement in Turkey from a Global Perspective 1960-71 (Boğaziçi University, unpublished dissertation).

Ateşoğulları, Kamil, 2003, 15-16 Hazıran: İki Uzun Gün ve Bir Uzun Yürüyüş [Two Long Days, One Long March] (Birlişik Metal-İş Yayınları).

Aydın, Zülküf, 2005, The Political Economy of Turkey (Pluto Press).

Bali, Rıfat (ed), 2010, Turkey in the 1960s and 1970s Through the Reports of American Diplomats (Libra).

Bozarslan, Hamit, 2012, “Between Integration, Autonomization and Radicalization: Hamit Bozarslan on the Kurdish Movements and the Turkish Left”, European Journal of Turkish Studies, number 14.

Harman, Chris, 1998, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After (Bookmarks).

Holmes, Amy Austin, 2014, Social Unrest and American Military Bases in Turkey and Germany since 1945 (Cambridge University Press).

Keyder, Çağlar, 1987, State and Class in Turkey: A Study in Capitalist Development (Verso).

Koç, Yıldırım, 2010, Türkiye İşçi Sınıfı Tarihi: Osmalı’dan 2010’a [History of the Turkish Working Class: From the Ottomans to 2010] (Epos).

Landau, Jacob M, 1982, “The Nationalist Action Party in Turkey”, Journal of Contemporary History, volume 17, issue 4.

Lipovsky, Igor, 1991, “The Legal Socialist Parties of Turkey, 1960-1980”, Middle Eastern Studies, volume 27, number 1.

Mango, Andrew, 1999, Atatürk (John Murray).

Marx, Karl, 1977 [1852], “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, in David McLellan (ed), Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford University Press).

Mello, Brian, 2010, “Communists and Compromisers: Explaining Divergences within Turkish Labor Activism, 1960-1980”, European Journal of Turkish Studies, number 11.

Mello, Brian, 2013, Evaluating Social Movement Impacts: Comparative Lessons from the Labor Movement in Turkey (Bloomsbury).

McDowall, David, 2004, A Modern History of the Kurds (I B Tauris).

Millioğulları, Özgün, 2007, Türkiye’de 1960-1980 ve 1980-2005 Dönemlerinde Grev Hareketlerinin Karşılaştırılması [Comparison of the 1960-1980 and 1980-2005 Strike Movements in Turkey] (Ankara University, unpublished dissertation).

Salâh, Mehmet, 1984, “The Turkish Working Class and Socialist Movement in Perspective”, Khamsin: Journal of Revolutionary Socialists of the Middle-East, number 11, https://libcom.org/library/turkish-working-class-socialist-movement-perspective

Samim, Ahmet (Murat Belge), 1981, “The Tragedy of the Turkish Left”, New Left Review, I/126.

Sosyalist Barikat, 2004, “Ankara’yı Sarsan Ayaklanma: Kozlu Direnişi” [The Revolt That Shook Ankara: The Kozlu Resistence] (March), www.barikat-lar.de/barikat/20/tarih20.htm

Sosyalist Barikat, 2006, “31 Temmuz 1969’dan günümüze yansıyan ışık: Silahtar Demir Döküm Grevi” [The Silahtar Demir Döküm Strike: The Light That Shines from 31 July 1969 to Today] (August), www.barikat-lar.de/barikat/43/tarih43.htm

Tanrıvermiş, Harun, and Mehmet Bülbül, 2007, “The Role of Agriculture in the Turkish Economy at the Beginning of the European Union Accession Negotiations”, Journal of Applied Sciences, volume 7, number 4.

UID-DER, 2016, İlk Fabrika İşgali: DERBY [DERBY: The First Factory Occupation] (7 January), http://uidder.org/ilk_fabrika_isgali_derby.htm

Ulus, Özgür Mutlu, 2011, The Army and the Radical Left in Turkey: Military Coups, Socialist Revolution and Kemalism (I B Taurus).

Ünsal, Artun, 2002, Umuttan Yalnızlığa, Türkiye İşçi Partisi (1961-1971) [From Hope to Desolation: The Turkish Workers Party (1961-1971)] (Tarih Vakfı).

Yurtsever, Haluk, 2008, Yükseliş ve Düşüş: Türkiye Solu 1960-1980 [Rise and Fall: The Turkish Left 1960-1980] (Yordam).

Zileli, Gün, 2000, Yarılma: 1954-1972 [Disruption: 1954-1972] (İletişim).

Zürcher, Erik J, 1997, Turkey a Modern History (I B Taurus).
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LA Strike: Self-Mobilization of Workers and Communities—: Ndindi Kitonga, Lilia Monzo, Ramona Rivera, Kevin B. Anderson

Posted by admin On March - 2 - 2019 Comments Off on LA Strike: Self-Mobilization of Workers and Communities—: Ndindi Kitonga, Lilia Monzo, Ramona Rivera, Kevin B. Anderson


In January 2019, a massive strike of over 30,000 public school teachers stunned the Los Angeles power structure when it received massive, almost unanimous public support, especially in the city’s large Latinx and Black communities.  Latinx students now make up 75% of the city’s over 600,000 public school students. Even the anti-labor Los Angeles Times, which had issued dire warnings ahead of the strike, felt compelled to run a front-page headline on the third day that began with the words, “L.A. Teachers Bask in support for strike.”

This support, and the sustained pickets and rallies of teachers, students, parents, and other community members, forced the school board of the LA Unified School District (LAUSD) to concede considerable ground.  Everywhere, the union placards of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) were printed in both Spanish and English. The mass outpouring in favor of the strike also helped change the national conversation about the privatized charter schools that are eating away at public education. And just as the West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona teachers’ strikes of 2018 paved the way for this one in LA, so the LA strike is very likely to be followed by major teacher strikes in Oakland, Denver, and other cities.

What Teachers and Students Are Facing

Public schools are underfunded, overcrowded, lack adequate social services and are subject to the worst impulses of neoliberalism. These attacks on public education disproportionately affect poor students, students of color, immigrant children, students whose primary language is not English, and those with disabilities. For months and years, LA teachers have been demanding a modest wage increase along with lower class size, accountability for charter schools, more support staff (nurses, counselors, librarians, etc.), less standardized testing, re-investment in education programs, and a stop to random searches and policing of students. A previous strike in 1989 demonstrated how demanding only a wage increase was short-sighted. LAUSD did meet teachers’ demands in ’89 but also increased class size, cut down on support staff and programs, and heavily charterized the district.

By 2014, a slate backed by progressive caucuses brought a new leadership to the UTLA. Moreover, the reinvigorated union lost hardly any members despite the reactionary Supreme Court decision making it harder for public sector unions to maintain their membership by making it “voluntary” even for workplaces with union contracts.

As a result of the January 2019 strike, the teachers won something on all of these issues, although in some cases only marginally. The seven-day strike commenced on Monday, January 14, Teachers wore #redfored, in/with the spirit of their fellow teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona who had engaged in similar labor struggles in 2018. Teachers would report to their respective school site at 6.30 am and picket heavily during school drop-off. A daily rally was held in downtown LA at the LAUSD headquarters. After the rally, teachers would return to their schools to picket at the end of school. Other actions involved protesting at the homes of school superintendent Austin Beutner and Monica Garcia (one of the more obstinate board members). Beutner the new superintendent is an investment banker with no teaching or education administration background.  He was also a deputy mayor under Antonio Villaraigosa and has ties to billionaire Eli Broad.

Supporters from many political leanings joined teachers on the picket lines. In particular, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)-LA, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), and Black Rose/Rosa Negra (BRRN) were among the leftist groups that were conspicuously in solidarity with teachers picketing and offering resources, while several from the International Marxist-Humanist Organization (IMHO) participated as individuals. Teachers also coordinated their strike activity with other labor actions across the city.

Strike Day # 5 with Jason Torres-Rangel, LAUSD teacher, and activist. After a day of picketing schools, teachers marched some more to support a labor action at a hotel in Koreatown with Unite Here!

Southeast LA

At an elementary school in a mainly Latinx neighborhood in southeast LA, parents and community members, many of whom were Spanish speakers, sustained a daily teachers’ picket line by joining it and by offering food, drink, and a place to meet. A home near the school was volunteered as an impromptu strike headquarters, where teachers could rest, hold discussions, and get food and drink.  At this school, both the teachers and the community were almost 100% Latinx.  In the early days of the strike, the union representative announced that their demands for a raise had been won, but that they were holding out for other issues, that “We need to fight for the kids.”  In this spirit, they stayed out another week in order to win some gains on issues like librarians, nurses, and reduced class size.  A handmade sign by a young teacher stated: “I Miss My Students but I Love Them Way Too Much to Not Fight for Their Future.” Community members were solidly in support of the strike too, stating over and over again that “the kids are the future.”  There didn’t seem to be a single parent who didn’t support the strike at a school where the teachers were also overwhelmingly Latinx.

During the first days of the strike, a few thousand teachers, parents, and community members also rallied in predominantly Latinx East LA at LAUSD’s Local District on Soto Street. There were lots of speakers as demonstrators took over the streets.  Signs included “Honk for Public Education,” which almost all passing cars did, and the bilingual “El Maestra Luchando Tamibien está ensenando–Teachers Protesting are still teaching.”

South LA

Intense picketing also took place at Augustus Hawkins High School in South Los Angeles. This school is comprised predominately of working-class Latinx students and is not unlike others in the district. Teaching has traditionally been a white middle-class female profession. Indeed, in a nation where 50% of the public school students are people of color, 80% of the teachers are white. These demographics are vastly different in the LAUSD, however, where Latinx educators account for 43% of all LAUSD teachers, with the rest mainly white, Black, and Asian.

Finding themselves on the intersections of race, class, and immigration status, Latinx parents and students encountered at the teachers’ strike considered this struggle to be both an economic and racial justice matter and were very supportive of the teachers’ actions. Again and again, the Latinx teachers reminded attendees that the struggle was about students, their communities, and their futures. There was little emphasis on teacher wage increases. The language of “class struggle,” “ruling elite,” and “racial justice” was evoked in many public spheres, in a way not witnessed before. One teacher stated that this was a “righteous struggle towards the liberation of working-class people everywhere”.

Others have commented on the racial aspects of this strike here.

West LA

In relatively affluent West LA, the strike also proceeded with great enthusiasm.  At one elementary school, teachers, parents and students kept up a spirited picket line, even on cold and rainy days.  Some parents brought food and drink for the teachers, who were also invited to rest at a home near the school gate. Passing cars often honked in support, and no animosity toward the strike was expressed.

Afterwards, Latinx working women at a drycleaners in the area said that they had kept their children home during the strike “because we have to show solidarity with the teachers.”

Downtown LA Demonstrations

In the lead up to the strike, 50,000 teachers and community members rallied on December 15 to put forth their demands. Once it was clear that a settlement between Superintendent Austin Beutner, the LAUSD board and UTLA was unlikely, teachers began preparing to strike. The first important action involved a UTLA-led city-wide rally to garner support from the general public. The giant rally of 50, 000 educators and their supporters was held in Downtown LA in late December of 2018 Teachers marched from city hall to the Broad Museum, financed by billionaire Eli Broad, chanting, “When our students and teachers are under attack, what do we do? Stand up. Fight back!”

Part of the reason the destination was the Broad museum is that Eli Broad has spent a lot of his time and money on neoliberalizing education in Los Angeles and promoting charter school expansion. This great “philanthropist” has opposed tax increases on the wealthy. He also donated over $2 million to secure a reactionary, pro-charter majority on the LA school board in the 2017 elections. Turnout was a dismal 17%, allowing Broad and his friends to basically buy the election.

These pre-strike activities were very important in ensuring success and public favor in this struggle. While a fight for equitable wages is more than enough reason to strike, teachers saw this as a myopic goal. They understood that the district, the charter school machine and the media (Beutner is a former CEO of the LA Times) would put out a counter-narrative to suggest that vulnerable children were now at the mercy of uncaring educators who had walked off the job. Teachers are supposed to be altruistic, making it difficult to challenge anyone who appears to be working against the interests of kids. They knew that the lack of a cohesive movement and public buy-in would open the door for more school privatizers in the future who would employ the language of school choice to convince communities they are offering a better education, which of course they are not. Before this strike, the union and many grassroots organizations spent many weeks reaching out to their communities to discuss the full scope and nature of the strike.

A grassroots organization working on this very issue emphasized the economic and social harms that come to children who do not have adequate services and offered local public education workshops on why/how charter schools exploit communities. It also worked with groups the union has historically had a difficult time reaching, such as undocumented immigrants. Finally, it mobilized and established a fund for striking teachers along with community resources for parents in need of childcare.

During the strike, another massive rally was held on Friday, January 18. Again, there were 60,000 or more participants, stretching all the way from the western edge of Grand Park to City Hall and taking over the surrounding streets as well.  The mood was boisterous and upbeat, with teachers and the community smelling victory as the school board’s attempts at anti-teacher propaganda continued to fall flat. Handmade signs read, “I Am More than a Test Score,” “California is 46 out of 50 in school funding,” “On Strike for Our Students,” “Respect for me and my students,” and “I Stand with LA Teachers.”

Charter School Strike

One charter school that has gained union representation by the UTLA, Accelerated Schools in predominant Latinx and African American South LA, also experienced a strike, which ended in victory after eight days, a little longer than the large public-school strike.  In addition to wages and health benefits, these teachers won somewhat greater job security after having been subject to a harsh system where they were not notified until April if they were going to be teaching in the next school year. Many were let go without explanation at the end of each school year, helping to create a 50% turnover from 2016-18.

While they did not gain tenure, a new severance package for teachers who are not retained is intended to mitigate somewhat the current atmosphere of fear, of a Trumpian “you’re fired.”

Other Sectors of Labor

On Tuesday, Jan 22, the last day of the strike, another layer of labor came onto the streets to support the teachers. Some 1600 firefighters marched at 6AM alongside the UTLA “Red for Ed” marching band, along with a fire truck.

They were in town from all over the US for a convention of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Overcoming Anti-Labor, Anti-Student Charter Schools

Over the past two decades, mainstream political forces have supported charter schools, whether rightwingers like George W. Bush, or liberals like Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, not to speak of Democratic Governors Jerry Brown (CA) and Andrew Cuomo (NY).

The charter school lobby has bestowed hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions on these and other politicians that support them.

The LA teachers’ strike is a turning point in the defense of public education carried out by unionized teachers who have some autonomy, allowing them to raise the kinds of critical questions in their classes that create greater awareness of social issues and problems, without fear of arbitrary termination. While control over new charters lies at the state level in California, the teachers succeeded in forcing the previously pro-charter LA school board to pass a resolution calling upon the state government to stop new charter schools in the district, where at present they control about 20% of the students. This vote, carried out over the objections of 1000 angry pro-charter demonstrators, suggests that the worm has turned in terms of public opinion about charters, and not only in LA.

Charter schools pay their CEOs (basically private owners of the schools) extremely high salaries, instead of putting the money where it needs to go. They also tend to teach to the tests (English and math only) so that they skew their “success” rates. Their primary focus is only English and math, since this is what the state of California is now requiring for competency. Charter schools only get state funds based on attendance and test scores. They’ll often have no physical education, no art, and no music programs, but they will still find money to pay for attendance officers to make sure every kid is in school every day.

They can kick kids out for basically any reason, including illegal reasons (has an Individualized Education Program, usually for a disability) which means they keep the kids they want to make them look good. However, test scores overall STILL have not improved despite their own false reports.

Most charters are non-union, which means high teacher burnout, something they cover up. Not having a union is also a way billionaires can chip away at union rights across all sectors, not only teachers, as anti-labor Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker did for eight years, until his stinging defeat last November.

That said, there is a small, small fraction of charters that fills a needed niche in public education, but these charters tend to have unions, and are typically started by teachers or educational professionals that have an educational philosophy they believe works. These are not common and hard to run since it’s all about how much money you get per student that enrolls.

What Was Achieved and Where to Go from Here

The LA teachers’ strike officially ended on Tuesday, January 22, 2019, with the district meeting some teacher demands. While there is somewhat of a public consensus that the district and the union came to a historic agreement, many teachers are not completely satisfied with the deal that UTLA negotiated on their behalf. The deal promises a class reduction of one student for every school year (two for special classes) and minimally increases the number of support staff, like librarians, nurses, counselors, and psychologists. The deal also includes some provision for expanding green spaces in schools, reducing standardized testing, and involving UTLA in decisions concerning the accountability of charter schools among others.

As Maricela, a Chicanx woman, artist, activist, and Language Arts teacher at Hawkins High School in South LA stated concerning the deal that UTLA negotiated on their behalf.: “We go to work tomorrow no matter what! A no vote means the contract isn’t adopted. 50% plus 1 vote is needed to adopt the tentative agreement. Teachers are pissed  and feel like higher ups sold them out by announcing it to the public before bringing it to a vote first.”

According to Mel. T., immigrant from Fiji and homeless rights activist and organizer: “Frustrating! The news coming through is that UTLA members voted to accept the deal. What’s frustrating is that with the amazing protest turnout by UTLA members in one of the hardest rain-hit weeks in LA, they could have asked and got so much more for our students, including the removal of Beutner, a hedge fund manager who has no business being a county school district superintendent.”

“Regardless of how I feel about the UTLA negotiations and agreement I want to make one thing clear. The teachers strike these past 1.5 weeks has been one of the most inspirational events I have ever witnessed. I’ve been to a few marches and demonstrations but to see our teachers out in the freezing cold, shivering in the rain, losing thousands of dollars but doing it all for the love of their students was magical. You galvanized Los Angeles and this will lead to many more actions on so many human rights issues because of your Sacrifice and Courage. And those are exactly the 2 words you deserve. Sacrifice because you knew you would lose so much and did. Hanging on by a thread from losing your paychecks to knowing your students would lose schoolwork and the heartache of knowing some would go hungry because they can’t afford to eat but having the Courage to go through with it because you knew you had to do it for their very future.”

A Last Word… On Schools and Capitalism

Public schools are important sites for struggles for both students and workers, be they teachers or support staff. The #redfored wave continues with public schools in Colorado, Oakland, and  Virginia preparing to take action in their bid to save public education. But what is the relationship of these teachers’ strikes to the larger struggle for a humanist alternative to capitalism?

In their 1848 Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels include among the demands of the communists something that was very radical for those times, when even a basic education was a privilege of the wealthy: “Free education for all children in public schools.” Three decades later, in the Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx specifies that he does not support turning over the schools to the capitalist state: “‘Equal elementary education’? What idea lies behind these words? Is it believed that in present-day society (and it is only with this one has to deal) education can be equal for all classes?” and also, “Elementary education by the state’ is altogether objectionable. Defining by general law the expenditures on the elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc… is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator of the people! Government and church should rather be equally excluded from any influence on the school…”

Public school is an extension of the bourgeois government, an institution that often serves dominant class interests; nevertheless, it is very much a compromise born out of the struggles of working-class folks. What that means is that we have to theorize what school can be in a new society. It also means that means we consistently fight for and defend public, free, and secular education.

The mass teachers’ strike in LA and the equally massive community participation it generated show that the working people of LA want to defend, expand, and improve public education for all of our youth.  The scent of a larger change also hangs in the air, as both the teachers and the community now view themselves in a new way, as empowered drivers of positive changes in our educational system.

Will a well-organized labor union like UTLA, now under the leadership of progressives, continue and deepen the struggle, helping it to spread across the state and the country?  Will UTLA find more ways to reciprocate the support it received from some of LA County’s most oppressed sectors — low-wage service workers, for example — by using their organizational resources to help these workers to gain union representation?  Will UTLA speak out more forcefully on issues around Black Lives Matter or the movement to abolish ICE?  Will the teachers find a way to speak out on capitalism itself, even as they rightly concentrate their fire on some of its most hypocritical and noxious local representatives, like Beutner and Broad?

Originally posted at The International Marxist-Humanist.

Posted Education, Social protests, Teacher unions, United States
About Author
Kevin B. Anderson is a California-based sociologist and Marxist humanist. He is Professor of Sociology, Political Science and Feminist Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara.
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Revolution and revolutionary strategy in Latin America-G.LL. Williams  

Posted by admin On March - 2 - 2019 Comments Off on Revolution and revolutionary strategy in Latin America-G.LL. Williams  

February 24, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The need for social revolution and socialist revolution is rather obvious in Latin America — a need that stretches from Mexico to Argentina. While this need is different in the various countries of Latin America, the overall nature of the struggle for social revolution and socialist revolution in Latin America is very similar. The history of the revolutionary struggle in Latin America, since the twentieth-century, shows the necessity of such a social revolution and socialist revolution. For the Latin American Left that struggle continues today.

Most socialists in Latin America, and most people on the Left in Latin America, have noted the need for social revolution and socialist revolution in Latin America. Indeed for the past century and a half, every serious socialist and Left thinker has noted the need for social change in Latin America — specifically the need for a socialist revolution. This need for social revolution and socialism in Latin America is what gives the Left its particular power and strength. Yet the Left in Latin America has, so-far, failed to achieve the victory of socialism and socialist revolution. This is, of course, for reasons often outside the power of the Latin American Left itself, specifically the power of capitalism and the capitalist state in Latin America, and the power of U.S. Imperialism. Yet if the Left in Latin America is to ever achieve a continent-wide socialist revolution, then the Left will have to engage with the problems of making revolution and the problems of revolution and revolutionary strategy. As Lenin said: ‘Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement’.[1] There can be no revolution in Latin America without a revolutionary theory; there can be no revolution in Latin America without a revolutionary strategy.

The revolutionary struggle for socialism in Latin America today is the product of both history and politics, at the national and continental level. The distinctive nature of the revolutionary struggle in Latin America today means that any revolutionary strategy has to be both particular and universal. Particular in that it has to be adaptive to a number of different states and societies, from Mexico to Argentina, from Brazil to Venezuela, from Colombia to Peru. Universal in that it has to be a strategy for socialist revolution across the entire continent. Such factors mean that any socialist struggle in Latin America also has to deal with a number of different histories and politics, especially in the case of the political organisation of the Left and socialists in the various states and countries of Latin America. All of these factors combine to make the revolutionary struggle for socialism difficult in Latin America, but also vital for both historical and political reasons.

The struggle in Latin America today, given the history of the nineteenth and twentieth-century, has entered a vital phase since the turn of the century. This vital phase has been shown by the fate and struggle of most of the great socialist revolutions and Left-nationalist revolutions that occurred in Latin America in the past century.

The revolutionary struggle in Latin America has taken many forms over the past century. Today the revolutionary struggle in Latin America is primarily a political struggle and a social struggle because both are needed to achieve socialism in Latin America.

The revolutionary struggle in Latin America is primarily a struggle by the working class of Latin America. If Latin America is to ever achieve a socialist revolution today, it must be led by the working class of Latin America. This basic fact is a constant of any revolutionary strategy for Latin America.

There once was a time when the revolutionary struggle in Latin America relied on guerrilla warfare and guerrilla struggle. Today that is no longer the case. Today only political struggle can achieve a revolutionary struggle in Latin America. Except for a very few cases, that type of guerrilla struggle is no longer possible or useful in Latin America. There is also the reality that except for a few cases, namely the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the guerrilla strategy was a failure and a disaster for socialist revolution in Latin America — one that resulted in counter-revolution and defeat. Che Guevara was a revolutionary hero but his revolutionary strategy of guerrilla struggle was largely a failure for the struggle for socialism. In Latin America today the revolutionary struggle for socialism must rely on political struggles not military struggles. If the revolutionary struggle in Latin America is to succeed it must rely today on political struggles by the working-class of Latin America. The failure of guerrilla struggle, from Colombia to Peru, highlights the need for political struggle instead in Latin America. This does not mean that guerrilla struggle is useless in Latin America: in the right circumstances guerrilla struggle is perhaps natural and necessary, but better forms of social struggle need to be developed. Only political struggle can achieve revolution and socialism in Latin America.

The revolutionary struggle for socialism in Latin America has to engage with the politics and history of Latin America. This has always been true and will continue to be true for the struggle in Latin America. The politics and history of Latin America inform the struggle for socialism in Latin America. The revolutionary struggle in Latin America has a rich tradition and a rich history, going back to the revolutions of the twentieth-century. The Mexican Revolution of 1910, the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the Chilean Revolution of 1970-1973, the Nicaraguan Revolution, the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, are all examples for the Latin American Left to draw upon and learn from.

The social struggle for socialism in Latin America is more developed in certain places and areas in Latin America than others. This social reality is key to understanding the dynamic of the revolutionary struggle in Latin America; that is, that some areas are more politically advanced than others. In Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador, the struggle for social revolution and socialism exists at a different level than it does in other parts of Latin America, particularly in places like Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Colombia. This is because Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador have already undergone some form of social revolution since the twentieth-century. This division of the revolution in Latin America is another legacy of past politics and past struggles in Latin America. For the revolutionary struggle in Latin America today, it is vital to unite the working class struggle in all these countries and to develop them towards socialism. In the case of Venezuela, a key theatre of social revolution and revolutionary struggle in Latin America since the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution in 1998, the social struggle is already beginning to enter a decisive phase. If the struggle for socialism is to advance and develop in Latin America then there must be a struggle in all the countries of Latin America.[2]

The political struggle for revolution in Latin America, however, must relate to the political reality of Latin America today. There cannot be a successful social revolution in Latin America today unless the Left engages with the concrete realities of the struggle in Latin America. Repeating the politics and history of the revolutionary struggles from the past, even from previous successes, is unlikely to achieve revolutionary victories in Latin America. Instead it is vital to develop a revolutionary struggle and a revolutionary strategy for Latin America that acknowledges the realities of politics in Latin America today. These will vary in the different countries of Latin America. They will, though, all share in common the need to develop a working-class struggle and a working-class politics as the heart of the revolutionary struggle for socialism in Latin America.

All revolutionary struggles must deal with counter-revolution and counter-revolutionary struggles. In the case of Latin America the primary opponents of social revolution in Latin America remain the capitalist states of Latin America and the spectre of U.S. imperialism. Any struggle in Latin America will have to deal with these opponents and find ways of overcoming them. The recent reality of counter-revolution in Brazil, since 2016, and the recent difficulties of the revolution in Venezuela, since 2002, shows how powerful the forces of counter-revolution remain in Latin America, at both the political and social level. The history and politics of counter-revolution and coups in Latin America, since the beginning of U.S. imperialism in Latin America, has always been a threat to social progress and social revolution in Latin America, as the history of the twentieth-century in Latin America shows. So long as capitalism remains a force in Latin America, the struggle in Latin America for social revolution and socialist revolution will remain incomplete. Recent and past events show the reality of what occurs when revolution fails in Latin American societies — the reality of capitalist and military dictatorships. The working class of Latin America cannot afford any further revolutionary failures.

U.S. imperialism is the ultimate foe of revolution in Latin America, and the foe of revolution anywhere in the world. U.S. imperialism was and is a factor in any revolutionary strategy in Latin America. It is important to stress that the reality of any revolution or revolutionary strategy in Latin America has to be thought of in relation to the reality of U.S. imperialism in Latin America. U.S. imperialism has always undermined the struggle for socialism in Latin America and across the world. The difficulties of the Cuban Revolution and the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela attest to this basic fact. The revolutionary struggle in Latin America must always remember this reality of U.S. imperialism and seek ways to overcome it, either by struggle or by solidarity with the struggle of the working-class in the United States itself. If U.S. imperialism is not confronted head on, then there is no chance for the success of social revolution or socialist revolution in Latin America. [3]

A key area for revolutionary politics and revolutionary strategy in Latin America remains the political divide of Latin America. This divide means that the revolutionary struggle in Latin America still needs to develop a working-class struggle and a working-class politics specifically for political struggle and political development. This aspect of the struggle in Latin America is a hangover from the twentieth-century and a reminder of the social problems and social divides in Latin American society, yet it also shows the importance of having a socialist politics of political development for the Latin American Left. If the Left is to advance in Latin America it will have to develop a social aspect of its socialist politics — one that can appeal to the poor farmers and workers of Latin America. Failure to develop such a politics will only delay a key aspect of the social struggle in Latin America: the unity between the working class and the rural farmers. Without unity between the worker and the farmer there cannot be social revolution or socialist revolution in Latin America. The urban/rural divide in Latin America, too, has always delayed the social struggle in Latin America. It cannot be allowed to delay the social struggle in Latin America today. The urban/rural divide is not unique to Latin America, but it is vital to the success of the revolution and revolutionary strategy in Latin America.

There have been many good writers, from the Left, on revolution in Latin America and revolutionary strategy in Latin America. Indeed some of the best writers and thinkers on socialist revolution have either come from Latin America or have thought about the problems of revolution in Latin America. This is because Latin America, itself, is a key theatre for the socialist revolutionary struggle. The thought of Che Guevara and Régis Debray instantly spring to mind whenever one thinks of the problems and politics of making revolution in Latin America.[4] Such Marxists and socialists have always thought long and hard about finding ways of making the revolution in Latin America. Together they form one of the key sources of socialist thought for revolution in today’s world. If any strategy or politics for revolution in Latin America is to be developed for today then it will probably require some aspect of the thought from the older socialist thinkers of the twentieth-century, and from the Socialist tradition in general. The ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, Guevara and Mariátegui can still help us today in terms of developing a revolutionary politics and a revolutionary strategy for Latin America.

The struggle in Latin America shows the need for both political organisation and for social organisation. The Left in Latin America needs both political organisations and social organisations: socialist parties, socialist trade unions, and socialist organisations. No victory for socialism in Latin America can occur without such political organisation or social organisation. Latin America has a history and a tradition of such socialist parties and socialist organisations. For the Left in Latin America today it is vital that the politics, tactics, and struggles of such parties are resurrected for the struggle today. The socialist revolution cannot be won, anywhere, without a socialist party. [5]

How to achieve the social revolution and the socialist revolution in Latin America is a question of politics and strategy. It is also a question that the Left in Latin America will have to think hard and long upon given the reality of politics today in Latin America and the experience gained from the successes and failures of the revolutions of the twentieth-century. The nature of the revolutionary struggle in Latin America necessitates that the Left in Latin America think about the nature of the struggle – and how it connects to the international struggle for Socialism. Latin America, after all, is just one theatre of an international struggle for socialism and this means that success or defeat there affects the struggle for socialism everywhere else. The nature of U.S. imperialism in Latin America gives the social struggle a further reality and a further political problem. All this means that unity among the Left of Latin America is vital for any future success today or in the near future. In many ways the nature of the struggle for socialism in Latin America remains unchanged from what it was in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, in that the Left has to struggle against both national and international foes, against both the capitalists of Latin America and the imperialism of the United States. All of this makes the social struggle and political struggle in Latin America difficult — but not impossible. The struggle in Latin America continues today and it will continue until victory and the victory of Socialism.

[1] V.L. Lenin, What Is To Be Done?, (1905)
[2] E. Guevara, Message to the Tricontinental, (1967)
[3] Defeating U.S. imperialism will, ultimately, require a socialist revolution in the United States.
[4] Régis Debray, The Revolution in the Revolution, (1967); Régis Debray, Latin America: The Long Revolution (1965)
[5] This point has been demonstrated by the revolutionary struggles of the nineteenth-century and the twentieth-century, where such struggles required some form of socialist party or socialist organisation to succeed. It is likely that this will remain the case for any revolutionary struggle in the present century – the twenty-first century.
latin america
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Iran: Class struggle and neo-liberal capital accumulation-Minna Langeberg

Posted by admin On March - 2 - 2019 Comments Off on Iran: Class struggle and neo-liberal capital accumulation-Minna Langeberg


February 25, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Recent months have seen protests throughout Iran, by teachers, nurses, labourers, retirees, oil industry workers, bazaar traders and shopkeepers, truck drivers, farmers, the unemployed, students, and many more.

The current wave of protests across the country is a continuation of those of December 2017- January 2018 that were brutally suppressed by the regime. Like the 2017-18 protests, they signal the deep crisis of legitimacy of the regime, as expressed by one of the most enduring slogans that emerged from those protests: ‘Fundamentalists, Reformists, the game is over’. The main slogan of current protests is ‘Bread. Work. Freedom’.

These protests are sporadic, self-organised, fragmented and generally small in size – but more or less continuous. They are grassroots protests against the current situation in Iran, which has reached a boiling point. These are protests of the working class, women, the poor, the unemployed, marginalised, the underclass and the ‘surplus population’ who cannot be absorbed into capitalist wage labour.

These protests are about starvation wages, slavery-like workers’ conditions, poverty and hunger, unemployment, inflation, currency devaluation, collapsed fraudulent financial schemes that have eaten up retirees’ savings, and systematic corruption at every level of government and society. Contrary to what has often been said, these protests are not merely about economic conditions, but about almost every aspect of life in Iran. And although US sanctions have worsened the economic situation, they are not the cause: the cause is a religious fascist regime that faces a deep crisis of legitimacy.

The crisis, to quote Gramsci, “…consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Or to put it differently, Iran is in a ‘revolutionary situation’ as described by Lenin, where those ‘above’ cannot continue to rule, and those ‘below’ do not want to be ruled in the old way. The regime, in deep crisis on all fronts — economic, social, political, cultural, international — can neither continue to rule through ‘hegemonic’ consent, nor can it continue to use sheer repression indefinitely. This is a time of monsters.

Let us examine briefly the recent context of these protests.

Neo-liberal capital accumulation

Neo-liberal policies of ‘structural adjustment’ were adopted by various administrations at the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) under the auspices of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Adoption of policies of privatisation and deregulation of the labour market in the past three decades have lead to disastrous consequences: unemployment, a huge reserve army of labour, an underclass and the working poor, growth of shanty towns and closures of factories and industrial production. Overall the result has been socialisation of poverty.

Iran’s economy is currently in recession due to deep structural problems that can only be addressed politically.

It is very difficult to show the exact extent of this structural crisis statistically because of the nature of data. The government sees publication of economic and social data as a political act; data is either suppressed and withheld, or highly manipulated for public consumption. What adds to the problem is the existence of parallel government organisations and agencies, which produce their own data conflicting one another and sometimes themselves.

However, we can provide some information. In a November 2018 report, the IMF predicted that Iran’s inflation rate would rise to 40% by end of the year, and that the economic recession would deepen into a 3.6% economic contraction in 2019, partly aided by US sanctions, the devaluation of the currency and falls in oil production and exports. This inflation rate is possibly an underestimation; some economists estimate the inflation rate to be 100%.

The IMF’s inflation rate is very different from the official inflation rate. The official inflation rate is produced by both the Statistical Centre of Iran (SCI) and the Central Bank (CB). According to the latter, the inflation rate was 18% for the 12-month period ending in December 21, 2018. But recent inflation rates produced by the Central Bank contradict the SCI’s rate and are much higher and more accurate – 25% for the 12 month period to Dec 2018. There are reports that the CB has been put under pressure by the government not to publish its data.

There is a system of national minimum wage in Iran, determined by the Supreme Labour Council within the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, composed of the Minister of Labour, employers representatives, workers ‘representatives’ (chosen by the Council itself) and a number of ‘experts’ in economic and social affairs. The national minimum wage is reviewed annually.

Reports indicate this minimum wage is so low, compared to the rate of inflation and cost of living, that it may cover only some 30% of living costs of a worker and her/his family. In other words, labour power can barely reproduce itself. Further, breaches of minimum wage payments are far too common, but the level of unemployment is so high, the size of the reserve army of labour so large, workers’ bargaining power so weak, and corruption so deep that there is no chance of seriously enforcing the law.

There are now plans to dismantle even this extremely low and barely enforced minimum wage. Some of the deregulatory measures proposed so far are the ‘floating’ of the minimum wage, introduction of a ‘multi-layered’ minimum wage, ‘regional’ minimum wage or ‘consensual’ wage, and exclusion of women household heads and rural workers from minimum wage and labour legislation protection altogether, all in the interest of ‘flexibility’, improving capital’s falling rate of profit and reducing the unemployment rate. These proposals have been advocated by various factions of the ruling class, members of the Parliament, Ministry of Labour officials, some ‘charity organisations’ and sham government-controlled ‘Islamic Labour Councils’. Many of the workers, whose terms and conditions are going to be further deregulated, are already on starvation wages.

The official rate of unemployment is over 12%, but in reality it is more than double that, perhaps between 25-30%. In some cities and regions, 60% of the population is unemployed. Realistically if all other categories such as ‘economically inactive population’ of working age, underemployment in the form of part time and precarious work (both very widespread), home-based work and ‘informal economy’ work are taken into account, we would arrive at a much higher unemployment rate. But as no data is collected on these categories, an unemployment rate more than twice the official rate is just an ‘educated’ guess.

Officially, the total labour force is just below 27 million, over 3 million of whom are estimated to be officially unemployed. Between 40- 42 million of the working age population is ‘economically inactive’. Some are students, but a large number are made up of ‘discouraged job seekers’, those with tenuous connection with the labour market, working from home, and absorbed into the informal sector. Officially, informal work is work not protected by the labour law and social insurance provisions. There is no data on the size of the ‘informal economy’ but it has grown massively in the past 10 to 15 years – an almost new phenomenon in Iran – the low official participation rate of about 40% is an indication of a huge reserve army of labour partly absorbed into this sector.

According to some estimates, 6 million people work in the informal economy. Of all the jobs created in 2015, only 30% had social protection and 70% were in the informal economy. Most of these workers are considered as ‘self-employed’, but, in fact, they are ‘wage hunters and gatherer’, engaged in ‘jobs without definition’: street peddlers, itinerant hawkers, fruits and vegetable sellers, taxi drivers and waste pickers. They can be seen everywhere across the cities, on street pavements, parks and subway stations where they sell whatever they can without paying rent or taxes. But, on the whole, the main categories of informal sector workers are street vendors, hawkers, and home-based and rural producers. Wherever there is high unemployment and poverty, there is also growth of the ‘informal sector’. Mostly young people, without any future prospects, and rural-urban migrants, are absorbed into this sector. A growing number of these informal sector workers have university-level education.

A broad sense of the reserve army of labour, therefore, beyond the officially unemployed, would include informal sector workers, those working from home, the ‘self employed’ as a disguised category of unemployed, forced part-time workers or the underemployed, precarious workers, that is, those without ‘permanent’ or clear contract of work such as hourly, daily or seasonal workers, those with ‘blank contracts’ (or ‘zero-hour’ contracts), ‘discouraged’ workers, ‘home-makers’, those categorised in the official data described as ‘not identified’, the sub-proletariat and the underclass. If all these elements and categories are taken into account, they may then amount to between 15 to 20 million of the working age population — an ‘educated’ guess again. If I am correct, then the size of this reserve army of labour, is quite close to the size of the employed population. This is alarming economically and socially. For some, these heterogeneous elements of the dispossessed, as well as the lumpenproletariat, should be theorised as sectors or factions of the working class – but this is a theoretical debate I cannot enter into here.

In Iran, 19 million of the population are slum dwellers and the marginalised. There is an overlap between them and some of the elements of the reserve army of labour described above, but they are not identical. There are also an estimated seven million child labourers, mostly between the ages of 5-10.

Decades of neo-liberal capital accumulation and kleptocracy have resulted in the growth of wageless proletarisation, precarious wage labour, shanty towns and child labour.

In terms of real wages, the fall has been dramatic in the past few years. During the first six months of 2018 estimates are of a 50- 90% fall in real wages, the lower rate being based on official inflation rate. This fall in real wages is partly due to the currency devaluations during that period, but also due to a very high inflation rate, and the government’s active neo-liberal policies of labour market deregulation and privatisations.

Likewise, there is no agreement on the definition of poverty line and thus the proportion of the population below the poverty line cannot be accurately determined.

The poverty line is generally measured in terms of income per month of a family of four. According to 2018 press reports, 33% of the population, or nearly 26 million, is below the absolute poverty line, and 6% of the population, or five millions, are starving: they cannot afford to buy enough food. On the whole, estimates of the population below the poverty line vary between 35-80%. An estimate of some 50% of the population below the poverty line would be a somewhat conservative one.

Iran ranks second in the world in proven natural gas reserves and fourth in proven crude oil reserves.

The drive towards privatisation began in the early 2000s with the 2006 amendment of Article 44 of the Constitution, allowing for the sale of state-owned companies. The Iranian Privatisation Organisation (IPO) was created by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finance, and the government declared a large-scale privatisation program in its Fifth Five-Year National Development Plan 2015-2020, aiming at privatising about 20% of the state-owned enterprises each year.

But full-fledge privatisation of the economy, dismantling of the social wage, cuts to social spending and state-subsidies, and thus socialisation of poverty, were implemented during Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-2013). The main beneficiaries of these policies were the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and economic institutions under the control of the Supreme Leader Khamenei.

During the first half of 2018, privatisation grew by 100% compared to the same period a year before. Nearly $600 million worth of state-owned shares were transferred to the private sector during this period. In Nov 2018 IPO announced that the sale of some 60% of state-owned shares to the private sector, envisaged in the March 2017- March 2018 budget, had been achieved. The government expected to earn about US $2.5 billion from these sales that year.

Privatisation via IPO led to corruption, nepotism and shady deals. A network of insiders and semi-criminal and corrupt cronies of the regime has grown, who share in the looting of the country with the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his clan. While the number of those living at or below the poverty line and in shanty towns inhabited by the ‘surplus population’ grow, privatisation and neo-liberal policies have created a highly polarized society and an explosive situation.

Labour rights and trade unionism

There is no trade union system in Iran and independent trade unions are banned. Workers lack the power of collective bargaining and are ‘represented’ by state-controlled Islamic Workers’ Councils, which are present in most workplaces and sectors of the economy. These Councils are supervised by the (Islamic) Workers’ House, affiliated with the World Federation of Trade Unions. The Islamic Labour Councils are by no means trade unions; they are tripartite organisations made up of the government, employers and (sham) worker ‘representatives’ who are selected based on their royalty to the regime and commitment to Islamic ideology. One of the tasks of these Labour Councils is workplace spying on militant workers.

The right to strike is not recognised by law in Iran, and labour strikes are brutally suppressed. Labour activist are routinely harassed, arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to long jail terms. Torture, beating and murder have been the modus operandi of the regime from its very inception, and are neither new nor isolated practices.

The International Trade Union Council (ITUC) Global Rights Index 2018 ranks Iran as a country with ‘no guarantee of rights’, that is, a country where ‘legislation may spell out certain rights, but workers have effectively no access to these rights’. The ITUC Report 2018 states that in Iran ”… many labour activists remain arbitrarily imprisoned and in dire detention conditions”.

Reza Shahabi’s case is an example of long prison sentences for labour and civil rights activists, and their mistreatment and torture by the regime. Shahabi, a leading labour activist of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburban Bus Company, was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison in 2010, accused of ‘collusion against national security’, a routine charge used by the Revolutionary Islamic Courts. He was also sentenced to one more year imprisonment for ‘spreading propaganda against the state’, fined, and banned from all trade union activities for five years. In March 2018 Shahabi was released from prison.

Esamil Abdi, a school teacher and secretary general of the Coordinating Council of Teachers’ Union, was arrested in 2016 and similarly charged with ‘collusion against national security’ and ‘spreading propaganda against the state’. He is serving a six-year prison sentence.

In May 2018, Mohammad Habibi, a teacher and member of teachers’ union was arrested during a peaceful gathering, and in August that year was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was also banned from political and social activities for two years, and had a travel ban of two years imposed on him along with and 74 lashes.

Activists’ death in prison is common. Death occurs either following injuries received as a result of torture, or illness as a result of mistreatment and appalling prisons conditions and purposeful refusal of the regime to provide medical treatment. There are known recent cases of murder of imprisoned activists where the cause of death has been announced officially as ‘suicide’.

Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company and National Steel Company strikes

Against this background, two simultaneous waves of labour protests stand out, both in the largely-industrial southwest province of Khuzestan: the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company protests, and the National Steel Company protests in Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan province, a region of Iran devastated by the Iran-Iraq war, environmental decay, water shortages, poverty, ethnic minority oppression and emigration.

Haft Tappeh is located in the southwest province of Khuzestan, some 15 kilometres from the ancient city of Shush. The sugarcane company was established in 1961, occupies an area of 24 hectares of land and was the largest state-owned employer in the area. In 2015 the company was privatised, which led to 7000 job losses. There is an Haft Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate, that has a long history but in its present form was established in 2008 in the course of a 42-day mass strike over unpaid wages. The trade union is not recognised by the company and government authorities.

Haft Tappeh workers have been struggling for a number of years over a host of issues: four months of unpaid wages and benefits; corrupt and incompetent management; casualisation of work; formation of independent workers’ councils; and nationalisation of the company.

It has become fairly common in Iran for workers not to be paid, for five, six or even 12 months or more. Non-payment of wages is an indication of the deep structural crisis of the state and the economy. For reasons we cannot go into here, during the past three decades, capital’s profitability in Iran’s industrial and manufacturing sectors has fallen and financialisation of capital has grown exponentially, with finance capital being a particularly corrupt sector of the Iranian economy.

Strikes in Haft Tappeh started about November 2 and continued for over a month, bringing production to a standstill. It was especially during these protests that Esmail Bakhshi emerged as a prominent labour rights activist. In his speeches, he has repeatedly denounced kleptocracy, systematic corruption and mismanagement under the disguise of privatisation, attacked workers exploitation and argued for the nationalisation of the company and the formation of independent workers council.

On November 16, workers occupied the site of the Friday prayer in Shush, chanting angry slogans against the clergy and government authorities. Friday prayers are state-organised religious-political affairs, and Friday Prayer leaders are chosen under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader Khamenei. In post-revolutionary Iran they have become one of the main ideological apparatuses of the state and are a means of communicating official state policies and ideologies. They combine religion, politics and popular agitation. Invading and occupying these avenues is a serious step to take.

On Nov 18 the regime sent its anti-riot squads to Shush to flex its muscles, although fearing escalation, they acted cautiously and tried to avoid direct confrontation. The exercise was a warning signal on the part of the regime.

Bakhshi was arrested that day by security forces in Shush, together with civil activist Sepideh Gholian and 18 other workers. Other workers were released later, but Bakhshi and Gholian remained in jail. The latter was released on December 18 on bail.

Bakhshi was arrested on sham charges of endangering ‘national security’. During his 25 days in detention, there was a veil of silence on Bakhshi’s whereabouts and condition, except for the news on one occasion, that as a result of beatings, he had been taken to a local hospital with internal bleedings and a swollen face.

Bakhshi was released on bail on December 12. On January 4 he posted a letter on Instagram. In the letter Bakhshi revealed that during his 25 days in detention he had been subjected to torture, abuse and beating, and challenged the Intelligence Minister to a live televised debate on this issue.

In the open letter Bakhshi writes: “During the first few days, without reason or any conversation, they tortured me and beat me with their fists and kicked me until I was going to die. They beat me so much I couldn’t move in my cell for 72 hours. I was feeling so much pain that I couldn’t even sleep without suffering…Today almost two months after those difficult days. I still feel pain in my broken ribs, kidneys, left ear and testicles. But worse than the physical torture was the psychological torture. I don’t know what they did to me but I turned into a washed-up rat. My hands are still trembling. I used to walk with my feet firmly on the ground but I was humiliated into a different person. I still get severe panic attacks despite taking anxiety medication.”

Article 38 of Iran’s post-revolutionary Constitution states: “All forms of torture for the purpose of extracting confession or acquiring information are forbidden”. Article 7 of United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party, states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

But there is no Rechtsstaat (law-abiding constitutional state) in Iran. The system is arbitrary, brutal and violent. There are laws, but the state and its apparatuses, by routinely breaching them and violating the Constitution, have spread a general culture of lawlessness. No one feels obligated to abide by the law, especially the powerful and the rich.

Bakhshi’s torture by agents of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry has caused much uproar and outcry in the mainstream media and social networks because he is seen not as an ordinary activist, but a brave and outspoken labour activist representing over-exploited workers and the underclass.

After the publication of his post, several sources, including Bakhshi’s lawyer Farzaneh Zilabi stated that Bakhshi had been under pressure by intelligence agents to deny his claims, and received threatening telephone calls almost every day.

Given the extent of public reaction to Bakhshi’s post in Instagram, Islamic Republic authorities felt they had to react. There was a myriad of authorities commenting on the issue.

On January 7, the head of Judiciary Sadegh Larijani, in response to Bakhshi’s letter and under pressure from public opinion, said he had ordered an investigation into the matter, but reminded Bakhshi that a prison is a prison and not a ‘hotel’.

On January 8, Iran’s Prosecutor General Office announced that an independent ‘expert committee’ had been formed and sent to Khuzestan Province to investigate the allegations of torture. He tried to side step the matter by alluding to the possibility that a single security officer’s conduct should not be generalised to the whole system and warned against the appropriation of the matter by ‘enemy and hostile media’. At the same time, Hesamaldin Ashena, President Rouhani’s advisor, announced the president’s order for ‘quick and accurate’ investigation into allegations of torture.

Yet, on the same day, Heshmat Falahat-Pisheh, the head of the National Security Committee of the Parliament announced that Ministry of Intelligence had denied torturing Bakhshi, and that, after investigations, the Committee had reached the conclusion that no torture had ever taken place. Rather, Bakhshi had been involved in scuffles with the security forces during his arrest. He further claimed Bakhshi was connected to the ‘Workers Communist Party’, an Iranian political party in European exile. He added that ‘foreign media’ had created the uproar over this matter and Bakhshi’s case before the Committee was closed.

On January 9, President’s Bureau Chief Mahmoud Vaezi repeated the Ministry of Intelligence’s denial of Bakhshi’s torture, and threatened that the Intelligence Ministry had the right to prosecute Bakhshi for allegations of torture.

The next day, Asghar Karimi, head of the Executive Committee of the Workers Communist Party of Iran in European exile stated in a press interview that Bakhshi had never been a member of the Party nor had he ever applied for membership.

On January 14, Mohammad-Jafar Montazeri, Iran’s Prosecutor General went further and announced that Bakhshi’s claims have been lies and ‘politically motivated’. He added Bakhshi was ‘no ordinary person’ and due to his connections with ‘certain places’ (that is, communist parties overseas), he has spread these rumours as a cover up for political purposes. He threatened that ‘if Bakhshi has committed a crime, he will be dealt with according to the law’.

On January 16, Mohammad Reza Tabesh, the vice-president of the ‘reformist’ faction Omid (Hope) in the Parliament repeated the Ministry of Intelligence’s denial of Bakhshi’s torture. He added that according to documents and confessions, Bakhshi has ‘been in contact with communist parties overseas’.

Earlier January 8, Bakhshi and his lawyer had managed to meet with some members of the reformist faction of the Parliament, who later announced that Bakhshi had somehow revised his story and had claimed he had only been beaten up by security forces.

Therefore, in the course of less than two weeks a myriad of authorities — the Minister of Intelligence, the Public Prosecutor, the Judiciary and the Parliamentary Committee on National Security — have denied Bakhshi’s torture, and reduced the case to ‘scuffles’ with security forces at the time of arrest. Moreover, they have turned the table, and changed Bakhshi’s position, from a complainant to that of a potential ‘accused’ with threats of legal prosecution hanging over his head. In addition to the usual ambiguous charges of ‘spreading propaganda against the state’ and ‘disturbing public order’, Bakhshi has now been accused of links with Iranian ‘communists’ overseas.

Both Bakhshi and his lawyer have responded to these threats, but they in a disadvantageous position vis-a-vis the experienced and organised brutal repressive apparatuses of the state. On January 16, Bakhshi’s lawyer defended Bakhshi’s claims to torture and asked authorities not to comment on cases still before the courts. The Islamic Revolutionary Court in Shush is still investigating Bakhshi’s case.

There were also other major arrests during the last two months of 2018. Ali Nejati, a retired Haft Tappeh worker and labour activist was arrested at his home in Shush on November 29 when the Haft Tappeh workers’ strikes were taking place. According to his lawyer, Farzaneh Zilabi, he was violently beaten by the security agents when he asked for an arrest warrant, despite his age and serious heart condition. Nejati had been arrested before in 2015 for his labour rights activities. In mid-December 2018, his lawyer Ms Zilabi announced he had been arrested in relation to previous records and participation in the Haft Tappeh strikes, but that he had also been charged with ‘endangering national security’, ‘spreading propaganda against the state’, and ‘disrupting public order’. Nejati remains in prison.

On December 17 and 18, the government arrested 40 leading steelworkers and strike organisers from the National Steel Company in Ahvaz. The steelworks complex came under close surveillance by security and intelligence forces. The plan is to create an Islamic Labour Council there. The arrested workers were gradually released, the last two of them on January 19.

The latest developments, at the time of writing, has been the broadcast of a program on national television on January 19, in which both Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian are placed before the cameras and deliver forced ‘confessions’ about their real subversive agenda of overthrowing the regime and their connections with Iranian ‘communist’ parties and groupings abroad. A day after the broadcast of this program, security forces attacked Gholian’s home, taking her and her brother away. According to the Haft Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate, security forces attacked Bakhshi’s home and took him away around midnight on January 20. The Syndicate has demanded the release of Bakhshi, Nejati and other imprisoned workers.

The new managing director and creation of ‘Islamic Workers’ Councils’

Given the extent of the success of labour strikes in attracting public support, and fearing an escalation in the situation, the government paid some of the workers’ unpaid wages and, on December 1, appointed a new managing director for the company.

In mid November, the Judiciary announced that the previous managing director of the company had fled the country, after stealing $800 million. Other reports in December claimed he was still in the country. It is still not possible to confirm his whereabouts, given the Mafia-like connections amongst the state authorities and their cronies. The state in Iran is run like an organised crime syndicate.

The formation of Islamic Labour Councils is a major means of breaking workers’ strikes and creating divisions among workers. On December 31, intelligence forces and the Minister of Labour hastily set up sham elections for membership into the Haft Tappeh Islamic Labour Councils. The very existence of the Islamic Labour Councils is a cause of bitter divisions among workers and, under threats and intimidations, some of the striking workers joined the Council. Some 800 of Haft Tappeh workers took part in these elections and eight workers were elected as members of the Islamic Labour Council of the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company.

On January 6, the Haft Tappeh Workers’ Syndicate, the true workers’ representative recognised by the workers but not the government, published an announcement in which it rejected the Islamic Labour Council as a bogus anti-labour formation.

The announcement says: ”Physical violence and force is only one way of enforcing anti-labour policies, another means of suppression is through formation of Islamic Labour Councils…Workers are aware and know that the Islamic Labour Councils are neither labour councils nor do they represent workers’ interests; rather, their real task is to act as informers for government intelligence forces…The real nature of the Islamic Labour Councils is defending and protecting the interests of the state; they are anti-labour organisations….To those who yielded to intimidation and threats by intelligence forces, we say it is not late yet, and you can still return to the fold; to those who resisted and defended their honour and reputation, we say thank you and well done! ”

There have been numerous other protests by wage and salary earners in Iran during 2018, notably:

* Truck Drivers — Between May and December, truck drivers were sporadically on strike, including for 10 days in May and 17 days in October. These strikes, organised by the Free Truckers Union, were against high inflation, low fares, insurance costs, and spare parts costs. Truck drivers also demanded the removal of brokers from terminals, increasing pensions and punishing corrupt officials. These strikes spread to more than 300 towns and cities across the country and lasted several weeks. In October 2018, the regime cracked down, arresting hundreds of drivers, charging them with acting ‘against national security’, and threatening them with death penalty. Several international trade union federations, including the US, Italian and Danish transport trade union federations, declared their support for the Iranian truck drivers. On October 12, the International Transport Workers Federation condemned the death penalty charges against drivers.

* Teachers — In October 2018, thousands of teachers went on a two-day national strike in which they went to school but did not hold classes. The Coordinating Council of Teachers Union (CCTU) called the strike. Teachers condemned high inflation, low pay, privatisation of the education system and poor working conditions, and demanded the release of arrested teachers and trade union activists.

Teachers are one of the lowest paid professionals in Iran; they often live below the poverty line and have to resort to a second job in the ‘informal economy’, such as driving taxis, to make ends meet. At least two teachers were arrested during this strike. Later, a 65-year-old retired teacher and union leader, who had written materials critical of the regime, was abducted by Islamic Revolutionary Guards officers and involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. He was later released.

Other protests were by bazaar shop keepers and traders in June 2018, and taxi drivers, hospital employees, office workers, petrochemical workers, municipality workers, farmers and students throughout 2018.

There have also been protests by retirees and those who live off interests on their savings. In 2017, corrupt financialisation of the economy led to the collapse of large private banks and the disappearance of millions of Iranians’ savings. Private banks and financial institutions have been allowed to operate since 2000 and proliferated without Central Bank’s supervision. There were protests against the government and these institutions throughout the country and they continue to this day, but many people have been able to recover their savings.


Within Iran, teachers unions, bus drivers syndicates, the Union of Metalworkers & Mechanics of Iran, truck drivers unions, petrochemical workers, students and others have expressed their solidarity with Haft Tappeh and Ahvaz Steel Industry workers.

On January 9, the five major workers’ organisations — Workers of South Pars Projects, Petrochemical Workers of Mahshahr District and Imam Port City, Workers’ activists in Shush and Andimshek, and Workers of Tehran-Karaj Mehvar — published a statement in support of the Haft Tappeh and Ahvaz National Steel Industry workers.

IndustriALL Global Union and the International Trade Union Council Congress in Copenhagen have issued statements and passed resolutions in support of striking and protesting workers and have called for an end to the repression by the Iranian government. Uniting Food, Farm and Hotel Workers Worldwide (IUF), to which the Haft Tappeh Workers Syndicate is affiliated, also issued a statement in November in support of Haft Tappeh workers.

In early December, more than 80 foreign trade unions and workers organisations wrote an open letter to the Supreme Leader Khamenei expressing their solidarity with striking Iranian workers and asked for the release of Bakhshi and others. Trade unions and labour federations from France, Italy, Brazil, Spain, Indonesia, Senegal, Egypt, Paraguay and a number of other countries signed the letter. French, British, German, Swedish, Danish and Canadian trade unions and labour federations have expressed their support and solidarity.


The Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Company and the National Steel Workers protests are significant because they show the extent of working class consciousness and growing solidarity among sectors of workers in Iran, in the face of the common enemy that they correctly identify as capitalism and theocratic rule.

These protestors are also significant in the history of Iranian working class movement because of the nature of their demands: independent workers’ council, job security and an end to privatisation and casualisation of work. These are the common demands of the entire working class in Iran.

These protests are highly representative of the extent of anger among not only the working class but also the unemployed, the excluded and the marginalised — the social rejects and ‘surplus population’ of capitalism — against the regime and its pro-capital policies.

In both cases, protests that had started with demands over unpaid wages and working conditions have turned into protests against capitalism, neo-liberal privatisation and the deregulation of the labour market.

To keep them under control, the state met some of the lesser demands, such as the partial payment of wages, and beginning to deal with the re-classification of occupations, job security and casualisation of work, but the bigger demands of nationalisation of industries and formation of independent workers’ councils have not been addressed.

Iran’s state is a failed state that survives through sheer repressive control of the society. Its structural crisis is deep and intractable; there are parallel centres of power, some hidden and informal, others in bitter rivalry with one another, all equally corrupt and beyond any possibility of reform.

The situation is tense, but the struggle continues. This is by no means the end of the story.

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