April , 2020

People Aur Politics

A liberation zone for democratic rights, multiculturalism, international brotherhood and peace.

what is socialism from below 1). SOCIALISM'S CRISIS TODAY is a crisis in the meaning of ...
Rally called by both Islamist and secular groups aimed at pressing military rulers to hand ...
March 1, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Historical Materialism — ...
Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya addresses a mass rally. In two ...
Through a myriad of «civil society» organizations, the United States has been financing Chechen groups ...
Interview with Wolfgang Streeck, German political economist. THE German political economist Wolfgang Streeck is one of ...
The recent history of Middle East has been fraught with conflict. More information has started ...
Glorious October Revolution-A critical appraisal One hundred years ago the most democratic revolution in history took ...
Factory committees, trade unions,
and the struggle for power Workers’ organizations 
in the Russian Revolution Factory committees, trade ...
In one sense the Obama administration's reported creation of a “playbook” establishing rules for killing ...
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The domain in which my argument operates is the domain of international relations (IR) analyzed ...

Archive for April, 2018

What Happened to the Nicaraguan Revolution?-Dan La Botz

Posted by admin On April - 30 - 2018 Comments Off on What Happened to the Nicaraguan Revolution?-Dan La Botz


The upheaval in Nicaragua that lasted from April 18 to April 21 and the repression that reportedly left 63 dead, 15 missing and 160 injured by gunfire, have both subsided for the moment. The protests halted after President Daniel Ortega announced the cancellation of his proposed changes in the social security pension law. Photographers were among those beaten. Other human rights centers and the Jesuit University of Central America in Managua as well as Nicaraguan newspaper accounts and discussions with people in Managua confirm many of these deaths and injuries.

Since April 22 Nicaraguans have participated in numerous marches, some raising the call for “Peace and Justice,” and many of the participants carrying placards calling upon President Ortega and his vice-president and wife Rosario Murillo to resign. On April 26 an enormous pilgrimage of tens of thousands called for peace and negotiation organized by the Catholic Church.

The early protests and the subsequent peace marches—and those killed or injured in them—have involved virtually every sector of Nicaraguan society: students, workers, religious leaders and their lay associates, medical and veterinary students, employees of private companies, and business leaders. La Prensa, a conservative newspaper, produced a photo essay that puts faces on the protesters.

While the protests began with opposition to the increasing in social security payments and the accompany reduction in benefits, they soon became massive outpourings against the violent repression of peaceful protestors, and finally a call for the end to the Ortega dictatorship. The Catholic hierarchy in Nicaragua is attempting to mediate the conflict and to organize a dialog between Ortega and his opponents. The questions now are: Who will get a seat at the table? and Will Ortega be willing to negotiate his own resignation?

The Repression

Ortega and Murillo ultimately hold responsibility for the repression that was organized both through the police forces and by the Sandinista party (FSLN) through the Sandinista Youth (JS). For years, as I discuss in my book What Went Wrong?,  the party and its youth group have harassed and beaten opposition political candidates, feminists, workers, farmers and other dissidents.

Among the most serious incidents (which are documented in my book and also in the Revista Envío available in Spanish and English) were these:

In 2008 both the Catholic Church and the Rosario Murillo who was part of the Ortega administration attacked the Autonomous Women’s Movement which supported abortion rights including helping a nine-year old rape victim get an abortion. The Catholic Church filed a criminal proceeding against the Network of Women Against Violence while Ortega’s Attorney General raided the office of the Autonomous Women’s Movement. The government engaged in a persistent campaign aimed at intimidating feminists.
In May of 2008 the Ortega government sent police to break a strike by truck and taxi drivers, during which police beat the strikers and intentionally broke truck windows.
In August of 2008 Sandinista thugs attacked political opposition protesters in the city of León.
In February of 2009 Sandinista goons attacked protest demonstrations by political opponents in Jinotega, Chinandega, and León.
Throughout 2014 farmers’ and environmentalists’ protests against Ortega’s Chinese-financed inter-oceanic canal were violent repressed with scores of injured and five killed.
In many of these incidents, the police and Sandinista hooligans cooperate, or the police look the other way as the Sandinista heavies do their dirty work.

All of this makes us want to know, What went wrong? The following is a reprint of my October 17, 2016 New Politics article written on the eve of the Nicaraguan election in which Ortega was reelected.

An Authoritarian Government

In late July 2016 President Daniel Ortega, running for his third consecutive term as president—his fourth term altogether—succeeded in having sixteen members of the opposition expelled from the legislature. Also removed were their 12 alternates, 28 legislators altogether. Those who were removed belonged to both the conservative Independent Liberal Party (PLI) led by banker Eduardo Montealegre and to the Movement for Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), originally a leftist breakaway from Ortega’s own FSLN. The legislators’ removal ended any semblance of political pluralism and gave Ortega absolute control over the parliament, making Nicaragua effectively a one-party state on the eve of the November 2016 election.

Then at the beginning of August, Ortega announced that his running mate for vice-president would be his wife Rosario Murillo, now the Minister of Communications and in practice already the country’s co-president. The Nicaraguan Constitution once forbid anyone from holding the office of president for two consecutive terms or from holding more than two non-consecutive terms as president, as well as forbidding a spouse from being a candidate. Ortega’s control of the Supreme Court, the legislature and the Supreme Electoral Council made it possible for him to create a new constitution in 2014 that allowed him to run for president for a third term. To make sure that there is no questioning of the election procedure, Ortega has forbidden international election observers. Ortega and his wife, who have placed their children in positions in government, appear to have insured that, like the Somozas before them, they will hand power on to their children and establish another dynastic dictatorship.

Nicaragua’s National Coalition for Democracy called the coming elections to be carried out under these conditions “a farce,” while the Bishops of the Catholic Church condemned Ortega’s attempt to impose a one-party regime. Faced with the closing off of democratic options important figures on both the right and the left have suggested that a revolt may be the only option. On the right, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the son of former president Violeta Chamorro, told the Nicaraguans that the situation had “legitimized the right to rebel.” Vilma Núñez, a longtime FSLN activist who had challenged Ortega for the FSLN presidential nomination in 1996 and who today heads the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), went even further, calling upon the Nicaraguan people to exercise their “right to rebellion.”[1] Creating a new dictatorship, Ortega may also be creating the conditions for a future revolution, though at the moment neither the forces nor the leadership for a rebellion exist.

Daniel and Danielismo

Ortega has ruled Nicaragua intermittently since the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979. He headed the revolutionary government from 1979 to 1990, first as head of the revolutionary Junta that ruled the country from 1979-1985 and then as elected president from 1985-1990. He ran unsuccessfully for president in 1996 and 2001, but even out of office, he generally controlled the legislature, working as a partner with the conservative Liberal Party governments. Then in the 2006 elections he won the presidency with a plurality of 38 percent of the vote and won again in 2011 with 62 percent of vote. Polls show him likely to win this election by 60 percent or more, a testimony not so much to his leadership as to the ruling couple’s control of the government, of the social welfare programs, and of much of the media.

Ortega’s political domination of the country today is nearly absolute. Since he took office as president for the second time in 2007, Ortega, the former guerrilla fighter and leader of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), has succeeded in concentrating in his hands the control not only of the executive office—which he shares in an irregular and extra-constitutional manner with his wife Rosario Murillo—but also domination of the Supreme Court, of the legislature, and of the Supreme Electoral Council. His political power is reinforced by his personal control over Venezuela’s financial contributions to Nicaragua, and until recently by an alliance with the Catholic Church constructed around opposition to abortion and feminism, as well as by his association with the country’s largest corporations and wealthiest families, not to mention his shrewd buying up of radio and TV stations.

The FSLN, better known as the Sandinistas, once a revolutionary party, functions today as a typical political machine, winning votes through fear and favors. The party is constructed around “Daniel” and a system and ideology of social welfare that has come to be called Danielismo. The FSLN has created a cult of personality around Ortega that rivals any, with huge portraits of Ortega and Murillo appearing on billboards throughout Managua year in and year out, while crowds are brought out to public places to chant, “Daniel! Daniel!” To enhance his image, periodically Ortega stands beside foreign heads of state with left-wing credentials—Hugo Chávez before he died, Nicolás Maduro since then; Fidel and later Raúl Castro; and also Evo Morales of Bolivia—maintaining the illusion that his government has something to do with some sort of socialism. In fact what he shares with those leaders is not socialism but rather his stature as a populist caudillo, though now one with right-wing politics.

Regrettably and shamefully, much of the Latin American and U.S. left continues to support Ortega and the Sandinista government, largely because of its alliance with the Cuban Communist regime and Venezuelan Bolivarian government. The Foro de São Paulo, the conference of Latin America’s left parties, continues to treat the FSLN as if it were a genuine left party, while TeleSUR, the TV station and news service supported by Venezuela, Cuba, and several other Latin American governments, brushes off any criticism of Ortega as right-wing and imperialist. Some on the U.S. and European left suggest that any criticism of Ortega and the FSLN is either directed by or serves the interest of the U.S. State Department.[2] Yet for decades some of the strongest criticism of Ortega has come from Nicaraguans, many of them former Sandinista leaders who argue that Ortega long ago abandoned any socialist principles.

Some American and other foreign leftists, such as Roger Burbach or more recently Jennifer Goett and Courtney Desiree Morris have criticized Daniel Ortega, placing responsibility on U.S. imperialism and on Ortega personally for the betrayal of the revolution, but denying that the Sandinistas’ political values and particular leftist ideals had anything to do with the revolution’s degeneration. In fact, the core beliefs of the Sandinistas—the political vision and theory of Carlos Fonseca, Tomás Borge, and Daniel Ortega—not only contributed to the revolution’s deterioration but lie at its root.

The Nicaraguan situation must be appraised not only in terms of U.S. imperialism and of Ortega as a leader, but also by making analysis of the country’s history and of its political and economic regime. Analyzing Nicaragua’s supposedly “socialist” regime, we must ask the same questions we would if we were analyzing any other nation: What is the nature of the political system? Who rules? Whose voice is not heard? What is the nature of the economic system? Who profits? Who works for low wages? Who must emigrate to find work?

While Ortega and his party govern, a handful of extremely wealthy families dominate the economy, enriching themselves at the expense of the country’s people. Nicaragua remains the poorest nation in Latin America, excepting Haiti, with 12 percent of the population unemployed and over 30 percent of the population living in poverty and 8 percent in extreme poverty. Nicaragua ranked 125th out of 188 nations on the United Nations Human Development Index in 2015.[3]

In 1979 Nicaragua experienced a genuine revolution, one that utterly destroyed the Somoza dictatorship, swept away the state, and created a new political system. At the time there was talk of a mixed economy, political, pluralism, and democratic socialism. National literacy and health campaigns improved the lives of much of the country’s rural population. The U.S.-backed Contra War in Nicaragua kept the Sandinista government of the 1980s from carrying out much of its reform program, while the 1990 election and subsequent elections brought right-wing governments to power. When Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas returned to power in 2006, they were no longer the revolutionary party with the socialist program of the past. Rather Ortega and the Sandinistas allied with big business, the Catholic Church, and right-wing parties lead a government with neoliberal economic programs combined with social welfare programs, what has been called “social liberalism.” We examine here exactly how this transformation took place, as explained in much greater detail in my book What Went Wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis.

The Imperialist Background

Imperial powers—the Aztecs, the Spanish, the British, and the Americans—all took advantage of the fact that Nicaragua was a small territory, sparsely populated, and easily penetrated. While the Aztecs never fully controlled the country, Spain conquered and ruled Nicaragua for 300 years, establishing the domination of the conquerors’ descendants over the indigenous and over the African people who had been brought as slaves.

When thanks to revolutions in Mexico and South America between 1810 and 1821 all of Spanish America became independent, Nicaragua did as well, but while the Conservatives in the city of Granada and Liberals in León fought for control of the Pacific coast, the British entered into a treaty with indigenous Miskito people on the Caribbean coast, establishing a protectorate.

Later, with the discovery of gold in California, New York shipping magnate Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt established a shipping line to Nicaragua, together with overland and overwater service across the isthmus to the Pacific coast and from there to California and the goldfields. The American businessman’s involvement in Nicaragua perturbed the British who dominated Latin American banking and ran the import-export houses, leading to rising tensions between the two Anglo-Saxon imperial powers.

Then suddenly William Walker, an American filibuster— a politically ambitious pirate, with a small army of a couple of hundred men—inserted himself into the Conservative-Liberal conflict and quickly took control of the country, making himself president. Walker made English an official language, instituted slavery, and made it clear that he had broader ambitions in Central America and the Caribbean. Seeing the threat to their own existence, the surrounding nations—Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador—raised an army, and, with the support of Vanderbilt and the British, defeated and expelled Walker, who during a later attempted invasion attempt was captured and executed.

Vanderbilt and Walker had brought Nicaragua to the attention of the United States, and the American eagle now had its eyes on the little country to the south, waiting for his chance.

Following the Central American war against Walker, a joint Conservative-Liberal government came to power in Nicaragua and established its authority in the Pacific region—the “Thirty-Year Regime” it was called. But the country languished until the late nineteenth century sugar boom when José Santos Zelaya, a Liberal leader from Managua, center of the new sugar industry, took power in a coup.

Zelaya was determined to make Nicaragua a modern state, to create a United States of Central America, and to establish a degree of independence from the United States of America, which had meanwhile invested heavily in lumber, mining, and agriculture. Zelaya’s national project, however, coincided with the rise of the United States to Great Power status through foreign wars, the taking of colonies, and the building of an empire.

Under President McKinley, the United States fought and won the Spanish American War of 1898 taking Cuba and Puerto Rico, while in 1903, with the subterfuge of support for independence movement, President Roosevelt took Panama from Colombia. With the United States becoming the dominant power in the region, Zelaya’s plans for a stronger Nicaragua and a united Central America were doomed.

With the pretext of supporting a supposed democracy movement in Nicaragua that opposed Zelaya’s tyranny, President Taft ordered the U.S. Marines to invade and occupy the country in 1909, an occupation that in several phases that would last until 1933. The U.S. took control of the political system through a puppet president, while also managing the national finances, and running much of the economy. Nicaragua became a colony in all but name.

The Nicaraguan Liberals, however, continued to fight against the Conservatives who under U.S. tutelage now ran the country, leading to a civil war from 1926 to 1927. But when the Liberals finally gave up the fight, one man, Augusto César Sandino, refused to lay down his arms.


Sandino, a mystic and a radical, organized what he called the Army in Defense of the National Sovereignty of Nicaragua, in reality a ragged band of a few hundred workers and peasants who fought a guerrilla war against the U.S. Marines 1927 until 1933 when the Marines finally left. But it was not Sandino who had driven them away.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, fearing a war in Europe, called for a “Good Neighbor Policy.” FDR withdrew the U.S. Marines from Nicaragua and other nations in the region, but in their stead the United States worked with friendly governments, often dictatorships, establish U.S. Marine-trained “National Guards,” armed forces that could be counted on to protect pro-American governments and American interests.

In Nicaragua, as the U.S. Marines left, Anastasio “Tacho” Somoza García became head of the new National Guard. When the new Nicaraguan Liberal president, Juan Bautista Sacasa, took power in January 1933, he called for peace negotiations between himself, Somoza, and Sandino. Somoza took advantage of one of the meetings to kidnap and assassinate Sandino; from that moment Somoza effectively became the ruler of Nicaragua, winning election to the presidency in 1937.

Somoza, his sons Luis and Antonio Somoza Debayle, backed by the United States, would rule the country from 1937 to 1979, maintaining their power through a series of pacts with the opposition political parties combined with whatever repression as needed. They modernized the country, building highways and improving the agricultural economy, while enriching property-owning class and themselves; the majority of Nicaraguans remained poor, often hungry, unhealthy, and illiterate.

Virtually a monarchy, the Somoza family was for two generations all-powerful in Nicaragua. The Somoza dictatorship led to opposition: various attempts at armed rebellion by the Conservatives, including the assassination of Tacho Somoza in 1956 (succeeded immediately by one of his sons), were followed by the rise in the 1960s of a revolutionary movement taking its name from Sandino and calling itself the Sandinista Front for National Liberation or FSLN.

The Origins of the Sandinistas

Earlier, in the 1930s, pro-Soviet Communists had organized the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN), which, following the Communist International’s line, supported a Popular Front against fascism. In practice this meant supporting Tacho Somoza while simultaneously attempting to expand democratic rights and organize labor unions. This was a virtually impossible task, but this remained the Communist PSN’s position until the 1970s.

It was in this pro-Soviet Communist Party that the founders of the Sandinistas—Carlos Fonseca, Tomás Borge, and others—received their early political education, an experience that made them life-long supporters of the “Communist camp” and believers in a Communist-style of party organization.

In 1957 the PSN chose the young Fonseca to visit the Soviet Union, a year after Nikita Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and not long after the Soviet’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution. Yet Fonseca, future founder and leader of the Sandinistas until his death in 1976, remained a staunch supporter of Stalin and praised the Soviet Union for crushing the Hungarian uprising.

The Cuban Revolution of 1959 changed everything for leftists throughout Latin American, including the Sandinistas. Fidel Castro’s “26 of July” guerrilla movement’s overthrow of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista established an alternative leftist strategy, one not based on peaceful, gradual, electoral politics, but predicated upon armed revolution led by a dedicated guerrilla band.

Latin American revolutionaries in many countries turned away from the Communist Popular Front and took up armed struggle, believing it was possible to struggle not simply for a bourgeois-democratic state but for socialism. Fonseca justified the strategic change of direction in Nicaragua arguing that Augusto César Sandino had used just such a guerrilla war strategy in his struggle against the U.S. Marines in the 1920s.

Convinced by Castro’s model and Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s theory of the guerrilla foco, Fonseca and his co-thinkers left the Communist PSN, breaking with its Popular Front politics, and took up the Cuban example, but they never paused to reflect uponand never  criticized Stalin, Communist Party organization, or the Soviet Union. While becoming guerrilla warriors in the Cuban model, they would remain lifelong supporters of the Soviet Union and the Communist camp.

Founded in 1962, the Sandinistas courageously pursued a guerrilla strategy for more than 15 years, fighting and dying in the mountains of Nicaragua, but their strategy proved unsuccessful and by 1977 they had been virtually wiped out by Somoza’s National Guard. The FSLN’s guerrilla foco established two things: their heroism and their absolute and uncompromised determination to overthrow Somoza, but it also proved that their strategy was an utter failure.

The failure of their approach led the FSLN to split into three rival tendencies. Tomás Borge headed the Prolonged Peoples’ War tendency, which modified the Cuban model by adopting Mao Tse-Tung’s Peoples’ War theory, based on the notion of building up a peasant army in the countryside. Jaime Wheelock led the Proletarian Tendency, with the more traditional Marxist notion of organizing agricultural laborers and other workers.

Daniel Ortega was the leader of the Third or Insurrectionary Tendency that called for an alliance with other political organizations and with all Nicaraguan social classes, while at the same time seeking support from foreign governments in Europe and Latin America, and building a real army to invade Nicaragua from Costa Rica. By 1978, partly under pressure from Cuba, the three tendencies had reconciled, all of them supporting the Third Tendency position.

Dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle had selfishly enriched himself until he dominated so many industries that by the mid-1970s he had alienated and angered many in the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie. Nicaragua’s capitalists and Liberal and Conservative politicians organized the Democratic Union of Liberation in 1974 to oppose Somoza and the FSLN began to work with this bourgeois opposition. In 1978 the Sandinistas and its coalition partners presented to the world a new face of the revolution: Los Doce, the Twelve, a group of intellectuals, businessmen, and religious leaders—not one Sandinista revolutionary among them, apparently—who called upon Somoza to resign.

The country seethed with protest and rebellion as the newly formed Sandinista Army began its offensive. The Somoza government appeared about to collapse, and U.S. President Jimmy Carter, having concluded that it was impossible to save Somoza, worked through the Organization of American States to negotiate the dictator’s exit while preserving the government and the murderous National Guard, in order to prevent the FSLN from coming to power. The Broad Opposition Front (FAO), dominated by moderates, accepted the idea, but, when Somoza called for a plebiscite on his resignation, negotiations broke down. Carter then called for elections to create a “constitutional” successor government.

With that the FSLN left the FAO and with the United Peoples Movement created a new coalition the National Patriot Front. When National Guardsmen murdered ABC reporter Bill Stewart, a murder caught on camera and broadcast to the American public, Carter could no longer prevent the revolution from bringing down not only Somoza but the Guard and the government as well.

The FSLN had meanwhile built up its army under the shield of a friendly government in Costa Rica, strengthened by hundreds of Latin American volunteers. As the FSLN launched its attacks, supported by uprising in cities and towns throughout the country, Somoza’s National Guard tortured and murdered many young people while his air force bombed working class neighborhoods in the major cities.

The revolutionary movement cold not b suppressed. The FSLN, now supported by the entire country, pushed on to Managua in the midst of a popular national uprising, taking power on July 17, 1979. The revolution was greeted with jubilation by virtually the entire Nicaraguan population.


The FSLN in Power

The Sandinistas came to power with extremely widespread support and surprisingly with no competitors for power. The FSLN hurriedly a convened a three-day meeting of 400 members (virtually its entire membership in a nation of almost three million people) and adopted the “72-Hour Document.” The document stated that the FSLN planned to consolidate itself as a Marxist-Leninist Party; that its goal was the “dictatorship of the proletariat”; that it should become part of the Communist camp with the Soviet Union, Eastern European Bloc, Vietnam and Cuba; and that it would work through temporary alliances with other classes and political groups until it achieved those goals. As many of them said, their goal was to create another Cuba.

Publicly, however, the FSLN stated that it wanted to have a mixed economy, a pluralistic government, and a non-aligned foreign policy. That is, while planning to create a Cuban-style, one-party, Communist state that would become part of the Communist camp, the Sandinistas presented themselves as social democrats. Their duplicitous position confused and confounded both their enemies and their allies.

Always until then a clandestine “military-political organization,” now that the Revolution had been won, the FSLN was in a position to call a democratic convention of its members, to adopt a constitution, to ratify a program, and to elect a leadership—but the FSLN did none of those things. In fact, the FSLN would call no convention until after it lost power in 1990. The FSLN’s nine-man directorate would continue to lead the party through top-down commands to the country’s regions and zones as it had since its founding. Democracy in the party was not a core value of the Sandinistas; on the contrary, an authoritarian, quasi-military organization remained in place.

To rule the country, the FSLN created two bodies: la Junta de gobierno (the Governing Committee) and el Consejo del Estado (Council of State). The Consejo, was presented as a kind of popular parliament, though the member organizations were chosen by the Junta and were overwhelmingly FSLN controlled mass organizations: labor unions, women’s groups, and farmers. In reality, the Consejo took no initiatives on its own.

The real decisions were made by the Junta, made up of five members, two moderate business people and two Sandinistas, and a fifth supposedly neutral person. But the fifth person, author Sergio Ramírez, was actually a secret FSLN member, allowing the FSLN to dominate. When the two non-FSLN members realized that they were being lied to and manipulated, naturally they resigned. The FSLN National Directorate headed by Daniel Ortega thus became the country’s government. While other parties existed, they had no role in government.

Democracy wasn’t an important Sandinista value, but equality was. The FSLN launched a remarkable national literacy campaign involving tens of thousands of young people who went to every region of the country teaching people to read and write.

The new revolutionary government also made health care a priority, educating new doctors and nurses, creating a public health system with clinics and hospitals that brought health care to hundreds of thousands of people who had never in their lives seen a doctor.

Once in power, the FSLN leaders and party members took over virtually all of the government’s most important offices, making themselves the heads of ministries that had thousands of employees and managed important resources. In this way the FSLN began to fuse with the state, much like the Communist Party in Cuba or the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico.

The Sandinistas nationalized the country’s banks and the U.S.-owned mines and lumber industry, but avoided confrontation with the largest U.S. corporations such as Caterpillar, Exxon, IBM, and Texaco. Understandably and quite reasonably, the FSLN nationalized the properties of Somoza and of other capitalists who had left the country and supported the armed opposition.

The FSLN did not nationalize the properties of all Nicaraguan businesspeople, however. Those who stayed in the country and continued to produce could keep their property and produce their goods, though the only market for them was the Sandinista government. Still, many of the Nicaraguan capitalists who stayed in the country were hostile to the government, even if not involved in the armed resistance, and worked to undermine it.

The Sandinistas now ran the country’s government, managed national finances and controlled much of the economy. Suddenly, the men who had lived such dangerous and precarious lives in the mountains had salaries, automobiles and homes. Somozas’ fleet of Mercedes-Benz autos passed into the hand of FSLN comandantes. The FSLN took over the mansions of the bourgeoisie and used them for offices and in many cases for residences for the leaders. Even if most at first lived modestly, the slender edge of the wedge of privilege began to separate the leadership from the regular party members.

The Sandinistas developed plans for the management of the economy, but the execution of the plans proved difficult for a variety of reasons. To begin with, the country was poor and suffering from Somoza’s destructive bombing of the cities. Somoza and other wealthy people had carried their money off to Miami or to other Central American or Caribbean countries. The comandantes, each ensconced in his own ministry, worked to strengthen their respective positions within the state, some developing mega-projects that absorbed tremendous resources without necessarily producing many benefits. The capitalists who remained in Nicaragua often resisted the government’s proposals, sabotaging national plans, while the mass of the population raised its own demands for economic improvements, demands that the FSLN administration could not meet.

The FSLN organized and controlled a range of mass organizations in Nicaraguan society to provide the party with a social base of power and to resist the capitalist class and the conservative parties. After more than forty years of dictatorship, the Nicaraguans were anxious to organize themselves and use their collective power to right the wrongs that they had endured.

The farmers wanted land while the working class wanted higher wages, but these groups would find it hard to fulfill their desires. The Sandinistas, who believed in state ownership of the farmland and collectivized agriculture, declined to give farmers titles to their land, and many became disgruntled, some joining the armed opposition.

Workers wanted higher wages, but the Sandinista government, which controlled the largest labor unions, worked to restrain workers’ wages in what the Sandinistas saw as the interests of the whole society. Especially after the U.S. backed Contra War began the Sandinistas cracked down on the independent labor unions. When independent left-wing unions or right-wing unions struck, the government crushed their strikes.

The Contra War

Republican Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 on a campaign platform that included support for “the efforts of the Nicaraguan people to establish a free and independent government.” The meaning of this phrase was clear: he would work to overthrow the Sandinistas. In January of 1981, Reagan, operating through the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, successfully pressured the more moderate Nicaraguan opposition to unite with the more right-wing elements including the former National Guard officers. By March 1982 the Contra War began with the bombing of bridges in northern Nicaragua.

The CIA helped the new Contra movement, armed by the United States, to establish a headquarters in Honduras from which it launched sorties, principally attacks on civilian Sandinista institutions such as schools, health clinics, and agricultural cooperatives, killing many. The U.S. would spend hundreds of millions of dollars in support of the Contras in an attempt to bring down the Sandinista government by force. The CIA’s support for the Contras was supplemented by an economic embargo that strangled the economy and brought tremendous hardship to the Nicaraguan people.

The Sandinistas, however, also made mistakes that deepened what became not simply a foreign military intervention on the side of the old regime, but a genuine civil war with working people fighting and dying on both sides. Many small farmers, disappointed in not receiving title to their land, went off in significant numbers to join the Contras.

The Sandinistas’ dealings with the indigenous Miskito peoples on the Caribbean coast, at first insensitive and then aggressive—aggravated by CIA and U.S. State Department intervention—led some of the Miskitos to join the Contras as well. Finally, fighting not only the old National Guard but also Nicaraguan peasants and indigenous people, and with its back to the wall, the Sandinista government instituted military conscription, a tremendously unpopular policy that led many young Nicaraguans to dodge the draft by fleeing to Contra held territory.

Because Reagan’s principal charge against the Sandinistas and a point of leverage with other governments was the fact that the FSLN had never been elected to power, it was decided to hold national elections to a genuine legislature and to a new set of offices that included a president. Daniel Ortega was the FSLN presidential candidate running against Arturo Cruz, one of Los Doce, who had gone into the legal opposition. Though secretly subsidized by the CIA, the U.S. government came to the conclusion that Cruz could not win and pressured him to withdraw at the last minute, making Ortega’s election with 67 percent of the vote appear to be illegitimate because there was no opposition candidate.

The FSLN government, now based on a national election, and still controlling the country’s mass organizations, was more powerful than ever, though it was a government that less resembled Communist Cuba and more and more resembled Mexico.

By the mid-1980s, under pressure from the Central American solidarity movement, which had a great deal of support from U.S. churches, the United States Congress was beginning to turn against the war. The Boland Amendment to the 1985 budget cut off funding to the war. But Ronald Reagan, not to be stopped, arranged for the secret and illegal sale of weapons to Iran via Israel, the proceeds of the sale to be used to continue to support the Contras. The story of the unlawful Iran-Contra deal came to light in 1986, further discrediting the Reagan administration and leading to the end of U.S. support for the Contras, while at about the same time the Soviet Union began to phase out support to the Sandinistas.

The U.S.-backed Contra War had a devastating impact on Nicaragua, making it virtually impossible for the Sandinistas to pursue their ambitious program of economic and social reforms. In fact, by the mid-1980s the Sandinistas had been forced by the war and embargo to impose neoliberal policies, reducing taxes on businesses and cutting the budget for social programs.

The U.S. intervention in Nicaragua—taking place at the same time as civil wars in both El Salvador and Guatemala, where the U.S. backed right-wing governments against left-wing guerrilla movements—represented a threat to the entire region. Faced with that reality, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias courageously, in defiance of Reagan, called for peace negotiations between the Sandinistas and the Contras, and finally in March of 1988 the war ended.

The war’s impact had been devastating: 30,865 Nicaraguans had been killed, 30,000 or more wounded and maimed; the war had cost of $1.9 billion, while the embargo represented another $1 billion loss. The Nicaraguan government sued the United States for damages at the World Court, which ordered the U.S. to pay Nicaragua $17 billion in war reparations. The U.S. government refused, still intent on destroying the Nicaraguan economy and driving the Sandinistas from power.

From Revolution to Reaction

A year after the war ended, preparations began for the 1990 presidential and legislative elections. Daniel Ortega put himself forward as the FSLN candidate, campaigning in his military uniform as a leader of the revolution and of the war against the Contras. The FSLN, which had still never held a convention, was transformed from a military-political organization into an electoral party aimed at getting out the vote.

Opposing Ortega and the FSLN was “The National Union of Opposition” (UNO), an unwieldy coalition of all the opposition parties, from the Conservatives on the right to the Communists on the left. Encouraged by the CIA, UNO chose as its president Violeta Chamorro, widow of the famous Conservative leader and opposition journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorroa, widely believed to have been assassinated by Somoza shortly before the Revolution.

Violeta Chamorro had revolutionary credentials herself since she had been a member of the Junta, though now she presented herself as a housewife, mother and grandmother who would reunite the nation in peace. The CIA and the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy largely funded her campaign, while the U.S. Republican and Democratic Party, principally the latter, provided political consultants. U.S. President George H.W. Bush also did everything he could to help her, frequently posing with in her in photos.

Ortega and the FSLN were convinced they would win the election, but to the Nicaraguan people, a vote for the revolutionary Ortega appeared to be a vote for war and the draft, while a vote for Chamorro seemed to be a vote for peace and a return to civilian life. Exhausted by a decade of revolution and war, not surprisingly, the country chose the latter. Some 86 percent of the population voted and to the shock of the Sandinistas, Chamorro garnered 55 percent of the vote, while Ortega received 41 percent. Her coalition won 51 seats in the legislature, while the Sandinistas won 39 out of a total of 93.

Immediately upon her election Chamorro’s UNO coalition split into two parts: a right-wing led by her vice-president Vigil Godoy that wanted to return to the glory days of the Somoza era, and the moderate wing led by her son-in-law Antonio Lacayo, who simply wished to establish a modern capitalist state that could create the conditions for the making of profit and the accumulation of capital. With their electoral coalition collapsing, Chamorro and Lacayo realized that they could only govern with the cooperation of the FSLN.

The FSLN, after all, held not only the largest disciplined block of votes in the National Assembly, but also commanded all of the mass organizations, most importantly the labor unions, which could paralyze Chamorro’s government. And, most significant of all, Humberto Ortega, brother of Daniel Ortega, headed the Sandinista Army.

Lacayo and the Ortega brothers met and negotiated a transition pact that demobilized the Contras, 1) reduced the size of the Sandinista Army and made it a politically neutral, professional organization; 2) respected titles of land distributed to the people; and 3) promised no reprisals against public employees. At the same time, a secret deal was made. Antonio Lacayo, Daniel Ortega, and his brother Humberto Ortega became—in the words of former Sandinista leader Moïses Hassan—the “triumvirs,” the real rulers of Nicaragua during the Chamorro administration.

The three men agreed that they would marginalize “the radicals” in both of their parties, the Somoza element in UNO and the radical, militant leftists in the FSLN, in order to create a center bloc that had a majority in the National Assembly. This was the Popular Front the Sandinistas had rejected twenty years before, but now with a vengeance. This was a kind of government of national unity formed by right and left. Ortega and the FSLN, intent on keeping as much political power as possible, declined to go into opposition and fight the right-wing government, but rather took responsibility for the government and its policies.

The policies would be neoliberal. Nicaragua in 1990 owed $4 billion to the Soviet Union and about $7 billion to western nations. Working together, the triumvirs would make arrangements with the International Monetary Fund to deal with its debt, accepting a program of structural adjustments in exchange for approval for new loans. The banks and industries that had been nationalized by the Sandinistas would be privatized; property that had been expropriated from Nicaraguans who had gone abroad would be returned to them.

Life for the working class deteriorated at once. Soldiers were demobilized; public employees were laid off, and unemployment mounted. When public employees struck, they were granted big wage gains, but inflation then wiped out those increases almost immediately. Free trade zones were reestablished, maquiladoras opened up, with a special tax regime to attract foreign investment, while maquiladora workers were discouraged from organizing unions or striking. Health care and some other social programs survived, if on reduced budgets, but the standard of living of working people declined drastically.

In the last days before Chamorro took office, the FSLN government had passed a series of laws transferring nationalized lands, public buildings, and homes from the government to top Sandinista leaders. The ostensible justification for those laws was that the FSLN would protect social property from being seized by a right, and to a large extent that was what happened. But it was also the case that Sandinista leaders took advantage of the laws to acquire homes and other real estate and to enrich themselves. The laws were often referred to as the piñata, after the papier maché figures that children, breaking the effigy open and spilling the candy inside, then scramble to gather up and put in their pockets. Many Nicaraguans now viewed the Sandinistas as greedy.

During the changeover from the Ortega to the Chamorro government, FSLN leaders also took over various programs and resources that they had managed, transforming them into non-governmental organizations. The new NGOs, some supported by funds from foreign governments, provided the Sandinistas with jobs, titles, incomes, cars and new careers. The wedge of privilege began to drive more deeply into Nicaraguan society and the divide between the FSLN leaders and the members grew.

Faced with entirely new circumstances and demands for a voice from the party’s rank-and-file, in 1991, the FSLN held its first ever convention attended by 581 delegates, the majority of them democratically elected. While some delegates criticized the FSLN’s lack of democracy, and while the convention divided into two factions, there was no strong alternative leadership. Daniel Ortega managed to put himself at the center of the party and to hold on to power.

With the Soviet Union having collapsed, and Cuba economically desperate, the convention voted to affiliate with the Socialist International, the historic organization of social democracy led by the European socialist parties. This development resembled the Eurocommunist movement of the 1970s and 1980s when the formerly Stalinist Communist parties of Western Europe began to transform themselves into social democratic parties. At about the same time, the social democratic parties in government managed capitalism by adopting neoliberal policies.

While the 1991 convention represented the FSLN’s first experience with democracy in almost thirty years, it focused principally on questions of internal party questions and dealt with none of the actual political issues facing the party. The Sandinista members did not seriously discuss and debate the FSLN-UNO coalition, or the secret role of the Ortegas in cahoots with Lacayo (the triumvirs), or the fact that their party was jointly responsible for the government’s neoliberal policies.

So despite the apparently democratic convention, the former comandantes of the National Directorate continued to control the party in a top-down fashion, in the way they had learned from the Communist PSN and the Cuban Communists decades before. Daniel Ortega was not solely responsible for the FSLN’s rightward movement; he had the support of the National Directorate, of many historic FSLN leaders, and the tacit support of the party’s rank-and-file. The argument was that at the end of Chamorro’s term, the FSLN would be elected to office again and return to the struggle for socialism. Trained in the Soviet and Cuban top-down organizational tradition, the ranks by and large followed their leaders loyally, though there were some important exceptions.

During the years of the Chamorro administration, the difference that had surfaced at the 1991 convention would lead to a split at the top of the party. Novelist Sergio Ramírez, comandante Dora María Téllez, FSLN Barricada editor Carlos Fernando Chamorro, and priest-poet Ernesto Cardenal wrote a document, “Return to the Majorities” calling upon the FSLN to make a full transition to a European-style social democratic party. Daniel Ortega, Tomás Borge and other members of the Sandinista National Directorate wrote a rival document, misleading titled “The Democratic Left,” though in fact they defended their historic Soviet- and Cuban-inspired politics. The political divisions in the party were widening.

In a struggle shortly afterwards over amendments to the Nicaraguan constitution, Ramírez led virtually the entire FSLN parliamentary delegation into opposition to Daniel Ortega. Thirty FSLN delegates left and created a new party, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), though the intellectuals and politicians of the MRS proved no match for the Sandinista organization and were later badly beatenin their bids for reelection to the National Assembly.

Still, for the first time ever, Nicaragua had in the 1994-1997 period a democratic legislature, though the politics were a combination of conservative economic measures and democratic reforms. At the same time, in Nicaraguan society new independent NGOs and social movements appear, most importantly a dynamic new feminist movement and some activist environmental organizations. The economic situation also improved somewhat at the end of the Chamorro years, though about 75 percent of the population remained poor.

The Somocistas Returns to Power

Violeta Chamorro and Antonio Lacayo—working with Ortega and the FSLN—had aligned Nicaragua with the “Washington Consensus”; that is, with the neoliberal policies of the era, but they had not been arch-reactionaries, nor were they fundamentally corrupt. Worse was yet to come.

From 1997 to 2007 Nicaragua would be led by two presidents, Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños, who came out of the Somoza political milieu and who would combine profoundly right-wing politics with widespread corruption. But like Chamorro, in order to run the country, they too found that they had either to enter into partnership with Ortega and the Sandinistas or face political paralysis. The Sandinistas were not the principal instigators of the conservatism and corruption that flourished in those years, but they shared political power with the culprits.

Arnoldo Aleman, known as El Gordo, the Fat Man, had lived briefly exile in Miami but then returned to Nicaragua to become leader of the somocista Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC). During Chamorro’s presidency he won election to the Managua city council, which then chose him to be mayor. Alemán encouraged public works like street paving, traffic circles, and fountains, and he promoted the development of gas stations, fast food restaurants, and shopping malls, all very popular with the public. Alemán had the Sandinistas’ revolutionary murals painted over and put up billboards proclaiming, “The Mayor gets things done.” People mostly seemed to agree.

Backed by wealthy Nicaraguans at home and by those still living abroad, Alemán created the Liberal Alliance coalition and built a grassroots organization like the Sandinistas. Unlike the historic Liberal party, which was anti-clerical, Aléman talked religion and won the backing of Cardinal Obando y Bravo, the spiritual leader of the rightwing, who gave a sermon referring to Ortega as a snake. Running on the slogan “War against unemployment and poverty,” Alemán traveled around the country distributing t-shirts and caps bearing his name. An attempt on Alemán’s life, presumed by the public to have been carried out by the Sandinistas, won him the sympathy of some voters.

Daniel Ortega was challenged for the FSLN’s party nomination by comandante Vilma Nuñez, one of the few women comandantes and a leader of the democratic dissidents still within the party. Ortega easily defeated her democratic and feminist challenge, becoming the party’s nominee for the third time.

For this campaign he transformed himself completely, dressing in civilian clothes, appearing as a respectable family man with his wife Rosario Murillo and their children. He talked about the United States as Nicaragua’s “great neighbor,” not its implacable enemy. Ortega advocated a politics of “Neither extreme right nor extreme left” and called for a “United Front.” While accepting neoliberal economic realities, Ortega continued to advocate social programs for working people and the poor. Nevertheless, Alemán won by a landslide, defeating Ortega 51 percent to 38 percent while his Liberal party took 42 of the 93 seats in the National Assembly.

Alemán’s political practice in power was simple: use the public treasury to enrich himself and his Liberal Alliance allies, understanding that every government contract for infrastructure or services provided opportunities for graft. Everything, even a disaster, was an opportunity for larceny. Hurricane Mitch of 1998 led to massive destruction in Nicaragua and then to considerable economic aid from Europe and the United States, which created even more opportunities for embezzlement. When Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín discovered and revealed many of Alemán’s swindles, the president had him jailed, leading to protest demonstrations. The corruption scandal raised the possibility of prison for Alemán

By 1999, Aléman was in serious trouble—but so was Daniel Ortega. Ortega’s step-daughter Zoilamérica Nervaez, 30-year old FSLN member and sociologist, filed detailed charges her step-father, first in a Nicaraguan court and then in the Inter-American Court, accusing Ortega of having sexually molested her since she was 11 years old. Both Alemán and Ortega feared being hauled into court, tried, and possibly convicted and imprisoned, almost surely putting an end to their political careers.

Their common fear of prosecution led them to forge the Pact of 1999. The FSLN and PLC leaders agreed to revise the Constitution and the Electoral Law, and to carve up the government so as to equally distribute positions in the Supreme Court, the Electoral Council, the Controller, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Superintendent of Banks to both parties.

Key to the deal was that Aléman like Ortega would, without an election, become a member of the National Assembly, so that both men would enjoy legislative immunity and could not be brought into court. The number of votes needed to overturn legislative immunity was increased to make it virtually impossible. Thus Ortega and the FSLN now not only participated in a bourgeois political system, but in the most undemocratic and corrupt version of such parliamentary politics.

His reputation destroyed by the revelations of his administration’s corruption, Aléman had no chance as an incumbent candidate, and so he chose as his party’s standard bearer for the 2002 election his vice-president Enrique Bolaños Geyer whom Alemán thought he could control. Bolaños was a cotton farmer, director of the High Council of Private Enterprise, and a member of the somocista PLC. He would prove, however, to be more independent that Alemán expected.

Humberto Ortega suggested that Daniel Ortega sit out the 2002 election so that he would appear to be more democratic, but the ever-ambitious Daniel went ahead with his fourth national presidential campaign, once again in civilian clothes, with his wife beside him, now talking social democracy and religion. Despite Ortega’s new spiritual conversion, Bolaños won by 56 to 43 percent. While Bolaños became the president, Aléman and Ortega together controlled the National Assembly.

Bolaños quickly went to war with Aléman. His Attorney General indicted Alemán for embezzling $96.7 million and using his government credit card to pay for $1.8 million in personal bills: jewels, carpets, hotels in Bali, Paris nightclubs. Aléman responded by revealing that while serving as his vice-president, Bolaños had received from the National Democratic Front—that is, from the Contras—some $7,000 per month in salary and $40,100 per month in expenses, that is $564,000 a year, ostensibly to train election watchers.

Bolaños, unfazed by those revelations, had Aléman arrested, tried, and convicted of corruption, embezzlement, and money laundering. Alemán should have spent years in prison, but, ostensibly because he was ill, the court—controlled by Ortega—allowed him to serve his sentence at first at home and later anywhere in the country he liked. At the same time Ortega and Aléman renewed their pact in 2004, making it virtually impossible for Bolaños, who had no party and little parliamentary support, to govern.

While the government was paralyzed by the feud between Bolaños and Aléman, the Nicaraguan capitalist class continued the process of reconstituting itself that had begun under Chamorro. Large banks—Grupo Proamérica, Bancentro (Lafise); Grupo BAC, Grupo Pellas, and Grupo Uno, which were owned by the McGregor, Montealegre, Pellas and other extremely rich families—dominated Nicaraguan finances. And large landlords grew wealthy in agriculture. Foreign buyers and domestic investors in the maquiladoras prospered. Most Nicaraguans, however, lived in poverty as small farmers, agricultural day laborers, industrial workers or maquiladora laborers. Poverty and hunger remained widespread.

Throughout the period from 1990 to 2006, the Sandinistas entered into political pacts first with Chamorro and then with Aléman—utterly undemocratic political arrangements, corrupt and conservative. Still Ortega and the FSLN continued to use a Marxist-Leninist (that is, Stalinist) discourse within the party while in society they adopted a populist language, promising to improve the lives of the people. On the international stage, Ortega attended conferences and meetings with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, thus identifying himself and the FSLN with the far left of the Latin American pink tide.

“Left” politics of the Soviet-Cuban variety, once sincerely held but now opportunistically deployed, served as a political cover for Ortega and the FSLN, and as an illusory motivation for longtime Sandinista militants. “Marxist-Leninist” politics were not irrelevant, but were absolutely essential to Ortega’s project, a project for which he was not solely responsible, but to which much of the historic leadership of the party and many militants contributed.

The 2006 Election—Ortega to Power

In 2004 Ortega called a quite irregular meeting of FSLN leaders and militants at which he announced that he would be the FSLN candidate. Victor Tinoco, a longtime Sandinista leader and former FSLN Minister of Foreign Affairs, who later joined the MRS, wrote in the Jesuit magazine Envío:

Nearly two years before the 2006 elections, in a final anti-democratic spasm, Daniel Ortega announced the suspension of the FSLN’s primary elections and [declared] that he would be the sole candidate. He made this announcement in Matagalpa, with the “support” and “approval” of some 400 previously selected people, 95% of whom are party or municipal workers, and all of whom have salaries of $2,000-$3,000 a month and are not going to dare to dissent and risk their personal economic prospects. In this way, Daniel Ortega and 400 others decided that the other 600,000 Sandinistas do not have the right to an opinion or to elect their chosen candidate.[4]

The Movement for Sandinista Renovation (MRS) and the Christian Alternative put forward as their candidate the former FSLN leader Henry Lewites. Lewites, who was quite popular and whose campaign began very well, died of a heart attack in July 2006. His running mate Carlos Mejía Godoy, the enormously popular singer, carried on, but the campaign had lost its momentum and fizzled out.

Split by the Bolaños-Aléman feud, there were two rival Liberal Party candidates. Eduardo Montealegre, a former banker who had held cabinet positions in both the Aléman and Bolaños governments, organized the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (later the Independent Liberal Party). George W. Bush did everything possible to support Montealegre, sending several national Republican figures, such as Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Otto Reich, both of whom had organized U.S. support for the Contras, to assist him, as well as providing millions of dollars for his campaign. Aléman’s wing of the Liberal Party put forward José Rizo, lawyer, businessman, and politician, but one with fewer resources. Alemán’s backing of Rizo’s candidacy served the interests of his partner Ortega.

Ortega’s campaign in 2006 was more conservative and more religious than any he had run so far. All was sweetness and light. For the 2006 campaign, the Sandinistas got rid of their revolutionary red and black flags and replaced them with pink and turquoise regalia and bunting. The campaign theme song was a Spanish language version of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, married for more than twenty years, had a Catholic wedding performed by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. Ortega made a public “confession” to Obando for the Sandinistas’ sins during the Revolution, and in return Obando gave Catholics permission to vote for Ortega.

As Wikileaks has revealed, U.S. Ambassador Paul A. Trivelli informed Secretary of State Condolezza Rice that rumor had it that Ortega had blackmailed Obando with the threat that he would reveal that the Cardinal had had children with his secretary. One of those children was Roberto Rivas, who could also be blackmailed; he would become the future head of the Supreme Electoral Council. To make good on his side of the bargain with Obando, Ortega led the FSLN representatives in a 52-0 vote to make all abortions illegal, without previous exceptions for rape, malformation of the fetus, or risk to the life or health of the mother.

With the Church behind him, Ortega also wanted to reassure the domestic and international capitalist class that the Sandinista government was no threat. So Ortega chose as his running mate Jaime Morales Carazo, banker and former Contra, a choice that nauseated many Sandinistas. He met with foreign investors, assuring them that their investments in Nicaragua would be safe, saying, “Confiscations are not even being considered.” Ortega did not reject the Central American Free Trade Agreement, but rather called for its renegotiation. Yet, by the same token, Ortega had no problem in May of 2006 attending the Third Alba Summit in Havana, joining Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and newly elected Evo Morales.

When the votes were counted, Ortega had received 38 percent—just enough to be elected without a second ballot—Montealegre, 28 percent, and Jose Rizo, 7 percent, while MRS candidate Edmundo Jarquín won just 6 percent. Finally, after three unsuccessful presidential campaigns, Ortega had won the presidency, returning to the office he first occupied in 1984. Then, he had been a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary who admired Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the Communist camp. Now he was…well, what was he now?

Ortega began his presidency by announcing that he would share power equally with his wife Rosario Murillo, saying that people want 50 percent women in the government, so he was giving her half of the presidency. He and Rosario chose a cabinet made up of a congeries of veteran Sandinistas, businessmen, one self-described anarchist, and a New Age reflexologist (whose patients were Daniel and Rosario), as well as several not-very-political professionals. While there were several women, none were feminists in this government that had defined itself as anti-abortion. Ortega and Murillo appointed Cardinal Obando y Bravo to head up the Commission of Verification, Peace, Reconciliation and Justice. Obando also became Ortega’s personal spiritual advisor,

Early in his presidency, Ortega traveled to Venezuela to meet with Chávez and returned to tell a May Day workers meeting that Venezuelan oil money being delivered through the Latin American Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) would soon lift Nicaragua out of poverty. Over the next five years Chávez sent Ortega over $2.2 billion in loans and oil credits. These funds went to Albanisa, a private company, and from there principally to poverty programs aimed at providing housing, ending hunger, assisting farmers, and providing scholarships to low-income students.

Daniel Ortega, unsupervised by either the FSLN or the Nicaraguan government, personally controlled these Venezuelan funds—as much as $200 million per month—which he could use at his discretion: to suborn legislators, to buy the support of NGOs, or to win over church officials. Most famously he gave public employees a $30 per month bonus “a gift of thanks from comandante Ortega.”

At the same time, Ortega worked with the IMF and the World Bank to have some of the country’s more than $1 billion in debts to them cancelled in return for adopting neoliberal structural reforms. With the United States, Ortega arranged a Millennium Challenge Account $175 million to combat poverty in certain regions. Ortega also cooperated with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) that provided equipment to the Nicaraguan police. While he railed against U.S. imperialism, year after year he accepted anywhere between $25 and $50 million dollars from the American government.

Ortega and Murillo worked to rebuild and reorganize the FSLN. After all, Nicaragua was an altogether different country than it had been when the revolution took place. The population had doubled from 2.4 to more than 5 million inhabitants. Those born the year of “The Triumph” of 1979 were now 25 years old and had had no experience of the revolutionary struggle whatsoever and had grown up under the right-wing Chamorro, Aléman, and Bolaños governments.

Once a party of Marxist-Leninist cadres, the FSLN had become an electoral party that handed out membership cards to hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom had only the vaguest idea of what party membership meant. Yet the party was still led by a handful of Sandinista leaders, the Ortega brothers, Bayardo Arce, and a few others who had been trained in Soviet and Cuban political theory and organizational methods. Now that training and their experience was used to maintain political power in a liberal capitalist state that implemented austerity policies accompanied by social welfare programs.

Rosario Murillo undertook to replace the largely defunct Sandinista Defense Committees (CSSs) with the new Citizens Power Councils (CPCs), claiming to have organized thousands of them with nearly one million members. The CPCs became vehicle to channel aid, scholarships, and, wrote Envío, “other vote-buying goodies.”

At the same time Murillo was largely responsible for creating a cult of personality around Daniel Ortega, giant portraits of whom were erected in Managua. Ortega and Murillo, firmly allied with the Catholic Church, led the FSLN in defining itself in the public mind as an anti-feminist organization. Murillo spoke and wrote pamphlets in which she labeled women who worked for abortion rights as upper-class agents of imperialism.

The FSLN faced challenges—from the independent feminist movement that fought for abortion rights; occasionally from workers’ strikes, such as those of the truck, bus, and taxi drivers strikes of 2008; and from the political opposition left, right, and center which demanded genuine democratic elections. But none of these movements had the leadership, social weight, or strategy to challenge the FSLN successfully.

A Second Consecutive Term…and a Third

Ortega, having finally returned to the presidency after more than twenty years, was not about to give it up. The problem was that the Nicaraguan Constitution prohibited anyone from holding the presidency for a consecutive term or for more than two terms, doubly disqualifying Ortega from running for office. Unable to pass a constitutional change through the legislature, in 2009 Ortega reorganized the Supreme Court and had it overturn the constitutional language, making him eligible to run. As the 2012 election approached Ortega also began to buy up TV and radio stations, the country’s principal source of news and information, installing his children as the managers.

The Liberals, divided amongst themselves and unable to agree on a candidate, found themselves faced with a fait accompli when Fabio Gadea Mantillo threw his hat in the ring. He was an unlikely candidate. A 79-year old pioneer in radio broadcasting and a famous and beloved radio storyteller who held extremely reactionary views on both economic and social issues, Gadea succeeded in winning the Liberal nomination.

Gadea, backed by Montealegre’s wing of the Liberal Party, held rallies of tens of thousands and appeared to have a real chance of winning the election. In the end, however, Ortega was proclaimed the winner with 62 percent of the vote, while Gadea received 31 percent and Arnold Aléman, the other Liberal candidate got 6 percent. European observers suggested that the victory could be attributed to Roberto Rivas, head of the Supreme Electoral Council, who had overseen an utterly fraudulent election.

Contemporary Capitalist Nicaragua

Under Ortega, Nicaragua has become a typical capitalist country with an authoritarian populist political regime. The Nicaraguan government works to promote foreign and domestic investment and to insure that it is profitable. Daniel Ortega, for example, has formed a political and economic alliance with Carlos Pellas, one of the wealthiest men in the country. Nicaragua typically receives nearly $1 billion in foreign direct investment each year in a variety of sectors such as mining, communications, and maquiladoras, the investment coming mainly from countries like Venezuela, Panama, the United States, Spain, and Mexico.

The Nicaraguan capitalist class, some of which had stayed in the country during the revolution and some of which had gone into exile in Miami, other Central American nations, or the Caribbean, returned wealthier and better-connected internationally than ever before. Some of the Sandinistas who enriched themselves with the piñata became very junior partners in the capitalist world, though most remained socially unacceptable there.

Today about a dozen families who run the nation’s largest banks and control its most import industries today control Nicaragua’s economy. Each of the dozen wealthiest families controls financial institutions or companies with earnings of about $1 billion. In addition, according to banker and scholar Francisco J. Mayorga, the country has another 1,500 families in the millionaire range, and beyond them a stunted middle class of small merchants and professionals who are not very well-off. Teachers, for example, earn about $200 per month.

Most Nicaraguans remain farmers or factory workers who earn low wages, and many of them live in poverty. Among those low-wage workers are thousands in the multi-billion dollar maquiladora sector that produces for companies such as the Gap, Levi’s Target, Walmart and JC Penny. Unions have complained that they have difficulty organizing, negotiating contracts, and face unfair treatment. Unable to find decent work and wages in Nicaragua, about one million workers migrate to work abroad in Central America or the United States, and many stay there. Such is Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua.


The argument has been made in several recent articles that criticism of the Nicaraguan government is either a product of imperialism or benefits imperialism. These assertions are belied by the fact that the many of the most incisive critiques of the FSLN and the Nicaraguan government have been made over the years by former comandantes who argue that the FSLN had become authoritarian and abandoned the struggle for socialism. (Their words can be found in many issues of the Jesuit Envío magazine published from 1981 to today as well as in a number of Sandinista memoirs.)

Others are willing to criticize Daniel Ortega and the FSLN of today for betraying the Nicaraguan Revolution, but they deny that the left has any responsibility for what happened. In fact, at the root of the degeneration of Ortega and the leadership of the FSLN were the Stalinist politics in which they had been trained by the Communist PSN in the 1950s as well as the Cuban version of Communism that they later adopted. While they rejected the Soviet Union’s Popular Front politics based on building a reformist electoral party and trade unions, they never questioned the nature of the Soviet Union or the Communist Party model of organization.

The force of U.S. imperialism was enormous throughout the original Sandinista period. The U.S.-backed Contra War and the embargo, followed by the U.S. support for rightwing candidates, had a tremendous negative impact on the Nicaraguan Revolution. U.S. imperialism was the principal external force working to drive Nicaragua to the right. Still, the Sandinistas themselves must also take responsibility for the political choices the made within those highly unfavorable circumstances. Their Soviet-Cuban politics meant that democracy had no central role in the Sandinstas’ conception of socialism. The idea that the working class and the farmers should have a voice and vote in deciding their own fate was simply beyond the ken of the Sandinistas.

Ortega and the FSLN comandantes believed that they were the leaders of the vanguard of the working class and that they knew what was best for the working people of Nicaragua. At the beginning, they sincerely believed that they would create an egalitarian society, uplifting the workers and farmers, but they never believed that those workers and farmers should actually control the party, the government, the society, or their workplaces. While Ortega and the FSLN leadership gradually gave up on their condescending version of the socialist ideal and became simply ordinary politicians in a capitalist state and society they continued to see themselves as the nation’s necessary leaders.

Today in Nicaragua there still exist intellectuals who speak out and criticize the government from the left. And feminists continue to organize against domestic abuse and for abortion rights. Workers organize and fight for a living wage. And farmers and environmentalists march together to oppose Ortega’s transoceanic canal project. Perhaps these movements can coalesce one day into a new political movement for a democratic socialism to be constructed from below by the Nicaraguan people themselves.

*Dan La Botz is the author of What Went Wrong? The Nicaraguan Revolution: A Marxist Analysis, now available in the Haymarket paperback. He is also an editor of New Politics: A Journal of Socialist Thought.


[1] Envío Team, “No Bridge Over These Troubled Waters,” No. 429, July 2016.

[2] Chuck Kaufman, “Political Turmoil on the Right Gives a Pretext for the US to Question Upcoming Election” Nicanotes, Alliance for Global Justice, email, August 3,


[3] UN World Food Programme, Republic of Nicaragua, at: https://www.wfp.org/countries/nicaragua

[4] Victor Tinoco, Nicaragua: “This Crisis Began in the FSLN, With an Unethical Pact,” Envío, July 2005.

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Afghanistan’s Saur Revolution 40 years on-Lal Khan

Posted by admin On April - 30 - 2018 Comments Off on Afghanistan’s Saur Revolution 40 years on-Lal Khan

On April 27,1978, Radio Kabul was broadcasting that the radical Khalq faction of Afghanistan’s Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) were leading the overthrow of the Daoud regime and storming the presidential palace. Daoud himself took power five years earlier through a coup in 1973.A few days earlier on 17 April 1978, a prominent member of the PDPA, Mir Akbar Khyber, was murdered. At Khyber’s funeral a large protests broke out in Kabul. In response, the fragile Daoud regime launched a lethal operation to eliminate the PDPA leadership.

Most leaders were arrested and imprisoned in Kabul’s Pul-a-Charkhi prison in the subsequent days. It was a do or die situation for the PDPA. However Hafeezullah Amin, who was under house arrest, managed to communicate and ordered PDPA military and air force officers to carryout an insurrection that had been partially planned in advance. In the wee hours of April 28, the palace was taken over by the revolutionary command council, headed by Noor Mohammad Tarakai. The next morning it was announced that the revolutionaries were in control of Kabul and large swathes of the country.

There was a barrage of slanderous attacks by corporate media against this revolutionary change. It was dubbed a merely a military coup. However, at a press conference in New York in June 1978, Afghanistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Hafeezullah Amin, a politbureau member of PDPA, said that,“(the) event was not a coup but a revolution by the will of the people”.

Although the Saur Revolution was not a classical socialist revolution from a Marxist point of view, no other event in post-independence South Asia struck such a blow to the region’s feudal drudgery, tribal primitiveness, religious oppression, rotten capitalism and imperialist stranglehold.  Millions of oppressed Afghans immensely benefitted from the radical steps taken by the new revolutionary government under the leadership of Noor Mohammad Tarakai.

No other event in post-independence South Asia struck such a blow to the region’s feudal drudgery, tribal primitiveness, religious oppression, rotten capitalism and imperialist stranglehold

All debts, loans, mortgages and revenues that had been imposed on poor peasants by usurers and big landlords for generation were cancelled forthwith. Another radical measure taken by the new revolutionary government was that marriages of non-adolescent girls usually based on exchange for money and goods were banned. Forced marriages, any acts that either prevented a widow, because of family or tribal kinship, from wilfully re-marrying or forcing them into an unwanted marriage were criminalised. It further fixed the age for engagement and marriage at 16 for women and 18 for men, thus, effectively proscribing child marriage. The government also announced that its first and foremost aim was to eliminate capitalist, feudal and pre-feudal relations from the social and economic order of the country.

Some of the other radical policies pursued by the Saur revolution were: cancellation of peasant’s revenue dues, equitable distribution of water and the establishment of peasant cooperatives. Major healthcare and literacy programs were launched. By 1984, one and half million people had finished literacy courses and in the same year 20,000 literacy courses were functioning throughout the country, enrolling 377,000 people. The target was to eradicate illiteracy by the year 1986 in urban areas and by 1990 all over Afghanistan.Prior to the revolution, only 5,265 people had finished literacy courses.

What has been deliberately concealed is the fact that the Saur revolution and these radical changes were carried out before the Russian intervention. The Soviet army crossed the Oxus River and entered Afghanistan on December 29, 1979, a year and half after the revolution had succeeded. Paradoxically, then Afghan President Hafeezullah Amin was assassinated on the eve of the intervention.

At the Geneva talks on Afghanistan in 1988, Gennady Gerasimov, the foreign affairs adviser to Mikhail Gorbachev had confessed of Soviet leadership’s ignorance of the revolutionary takeover.US imperialists had already started their counter-revolutionary ‘Dollar Jihad’ to overthrow Afghanistan’s revolutionary government in the summer of 1978 in connivance with General Zia’s military dictatorship in Pakistan and Saudi funding.

These regional despots were terrified that the gains of the revolution could encourage revolutionary mass uprisings in these countries, threatening capitalist rule and imperialist hegemony. The leadership of the Khalq faction didn’t have any cordial relationship with the Moscow bureaucracy.

Rather,Tarakai was closer to a Marxist position. Marking the first anniversary of the Saur revolution on April 27, 1979 he said, “I congratulate my fellow countrymen, gallant soldiers, my Pakhtun and Baloch brothers and the workers of Asia, Africa, Europe and America on the first anniversary of Saur Revolution…(it) is not limited to the workers and soldiers of Afghanistan. This revolution, which was carried out by armed soldiers under the leadership of Khalq Party, is a great success and a victory for the workers all over the world. The great October Revolution of 1917 shook the whole world. That revolution is a source of guidance and inspiration for our revolution.”

It was the Parcham faction of the PDPA that was in collaboration with Kremlin. With the isolation of the revolution and the reactionary insurgency from across the eastern border, pressure mounted on the new regime. Due to the ideological and factional conflicts within the left government, the crisis worsened. Tarakai was killed in an internal clash and later Amin was eliminated. Babrak Karmal was brought to power through Russian intervention, but the relative stability of the initial months was gone.

The Islamicist insurgency backed by CIA’s covert operation had failed to dislodge the left wing government. Even after the withdrawal of the Russian forces, the government withstood this reactionary onslaught for four years and only fell in 1992 due to an internal betrayal.

However the ‘Jihad’ that the imperialists had launched has morphed into a deadly conflagration of terrorism and bloodshed devastating the whole region. This fundamentalist terror has ravaged the Middle East and beyond.

The Saur revolution proved that in, underdeveloped countries even the basic tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution could only be accomplished without the overthrow of the rotten bourgeoisie and its state. Despite its shortcomings, the Saur Revolution proved to the peoples of Southern Asia and the world that a revolutionary victory is possible even in the most arduous of conditions.

The writer is the editor of Asian Marxist Review and International Secretary of Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign. E-mail ptudc@hotmail.com

Published in Daily Times, April 30th 2018.

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Challenging capitalism through workers’ control – interview with Dario Azzellini-

Posted by admin On April - 27 - 2018 Comments Off on Challenging capitalism through workers’ control – interview with Dario Azzellini-


April 26, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Investig’Action


— A common feature in every crisis situation, from the upheavals of the early 20th century to the neo-liberal re-structurings of the late 20th century, is the emergence of workers’ control – workers organising to take over their workplaces in order to defend their jobs and their communities. We interviewed Dario Azzellini* to talk about this issue in depth: the emergence of new values and social relations not just in the recuperated workplaces but also in the communities, the need to re-orient production, the overcoming of the separation between political, economic and social spheres, and the role of workers’ control in the larger struggle against capitalism.

Why is workers’ control an important issue?

It is an important issue because if we look at what is socialism, what Karl Marx described, the living example for him is the Paris Commune. It is the people taking matters into their own hands, and the state as such disappears because power is no longer delegated.

But I would say that workers’ control is one first step on a path to socialism, in the sense that control over production and workplace should not be only on behalf of the workers but also of the communities, the self-organised people in general. And even that is still not the last step, because as Marx says, the commune is the finally discovered political form, so it is still a political form. Socialism, or communism, is about going beyond politics, achieving the self-organisation of life.

So these are all intermediary steps, and even the commune would not be the final form, but we cannot even imagine the final form, because we are trapped in the imagination of what we know and what has been done. What has to be developed is probably beyond our imagination now.

Nevertheless it is important also in the immediate context…

Yes, because if workers take charge of their workplaces and decide on production, the labour processes, the values, everything changes, we have seen that in worker-controlled places. Security and health questions become central, and they are far from it in capitalist workplaces. For example, many worker-controlled workplaces start working with organic, or less toxic, production, because they are exposed to it.

So once workers can decide, these questions become central. The struggle is no longer only about wage raises, which is the only struggle more or less allowed in the framework of capitalist society. Instead workers’ control is automatically challenging capitalism. We have a central field of conflict, and obviously all the other fronts, like gender, race, etc., are equally important. But labour and production are not only fundamental for society but also a field we all have in common and that is absolutely fundamental for our survival and to the structuring of the whole society. In this field all other contradictions obviously have to be tackled too.

We should not forget that the predominant way in which the economy and production are organised reflects on the rest of society. For example, as long as the dominant form of production was Fordism, the rest of society (universities, schools, bureaucracy) was organised in a Fordist way. So there is some kind of leverage if we are talking about labour and workers’ control.

In both books you have edited you describe lots of historical scenarios where workers’ control comes into play. What was the purpose of bringing together all these different experiments?

We try to show, with the books and the research, how workers’ control is an important and recurring question, and we have to dig and make it known, because nobody is really interested in making it known. Unions have no interest in showing that workers can organise by themselves, parties, which are based on the principle of representation, are also bypassed if the workers organise themselves. And of course capitalists would have even less interest.

But it is interesting that workers’ control comes to the fore in every kind of crisis, political, economical, in anti-colonial struggles, during the revolutions of the early 20th century, after WW2 or other wars, when capitalism is not able to develop because capitalists will invest into speculation and commerce and not into production, it happened during the neoliberal re-structurings of the early 80s, etc. So it happened always, not because the workers knew of previous experiments, but because it was something anthropologically present in the workers – get together, self-organise in a democratic way and try keep up the production, benefiting themselves and the people around them.

What are the common features among all these different workers’ control attempts?

This is the first common aspect, that in any situation of crisis, there are always workers that take responsibility for their jobs, for their workplaces, and for the people, for society. The second thing is that they choose democratic structures that are based on equality, they do not simply elect a new boss. Hierarchies disappear, it does not really matter what position was previously held in the production chain. That does not determine what one is able to do in a crisis.

For example there is the Junin clinic that is now under workers control in Córdoba, Argentina. I visited it and the head of the cooperative now is the former janitor and technician, because he was the person who was most able to organise the struggle, so he was elected as the formal head of a cooperative, which is still deciding everything in assemblies on a democratic base. This shows that the skills or capacities that are seemingly important in a capitalist hierarchy are not the same ones in a democratic and workers’ assembly based structure.

Another common feature is that the workplace switches from a hierarchically organised workplace where the central aim is to produce as much surplus value as possible, to a place where the well-being of the workers and the purpose of production, what you produce and for whom, become the central question. So the social relations in the factory change, especially if these places go through a process of struggle or occupation, against former bosses, or political struggles. There is a trust that is built during these struggles which inevitably forces a change in the social relations.

One example of this is that it becomes less rigid that people have to fulfil the same amount of work. Or if people are sick or cannot come to work because their kids are sick, it is not a problem. It is understood by the other workers because of this relation of trust that I mentioned. This naturally contrasts with workplaces with a boss. But also in many traditional cooperatives, which do not have to go through this trust-building struggle, there is also more of a tendency to demand that everyone has to fulfil the same amount of work, there are conflicts about work hours, internal conflicts, etc.

So recuperated factories/companies do not just go back to reproducing the old logic…

Precisely. Especially if they have had a length of struggle, they do not go back, they do not re-install the hierarchies they got rid of. It is a bit different in places that did not have a long struggle. There was a bit of contradictory phenomenon for example in Venezuela (1), where you had a government that was (supposedly) in favour of workers’ control. Workers would occupy a workplace and after two weeks the government would step in, expropriate the workplace and put in some provisional administration to then supposedly pass it over to the workers. At first glance this sounds great, but at the same time the workers did not have the time to form a collective, to build this conscience.

So very often you end up having conflicts among the workers, or you would never get to workers’ control because the administration was reluctant to do so. I say it is contradictory because you do not wish that people have to struggle for years without an income for their workplace, but on the other hand it is what then makes these worker-controlled companies really democratic and successful.

You mentioned cooperatives, and this is an important point to discuss. Most of these worker-controlled or worker recuperated companies register legally as cooperatives. But as you have said, they are not like usual cooperatives. What are the main differences?

The first main difference is that traditional cooperatives usually mean that people that already have similar ideas and values come together to build the cooperative. A workplace recuperation is very different, because everyone is involved. Everyone that is working there is also potentially there when the recuperation takes place. It is something that Gramsci describes when referring to the workers’ councils. He says that they are the real class organisation, because the whole class is there, not just political tendencies.

Another very important difference is that traditional cooperatives tend very much to base the right to decide on property, on being an owner of the cooperative. And that is problematic because it is the same logic as capitalism. Recuperated workplaces have democracy on the shop floor, and their starting point is to question private property of the means of production, so capitalism is immediately questioned. At the same time, almost none of these recuperated workplaces have models based on individual shares, or unequal shares, or even outside investors, or employ wage labour, features that are common for cooperatives.

So you have all these differences. Most of the time it is still more pleasant to work in a cooperative than in a pure capitalist private company, but what I stress is that cooperatives as such are only a democratisation within the framework of capitalism. Many cooperatives are driven by entrepreneurial or ownership logic, and by doing that they lead workers into what I call a “class limbo”. Workers no longer know that they are workers. This is especially strong in the US, where cooperatives are presented as an alternative business model, and not as an alternative model for society, or communities, or part of the workers’ struggle, which is what cooperativism historically meant. But given the way they live, the way they work, they are not entrepreneurs, they are workers!

This is in high contrast with the recuperated workplaces, where workers, having gone through these struggles, see themselves of part of the workers’ movement. There are a lot of recuperated companies in Argentina for example that have the rule that one day of the month they go and support other workers’ struggles, and it is part of their work. In Uruguay when companies in a given sector go on strike, workers in recuperated companies of the same sector go on strike as well so as to not undermine the struggle of the other workers.

In a nutshell, cooperatives wage a struggle for survival in a capitalist system. Recuperated workplaces wage a struggle against the bourgeois law, often manifested in state repression, against the capitalist owners and private property. So workers are reinforced in their subjectivity as struggling workers, and as workers without a boss, and that is a fundamental difference.

How would you characterise the relationship between recuperated workplaces and labour unions?

It varies a lot, it depends on how the unions work. There have been examples of unions that have supported worker takeovers, and this is very good because they can reach out to a broader public. But most of the times the unions either ignore or intervene in a negative way in these struggles, unfortunately.

In any case we should not see trade unionism and workers’ control as antagonistic projects, they are simply two different things, two different fronts of the struggle. One thing is a self-organisation in the workplace that allows for struggles that would not be possible with unions. Unions have their formal recognition and are interested in sticking to rules and laws to keep up this status of a “reliable partner”, so they will not do certain things, like wildcat strikes or occupations. They are not as flexible and not as fast in their decisions as the workers’ assemblies obviously are.

You mentioned how new social relations are produced in the workplace, but recuperated companies also create new social relations with their communities. Can you talk about that?

Yes, the relation with the community and with other social movements is fundamental. In fact we can put it the other way around. Of the examples of recuperated workplaces (factories, restaurants, print shops, hospitals, etc.) it is usually the ones that have a strong relationship with communities and other social movements that tend to be successful. The ones that tend to be isolated and do not have these strong relationships, often with time either turn into more or less traditional workplaces or cooperatives, withdrawing from the larger struggle, or they simply fail, because they did not have the necessary support.

And there is one question that is central to that. In the capitalist system closing down a workplace is simply a legal question. It is not a social question, it is not a political question. The law of the land is a bourgeois law that is based on property. Within these boundaries the chances of achieving something are minimal. So the main challenge for all these workers is to turn a legal question into a political question, and for that you need as much support as possible. You need the support of the communities, of other movements, of unions, maybe even of institutions and political instances. And with that you can win everything.

One example is the Republic Doors and Windows, the factory now called New Era Windows in Chicago, which is producing eco-friendly windows. When it was closed down and occupied for the second time, together with Occupy Chicago in 2010-11, the occupation got the workers the possibility to be at the negotiating table about the future of the factory, which they later agreed to buy. And the workers did that by the forcing the banks that had taken over the bankrupted factory to pay them 1.5 million dollars for lost wages. Usually if there is money left (e.g. from selling machinery) it goes to the creditors. But the workers managed to do a political campaign that generated so much public support that the banks saw themselves forced to pay the workers 1.5 million dollars, even if legally they were not obligated to do that.

So they managed to turn a legal question into a political one…

Exactly, and once you do that you can win everything, even things that seem completely impossible or that are not in the existing legal framework. That is one of the big reasons why it is important to have bonds with other movements and communities. The second one is that you create new values. Factory work is usually not fun, not even in a recovered factory. What keeps you working in capitalism is money, but in a recovered workplace the workers find new values, and one of the values is to be useful for society, not just for capitalism.

Many of these workplaces, if we are talking about industrial workplaces, are usually situated in poor communities. There are no factories in Beverly Hills! One usual feature of these poor communities is that they lack space. They lack space for social, collective activities. In Argentina for example, where there are more than 400 recuperated workplaces, more than 60% give permanent space to community activities, from bachilleratos populares, i.e. the possibility for adults to re-do their school, to community radio stations, libraries, even just community festivities. So they become an important focus of community life, and the spaces in a certain way become commons, because they are used for other activities which are not immediately linked to production.

Can you talk about the need for recuperated factories to re-orient production? Because if these factories are closed because they are not profitable any more, workers cannot just go back to what they were producing before.

Indeed, often it is simply not possible to continue the production that existed before. One example is Officine Zero (2), a former night train repair facility in Rome. Night trains are almost gone in Europe, there is only one facility left which is enough for the few night trains that still run. Most of the trains are fast-track trains now, so you cannot continue planning to produce or repair night trains. The workers that took over the factory now engage in a number of activities, such as recycling domestic appliances or furniture, and have continued the workshops they had – upholstery, carpentry, iron works and others.

Another example is Rimaflow in Milan (2), which was producing air-conditioning pipes mainly for BMW cars. The owner took out the machines, but even if he had not, BMW was not going to buy air-conditioning pipes from an occupied factory! So you have to re-invent yourself. But that is good, because then the workers start thinking about useful production. Rimaflow started with a mix of activities, for example upcycling and recycling of household electric appliances and computers.

Later they raised money for an air-conditioning system and set up a hall to recycle industrial pallets. So they collect industrial pallets from all kinds of factories, put them back together and sell them back. They also started an artisanal food and liquor production, cooperating with organic cooperatives. They produce Rimoncello, which is a lemon liquor (originally Limoncello), together with cooperatives from Southern Italy which pay fair wages to immigrant seasonal workers, and they produce Amaro Partigiano (a digestive liquor) together with the Italian Institute for Partisan Studies.

A traditional economist might call this “patchwork”. But I would disagree, this does make sense. We have to transform our society in every sense, so these successful examples of industrial conversion make sense, because naturally we are not occupying the workplaces to simply go on with the same capitalist production we had before. We do not want to take over everything and then keep producing military helicopters!

Along these lines: in capitalist societies, in liberal democracies, there is a separation between economic, social and political spheres. How do worker recuperated companies, by themselves and through their relations with communities, challenge this separation?

Yes, I think that is a central aspect of what we can call “council democracy” as a model for communes, worker-controlled workplaces, etc. Capitalism, and bourgeois society, is always based on the division of spheres. The first step is the division between the political and social spheres, which is never justified, it is there to be accepted a priori. Because there is no reason why some people should be governing and others should be governed.

The second separation is that the economic sphere is supposed to be separate, autonomous, often likened to living organism that society has to keep feeding. We get to this point where it sounds mythological, like the market is this kind of dragon that needs to be fed all the time otherwise it will get angry and destroy everyone! Which is also totally absurd, because the economy should be serving society, it should be serving the people, not the other way around.

The recuperated workplaces are obviously an overcoming of that. First of all because usually there is no representation, there are only spokespeople. The decisions are taken by the people concerned with the issues and not delegated, which is the foundation of the separate political sphere. Secondly, the economic decisions are also taken directly by those involved in the production process, and subject to their political decisions and social needs. So this separation of spheres is tendentially overcome.

There is a second division of spheres which is characteristic to capitalism and bourgeois society, that is also tendentially overcome, namely the division between intellectual and manual work. The person that is unloading the pallets from the truck has as much to say in the assemblies as the engineer that is adjusting the computer-led production process, for example. It is also quite common to have much more job rotation, people learning new tasks and developing new ideas, therefore there is much less of the traditional division of labour and particularly between intellectual and manual work.

Also when we talk about overcoming the division between political, social and economic spheres, we should always stress that this is a “tendency towards…”. Because as long as we are in a capitalist system it would be an illusion to think that we can be totally move beyond that.

You cannot just create an island…

You cannot create a happy island in the capitalist system. You can work towards overcoming the system, which means you have to expand. One of the things they always stressed in Rimaflow was that they needed to build a new economy because the economy of the bosses is not working anymore, and we can be successful if examples such as Rimaflow occur 100, 1000 times. A happy little island will not survive, the system will crush it.

Many cooperatives had a lot of idealism concerning this issue, and their ideals faded away with the age of the members and immersion in capitalism, or the cooperatives got big and got bought up. That is why I am always speaking of a tendency towards building a new economy, overcoming the separation of spheres, etc.

With globalisation and the evolution of capitalism, there is a fragmentation or an atomisation of the production chain. Does this present new challenges for workers’ control, or make this question more urgent?

Yes, it presents new challenges but also new opportunities. For example, the necessity of building local and regional economies is growing. Because of the ongoing globalisation, capital is concentrating more and more in ever fewer metropolitan spaces. So the necessity to build local and regional economic systems, and to keep wealth where it is produced, is becoming more urgent. This represents a chance for workers’ control and more localised production and distribution.

The fragmentation of the production chain is itself a very contradictory issue. For example in the US, there is a tendency of insourcing again. Car manufacturers in the US are insourcing again a lot of production steps that they had outsourced before. This proves that the outsourcing was never about saving money or being more efficient, it was simply about the destruction of the workers’ power. So now that they have destroyed the unions in the car sector, that used to be some of the few strong unions in the US, they are insourcing again all these production steps.

But the fragmentation, which is not only a fragmentation of the production chain but also inside the workplace itself, makes it a much more subjective act to be collective and to struggle than it was before. You had companies like Fiat, which had 70 or 80 thousand workers which were automatically organised because 95% of them had the same contract and the same work conditions. You look now at the same Fiat factory, it has 12 thousand workers that have probably 40 different kinds of contracts, from part-time contracts, to sub-contracted labourers, to insourced work, or seasonal labour, and at the same time you have another 70.000 workers in the greater region of Turin which are working in different outsourced, independent companies, or even as independent workers.

So in Fordism the factory was the entity doing the workers’ movement a “favour” by homogenising the workers, in some sense creating the class and class conflict (the class constitutes itself as conflict, it does not exist as such or derive from a certain position in the production process). Now work is fragmenting and differentiating people. That makes it much more difficult to create a collective vision and struggle, to avoid turning against each other. Because capitalism will then point to a group and tell them they cannot earn more because of the privileges of the other group over there…

It becomes a race to the bottom…

Exactly, it becomes a race to the bottom, in the form of part-time contracts, or temporary work, and with all these divisions among workers. It is creating a very problematic situation, also from the point of view of production, and that is why I think it is very important to take over as many workplaces as possible, and to use these workplaces, as well cooperatives that place themselves into a political/labour/class struggle logic, to build production chains.

For example in Argentina, a study of about 80 recuperated factories showed that over 16% of the commercial activity, sales or buying resources and parts, was done with other recuperated workplaces, and almost 2% was with the solidarity economy or other kinds of cooperatives (3). This means that almost 20% of what they are doing is in a cycle that, while not being complete out of capitalism, does not strictly follow the rules of capitalism. You are supporting different labour relations and social relations by having these economic relationships. Therefore I think it is important that we have as many worker-controlled workplaces as possible and that we also start thinking about creating production chains.

To finish, do you want to tell us about the website workerscontrol.net that you helped found?

What we are trying to do is to create a virtual archive with workers’ control experiences from all kinds of epochs and different languages. We have functioning Spanish, Italian, French, English, German, Portuguese and Greek. The idea was to build a network of researchers and activists from recuperated workplaces, to make available as many experiences as possible. Because up to now there was nothing like that, you only had websites or sources dedicated to specific authors or to specific recuperated workplaces.

We founded it also as a decentralised network, there is no central group reviewing what can be on the website or not, so all the nodes are autonomous and free to publish whatever they think is useful in the framework of workers’ control. It is an interesting network of collaboration between people with different political orientations, people that consider themselves council communists, or more anarcho-syndicalists, others Luxemburgian or Gramscian, others Trotskyist, others might be more workerist/operaist, others more traditional Marxists.

What we all have in common is that we support workers’ control and want to create access to as much information as possible. We are now in a process of redesigning the website, which will be relaunched in a few months with a new design and more visibility.

* Dario Azzellini is a sociologist, political scientist, author and documentary filmmaker. He has worked and written extensively on the issue of workers’ control, including two recently edited books, Ours to master and to own. Workers’ Control from the Commune to the Present (with Immanuel Ness) and An Alternative Labor History: Worker Control and Workplace Democracy. He has also produced a series of documentaries on this issue called “Occupy, Resist, Produce” (with Oliver Ressler). More information about his work can be found on his website.


(1) A second interview with Dario Azzellini on the issue of communes and workers’ control in Venezuela is available here.

(2) The documentary “Occupy, Resist, Produce” dedicated to Rimaflow is available here. The one dedicated to Officine Zero is available here.

(3) Information from this report, pages 35-36.

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Chris Harman, 1968 and the historic Open Letter to the Polish Communist Party-John Rose

Posted by admin On April - 25 - 2018 Comments Off on Chris Harman, 1968 and the historic Open Letter to the Polish Communist Party-John Rose


(Harman, 1968 and the historic Open Letter to the Polish Communist Party

Issue: 158)
1968—a year, but also a mood, an expectation, a world ­bursting with a promise of revolutionary possibility: a shimmering slice of historical time that precedes 1968 and outlasts it. Commemorating its 50th anniversary properly this year, 2018, must itself be an innovative political act—revisiting and re-evaluating its most important moments.

Its greatest political achievement, May 1968—événements de mai—the uprisings in France, students occupy their universities, 10 million workers occupy their factories, President de Gaulle flees the country. A workers’ power challenge to an advanced Western capitalist state. That much may be understood as the main event of 1968. But is the implication that socialist revolutions in advanced industrial countries were thus possible in late “modernity”?

One of 1968’s greatest intellectual achievements, “the Open Letter to the Party” by Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski, is rarely, if ever, acknowledged.

Kuroń and Modzelewski were young Communist dissidents in one of Soviet Communism’s most strategically important military outposts in Eastern Europe, its Warsaw Pact ally Poland. Their Open Letter, written in 1964, was a closely argued critical Marxist analysis of Polish society. It identified bitter social class divisions, with the Polish “Communist” state bureaucracy playing the equivalent role of a capitalist ruling class, extracting surplus value from Polish workers on shockingly low pay and terrible working conditions with no control either of the work process or the product of their labour.

In 1965 Kuroń and Modzelewski were thrown into jail for this “provocation”, the Polish government thereby dramatising the prestige and authority of the Open Letter. It began its travels across the Polish border, in various forms, to an increasingly receptive audience on both sides of the so-called iron curtain.

In Britain, the tiny International Socialists (IS), forerunners of today’s Socialist Workers Party, enthusiastically welcomed the Open Letter. Its analysis was strikingly similar to the state capitalist analysis of Stalin’s Russia,1 pioneered by the IS founder Tony Cliff. Cliff had argued that Stalin’s industrialisation drive in Russia in the 1930s not only consolidated his very personalised totalitarian dictatorship but also that the state bureaucracy became “an extreme and pure personification of capital”.2 The need to catch up with the West, both economically and especially militarily, exerted competitive pressure to accumulate, similar to the competitive pressure on capitalist firms. Accumulation of capital by the state, based on the forcible extraction of surplus value from workers, at the expense of their consumption needs, was also dependent on the crude “expropriation of the peasantry”.3 In Capital, Marx had called this process “primitive accumulation…a history…written…in letters of blood and fire” when describing it in Britain.4 Cliff noted that “Stalin accomplished in a few hundred days what Britain took a few hundred years to do”.5 The language of “Socialism in One Country” masked the genocidal exploitative processes unleashed. Lenin had explicitly warned against any attempt at socialism in one country.6

The IS published an English language version of the Open Letter in 1966.7 Confirmation of the group’s most iconic political perspective could hardly have sprung from a more authoritative source. It helped enhance IS’s reputation and influence in the UK student movement.

Chris Harman, a graduate student at the London School of Economics, wrote an introduction to the Open Letter and helped its promotion among students. Chris was one of the leaders of the IS group of students influential in the LSE Student Socialist Society, which played a major role in Britain’s first student occupation in 1967. By 1968, a student campus movement had erupted nationally, fuelled in part by resistance to the Vietnam War. Intense political argument questioning society’s institutions, East and West, spread rapidly, involving more and more students.8 Political debate was infectious, with several questions reoccurring: why had “Communism” failed to live up to its ideals? How can “Communism” be an answer to the failures of capitalism and the barbarities of its offspring, imperialism? The Open Letter provided a platform in the search for answers. Marx wrote that philosophers have merely interpreted the world, the point however is to change it. But at the same time he insisted on the need for a scientific interpretation providing the guidelines for changing it. The decisive significance of Kuroń and Modzelewski is their scientific interpretation of the failure of Soviet Communism—or at least of its expression in Poland.

Of course, other books and writers exerted far greater influence on what became a worldwide student movement, for example Jean-Paul Sartre’s trilogy Roads to Freedom and Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. Indeed Marcuse was momentarily intellectual “guru” for the movement,9 Sartre famously sold Maoist tracts on student demos. But both Sartre and Marcuse spectacularly failed to provide convincing analyses of the failure of Soviet Communism and its subsequent oppressive and exploitative characteristics. Soviet Communism equalled Western capitalism as a legitimate target in 1968.

In Harman’s book on 1968, The Fire Last Time, the Prague Spring chapter10 sits next to the French May chapter. This juxtaposition—coupling even—is not just chronologically accurate, it captures precisely the immense significance of the moment. The Open Letter provided a fresh reading of Marx and Engels, allowing Marxism to be placed simultaneously at the service of the Prague protest movement as well as the “French May”. This was a direct challenge to the Stalinised Soviet Communist version of Marxism, Official Marxism-Leninism, which would be used to justify the repression of the movement when Soviet tanks intervened in Prague later in the year.

In his recently published autobiography, We’ll Ride the Mare of History into the Ground: Confessions of a Bruised Rider,11 Modzelewski explains the impact of the Open Letter in 1968:

The Open Letter was better known abroad than in Poland. I have held in my hands French, Italian, German, Swedish and Japanese copies, there were many more I have only heard about (Czech12 or English) or others I had no idea even existed. Our pamphlet was mainly, if not exclusively, published by ephemeral radical left publishers in the years of 1966-9. It was the time of the youth revolt in Europe and America. The movement was raging against both—the conformism of middle class societies and the authoritarian conformism of bureaucratic communist parties and their Muscovite Mecca.13

In the epilogue, Modzelewski explains his book’s compellingly curious title:

This book’s title is inspired by Mayakovsky’s poem Left March. Mayakovsky was a genius poet—a futurist, who devoted his great talent and charisma to serving the Bolshevik revolution; and in 1930 ended his life with a suicidal gunshot. Left March is not one of his best poems, but the metaphor “We’ll ruin the jade of the past”14 is an excellent description of the Marxist philosophy of history. Every revolution attempts to mount and tame this horse [“jade of the past”], however it is a dangerous ride. “The jade of the past” is a wild, unbroken mustang. We can jump on her back and even ride for some time, yet it is impossible to keep a tight rein on her—eventually, the horse will always take us somewhere, where we never desired or expected to be. This is how—in a nutshell—I see my own life experience.
The Open Letter
As Harman explained in his introduction to the UK edition, the challenge of the Open Letter was so effective because it liberated and restored the language and the theories, concepts and principles of Marx from their Soviet sponsored usurpers.15 In its opening paragraphs, Kuroń and Modzelewski expose the gulf between the ruling Communist Party in Poland and the country’s working class. State nationalisation of the means of production serves to consolidate that gulf, undermining the ideological pretence that state nationalisation is by definition the equivalent of a workers’ state.

In our system, the party elite is…also the power elite; all decisions relating to state power are made by it… The party elite has at its disposal all the nationalised means of production; it decides on the extent of accumulation and consumption, on the direction of investment, on the share of various social groups in consumption and in the national income; in others words, it decides on the distribution and utilisation of the entire social product. The decisions of the elite are independent, free of any control on the part of the working class and of the remaining classes and social strata. The workers have no way of influencing them, nor have party members in general… This Party-state power elite…we shall call the central ­political bureaucracy.16

Later this argument is strengthened, making explicit that the ruling bureaucracy “is a ruling class”:

It has at its exclusive command the basic means of production. It is said that the bureaucracy cannot be a class, since the individual earnings of its members do not come anywhere near the individual earnings of capitalists… This is quite wrong…the property of the bureaucracy is not of an individual nature, but constitutes the collective property of an elite which identifies itself with the state…its class character [depends] only on its relationship—as a group—to the means of production.17

Discussing the origins of the system in the context of the outcome of the Second World War and the ceding of Poland (and other Eastern European countries) to Stalin’s sphere of influence as part of the post-war settlement, the Open Letter identifies Poland’s industrialisation drive as the mechanism that created this new state-based bureaucratic ruling class:

The nature of the task of industrialising a backward country called to life as a ruling class a bureaucracy which was able to achieve this task, since it alone, through its class interest, represented the interest of industrialisation under the conditions—production for the sake of production.18

The Open Letter had an additionally good reason for predicting the emergence of a mass-based revolutionary workers’ movement, resulting directly from its analysis.19 There was a famous historical precedent. Although not on the same scale as the revolution in Hungary in that year,20 in 1956 Polish workers had not only gone on strike but developed democratically elected workers’ councils which, momentarily at least, appeared also to challenge the authority of the Polish state system. However, the state would successfully neuter them by integrating them into its own industrial power arrangements.

Kuroń and Modzelewski called on this experience not simply to demand genuine workers’ democracy in Poland but to locate the demand very specifically in the lessons of 1956. The following passage from the Open Letter is particularly remarkable because it also unwittingly pinpoints with extraordinary accuracy the key debate in Solidarity21 in late 1981 about workers’ control in the workplace, workers’ democracy and state power:

Workers’ democracy cannot limit itself to the level of an enterprise. For when economic and political decisions, the actual rule over the surplus product, and the labour that creates it, do not belong to the working class, then participation of the workers in managing the enterprise must also become fictitious. Workers’ self-rule in an enterprise, therefore, requires full workers’ democracy in the state. The working class organised under such conditions will set the goals of social production, guided by its own interest, the interest of the people living today at subsistence level. The goal of production will then be, of course, consumption for the broad masses. This signifies the overthrow of existing production and social relationships and, with them, the bureaucracy’s class rule.22

Finally, again based on the 1956 experience, and again in extraordinary anticipation of potential weaknesses in the Solidarity movement, the Open Letter called for workers to organise their own independent political party.

The so-called October Left in 1956—a political current made up in large measure of the natural leaders of the working class, youth and intellectual opinion—could have been a substitute for the political vanguard of the mass working class movement. The October Left differed from the liberal current, especially in its views on the workers’ councils, in which it saw the basis for new production relationships and the nucleus of a new political power. But it was not a uniform movement. The left did not separate itself from the technocratic current in the workers’ council movement (the demand that factories be run by the councils did not go beyond the programme of the technocracy)23 nor from the liberal bureaucracy, in the political showdown on a national scale. It did not set itself apart from the general anti-Stalinist front as a specifically proletarian movement. In this situation, it was evidently unable to formulate its own political programme, to propagate it in an organised manner among the masses, to create a party. Without all this, it could not become a politically independent force, and therefore, had to transform itself into a leftist appendage of the ruling liberal bureaucracy.24
The double-edged impact of the Open Letter
Kuroń and Modzelewski were immensely proud of the impact of their Open Letter. But they also noticed the major strategic gap in that impact. As Modzelewski recalls:

The manifesto of two insurgent Marxists from Warsaw was getting a lot of interest and support from the Western contesters. [French student leader] Daniel Cohn-Bendit,25…questioned during his trial for disturbing public order…[when asked to give his name] replied proudly: “Kuroń-Modzelewski”… For the youth, who in 1968 and 1969 were building barricades on the streets of the main university towns and cities of Western Europe, the Open Letter was a compulsory reading. When I thought about it I was envious—why there and not here, at home?26

The Polish state had very effectively isolated from workers the beginnings of a student revolt in Poland in 1968, unambiguously using a deliberately weaponised and sickening antisemitism.27 This had been aimed at student activists like Adam Michnik, son of Jewish Communist parents, who had campaigned vigorously for the Open Letter.

There was an even more serious problem. The Prague Spring was infamously crushed by Soviet tanks in the autumn of 1968. Yet the Open Letter had cast serious doubt on just such a possibility:

It is said that an eventual revolution in Poland would inevitably lead to Soviet armed intervention, the result of which, from the military point of view, is not open to doubt. Those who advance this view assume that everything takes place in “one country in isolation” which, by way of exception, is torn by class struggles while in neighbouring countries there are no classes but only regular armies…planes and tanks.28

When Warsaw Pact planes and tanks were used to suppress the Prague Spring, Kuroń, Modzelewski and Michnik issued the leaflet titled “Time and Again Great Powers Preserve the Existing Social Order Using Tanks”:

Vietnam’s cause is our cause. A right to a revolution, abolish social slavery…freedom from exploitation…from Great Powers’ dictatorship over small nations. We—the Polish left—cannot be silent… Because we remember…the foreign interventions, stifling the Hungarian Revolution… Che Guevara laid down his life for the thousands who die every day in Latin America and Vietnam… Fighting for a sovereign and socialist Vietnam means fighting for sovereign and socialist Poland. A nation cannot be free if its government oppresses other nations… We send our solidarity to the American left, whose fight for peace and freedom for Vietnam means fight for human rights and democracy in their country. We send our solidarity to the Soviet left. We send our solidarity to West German students, French left and Czech intellectuals. Alien to us, the great powers, trading in Vietnamese nation’s blood. Alien to us, the provocative politics of the Chinese bureaucracy. To all who trample the sovereignty of working people in any country, we follow the Spanish antifascists: No Pasarán.29

But Kuroń and Modzelewski were deeply demoralised by the bitter experiences of Prague and Poland in 1968. They began a major rethink, moving to a rejection of Marxism and the Open Letter, and a quest for a new politics, or as David Ost aptly calls it, Anti-Politics.30 This meant that their remarkable political and organisational skills were now adapted to a completely different project—the so-called self-limiting revolution which would become the foundation political platform of Solidarity in 1980-1.31 From 1976, Michnik and Kuroń would help develop KOR, Komitet Obrony Robotników, the Workers’ Defence Committee, to defend workers’ leaders victimised by the government during a strike wave in that year.32 As we shall see shortly, KOR’s evolution would be intimately tied in with that of Solidarity: “When KOR and Solidarity claimed they were not ‘political’ movements, what they meant was that they did not want to challenge the party’s control of the state”.33

As Timothy Garton Ash put it:

“The class of ’68”…thought they discerned a new way forward…“bureaucratic despotic socialism” would not be transformed from above…its internal contradictions made it susceptible to pressure from below…this autonomous “civil society” would reassure Soviet leaders, whose control of Poland’s foreign and defence policy would not be challenged. This strategy was elaborated in a series of essays by KOR members like Jacek Kuroń and Adam Michnik…Kuroń’s slogan “Don’t burn down party committees, found your own!” could hang as a motto over all the workers’ protests in 1980.34

Though this perspective would initially meet with spectacular success, it lacked theoretical underpinnings. The implication was that the Soviet state and its Eastern European satellite system could be reformed. But what was the evidence for this assumption? And did it mean an improved Communism, a democratic Communism or a displacement of Communism, in other words state capitalism, by private capitalism? These questions were left unanswered, though they would come to haunt the movement and ultimately destroy it.

A tremendous opportunity had been lost. 1968 was fast fading from view. But it desperately required a political and intellectual retrospective. On the eve of the 1848 revolutionary wave in Europe, Marx and Engels had published their Communist Manifesto. This document became far more than simply a flagbearer of those revolutions, it accomplished permanent historical status as the foundation statement of communist principles with a resonance that survived the 20th century and continues to reverberate in the first decades of this century. But of course it could not have anticipated the catastrophic outcome of the 20th century’s most important Communist experiment.

1968 now needed its own Communist Manifesto for the Late Twentieth Century if the experience was not going to be wasted and the reasons for the failure of the Communist experiment were not going to be lost, and, above all, to probe much more thoroughly the causes of that failure. Kuroń and Modzelewski’s Open Letter had laid the framework for just such a document. Now it needed fleshing out. If the formation of Poland’s state capitalist ruling class was contingent on the country’s post-war industrialisation, didn’t that reflect the identical process that had occurred in Stalin’s pre-war Russia—albeit without the terror on the scale seen in Russia, that we now call the Gulag?

1968 needed to leave a legacy reaffirming the Bolshevik perspective that socialism in one country was a contradiction in terms, especially in a mainly pre-industrial peasant country, and that the original Bolshevik perspective, based on communist principles of internationalism, self-emancipation, workers’ control and mass participatory democracy, was reflected in 1968’s own values. Trotsky had written: “The revolution…is primarily the awakening of the human personality in the masses…marked by a growing respect for the dignity of the individual and by an ever increasing concern for the weak”.35 But it was not to be. The dumping of the Open Letter also took down the opportunity to use its outstanding analytical tools to make sense of new and unexpected developments in Poland itself in the 1970s.
Poland: crisis of state capitalism
But this theoretical challenge wasn’t entirely ignored. In a pathbreaking article, “Poland: Crisis of State Capitalism” published in two parts for this journal’s first series in the 1970s, Chris Harman showed how the Polish crisis was a symptom that the Soviet system as a whole could no longer withstand the pressures of the global market system and its crises.36

In his last book Zombie Capitalism—responding to the 2008 financial crash—published just before his sadly premature death, he explained what had underpinned that analysis: the fusion of “the analyses of Tony Cliff and Kuroń and Modzelewski”.37 It was a powerful mix. It showed the astonishing penetration by Western capitalism, both its corporations and its banks, into the Eastern European economies, and Poland in particular. It showed that Polish “Communism” was beginning to morph into a hybrid between the Western and Eastern systems, but with a dependency that was increasingly tied to the dangerously unstable rhythms of the global economy.

Several examples came from the columns of the Financial Times. Typically Western bank loans were tied to particular projects: “A consortium of German companies led by Krupp is expected to land orders worth £565 million for two coal gasification plants… The Poles are interested in setting up a joint marketing operation with Krupp to sell the various projects abroad. A consortium of West German banks is working on the financing of the new deal”.38 The Wall Street Journal reported: “Foreign bankers are as happy to lend to Communist governments as to a family business. Happier. They’ve found in governments like Poland…borrowers who will pay at rates Western industrial powers would scorn”.39

The centrepiece of the Polish government’s next “five-year plan” was to be the expansion of Polish copper production through a massive £250 million investment. This was to be provided by a consortium of Western banks but they have demanded as a condition for the loan the power “to demand changes in the copper export strategy as necessary”.40 So we had the extraordinary spectacle of the classic model of Stalinist “command” economic planning, dictated not from Moscow but from the boardrooms of the Western banks!41

Expanding trade with the West but also borrowing heavily from Western banks, might now benefit Poland from Western economic growth but the converse was also true. Western European recessions would now become exaggerated in the Eastern European economies, especially Poland. Just servicing the Western bank debt, which cost Poland nearly a quarter of its export earnings, triggered the red warning lights.

At the start of the 1980s Poland’s production fell by nearly a third, with prices increasing by 24 percent in 1981 and 100 percent in 1982, as real wages fell by about a fifth.42 The burgeoning mass movement of Polish workers that became Solidarity was a direct outcome of these circumstances.

Chris also took the opportunity in Zombie Capitalism to summarise and re-emphasise the sheer ingenuity and innovative approach to a post-Stalinist Marxism displayed by Kuroń and Modzelewski. “Poland and a foretaste of a dire future” is a model of terse writing on the Marxist economics of the crisis of state capitalism, in its death throes. It deserves to be carefully read and treated here as an appendix of this article.43

We have an intriguing—and frustrating—glimpse of the implications, and the high stakes at issue, if Kuroń and Modzelewski had developed this 1970s Marxist analysis. We might have had a recognition that Polish workers were in revolt against a fast-changing global capitalism, as well as the Polish state as an extension of the Soviet state satellite system. This just might have forced a reconsideration of political objectives, strategies and tactics. An open debate about global capitalism could have become part of the “Polish” debate. And it might have made the horrendous embrace of neoliberalism by the Solidarity leaders at the end of the 1980s, with the nauseating background applause from Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, far less likely. But this discussion was instead just confined to the tiny circles of the far left. It had no impact on Solidarity’s birth. In fact the failure to take the two key components of the Open Letter, its similarity to the state capitalist analysis and its revolutionary socialist perspective, into Solidarity, robbed the movement of the absolutely essential debate that it needed from the start.
Solidarity: the “self-limiting” revolution
The Solidarity revolution of 1980-1 in Poland was “the most powerful…advanced working class movement” ever seen “certainly in the ‘Communist’ sphere and perhaps anywhere in the world”.44 We discussed earlier the self-limiting restraints imposed on it by its leaders. But that should not blind us to the sheer scale, depth and ambition of the movement, which grew out of shipyard workers’ strikes at the Polish port cities of Gdańsk and Szczecin on the Baltic coast in 1980.

The renowned Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński was among the first writers to sense the importance of what was happening:

The workers on the Coast have smashed the old stereotypes of the “dumb prole”… The young face of a new generation of workers has emerged: thoughtful, intelligent, conscious of its place in society, and most importantly, committed to drawing all the consequences of the ideological foundations of this system, according to which it is their class that plays the leading role in society.

Kapuściński describes Gdansk and Szczecin as “cities in which a new morality took control. No one drank, no one caused trouble… Crime fell to zero, aggression disappeared. People became friendly, helpful and open to one another. Total strangers suddenly felt they needed one another”. People were motivated not by “wage demands”, but “the dignity of man”.45

The emergence of Solidarity had its roots in earlier battles when the Polish state had tried to make workers pay for its flawed economic policies. In 1970-1, price increases had precipitated mass strikes and demonstrations in the coastal shipyard cities. The security forces had responded with unrestrained brutality, killing hundreds of workers. The regime fell, giving way to a new party leader, Edward Gierek, promising reforms. Yet history would quickly repeat itself. The Polish economy, as we have seen, was floundering. In 1976 Gierek would also now attempt swingeing price rises, provoking strikes and riots, this time beyond the coastal cities, most notably at the Ursus tractor complex in Warsaw and in the city of Radom. According to some reports, three quarters of Poland’s largest plants were hit by strikes. Within 24 hours, the price rises had been withdrawn.46 Once again, fierce repression followed, hundreds of victimisation sackings, police beatings, jailings.

It was at this point that KOR, mentioned earlier, emerged. It comprised of a small number of dissident intellectuals, including Kuroń and Michnik, who would raise funds and publicise the cases of victimised workers. As a sporadic strike movement developed between 1976 and 1980, in response to the deepening economic crisis, KOR would widen the scope of its intervention “breaking the state’s censorship monopoly and providing news of workers’ struggles”.47 Exemplary courage and tenacity characterised KOR intellectuals and worker activists during this period, constantly arrested, beaten by the police, sometimes murdered.48 Some militant workers were drawn towards KOR’s activities leading to the production of underground leaflets and newspapers, the most important of which was Robotnik (Worker). The demand for a Free Trade Union movement began to grow. KOR’s influence on this development was thus well rooted—including its theory of a self-limiting revolution.

The breakthrough came at the Baltic port city of Gdansk in 1980. Anna Walentynowicz, who would become internationally famous as the militant crane-driving grandmother in the shipyard, helped produce Coastal Worker, a KOR newspaper. She was sacked. A strike movement erupted which not only closed the giant, unfortunately named, Lenin Shipyard, but began spreading to workers across the city. It seemed as though the moment to turn the idea of a “Free Trade Union” movement into a reality had arrived.

A strike committee was formed which included Lech Wałęsa, previously sacked from the yard and who had climbed over the wall to address striking workers, along with Walentynowicz. The government was forced to negotiate. Political demands were added to the economic demands, the release of political prisoners, the erection of a monument at the shipyard gates to the workers murdered by the regime in 1970, which were conceded. Demands for full-scale democratisation from the workplace and local communities to all the economic and political institutions of the state simmered just beneath the surface. Not all were agreed, nevertheless, the final outcome was a humiliated government forced to recognise, for the first time in a “Communist” country, a mass-based independent free trade union. In any case, the government understood, in no uncertain terms, that the dynamic of democratisation, sometimes referred to as self-determination and workers’ self-management, was now unstoppable.

The name Solidarity had immediate roots and relevance. When Wałęsa and the shipyard workers voted to end the strike, tram drivers on strike bitterly complained. They had been out in solidarity but had made no gains. Walentynowicz and other women at the shipyard insisted that the strike be reinstated. It was, and the strike committee was expanded to include all striking workplaces.49

Kuroń was one of the political prisoners. He made a fascinating and self-deprecating admission. He said that perhaps it was a good job he wasn’t there: “I would have told them…expecting…independent trade unions…was impossible”.50 Workers had moved beyond the experts. But only up to a point: the self-limiting restriction on the new movement was built into its perspectives. For the next few months the self-limiting restriction would be tested to its limits, reaching a climax at the city of Bydgoszcz. Here its political inadequacy would be ruthlessly exposed, paving the way for martial law which was imposed at the end of 1981.

Martial law, in turn, destroyed the revolution. It’s true that the implosion of Soviet Communism in 1989—and Solidarity was obviously a major contributor to that implosion—found some of the Solidarity leaders and advisers, some recently released from prison, at the so-called Round Table negotiations with leaders of the former Communist regime. But the combination of martial law, the demoralising failure of the self-limiting revolution with deeply reactionary pressures from the West filling the vacuum, had created a transformed intellectual and political climate.

The results were spelled out in stark terms by none other than Karol Modzelewski, who, while still insisting that Marxism was no longer relevant, nevertheless had distanced himself from his old comrades Kuroń and Michnik who had signed up to the agenda of a neoliberal future for a post-Communist Poland:

The Great “Solidarity” of 1980-1 was a collective, egalitarian and, in its core, socialist movement. Two years after the martial law none of these expressions were suitable to describe the ideological stance of “Solidarity” Underground. This is also true in the case of intellectuals… They were still oriented toward “Solidarity” or, to be more precise, what was left of it, but they were using a different language and had different ideas than in 1981…when they co-authored our programme titled “Rzeczpospolita Samorządna”, Self-governing Republic.51 Their compass was tuned to different azimuths…the era of Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.52
Gwiazda and Solidarity’s “October” moment
Andrzej Gwiazda is a name virtually unknown in the West. But, in a very public clash with Solidarity’s world-renowned leader Lech Wałęsa, at the height of the Bydgoszcz crisis, he could legitimately claim: “It’s my duty to talk because my name next to yours Lech, Anna Walentynowicz and a few others, has become a symbol for those who…fought to get our union”.53

Gwiazda had just spoken on behalf of Wałęsa, unilaterally calling off the general strike over Bydgoszcz in March 1981. He then very publicly attacked the decision. Making sense of this political somersault, and the man who performed it, at the very moment when the taking of political power seemed to be within Solidarity’s grasp, takes us to the heart of Solidarity’s political crisis and ultimate defeat. A crisis built into the perspective of the self-limiting revolution. First, though, we need to understand Gwiazda’s politics.

His intense Polish nationalism had its understandable roots in his hatred of Soviet Communism and its manifestation as Soviet imperial domination and Soviet terror in relation to Poland. He has literally lived with it since the age of five when, at the beginning of the Second World War, his family were a direct victim of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Hitler’s snatch squads took his father54 and Stalin’s his mother and the rest of the family, including Andrzej, to be deported to Siberia.55 Even at five he was “wróg sowieckiego naroda”, enemy of the people.

There is an extensive, almost legendary, Polish literature56 about Gwiazda (and his wife Joanna Duda-Gwiazda)57 that describes the uncompromising childhood, the teenage resistance fighter, constantly expelled from schools, in and out of detention centres and jails. His loathing of Communists meant that his reaction to the Open Letter was simply pleasure that the Communists were now fighting among themselves. He saw no value in its contents. He never trusted the authors, particularly Kuroń. How can you trust even an ex-Communist? Why did they remain silent for so long about Stalin’s crimes? At the same time, though, as a leader of the Free Trade Unions in Gdansk, the movement that preceded Solidarity, and then a chief negotiator, alongside Wałęsa, for Solidarity’s demands to be recognised by the government, he alone insisted that the release of political prisoners, Kuroń in particular, was a non-negotiable demand.58

Ash’s observations show Gwiazda, the militant, revolutionary workers’ leader. On workers’ democracy: people should not vote for “Franek or Gienek”, but for a programme: “that protective clothing should always be provided, for example, or that proper cupboards should be fitted in the changing rooms. And after six months people can say to Franek: What’s happened about the cupboards then? You made a promise… But you haven’t done anything, you creep. We’re going to get rid of you”.59

Gwiazda was not a natural practitioner of the art of the possible: if he had been, he would never have begun the struggle for what seemed to everyone impossible in the 1970s. He was a fighter for fundamental principles, with more than a streak of intransigence. Yet no one who travelled around the country in this week could doubt that Gwiazda was more closely in tune with the mood of the workers than the counsellors of caution.60

The test for Gwiazda and the entire movement and its strategy of the self-limiting revolution would come at Bydgoszcz in March 1981,61 the October “moment” of the Solidarity revolution. The general strike had been called in response to police beatings of Solidarity leaders, in particular Jan Rulewski,62 during stalled negotiations over recognition of Rural Solidarity, embracing some 3 million peasant farmers. All sides and all commentators agree this was the turning point for the movement.63 A four-hour general strike had already proved an immense success: “For the party leadership the most shattering feature…was the almost universal participation of party members, against the explicit orders of the Politburo…the base of the party was in open revolt”.64 There was every reason to believe that an all-out general strike would rally most of Polish society behind it.

We find Gwiazda instinctively hostile to Wałęsa yet unable to break with his old comrade. The resulting confusion reveals the man of principle but now paralysed by lack of political strategic alternative. Having agreed to act as Wałęsa’s spokesman—calling off the strike—Gwiazda sent him an open letter, widely published throughout Solidarity, attacking the decision, which he described as nothing less than a threat to Solidarity’s moral revolution in Poland.65 It pinpoints the scale of the crisis now faced by Solidarity after Bydgoszcz: “Not going into an evaluation of whether or not it was a just decision, we were not authorised to make such a decision… Each shadow that falls upon the union painfully hurts the hearts of Poles. Internal democracy is our union’s prerequisite”.66

But uncoupling the threat to Solidarity’s—and hence Poland’s—potential internal democracy from the justice of the decision itself, to abandon the general strike, disarmed the movement. Disarmed it of the very democratic debate that it needed, at its most advanced moment, for a fundamental shift in strategy and tactics. The ultimate limit of the self-limiting revolution had now been reached. Insofar as there was a theory underpinning it, Ost’s Anti-Politics, “don’t challenge the party’s control of the state”, sums it up. But this had reached its own limit and been found wanting. The prospect of Polish “civil society” somehow democratising itself “from below”, alongside co-existence with the Soviet state satellite system was stalemated. But it was a dangerous, unstable and temporary stalemate.

And here was the great paradox, Kuroń and Modzelewski’s Open Letter had not only predicted such a situation, it had provided the tactics, strategy and even a political programme for overcoming it. But it was “Marxist”; and Solidarity was fighting “Marxism”. The conundrum paralysed the movement at the very moment its resolution could have unleashed its enormous potential.

Gwiazda was one of Solidarity’s most courageous and intelligent revolutionary militants. Could he have cracked the conundrum? We’ll never know. The ­realisation that the enemy wasn’t “communism” at all, but state monopoly totalitarian capitalism, increasingly dependent on the Western banks and corporations of the global economy, was never discussed. The implications were never put to the test.

Instead, Communism had to be destroyed. The left appeared as a trap and a snare—two sides of the same coin. Communists and their former Communist critics, briefly heroic leaders of Solidarity like Kuroń and Michnik, became agents for globalisation and its neoliberal “reform” agenda for a post-Communist Poland, now welcomed by leaders of the former Communist regime. Throughout, the Gwiazdas remained principled trade unionists, but with a left-wing option now firmly blocked, we witnessed the deepening of a right-wing trend in Solidarity that would result in the remnant of the once great movement offering support to today’s right-wing nationalist governing Law and Justice Party. Today the Gwiazdas support this party.
Workers and intellectuals
This raises sharply the question of how democratic debate was conducted, and which debates were conducted, in Solidarity, and in particular the role of its intellectuals. Modzelewski may have abandoned the Open Letter and its Marxist principles but its influence continued to haunt him. He remained, in any case, one of Solidarity’s most effective left-wing intellectuals with enormous respect for the outpouring of mass democratic sentiment that characterised Solidarity from its inception.

The following outstanding passage from his autobiography sharply captures both the strengths and weaknesses of his position.

During the first “Solidarity”, [the] crowds’ attitude towards the leaders was very emotional, too. But there was no blind trust. On every level the activists—from the workplace to the National Commission, and following their suit, ordinary unionists—wanted, more than anything, to self-manage. They would never trust anyone, not even Wałęsa, with their lives. In order to effectively manage this movement we had to continuously intercommunicate with the crowds who wanted, above all, to direct and rule themselves, the unions and Poland. In January 1990 in Wrocław’s Hydral conference room I saw with my own eyes that this spirit of self-governance vanished completely. This “Solidarity” was different. It is not even about the fact that 80 percent of former members never rejoined the movement when it was reactivated. The main reason for this is the fact that this powerful spirit of self-determination was crushed by a violent force [the imposition of martial law] in December 1981 and it never came back. The extraordinary phenomenon of sovereign, collective activism of millions of people has been irretrievably destroyed. The myth survived, and it manifested itself in the strikes of 1988 and triumphed during the June 1989 elections. When “our” government was formed, the righteous “flag-bearer” had to become “our” prime minister and his team. But the myth does not express the crowd’s pursuit for self-decision making; it does not provide the control instruments or a will to control. Where the myth is strong, its depositaries have the free rein. Their decisions are never resisted.67

On the one hand we have the demand for self-determination or self-management, popular control, workers’ control, the single most important spontaneous demand of the movement. On the other hand we have the intellectuals “to manage this movement”.

Modzelewski tells us elsewhere that he won an argument with the intellectuals that the crowd must be trusted to make its own decisions, that its behaviour was perfectly rational. But this still begs the question of the relation between the crowd and the intellectuals. And it raises one question in particular above all others. Can the crowd generate its own intellectuals?

This question never seems to have been put, yet it was intimately linked to the question of how the demand for self-determination could discover the practical politics for its implementation. It was not the task of the intellectuals to grant self-determination or to use pressure from the crowd on the authorities to do so, nor in any case, was it in their gift to do so. It was the task of the workers’ movement itself to mobilise for it. But how? Spontaneity needed to be underpinned by political organisation. But what sort of organisation?68

In 1968 Chris Harman had grappled with exactly this question in response to what seemed to be 1968’s spontaneous call for a student-worker alliance. It was seen as the key ingredient for revolution in France’s May ’68. Yet it was notoriously short-lived and, in any case, arguably, it had failed. Yet the idea caught the imagination, perhaps like no other. Tantalising, to be sure, but, to use the jargon, how to concretise it?

Chris addressed precisely this question in a pamphlet essay, “Party and Class”, which also deserves to be ranked as a classic 1968 text.69 He built a powerful case for the creation of worker-intellectuals, juxtaposing and dovetailing several celebrated passages about the crowd in history, from the writings of Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Citing Gramsci, Chris traces two possible routes for the active “man of the masses”.70 He is caught between two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness). One “which unites him with all his colleagues in the practical transformation of reality, and one superficially explicit or verbal which he has inherited from the past and which he accepts without criticism”. If the two are in contradiction, it can result in paralysis, “a state of moral and political passivity”. Overcoming this requires constructing “a determined practice, a theory that, coinciding with and being identified with the decisive elements of the same practice, accelerates the historical process…makes the practice more homogeneous, coherent, more efficacious in all its elements”. The choice is between “having a conception of the world ‘imposed’ mechanically by the external environment…or to work out one’s own conception of the world consciously and critically”.71

But the individual activist among the masses cannot do this alone. She or he requires a political organisation sophisticated enough to respond to all external political, intellectual and cultural pressures. But this must be on the terms set, and guaranteed by, the roots of the organisation among the most advanced stream of the rank and file of the mass movement, the stream least likely to compromise with potentially conservative external pressures and consciously work through an alternative.

Here Chris switches from Gramsci to Lenin, and Lenin’s conception of the political party, but the switch is seamless, suggesting an extraordinarily creative fusion of the thinking of the two political leaders and intellectuals. At issue, is persuading the new members, quoting Lenin, “steadily to elevate them…from a general spirit of protest…to organised membership in the party”.72 Lenin called them “purposive workers”. “Genuine heroes” who have a “passionate drive toward knowledge and toward socialism”.73

Chris then synthesises and draws out the underlying principle: “The revolutionary party exists so as to make it possible for the most conscious militant workers and intellectuals to engage in scientific discussion as a prelude to coherent and cohesive action”.74 Worker and intellectual are not just equals in the party, the worker is beginning to gain confidence in their own intellectual qualities, irrespective of how little earlier learning or reading they may have done in the past. Massive efforts are made to provide a literature and other forms of intellectual communication—in popular form. Gramsci himself had been very clear about the prospects for this bold perspective, identifying the worker-intellectual in the making as nothing less than a democratic philosopher, a “permanently active persuader” with roots among the masses.75

Kuroń and Modzelewski had explicitly identified the political organisation necessary for the development of worker-intellectuals when, in the Open Letter, they drew lessons from the 1956 workers’ revolt in Poland calling for “the natural leaders of the working class, youth and intellectual opinion…a specifically proletarian movement…[with its] own political programme, to propagate it in an organised manner among the masses, to create a party…a politically independent force”.76

In 1980-1, they helped create a movement, Solidarity, with literally thousands of new “natural leaders of the working class.” But by refusing to sanction the independent Marxism that they themselves had begun to pioneer with the Open Letter, they disarmed the new movement, and especially its new young working class leaders, ideologically. This also meant that the regime’s Stalinised travesty of Marxism could only be challenged from the right. Legitimate pressures for democratisation were relatively easily fused with the entirely illegitimate pressures emanating from the Western “liberal democracies”, carriers of liberalism’s latest incarnation, the virus known as neoliberalism.

Drawing together some of the different political and intellectual strands of Chris Harman’s contributions over the years, directly and indirectly relevant, has hopefully helped clarify the extraordinarily creative yet deeply contradictory roles of Kuroń and Modzelewski. But taking as a cue Chris’s tribute to them in his last major work, Zombie Capitalism, the focus for how to define their legacy should be on the unfinished business of the 1968 Kuroń and Modzelewski.

This is not so far-fetched. We have seen the progressive, perhaps even quasi-Marxist impulses, still at work in Modzelewski’s autobiography. But Kuroń too, at the end of his life, called his role as a key promoter of “shock therapy” in Solidarity’s first neoliberal government in the 1990s the biggest mistake of his life.77 Indeed Kuroń was, perhaps, rediscovering at least a respect for the Marxism of his youth.78

John Rose is currently studying the roots of the failure of communism in the 20th century.


1 Cliff, 1988.

2 Cliff, 1988, p168.

3 Cliff, 1988, pp50-55.

4 Cliff, 1988, p54.

5 Cliff, 1988, p54.

6 Cliff, 1988, pp144-145. For how Cliff developed his theory of state capitalism, which involved a break with Leon Trotsky’s view that, however bureaucratically distorted, Russia was still some kind of workers’ state, see Birchall, 2011, p88-127; Callinicos, 1990, p73-79. In 1956 the KGB, Russia’s secret police, commissioned a special translation of Cliff’s book—Birchall, 2011, p117.

Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador to Britain during the war recorded in his diaries Stalin’s enthusiasm for a leading British Conservative banker, J Gibson Jarvie, who praised the former’s Five Year Plan. But Maisky writes that Stalin always ignored Jarvie’s insistence that Russia was practising state capitalism—Gorodetsky, 2015, p37.

7 Kuroń and Modzelewski, 1966.

8 See “The Student Revolt” in Harman, 1998, pp38-54.

9 Ali and Watkins, 1998, p129. Thanks to Ken Muller for reminding me about Marcuse.

10 “Students held huge assemblies into the night discussing every social and political question…workers, slowly, but surely, identified with what was called the ‘reform process’, beginning to force officials out from state-run unions and to frame demands of their own”—Harman, 1998, p123.

11 Modzelewski, 2013. Thanks to Andrzej Zebrowski of Pracownicza Demokracja (Workers Democracy) in Warsaw for our intensive discussions about this book, his invaluable comments on the first draft of this article. I would also like to thank Ela Bancarzewski and Maciej Bancarzewski for their superb translations of excerpts from the autobiography.

12 Czech student leader Petr Uhl published and distributed it widely in Czechoslovakia in 1968, translated from the French, not the Polish, edition.

13 Modzelewski, 2013, Kindle location 2123-2127

14 The quoted translation of Left March is by Alec Vagapov.

15 Harman, 1966. The Open Letter was published in pamphlet form as “A Revolutionary Socialist Manifesto” with a subtitle “written in a Polish prison”, which of course was an error. The authors had received a prison sentence for writing it.

16 Kuroń and Modzelewski, 1966, p7.

17 Kuroń and Modzelewski, 1966, p15.

18 Kuroń and Modzelewski, 1966, p27.

19 Kuroń and Modzelewski, 1966, pp50-51.

20 See the chapter on the Hungarian Revolution in Harman, 1988, pp119-188, as well as the comment on this chapter, footnote 39 of this article. Also Tamás, 2016.

21 Solidarity is discussed shortly. For the best introduction see Barker, 1986. George Sanford, the British liberal scholar who wrote the first English language comprehensive description of Solidarity’s one and only (1981) national congress, describes Barker’s book as “the most cogent, if inevitably partisan, political analysis, establishing common ground with the radical fundamentalist tendency within Solidarity itself”—Sanford, 1990, p2.

22 Kuroń and Modzelewski, 1966, pp22-23.

23 The “technocratic current” led the right-wing version of the workers self-management debate in Solidarity in 1981. The professionally trained, economically privileged, technological experts were often the leaders of this movement, and some would see the prizing away of their workplaces from the Stalinist bureaucracy as the first step towards deals with Western financial investors—see also Kuroń and Modzelewski, 1966, pp69-70. But there was also a left-wing which allied with the rank and file workers. In any case, were the professional technocrats not also proletarians, albeit highly privileged ones? Did they not sell their labour power and create value? Indeed, as technological innovators, which sometimes they were, did they not make a unique contribution toward value creation? See Callinicos, 2014, pp302-303, and footnote 26 on pp301-302, for a discussion on “scientific labour”. Coincidentally, see the extracts from Harman’s Education, Capitalism and the Student Revolt in this issue. Certainly, no one could doubt the proletarian commitment of bicycle design engineer Jan Rulewski, as we shall see, centre stage during Solidarity’s “October” moment, the Bydgoszcz crisis. Rulewski, to this day, still hopes to design a bicycle environmentally adapted to the heavily traffic-laden roads of the 21st century and sees his professional skills placed alongside the workers who would make those bikes as an essential part of the production process in a workers’ self-managed society. And who will deny the proletarian commitment of chemical engineer, Andrzej Gwiazda in 1981? (See the section below on Gwiazda).

24 Kuroń and Modzelewski, 1966, pp44-45. The Open Letter develops a detailed programme for implementation in its concluding pages—Kuroń and Modzelewski, 1966, pp59-66.

25 But did Cohn-Bendit properly read the Open Letter? It is not addressed in his book, Cohn-Bendit, 1968. This was a wider problem. It became a flag, a “red rag” to the Stalinist bull, of symbolic protest. But its sharp incisive analysis was too easily glossed over. Cohn-Bendit’s anarcho-libertarianism drew very different conclusions and helped spawn Anti-Politics, the unhelpful part of the 1968 legacy, with a decisive influence on the rise of Solidarity—Ost, 1990.

26 Modzelewski, 2013, Kindle location 2127-2133.

27 Harman, 1998, p124. The regime claimed only “hooligans” joined the 1968 disturbances but most of 1,200 arrests “were in fact young workers”—Harman, 1998, p124. Also Gwiazda’s view: “Almost alone in 1968 he, Gwiazda, tried to mobilise working class support for the student movement”—Touraine, 1983, p146.

28 Kuroń and Modzelewski, 1966, pp55-56.

29 Friszke, 2010, p493. Thanks to Andrzej Zebrowski for locating this classic leaflet and to Jacek Szymanski for translating it.

30 Ost, 1990. Kuroń would sharply put down any support for the Open Letter. Zbigniew Kowalewski (Łódź region) was one of a tiny number of Solidarity leaders to support it. Kuroń attacked him in the lobbies of the programmatic commission of the 1st national congress of Solidarity in Autumn 1981 as “a schnook (frajer) who still believes in the follies/foolishnesses/stupidities/idiocies (głupstwa) we wrote, Karol and me, in the Open Letter”. Kowalewski reports and comments on this in Nowy Robotnik, number 7 (22), July-August 2005. Kuroń, the year before, had told the general assembly of delegates of Łódź region that Marxism was an “outlived 19th century philosophy”. Unfortunately, Kowalewski’s role, in late 1981, promoting the “active strike” strategy, threatening a response to food shortages with workers’ control over food production and distribution, with strong hints of generalising the strategy, cannot be explored here. I do so in a later publication. Meanwhile see Barker, 1986, pp129 and 139-140, and Kowalewski, 1982, and 1985. Ominously General Jaruzelski warned against “active strikes” in the Sejm, the Polish parliament, and the Polish Communist Party paper attacked Kowalewski’s “active strike” pamphlet just weeks before the imposition of martial law.

31 Barker, 1986, p16.

32 Barker, 1986, p12.

33 Ost, 1990, p1.

34 Ash, 1983, pp22-23.

35 Deutscher, 2003, p138.

36 Harman, 1976; Harman, 1977.

37 Harman, 2009, p375.

38 Financial Times (1 June, 1976), cited in Harman, 1977.

39 Wall Street Journal (7 December, 1981). This later example comes from a new chapter on Poland’s Solidarity movement in the third edition of Chris’s Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 1945-83, published in 1988, p255. Inevitably the chapter overlaps with Colin Barker’s book on Solidarity published two years earlier and it is most unfortunate that Chris does not mention Colin’s book. Chris would have benefited from Colin’s discussion on the prospects for Soviet military intervention in Poland 1980-1, which Chris far too lightly dismisses as a possibility—Harman, 1988, pp273-274. Colin’s insistence that Moscow was ready to intervene (Barker, 1986, p158) is supported by recently published Polish sources, citing US Intelligence assessments—Friszke, 2014, p487. What, though, would have been the outcome of Soviet military intervention? As Chris noted, Moscow was in a far weaker position than at the time of Prague 1968. Its military intervention in 1979 in Afghanistan was having a profound demoralising effect. Like Poland’s, its economy was destabilising from the unstoppable pressures emanating from the global economy. Chris’s superb chapter on the Soviet military intervention in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, reproduced in his 1988 book, provides some unexpected guidelines. Moscow had been in no hurry to dismantle the Hungarian workers’ councils by force. Better to pressurise the Hungarian government to seek out conciliatory elements among the leadership of the workers’ councils. Of course, Moscow may well have been playing for time before the arrests of the workers’ leaders began. But the time lag is important. The “stand-off” provided an opportunity for the councils to assert their strength. They controlled production, not the government. See the outstanding 3,000 word statement issued by the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest, confronting Soviet military forces, on December 6, 1956—Harman, 1988, p177. The outcome of a stand-off between a much weakened Soviet military and Solidarity in Poland’s industrial centres, rallying almost the whole of Polish society behind it, was by no means a foregone conclusion.

40 Financial Times, 5 December 1975; Harman, 1977.

41 See also “The Contradictions of Authoritarian Reform” in Callinicos, 1991, pp40-50.

42 Harman, 2009, p206.

43 Harman, 2009, p205-206.

44 Barker, 1986, p11.

45 Ost, 1990, p9.

46 Barker, 1986, p11.

47 Barker, 1986, p13.

48 Barker, 1986, p215.

49 Barker, 1986, p21. The full story is told in the film Women of Solidarity, see footnote 57.

50 Barker, 1986, p26.

51 Solidarity’s one and only national congress in autumn 1981 called for self-managed workplaces in a self-governing republic.

52 Modzelewki, 2013, Kindle location 6201-6206

53 Persky and Flam, 1982, p171.

54 Kwiatkowska, 1990, p27.

55 Ash, 1983, p4.

56 I would like to thank Maciej Pienkowski, Gdansk translator and researcher, for reading and translating some passages from this literature.

57 See the fascinating interview with Andrzej and Joanna Duda-Gwiazda in the recent magnificent film about the Women of Solidarity, Kobiety Solidarności, made available here (with English language subtitles), thanks to its Polish writer and director, Marta Dzido: www.youtube.com/watch? v=tAmcnAw4Cu0. In the film they uncompromisingly denounce the Round Table negotiations in 1989 and the deadly embrace of the “free market” of neoliberalism. The viewer will see that the interview takes place in their flat in a tower block which overlooks the remnant of the Gdansk shipyard.

58 Ash, 1983, p65.

59 Ash, 1983, p77.

60 Ash, 1983, pp82-3.

61 Barker, 1986, pp51-55.

62 See footnote 23.

63 US sociologist Jack Bloom quotes Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution on “revolutionary turning points” to emphasise the point—Bloom, 2015, p219-20. Ash also quotes Trotsky’s use of the idea of dual power which sets the scene for just such a crisis—Ash, 1983, p99.

64 Ash, 1983, p157.

65 Persky and Flam, 1982, p171.

66 Persky and Flam, 1982, p172.

67 Modzelewski, 2013, Kindle location 7265-7275.

68 The argument also found its expression in Solidarity’s internal arguments about workers self-management which dominated its one and only National Congress in 1981, Barker, 1986, pp113-120.

69 Harman, 1996.

70 Today of course we would refer to the active woman or man.

71 Gramsci, quoted in Harman, 1996, pp27-28.

72 Harman, 1996, p29.

73 Lih, 2008, p344-345. Alexander Shlyapnikov, Labour Commissar in the first Bolshevik government, was probably the Bolsheviks’ most famous worker-intellectual, learning his Marxism from books and pamphlets as a 14 year old metal workers’ apprentice. He was also steeped in Russian classical literature and, because he worked in factories in different parts of Western Europe before the revolution, was fluent in several European languages. Lenin was constantly fighting with him, famously expelling his Workers’ Opposition faction several years after the civil war but insisting that Shlyapnikov stay on the Central Committee—Allen, 2016.

74 Harman, 1996, p30.

75 Thomas, 2010, pp429-436.

76 Kuroń and Modzelewski, 1966, p44-45.

77 Ost, 2005, p197.

78 See Andrzej Zebrowski’s thoughtful obituary of Kuroń—Zebrowski, 2004.


Ali, Tariq, and Susan Watkins, 1998, 1968: Marching in the Streets (Bloomsbury).

Allen, Barbara C, 2016, Alexander Shlyapnikov 1885-1937 Life of an Old Bolshevik (Haymarket).

Ash, Timothy Garton, 1983, The Polish Revolution: Solidarity, 1980-82 (Jonathan Cape).

Barker, Colin, 1986, Festival of the Oppressed: Solidarity, Reform and Revolution in Poland 1980-81 (Bookmarks).

Birchall, Ian, 2011, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time (Bookmarks).

Bloom, Jack M, 2015, Seeing Through the Eyes of the Polish Revolution: Solidarity and the Struggle against Communism in Poland (Haymarket).

Callinicos, Alex, 1990, Trotskyism (Open University Press).

Callinicos, Alex, 1991, The Revenge of History: Marxism and the East European Revolutions (Polity).

Callinicos, Alex, 2014, Deciphering Capital: Marx’s Capital and its Destiny (Bookmarks).

Cohn-Bendit, Daniel, 1968, Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative (Andre Deutsch).

Cliff, Tony, 1988, State Capitalism in Russia (Bookmarks).

Deutscher, Isaac, 2003, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky 1921-1929 (Verso).

Friszke, Andrzej, 2010, Anatomia buntu: Kuroń, Modzelewski I komandosi [Anatomy of a Rebellion: Kuroń, Modzelewski and the Commandos] (Wydawnictwo Znak).

Friszke, Andrzej, 2014, Rewolucja Solidarności 1980-1981 [Solidarity Revolution 1980-1981] (Wydawniczy Znak).

Gorodetsky, Gabriel (ed), 2015, The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St James’s, 1932-1943 (Yale University Press).

Harman, Chris, 1966, “Introduction”, in Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski, A Revolutionary Socialist Manifesto: An Open Letter To The Party (International Socialism).

Harman, Chris, 1976, “Poland: Crisis of State Capitalism, part 1”, International Socialism 93 (first series, November), www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1976/11/poland.htm

Harman, Chris, 1977, Poland: Crisis of State Capitalism, part 2”, International Socialism 94 (first series, January), www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1977/01/poland2.htm

Harman, Chris, 1988, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 1945-83, 3rd edition (Bookmarks).

Harman, Chris, 1996, Party and Class (Bookmarks).

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

Harman, Chris, 2009, Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx (Bookmarks).

Kowalewski, Zbigniew, 1982, “Solidarnosc on the Eve”, Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, volume 5, numbers 1-2.

Kowalewski, Zbigniew, 1985, Rendez-nous nos usines! [Give Us Back Our Factories!] (La Brèche).

Kwiatkowska, Wiesława, 1990, Gwiazda, miałeś rację [Gwiazda, you were right] (ZP Sopot).

Kuroń, Jacek, and Karol Modzelewski, , 1966, An Open Letter to the Party (New Politics), www.unz.org/Pub/NewPolitics-1966q2-00005

Modzelewski, Karol, 2013, Zajeździmy kobyłę historii—wyznania poobijanego jeźdźca [We’ll ride the mare of history into the ground—confessions of a bruised rider] (Wydawnictwo Iskry).

Lih, Lars T, 2008, Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done? in Context (Haymarket).

Ost, David, 1990, Solidarity and the Politics of Anti Politics: Opposition and Reform in Poland Since 1968 (Temple University Press).

Ost, David, 2005, The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe (Cornel University Press).

Persky, Stan, and Henry Flam (eds), 1982, The Solidarity Sourcebook (New Star Books).

Sanford, George, 1990, The Solidarity Congress 1981: The Great Debate (Macmillan).

Tamás, G.M, 2016, “Hungary 1956: A Socialist Revolution”, International Socialism 152 (autumn), http://isj.org.uk/hungary-1956-a-socialist-revolution/

Thomas, Peter D, 2010, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Haymarket).

Touraine, Alain, 1983, Solidarity: The Analysis of a Social Movement, Poland 1980-81 (Cambridge University Press).

Zebrowski, Andy, 2004, “Obituary: Jacek Kuroń”, Socialist Review (July/August), http://socialistreview.org.uk/287/obituary-jacek-kuron

Article 1986, Chris Harman, Poland

Like us on Facebook

Follow us on Twitter
Now online: Shirin Hirsch on Enoch Powell and the “Rivers of Blood” speech

Now online: Judy Cox on How working class women won the vote from issue 158, out in April 2018

Now online: Trump gets serious: Analysis from issue 158, out in April 2018

New Resources
For more click on the ‘Resources’ tab above

New to our translations page: Lise Vogel und die Politik der Frauenbefreiung (Nicola Ginsburgh on Lise Vogel and the politics of women’s liberation in German)

Now online: Syrian revolutionary socialist Ghayath Naisse interviewed on the brutalisation of Syria, the goals of those intervening and the prospects for socialists in the region.

Now online: Analysis from issue 153: Alex Callinicos on neoliberalism and its discontents

Online only “How to stop the tanks” by Ron Margulies on the attempted coup in Turkey

“A historic turning point in Brazil” by Eduardo Albuquerque from issue 151 is now online

“Intimations of mortality” Alex Callinicos’s analysis from issue 150 is now online

Jane Pritchard on the sex work debate from issue 125 is now available in German. Thanks to Rosemarie Nuenning

25 January 2016 is the 5th anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution- International Socialism has covered events in Egypt from the strike waves that led up to the revolution, the events of 2011 themselves and the situation since: here is a timeline of key articles

Now online, Ellen Meiksins Wood (1942-2016) writing in International Socialism in 1987

Suzanne Jeffery’s article “Up against the Clock: Climate, social movements and Marxism” translated into Turkish

Anne Alexander on “ISIS and counter-revolution: A Marxist analysis” is available in Turkish here

Black history, police racism, Islamophobia and contemporary debates on oppression- Articles and book reviews for black history month

Videos and transcript of the International Socialism debate on Syriza and Socialist Strategy with Stathis Kouvelakis and Alex Callinicos

Online only: Vincent Sung analyses the roots of Hong Kong’s umbrella movement protests here

“Nemesis in Iraq” from issue 143 has been translated into Persian- read the translation here (thanks to Babak PashaJavid)

Online only: Bob Light remembers the 1974-5 Portuguese revolution
Videos from the International Socialism event on ‘Work, Class and Resistance’ with Jane Hardy, Kevin Doogan, Lucia Pradella and Jim Wolfreys

Videos from the International Socialism event on ‘Marxism and Revolution Today’ with Alex Callinicos, Claire Ceruti, Neil Davidson and others

Videos from a discussion of the crisis and the left in Europe with Charlie Kimber and Giorgos Pittas

Videos from the International Socialism conference on ‘Crisis, Class and Resistance’ with Robin Blackburn, Alex Callinicos, Guy Standing and others

Why the Earth Summit Failed by David Treece – originally published in International Socialism 56

Video: International Socialism seminar on “Egypt, Tunisia and revolution in the 21st century” with Gilbert Achcar and Anne Alexander

“The sex work debate: a response to Jess Edwards” by Thierry Schaffauser

Video: Seminar on ‘Racism in Britain today’ with Richard Seymour”

Audio: Alex Callinicos on the International Socialist tradition in political economy

Continuing crisis in Thailand

A report on the presidential election in Cyprus

Audio: full recordings from the recent International Socialism conference Marxism and Political Economy

Audio: Harman, Brenner and Itoh discuss the world economy today at Historical Materialism’s annual conference

From Our Archives
The roots of gay oppression (Norah Carlin 1989)

The ‘workers’ government (Chris Harman 1977)

A critique of Nicos Poulantzas (Colin Barker 1979)

Theories of Patriarchy (Lindsey German 1981)

Mike Kidron on Marxist political economy (1974)

The State and Capital (Chris Harman 1991)

Gramsci versus Eurocommunism (Chris Harman 1977)

© 2018 International Socialism. (unless otherwise stated). You may republish if you include an active link to the original.

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Marx’s essential contribution to ecosocialism-

Posted by admin On April - 25 - 2018 Comments Off on Marx’s essential contribution to ecosocialism-


(Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism:
Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy
By Kohei Saito
Monthly Review Press, 2017 · 268 pages · $29.00)

“Ecosocialism needs Marx,” Kohei Saito once wrote. In Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy, Saito shows why. Saito is associate professor of political economy at Osaka City University in Japan. In 2015, he earned a PhD in philosophy from Humboldt University in Berlin and spent time as a guest researcher at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities where he contributes to the editing of Marx’s natural science notebooks. This work and Saito’s familiarity with a range of international debates regarding Marxist theory and practice make possible his beautiful analysis of Marx’s ecosocialism, an analysis that should inform our struggle for revolutionary socioecological change.

In Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, Saito traces the development (through published works, draft manuscripts, correspondence, and natural science notebooks) of Marx’s ecological critique of capitalism and of his vision of a new society emancipated from capital and therefore capable of establishing a wholly different

relationship to the rest of nature. Building on the work of Marxist scholars such as John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Paul Burkett among others, Saito re-embeds Marx’s ecological critique within a broader political and intellectual project that deepened over decades.

Against readings that downplay or deny Marx’s contributions to ecological thinking, Saito shows that powerful ecological insight and analysis gained through intensive study of the natural sciences became central not only to Marx’s political economy and sociology, but also to his political project—what we now call ecosocialism.

One of the many exciting aspects of Saito’s book is that he takes what we learn from previous work on Marx’s ecology and adds a completely new chapter, literally and figuratively. In the chapter “Marx’s Ecology after 1868,” Saito reveals the extensive nature of Marx’s natural science studies after the publication of the first volume of Capital. Saito constructs his analysis based on previously unpublished notebooks made available by the important and ongoing work to compile a completed version of Marx and Engels’s collected works, called the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe (MEGA). The 1868 notebooks reveal Marx’s extensive engagement with scientific debates and developments in his time, especially the critical reception of Justus von Liebig’s provocative thesis that “the law of replenishment” was violated by modern transformation of how people lived and farmed. Liebig predicted that the consequent soil exhaustion would “threaten all of European civilization.” Marx integrated Liebig’s insight into his own analysis of capitalist agriculture as a system of robbery and spoliation.

This chapter is useful for many reasons. It provides new material on Marx’s broad engagement with intellectual and scientific developments across continents and demonstrates his extraordinary ability to put these in conversation with one another in order to arrive at his own critical understanding of what exists, as well as what is possible. In this we see Marx’s methodology for studying the world in order to change it. As Saito writes, rather than develop a philosophical program based on abstract conceptions of what is and what ought to be, Marx “emphasizes the significance of a social and historical investigation with regard to how and why the objectively inverted world beyond human control emerges out of social practice, so that the material conditions for its transcendence can be understood.”

Saito documents Marx’s systematic study of scientists such as James F. W. Johnston, Liebig, and Carl Fraas, historians such as Georg Ludwig von Maurer, and political economists such as Henry Carey and Julius Au. He also draws on Marx’s correspondence with his contemporaries to show how his thinking changed over time with respect to Liebig’s theory of soil exhaustion and expanded to include a sophisticated historical understanding of an array of ecological issues—from desertification to climate change—that now dot the syllabi of environmental studies courses around the world.

Marx linked these issues to a broader social analysis in a fashion far more advanced than anyone in his time. He produced one of the first explorations of ecological imperialism, ecological injustice, and what we now call “sustainability,” or how society may, as Saito summarizes, “consciously regulate the metabolic interaction between humans and [the rest of] nature.”

In other chapters, Saito brilliantly presents several key themes and innovations at the heart of Marx’s ecology. He begins the book with a discussion of Marx’s earlier understanding of the alienation of nature as marking the emergence of the modern, and how his thinking came to diverge from more romantic notions as well as from other popular philosophical and political currents of his day. He moves on to explain and contextualize Marx’s theory of the metabolism of political economy, as well as his own perspective on Marx’s Capital as a theory of metabolism.

Other chapters fill out our understanding of Marx’s study of Liebig and his broader concern with the ahistorical conceptions of soil fertility and ground rent in nineteenth-century bourgeois political economy. All of this is important reading, even for those familiar with earlier work on the same subjects. The way the book is written, from beginning to end, helps lay out the lines of analysis from seed to fruit, offering a way to think about how we might structure our own study and engage with current scientific and political developments in a deeper way in the service of advancing our social change efforts.

Altogether, Saito offers something fresh for readers for whom these topics are familiar, as well as a clear, accessible analysis for readers unfamiliar with Marx or Marx’s ecological insights, but serious about socioecological change. The book also explains and intervenes in central debates in Marxian theory. All of this is truly wonderful to read.

But the reason I decided to write this review is not only for the book’s intellectual and scholarly merit. This work also helps address urgent questions confronting our movements at a time when we have no time to waste. In 2016 an international group of scientists published a paper in Nature Climate Change entitled “Consequences of Twenty-First Century Policy for Multi-Millennial Climate and Sea-Level Change.” The article’s most breathtaking statement was that “policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems, and human societies—not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.”

New reports emerge every day documenting the advance of climate change, the mass extinction of species, the death of millions of human beings each year due to ecological degradation—234 times more deaths than those occurring in all violent conflicts around the world annually. In spite of international environmental agreements, the unprecedented sophistication of science and technology, the emergence of the so-called green economy, and the miserable, well-documented consequences for life on the planet, the rate of degradation is not slowing, it is increasing. Every earth system is in decline and many of us can agree that capitalism is the problem—so why can’t we agree to get rid of it?

The critique of capitalism from the standpoint of ecology and social justice is mainstream enough. Influential scientists long ago, even before Marx, warned of the dangers posed to life on earth by this economic system geared toward infinite accumulation. Contemporary scholars and scientists continue to build on the vast body of research documenting the social and ecological harms of prioritizing profit over people and the planet.

More recently, large environmental NGOs and environmental movement organizations published statements recognizing capitalism as the source of our ecological crises. Naomi Klein’s 2014 This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate was an international bestseller translated into about twenty-five languages. The New York Times even ran an opinion piece entitled, “The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid,” in which the author calls for a democratic socialist alternative.

Internalizing the widespread critique of capitalism, activists are offered many ways to think about change. First and foremost, elite reformers propose changing capitalism. From the World Bank to the UN, “inclusive green growth” and the “green economy” now supplement the “sustainable development” lexicon. While many activists and political groups condemn projects under these banners as maintaining the status quo, they adopt their own version of “green capitalism” as a result of their ideological commitments or calculations about political pragmatism.

As sociologist and activist Herbert Docena writes, many organizations (like 350.org, for example) have “gone on to amplify the reformist discourse by echoing their lines that the climate crisis is primarily caused by the lack of global regulation of capitalism; that it can be solved by enhancing such regulation; and that the ‘enemies’ are primarily, if not only, the fossil fuel companies or the ‘bad capitalists’ and the ‘bad elites opposing global regulation.”1

Law professor and social scientist Paddy Ireland notes, “It used to be the left who emphasized the limits to capitalism and the right who told us of its adaptability. Now, however, it is the right, believing themselves liberated from the credible threat of class struggle worldwide, who candidly stress the incompatibility of workers’ rights, [environmental regulations,] and welfare states with the elementary laws of capital (presented, of course, as “natural”), while the (erstwhile) left is reduced to insisting on the malleability and improvability of both capitalism and its corporations.”2

What becomes so clear in Saito’s rendition of nineteenth century debates and Marx’s own writing is that we have had all of these debates before. We have known about these problems for a very long time. Movements have tried making deals with the “good capitalists.” And where are we now?

Separating issues like climate change from the broader system that creates them, that immiserates lives and cannot stand still to take stock of the depletion of the earth’s life support systems, leads to a naive and Pollyannaish politics that can never confront the drivers of ecological harm or lead to a world that is more socially and ecologically sustainable and just. All of our historical experience affirms the truth of this statement.

Even if we were not confronting such an emergency with respect to life on earth, there are so many reasons to fight for a radically democratic, ecologically sane alternative to a racist, patriarchal, imperialist, winner-take-all system that concentrates wealth at the top, at the expense of the vast majority of the global population’s basic humanity. Saito provides a way of seeing the broader picture Marx offers, which will help activists in this critical moment make the case that “there must be a radical change, with reified social relations replaced by conscious production realized through the association of free producers. Only this emancipation from the reified power of capital will allow humans to construct a different relationship to nature.”

Herbert Docena, “The Politics of Climate Change,” Global Dialogue 6, no. 1 (February  2016), http://isa-global-dialogue.net/the-politics-of-climate-change/.
Paddy Ireland, “Corporations and Citizenship,” Monthly Review 49, no.1 (May1997), https://archive.monthlyreview.org/index.php/mr/article/view/MR-049-01-1997-05_2/0.

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Menshevism: The Girondins of 1917-Doug Enaa Greene

Posted by admin On April - 25 - 2018 Comments Off on Menshevism: The Girondins of 1917-Doug Enaa Greene


April 25, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Left Voice with the author’s permission — Whatever their differences, Lenin, Plekhanov, Martov, and Trotsky all saw the Russian Revolution as following in the experience of the French Revolution of 1789. The Russian revolutionaries also modeled themselves on the different parties of the French Revolution, whether consciously or unconsciously, as guides for action. Lenin and the Bolsheviks believed they were modern-day Jacobins – stalwart revolutionaries who would organize the working class and take power. By contrast, the Mensheviks were moderate Girondins. Menshevism was committed to gradualism and opposed to the “historical impatience” of a socialist revolution. Like the Girondins, the Mensheviks were honorable, but like their predecessors, they lacked faith in the revolutionary abilities of the people. That was the root of their failure in 1917.

I. Split
Marxism had existed in Tsarist Russia since the 1880s, but it was confined to the margins of emigres and to scattered circles of students and workers. By the 1890s, there was an upsurge of strikes in the industrial centers to which the nascent Marxist movement provided leadership and organization. While the police arrested the organizers, both the labor movement and Russian Marxism continued to grow.

After its failed 1898 First Congress, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) held its Second Congress – its true founding convention – in 1903 in both Brussels and London. The main organizers were Julius Martov, Georgi Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Vera Zasulich, Alexander Potresov, and Vladimir Lenin who were editors of Iskra, the party paper. The goal of the Iskra Group was to create a centralized all-Russian socialist party that would assume political leadership of the working class struggle against Tsarism.

During the initial proceedings at the Congress, the Iskra Group possessed a clear majority of 33 votes (out of a total of 51) and were able to swiftly pass their agenda. During the 22nd session of the Congress, which was devoted to the definition of membership, the Iskra Group split after Lenin and Martov put forward separate drafts. In somewhat simple terms, Lenin wanted a tightly-organized party of professional revolutionaries, while Martov was in favor of a broader and looser party. Martov’s draft won in the final vote.

Later the Congress approved Lenin’s motion that Iskra should be the sole representative of the party abroad and serve as the main vehicle of ideological leadership. Instead of keeping the current editorial board, Lenin proposed creating a smaller editorial board of three people (Martov, Plekhanov and himself), who had written most of the paper’s articles. After a contentious debate, Lenin’s proposal passed. Martov, however, refused to participate, splitting Iskra. The vote on the editorial group was the initial split of the RSDLP into factions of Bolsheviks (majority) and Mensheviks (minority).[1]

Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism, initially supported Lenin on the Iskra question. However, Plekhanov later lamented his choice, since he was now arrayed against longtime friends and comrades: “I cannot fire against my own comrades. Better a bullet in the brain than a split… There are times when even the autocracy has to give in.”[2] Plekhanov had changed his mind and invited the removed editors to rejoin Iskra. Lenin resigned in anger.

To many RSDLP members active in Russia, the split was a shocking blow. One worker wrote: “Now, what I cannot understand at all is the fight that’s going on now between the majority and the minority, and to a great many of us it seems wrong.”[3] In fact, many party branches within the Empire refused to split and they continued to operate as a unified organization.

Neither Bolshevism nor Menshevism emerged fully formed at the Second Congress. The two factions still clung to the same revolutionary program and hoped to heal the split. For many, the lines of demarcation were still confused. For instance, Trotsky found himself in the Menshevik camp until 1904. Part of the reason for the political confusion is that even moderate socialists in Tsarist Russia could not appear as open reformists since there did not exist even the illusion of a parliamentary democracy. This helped to obscure the true nature of the split.[4]

II. 1905
In 1905, Russia was humiliated after a short war with the Japanese, leading to greater calls for reform from liberals and workers. On January 22, 1905, a peaceful demonstration of workers petitioned the Tsar to improve their conditions. Soldiers fired on them, killing hundreds. The event sparked general strikes and peasant land seizures across the Empire. The whole autocracy appeared unstable and on the verge of collapse. The question for Marxists was: What would take its place?

As faithful Marxists, both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks believed that Russia was on the verge of its own 1789. According to this orthodox outlook, Western Europe was ripe for socialism, but Russia still had to accomplish a bourgeois revolution by overthrowing Tsarism and clearing away its feudal backwardness to create a modern capitalist society. After a protracted period, the expansion of both capitalist productive forces and the working class would make Russia ripe for socialism.

However, the surface agreement between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks on the tasks of the forthcoming bourgeois revolution concealed deeper disagreements over which class would lead it. Lenin argued that the working class allied with the peasantry would lead the revolution since the bourgeoisie was too weak and non-radical:

Only the proletariat can be a consistent fighter for democracy. It can become a victorious fighter for democracy only if the peasant masses join its revolutionary struggle. If the proletariat is not strong enough for this the bourgeoisie will be at the head of the democratic revolution and will impart an inconsistent and self-seeking nature to it. Nothing but a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry can prevent this.[5]

The Mensheviks believed the Russian bourgeoisie, like the French, had to be the revolution’s leading force. In 1905, Martov wrote: “We have the right to expect that sober political calculation will prompt our bourgeois democracy to act in the same way in which, in the past century, bourgeois democracy acted in Western Europe, under the inspiration of revolutionary romanticism.”[6] In line with this conception, the Mensheviks said that the RSDLP should not fight for power but remain in opposition. Since the workers were not the leading class in this revolution, they needed to moderate their demands lest they frighten the bourgeois and overstep what was historically possible. Menshevik A.S. Martynov said:

That being the case, the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, by simply frightening the majority of the bourgeois elements, can have but one result—the restoration of absolutism in its original form. . . .The struggle to influence the course and outcome of the bourgeois revolution can find expression only in the exertion of revolutionary pressure by the proletariat on the will of the liberal and radical bourgeoisie, and in the compulsion on the part of the more democratic ‘lower strata’ of society to bring the ‘upper strata’ into agreement to carry through the bourgeois revolution to its logical conclusion.[7]

Furthermore, the Mensheviks viewed the struggle of the peasantry with indifference. For the Mensheviks, the liberal bourgeoisie was the natural ally and leader of the working class in Russia while the peasantry remained mired in backwardness, prone to violent excesses and “irrationalism” that needed to be overcome through the “civilizing school of capitalism.” Plekhanov stated: “The main bulwark of absolutism is precisely the political indifference and intellectual backwardness of the peasantry.”[8]

Still, the bourgeoisie was not willing to play the role allotted to it by Menshevism. Instead, the workers were leading the revolutionary struggle against Tsarism alongside both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. In May, the Mensheviks contemplated and accepted the opportunity of the RSDLP taking power: “If we should finally be swept into power against our will by the inner dialectics of the revolution at a time when the national conditions for the establishment of socialism are not yet mature, we would not hold back.”[9]

Trotsky, an independent socialist, was on the left edge of Menshevism and called for a similar line to Bolshevism. Trotsky said the workers must “assume the role of a leading class – if Russia is to be truly re-born as a democratic state…It goes without saving that the proletariat must fulfill its mission, just as the bourgeoisie did in its own time, with the help of the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie.”[10] Many Menshevik workers began to be infected with “Trotskyism” and lost faith in the bourgeois revolution, and, like the Bolsheviks, prepared for an armed insurrection. The leading lights of Menshevism — Martov, Axelrod and Plekhanov — were aghast at this turn and preached moderation.[11]

The Mensheviks took the initiative to create the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Delegates in October 1905. Trotsky himself served as its president. The Soviet was formed to coordinate strike action by the workers, but it also served as a democratic organ representing the interests of the working class. The St. Petersburg Bolsheviks were hostile to the Soviet, believing it should be under party control. Lenin objected to Bolshevik sectarianism towards the Soviet and believed the party should participate in it. For Lenin and Trotsky, the Soviet should be the embryo of a future revolutionary state.

After the October strike of 1905, the Tsar granted a series of limited reforms including a representative body known as the Duma, and the revolution began to run out of energy. The Soviet was disbanded in December, and the Bolsheviks launched a failed uprising in Moscow. While there would be sporadic outbreaks of struggle until 1907, the high tide of the revolution had passed.

III. Retrenchment
During the revolution, the Mensheviks recruited a layer of dedicated activists. Their membership jumped to 18,000 in April 1906 and to 43,000 in October 1906. Even in 1907, of all 150,000 members of a Russian political party, the Mensheviks numbered 38,000 compared to the 46,000 Bolsheviks.[12] The revolution had drawn both factions together. At the 1906 party congress in Stockholm, a unified social democratic party was — seemingly — created.

However, the defeat of the 1905 caused most Mensheviks to return to their earlier positions. They believed that ultra-leftism and adventurism during the revolution had gone too far. Plekhanov condemned the Moscow Uprising: “they should not have taken to arms.” For the Mensheviks, these radicals acted contrary to the laws of history and terrified the bourgeoisie. The new Menshevik leadership of Theodor Dan, Martov, and Postresov turned away from militancy and focused on legal work and electing representatives to the Duma. To Lenin’s rage, the Mensheviks also tolerated those who wanted to liquidate the underground party apparatus. Despite sharing the common name of “social democrat,” the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks had different and irreconcilable ideas on its meaning in both theory and practice. In 1912, the RSDLP formally split into the separate Bolshevik and Menshevik parties, representing the Jacobin and Girodon wings of social democracy.

When World War I broke out in 1914, in contrast to most socialist parties, both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks remained antiwar. Plekhanov supported the war effort, but he alienated himself from most other socialists. The Mensheviks objected when the Bolsheviks broadened their antiwar platform to demand splits with pro-war socialists, the creation of a new revolutionary international, and turning the World War into a civil war. Martov’s group believed it was necessary to work for peace but would not split the international or advocate civil war.

IV. 1917
After three years of war and misery, Russian workers had enough. In February 1917, a simple demonstration for bread in Petrograd took on a life of its own and toppled the Tsar. A new bourgeois-led Provisional Government was established to determine Russia’s future. On February 27, Mensheviks organized a new workers’ soviet in the capital. An untenable situation of dual power soon emerged across Russia. The Menshevik Soviet leaders, true to their Marxist orthodoxy, said that workers should support the bourgeois-led provisional government, believing that Russia was going through the same type of revolution as France in 1789: “We destroy the bastions of political authority, but the bases of capitalism remain in place. A battle on two fronts—against the Tsar and against capital is beyond the forces of the proletariat.”[13]

However, Russia in 1917 was not France in 1789. France was a society emerging from feudalism where the modern bourgeois society had matured; the revolution was needed to cast aside the dead weight of the ancien régime and facilitate the growth of capitalism. By contrast, Russia was not only feudal, but also capitalist with a combative working class that would not stop at a bourgeois revolution. Furthermore, the two revolutions showed the need for resolute parties and leadership to carry out their goals: the Jacobins and Bolsheviks. The Jacobins were the party of the radical bourgeoisie supported by the urban masses, who were determined and willing to defend the gains of the French Revolution with all the means at their disposal. The Bolsheviks showed similar determination to their revolutionary forebearers, but were the party of the working class and peasantry fighting for an international socialist revolution.The socialist revolution was now on the historical agenda.

Menshevik thinking remained confused and divided with no clear program to address the vast social and political crisis that gripped Russia. They believed a socialist revolution was destined to fail and be drowned in blood. The peasantry should wait for a Constituent Assembly and not take the land. While the Mensheviks called for peace, many members believed that with the Tsar gone they should support the war effort. The logic of the Menshevik position caused them to enter into a series of coalition governments with the liberals and take responsibility for the war. As in 1905, the bourgeoisie had no intention of playing a revolutionary role. Despite numbering 200,000 members by August 1917, the Mensheviks remained a loose collection of groups with no real structure, discipline or unity.[14] They ranged from defenders of the Provisional Government, such as Irakli Tsereteli and Nikolay Chkheidze, to anti-war internationalists opponents such as Martov. Martov passionately agitated for the Mensheviks to break with the liberals, but his efforts came to naught.

The Menshevik historian Nikolai Sukhanov explained the failure of the most principled of his comrades during the revolutionary moment of 1917 as follows:

We did not fuse with [the revolutionary masses] because a number of features of the positive creative strength of Bolshevism, as well as its methods of agitation, revealed to us its future hateful countenance. It was based on an unbridled, anarchistic, petty-bourgeois elemental explosion, which was only smothered by Bolshevism when once again it was not followed by the masses. We were afraid of this elemental explosion.[15]

In the honeymoon phase of the revolution, the differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism were blurred once again. In some parts of Russia, there was no split in the RSDLP until after the October Revolution. Bolshevism contained its own Girondins too. In March, the Bolshevik leaders of the Petrograd party, Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev, called for supporting the Provisional Government and were open to reuniting with the Mensheviks.

After Lenin returned to Russia in April, these attempts at unity ended. He called for a socialist revolution and the transfer of power to the soviets. Sukhanov described the reaction of the orthodox Mensheviks to Lenin’s ideas:

Of how . . . his whole conception was to be reconciled with the elementary conceptions of Marxism (the only thing Lenin did not dissociate himself from in his speech)—not a syllable was said. Everything touching on what had hitherto been called scientific socialism Lenin ignored just as completely as he destroyed the foundations of the current Social-Democratic programme and tactics.[16]

The Mensheviks saw Lenin’s April Theses not as Marxism, but Blanquism or anarchism. They expected him to fall into irrelevance with these “lunatic ideas.” Lenin managed to convince the Bolsheviks of his position and put them back on the revolutionary road. Within a short time, the people identified the Bolsheviks as champions for soviet power, “peace, land, and bread.” Sukhanov describes the result: “Yes, the Bolsheviks were working stubbornly and without let-up. They were among the masses, at the factory benches, every day without pause. Tens of speakers, big and little, were speaking in Petersburg, at the factories and in the barracks, every blessed day. For the masses they had become their own people, because they were always there, taking the lead in details as well as in the most important affairs of the factory or barracks…The mass lived and breathed together with the Bolsheviks. It was in the hands of the party of Lenin and Trotsky.”[17] In contrast, the Mensheviks struggled to save the unpopular Provisional Government while their support melted away.

In October, after the Bolsheviks seized power, Martov condemned the revolution as a coup d’etat and against the will of the people. Trotsky, now a leading Bolshevik, answered Martov’s charge:

A rising of the masses of the people needs no justification…The masses of the people followed our banner and our insurrection was victorious. And now we are told: renounce your victory, make concessions, compromise. With whom? I ask: with whom ought we to compromise? With those wretched groups who have left us or who are making this proposal?…No, here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this we must say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out: go where you ought to be: into the dustbin of history![18]

Martov’s group walked away from the revolution. As they did so, a young Bolshevik said: “And we had thought that Martov at least would remain with us.”[19] Martov believed that it was better for the Mensheviks to “wash their hands” of the whole revolution and oppose both the Bolsheviks and the bourgeoisie. It was a choice that confirmed that Martov had truly earned his nickname as “the Hamlet of democratic socialism.”

V. Defeat
After 1917, the Mensheviks remained out of step with the mood of the people, fairing poorly in elections for the Constituent Assembly in 1918. However, when the Civil War began, the Mensheviks were forced to pick sides. The right-wing Mensheviks opposed the Bolsheviks, mostly through bureaucratic maneuvering, but some joined the White Armies led by Kaledin or other anti-Bolshevik movements such as the Provisional Government of Autonomous Siberia. Martov’s Internationalists offered critical support to the Red Army during the Civil War, but denounced the persecution of opponents of the Soviet government. In July 1918, the Mensheviks were excluded from the Soviets, but reinstated again, only to be banned after the end of the Civil War. The one place where Menshevism faired well was in Georgia where they administered a capitalist state with support from imperialism from 1918-1921 when they were overthrown by the Red Army. The surviving Mensheviks passed their days in exile, most of them decrying the revolution they had abandoned. Their intransigent fidelity to orthodoxy meant they had betrayed the revolutionary spirit of Marxism and were, in the end, fit only for the role of second-rate Girondins in 1917.


[1] Bertram Wolfe, Three Who Made a Revolution: A Biographical History (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1964), 240-8.

[2] Samuel H. Baron, Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1963), 246.

[3] Lenin Collected Works, vol. 7, “Postscript: Letter to a Comrade,” (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 138. (henceforth LCW)

[4] Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (New York: Verso, 2003), 82.

[5] LCW, vol. 9, “The Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution,” 60.

[6] Deutscher 2003, 119.

[7] Quoted in LCW, vol. 8, “Social Democracy and the Provisional Revolutionary Government,” 283-4.

[8] Georgi Plekhanov, “Second Draft Programme of the Russian Social-Democrats,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1887/xx/sdelg2.htm.

[9] Quoted in Esther Kingston-Mann, Lenin and the Problem of Russian Peasant Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 83.

[10] Leon Trotsky, “1905,” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1907/1905/ch25.htm

[11] Israel Getzler, Martov: A Political Biography of a Russian Social Democrat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 110.

[12] Tony Cliff, “Lenin: Building the Party (1893-1914),” Marxists Internet Archive. https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1975/lenin1/chap20.htm

[13] Quoted in David Mandel, The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 86.

[14] Leopold Haimson, ed., The Mensheviks: From the Revolution of 1917 to the Second World War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 389.

[15] N. N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: A Personal Record (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 530.

[16] Ibid. 284-5.

[17] Quoted in ibid. 529.

[18] Quoted in ibid. 639-640.

[19] Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 491.
Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Cuba after the Castros-Lal Khan

Posted by admin On April - 23 - 2018 Comments Off on Cuba after the Castros-Lal Khan

Since the Cuban revolution of 1959, the Castro brothers Fidel and Raúl were presidents of the socialist republic. Raúl had taken over as the president from his ailing brother Fidel in 2006. Last Wednesday however, the Cuban National Assembly and its 605 members elected Miguel Díaz-Canel as the country’s new president. In the swearing-in speech, Díaz pledged to uphold the values of the country’s socialist revolution. He added, “there would be no capitalist restoration, but there will the modernisation of our social and economic model… Socialism or Death! We will triumph”. Meanwhile, Raúl Castro is expected to remain a powerful influence in the Cuban state even after he steps down.

Díaz was born in April 1960, a year after Fidel Castro became the revolutionary government’s prime minister. Díaz began his political career in his early 20s as a member of the Young Communist League in Santa Clara. He started his professional career as a teacher at the city’s engineering university. Díaz became the secretary of Cuba’s Young Communist League at the age of 33, and rose to the post of Cuba’s vice president in 2013. Raúl Castro had praised Díaz for his ‘ideological firmness’.

Inspite of the pressures and economic crises it faces, Cuba still maintains a planned (socialist) economy. Most industries are owned and operated by the government, and most of the labour force is employed by the state. After the fall of the Soviet Union a severe crisis hit Cuba. It’s GDP declined by 33 percent between 1990 and 1993, partially due to the loss of Soviet subsidies and a crash of sugar prices in the early 1990s. The Communist Party encouraged the formation of worker co-operatives and self-employment. After Raúl Castro took over the presidency in 2006, attempts were made to open up more sections of the economy to the private sector. The social democratic faction of the Communist party were advising Raúl Castro to establish a Cuban version of the Sino-Vietnamese model, which maintains a one-party state while opening the economy to private enterprise and the markets for foreign monopolies. But soon the spectre of rich capitalists and the curse of huge inequality forced the regime to reverse most of these counter-reforms.

In the year 2000, public sector employment amounted to 76 percent and private sector employment — mainly composed of the self-employed — was 23 percent as compared to the 1981 ratio of 91 percent to 8 percent. However, investment is restricted and requires approval by the government. The government sets most prices and rations goods to citizens. Housing and transportation costs are low. Cubans receive government subsidised education, healthcare and food subsidies.

The Cuban revolution proved that a planned economy in a small state can benefit the oppressed masses, and provide health and education

The country achieved a more even distribution of income since the Cuban Revolution, despite an economic embargo imposed by the US imperialists. Despite the shrinkage of Soviet grants and economic crises, Cuba retains high levels of healthcare and education. Today, Cuba has the highest per capita ratio of doctors in the world, second only to Italy.

Before the revolution Cuba had a one-crop economy (sugar cane) whose domestic market was constricted. Its population was characterised by chronic unemployment and deep poverty. United States monopolies plundered Cuba. They dominated the country’s entire financial system, all electric power production and the majority of industry. US monopolies owned 25 percent of the best land in Cuba. Sugar and livestock-raising landowners owned more than 80 percent of the country’s farmland.

In the 1950s, most Cuban children were not in school. A vast majority of households had no electricity. Only 15 percent of rural homes had running water. Nearly half the population was illiterate. More than 40 percent of the Cuban workforce in 1958 was either underemployed or unemployed. The planned economy introduced after the revolution brought enormous improvements in the living conditions of ordinary Cubans.

The present economic crisis again threatens the planned economy that made these collective gains possible. Diaz faces daunting challenges. Although he still believes in the continuation of the planned economy, it would be hard for him to sustain it in the present milieu. This situation is explained by Marxist theory, which rejects the possibility of socialism occurring in one country, particularly when that country is economically underdeveloped and exists in a capitalist world currently unthreatened by immediate socialist revolutions. The bureaucratic character of the regime and isolation of the Cuban revolution are also obstructions in building a socialist society. The current low productivity rates are due to a bureaucratic system that systematically creates disorganisation and chaos and does not provide workers with political incentives — allowing them to have a say and control over what they do — to motivate them.

Today the Cuban revolution is at the crossroads. Although it has succeeded over the last 59 years in maintaining its non-capitalist course, even if that took place at the price of developing a certain deprivation. The Cuban regime also established international relations with leftist governments emerging from the struggles against imperialism and its neo-liberal globalisation, in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Cuban aid has been of great importance for the advances made by the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ in Venezuela. However, with these left wing governments in crisis, their resources to support the Cuban economy have diminished.

This creates more problems for President Díaz-Canel. Absence of a framework of workers’ democratic control and the re-establishment of even partial market relations pervades social discontent and cynicism among the population and weakens the legitimacy of the Cuban system. Donald Trump’s reinforcement of the embargoes and his belligerence is also a crude attempt to force Cubans into capitulation to capitalism.

Despite all these setbacks, the Cuban revolution — inspite of its bureaucratic domination and isolation — has proved to the peoples of the world that a planned economy in a small island nation can enormously benefit the oppressed masses and provide health and education with a quality even better than some advanced countries. The Cuban revolution deserves to safeguard the best of its socialist economic system as an alternative paradigm to the present merciless and exploitative globalisation. It must break with the worst of itself. A renewed struggle of the Cuban workers and youth for Marxist internationalism for spreading revolutions combined with the creation of a democratic control of the economy, society and the state is crucial for the revolution’s survival.

The writer is the editor of Asian Marxist Review and International Secretary of Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign. E-mail ptudc@hotmail.com

Published in Daily Times, April 23rd 2018.

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

The H-Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony-Perry Anderson

Posted by admin On April - 13 - 2018 Comments Off on The H-Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony-Perry Anderson


Verso, New York, 2017. 190pp., $26.95 hb
ISBN 9781786633682

Reviewed by Eduardo Frajman

This slim volume by Perry Anderson is a companion to The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci (also published in 2017). Gramsci, the Italian thinker and political activist who died in a fascist prison in 1937, is best known for his theorizing on hegemony, which was the term he used for the systematizing cultural tools social classes employ to achieve and maintain political and social domination. Gramsci’s posthumous influence on Marxist and socialist thought was enormous, and gave birth to a veritable cottage industry of Gramsciana. With his essay The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci (which originally appeared in 1976), Anderson, a well-known British historian of ideas and former editor of New Left Review, now in the twilight of his career, became a key voice within this crowded field. The debates provoked by Anderson’s analysis became crucial reference points for Gramsci scholars. The new volume reprints the original essay accompanied by extensive commentary by Anderson on its importance as well as characteristically acerbic responses to his critics.

The H-Word will, I suspect, appeal to a much smaller audience. Rather than focusing primarily on the Gramscian understanding of hegemony, Anderson sets out to trace the different ways in which the term has been employed by political thinkers beginning with Homer and Herodotus all the way to the 21st century. The word itself is the focus, not any particular theoretical underpinning. Since hegemony has been ascribed many different meanings by as many writers, the book does not tell a coherent story but instead moves to and fro in time and space as best suits the author’s framework and interests.

The result is in some ways impressive. Anderson deploys his formidable erudition to craft short chapters on the conflicting understandings of hegemony among Ancient Greek and Roman historians, Russian revolutionaries, Prussian military theorists, Italian communists (where Gramsci shows up), Anglo-American international relations scholars, Chinese statesmen from Confucius to Mao, post-structuralist Marxists (where Gramsci reappears), and the architects of the European Union. This is accomplished with admirably clear and jargon-free prose, and the book is a pleasure to read. There is no payoff at the end, however; no meaningful conclusions can be gleaned from the peripatetic travels of a malleable, and therefore infuriatingly vague, term. The H-Word comes in as a minor work late in the career of a major scholar. It is occasionally self-indulgent and, on one unfortunate occasion, unnecessarily mean spirited.

The principal difficulty in developing a coherent sense of the evolution of hegemony as a concept is the parallel existence of “two streams of thinking”: the first interested in relations of power between states, the second in relations of power between classes within a state (107). The former can be traced back to the Greece of Homer and Herodotus – ‘of course, the origins of the term hegemony are Greek’ (1) – as well as, Anderson claims, relying on somewhat facile cultural translation, to the China of Confucius and Mencius, but it only received a “full-blown” theoretical treatment in the 1930s by the capable hands of the German jurist Heinrich Triepel. The latter was developed by socialist and anarchist thinkers in pre-revolutionary Russia, but their contributions were minimal compared to the seminal treatment of hegemony by Gramsci. Anderson chooses to tell these two stories simultaneously in a sequence of chapters that is more or less chronological, and as a result, it is often the case that the end of one has little to do with the beginning of the next.

In fits and starts, the reader is shown a series of times and places in which writers interested in inter-state politics happened to adopt the word. Anderson takes advantage of the brisk pace to sometimes advance unsupported assertions about why and how the term gained or lost popularity. For example, while it is found in Classical Greek sources it is almost absent from their Roman analogues. This, Anderson claims, is because the expanding Roman Republic ‘did not require’ the term (6). Likewise, after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles ‘hegemony faded from official discourse’ (35) because, Anderson contends, Britain and the United States “disavowed” that they were hegemonic or intended to become so (which does not explain why politicians or scholars from other countries followed suit and stopped using the word).

The whirlwind literature review outlines how scholars since Triepel have disagreed about the very meaning of the word, let alone how to employ it as an analytical tool. Thus, while for Triepel ‘hegemony was a type of power that lay between “domination” and “influence” – hegemony was stronger than influence but weaker than domination’ (31), for later thinkers the term had other significations. Ludwig Dehio believed that hegemony is ‘a power greater than any other, and so a threat to every other’ (42); Rudolf Stadelmann stated that it was ‘a guided balance’ through which ‘a power which was cautious and respected’ watched over the international system (45); and John Mearsheimer wrote that a hegemon is ‘a state so powerful that it dominates all the other states in the system’ (177). Anderson explains each view clearly and generously, with one salient exception. For some reason, he cannot hide his contempt for the Anglo-American tradition in international relations known as “realism”.

While Anderson is never shy about expressing his opinions about the quality and merits of others’ works, his animosity towards realist scholars seems personal. Unlike any other theoretical approach in the book, Anderson rejects realism on moral grounds: ‘As an outlook it not only lacked emotional appeal, but more importantly a sense of the utopian passion for justice inherent in human nature, incapable of reconciliation with the idea that might makes right’ (37). More jarringly, his discussion of the German-American thinker Hans Morgenthau quickly turn from harsh criticisms of the work into venomous ad hominem attacks. Anderson mocks Morgenthau’s “bombast” (52) and “incoherencies” (53), and portrays him as unscrupulous, status seeking, insecure, ignorant, and intellectually dishonest. Morgenthau was, in Anderson’s telling,  ‘temperamentally disinclined to acknowledge any debt, perhaps because he so often borrowed from others’ (53). There’s no escaping the sense that Anderson is settling some sort of old score with Morgenthau in public. This adds nothing to The H-Word and is frankly unbecoming of any serious work of scholarship, let alone one by so accomplished a scholar as Anderson.

On the second stream of thinking about hegemony, focusing on relations between classes, Anderson has much more to say. Given his deep knowledge of Gramsci, the brief summary of the Italian’s theorizing of hegemony is unsurprisingly masterful. While for Russian revolutionaries, most notably Lenin, hegemony addressed ‘the role of a working class in a bourgeois revolution against absolutism’, Gramsci approached it ‘in a heuristic form with an intellectual range that transformed it into a far more central concept’. His ‘key move was to generalize it beyond a working-class strategy, to characterize stable forms of rule by any social class’ (19). For Gramsci, hegemony ‘acquired two enlargements of meaning in tension with each other. It now included both the extraction by rulers of consent from the ruled and the deployment of coercion to enforce that rule. […] Gramsci’s intention was to conjugate the two’. Unfortunately, Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks ‘were fragmentary and exploratory, not finished or cohesive, allowing for oscillations or inconsistencies in expression’ (21).

In a handful of pages, Anderson amply demonstrates Gramsci’s significance and the reasons why he remains a touchstone for socialist thinkers the world over: ‘What had to be explained were the ways in which […] an exploitative order was capable of securing the moral consent of the dominated to their own domination. Such ideological dominion, Gramsci argued, must propose a set of descriptions of the world, and the values that preside over it, that become in large measure internalized by those under its sway’ (21). But, Gramsci recognized, below the stability achieved by this worldview, there always existed the threat of domination by force. ‘Hegemony was polyvalent: unthinkable without assent, impracticable without force’ (23). Gramsci’s thought aimed to produce ‘a unitary synthesis of history and strategy, covering at once the legacy of the pre-capitalist past, the pattern of the capitalist present and the objective of a socialist future’ (78). He transformed the idea of hegemony ‘from a merely political to a moral and intellectual form of leadership, an understanding that the subject of a hegemony could not be any socio-economically pre-constituted class – but had to be a politically constructed collective will’ (94).

Anderson is just as good when discussing Gramsci’s heirs. Chapter 8 should hold particular interest for political theorists interested in the development of Gramscian insights by later scholars, including Stuart Hall, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Ranajit Guha, whose Dominance without Hegemony Anderson declares ‘the single most striking work ever inspired by Gramsci’ (102), and Giovanni Arrighi, who attempted to synthesize the inter- and intra-state notions of hegemony. The fact that Podemos, the left-leaning Spaniard political movement born out of the most recent financial crisis, uses Gramscian terms in its political discourse earns it a mention or two (e.g., 95). Less fortunate are non-European movements that do the same, such as the Zapatista Liberation Army in Mexico, who are completely ignored.

While the sections on Gramsci and his intellectual successors are superb, the discussion of China is perfunctory and unsatisfying. Indeed, it may not even belong in the book. Anderson takes it for granted that the Chinese term ba is analogous to hegemony because that’s how Western historians often translated it (117-118), even though on other occasions ba was rendered as ‘domination’ instead (139, n. 28). Certainly China’s Warring States Period (574-221BC), during which Confucius and his followers spoke of baquang and other such terms, was in many ways similar to Ancient Greece before the Alexandrian conquest. But that does not mean that the word hegemony is important for understanding the period. There are plenty of historical examples around the world that could be analyzed through the prism of hegemonic politics. The fact that China’s current government is Communist does not help explain how its case fits in with the rest of the volume.

Equally unnecessary is Anderson’s running commentary in the last few chapters on the current role of the United States as now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t global hegemon. Anderson gives pride of place to current analyses that agree with his own view, such as Charles Doran (62-63) and Susan Strange (73-74), but his notions on the subject seem stuck in the George W. Bush years or, worse still, in the Vietnam era.

20 March 2018

URL: https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviews/15643_the-h-word-the-peripeteia-of-hegemony-reviewed-by-eduardo-frajman/

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

1.Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings 2.Clara Zetkin: Letters and Writings

Posted by admin On April - 13 - 2018 Comments Off on 1.Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings 2.Clara Zetkin: Letters and Writings


Philip Sheldon Foner
Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings
Mike Jones (ed)
Clara Zetkin: Letters and Writings


Reviewed by Ken Cheng
Comment on this review
No comments
View comments
About the reviewer

(Ken Cheng recently completed a PhD at the Centre for European Studies, UCL, which examined pre-1914…)

Clara Zetkin is more renowned as the loyal ally of her brilliant contemporary Rosa Luxemburg than as a significant Marxist thinker in her own right. Amongst the Marxist intellectuals of the pre-1914 German Social-Democratic Party (SPD), she is generally regarded as a writer of the second rank – a committed revolutionary whose articles filled the pages of socialist journals, rather than an active participant in epochal debates over ‘revisionism’ or the ‘mass strike.’ In August 1914, when a majority of Social Democrats acquiesced to Germany’s mobilization for the First World War, Zetkin aligned with Luxemburg’s anti-war ‘Spartacus League.’ By her own estimation, Zetkin was no more than a foot-soldier for ‘Rosa … the leading voice in Socialism’ (SW, 144).

Two recently-published selections of Zetkin’s writings offer different reasons for giving her work a higher billing. Selected Writings highlights Zetkin’s importance as a ‘pioneering theorist of women’s status in capitalist society,’ who laid the foundations for a ‘Marxist analysis of women’s oppression’ (SW, 9). It focuses on Zetkin before and during the war, when her political activity revolved around the editorship of Gleichheit, the official SPD journal for socialist women. Letters and Writings shifts attention to the post-war period, once the SPD’s capitulation in 1914, the 1917 Revolution, and the assassination of Luxemburg in 1919 had utterly alienated Zetkin from German Social Democracy. As the most prominent surviving Spartacist, Zetkin became something of an elder stateswoman within international Communism, as epitomized by the final text in the collection – her ceremonial 1932 address to the Reichstag as its oldest member, which expressed hopes for a future ‘Soviet Germany’ (LW, 173).

The pre-war texts gathered in Selected Writings outline Zetkin’s theory of the ‘proletarian women’s movement’ (97). The basic co-ordinates of her argument were clear. Since ‘female industrial labour’ had become an integral part of ‘modern industry,’ women who were formerly ‘slave[s] of the husband’ were now ‘subjugated by the capitalists’ (47). The ‘bourgeois women’s movement’ sought equality without challenging the capitalist system at the root of their oppression, dooming it to ‘clumsy and groping steps’ (68). Consequently, ‘the liberation struggle of the proletarian woman … must be a joint struggle with the male of her class against the entire class of capitalists’ (77).

Zetkin’s views took shape within the framework of German orthodox Marxism – a ‘scientific’ interpretation of Marxism associated with Friedrich Engels and Karl Kautsky, which the SPD officially adopted in its 1891 ‘Erfurt Programme.’ Believing that the political ascent of the industrial working class was written into the course of modern social development, German orthodoxy was resistant to any dilution of the SPD’s ‘proletarian’ politics. Was Zetkin’s theory therefore an attempt, in effect, to subordinate women’s liberation to the prioritized workers’ struggle? Some of her statements might support such a claim. In an address to the SPD’s 1896 Gotha Congress, she avowed that: ‘The petty, momentary interests of the female world must not be allowed to take up the stage. Our task must be to incorporate the modern proletarian woman in our class battle!’ (79). (At this point, the transcript records appreciative cries of ‘Very true!’ emanating from the primarily-male congress audience.)

Behind such slogans, however, lay a more nuanced perspective. Zetkin did not flatly assert that women were being oppressed more by capitalism than by men, but sought to capture the dialectical significance of women’s work as a social development. Female industrial labour was dependent upon machinery, which mitigated the need for ‘muscle power’ (53). Over a broader timespan, the rise of machinery had also gradually ‘undermined domestic production’ in a way that increasingly forced women ‘to find their livelihood and their meaningful lives outside of their families and within society’ (73). Whilst being drawn into the capitalist workforce obviously subjected women to exploitation, women’s work also represented a potentially revolutionary opening. The restrictions of traditional family life had been torn down, and an unprecedented number of women now had the chance to ‘found a meaningful life’ in the arena of society, and thus to participate in ‘the awakening of modern individuality’ (72).

Of course, for proletarian women, the realization of this ‘individuality’ was indissociable from the development of class-consciousness and participation in the socialist struggle. Zetkin’s theory was ‘Marxist’ above all in its desire to link the progress of the women’s movement to the dialectical vision of the Communist Manifesto, according to which capitalism revolutionizes society by demolishing the traditions that obstruct its productive forces, paving the way for its ultimate liberation by an enlightened proletariat. This intellectual inheritance was acknowledged in the 1903 article ‘What the Women Owe to Karl Marx’: ‘the materialist concept of history … enabled us to understand the women’s question within the flux of universal historical development’ (93).

The second half of Selected Writings is dominated by the dramatic events that unfolded between 1914 and 1919. Zetkin’s response to the war echoed the main motifs of the ‘Spartacist’ opposition: disdain for the rising tide of chauvinistic nationalism, and hope that the proletariat could rise against this insanity. Theoretical precision was overtaken by impassioned rhetoric in these writings, undoubtedly in compensation for the objective powerlessness of the anti-war minority. This, however, was a conscious and perhaps even strategic recourse to language, as made clear by Zetkin’s 1914 appeal ‘To the Socialist Women of All Countries’:

It is true that we women have only limited political rights in practically all countries, but we are not without social power. Let us make use of every tiny bit of this power. Let us use our words and actions in order to influence the narrow circle of our family and friends as well as the broad public. Let us use every means of oratory and writing. (115-16).


Here, movingly, the resilience of the women’s movement against its lack of political freedoms in peacetime provided the analogical basis for Zetkin’s ethos of steadfast minoritarian opposition to the war. It is also notable that, in this context, women could return to acting within the ‘narrow circle of … family’ without thereby relinquishing their ‘social power.’ No matter how the voice of women was coercively domesticated, it could now always maintain a clandestine path to the ‘public … by means of … writing.’

Selected Writings offers only a handful of texts after 1919; for a comprehensive view of Zetkin’s post-war activity, one must instead turn to Letters and Writings. Arguably, this also means turning from writings of broad theoretical interest to those of primarily historical interest, particularly for scholars of international Communism. (Here it may be noted that this collection doubles as a volume of the journal Revolutionary History, and includes a set of unrelated articles and reviews.) This certainly applies to many of the letters included, such as a sequence written to Lenin between 1918 and 1921. In these, Zetkin deals with organizational and propagandistic matters, and offers her reactions to the political fortunes of German Communism. Although arcane references are adequately glossed through footnotes and the biographical articles that intersperse the whole collection, these letters perhaps still suffer from a lack of contextual framing – not least due to the absence of Lenin and others’ replies to Zetkin, which might have given a better indication of her position within the Communist universe of the time.

Two important theoretical works stand out from this material. Zetkin’s 1920 ‘Guidelines for the Communist Women’s Movement’ translated her pre-war theory into Comintern discourse. The basic co-ordinates of the ‘proletarian women’s movement’ remained, but they were now expressed in a more categorical fashion – aided by the fact that the pre-war distinction between movement (Social Democracy) and ultimate ideal (socialism) had now collapsed into one: ‘Communism, the great saviour of the female sex’ (45). Equally notable was the extent to which Zetkin’s standpoint was still affected by the SPD’s capitulation of 1914, and the ‘gap between theory and practice’ that this had revealed (50). Zetkin now diagnosed a parallel failing in the attitude of the Second International towards women’s equality and liberation. Although it had ‘br[ought] these demands to the broadest circles of society in a propagandistic fashion,’ it had not fully translated them into action, such as when it ‘tolerated its affiliated organisations … advocating a restricted suffrage for ladies’ (50). Zetkin was thus an advocate of Communist centralism, requiring that national ‘parties recognise the fundamental, tactical and organisational guidelines of the Communist International’ (52). ‘To draw women comprehensively into all struggles’ and make efforts towards the ‘enlightenment of proletarian women’ became matters of party discipline (52-53).

Most compelling, however, is Zetkin’s 1923 report to the Comintern on ‘The Struggle against Fascism.’ Alongside a careful description of the social composition and political formation of Italian fascism, Zetkin also posited that its ideological appeal to the ‘masses,’ and even to some ‘revolutionary-minded proletarians,’ reflected ‘disillusionment’ with ‘the slow motion of the world revolution’ (92-93). This mass-ideological dimension, mildly reminiscent of later Frankfurt School thought, gave Zetkin’s analysis here a suppleness that was occasionally stymied by orthodoxy in her other writings. A concept that had always inhabited Zetkin’s work in an almost mechanical fashion – namely, the ‘masses’ – was suddenly activated into a powerful, critical tool.

Between the two collections, the only duplicated text is the aforementioned Reichstag address. Each volume therefore serves a distinct purpose, with Selected Writings providing a rounder summary of Zetkin’s theoretical contribution, whilst Letters and Writings is of more specialist interest. Overall, these collections portray Zetkin as a distinctive socialist thinker in her own right, whose efforts to insert the experience of proletarian women into the dialectical panorama of historical materialism should inform our understanding of pre- and post-1914 revolutionary Marxism.

25 January 2018

URL: https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviews/14665_clara-zetkin-clara-zetkin-review-by-ken-cheng/

Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Hegel’s India: A Reinterpretation with Texts-Aakash Singh Rathore and Rimina Mohapatra

Posted by admin On April - 13 - 2018 Comments Off on Hegel’s India: A Reinterpretation with Texts-Aakash Singh Rathore and Rimina Mohapatra


Reviewed by Karthick Ram Manoharan

Of all those philosophers accused of being Eurocentrist, none has been so vehemently criticized by the postcolonialist school as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. In academic circles that valorize the Third World, the German philosopher’s very name conjures the image of a domineering White racist male whose mammoth system sought to trivialize and crush the knowledge systems of non-European societies. A set of lectures by Ranajit Guha, the key intellectual of the Subaltern Studies group, aptly named History at the Limit of World History (Columbia University Press, 2002), passionately denounced Hegel’s dismissal of Indian history.

Yet, despite this ‘dismissal’, Hegel dedicated considerable space to studying India, its philosophical systems and religions. The editors of Hegel’s India note that Hegel’s writings on India come close to 80000 words – and as far as sheer number of words go, this is as much as his attention to the study of the Greek world. Not only have Rathore and Mohapatra carefully collated Hegel’s writings on India, including translations of hitherto unfamiliar texts, in their brilliant reinterpretation of these writings, provide a justification, which is both sympathetic and critical, of Hegel’s engagement with India.

Rathore and Mohapatra’s Introduction to this volume note Hegel’s cultural biases and inconsistencies when dealing with Indian works of art, religion and philosophy. Not falling for postcolonial verdicts on Hegel though, they also pay due attention to the context in which Hegel was operating, without allowing context to become an excuse for lapses on the part of Hegel. The editors appreciatively note Hegel’s personal ambition to collect knowledge from across the globe to synthesize it all into one resource, one system. (24) And in that effort, even if Hegel’s approach towards the thoughts of the ancient Indians appears caustic in some instances, he was definitely not dismissive.

The study and curation of ancient Indian texts accompanied the European colonial enterprise. Indeed, one aspect of Orientalist knowledge production saw in the Indians an assortment of incompetent rulers, effeminate peoples and criminal tribes, barbaric traditions and demonic pagan rituals. But another romanticized India’s culture, its mythologies and religions, its social structures as features of an ancient and noble civilization. Many of the German Romantics, who were Hegel’s contemporaries, were influenced by this latter image of India. And thus, as Rathore and Mohapatra note, Hegel, who decisively broke from the Romantic tradition, was compelled to challenge these notions.

Hegel’s opposition to Hinduism becomes clear from his perspective on religion and its relation to the individual and society as such. Hegel defends a subjective religion, not from an individualist standpoint, but rather from the view of the state, i.e. how a subjective religion can make better citizens. To Hegel, the idea of personal salvation was an undermining of Republican virtue. As much as Hegel, a declared Lutheran, admired Christianity, he was also critical of its escapism and its ethic for the individual which he believed was more suitable for a cult than for a society. In contrast, Hegel saw in the ancient Greek and Roman Republics the value of realizing the highest good in the service of the public good and the state. Further, he valued the sacrifice of the individual for a secular authority more than the sacrifice for heavenly rewards.

Hegel wanted faith to be grounded in Reason. He also saw God as a rational being who acted from necessity. His materialist critique is evident from his assertion in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion that “Without the world God is not God.” Differing from the theologians who looked at God as a transcendent entity, Hegel saw God as immanent, embodied in the finite world. In Hegel’s understanding, the Indian religion promoted a pantheism that placed God as a concrete universal, with little or no respect for the particular. Hegel saw problems in pantheism as it was not an abstract universal.

As he argues in his discussions on the Hindu text Bhagavad Gita “as it is the most specific characteristic of pantheism that the individual beings and all finite qualities must be taken as not being independent of but rather as those which are only dissolved, negated in pure Being, this only proves actually the incapability of the people entertaining these false conceptions to free themselves from the belief in the independency, the absoluteness of the finite, being unable to comprehend what really is.” (130) To add, even the figure of Krishna as godhead was not an embodiment of Reason or freedom shaped by necessity, but was representative of a self-consuming fatalism. Indeed, Krishna the deity is himself killed by a hunter’s arrow owing to an earlier curse. Further, Krishna as a moral instructor preaches particular duties, and not universal rights. In this, Hegel sees a defense of divinely ordained rigid social hierarchies. Two prominent individuals in the previous century were reported to have always carried a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in their possession. One was Mahatma Gandhi, the great apostle of non-violence, who was nevertheless accused by anti-caste thinkers of not adequately addressing the question of caste in Indian society and its relation to Hinduism. The other was Heinrich Himmler.

To Hegel, the finite does not disappear in the absolute, but rather the absolute comes into being only through the finite. Also, the universal does not precede the particular in time, but rather, the universal is the raison d’être of the particular which comes first in existence. It is this core aspect of the Hegelian schema which enables us to understand his critique of religion. Hegel’s qualified and cautious support for Christianity was based on the premise that it would contribute to the building of a new civic religion based on Reason, which would not strangulate the particular needs of the human. In the Indian religions he saw, despite the high aesthetic value of Indian art and literature, nothing more than the suppression or even erasure of the particular, an almost nihilist doctrine.

It is likely that some would accuse Hegel of overkill when he states “The Hindus will not tread upon ants, but they are perfectly indifferent when poor wanderers pine away with hunger. The Brahmins are especially immoral. […] When they take any part in public life they show themselves avaricious, deceitful, voluptuous.” (158) The iconoclastic rationalist leader of the Dravidian movement, Periyar E V Ramasamy, echoed strikingly similar views when he denounced the stranglehold of Brahmins and other upper-castes over the Indian anti-colonial movement. When one reads Hegel noting that “As the Brahmins enjoy advantages over the other Castes, the latter in their turn have privileges according to precedence, over their inferiors,” (153) one finds echoes of this observation in the works of the brilliant pro-Enlightenment thinker and Dalit leader B R Ambedkar who theorized caste as a system of graded inequalities.

At a lay reading, it might appear that Hegel is conflating Indian religions with several, sometimes contradictory, systems of Indian philosophy and dismissing both, and it might be quite tempting to discover in him a racist who had a profound contempt for all things non-European. A deeper understanding of the gargantuan Hegelian corpus would throw light on a man who wanted to engage with Indian writings, despite all the prejudices of his time, and give them a due place in the philosophical system that he was constructing. If Hegel is still accused of being unkind to Hindu philosophy, hear what Ambedkar said in his Annihilation of Caste: “you have got to apply the dynamite to the Vedas and the Shastras, which deny any part to reason; to the Vedas and Shastras, which deny any part to morality.” Though both Ambedkar and Periyar were very familiar with the works of Karl Marx, there is little to prove that they engaged with Hegel in their writings. Yet if, as Slavoj Zizek says in his blurb for Hegel’s India, we have to “discern the traces of what would have been India’s Hegel,” careful comparative readings of these thinkers and Hegel can throw new light on understanding social and economic inequalities in India. More than anyone else, intellectuals and activists challenging entrenched casteism and the upsurge of Hindu fundamentalism in India will be eternally grateful for Hegel’s India.

15 December 2017

URL: https://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviews/14709_hegels-india-review-by-karthick-ram-manoharan/
Note: This article is for educational purposes. Its reproduction, in any form, can be had with the permission of the author/publisher whose original link ,from where it is reprodced, is given above.

Ahmed Shawki: Perspectives for the Left - Socialism 2013 Tsar To Lenin Tariq Ali & Oliver Stone "Untold History of the US" (May, 2013) Marx's Early Writings: Once More Unto the Breach: Video 2 of 2 Marx's Early Writings: Once More Unto the Breach: Video 1 of 2 Marxism & the Legacy of Subaltern Studies Tariq Ali: the crisis in Syria - questions and answers Scotland: Tariq Ali on independence;Dismantling the British State: Strategy, Tactics and Ideology Luxemburg, Lenin, Levi: Rethinking revolutionary history The power of the people Anti Stalin Left . How should socialists organise? Paul Le Blanc, Gilbert Achcar discuss Leninism, left unity, revolutionary parties Is religion good or evil? Michael Lebowitz: Primitive accumulation versus contested reproduction Adam Hanieh: A strategic overview of the struggles in the Middle East Relevance of Marxism Today The future of the Bolivarian Revolution after Hugo Chavez Enter the video embed code here. Remember to change the size to 310 x 250 in the embed code.