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The sound system was playing Bella Ciao. Flags of parties from across the left and the continent wiggled as their bearers danced and sang along. Ouzo flowed and fireworks flared. We could have been outside a G8 summit in the early noughties. Only the explosives weren’t directed at police lines, but in the air. The crowd chanting at the politician wasn’t protesting. It was cheering. An international movement which has become very good at licking its wounds was pretty quick to learn to celebrate. In fact, with perhaps 10% of the people at the rally in front of the Athens academy coming from outside Greece, this was very much a party for the European left – in the beer, loud music, and dancing sense of the word. But also, of course, in the political sense. So I should be clear. When I say that Syriza’s victory is in a sense the first Green government in Europe, it’s obviously not just Greens. Because Syriza is effectively a merger between most of the left wing parties in Greece, most left parties in Europe can reasonably see it as their sister. It has already been seen for a couple of years now as the archetypal party of the European left. A Green Government? Having said that, there is a remarkable extent to which Syriza is in practice a Green government. First, the Greek Green Party is a part of the Syriza coalition – they got one MP elected, who was promptly promoted to deputy environment minister. Secondly, as Kostas Lukeris, a member of the Greek Green Party’s ruling council put it to me over souvlaki on Syntagma square on the day of the vote “they adopted all of our platform”. Look through the policy commitments of Tsipras’ government and the manifestoes of the Green parties in the UK, and you’ll find little to separate them. Some of these similarities are unsurprising, and could be found within the platform of most contemporary parties of the left – rejecting austerity, opposition to privatisation. Both have campaigned for a crack down on tax dodging. Both are generally against corporate domination of politics and the corruption that comes with it. Some of the similarities are on issues which haven’t always united those on the left but which tend to today. Twenty years ago, there were active socialist traditions which saw feminism, anti-racism, LGBTIQ rights and environmentalism as “bourgeois deviationalism” – as distractions from class struggle. Many within these traditions were in practice homophobes, sexists and smokestack industrialists who saw environmentalism as standing in the way of their five year plans. Look to George Galloway’s comments on Julian Assange, and it’s clear that these sorts of people are still around. But they are not Syriza – whose colours are green and purple as well as red, indicating that they are proud feminists and environmentalists as well as socialists. Photo: Alexis Tsipras, newly-elected Prime Minister of Greece and party leader of Syriza. I could go even further: they support decriminalisation of drugs, cutting military expenditure and the introduction of direct democracy in some areas. They have already scrapped two of the tiers of school exams. These are not policies universally supported across the left. But they are to be found in Green manifestoes across Europe. Then there are a few issues on which the original Syriza coalition needed to be pushed. When the Greek Greens discussed merging into the broader party, they first published a list of twenty one demands – policies Syriza would have to adopt in order to get this support – the things they didn’t already agree on. The list includes independence from fossil fuels within 20 years, addressing desertification by supporting forests, protection of fisheries; participatory processes in public services, equal treatment of the islands in what they see as an over-centralised state. Syriza accepted every one of the policies. None of this was easy for Greens – who ended up shedding their more liberal wing to the Potami list (“the hipster party”, as my Green friend called it) and a couple of egos to another left alignment before they joined the Syriza list. But ultimately, it’s looking like the party can celebrate a significant victory in part as a product of its pains. The Left Has Changed None of this feels at all surprising, for two reasons. Firstly, the left across Europe, probably across the world, has changed significantly in the past twenty years. It’s no longer acceptable to ignore the interlocking struggles against different forms of oppression. Since 9/11 and the Iraq war, it’s been impossible to avoid accepting anti-imperialist arguments. Since the financial crash, you can’t really be progressive and ignore macro-economics and the struggle against neoliberalism. As the climate has changed, few reject the basics premises of environmentalism any more. In other words, where the reference points for the left were once where various groupings stood on particular bits of the history of the Soviet Union, a new generation has emerged where the relevant questions are very different. The cracks of the past have started to heal in the heat of history. In these contexts, it’s not surprising that we’ve seen a bit of a realignment, with much of the socialist left moving into a space once occupied more uniquely by (some in) the Greens, and some of Europe’s Greens (including those in the UK) getting better at articulating explicitly anti-neoliberal economic arguments. In a sense, Syriza is a product of those forces. Secondly, it’s worth understanding Syriza’s own specific history. The party is a coalition, but its biggest section, the one from which Alexis Tsipras came, was called Synaspismós tīs Aristerás tōn Kinīmátōn kai tīs Oikologías. Or, in English “Coalition of Left, of Movements, and Ecology”. Its roots were in Eurocommunism – the Gramscian corner of communism which was critical of the Soviet Union. In England, its sister organisation “Democratic Left” went through various permiatations and ended up as the campaign group “Unlock Democracy”. Democratic Left Scotland still exists, and provides a useful non-partisan forum to discuss politics under the slogans “there’s more to politics than parties” and “radical, feminist, green”. Their colours are, like Syriza, still red, green and purple. Its membership includes the Scottish Green Party co-convener, Maggie Chapman and many other prominent people in the party (and, less significantly, me). Eurocommunists were in many ways like the old New Left – accepting of broader struggles ‘beyond the class struggle’. Likewise, they tended to have a more discursive rather than dogmatic approach to social change, keen to bring together coalitions and to constantly step back and reappraise what they ought to be doing, rather than following any one handbook. On a night out with a senior figure in Syriza’s youth wing, they jokingly emphasised this point when being indecisive about which pub to go to. An International Movement If all of this sounds a little like Green Parties, that’s, essentially, because it is. Look at the lineage of Greens across Europe, and you’ll repeatedly find it criss-crossing with a mixture of the New Left and Euro-communists. The Dutch GreenLeft Party, for example, was formed from a merger between its Euro-communists and others, and prominent English Green member Bea Campbell was once one of Britain’s best known Euro-communist activist. Let me put it another way: each country has its own history, context and traditions. But many of the people who have ended up in the Green Party in the UK come very much from the same political tradition as those who are now running Greece: a mixture of the anti-capitalist but anti-Soviet left of the 70s and 80s, the anti-globalisation then anti-Iraq War movement of the 90s and noughties and the anti-austerity movement of the twenty teens. This heritage isn’t unique to Greens by any means, it’s a history on which much of the European left can draw. But Greens have as much right to lay claim to it as does anyone else. Driving to a polling station in Athens’ working class docks area with the national campaign co-ordinator of the Greek Green Party, he told me that he had been surprised how keen Syriza had been to include Greens in their coalition – they had never had an MP, and didn’t bring with them a huge swaith of votes. But then, he said, he realised the cause of their enthusiasm. They needed European partners. Adding the European Greens to their list of sister parties brings a big block of support across the continent. And perhaps most importantly, there are lessons to be learnt. As they dance to the music of time, most of the left in Greece has found itself aligned – at least for now. While the instruments across Europe may be different, the drums are thumping the same beats. In the UK, by far the biggest of Syriza’s sister parties is the Greens. And, with Plaid Cymru backing a Green vote in England, perhaps some of the spirit of collaboration could, like all the best tunes, be infectious?
Ian Angus posted a article in Culture & CelebrityToo many supposedly radical books are written by academics for academics, apparently competing to see who can produce the most incomprehensible prose. My list of ‘books to be reviewed’ contains literally dozens of overstuffed and overpriced volumes that only a handful of specialists will ever read, books with little or no relevance to the non-university world. So it’s a true delight to receive a book written by an activist for activists, a practical contribution to building real struggles for a better world. Confronting Injustice is a powerful call for collective action against the social causes of poverty and climate change. It’s a compact and well-written book that deserves to be widely read. Umair Muhammad is a student at York University, but he lives and is politically active among low-income and immigrant workers, as a member of Jane Finch Action Against Poverty. He is also active in the campaign to block Enbridge’s plan to pump tar sands crude through Toronto in the Line 9 pipeline. His book addresses young people like himself, men and women in their teens and twenties. He argues that environmental destruction and poverty, the two biggest crises facing humanity today, have common roots in an economic system that allows corporations and the wealthy to vastly over-exploit the world’s resources, while billions live lives of hunger and desperation. “There can be no such thing as a democratic, socially just, and environmentally sustainable capitalism. … it unavoidably produces a world full of injustice and inequality in order to secure a global division of labour suitable to profit-making; and it unavoidably produces the kind of ecological destruction which makes its own longevity, and that of human civilization, impossible.” In contrast to some radical writers who promote “anti-capitalism” as an end in itself, Muhammad argues firmly for socialism, which, following Michael Lebowitz, he defines as a “solidarian society” motivated by human needs, not profit. “Socialism would entail an end to the existence of a distinct area of life regarded as the economic sphere. The democratic management of economic life would mean that the economy would become subordinate to the wider relationships that make up society. Non-economic motives would direct economic activity, as they have throughout most of human history. Building a solidarian society based on social ownership and democratic management of production and distribution will mean the achievement of ‘the real purpose of socialism,’ as Albert Einstein saw it: ‘to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development.’” Two of the book’s four chapters address “Inequality and Activism” and “Climate Change and Activism.” Each concisely outlines the problems, the role of capitalism in creating and perpetuating them, and the inadequacies of the most commonly promoted solutions – charity and NGOism for poverty, market solutions for climate change. These chapters deserve careful study, if only as examples of how to explain these subjects in a clear and popular style. The book’s most important chapter (and the longest) is the first, “The Age of Individualism.” Here, and in the Introduction, Muhammad argues that a major barrier to the development of effective movements against poverty and environmental destruction is capitalism’s successful implantation of pro-capitalist ideology in the minds of the people who should be its strongest opponents. Contrary to claims frequently made by journalists, young people today are not indifferent to social problems. Indeed, “activist ideals and vocabulary have securely made their way into everyday life.” But those ideals are distorted by “the cultural values that have arisen out of capitalism,” and as a result “are used to reinforce the social realities they were originally devised to change.” “Living within a social system dominated by the market, it is no coincidence that so many of us have adopted an individualist outlook. The routine of market exchange between individuals who are driven by self-interest has conditioned us to see human society as a collection of disconnected and primarily self-interested individuals.” This could have been a dry and abstract discussion, but it reads like a friendly discussion among activists. For example, Muhammad stresses the dangers of a focus on individual lifestyle change, while recognizing that such an approach often rests on honorable motives. “On its own, there are many good things to be said about cutting back on what we consume and living in a way that is not grounded in petty materialistic values. Living a clutter-free life is a wonderful thing, but it is not in itself the same thing as working to create social change. … “There is a qualitative difference between, on the one hand, embracing the individualism that defines lifestyle-centric activism and, on the other, coming to recognize the social dimensions of the problems we face. The former is not a bridge to the latter, but a distraction away from it. It is a step in the wrong direction. If anything, the first step to take in engaging with social activism should be to openly reject individualist approaches.” Muhammad wisely refrains from offering detailed guidelines on how to build a movement for revolutionary change. He writes: “The exact sequence of events, and the events themselves, through which the needed change comes about will no doubt differ from place to place. The conditions which exist in any given country will require a strategy specific to them. The pace, too, will vary from location to location.” What he provides in his final chapter is a general approach to social change, based on sources as varied as Martin Luther King, George Orwell, Michael Lebowitz, Bertrand Russell, Mahatma Gandhi and David Graeber. This is obviously not your father’s radical orthodoxy: Muhammad’s views are influenced by various schools of radical thought, and it’s not clear to me that the result is consistent or coherent. Be that as it may, what he provides is an opening statement in an important discussion that activists must have. It’s especially important that it be read and debated by the new generation that, like its predecessors, is searching for its own path to radical conclusions. Socialists my age – we of the ‘60s and ‘70s – often complain that we don’t seem able to reach younger people, that liberalism in its reformist and anarchist forms has captured and held their attention, while socialism is rejected out of hand. Part of the reason may be that we don’t know how to talk to people for whom the Cold War and Vietnam are ancient history. Those people are this book’s most important audience. Umair Muhammad raised the seed money to publish Confronting Injustice through Indiegogo, and is selling it for just $15, with a sizeable portion of that going to Jane Finch Action Against Poverty. For those with limited finances, it can be downloaded free from the website ConfrontingInjustice.com. But if the price isn’t a barrier, my advice is: buy several! Keep one and read it carefully, and use the others to initiate conversations. The bread you cast upon the waters will return many times over.
Ian Angus posted a article in Business & Politics"A resounding success!" John Riddell, Louis Proyect, and Ben Silverman report on a major step forward for anti-capitalist organizing in the environmental movement. I was unable to attend the Ecosocialist Conference in New York City on April 20, and it is clear from all reports that I missed an important and inspiring event. The meeting was organized by the Ecosocialist Contingent, the alliance that participated as a united anti-capitalist voice in the demonstration against the Keystone XL Pipeline in Washington on February 17. Initiated by members of Solidarity and the International Socialist Organization, the Ecosocialist Contingent quickly expanded to include the broadest range of left organizations and individuals yet seen in the U.S. environmental movement. Below are reports by three participants in the conference. John Riddell wrote his report specifically for Climate & Capitalism. His report can be found below [editor's note]. John is best-known as the leading historian of the Communist International, but he is also active in the fight against Enbridge's tar sands pipeline in Toronto, and a founder of Toronto Bolivia Solidarity. Louis Proyect, a long time socialist activist in the New York City area, moderates the popular online discussion forum Marxmail. His report is published on his blog, The Unrepentant Marxist. Ben Silverman is a New Jersey based socialist and environmental activist, and a member of the International Socialist Organization. His report is published on his blog, The Red Plebeian. For readers in the Toronto area, John Riddell and Abbie Bakan will report on the conference at a public meeting on Saturday May 4 at 7pm, at the Beit Zatoun coffee house, 612 Markham St. Details here. New York Conference charts path toward 'system change not climate change' By John Riddell The Ecosocialist Conference, a broad and enthusiastic all-day meeting in New York April 20, took a big step toward creating an anti-capitalist wing of the environmental movement. The conference was arranged in just six weeks by organizers of the Ecosocialist Contingent in the mass demonstration against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in Washington February 17. It was supported by 29 groups who subscribed to the Ecosocialist Contingent statement for "system change, not climate change." The 240 attendees "• more than double the number organizers originally expected "• included members of several socialist currents and many unaffiliated socialists, but the real strength of the conference lay in participation by a great number of young climate-change and ecological activists. Most participants were from the New York region, but a few came from as far away as Maine, Oregon, Texas, and Vancouver, B.C. Break with Democratic Party The range of opinion was wide. Many participants, including spokespersons for the Green Party, did not term themselves anti-capitalists, but agreed on the need for "˜system change' and a break from the corporate-dominated Democratic Party. Among them was the first featured speaker, Jill Stein, the Greens' presidential candidate in 2012. "This is an incredible outpouring of support of those not going forward with Obama but forward with the 99% for system change and fundamental justice," she said. "Capitalism is trying to kill the planet, but the people are rising up." Her remarks reflected the view of many participants that organizers of the February 17 mass demonstration had weakened the protest's impact by presenting it as an expression of support for Obama, echoing his "forward" and "clean energy" slogans, for example. As several speakers noted, the Democratic administration now seems very likely to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. The February 17 action thus showed both the power of environmental protest and the futility of relying on the Democrats. As Jill Stein said, "the demonstration told Obama, "˜we've got your back,' and then he stabbed us in the back." The road to system change The conference brought together a wide range of viewpoints in a fruitful exchange. For example, the panel on "Carbon taxes and market approaches" heard Teamster and Green Party activist Howie Hawkins' reasoned defense of carbon taxes as an immediate measure to alleviate climate change that enjoys "solid support." The second presenter in this session, Dan Piper of Socialist Action, counterposed the need for working people to "seize command of the productive apparatus." There is no way to end environmental destruction through reforms, he argued. For example, cities based on cars or on public transit are mutually exclusive alternatives. But how can we link immediate concerns like Keystone XL to the need for system change? Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism, addressed this point in the closing session by calling for the building of a movement through which "we change our relationship to each other and the planet. We need to shift the pendulum of power - and, ultimately, get rid of it." The climate change movement showed its potential by delaying Keystone XL, Williams said, "and when it is approved, we should demonstrate again." Electoral action Widely different approaches were also evident in discussions of participation in elections. "We are in uncharted waters," said Joel Kovel of EcoSocialist Horizons. "There are no market solutions, and no electoral solutions either"¦. Ecosocialism is a spiritual question; our organizing aims to direct spiritual forces to the Earth and nature," he said. Gloria Mattera of the Green Party agreed that "the market system has failed," but stressed the need for "electoral expression in order to engage the broader population," calling for "a broad electoral alliance to challenge the power of the corporations." Environmental justice Speaking in the opening plenary, Richard Smith stressed the need for wholesale economic transformation to save the planet. "Drastic retrenchment is required. Three-quarters of goods produced are not needed at all." The argument for this view is strong, but as stated it doesn't seem to recognize the need to overcome global inequality, in particular the increasingly desperate needs of billions of people who lack even the most basic requirements of life. Other presentations focused more explicitly on the impact of environmental crimes on victims of oppression. David Galarza, a Puerto Rican ecological activist, portrayed encouraging gains by environmental struggles in his country; Firewolf Bizahaloni-Wong of the Native Resistance Project discussed Idle No More and the fight for indigenous rights. A well-attended panel addressed the broader issue of "Race, Gender, and Environmental Justice." The first victims of climate change are the peoples of poor countries, and "we have a lot to learn from environmental movements in the Global South," said Heather Kangas, a Baltimore-based members of the International Socialist Organization. Moreover, "the environment is not just the natural world but also where we work, live and play - it is urban and suburban as well as rural," she said, advocating that the ecosocialist movement link up with Environmental Justice groups found among peoples of colour. Amity Page, a journalist with the Amsterdam News, described the systematic racism of the U.S. emergency management agency (FEMA) and other authorities after the Hurricane Sandy disaster. People of colour were regarded simply as "looters," she said. FEMA and police did not enter subsidized public housing to help those in need and kept other assistance workers from going in, saying it was too dangerous. "A disaster heightens the inequalities that are already there," she said. Abbie Bakan, head of gender studies at Queen's University, Ontario, took up a case study: the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians. They have undergone an "indigenous experience, enduring environmental racism," in which slogans like "make the desert bloom" promote the notion that "the good earth comes only from the colonial project." Some comments from the audience in that session: "There has been an environmental justice movement all along among indigenous peoples, people of colour, and in the Global South, but you have to have anti-imperialist eyes to see it." "Every climate change activist must also be an antiwar activist." "We will learn much more about racism and how it is manifested through our activity in the environmental movement." Next steps The event's program was well-run and varied, with 43 speakers and facilitators. Aside from the panels discussed here, there were sessions on agriculture/food, fossil fuel divestment, Hurricane Sandy, labour, and Green Left history. No discussion was scheduled on ecosocialist activities going forward, but it was generally felt that the conference created a strong foundation for future activities. Alongside Chris Williams' call for another Keystone XL protest, there was talk of holding another ecosocialist conference down the road. The Ecosocialist Contingent will hold a teleconference May 6 to discuss next steps. For information, write ecosocialistconference [at] gmail.com.