Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Day Women Changed The World

The Women's Day March that brought down an Empire. Petrograd 8 March 1917 (photo- WikiCommons)
Today, 8 March is International Women’s Day, when we highlight the call for greater equality for women of both chance and outcome in our still highly misogynistic world. First established in 1909 by American Socialists to commemorate a women garment workers' strike the year before, it was adopted a year later by the Second International of Socialists to advocate for women's suffrage. This year's IWD is a particularly poignant one, not only because the recent rise of Trump brings into ever sharper focus the lack of progress towards gender equality, but also because it marks a full century since an International Women’s Day that literally shook the world and changed the course of history.

One century ago this morning, crowds of women downed tools and left the textile factories of Vyborg in Petrograd, then the capital of the Russian Empire, to march on the city centre. In what, by the Old Calendar, was still an fairly cold February morning, they protested loudly for bread and peace. This came as Russia faced another long year of the war that the Czar had initiated in August 1914 and which had claimed the lives of over a million Russian soldiers – nearly all of them peasant conscripts – with a similar number captured and twice as many seriously injured or disabled.

Of all the warring nations, Russia was perhaps the least equipped for a protracted modern war. Its society was still essentially one ruled by noble landowners and worked by often impoverished peasants. Such industry as had been developed, largely by the Czarist Government itself, was concentrated in the two key cities of Petrograd and Moscow, with lesser development in the Ukrainian city of Kiev far to the south. There was a small middle class, much of it the clerks and notaries hired to run the imperial bureaucracy or managers in the small industrialised sector. Represented by liberal parties like the Kadets and Decembrists, they were in truth little but a mild irritant to the imperial government, which sponsored its own nationalist, often anti-Semitic groupings, backed up with the violent “muscle” of the extremist Black Hundreds movement, a street force that would have put Hitler to shame.

Conditions in Petrograd were appalling for the urban working class, and the Vyborg district along the side of the River Neva was in many respects the worst of all. Essentially a dormitory for the workers who produced all the material goods for the army and for the wealthy classes who lived directly opposite on the far side of the river, site of the Imperial Palace, the living standards of the masses were beyond cruel. In Vyborg, an average six people lived per room, almost three times that of their English contemporaries, and only one in four had access to running water. Nearly all, including women and children, worked exceedingly long hours and it was common for workers to sleep in slings in their actual workplaces, the better to start their next shift on time.

Sooty pollution rose like tall dark dervishes from the factory roofs, while safety arrangements barely existed. Trade unions were mostly banned or ignored, and where they survived they were usually taken over by Czarist agents – one chapter of a union folded when gradually the entire committee realised they were all secret policemen. In response, the workers looked to socialist parties to speak for them though the Duma, a semi-parliamentary body grudgingly conceded by the Czar after the failed 1905 revolution, was toothless and elected on a franchise skewed in favour of the rich – and of course completely excluded all women from voting. It had barely met since the war began and some of its own members urged the Imperial Father to abolish it.

Many supported the Social Revolutionaries, a party based on the peasant class in the countryside, from where many had migrated to seek work in the cities. But the SRs were a party without a clear cause. Mildly syndicalist in outlook, it was often more certain about what it opposed than what it supported. The SRs often collaborated with the Menshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Both held to Marxist theory that a bourgeois liberal phase of economic development, where a parliament of shopkeepers and factory owners would rule, was prerequisite to a subsequent transition to further revolutionary social change.

Little ideologically separated the Mensheviks from the harder-line Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP. Tactics were more the issue – while Mensheviks like Dan and Martov contemplated a reformist phase which they might embrace, the Bolsheviks’ exiled leader Lenin, while accepting such a phase was likely, preferred to emphasise the development of a party with revolutionary aims made clear from the outset.

For the workers toiling in the imperial sweatshops, there was little respite from the daily grind. The Church was firmly rooted in the Imperial Establishment, propagating the mythology of a Divinely appointed Czar, his very title appropriated from the Caesars of Rome and Byzantium to lend a Holy Essence to the Slavic throne. Some priests did work for the poor, even organising unions and protests, but, perhaps most notoriously of all, when Father Gapon led crowds of praying workers to the palace bearing aloft icons of Jesus and the Czar to protest their loyalty and ask for their Imperial Father’s succour, the reply was in the form of bullets and bayonets.

But all this was to change on the morning of 8 March 1917.

The winter of 1916 to 1917 was even colder than normal and with reverses on the battlefield adding to the sense of impending disaster, the inhabitants of Petrograd plumbed new depths of misery. Bread, a staple of the workers’ diet, rose rapidly in price and in many cases was simply not available. Hunger stalked the masses while, just across the frozen river, the nobles, landowners, factory bosses and generals continued to indulge in their usual rounds of balls, ballets and bacchanalian revelry.

Alexandra Kollontai, Bolshevik
(photo - WikiCommons)
While the socialist hierarchy did include a significant number of prominent women leaders, including Alexandra Kollontai, Inessa Armand and Konkordia Samoilova (later founding editor of Pravda), local leaderships often as not were exclusively male, reflecting the patriarchy at the heart of the existing society rather than presaging the change of any future socialist world.

Yet because of the contingencies of feeding the imperial war machine, more and more women were working in trained roles, including as supervisors and organisers, and alongside that they became involved in the unions and in politics. While men might continue to run the committees of political parties, women’s voices were starting to be heard as never before.

And so, with their conditions ever more desperately subordinated to the endless war, women’s committees in textile factories planned for strikes and marches to mark 8 March to voice their demands to the city authorities in Petrograd. As they prepared, it became clear that their male comrades, including the Bolsheviks, didn’t want them to go. The Menshevik activist Sukhanov dismissed the optimism of some young women workers that a demonstration might start the long-awaited revolution as the immature fantasies of "silly girls." It was, the socialist officials argued, too much too soon. Support for the war was declining but had not evaporated and political strikes could be seen as unpatriotic and, hence, counter-productive. The sisters were asked to stay at work.

But the sisters didn’t listen and at dawn they left their homes and workplaces and marched round factory after factory in the Vyborg district calling on other women - and men - to strike and march with them. One Bolshevik described how the factory committee had refused to join them until women started throwing bricks through the windows to compel them to come out in a rather forced show of comradeship.

On the other side of the river, along the Nevsky Prospekt into the city centre, a smaller Women’s Day march had already started and had drawn in a cross section of bourgeois women, peasants and students. It was by all accounts good natured while loudly demanding equal voting rights for women with men.

The strikers from Vyborg tried to join this march by crossing the Liteny Bridge from Vyborg to the city centre. They were stopped by the police, who forced them back and dispersed many. But the core group of several thousand women textile workers turned down the steps from the river bank and defiantly, and bravely, marched across the ice on the frozen Neva to then climb the far side and join the women on the Nevsky Prospekt. From there, they marched together on the city Duma reiterating their chants for “bread, equality and peace.” And, emboldened, a new slogan erupted ominously from the crowds.

"Down with the Czar!"

The police continued to try to stop the marchers, but the Government made the mistake of sending some of the Cossack soldiers billeted in the capital to reinforce them. Unlike the police, who had volunteered as professional agents of the repressive Empire, most soldiers were peasant conscripts. While some clung to conservative notions of the Czar as Father of the Nation, many more were at least mildly sympathetic to the strikers.

When the police and troops moved on the crowds, women were often to be seen on the front line urging them to change sides, even dragging them across physically while berating them for not defecting sooner. The Cossacks would charge up to the women on their horses, but stop short of touching them and soon the protesters were aware that the military were wavering. By dusk, tens of thousands of women and men had occupied swathes of the city centre and the Czarist authorities had lost control of the streets. They were never to regain them.

Emboldened by the women’s initiative, the socialist parties hurried to bring more strikers out the next morning and by the following day all the capital’s factories had ceased to operate. As many as a quarter of a million men, women and children moved on the city centre, again clashing with the police while the army’s ambivalence became more and more evident.

That afternoon, again on the Nevsky Prospekt perhaps the single most crucial moment of these insurrectionary days occurred when the crowd encountered a large squadron of Cossack soldiers blocking their path. Unlike other troops, this force was drawn up ready to charge and a tense stand off followed.

It was then that a young girl moved forward on her own from the crowd towards the soldiers, who readied to shoot. But she boldly walked up to their commander and from under her cloak lifted out a bunch of red roses, a joint symbol of peace and revolution. The commander leaned forward, grinned and accepted the gift and the cheering crowd rushed forward to embrace their new soldier comrades.

By the end of the week, after the entire military garrison switched sides and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people occupied the streets, power had slipped decisively from the centuries old Imperial Order. On 15th March, the Czar abdicated and his Ministers fled or were arrested.

Faced with the demands of the crowds, a rather bewildered group of liberal members of the near-moribund national Duma rather reluctantly established a Provisional Government working out of the right-wing of the Tauride Palace. In the left-wing of the same building, a group of socialist parties established a very fluid body of elected workers’ representatives, soon joined by soldiers as well, to speak for the masses. They sought to hold the new liberal regime to account for the three main demands of bread, land and peace. The first soviet of 1917 had been established.

Soviet Women: a challenge to the world
So International Women’s Day, one hundred years ago today, shook the world and set in train a series of events that turned the old order on its head. In time, women were to see a huge change in their position –revolutionary Russia brought equal rights in the workplace, education and in the home. The USSR pioneered paid maternity leave, workplace creches and family planning. When Trotsky was asked by some incredulous westerners if it was true Soviet women could get divorced just by asking, he responded by asking them, with mock incredulity, if it was true that in western countries women could ask for a divorce but not get one.

The Soviet Union of course was in many ways to have a poisoned history. Stalin was to rise and crush the freedoms briefly brought about by the revolutions of 1917 and he embodied in his “Red Court” the epitome of patriarchy. Lenin's strong advocacy of equal rights for women was in many ways undermined, and of course centuries of sexist thinking under the Czars had a very long reach still to be found in post-Soviet Russia, which recently decriminalised some forms of domestic abuse of women. But without the challenge to the world of Soviet Communism, there is little doubt that women and all humanity would be the worse for the lack of it.

So as we celebrate International Women’s Day, remember it as a day for socialist values; and remember the courageous women who a century ago braved the ice of the Neva to forge a new way of life for all of us, sisters and brothers together.

And remember, men - socialist men - told them not to go…

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Guest Post: Socialism and Identity Politics - Dr Simeon Scott

Bradford academic, Labour Party and Momentum member Dr Simeon Scott on where social class sits in socialist thinking on intersectionality as the party faces the future.

The politics of identity is much discussed by the corporate media, persuading workers to look inwards, encouraging us to feel proud of being British or a Christian. Seemingly, such media would rather this than workers discussing the relationship between the 2008 banking collapse and cuts in government spending or whether Britain should be selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the liberal corporate media encourage us to support the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the workplace and elsewhere. Citing bullying, harassment, discrimination and victimisation, this media, some career politicians, and some employers raise issues of race, ethnicity, gender, disability and religion.

At first sight, as socialists, we should respond by pointing out that we have no problem with any of these identity issues and indeed give our full support to the clauses of the Equality Act of 2010. But, on reflection things are not quite so simple. For example, some feminists have misgivings concerning the rights of transgender men who, whether by drugs or surgery, want to become, and be fully accepted as, women. Surely, we should support the right of these feminists to voice their opinions. As socialists, we need to be aware that the codes of conduct in the Act were drawn up with little or no input by the working class people to whom they mainly apply. We need to go further and note that the clauses of this Act do not protect workers who are discriminated against because they are active in their union or who speak out on low pay, zero-hours contracts and other equality issues. Similarly, the Act does not protect workers who blow the whistle on the excessive salaries, bonuses, tax avoidance schemes and unethical practices of their employers. In other words, the corporate media, employers and others are highly selective in their choices concerning equality, with the rights of those forced to sell their labour given short shrift. Whilst the corporate media give some coverage to the excessive abuse of workers’ rights, such as the cases of J. D. Sports or Sports Direct, there are no media calls to introduce legislation to end wage labour full stop. As one socialist writer explained: “the politics of identity replaced class in political and social struggles”.

During the period of colonial rule in India and elsewhere, British capitalists used religious, racial and ethnic identity as a divide and rule strategy. Currently, millions of people in former European colonies are still suffering the horrific residues of this strategy. Yet, this same strategy is being used in Britain today: workers are discouraged from uniting along class lines. Encouraging working class people to identify with a religious label, by sending their kids to a faith school for instance, will tend to make them more politically and socially conservative. This makes such people less likely to join with those of other faiths or none and engage in the day to day struggles of wage workers. Both David Cameron and Tony Blair have openly encouraged this trend and in 2007 New Labour were exposed by Channel 4 News for funding mosques which regularly invited Saudi-trained firebrand speakers to promote their hatred of homosexuals, rejection of women’s rights and much else. Similarly, the multiculturalist agenda, despite its initial promise for socialists, proved to be a means of promoting both a ghettoised mode of thinking and a small business culture based on selling ethnic food, clothing and music. In the Labour Party, the introduction of black and women’s sections encouraged ambitious well educated people to leave class politics and enter the well rewarded wheeler dealing world of career politics.

With regard to the issue of gender, obviously we support women’s rights. Again, however, we must join with Sylvia Pankhurst and distance ourselves from middle class feminism. Whilst some women managers and executives have broken through the glass ceiling, they have merely become agents for the exploitation of male and female workers. Middle class feminism has done little or nothing to end the gender pay gap, or help the increasing number of working class women doing part time, zero-hour or minimum wage jobs. Such feminists have tended to turn a blind eye to the plight of women who find themselves obliged to accept ‘traditional’ roles in the religious communities promoted by the major political parties. Ms Pankhurst was more productive in promoting cooking, nursery and housework projects to alleviate working class women from the housework which disproportionately falls upon them.

There exists a growing tendency in the Labour Party, including its Momentum faction, and the trade unions for uncritical support for identity issues. Neologisms from the politically correct lexicon are freely used in proposals to “root out Islamophobia” or “defend LGBT rights”. The problem is the way in which these issues are framed prevents democratic discussion. Rather than persuading workers to one-sidedly identify themselves with their parents’ religion, for instance, we should encourage all workers to become involved in the full range of social and political activities that are a prerequisite for ending the money/wage labour system that is the hallmark of global capitalism. As one young man from Bradford, Javaad Alipoor, argued: “no one ever talks about class, no one ever talks about capitalism, no one ever talks about working class access to the world… we don’t have any politics”. Javaad could have been talking about activists, including Corbyn supporters, inside the Labour Party and unions. Rather than mocking political correctness, however, let us determine our policies on the rights of all peoples on our terms, rather than passively accepting those of employers, career politicians and the media. We do not exist to feel good about seeming to take the moral high ground; rather we are the movement dedicated to ending the capitalist mode of production.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Callous Capitalism; or The Land With Three Empty Homes For Every Person Without A Home

Your brother? Your son? Your daughter? You?
 In the days when capitalism truly is dead and buried, in the annals of the Great Collapse in the UK, this last week may well be marked as a seminal moment in our history. As with most seminal moments, of course, no one notices at the time and it is left to the historians to mark them, and even invent them. But perhaps Monday 6th February will be remembered as the day that the arch-champions of capitalism and the representatives of our ruling elite let their mask slip, however unintentionally, with a frankly startling admission of the failure of our market economy, the system they have fought so hard to impose on everything that moves and nearly everything that doesn't.

Communities Secretary Sajid Javid MP
Launching the Tory Government's latest White Paper on housing, Communities Secretary Sajid Javid MP told the Commons that, "Our housing market is broken. We have to build more, of the right homes in the right places, and we have to start right now.”

Javid went on to detail the litany of disaster most of us are more than familiar with - average house prices are now 7.5 times average annual salaries; mortgages frequently swallow up over half of household income; fewer and fewer young people can get affordable rented property never mind snatch hopelessly at the cruel  illusion of home ownership. The result is stay-at-home offspring remaining in the family home into their late twenties and early thirties, jobs away from home being unaffordable because of the inability to rent and the formation of new household by young couples frequently delayed or even frustrated.

Buy-to-let sector: source of rocketing homelessness?
Javid declared that Britain needs to increase annual housebuilding completions from 190,000 units in 2016 to 275,000  as soon as possible. The white paper, strikingly if laughably titled "Fixing Our Broken Housing Market" then comes up with a rag-tag mix of banning letting agency fees, "incentivising" smaller construction companies, reducing the time that developers can leave construction unstarted after planning permission is granted and, perhaps most incredibly of all, "forcing" councils to start building council housing again.

For those too young to remember, much of our housing crisis was brought on very predictably by the Thatcher Government's determination to destroy council housing. First of all came the tax-payer subsidised "right to buy", whereby hundreds of thousands of council tenants were deceived into home ownership that sooner or later saw most of the sold stock resold into the hands of private rental agencies.

Next came the effective blocking on councils from building new council housing or even using the receipts from sales to maintain the stock that remained - for years, several billions pounds sat frozen in bank accounts. Housing associations, originally small community enterprises providing cheap, niche accommodation to vulnerable groups, were effectively taken over, forced to expand with central-government provided Housing Corporation money and then driven to become in effect large faceless companies far removed from their original purpose.

Then finally came the coup de gras: large scale transfer of remaining council housing to large scale housing companies, notionally not-for-profit but, as government funds were reduced and housing groups grew ever larger, functioning more and more like big private landlords. In some places, housing trusts were created by effectively hiving off and privatising the local council housing department as an ALMO (arms-length-management-organisation), which was great news for the bank balances of some transferring senior staff, but not so good at all for the lower paid staff, eventually shorn of their council terms and conditions, and most of all of little use to tenants and their communities.

Chuck into the mix the deregulation of the private rental sector - last year, the Tories passed a law that removed any requirement for private landlords to ensure their properties are fit for habitation - and the advent of previously banned buy-to-let mortgages, now almost one in five of new loan approvals, and the stage was indeed set for housing apocalypse.

Bullion blocks in the sky - empty new flats in London
With much new build now not even lived in - just pop into central London or the edge of Cambridge to see the thousands of "investment properties" owned like so many vintage wine bottles by the global elite, sitting empty, their owners preferring to avoid the hassle of rental while they wait for their assets to appreciate in value. Buy to let has very often become buy-to-leave (empty).
Unsurprisingly, this callous disregard of the real needs of real people has meant more human beings chasing fewer properties actually available to rent or buy, inflating prices massively. It is a process that the state even subsidises, exempting these often large scale property investors from full council taxes.

And so, Britain's 700,000 empty properties are no surprise, but no less an obscenity because of it. With official homelessness figures soaring and migrants the appalling and false scapegoat for the greed-is-good mentality that infects our developers and our elite, Javid's admission of market failure, while disarmingly honest, is nevertheless not exactly news. And his white paper leaves almost none of the real problems tackled - no action on empty homes, nothing to end the scandal of tax-advantaged buy-to-let loans or to break up the now huge housing corporations that dominate the "affordable" housing sector. People on even above average incomes will remain mired in debt, genuinely struggling the keep roofs over their heads and those of their families.

And, of course, more and more no longer have roofs over their heads; 250,000 people - a quarter of a million - in England alone are homeless and many really, truly have nowhere to go and are sleeping rough as a result.

Last week, in Cambridge, the city that is growing fastest of all in the UK, where cranes and construction hoarding are ceaselessly painting a new skyline as more and more investment properties are built and snapped up by the rich, I spoke to a man camping in a shop doorway on a freezing cold night. I recognised him as Tony from the previous summer when I had spoken to him in the same doorway on a better evening. As we sipped coffee and chatted, he told me he had been homeless for three years now and had nowhere to go that night. There was an emergency shelter but because he had turned up 10 minutes after 11pm curfew the previous week they had turned him away into a freezing, rainy night. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he had sworn at them and so was barred for a month.

He is one of many. Like Chris, whom I encountered, shaking from cold this afternoon in Leeds, or a street away last month John, who was curled up in a blanket outside HMV, his wispy beard, bedraggled hair and sunken cheeks giving the appearance of a dying Jesus, discarded on the edge of the crowds doing their shopping.

And so too with the many others who have silently come back onto previously empty streets over the last four or five years. If you look, you will see them, the young couple crying on the steps of an empty bank in New Street in Birmingham, both not long out of care, with no money and no food. Or Brian huddled on the ground in the rain under his umbrella with his dog on a Sunderland street; or the young man on a back stairwell in Edinburgh, thrown out when his mother was evicted and
apologising to everyone he shyly asked for a few coins to help him.

All of them are there - many of them terribly young, and all with the same desperate stories, the utterly unwarranted shame in their voices, their pale, paper-thin sunken cheeks and their sad, sad eyes. Bedding down on concrete pavements on the streets of the fifth richest country on planet Earth. And the second most unequal in the western world - a country where there are nearly three empty homes for every homeless person.

It's not just Javid's housing market that has failed. It is our whole, corrupt capitalist economy and the twisted society it has forged on its own fantasies where freedom is money and money is freedom. This week, its custodians have finally admitted that the edifice is crumbling. When the whole rotting structure comes tumbling down, as it soon will, we must be ready to build anew - not just buildings and economic systems, but lives, homes and dreams too.