Monday, November 09, 2009

Bringing Down Walls, Not Breaking Glass

NOVEMBER 9, 1989 is the 20th anniversary of people bringing down the Berlin Wall, and various political leaders have gathered in Berlin today to celebrate. The Wall, the barrier between peoples came down, and with it crashed down the edifice of tyrannical Stalinism, and for that we give thanks, even if it was not exactly the "political revolution" leading to genuine freedom and social justice that some of our theoretical leaders acclaimed it to be.

Many Germans,not just Westerners grumbling about the cost of incorporating "poor relations", but Ostis adding words like "arbeitslos" back to their vocabulary, have taken a more nuanced, thoughtful, view of the benefits, and downside, of re-unification.

The biggest Left-wing party represented in Europe today is the Linkspartei, uniting left social democrats from the West with the reformed former Socialist Unity party in the East, which is where it gets the major part of its vote. Whatever we think of its leadership, this Left party is a space for those who want to rebuild a working-class, socialist Left. But nobody is proposing to rebuild the Wall.

Stalinism as a regime may have collapsed, but Stalinism as a delusion persists in some places. The November newsletter of the Socialist History Society has a young man called Tom Bailey complaining that the editor, Mike Squires (a long-standing Communist Party member incidentally) had said "the East European states were not Socialist". Bailey insists that despite shortcomings "they were Socialist", and in case you think he is just arguing about names and labels, he goes on to say the rot set in with Soviet leadership after the death of Stalin. "Aside from negating 30 years of Socialism by denouncing Stalin, a number of 'reforms' were implemented.."

So not only were the gulags and crimes of Stalin correct, denouncing them was a negation of socialism, which was apparently achieved in one country far earlier than the leaders of the October Revolution envisaged possible. What a pity that Stalin's pursuit of what Tom Bailey calls "the class struggle against bourgeois influences" necessitated killing most leaders of the Bolshevik party before they could appreciate this achievement.

Or that, despite its riding to power after a workers' revolution (albeit one besieged by imperialism and imprisoned in Russian backwardness), the Soviet bureaucracy, obliged to extend its "socialism" to eastern Europe, did so by its own methods, keeping the working class out of exercising real power in these deformed "workers' states", mockingly titled "people's democracies".

This does not mean that nothing was gained from the changes, or that there was nothing to defend in the Soviet Union or eastern Europe. But was it socialism? Bailey is within a step of stronger ground when he argues "the working class in the socialist countries did not take to the streets demanding an end to Socialism. Rather, the protests, discontent and apathy to capitalist restoration was due to issues such as party corruption, comparatively low living standards, and shortages.. This popular discontent was exploited by a new bourgeois class, arising from within the Party..."

So what kind of 'socialism' leaves the workers 'apathetic' about defending what should have been their own gains, and permits a new bourgeoisie to turn state, or socially-owned wealth and means of production, into its own property? The working class did take to the streets in eastern Europe, and it started in East Berlin -not in 1989, but much earlier, in 1953. Giving rise to Brecht's quip, "Some party hack decreed that the people had lost the government's confidence and could only regain it with redoubled effort. If that is the case, would it not be be simpler,
If the government simply dissolved the people and elected another?"

What the workers rebelled against was not socialism. Calling it such only maintains the confusion which left workers in eastern Europe unable to step forward as a class to take power for itself, and left millions of workers in the West at best half-hearted, if not actually hostile, to those seen as advocating such "actually-existing socialism" as our goal.

It has suited people like Margaret Thatcher to misidentify "socialism" with the Berlin wall. Its designation by the East German authorities as "the anti-fascist rampart" did not convince anyone who only had to observe the direction in which people were trying to flee, from what, and prepared to risk being shot. "If that is your socialism, you can keep it!" people thought. Now the Wall has gone, working people either side can compare notes, and the young who tore it down can measure the results against their hopes.

Some people in eastern Germany, alienated under Stalinist rule and quickly disillusioned with liberal capitalism, have become easy fodder for those who see reunification as but a step in reviving Hitler fascism. We cannot commemorate the end of the wall without remembering the six days of racist violence in Rostock in 1992. A thousand-strong mob attacked immigrants, while thousands more stood and watched. This was one among many such ugly reminders of Germany's past. But Germany's revived Left and particularly anti-fascist young people have shown themselves ready to turn out against the new Nazis and show they mean it when they say 'Never Again!'. They deserve our respect, and support, and this solidarity against the racist Big Lie will only be served by engaging with truth, not clinging to discredited myths of our own.

By an unfortunate coincidence, November 9 is also the anniversary of Hitler's 1938 state-organised pogroms against the Jews, what became known as the Night of Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht. The ostensible pretext was a desperate act by one 17-year old refugee, Herschel Grynszpan, who had shot a German diplomat,in Paris, on November 7. Grynszpan was driven to this by hearing how his parents and thousands of other stateless Polish Jews had been inhumanly deported by the Nazis. The night of co-ordinated violence that swept across Germany had clearly taken more than two days to prepare.

While 'respectable' community leaders and politicians - not least the French Communist Party - sought to distance themselves from and denounce Grynszpan, Leon Trotsky - who knew what it was to be hounded from country to country and accused of all sorts of crimes - wrote an article "For Grynszpan", solidarising, if not with the youth's misguided action, with the spirit and motivation it showed. Gynszpan's case also inspired left-wing composer Michael Tippet's work, "A Child of Our Time".

on Grynszpan's fate:

The Kristallnacht pogroms did not incidentally diminish the admiration of some people in this country for Nazi Germany, nor did they lead countries like the United States to ease their immigration restrictions for Jewish refugees. Quite the contrary. Still, after the war and the Holocaust they were able to ease their consciences by backing immigration to, and partition of Palestine. So a new refugee problem was created.

I was impressed when Daniel Barenboim brought his West-Eastern Divan orchestra to London that they ambitiously and meaningfully performed A Child of Our Time. For though Herschel Grynszpan perished with millions in the Holocaust, he remains to haunt us when governments continue to kick refugees from pillar to post, and reactionaries, as we see again, continue to regard the acts of small groups or individuals as legitimising collective punishment of entire communities or civil populations.

Though the Berlin wall has come down, and so too did South African Apartheid, fresh walls are being erected to keep out the poor and the persecuted, and what some call Israel's "apartheid wall" and others an annexation wall, has gone up on Palestinian territory. But this symbol of oppression is also a target for resistance. As witness these two messages:
"..during today's demonstration, demonstrators managed to take down a concrete slab AGAIN of the Wall using a hydraulic car jack. VICTORY FOR NI'LIN!!! If they can tear down the Berlin Wall in two days, for sure it can happen in Palestine too, and it's already starting in Ni'lin.

see this video:

and see this article:

The section of the Wall in Ni’lin is the only place along the route of the barrier where a concrete wall has been erected in an attempt to deal with the civic, unarmed campaign waged by the village in protest of the massive land theft that will enable the expansion of the illegal settlements of Modi’in Il’it and Hashmonaim.

Since Israel began its construction in the year 2002, This is the first time demonstrators succeed in toppling a part of Israel’s barrier which is a concrete wall. One of the demonstrators, Moheeb Khawaja, said during the protest: “Twenty years ago no one had thought the monster that divided Berlin into two could be brought down, but in only two days in November, it did. Today we have proven that this can also be done here and now. It is our land beyond this wall, and we will not give up on it. We will win for a simple reason – justice is on our side.”

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At 6:09 PM, Blogger white rabbit said...

Brecht's comment "Some party hack decreed that the people had lost the government's confidence and could only regain it with redoubled effort. If that is the case, would it not be be simpler,
If the government simply dissolved the people and elected another?"...

Has to be one of the best - I was going to say one liners ever - but actually it's 2 lines.

An absolute gem.


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