Sunday, 26 April 2009

The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt

April 24, 2009

Friedrich Engels was a champion of proletarian revolution who loved foxhunting, duelling and what Tristram Hunt calls “skirt-chasing”, whose idea of happiness (as revealed in a quiz set by Karl Marx's children) was a bottle of Château Margaux 1848, and who profited from the exploitation of workers in a Manchester mill.

But Engels was no “champagne socialist” - or claret communist - with the double standards that label implies. He was a single-minded political animal who wrote his searing critique of Victorian capitalism - The Condition of the Working Class in England - aged 24, stood with the Chartists in Manchester, and then co-wrote The Communist Manifesto with Marx before together they, in Hunt's words, “chased the tail of the great 1848 revolutions across the continent”, trying to put the manifesto into practice. Engels was charged with high treason in their native Germany - “Now you have really gone too far” protested his outraged mother - and fought on the barricades against the might of the Prussian military in the revolution's last stand - “The whistle of bullets is really quite a trivial matter” he wrote insouciantly to Jenny Marx.

More than 20 years later Engels was still trying to help the Paris Commune carry out its revolution. Even his work running the mill part-owned by his father - of which he hated every moment - was a sacrifice made to keep Marx and his family alive while Das Kapital was written.

Hunt sees Engels as a wrongly forgotten man, clearly preferring this urbane gentleman to the irascible Marx. It is good to see Engels rescued from the caricature of a sort of communist Ernie Wise to Marx's Eric Morecambe. But in the end we should perhaps accept Engels' modest judgment on why he sacrificed much for his friend (even claiming paternity of the child Marx had fathered by his housekeeper): Marx, he insisted, was the genius, Engels himself only “talented”. But the contribution of Engels, particularly in editing the later volumes of Capital after Marx's death, was immense. His book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and the essay “The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man” were both, despite the limitations of Victorian anthropology and the amateur science of Engels, real eye-openers to me as alternatives to the personalised feminism and radical nature-worshipping greenery of the 1980s Left.

Indeed, as an old libertarian Marxist myself, it is a pleasure to see Engels portrayed here as the antithesis of the miserabilist misanthropy that often passes for being left wing today. Engels comes across as an impassioned street brawler rather than a pathetic victim, a tireless fighter for “human emancipation” whose humanism rings out in his attitude to everything from nature to religion, setting him a world apart from the Stalinist system that dressed itself in his and Marx's clothes.

Of course Engels was not always right. Hunt wants to defend his contribution to the development of Marx's historical materialism, yet the author often forgets a key point of that method: that everything must be understood in its specific historical context. Engels the revolutionary thinker and doer was at his best in the age of revolutions. In later life, especially after Marx died in 1883, he was isolated in London and surrounded by the political pygmies of the emerging British Left. Until his death in 1895, Engels backed struggles such as the London dockers' strike, although his belief that Marxism had been adopted by the socialist Second International would be brutally exposed in 1914 when the workers of the world, far from uniting, were divided into warring national camps.

But then Engels himself was clear that, if his and Marx's work was to have future meaning, it would not be as an unquestion-able gospel to be repeated by rote. Hunt notes how in a letter written months before he died, Engels told a German political economist that “Marx's whole way of thinking is not so much a doctrine as a method. It provides not so much ready-made dogmas as aids to further investigation and the method for such investigation.”

How would Engels see the crisis of capitalism today? Hunt ends with the assertion that Engels now would once more be predicting “the fulfilment of his good friend Karl Marx's promise”. Yet if Marx is widely acknowledged as having a point today, it is only in one sense that Hunt describes both he and Engels - as a “Cassandra”, a soothsayer of catastrophe to come if capitalism goes unchecked. They were more than that. They saw the system's crises as pointing to the need and possibility for change that could build upon what they called the “wonders” of capitalism and take society forward. By contrast, prominent critics of free market capitalism today seem to be people like Hunt, a stalwart of the backward-looking Campaign for the Protection of Rural England.

I pick up any biography today wary that it will be another from the feet-of-clay catalogue, revealing some historical figure's less-than-perfect personal life. What this misses is that people who make history create something greater than themselves. Hunt does well to emphasise Engels' public life, although he cannot resist recounting the history of low personal shenanigans too. The real point about somebody such as Engels is how he rose above that stuff.

His was ultimately a life marked by personal misery and public failure, yet an heroic embodiment of Marx's view that Man makes his own history, though not in circumstances of his own choosing. Hunt notes that, while Marx is commemorated by that ghastly great tomb in Highgate Cemetery, there is no proper public monument to Engels. His book, while well worth reading, will not quite serve as that.

The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels by Tristram Hunt
Allen Lane, £25; 416pp Buy the book

Saturday, 25 April 2009

A communist and a gentleman

Marx's right-hand man was an industrialist who liked hunting, drinking and women. Roy Hattersley savours the irony

My boast that I am among the small number of people who have started to read Friedrich Engels' Anti-Dühring has to be qualified by the admission that I am also among the even smaller number of people who have not finished reading it. So I was distressed to discover, from Tristram Hunt's new biography of Engels, that what I found to be an unintelligible book is a "pacey, engaging and comprehensible explanation of the science of Marxism". Happily, Hunt's biography of Engels is clear and concise; indeed, he possesses a remarkable talent for explaining what is usually incomprehensible. That certainly includes dialectical materialism - "the critical tool for reading society's endless shifting contradictions and readiness for revolution which was Marx's definitive contribution to western thought".

In The Frock-Coated Communist, Hunt is helped to make the obscure plain by the assiduous use of quotations from Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, a rewrite of Anti-Dühring that is very nearly what we now call "a popular version". In it, Engels wrote that when the means of production become state property, "the proletariat abolishes itself as a proletariat, abolishes all class distinction and class antagonism, abolishes also the State as a State". I am still not sure how the thought-process that concludes with this fantasy can be called scientific rather than utopian, but, thanks to Hunt, my greater understanding of the general theory leaves me with one firm conviction: I am pro-Dühring.

History has made Engels appear the back end of the pantomime horse that produced The Communist Manifesto, with Marx at the front determining direction and speed. We learn from Hunt that although the seductive, heroic prose was pure Marx, "much of the hard intellectual grind... had been carried out by Engels". Without him, the call that "working men of all countries unite" would have been just more windy polemic. Industry and thought are what were to be expected from the author of The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, a survey that does far more than just report how the poor lived. When Engels, describing the Manchester slums, concludes that "only a physically degenerate race, robbed of all humanity, degraded, reduced morally and physically to bestiality, could feel comfortable and at home" in them, he clearly lacks the sympathy that, in later generations, motivated Charles Booth and Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree.

But unlike the earlier social scientists, he offered a comprehensive, if unattractive, method of righting the wrongs and, more important, an intellectually compelling analysis of how they came about. The Frock-Coated Communist brings Engels out from under Marx's shadow. That is the book's importance. Its attraction, as whoever chose the title realised, lies in the description of his origins and lifestyle.

Hunt tells the story with affectionate objectivity. Engels, the son of a pious and benevolent textile manufacture, was born in Barmen, Germany, in 1820. At school, the distinguished gymnasium at Elberfeld, he was attracted by "romantic patriotism". The enthusiasm for "Young Germany" did not last long. It took some time for him to decide what he really did believe. By the time he met Marx in 1842, he was a committed socialist of sorts, but not the sort of which Marx approved. His "distinctly chilly" reception was an unpropitious beginning to a partnership that changed the world. It survived Engels being sent to England, theoretically on behalf of the family firm but, in fact, to keep him away from radical company, and it endured despite the insatiate demands that Marx made on the man who became his benefactor. While Marx was working on Das Kapital in the British Museum, Engels's "toiling in the cotton trade [funded his] intellectual exertions".

And Marx kept asking Engels for more, even though he was better off than most members of the Victorian middle class. Engels was not a good manager. He found the labour theory more interesting than the price of groceries. This double irony - the theory of communism worked out at the expense of the working poor and the remedy for the world's economic ills prescribed by a financial incompetent - make a neat introduction to the moral question that Hunt's book poses. Should we care about a philosopher's lifestyle or are his ideas all that matters?

The word that best describes Engels's early manhood is "louche". But Hunt assures us that "the great Lothario, slave to Paris's finest grisettes and rough seducer... profoundly matured" by his early 60s. In the interim, he drank heavily. He also rode to hounds with the Cheshire Hunt. My hunting neighbours continually tell me that blood sports are a classless occupation. Yet I still find something ridiculous in the hero of Soviet intellectuals following a field led by the future Duke of Westminster - the unreadable chasing the uneatable.

He had moments of gentle concern, including the virtual adoption of Marx's illegitimate son when he was disowned by his father. But the virtue that shaped his life was the self-sacrificial affection he felt for Marx. The paradoxes of his life as cotton magnate and revolutionary socialist, as well as the complication of his theories, make his story difficult to tell. Tristram Hunt discharges the task with remarkable clarity.

• Roy Hattersley's Borrowed Time: The Story of Britain Between the Wars is published in paperback by Abacus.

Friedrich Engels: life of a Marx man

Born: 28 November 1820 in Barmen, Prussia, son of a textiles manufacturer. Died 5 August 1895 of throat cancer.

Education: Dropped out of high school for financial reasons.

Career: Joined the Prussian Household Artillery (1841); in 1842, started work in Manchester for family firm Ermen and Engels. Met Marx in Paris (1844) and they began writing together, first The Holy Family (1844). In 1845, moved with Marx to Brussels and wrote The Communist Manifesto (1848). Returned to Cologne that year, but fled on losing Prussian citizenship in 1849. Lived in Manchester and then in London (from 1870) to be nearer Marx. In 1880, Engels published Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

He said: "An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory."

They said: "The name and life of Engels should be known to every worker ... a great fighter and teacher of the proletariat!" - Lenin, 1896

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Gerry Adams blasts 'adventurist' dissident groups

Dissident Republicans involved in violence in Northern Ireland are motivated by ego and opportunism, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said last night.

Mr Adams used a public rally in rural County Tyrone to attack the groups who last month murdered two soldiers and a police officer.

He said dissident groups had also threatened to kill Sinn Fein politicians but insisted that such groups would not be allowed to derail the peace process.

"Some former activists, including former IRA volunteers, hark back to the 70s or 80s," he told a crowd of more than 200 people in Galbally.

"This is not the 70s or 80s.

"And some have formed armed groups which purport to be the IRA - the CIRA, the RIRA, or Oglaigh na h'Eireann, or the INLA, or the IRLA.

"None of these groups are the IRA.

"They have no right to hijack its name or to mimic its actions.

"They cannot match the IRA for ingenuity, for resourcefulness, for courage or capacity."

Mr Adams told the audience that the IRA had taken the armed struggle as far as possible but had sued for peace when that became an option.

The Sinn Fein panel included Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness who said he stood over his decision to brand dissident republican killers as traitors to Ireland.

But he also said that he was personally proud to have been a former member of the IRA and recognised that his comment had offended some members of the republican community.

The event did not attract protests from dissident republican groups and questions from the audience were dominated by bread and butter issues including education reform.

At the end of the event, the majority of the audience gave the Sinn Fein delegation, which included Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew and Sinn Fein MEP Bairbre De Brun, a standing ovation.

Mr Adams had told them that republicans should focus on policy and actions that would help deliver a united Ireland.

In a message to dissidents, he said: "Militarism, elitism or adventurism is no substitute to strategy, for tactics, for common sense."

He said some dissidents were wedded to the use of violence as a tactic while others were motivated by ego and opportunism, but he said all were wrong.

"Some take exception to remarks by republican leaders and seize on these in an entirely self-serving and negative way," he said.

"Others threaten to kill us, or they actually attack our homes or offices."

He added: "Let me make it clear that Sinn Fein is not going to roll over and surrender our struggle to any of these elements."

One member of the audience was applauded by a section of the crowd when he said Sinn Fein policies were being blocked by the DUP.

But Mr McGuinness said the DUP had been brought into power-sharing government despite their long-held opposition to it.

"But look at where the DUP are now," said Mr McGuinness. "Then you have to look two years up the road and then six years up the road."

A woman in the audience, who had a child facing transfer from primary school to second level education, said children were being made guinea pigs by Sinn Fein education reform.

But both Mr McGuinness and Sinn Fein MLA, Michelle O'Neill, who said she has a child who is a primary 6 pupil, said "necessary change" would eventually be to the benefit of all children.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

China unveils its new naval clout

By Wu Zhong

HONG KONG - China will show off its nuclear-powered submarines for the first time in history on Thursday during a fleet parade to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the naval arm of the People's Liberation Army (PLAN).

The display of the country's most advanced submarines, as well as the parade itself which will feature 21 ships from 14 foreign countries including the United States and Russia, shows China's growing confidence in the rapid modernization of its navy.

The largest naval parade in the PLA's history is also a sign that Beijing is attaching increasing importance to the role of the navy, once considered the weakest of the three branches of the PLA. China's deployment of ships to the coast of Somalia to fight pirates at the end of last year is regarded as a strategic change of the PLAN from a near-shore defensive force to a blue-water combat armada.

In an interview with the state-run Xinhua news agency, Vice Admiral Ding Yiping, PLAN's deputy commander, said the nuclear-powered submarines would appear at Thursday's fleet review in the northern port city of Qingdao.

"It is not a secret that China has nuclear submarines, which are key to safeguarding our country's national security," Ding said, adding that the number of China's nuclear submarines was far less than those of the US and Russia.

The 225,000-member PLAN operates up to 10 nuclear-powered submarines and as many as 60 diesel-electric vessels, more than any other Asian country. China's second-generation, nuclear-powered Jin- and Shang-class submarines are considered just a notch below cutting-edge US and Russian crafts.

Speculation has been rife as to whether President Hu Jintao, who will review the fleet parade in his capacity as chairman of the Central Military Commission, will take the opportunity to announce China's plan to build one or more aircraft carriers. A senior PLA official in Beijing said it was unlikely Hu would make the announcement. "It is no longer a secret that China wants to build aircraft carriers. There is no need to make a formal announcement on such things," said the official who declined to be named.

United States chief of naval operations Admiral Gary Roughead downplayed concerns over China's plans for an aircraft carrier but said the US would like to have a better idea about the intentions behind China's naval modernization.

"The advancement and the growth of the PLA Navy is consistent with China's economic advancement and its role in a globalized world. I think it is important, however, that as we create a naval capability, indeed any military capability, that there should be clear communications with regard to what the intentions of that capability are. That's why visits like mine are important," said Roughead during a news conference on Sunday in Beijing.

The high-profile naval display is also a sign of China's confidence in the overall modernization of its military. China has for a long time kept a low profile in regard to its naval buildup, the PLA source said.

Not so long ago, the navy was the weakest branch of the PLA. Ships and weapons were so outdated the Chinese military was reluctant to show them in public, preferring to keep any development top secret. Moreover, China has been concerned that flexing its naval clout could arouse suspicion from neighboring countries, some of which have territorial disputes with China.

But as China's interests spread globally, Beijing needed a strong naval force to protect its "blue water" interests, as exemplified by the need to protect Chinese commercial ships off Somalia, the source said. "So now it's better for China to increase the transparency of its naval development than to continue keeping it a top secret. Anyway, it is hard to keep it secret given modern reconnaissance means," the source said.

Ding Yiping said in his interview with Xinhua that suspicion arises because of misunderstanding, adding that the fleet parade on Thursday was aimed at promoting understanding about China's military rise.

"Suspicions about China being a 'threat' to world security are mostly because of misunderstandings and lack of understandings about China," said Ding. "The suspicions would disappear if foreign counterparts could visit the Chinese navy and know about the true situation."

Ding also said the review would be a platform for foreign navies to enhance mutual understanding. High-level delegations from 29 countries and 21 vessels from 14 countries will attend the review.

Exchanges between naval forces of different countries would enhance trust and cooperation, PLAN Commander Admiral Wu Shengli said on Tuesday in Qingdao at a seminar to mark the four-day celebrations.

Wu said maritime disputes should be resolved in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and that all countries should avoid military competition or conflict. Governments should respect each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity on an equal and mutually beneficial basis, and should not use, or threaten to use, military force in international relations, Wu said.

Wu also urged the world's navies to work together to combat threats such as terrorism and piracy. "It is the obligation of all countries' naval forces to work together to ensure safety on the oceans, and crack down on such unconventional threats," Wu said.

It is interesting that Qingdao has been chosen as the place for the fleet parade. Qingdao is the headquarters of the Beihai Fleet, one of China's three naval fleets. It was in Qingdao that the PLAN set up its first naval aviation school in early 1950s. China's first submarine fleet was also formed in this northern city in 1954.

But just 150 kilometers northeast of Qingdao is Liugong Island at the mouth of Weihai Bay, a well-known historical site often considered as the home of China's "national humiliation".

During the reign of the Guangxu Emperor from 1875 to 1908, the Qing Dynasty founded the Beiyang Fleet as China's first modern navy, considered the best in Asia at that time. A telegraph center, a naval academy and the headquarters of the Beiyang Naval Units were set up on Liugong Island.

But during the First Sino-Japanese War, the Beiyang Fleet suffered a crushing defeat. In the spring of 1895, Liugong Island was occupied by Japanese forces. Ding Ruchang, commander of the Beiyang Fleet, committed suicide. The Japanese occupation lasted for roughly three years before the British bought the territory from the Japanese.

The principal result of the first Sino-Japanese War was a shift in regional dominance from China to Japan. It came as a fatal blow to the Qing Dynasty and Chinese classical tradition.

Military exchange between China and Japan remains a sensitive issue. Hong Kong media reported that China turned down Japan's offer to send ships to participate in the Qingdao fleet review, though the report is not officially confirmed.

One hundred and fourteen years after the defeat of 1895, China's ships will sail with those from other naval powers in the Qingdao fleet review. "This delivers a message that China will never allow its navy to be defeated so easily again," the PLA source said, adding that the Chinese navy will now sail into the world's oceans with a new posture.

The PLAN was formed on April 23, 1949, in Taizhou city in Jiangsu province. It originally consisted of nine warships and 17 boats obtained when a unit of the Kuomintang's second coastal defense fleet defected to the PLA. Coincidentally, Taizhou is the birthplace of Hu Jintao.

Qingdao will be China's fourth naval review since 1949. The first was held in Dalian in 1957. The second was held in 1995 in the Yellow Sea and attended by Jiang Zemin, Hu's predecessor. The third was held in 2005, after a Sino-Russian joint military exercise in the sea off Shandong province.

Wu Zhong is the China Editor of Asia Times Online.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Communist party surges as Japan's economy withers

TOKYO (AP) — Under a big red flag, the headquarters of the Communist Party of Japan are the center of the most vibrant grass-roots movement in the country. The party's ranks are swelling, it has 24,000 branch offices and more than a million people read its newspaper. Only one party — the one that runs the country — beats it at fundraising.

As Japan's economy withers, communism is coming to life.

Dormant in the boom years and marginalized even as Japan more recently clawed its way out of recession, the party's litany of capitalist evils is now resonating deeply with many Japanese — especially the young — who are feeling the pain of an economic downturn that some say has reached depression dimensions.

While the Communist Party — which is the fourth-largest party in parliament, but has only 16 of the total 722 seats — is not likely to take over anytime soon, it is making itself felt.

On college campuses, in particular, Karl Marx is popular again.

"I have never voted before, but I intend to vote communist in the next elections," said Suguru Yagi, a Tokyo college student.

Yagi, 22, said he had considered joining the party because he agrees with many of its policies and sees it as the defender of the working class. As a student about to graduate, he is concerned about the shrinking work force, and the difficulties he may find in getting a good job.

Leading Japan's communist renaissance is Kazuo Shii, the round-faced party chief, who has become one of Japan's most recognizable politicians and something of a media star, grilling the country's conservative leaders from his perch in parliament and unfailingly appearing before the cameras with what boils down to: "I told you so."

Financial meltdowns worldwide. Banks and manufacturers going belly up, or begging for bailouts. Unemployment and unrest on the rise.

Capitalism, Shii concludes, is doomed.

"It is inevitable," he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "When the persimmon is ripe, it will fall from the tree."

Shii, and the party, believe that time is fast approaching. And, in Asia's most dedicated bastion of capitalism, more people are beginning to agree.

According to the party, about 1,000 new members are joining its ranks every month — a sharp contrast to the massive exodus that has plagued the ruling Liberal Democrats, who have dropped from about 5 million members in their heyday to about 1 million members now.

The Japan Communist Party was founded as an illegal movement in 1922, but legalized after Japan's World War II defeat in 1945. It then struggled through polarizing splits with the Soviets and Communist Chinese in an effort to maintain its independence. It also has distanced itself from the radical left, which gained popularity in the 1960s and '70s, but has since died down.

Shii attributed the renewed interest in the party to voter disillusionment with future prospects in an increasingly difficult job market. People who have lost their jobs or their pensions are turning to the party. There is increasing distrust of the centrist Liberal Democrats and their main rivals, the Democratic Party of Japan, who are also conservative and are, in fact, led by a former Liberal Democrat.

The communist revival has also been spurred on by the pop media.

Marx's Das Kapital is now available in cartoon form, and a surprise best-seller of the year has been a revival version of "Kanikosen," a 1929 novel about exploited workers on a crab boat. That novel, too, is out in manga form, and is being made into a movie.

In Japan, the Communist Party has swelled to about 415,000 members at latest count and boasts a newspaper, Red Flag, with a readership of 1.6 million. It has also started a channel on YouTube featuring video of Shii addressing parliament and other tidbits for those who want to keep up with party goings-on.

Shii said his party is willing to work within Japan's system — he said it does not advocate immediate or violent revolution.

"We want to fix social inequities within the framework of capitalism," Shii said. "It will take time for people to make adjustments and be ready. We aren't advocating a sudden change to communism."

Political analysts are split on where the communists are headed.

Tomoaki Iwai, a Nihon University political science professor, said the party's recent popularity could be a fad.

"I don't see a bright future for the communist party, despite the current expansion," he said. "They are not going to gain decision-making status in Japanese politics."

But Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, said the party serves as an important check-and-balance.

"They are a perennial opposition party, but that is a significant role," he said. "Their ideological stance stands out in a political scene dominated by the conservatives, and it's good to have diversity. Despite their marginal presence in parliament, the communists' views are often considered commonsense among the public."

Outside of parliament is where the Communist Party has been making its biggest strides.

Though weak at the national level, the communists boast more elected officials than any other party because of their strong presence in local and prefectural assemblies, where they have more than 3,000 seats.

Party members are free to devote as much, or little, of their time as they choose — from simply voting communist when elections come around to helping run social activities and youth programs.

Because of the devotion of its members, the party's campaign machine is formidable.

And, while not expected to win big, the communists are looking at modest gains when the next parliamentary elections are held — sometime before October — because of the growing unpopularity of Prime Minister Taro Aso and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which is widely seen as being in disarray and unable to lead Japan out of its deepening economic recession.

The Democrats are dogged by scandals of their own. But Shii complained that the focus of the media on the potential emergence of a two-party system has created an even darker shadow from which his party must emerge.

Even so, with younger voters, the communists are doing well.

"The communists offer hope," said Yagi, the college student. "I don't know if I would want them to take over power, but I think they should be big enough to influence what the ruling party can do."

He said he stopped short of actually joining up because the name of the party put him off.

"I like what the party is doing," he said. "But 'communism' still carries with it a stigma, like 'radical' or 'terrorist.' I don't want that kind of communism. I'm not a radical."

Monday, 20 April 2009

Capitalist crisis: No way out.

Ed Balls, Labour Minister for Children, Schools and Families, expressed the fear that is at the heart of government in Britain when he blurted out, at a Yorkshire Labour Party meeting in February 2009, that we are in the midst of ‘the most serious global recession…for over a hundred years’. That would mean more serious than the 1929 Great Depression, when US industrial production fell by 50% and its economy declined by 25% between 1929 and 1932.

Could Balls be referring to the crisis that led to the first imperialist war in 1914? That crisis only ended after world war, depression, fascism and world war again had resolved temporarily inter-imperialist rivalries with the domination of US imperialism after the Second World War. Whatever he meant, his statement created outrage among the political class – it was far too close to the truth. This was, after all, the period that led to the Russian Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union. DAVID YAFFE reports on the political and economic impact of this global crisis.

The international financier George Soros expressed something similar to Ed Balls when he argued, on 20 February 2009 at a Columbia University dinner in New York, that the world financial system has effectively disintegrated, and that there is no prospect of a near-term resolution to the crisis. The turbulence is more severe than the Great Depression and there is no sign that we are at the bottom of the financial crisis.

Martin Wolf, chief economic commentator of the Financial Times, reminds us of the results of the Great Depression. ‘This transformed capitalism and the role of government for half a century’. It led to the collapse of liberal trade, strengthened the creditability of socialism and communism and shifted policy towards import substitution as a development strategy. The period also saw the growing influence of the Nazis in Germany, whose vote increased from 18% in 1930 to 37% in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. Wolf says that there has been a move towards the national and away from the global, especially evident in the financial sector. This protectionism is likely to be extended to other sectors. He warns that confidence in local and global elites, in the market and even in the possibility of material progress will weaken ‘with potentially devastating social and political consequences’. Globalisation might be reversed. He reminds his readers that the integrated economy of the decades before the First World War collapsed. ‘It could do so again’. He draws comfort from the belief that ‘unlike in the 1930s, no credible alternative to the market economy exists’ (Financial Times, 9 March 2009).1

This crisis is global. No part of the world can escape its consequences. It originates in the main centres of imperialism and has already had a devastating impact on much of the underdeveloped world, including the ex-Soviet bloc countries. It will eventually lead to dramatic economic, social and political changes even in the imperialist countries.

Global meltdown
The Asian Development Bank warned in early March that financial assets worldwide could have fallen in value by more than $50 trillion, equivalent to a year’s global output. Asian and Latin American economies have been battered by the financial crisis with losses in Asia, excluding Japan, having reached $9.6 trillion and in Latin America $2.1 trillion. In the main imperialist countries, banks and financial institutions are being ‘nationalised’ as governments take controlling stakes to prevent them from going bankrupt and devastating the imperialist economies. On an unprecedented scale, public funds are being used to buy up and insure trillions of dollars of ‘toxic assets’ held by the major imperialist banks. The market values of what were the largest financial corporations in the world have been decimated. Citigroup, worth $255bn in the second quarter of 2007, is valued now at around $13.7bn. RBS’s value has fallen from $120bn to $17.5bn; Barclays from $91bn to $14.4bn and one of the strongest banks today, HSBC, from $215bn to $78.3bn over the same period.2 AIG, once the biggest insurance company in the world and now nearly 80% owned by the US government, after the biggest loss in corporate history of $61.7bn, is worth $1.2bn (share price 42 cents) compared with around $131bn a year ago (share price $46). AIG operates in 130 countries, has 74 million customers and covers/insures some $2 trillion financial products, half of this for 12 global banks. Its far-reaching international operations determine that it is too big to go under.

The main imperialist centres are facing a deep recession. The US economy fell 6.2% at an annual rate in the last quarter of 2008. Eurozone countries face the worst recession for 50 years with a fall of 1.5% in the fourth quarter of 2008 (an annual rate of just under 6%). Japan has experienced the largest economic fall for 35 years of 3.3% in the fourth quarter – an annualised fall of 12.7%. Its exports fell 46% in January 2009 from a year earlier. The International Monetary Fund has said that world output will fall in 2009 for the first time since the Second World War. The World Trade Organisation sees the volume of world goods trade plunging by 9% in 2009, the largest drop since 1945. Global trade has, in fact, been in freefall for more than four months, contracting at a greater rate than during the Great Depression (Financial Times 2 March 2009).

The less developed countries are being devastated by this global crisis. The Institute for International Finance predicts that capital flows to emerging markets will be only $165bn in 2009, less than half the $466bn inflow in 2008 and less than a fifth of the $929bn in 2007. This predicted decline in capital flows is equivalent to about 6% of the combined GDP of these countries, far worse than the decline of 3.5% which occurred during the Asian crisis of 1997/98 with its devastating social and economic consequences in that region. The less developed countries have $1,440bn of bank loans coming due in 2009. Central and Eastern Europe, predominantly the ex-Soviet bloc, with foreign loans mainly from western European banks of $1,656bn, will see a decline in GDP for the first time in a decade. Without significant international aid, in the present global situation, many of these countries will have no alternative but to default on their debts. UNESCO estimates that 390 million of the poorest people in Africa will see their already meagre incomes drop by 20%. The falls in commodity prices and decline in investment flows mean sub-Saharan Africa will lose around $18bn or $46 per person, leaving millions more at starvation levels.

The International Labour Organisation is forecasting a dramatic increase in unemployment this year, 18-30 million additional unemployed and more than 50 million if the situation continues to deteriorate. The latter increase would mean 7.1% of the world’s labour force would be unemployed or 230 million jobless – a clear underestimation of the real unemployment situation.

The World Bank has warned that a wave of social and political unrest could sweep through the
world’s poorest countries if the G20 summit does not come to their aid. Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the United Nations said in January, in suitably diplomatic language: ‘I believe we are also facing a crisis of governance at
a national and international level’. Hence the desperate attempts to find some common global economic policy – to prevent trade protectionism, to have more regulation of banks and tax havens, etc – at the G20 conference in London on 2 April, while in reality the major imperialist powers are riven by both external and internal conflicts and are forced to protect their own national interests at the expense of everyone else. The lead-up to the G20 meeting has exposed a growing split between the US and Europe. The US is calling for another larger co-ordinated fiscal stimulus to lift the world out of recession, with Germany and France resisting this because of concerns over the scale of their public deficits and the potentially inflationary consequences. Europe is putting the emphasis on regulating the banks, outlawing tax havens and bank executive bonuses, viewing this as fundamental to averting repeated meltdowns.

Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown is hosting the summit and is attempting, with increasing difficulty, to keep a foot in both camps. At the end of 2006, FRFI asked how long the British economy could sustain itself outside Europe, with Britain becoming more and more dependent on the parasitical dealings of the City of London.3 The international financial crisis and the dramatic collapse of major British banks are beginning to provide an answer. On 20 March 2009 Brown agreed to a significant tightening of European financial regulation, measures that he had firmly resisted during his 10 years as Chancellor of the Exchequer. On 24 March Brown gave an uncharacteristically pro-European speech to the European parliament, which suggested that Britain would enhance its global influence through the European Union. He insisted that Britain’s place ‘was not in Europe’s slipstream but firmly in its mainstream’ (Financial Times 25 March 2009). The significance of these developments will take some time to become clear. The British ruling class is deeply split on the issue of Europe and those divisions will fester over the coming period. The global crisis is however forcing the issue.

For the present we can be sure that the major imperialist powers will take all the measures necessary to protect their own national interests. A World Bank report published on 18 March found that 17 out of the 20 countries attending the G20 summit had already adopted 47 measures aimed at restricting trade since October 2008.

British capitalism
British capitalism, we have argued over a long period of time, with its bloated and usurious banking sector, is the imperialist economy most vulnerable to external financial shocks. Britain, the oldest imperialist country, sustains the high standard of living of its citizens through the income generated by the financial services sector of the economy and the ‘gigantic usury capital’ of its parasitic banks and financial institutions based in the City of London. That is why this crisis of the world capitalist system threatens the economic foundations of British capitalism.

On 5 March, interest rates were cut to the lowest level ever of 0.5%. The Bank of England is buying assets, particularly government bonds from banks and financial institutions, by initially creating £75bn of new money over the next three months to try and kick start the British economy – so-called ‘quantitative easing’. The hope is that the sellers of these assets will use the extra funds on other investments or lend them to businesses and households. If the injection of £75bn, equivalent to 5% of GDP, does not appear to be working, an additional £75bn will be made available. With traditional monetary measures having little impact, such an unconventional measure taken by the Bank to stimulate the economy is a desperate last resort. It could eventually have serious inflationary consequences. The outlook for the City of London and the financial sector is, to say the least, very bleak.

Britain is already heading for the biggest budget deficit among the G20 countries in 2009-10 of nearly 13% of GDP, around £180bn, way above the record 7.7% deficit set by the Tories in the 1990s. The national debt has already reached £717bn, 49% of GDP. This could more than double once the estimated liabilities of RBS and Lloyds are put on the government’s books. The failure of a government bond sale to raise £1.75bn on 25 March underlines the serious state of public finances. Investors are questioning the government’s ability to pay for the bank bailouts and fill the gap left by dramatically falling tax revenues over the coming years. The Centre for Economics and Business Research has said that the tax take alone from the financial services sector will fall to £39bn in 2009-10, down from £67bn in 2006-07. The day before the bond sale failed, Mervyn King, the Bank of England Governor, was warning that Britain could not afford ‘another significant round of fiscal stimulus’. This will make it very difficult for Brown at the G20 summit to side with the US and call for an even larger co-ordinated fiscal stimulus in the face of European and Bank of England opposition.

The UK economy is forecast to shrink 3.8% in 2009. Unemployment already at 2.03m, will rise above 3m over the coming year, and, with the dramatic fall in the financial services sector, will begin to affect significant sections of better-paid workers and the ‘middle class’. One third of London’s 4.2m jobs are supplied by finance and business services. House prices have fallen some 18%, 46,750 homes were repossessed in 2008 and repossessions could rise to 75,000 this year. With Labour’s privatisation agenda unravelling, pension and savings income collapsing, serious economic, social and political problems are inevitable. This rapid deterioration in the economic situation is creating the material conditions once again for an anti-capitalist alliance between the poorer sections of the working class and sections of the ‘middle classes’ confronting proletarianisation.

This is the background to the outburst from Superintendent David Hartshorn in February 2009, warning that middle class anger at the economic crisis could erupt into violence on the streets. Hartshorn is Britain’s most senior police officer with responsibility for public order. He raises the spectre of a return to the riots of the 1980s with people who have lost their homes or savings becoming foot soldiers in a wave of potentially violent protest. He talks of ‘known activists’ returning to the streets, claiming they will foment unrest with these new foot soldiers joining the protests. It is an interesting thought, but for it to come to fruition, a new anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist movement has to be built in this period, strong enough to push aside the traditional opportunist forces of the British left. The traditional left will do its utmost to control any such movement and direct it into respectable channels to prevent it becoming a movement for serious radical change – as we saw with the anti-war movement and more recently with the demonstrations in support of the Palestinians.

The roots of the crisis
It is important to understand that we cannot explain the crisis by what precipitated it – for example the role of sub-prime mortgages and their impact on the banks. We have to ask what drove such lending in the first place. Yes, bankers are corrupt and greedy and government regulation of their activities was almost non-existent. It is morally obscene that Sir Fred Goodwin received a £16m pension pot and now has a yearly pension income of £703,000, despite overseeing the collapse of the RBS. Yes, Lord Myners the City Minister allowed this to happen, unsurprisingly as he spent 26 years working for investment banks where large payouts and bonuses were accepted as part of banking culture. But all this was brought to our attention after the crisis broke out. It was exactly the same in 1929 when incorrect government and central bank policy decisions were blamed for the depression. What is being said is that the crisis is due to wrong policy decisions by bankers and governments. If that is the case it can be overcome by more adequate policies and better regulation and control of the banks. This is subterfuge; an ideological position which is saying that the crisis is not systemic to capitalism and that its roots do not lie in the contradictions inherent in the capitalist economy. But they do.

The tasks that lie ahead
In an important contribution in Granma International (8 February 2009) ‘Crisis of capitalism with no way out’, Raul Valdes Vivo, President of the Party School of the Cuban Communist Party, argued that there were three ideological positions on the present global crisis. The first is ‘capitalism’s advocates, who attribute the crisis to bad management by bankers and governments, believing it surmountable’. The second is ‘capitalism’s opponents, for whom the crisis is systemic. Among the latter, some believe it is the latest of the cyclical crises of the system of the modern system of exploitation, which will end up overcoming it and which will even strengthen it, despite its extreme gravity, like in 1929’. Many of the intellectuals on the British left – if they mention imperialism at all – hold to a version of this position, some seeing a shift in the balance of power internationally towards Asia as the outcome of the present crisis. Valdes Vivo continues that there is a third position: ‘There are those of us who believe that the only way out is to establish a communist means of production, whose first moment is socialism, after a non-capitalist way of development’.

For the opponents of capitalism what is decisive, he continues, is not quotes from theorists but practice. He warns: ‘Any combatant against capitalism can fall into the utopia of thinking it will automatically fall, without a struggle that will have the most contradictions, progress and defeats and that will be the most difficult ever waged by the human species, and which if it is not won in a historically brief period of time, will end up disappearing’. The choice is clear: ‘socialism or barbarism’.

This is the period when the vast majority of the world’s population is confronting the barbarity of imperialism. For millions it has become a life and death struggle for an alternative. It is also the period when social and economic developments are creating the conditions for building a new socialist movement even in the imperialist countries, and that means in Britain as well. A crisis of this order is going to change the political landscape. As a first step we have to join the resistance to imperialism. We have to join with the oppressed people of the world by resisting imperialism right here in the heartland of a parasitic and decaying capitalism.

1 What a reversal! In 2002 (Financial Times 4 September 2002) Wolf asked if the second era of global capitalist integration would end like the first, which went into reverse between 1914 and 1945. His unequivocal answer was no, as conditions were very different this time. In an article ‘The world economy facing war and recession’ in FRFI 171 February/March 2003, we argued that he was wrong and that ‘globalisation has gone into reverse’ and that ‘the movement to war [against Iraq] is an expression of the global crisis of capitalism’. See frfipages/171/FRFI_171_eco.html

2 Share values are volatile and so the market values of these financial institutions today are constantly changing around these very low levels.

3 See ‘Britain: parasitic and decaying capitalism’ FRFI 194 December 2006/January 2007.

Beijing-based newspaper Global Times launches English edition

After more than six months' preparation, the Beijing-based newspaper the Global Times will launch its English edition together with its website on Monday.

Published under the official People's Daily, the Global Times was established in 1993, specializing in coverage of international affairs.

The English edition will cover the world from a Chinese perspective, and reflects the standpoints and opinions of Chinese people on significant international issues.

"It marks a new beginning for the Global Times," said Hu Xijin, the Editor-in-Chief of the Global Times. "The world of English language was new to us. But with the launch of the Global Times English edition, we have gained confidence to make it a success, to make friends with foreigners and to facilitate communication between China and the world."

According to Hu, the English edition, instead of a translated version of its Chinese newspaper, is based on an independent team of reporters, editors and foreign experts.

It will be printed daily from Monday to Friday in pace with the Chinese edition and distributed nationwide.

The web site address is


Sunday, 19 April 2009

Sales of leftist book jump on Chavez gift to Obama

CARACAS, April 19 (Reuters) - A book that inspired a generation of Latin American leftists is ringing up big sales after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave it to U.S. President Barack Obama in an effort to ease diplomatic tensions.

"Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent," a manifesto decrying centuries of imperialism in the region, was No. 2 on's bestseller list on Sunday after Chavez presented it to Obama at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

In response, Chavez jokingly proposed a business partnership with the new U.S. president, marking a sharp distinction from nearly a decade of feuding with Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, whom he called "the devil."

"So I said, Obama, let's go into a business. We'll promote books -- I'll give you one, you give me another," Chavez said.

Asked at a news conference what he thought of the gift, Obama said, "I thought it was a nice gesture to give me that book. I'm a reader."

The 1971 book by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano describes Latin American history as 500 years of looting and pillaging of natural resources by outsiders ranging from colonial Spain in the 1600s to U.S. multinational corporations of 20th century.

This was not the first time Chavez's book recommendations have proved a boon to authors. Sales of U.S. linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky's "Hegemony or Survival" soared after Chavez plugged it during a U.N. speech.

In recent years, Venezuela has led the region's resurgent anti-U.S. sentiment. But at the summit in Trinidad, Chavez proposed naming a new ambassador to Washington. He expelled the U.S. ambassador in September and Washington responded by kicking out Venezuela's envoy.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Fabian Andres Cambero)

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

G20 protest videos: Growing catalogue of evidence against police

Watch a collection of videos passed to the Guardian that appear to show police using excessive force against G20 protesters

In the fortnight since the G20 protests in London, the Guardian has received video footage from a number of people that appears to show police using excessive force or questionable tactics in dealing with demonstrators and the press.

The best-known video was sent by a New York fund manager early last week. It shows Ian Tomlinson, who was attempting to return home on the evening of the first day's protests, on 1 April, being pushed to the ground by a police officer.

Here is a list of the footage received over this period, displayed in chronological order according to when the events took place. The Guardian is passing newly obtained footage to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, with the permission of those who shot the films.

Note: Most of the video footage contains violence, and one includes swearing.

1 April, 3.29pm, near Bank, City of London

Link to this video

Police seeking to clear demonstrators charge, with batons raised, at a group consisting mainly of press photographers and camera crews. After the charge one photographer, wearing an orange high-visibility jacket, can be seen on the ground.

1 April, 7.15pm, Royal Exchange Passage, near Bank of England

Link to this video

In footage shot by a worker trying to walk home, who was not involved in the protests, police can be seen tackling demonstrators. Near the end of the short sequence it appears that one officer pulls someone – possibly a woman – violently to the ground.

1 April, 7.16pm, Threadneedle Street, near Royal Exchange

Link to this video

As police try to move protesters away down the street, a police handler appears to allow his dog to bite the arm of a man wearing a pale hooded top who has just turned his back to the officers.

1 April, 7.20pm, Royal Exchange Passage

Link to this video

Ian Tomlinson is seen walking away from officers with his hands in his pockets. One of the police strikes him on the back of the leg with a baton before shoving him to the ground. Tomlinson is helped to his feet by bystanders. He collapsed soon afterwards and died.

1 April, 7.40pm, Bishopsgate, just south of Liverpool Street station

Link to this video

Lines of riot police can be seen advancing on people who had been taking part in the climate camp protests, in which demonstrators erected tents across a street in the City. The riot officers can be seen shoving people back with their shields as well as striking people with batons and, at times, the edges of their shields. Most protesters put their hands in the air to indicate non-resistance, and chant: "This is not a riot".

2 April, 3.46pm, junction of Royal Exchange Passage and Cornhill

Link to this video

A City of London police officer approaches a group of photographers and camera crews and orders them to leave the area for a period of about 30 minutes or face arrest. The instruction is made under section 14 of the Public Order Act, which is intended primarily to disperse potentially disruptive or violent gatherings. The Metropolitan police, which led the G20 operations, later apologised for using the measure on members of the press.

2 April, 4.39pm, Threadneedle Street, near the Bank of England

Link to this video

Police manhandle two demonstrators to the ground before letting the men get up and leave. During the second of these incidents, a policeman in a black uniform appears to aim a kick at the protester as he lies on the ground, sending him sprawling.

2 April, 4.42pm, Threadneedle Street, near the Bank of England

Link to this video

A pair of plainclothes police, identifiable only by the bright yellow caps they have donned, join uniformed officers in marshalling demonstrators. One of the plainclothes officers can be seen with a baton in his hand.

2 April, 2.30pm, by the Bank of England

Link to this video

At a vigil for Tomlinson, a police officer is seen apparently slapping a woman twice with the back of his hand. As she remonstrates with him further, he is shown seemingly striking her on the legs with his baton, causing her to fall. The Metropolitan police have suspended the sergeant involved, a member of the Territorial Support Group.