Invent the Future

"We must dare to invent the future" - Thomas Sankara

Humanitarian intervention

This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in the Morning Star on 16 June, 2014.


While a few books have been written about the 2011 Libya war from a critical, anti-imperialist perspective (the most important being Cynthia McKinney’s The Illegal War on Libya and Maximilian Forte’s Slouching Towards Sirte), Topping Qaddafi is the first attempt by a mainstream western political scientist to provide a retrospective justification for the war.

The author, Christopher Chivvis, works at a US government-funded think-tank (RAND Corporation) and is a well-connected analyst whose articles have been published in Foreign Policy, the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Times, Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. His book is, as you might expect, unashamedly pro-imperialist, and presents a more-or-less official narrative. As such it should be read critically. Nonetheless, it provides some useful insight into the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to the war, as well as revealing the full extent of NATO’s role.

The re-telling of tall stories

Chivvis starts by reiterating the official justification for going to war: that the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was engaged in a deadly crackdown on peaceful demonstrators calling for democracy. What’s interesting is that Chivvis doesn’t manage to introduce any new or convincing evidence, but instead simply recycles the various reports that appeared in the mainstream press at the time and which have since been comprehensively discredited. For example he cites “evidence of systematic rape by regime militias”, a story refuted three years ago by none other than Amnesty International. He further claims that “Qaddafi had reinforced it [the Libyan army] with mercenaries from Africa and Eastern Europe”, with no mention of the discovery that the only ‘mercenaries’ ever captured were not in fact mercenaries at all but rather “undocumented labourers from Chad, Mali and West Africa”.

Any far-fetched and unsubstantiated claims made by supporters of the uprising are treated as being uncontrovertibly true. Among the book’s sources is a Guardian article containing the following passage:

Reports from inside the country claimed pro-regime forces had deliberately aimed at protesters’ heads. A mass funeral for 35 people who died on Friday came under fire from pro-government snipers who killed one person at the procession and injured a dozen more, according to sources in the city. The shootings came amid credible reports of a round-up of government opponents who were taken from their homes in raids by security forces. The crackdown has been led by the elite Khamis Brigade, led by Gaddafi’s youngest son… Unconfirmed reports claim that force has been backed by African mercenaries brought into the country in five separate flights. A video on the Libya 17th February website appeared to show an injured African mercenary who had captured by anti-government protesters.

These few short sentences yield a particularly high-scoring game of spot-the-euphemism. We have “reports from inside the country”, “sources in the city”, “credible reports”, “unconfirmed reports” and “a video” which “appeared to show” something or other – but what we don’t have is any reliable evidence. Indeed, every single one of these “unconfirmed reports” turned out to be untrue.

Real reasons for the invasion

Chivvis goes into detail about the US’ initial reluctance to take military action, correctly pointing out that France and Britain were the main ‘hawks’ in the weeks leading up to the start of the bombing campaign. “As of early 2011, the chances NATO would go to war again seemed remote at best.” Indeed, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates stated on 24 February 2011 that “any future defence secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” Chivvis notes that, in early March, “less than a third of Americans favoured helping the rebels militarily.”

It’s not that the US wasn’t convinced of the virtues of overthrowing the Gaddafi government – in spite of eight years of rapprochement and somewhat improved relations, the US remained decidedly uneasy about Libya’s resource nationalism, its increased economic ties with China and Russia, and its efforts toward African political, economic and military integration. Continued CIA support for covert anti-Gaddafi organisations like the National Front for the Salvation of Libya is well-known. Meanwhile, the US quickly saw in the ‘Arab Spring’ an opportunity to turn the situation to its own advantage – indeed, Chivvis suggests that one of the motives for intervention in Libya was that a failure of the uprising “could reverse a democratic surge expected to be in the US interest in the long haul”. Hillary Clinton was fairly explicit on the subject: ”The entire region is changing, and a strong and strategic American response will be essential.”

There were no shortage of motives for a NATO war on Libya. However, the Pentagon was hoping that the rebels might be able to conduct a successful coup without the help of the international high-tech-destruction community. Apart from anything else, there was a preference to avoid another unpopular war in the Middle East, especially in light of the hugely negative public perception of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. ”Secretary Clinton had favoured keeping all options on the table, while sometimes leaning toward the more cautious position of the Defence Department, largely in hope that Qaddafi might simply yield to the rebels without an intervention.”

When it became clear that a successful rebel uprising was not even a slightly likely outcome, we saw a swift metamorphosis in US foreign policy circles as doves turned into hawks. Chivvis tries to cover NATO’s tracks by claiming that “it was the imminent threat Qaddafi’s forces posed to the civilian population of Benghazi combined with the emergence of a military option that could save thousands of imperiled lives that led to intervention”. But it is common knowledge that the ‘imminent threat’ was massively and deliberately overstated in order to build a case for war – as Stephen M Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard, wrote back in April 2011, “the claim that the United States had to act to prevent Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi from slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Benghazi does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.”

It is again common knowledge that it was armed insurgents that were under threat rather than the ‘civilian population’. The only meaningful change that occurred between the beginning of March and the middle of March was that the Libyan state had moved decisively to suppress a coup. ”The … most important change was Qaddafi’s rout of the rebel forces. Over the weekend, Qaddafi’s army began to make rapid progress, pushing rebels out of the oil port of Ras Lanuf on March 11 and crushing the uprising in Zawiyah.”

Beyond the removal of an inconveniently anti-imperialist and independent government, the possibility of NATO intervention had certain other attractive qualities in the eyes of western policy-makers. Perhaps the most important of these was the example an intervention would provide for other regional powers. Acknowledging that the level of violence went well beyond what was authorised in the UN Security Council’s resolution for a no-fly zone, Chivvis admits that it “was no doubt intended to demonstrate US capabilities to other regional powers – such as Iran and Syria.”

One subtle and often-overlooked factor in the US decision to join – and take charge of – the military campaign against Libya is that it was keen to reassert its dominance over a Europe that is no longer so unambiguously tied to the Washington Consensus as it once was. Implying (not entirely unfairly) that a British/French-led attack would be little more than a vanity project for Cameron and Sarkozy, Chivvis states his doubt that the EU forces would have been up to the job of regime change in Libya. “The outlook for the European Union’s decade-long effort to build an EU alternative to NATO was rather gloomy. Toppling Qaddafi was exactly the kind of operation the EU had originally aspired to with its security and defence policy, but it had proven totally useless for this purpose.” Chivvis goes on to gloat that “the United States was the ‘indispensable nation’ for these kinds of military operations. No other country – China, Russia, and India included – could have provided the capabilities that the United States did.” Thus, the regime change operation in Libya served as a message of US supremacy, directed not just to the baddies in Tehran and Damascus but also to the major west European powers.

For NATO, by NATO – a brutal colonial war

UN Security Council resolution 1973, approved on 17 March 2011, called for “a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians” and the seizing of Libyan state assets. The wording did not allow for a regime change operation, nor for direct assistance to anti-government groups in Libya, nor for wide-ranging attacks against targets on the ground. The no-fly zone was presented as being a very limited operation, not a massive aerial onslaught. In practice, as Chivvis is forced to admit, it was a NATO war on a similar scale to the brutal attack on Yugoslavia, fought and won by a western imperialist air force with the assistance of special forces on the ground.

All told, the operation would draw on more than 8,000 personnel, 21 warships, and some 250 aircraft flying more than 26,000 sorties. Nineteen countries contributed military forces, including four from the Middle East.

Chivvis notes a close level of tactical collaboration between the rebels and NATO, without which the overthrow of the Gaddafi government would not have been possible. “The thuwwar could never have won by themselves. Without NATO’s intervention, their uprising would most likely have been snuffed out by Qaddafi’s assault on Benghazi, and even if it had not, it would probably have become a low-level insurgency and dragged on for years… ‘I can’t say we dislike or like NATO,’ said one tha’ir on the eastern front, but ‘without them we would have been finished.’”

Although he is slightly cagey on the subject, the author also has to admit that there was direct military assistance on the ground – something that was strenuously denied at the time.

“It is now clear from official statements, news reporting, and other published sources that special forces from Britain, France, Italy, Qatar, and the UAE were on the ground at various locations across the country from the start of the conflict, and they became more and more engaged as the situation evolved. These forces were never more than a few hundred, of which Europeans figured only a small portion, but they were enough to make a significant difference on the course of the war.”

The role of these “few hundred” special forces was not limited to friendly advice. “Special forces were training thuwwar, providing advice at the tactical and strategic level to thuwwar commanders, deconflicting NATO air strikes with thuwwar movements, providing intelligence to them, and ultimately fighting alongside them as they took Tripoli and tracked down Qaddafi afterward.”

Chivvis denies that the rebels were “calling in air strikes”, but states that they “eventually learned where to go and not to go and would wait as NATO hit targets to clear a path for them to advance”. Further, “as the war progressed, special forces teams on the ground were doing this for the rebels, with greater and greater frequency, in a rough approximation of the ‘Afghan Model’”. The situation was summed up quite neatly by a rebel commander in June 2011: “we don’t move unless we have very clear instructions from NATO.”

The above sounds a lot more like a ‘war of regime change’ than a ‘no-fly zone’. NATO’s actions were so outrageous as to draw a complaint from Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa (in spite of the fact that the Arab League had been cheerleading for the NFZ): “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.”

In March, at the beginning of the invasion, the chief of the UK defence staff, General David Richards, told the BBC that targeting the Libyan leader was “not allowed under the UN resolution”. And yet Chivvis describes in some detail the crucial involvement of NATO forces in the capture and murder of a sovereign nation’s head of state: “On October 20, after several days of gradual rebel advances on Sirte, NATO planes spotted a convoy leaving the city. Before it was even two miles outside, a Predator that had been circling overhead fired a Hellfire missile that destroyed the leading vehicle. Two French Mirages then also attacked, scattering the convoy, and Thuwwar gave chase on the ground. Qaddafi leapt from one of the cars into a nearby drainpipe, where he attempted to hide. Nearby rebel fighters, however, converged on the spot and quickly pulled him out, beat him, and shot him in the head.”

There are some curious omissions in ‘Toppling Qaddafi’. Chivvis barely mentions, for example, the ferocious NATO onslaught on Sirte – perhaps because bombing a city “into the Dark Ages” is not entirely consistent with his overall narrative. Nor does he see the need to discuss the “compendious evidence of mass abduction and detention, beating and routine torture, killings and atrocities by the rebel militias Britain, France and the US have backed”. While it was apparently essential to protect anti-Gaddafi protestors in Benghazi, the victims of mass execution in Sirte are not worthy of so much as a passing mention in Chivvis’ book.

Another key element of the war ignored by Chivvis is the racist violence meted out by NATO’s ‘rebel’ mercenaries. Reports of widespread lynching and torture of black Libyans and sub-Saharan migrant workers by rebel forces were appearing as early as February 2011 – before the NFZ was even being discussed. Seumas Milne wrote a few months later that “African migrants and black Libyans [were] subject to a relentless racist campaign of mass detention, lynchings and atrocities”. NATO-backed forces were found to be caging black Africans like animals in a zoo; there were reports of black Libyans being forced to climb up a pole shouting ‘monkey need banana’. And yet the widespread ethnic cleansing, torture and murder of black Libyans and sub-Saharan migrant workers by rebel forces doesn’t make it onto Chivvis’ balance sheet when assessing the overall success of NATO’s war on Libya.

Give peace a chance?

Chivvis claims that the NATO bombing was necessary in order to avert a humanitarian crisis, but he almost completely fails to mention all the other options available for restoring stability and peace in Libya. The Gaddafi government offered a ceasefire immediately after the passing of Resolution 1973, including a full amnesty for rebels who had taken up arms. In late April, Gaddafi again offered a full ceasefire, stating: “We were the first to welcome a ceasefire and we were the first to accept a ceasefire… but the Crusader Nato attack has not stopped. The door to peace is open.”

Well before the NFZ declaration, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez offered to broker a ceasefire between the rebels and the government. The rebels – clearly confident that the west would come and wage war on their behalf – simply responded that they would “never negotiate with Gaddafi”. Tellingly, the Guardian noted that “reports that Chavez’s proposal was being taken seriously by Arab leaders has pushed down oil prices.” The implication of which is: the oil companies wanted war on Libya.

South African president Jacob Zuma led African Union efforts to design a comprehensive ceasefire, which was agreed to by Libya. However, this was rejected out of hand by both Washington puppet-masters and Benghazi puppets on the basis that a ceasefire would only be considered if Gaddafi agreed to leave the country. In fact, between March and September 2011 – including in June and July when government positions were looking extremely strong – Gaddafi consistently called for a ceasefire and his calls were consistently ignored. The attitude of NATO and the rebels was: “accept defeat and we’ll stop bombing you” – hardly a serious approach to the project of saving lives and restoring peace.

Another conundrum is that “Qaddafi’s air force and long-range surface-to-air systems were flattened in a matter of a few short days”. That is to say, the mandate of the NFZ was complete in less than a week. So why didn’t the bombardment end? Chivvis does not address this question.

Disaster for Libya and the entire region

“In the years ahead, Libya could become a peaceful democracy or it could face protracted civil war, or it could descend into chaos. The stakes are high.” (Hillary Clinton)

So was it all worth it? In the eyes of Christopher Chivvis, yes. The toppling of the Gaddafi government was “ultimately just an opening toward a richer and more meaningful kind of freedom that might allow Libya’s new citizens to go about their lives with less fear and greater dignity.” He continues: “The results are far from perfect and postwar stabilisation has faltered, but ultimately the choice to intervene was the right one.”

Chivvis struggles to qualify the assertion of success, given the “faltering postwar stabilisation” – a pretty transparent euphemism for “complete and utter mess”. Seumas Milne notes that “three years after Nato declared victory, Libya is lurching once again towards civil war.” Patrick Cockburn concurs: “Libya is tipping toward all-out civil war as rival militias take sides for and against an attempted coup led by a renegade general that has pushed the central government towards disintegration”.

Furthermore, “Libya’s turmoil is acquiring continental significance”. One of Gaddafi’s major priorities was to promote regional stability and coordination. The post-Gaddafi power vacuum has created space for militias of every shape and size to create havoc across the region, from Mali to Chad to Syria to Nigeria.

However, ‘success’ depends on how you measure it. The key to Chivvis’ thinking can be found in the following passage:

“In general, Libya should remain a positive, if smaller-scale, antidote to the sense of helplessness and cynicism about American power setting in after the deeply trying experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, and this is a good thing.”

This is a brutally honest statement about the role of the Libya war in the geostrategic context of the Project for a New American Century – the US’ desperate attempt to maintain its hegemony and prevent the emergence of a multipolar world order. According to Chivvis’ logic, the deeply unpopular, expensive and catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were damaging to US hegemony, but the Libya war furnishes new proof of the US’ role as the world’s policeman. The US maintains its “responsibility to take the actions that we can take, however imperfect, to uphold the values in which our model is grounded.”

NATO’s war on Libya was therefore a key part of an ongoing strategy to “divide and ruin” – violating national sovereignty, creating civil wars, and removing states that refuse to go along with its diktat, all serving to create an unstable global political environment that only the western powers (led by the US) have the military weight to control. The wars in Libya and Syria; the NATO- and EU-sponsored boiling pot in Ukraine; the ‘revolt of the rich’ in Venezuela; the CIA-funded social media campaigns in Cuba; Obama’s “Pacific Pivot”: these are all part of a wide-ranging strategy to maintain western imperialist hegemony. It is the duty of all progressive humanity to recognise and oppose such a strategy.

This is an expanded version of a speech given by Carlos Martinez at the event ‘STRIKE THE EMPIRE BACK: legacies and examples of liberation from neo-colonialism and white supremacy’


As far as most people are concerned, ‘ideology’ is a term of abuse, an insult you fling around: we accuse people of being “too ideological”, of being bookworms, of dividing people with “isms and schisms”, of “thinking too much” (I have to say I’ve never in my life met anyone who actually thinks too much, but I’ve met plenty of people who don’t think enough!).

The Cult of Activism

There is this view that ideology divides us, that it gets in the way of working together, that it’s not really relevant, and that we need to focus purely on ‘action’, on practical activity, on campaigning. We don’t have need to inform our activism with analysis and understanding, we need to do like Nike: just do it. Pickets are good, placards are good, campaigns are good, petitions are good, demonstrations are good, fundraising is good, concerts are good; debate, books, history, study, analysis: not so much. Inasmuch as we need to occasionally need to spread ideas, we do it in cute 140-character slogans on Twitter, or Lord of the Rings memes on Instagram.

In part, this is a reaction to what’s called “ivory tower syndrome” – academics and intellectuals, sitting up in their ivory towers, writing beautiful words but having neither the intention nor the ability to put theory into practice. And even the beautiful ideas the generate are very flawed because they’re so divorced from reality and from the masses.

That is a genuine problem. However, as the saying goes, you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If I bite into an over-ripe strawberry and it tastes rotten, I don’t conclude from that experience that I’ll never eat a strawberry again. If there are ivory tower ideologues who are over-ripe and rotten, let’s ignore them and develop the ideology we need, the ideology that serves us.

The state of the movement

As it stands, we as a movement (inasmuch as there is a ‘movement’ – here I am using it as a general label for the various individuals and groups who oppose the status quo and who want to build an alternative) are quite active. There’s quite of lot of activism around, and yet, if we’re honest, we’re getting nowhere.

We’re no more united than we ever were – in fact we’re less united. We’re no more effective than we ever were – in fact we’re less effective. We have meetings, demonstrations, campaigns, pickets and so on, but almost never win anything, and we don’t really play to win; we’re just out there flying the flag.

And yet oppressed and working class people are under attack. In the course of the last three decades, the ruling class have managed to smash the majority of the unions and the community organisations. They’ve privatised everything. They’ve gone to war, killing our brothers and sisters in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya in the hundreds of thousands. Benefits are cut, jobs disappear, wages are reduced, zero-hour contracts are introduced, bedroom taxes are introduced, banks are bailed out, student fees keep on rising, people are thrown in prison for protesting. Racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia are still prevalent with the dominant culture.

Meanwhile our political representation gets worse and worse, as the whole mainstream spectrum shifts to the right – as evidenced by UKIP’s success at the European election, and by the increasingly blurred lines between Tory and Labour politics.

As for the ruling class, the elite, the government, the police, the corporations, the 1% – they know what situation we’re in and therefore they know they can get away with pretty much anything they want. They know we are not in a position to fight the fight. That’s one of the main reasons we have whatever democratic rights we do have; that’s one of the main reasons they let us have the vote; that’s one of the main reasons they allow some level of freedom of speech: because they know full well we won’t use it to achieve anything meaningful.

Our ‘activism’ hasn’t prevented any of this. In some situations it’s even made it worse. To give a (thankfully) extreme example: when NATO was gearing up for its regime change operation against Libya, a sovereign African state, quite a few well-known activists thought the best thing to do would be to occupy Saif Gaddafi’s house in London, thereby totally playing into the mainstream agenda of demonising a state that the west was about to bomb into the stone age. What a situation, where you have courageous, passionate, righteous people – activists, people who are supposed to be on our side – and the media is able to play them like puppets!

Ideology is nothing to be scared of

If we don’t want to be played like puppets, we need ideology, we need understanding. It’s nothing to be afraid of. An ideology is simply a system of ideas – a set of beliefs, goals and strategies in relation to society. I think this scary word, ideology, can be summed up by three simple questions:

  • What is the current situation of society?

  • What changes do we want to achieve?

  • How do we go about creating those changes?

If you look around the world, and you look into history, you see that every movement that ever achieved anything meaningful is or was built on some kind of ideology. For example:

  • Malcolm X had an ideology, which one could argue was a mix of black nationalism, anti-imperialism, global south unity, socialism and pan-africanism, with Islam providing a moral-spiritual basis.

  • The Black Panthers had an ideology, based in Marxism, Maoism, black nationalism.

  • Closer to home, Sinn Fein and the IRA – who fought the British state to a stalemate (I wish we could do that!) – have an ideology, grounded in Irish nationalism, anti-imperialism and socialism.

  • The leaders of the Iranian revolution had and have an ideology, based in radical Islam, anti-imperialism, anti-zionism and orientation towards the poor. You can say something similar about Hezbollah, the only fighting force in the world to have defeated the Israeli army in battle (#JustSayin).

  • The liberation struggles in Vietnam, South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Ghana, Kenya, Guinea Bissau, Zimbabwe, Palestine, Namibia, Algeria, Korea; the revolutions in Cuba, China, Russia, Grenada, Nicaragua: they all had/have an ideology, a system of ideas/beliefs/goals/strategies that people unite around.

These ideologies have plenty in common, particularly in terms of opposition to imperialism, opposition to colonialism, opposition to racism, and a general orientation in favour of the poor and marginalised. However, none of them are identical, and each reflects to some degree the history, traditions, culture and conditions of the people involved.

The President of the Cuban Parliament made an interesting self-criticism recently, when discussing the variations within the revolutionary process in Latin America:

“What characterises Latin America at the present moment is the fact that a number of countries, each in its own way, are constructing their own versions of socialism. For a long while now, one of the fundamental errors of socialist and revolutionary movements has been the belief that a socialist model exists. In reality, we should not be talking about socialism, but rather about socialisms in the plural. There is no socialism that is similar to another. As Mariátegui said, socialism is a ‘heroic creation’. If socialism is to be created, it must respond to realities, motivations, cultures, situations, contexts, all of which are objectives that are different from each other, not identical.”

There are theories that can point us in the right direction; there is history to learn from; but there’s no cookie-cutter that we can pick up to get rid of capitalism and imperialism.

What about us?

We too need an ideology. We need to work out a shared belief system, an agreed set of goals, an agreed set of strategies, that we can unite around and work together to create meaningful change. We need to answer those three questions: where are we at? Where do we need to be? How do we get there?

We will not agree on everything. There are a whole host of important issues that we have to be willing to agree to differ on. But I am convinced that there is space for a common platform.

Just look at the other side. The enemy has ideology. The elite, the rulers of society, the ultra-rich, the government, the state – they have an ideology. It’s imperialism and neoliberalism: the most brutal, the most harsh, the most ruthless form of capitalism, promoting nothing less than ‘freedom’ – total freedom for the rich to get ever richer.

Plus they’re so generous, they realise that the masses need an ideology too, so they create a ready-made ideology for us! The ideology they give us is: consumerism, individualism, diversions, divisions, racism, sexism, homophobia, selfies, twerking, porn, Call of Duty…

And we congratulate ourselves on all this freedom and democracy we’ve got! “It’s a free country”, we say. No! It’s not freedom, it’s not democracy. It’s bread and circuses. Give the masses cheap food and cheap entertainment, keep them divided, and you’ve got them under your control.

Minimum platform

What type of ideology do we need? Good question :-)

That’s the long conversation that we need to continue, in a spirit of inclusiveness, openness, comradeship, creativity and generosity. It’s going to take a while.

To me, in today’s world, perhaps the most relevant examples to look at can be found in Latin America, in particular in terms of the legacy of Hugo Chávez, may he rest in peace.

What does Chávez represent? The essence of ‘Chavismo’, I believe, is: 1) creative, non-dogmatic, up-to-date socialism; 2) consistent, militant anti-imperialism.

Socialism – there’s another scary word that isn’t really that scary. What is the socialism that is being pursued in Venezuela (and Cuba, and Nicaragua, and elsewhere)?

  • Adopting policies that favour the poor: pursuing redistributive economics and social programmes that aim to permanently raise the status and living conditions of those at the bottom of society.
  • Promoting the interests of the indigenous, the African, the worker, the woman. Protecting freedom of worship. Addressing discrimination on every dimension, in the interests of building unity and justice.
  • Attempting to break the power of the old elite, the rich, the right, who have held society in their grip for so many centuries.
  • Constructing a popular democracy, a state that is “for us, by us”.

As for Chávez’s legacy of anti-imperialism, that means consistently uniting with the widest possible forces against the main enemy. Chávez built solid, meaningful alliances with a very diverse range of states and movements, from Cuba to Brazil to China to Russia, Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Belarus, Gaddafi’s Libya, Angola, DPR Korea, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, and so on.

He wasn’t a gullible liberal or a radical fashionista; he didn’t disown his allies just because the western press was demonising them. He kept his eye on the prize of ending imperialist domination for once and for all and constructing a new, multipolar world where countries can develop in peace.

He always said that one should unite with anyone who had even the slightest chance of joining the fight against imperialism. I think that idea gives as a decent clue as to how we should move forward.

international-sudents-day-rally-queens-park-nov-17-1980

“The Grenada Revolution was a grasp of joy … that life unfulfilled could and would change, be transformed for a people who had known 400 years of transportation, slavery, colonialism, neocolonial dictatorship and exportation to the cities of Europe and North America. Joy that the organised genius of ordinary people could at last be applied to develop their own resources for their own future. There was the joy of education, of seeing your children achieving free secondary schooling and your illiterate mother learning how to read and write, the joy of seeing wasted, unemployed youths forming cooperatives and planting the idle land.” (Chris Searle, Grenada Morning)

Thirty-five years ago today, on the morning of 13 March 1979, the defence wing of the New Jewel Movement successfully overthrew the much-despised government of Eric Gairy. This bloodless coup – conducted by no more than 46 lightly-armed cadres – was widely welcomed by the people of Grenada. Hugh O’Shaughnessy writes that “the coup was enormously popular with Grenadians and it seemed as if the whole of the island was coming out into the streets to celebrate.” English popular educator and internationalist Chris Searle (who spent several years in Grenada and was charged with running both the teacher training programme and the official publishing house) notes that “fishermen, nutmeg workers, unemployed youth, peasant farmers and agricultural workers came streaming from their houses and converged upon police stations all over the island, forcing the policemen to run up white flags.” (Grenada Morning)

It seemed that the smog of subjugation, oppression and backwardness was finally being lifted; that this small southern Caribbean nation would be given the chance it deserved to blossom, freed from the iron grip of the kleptocratic and ruthless Eric Gairy – whose record of repression, personal enrichment, neocolonial policy, and alignment with the most reactionary states in the region (most notably Chile under Pinochet and Haiti under Duvalier) had lost him the trust and respect of the people.

Dennis Bartholomew, who during the period of the revolution was a representative of the People’s Revolutionary Government at the Grenadian High Commission in London, talks of the significance of the ‘revo’:

“From being the descendants of slaves, from people who’d been colonised, from people who’d been tossed aside, we suddenly became the controllers of our own destiny. For 400 years, our forebears were enslaved. We suffered in order to produce Europe’s wealth. After slavery we were further enslaved under colonialism. But in 1979, with our own ability, by our own efforts, we changed our course. Yes, others helped, but it was us.” (phone interview)

Dennis points out that the sense of jubilation and pride generated by the revolution was not restricted to Grenada – it spread like wildfire within the Caribbean community in Britain:

The effect was absolutely electric in Britain. Grenadians had previously kept their heads down – working, sending money home and so on. All of a sudden we felt extremely proud. An energy was there that wasn’t felt before. For example, the High Commission and the Caribbean community worked together to put on an event at the Commonwealth Institute to mark the anniversary of the revo. We were expecting maybe 500 people, and in the end 5,000 turned up. When Maurice Bishop was in London it was phenomenal – you couldn’t get into the meeting because of the crowds. The attitude of Grenadians changed. People were walking around who hadn’t been political before, and they started speaking in public in defence of Grenada, such was the pride.

maurice-samoraThe excitement of the revo was felt all around the Caribbean, as well as in the Caribbean communities in Britain, the US and Canada. Grenada instantly became a pole of attraction for socialists, anti-imperialists and Black Power activists. The father or critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire, came to kick off the literacy campaign. Major figures from the US such as Angela Davis and Harry Belafonte visited Grenada and were deeply inspired. Cheddi Jagan, Michael Manley, Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro all spoke of the profound importance of the Grenada revolution. The legendary Mozambican freedom fighter (then President) Samora Machel visited the island to show his solidarity. Progressive politicians, educators, activists and writers from throughout the region came to work in Grenada – figures such as Richard Hart, Merle Hodge, Didacus Jules and George Lamming. The truth is that this peaceful revolution in a small Caribbean country (with a population of a shade over 100,000) was a landmark moment, and its effects were felt throughout the region, and indeed the world.

Maurice Bishop

muralThe most prominent leader of this revolution was a charismatic young lawyer by the name of Maurice Bishop. Bishop was a popular, creative and intelligent revolutionary with an intuitive grasp of where the masses were at. A brilliant communicator, his mutual empathy with the masses of the people was one of the major driving forces of the revolution – not unlike the relationship between Fidel Castro and the Cuban people, or between Hugo Chávez and Venezuelan people. Fidel saw him as a true brother and comrade, remarking that “Bishop was one of the political leaders best liked and most respected by our people because of his talent, modesty, sincerity, revolutionary honesty and proven friendship with our country”.

Recently-deceased and much-missed veteran of the Caribbean labour movement Richard Hart wrote:

“By any standards he was a remarkable man. A lawyer by profession from a comfortable middle class background, his sympathies were nevertheless with the underprivileged masses. The initial emotional stimulus which he had received from the Black Power movement of the 1960s had ripened and matured during the 1970s on a more secure intellectual basis as he familiarised himself with Marxist-Leninist theory. Sentiment, theory and practice had combined to mould him into a dedicated revolutionary. He possessed to an extraordinary degree the ability to articulate clearly the objectives of the Revolution and to inspire support for it internally and regionally. His analytical mind and capacity for simple explanation helped the people to understand and share his convictions. His personality was magnetic.” (In Nobody’s Backyard (Preface))

Much like Fidel and Chávez, Bishop was a brilliant orator, uniquely capable of voicing the needs and aspirations of his people. Searle comments: “His bearing, a deep, mellow voice and superb command of the English language together with a continuous propensity to resort to the Creole vernacular, combined with his skills of persuasive and sophisticated speech that he had developed as one of the Caribbean’s most successful barristers, all fused to give a many-sided articulacy to his public speaking… He had an outstanding ability to create this sense of joy among his listeners.” (Grenada Morning)

There were of course other very important leaders whose role was decisive, but it’s clear that Bishop’s personal role as the pre-eminent leader of the Grenadian masses cannot easily be overstated.

Achievements

revsolHaving captured power, the New Jewel Movement quickly got down to the serious work of improving the lives of Grenada’s long-suffering people. As Bishop said in his first broadcast on Radio Free Grenada after the capture of power on 13 March 1979:

This revolution is for work, for food, for decent housing and health services, and for a bright future for our children

Wendy Grenade, a Grenadian lecturer in Political Science at the University of the West Indies, enumerates the key areas of focus for the revo: “raising levels of social consciousness; building a national ethos that encouraged a sense of community; organising agrarian reform to benefit small farmers and farm workers; promoting literacy and adult education; fostering child and youth development; enacting legislation to promote gender justice; constructing low income housing and launching house repair programmes; improving physical infrastructure and in particular the construction of an international airport; providing an environment that encouraged popular democracy through Parish and Zonal Councils etc.” All in all, a very different focus to that of any previous Grenadian government, and to that of most other Caribbean states.

Pre-revolutionary Grenada suffered with unemployment levels upward of 50%. Through the development of cooperatives, the expansion of the industrial base, the diversification of agriculture, the expansion of the tourist industry, and the creation of massive public works programmes, unemployment dropped to 14%, and the percentage of food imports dropped from over 40% to 28% at a time when market prices for agricultural products were collapsing worldwide.”

Paulo Freire was invited to design and lead the implementation of a literacy programme, which was successful in all but wiping out illiteracy (the literacy rate increased from 85% to 98%). The leaders of the revo realised that an educational system must be established that broke away from the British colonial tradition and the inferiority complex that it sought to instil in its ‘subjects’. As Bishop elaborated: “The colonial masters recognised very early on that if you get a subject people to think like they, to forget their own history and their own culture, to develop a system of education that is going to have relevance to our outward needs and be almost entirely irrelevant to our internal needs, then they have already won the job of keeping us in perpetual domination and exploitation. Our educational process, therefore, was used mainly as a tool of the ruling elite.”

Searle observed an intense, widespread desire and demand for learning:

One of the first overwhelming truths and discoveries of the Revolution was that education was everywhere, it was irrepressible! It came at once from every side and at every moment. The dammed-up flood of four centuries of the people’s urge to know, to understand, to learn, to connect, to criticise, to express themselves, was unstoppable. At meetings, at rallies, at panel discussions, through songs, poems, plays and calypso, the message poured down upon the revolutionary leaders: Teach us, we want to know! Young and old, farmer and urban worker, fisherman and the woman cracking nutmegs, seamstresses and road-workers, all clamoured for more education, giving the cue for the slogan: Education is a must – from the cradle to the grave.

By 1983, 37% of the national budget was being spent on education and health. School fees were abolished; schools were repaired. “Free books, school uniforms and hot lunches were provided for the first time for the poor. Health care was made free and the number of doctors and dentists doubled.” (source)

ForwardEverBackwordNeverFor the first time, Grenadians had a very real say as to how public funds were allocated – via a People’s Budget that pre-empted the celebrated Porto Alegre participatory budget by more than a decade. Meanwhile, the economic growth rate averaged 10% during the years of the revolution. A World Bank memorandum on the Grenadian economy in 1982 stated: “The government which came to power in March 1979 inherited a deteriorating economy, and is now addressing the task of rehabilitation and of laying better foundations… Government objectives are centred on the critical development issues and touch on the country’s most promising development areas.” Hugh O’Shaughnessy notes that this was “as close to unstinted praise as that cautious institution was ever likely to come.”

Regarding agriculture, Searle writes that “there was increased enthusiasm to work on the land. The old pattern of the plantocratic estate, the hierarchical control of the expatriate landlord or the man in the ‘great house’ and the living death of laborious daily-paid work on land which was not theirs – all this was changing. The growth in cooperatives on the land and the collective stake in production and profit had brought many young people back to the land, and three farm training schools had been established to give these young farmers some basic expertise in agriculture and cooperative management techniques.”

The revo was strongly focused on women’s empowerment and participation. “We moved against sexual harassment, and we encouraged women to participate fully in the construction of a new Grenada, for example through the National Women’s Organisation” (Dennis Bartholomew phone interview). Indeed, the first decree of the revo was to outlaw sexual victimisation.

The changes in society were reflected by a massively invigorated national culture, expressed through calypso, poetry, dance and drama. “The shyness and reticence that characterised many of the Grenadian people before the Revolution, the self-consciousness of being a ‘small island’, second-rate or unnoticed was replaced by an explosion of national self-assertion through the revolutionary culture… More Grenadians were writing poetry and performing calypso than ever before, and receiving publication and air-play.” (Grenada Morning)

In terms of international relations, Grenada maintained friendly relations with all countries that were willing to treat it as an equal. Inevitably, this meant that its closest relations were with other nations within the socialist, progressive and non-aligned world, such as Cuba, (Sandinista) Nicaragua, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, East Germany, DPR Korea, Mozambique, Libya and Syria. Revolutionary Grenada was also a great friend to the forces fighting against South African apartheid and occupation, in particular the ANC and SWAPO.

We are a small country, we are a poor country, with a population of largely African descent, we are a part of the exploited Third World, and we definitely have a stake in seeking the creation of a new international economic order which would assist in ensuring economic justice for the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world, and in ensuring that the resources of the sea are used for the benefit of all the people of the world and not for a tiny minority of profiteers. Our aim, therefore, is to join all organisations and work with all countries that will help us to become more independent and more in control of our own resources. In this regard, nobody who understands present-day realities can seriously challenge our right to develop working relations with a variety of countries.

One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the revo was the construction of an international airport – the first airport to be built by a post-colonial Caribbean state. Bartholomew says with great pride: “The key step was building the international airport. It wasn’t built by the US or Cubans – we built it ourselves, with Cuban help. It was based on an old British plan. Money was raised internally by the raising of bonds, plus there was help from Libya, from Algeria, from Britain and elsewhere.”

Sadly, the revo didn’t live to reap the benefits of the airport, which wasn’t completed until 1984. In May 2009, the airport was finally renamed Maurice Bishop International Airport.

People’s Democracy

maurice-bishop-gen-h-austin-lt-george-cherubinRevolutionary Grenada came under criticism from many angles for not holding parliamentary elections – particularly since Bishop’s first broadcast after the seizure of power had promised the restoration of “all democratic freedoms, including freedom of elections.” This lack of elections was constantly used by the US and its regional proxies to besmirch the New Jewel government, and there are plenty of people – even those broadly sympathetic to the revolution – who feel that the whole experience was tainted through lack of democracy.

Why weren’t elections held? After all, there was never any doubt that the NJM would comfortably win at the polls. Bishop discussed this issue in an interview with New Internationalist in 1980:

We don’t believe that a parliamentary system is the most relevant in our situation. After all, we took power outside the ballot-box and we are trying to build our Revolution on the basis of a new form of democracy: grass­roots and democratic, creating mechanisms and institutions which really have relevance to the people, If we succeed it will bring in question this whole parliamentary approach to democracy which we regard as having failed in the region. We believe that elections could be important, but for us the question is one of timing. We don’t regard it now as a priority. We would much rather see elections come when the economy is more stable, when the Revolution is more consolidated. When more people have in fact had benefits brought to them. When more people are literate and able to understand what the meaning of a vote really is and what role they should have in building a genuine participatory democracy.

Speaking at an event to mark the first anniversary of the revolution – an event at which the guests included Daniel Ortega and Michael Manley – Bishop highlighted some of the obvious flaws of the Westminster system:

There are those (some of them our friends) who believe that you cannot have a democracy unless there is a situation where every five years, and for five seconds in those five years, a people are allowed to put an ‘X’ next to some candidate’s name, and for those five seconds in those five years they become democrats, and for the remainder of the time, four years and 364 days, they return to being non-people without the right to say anything to their government, without any right to be involved in running their country.

In place of a such a pseudo-democracy, there was set up a system of grassroots democracy that, by any reasonable standard, must be considered far more democratic than the pretend democracy in place in Britain and the US. Thirty-five years later, Chris Searle remains immensely enthusiastic about the breadth of popular participation during those years:

“A lot went right. There were some unique developments. The internal democracy – the local democracy at the village and town level – was quite remarkable. Parish councils were set up; the women’s movement and youth movement were extremely active. It was a genuine mass mobilisation of ordinary people at every level, from the elderly down to children. There was nothing forced about it; the democracy bubbled up from the people. It was incredible, really.” (phone interview)

Organs of power sprung up everywhere, and nearly everyone was involved in some level of organisation and decision-making, be it the Zonal Councils, the Workers’ Parish Councils, the Farmer Councils, the Youth Movement or the Women’s Movement, all of which met at least once a month. Free facilities were made available for all such meetings, and they were often attended by senior government figures, who would have to answer directly to the people.

Bartholomew describes the atmosphere:

The feeling was totally different. People were coming together and doing things. Nobody said “we can’t do it”; they were saying “how are we going to do it”? There was a definite spirit in the air.

In 1981, the People’s Revolutionary Government established a Ministry of National Mobilisation, headed up by senior NJM leader Selwyn Strachan. This was a whole government ministry dedicated to devising means of continually spreading and improving popular participation in the running of the country, and ensuring maximum levels of accountability for those in positions of power.

Searle points out that the army was expected to be at the service of the people, and was deeply involved in helping to carry out decisions made by the organs of popular power. He states: “The army was involved and was extremely popular. if repairs needed or houses build, soldiers would be there.” Quite a difference from the role of the army in a typical bourgeois democracy!

So while parliamentary elections were not held in the four and a half years of the revo, a far more meaningful democracy was constructed. This had the additional benefit of avoiding the ways in which international imperialism – with its vast networks of contacts, diplomats, agents, media sources, bribes, and so on – can use parliamentary politics to subvert real democracy. Bishop’s analysis of this process brings to mind the way the west has tried to (and continues to try to) destabilise progressive governments, with varying degrees of success, in Jamaica (under Manley), Chile (under Allende), Venezuela, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere.

“A part of that political tribalism, as used by the CIA, has been to get some of the parliamentarians to use the medium of parliament in such a way as to destabilise the country. Masterminded by their American puppeteers, they raise bogus concerns about the economy, they spread vicious propaganda from outside the country and seek to make the people lose faith and confidence in their revolutionary government, raising a million and one other such provocative matters through the medium of parliament – and thus claim to do it in that sense with a certain measure of legitimacy.” (Interview in mid-1983, contained in Grenada: The Struggle Against Destabilisation)

Destabilisation

Naturally, the revo was not too popular in the eyes of the politicians of the imperialist states. After all, Grenada was the first (and remains the only) English-speaking country in the Americas to have undergone a successful revolution of the oppressed. Moreover, it was a revolution led by the descendants of African slaves, and therefore was seen as a particularly dangerous example to the black population in North America. “The Grenada Revolution has a facility of speaking directly to the people of the USA, in particular the exploited majority. Then in the case of black Americans, meaning something like 27 million black people who are a part of the most rejected and oppressed section of the American population, US imperialism has a particular dread that they will develop an extra empathy and rapport with the Grenada Revolution, and from that point of view will pose a threat to their own continuing control and domination of blacks inside the US.” (interview, ibid)

On top of the bad example it was setting, Grenada was also considered a threat on account of its relations with countries on the wrong side of the ‘iron curtain’. Hugh O’Shaughnessy writes: “Washington’s rage reached paranoiac proportions when Grenada started close co-operation with Cuba and the USSR. Grenada’s action challenged the hegemony that Washington was expecting to extend throughout the Caribbean after the withdrawal of the British who had dominated it for two centuries.”

As can be seen from the example of so many states that have refused to go along with imperialist diktat – from Chile to Mozambique, from Cuba to Libya, from Venezuela to Syria – the west has a thousand different ways of creating instability. Grenada was no different. The US was able to mobilise elements within the Grenadian trade union movement to call strikes when the government was unable to meet their demands for enormous wage increases. There were boss-led lockouts. Production was sabotaged. Rallies were bombed. There were assassinations. A wide-ranging campaign was conducted in the ‘free’ (rich-white-owned) Caribbean press against the Grenadian revolution. In short, Grenada was subjected to every form of economic, political, paramilitary and media destabilisation. The revo was under constant threat.

We think of the scientific way in which they have evolved a new concept which they have called destabilisation: a concept aimed at creating political violence, economic sabotage; a concept which when it fails, eventually leads to terrorism. We think of the attempts to use local opportunists and counter-revolutionaries — people who try to build a popular base, people who fail in building that popular base, and people who as a result of having failed to fool the masses then turn to the last weapon they have in desperation: the weapon of open, naked, brutal and vulgar terror. Having given up all hope of winning the masses, these people now turn their revenge on the masses. They now seek to punish the masses, to murder them wholesale; to plant bombs in the midst of rallies; to try to break the back of the popular support of the Revolution; because imperialism was frightened and terrified by the Grenadian masses on March 13, 1980 when 30,000 of our people gathered in one spot to celebrate one year of People’s Victory, People’s Progress, People’s Benefits. They were terrified by that, and as a result they now seek to intimidate, to brow-beat, to frighten and terrorise the masses to get them to be afraid to assemble, to get them to be afraid to continue to build their own country in their own image and likeness.

In 1981, US President Reagan deployed over 120,000 troops, 250 warships and 1,000 aircraft to Vieques Island, near Puerto Rico, for a mock invasion. The operation was code-named ‘Amber and the Amberines’, in clear reference to Grenada and the Grenadines (which is Grenada’s full country name, as the state incorporates the two small islands of Carriacou and Petit Martinique). In this sinister war game, “the objective was to capture ‘Amber’, hold US-style elections and install a ‘government friendly to America’, keeping troops occupying the island until the elections were over.” (The Struggle Against Destabilisation). This was all too obviously an elaborate dress rehearsal for the US military invasion of Grenada.

Such is the dangerous and precarious context in which the revo existed.

Implosion and invasion

Constant destabilisation and psychological warfare had led to an atmosphere of fear, paranoia and mistrust among the leadership. Rumours were flying, tempers were frayed, emotions were running high, and people were feeling the sheer exhaustion of working day and night to build a new Grenada in the face of US threats and provocation. Searle writes that “if ever there was a time for forces hostile to the revolution to strike and mobilise themselves around the venomous use of rumours, this was the time. In the small islands of the Caribbean the rumour and the ‘bad talking’ are the deadliest of weapons, and during this time every rumour that moved from person to person, cadre to cadre and community to community contributed to the eventual destruction of the revolution.” (Grenada Morning)

Although the revo continued to make impressive gains, behind the scenes a factional dispute emerged within the New Jewel Movement in 1983, based primarily on a criticism of Maurice Bishop, who was accused of developing a personality cult and of succumbing to petit-bourgeois thinking. A parallel leadership started to emerge in the NJM Central Committee around Finance Minister Bernard Coard, one of the key figures of the revolution and its most respected theoretician.

How the divide degenerated to such an extent is, to this day, a matter of intense dispute. It seems that Bishop had initially agreed to a proposal for joint leadership of the revolution which was supported by a majority on the Central Committee. However, he came back from a trip to Hungary and Cuba in early October 1983 saying that he wasn’t sure about the workability of the plan and that he wanted to give it some more thought. This may have been a mistake on Bishop’s part, and the accusation that he was “in contempt of the party” may have been true. Nonetheless, the response of the Central Committee to place him under house arrest was indefensibly foolish. “On the Central Committee side there was a theoretical ‘purity’ which refused to compromise and seek a practical and creative solution… They knew Maurice had enormous popularity with the people and that to detain him in that sudden unexplained and provocative way would rile the support base of the revolution. To many thousands of people in Grenada, Maurice was the revolution.” (ibid)

Maurice Bishop was placed under house arrest on 13 October 1983. Once the word got out, rallies were held across the country demanding his release. Just a few days later, on 19 October, a demonstration of several thousand marched to his house and managed to free him. The situation was one of total chaos and confusion. The crowd marched to the military headquarters at Fort Rupert, where Bishop apparently believed they would be able to defend themselves and regain control of the country. Hundreds of Bishop supporters made their way to the fort, and army units under the command of General Hudson Austin – a longtime comrade of Bishop’s who was on the other side of the NJM dispute – came rushing to the scene.

Both sides claim that the other side fired the first shots. Fort Rupert came under heavy fire from the army. The first to fall dead was Vince Noel, one of the original 14 members of the Provisional Revolutionary Government. O’Shaughnessy writes that “the cry of panic and the groans of the dying and the wounded were almost effaced by the sound of hundreds of people rushing to escape wherever they could. Some ran down the incline back to town, others ran for cover in the General Hospital tucked below the fort, others threw themselves over the battlements to death or injury below, like so many lemmings… Within the operations room Bishop gave the order to stop any return fire on the attacking forces. In the last cry of anguish his followers were to hear, he moaned ‘Oh God, oh God, they turned their guns against the masses.’”

The army won control of the fort, and firing ceased. Those remaining in the fort were ordered to leave, with the exception of (Prime Minister) Maurice Bishop, (Minister of Education) Jacqueline Creft, (Foreign Minister) Unison Whiteman, (President of the Agricultural and General Workers Union) Fitzroy Bain, (Minister of Housing) Norris Bain, Keith Hayling, Evelyn Bullen and Cecil Evelyn Maitland. These eight were lined up facing a courtyard wall and executed by firing squad.

The army’s communique in the immediate aftermath struck a tone of curiously misplaced triumphalism: “All patriots and revolutionaries will never forget this day when … the friends of imperialism were crushed. This victory today will ensure that our glorious party the NJM will live on and grow from strength to strength leading and guiding the Armed Forces and the Revolution.”

The chaos – and the population’s shock at the sudden killing of the country’s leader and his closest comrades – created a favourable context for the US to enact its invasion plans, which had been “nursed in secret at the State Department and the Pentagon for four and a half years” (O’Shaughnessy). As the Cuban government’s statement the next day all-too-accurately predicted: “Now imperialism will try to use this tragedy and the serious mistakes made by the Grenadian revolutionaries to sweep away the revolutionary process in Grenada and place the country under imperial and neocolonialist rule once again.”

A week later, Reagan played out his ‘Amber and the Amberines’ war game in real life, sending tens of thousands of troops to ensure that the Grenadian Revolution was comprehensively wiped out. Thus was destroyed one of the most promising experiments in people’s power of the latter part of the 20th century.

There is much research still to be done in relation to the precipitous fall of Grenadian Revolution – the extent of CIA involvement, the details of the Bishop-Coard split, and so on. It’s almost impossible to understand how such a disaster could have happened, just as it’s almost impossible to understand how the Black Panthers and allied organisations in the US could have imploded so spectacularly. In the case of the Panthers, a great deal of research has been done over the decades, and we have an increasingly clear picture of the depth of the state’s sinister campaign of assassinations, imprisonment, psychological warfare, agents provocateurs, fake letters, rumour-mongering, and the infiltration of drugs. It would hardly be surprising if the US intelligence agencies turn out to have been heavily involved in the collapse of unity within the NJM.

Whatever the case, it’s difficult to disagree with Fidel’s assessment that “no doctrine, no principle or proclaimed revolutionary position and no internal division can justify atrocious acts such as the physical elimination of Bishop and the prominent group of honest and worthy leaders who died… Look at the history of the revolutionary movement, and you will find more than one connection between imperialism and those who take positions that appear to be on the extreme left.” The murder of Bishop and his comrades lost the NJM the trust and confidence of the people, and in so doing paved the way for US invasion.

Lessons and legacy

The great socialist former Prime Minister of Guyana, Cheddi Jagan, (himself the victim of imperialist destabilisation) spoke in 1981 of the inspiration that Grenada was giving to the whole Caribbean region:

“It is like a breath of fresh air, a tonic to the frayed nerves of a people long betrayed, battered and bruised … a monument to the Caribbean man’s courage and political will to stand up to imperialist diktat and blackmail.” (Grenada Morning)

It’s unfortunate that the Grenadian Revolution of 1979-1983 tends to be remembered only in terms of its tragic final days, because its first four and a half years were brilliant and unprecedented – an explosion of creativity, of culture, of vibrancy, of learning, of democracy, of freedom. The grandsons and grand-daughters of slaves wrested power and built a society on the basis of their own hopes and dreams. They began to write their own history.

The successes of the revo could continue to inspire progressive people around the world. The legacy of the New Jewel Movement should be kept alive, for how many other socialist movements in the English-speaking world have achieved so much? Dennis Bartholomew comments:

More than anything, we showed that if you have the will, and if you mobilise the people, you can change things. We were able to do remarkable things in spite of the fact that we started with a bankrupt economy and very little in the way of natural resources. But the people were mobilised. The memory hasn’t been totally wiped out. Thirty years later, we can make a clear comparison to help us understand what the revo did. In four and a half years of a progressive, independent, socialist-oriented model, look at what we achieved, and compare that with the achievements of 30 years of a US-backed capitalist model. Yes, the revo was tainted in the eyes of Grenadians as a result of the tragic events of 19 October, but the achievements can’t be forgotten. We shouldn’t forget the enormity of what we did.

Ultimately, the revo should not be seen as a failure. Do we consider the Paris Commune as a ‘failure’? The Soviet Union? The Haitian Revolution? Julien Fédon’s slave uprising in Grenada at the end of the 18th century? In the context of the broad historical epoch we are living through – the struggle to finally defeat colonialism, imperialism and racism, and to set the stage for the advance to socialism – such experiments cannot be considered as failures. Bishop himself put it well:

It took several hundred years for feudalism to be finally wiped out and capitalism to emerge as the new dominant mode of production, and it will take several hundred years for capitalism to be finally wiped out before socialism becomes the new dominant mode.

May the legacy of the Grenadian Revolution continue to inspire and educate.

Further study

  • In Nobody’s Backyard: Maurice Bishop’s Speeches
  • Maurice Bishop Speaks: Grenada Revolution, 1979-83
  • Chris Searle – Grenada Morning: A Memoir of the ‘Revo’
  • Hugh O’Shaughnessy – Grenada: Revolution, Invasion And Aftermath
  • Chris Searle – Grenada: The Struggle Against Destabilisation
  • Richard Hart – The Grenada Revolution: Setting the Record Straight
  • Merle Hodge – Is Freedom We Making: the New Democracy in Grenada
  • Chris Searle – Words Unchained: Language and Revolution in Grenada
  • Film: Forward Ever – The Killing of a Revolution
nelson_mandela_rally

On 5 December 2013, the progressive forces of the world lost one of their greatest strategists and toughest fighters, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Mandela was, in the words of South African Communist Party General Secretary Blade Nzimande, “a brave and courageous soldier, patriot and internationalist who, to borrow from Che Guevara, was a true revolutionary guided by great feelings of love for his people, an outstanding feature of all genuine people’s revolutionaries.”

The legacy of Nelson Mandela and of the organisations that he did so much to shape – the African National Congress, the South African Communist Party, and Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation) – deserves to be celebrated, studied and emulated. And yet, this legacy is under attack from both left and right.

On the one hand, we have those late-to-the-party self-proclaimed lovers of freedom and democracy: the representatives of western imperialism who want us to forget that they supported apartheid to the hilt. Such people want to claim Mandela’s legacy for themselves; they want to bask in the reflected glory of his message of reconciliation and unity, believing that it serves to sweep their criminal past under the carpet.

On the other hand, we have 57 varieties of ultra-left windbag who think that Madiba and the ANC sold out the struggle – that Mandela capitulated to imperialism and that the South African masses’ walk to freedom was aborted by the ANC’s compromises. They feel that Mandela’s “elevation into a universal hero was the mask of a bitter defeat”; that the ANC leadership was bamboozled into a neoliberal economic model that “enriched the few and dumped the poor”; that any useful change that might have occurred in post-apartheid South Africa has been “undercut by the extremes and corruption of a ‘neoliberalism’ to which the ANC devoted itself.”

In the following article, I will attempt to show that Nelson Mandela – as part of the wider leadership of the liberation struggle – acted with exceptional creativity, bravery and strategic brilliance in pursuit of meaningful and lasting change in South Africa.

Further, I will attempt to demonstrate that, in spite of exceptionally difficult domestic and international circumstances, the liberation movement has managed to make impressive progress towards the fulfilment of its historic aims of equality, justice, solidarity, freedom, democracy and shared prosperity, as laid out in the Freedom Charter.

I hope also to demonstrate that Nelson Mandela, far from being a fluffy liberal whose actions were perfectly acceptable to the prevailing imperialist order, was by any reasonable measure one of the great revolutionaries of the twentieth century; a man who fought ceaselessly against racism, imperialism and colonialism, by any means necessary.

Lastly, I will argue that the current fashion (seemingly all-pervasive in the western left) of heaping abuse on the ANC – exaggerating its perceived failures and ignoring its successes – is not in the slightest bit consistent with the principles and political practice of Nelson Mandela, and that disunity in the ranks of the liberation movement serves nobody but the right wing and their allies in international capital.

The break with passive resistance

Mandela’s first major contribution to revolutionary strategy in South Africa was to push the ANC to end its half-century-old policy of strictly passive resistance and towards a strategy of armed struggle.

The African National Congress had been heavily influenced by the nonviolent philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi, who lived in South Africa from 1893 to 1914 and who was among the founders of the Natal Indian Congress, an organisation set up to fight discrimination directed at the Indian population in South Africa. The ahimsa concept of nonviolence, which became a major cornerstone of the Indian independence movement, continued to inspire the ANC and its allies well into the 1940s.

As a founder member of the ANC Youth League in 1944 (along with Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and others), Mandela quickly rose to prominence as a capable and courageous young leader. Along with others in the Youth League, he successfully advocated a move away from purely passive resistance and towards nonviolent direct action. This led in 1952 to the adoption of the Defiance Campaign – a wide-ranging campaign for mass defiance of racist laws. In the short course of the campaign, over eight thousand volunteers accepted imprisonment as part of a disciplined mass protest in which they defied banning orders, gagging orders and segregation laws. The effect on the ANC and the country was electric:

There was a wave of national consciousness and national unity of all the oppressed, unprecedented in the history of the country … For the first time in its history the country witnessed a united and determined campaign embracing all the oppressed peoples under a single leadership, thus marking a turning point in the forms and methods of struggle hitherto conducted. In a relatively short period of time, the Congresses had organised a force of 8,557 highly disciplined volunteers who courted imprisonment. In the less than nine months that the campaign lasted, the membership of the African National Congress shot up from a mere 7,000 to over 100,000, and the ANC established itself as the undoubted leader of the struggle for democracy, freedom and national liberation in South Africa. The campaign transformed the ANC from a loose-knit body into an effective mass movement, with branches in almost every single area in the country and with offices manned by full-time personnel in all the major centres.

Although the campaign was wildly successful in terms of raising popular consciousness and moving the liberation struggle forward, it soon became clear that it wasn’t going to be sustainable. The selflessness and courage of the protestors did not have the effect of drawing out some latent humanitarian morality in the apartheid government; on the contrary, the state responded with heavy repression: killings, harsh prison sentences, more bannings, and a concerted effort to cut the campaign’s leadership off from the masses. In this context, the strategy of the ANC and its allies had to evolve once again.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes:

Non-violent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do. But if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end. For me, non-violence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon. Over and over again, we had used all the non-violent weapons in our arsenal – speeches, deputations, threats, marches, strikes, stay-aways, voluntary imprisonment – all to no avail, for whatever we did was met by an iron hand. A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor. At a certain point, one can only fight fire with fire.

For an organisation that had always operated above ground, the idea of armed struggle was by no means welcomed by everyone. Mandela, who had made a detailed study of the world’s socialist and liberation movements, led the argument:

I was candid and explained why I believed we had no choice but to turn to violence. I used an old African expression: ‛Sebatana ha se bokwe ka diatla’ (‛The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands’). Moses [Mabhida] was a long-time communist, and I told him that his opposition was like the Communist Party in Cuba under Batista. The party had insisted that the appropriate conditions had not yet arrived, and waited because they were simply following the textbook definitions of Lenin and Stalin. Castro did not wait, he acted – and he triumphed. If you wait for textbook conditions, they will never occur. I told Moses point blank that his mind was stuck in the old mould of the ANC’s being a legal organisation. People were already forming military units on their own, and the only organisation that had the muscle to lead them was the ANC. We had always maintained that the people were ahead of us, and now they were.

Spear of the Nation

umkhontoThe stepped-up repression in the light of the Defiance Campaign, and most importantly the notorious Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1961, led inexorably to the commencement of armed resistance.

In a series of high-level meetings in mid-1961, Mandela argued that the ANC must take the lead in setting up an organisation of armed resistance to apartheid. After many long nights of arguing, it was accepted that armed struggle was necessary, and Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo were tasked with setting up the military organisation. Umkhonto we Sizwe (meaning Spear of the Nation), better known by the acronym ‘MK’, was launched on 16 December 1961 with a series of bomb attacks against government structures in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban.

Mandela wrote of the early discussions defining the MK’s strategy and tactics:

In planning the direction and form that MK would take, we considered four types of violent activities: sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism and open revolution. For a small and fledgling army, open revolution was inconceivable. Terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it, undermining any public support it might otherwise garner. Guerrilla warfare was a possibility, but since the ANC had been reluctant to embrace violence at all, it made sense to start with the form of violence that inflicted the least harm against individuals: sabotage. Because it did not involve loss of life, it offered the best hope for reconciliation among the races afterwards. We did not want to start a blood-feud between white and black. Animosity between Afrikaner and Englishman was still sharp fifty years after the Anglo-Boer war; what would race relations be like between white and black if we provoked a civil war? Sabotage had the added virtue of requiring the least manpower. Our strategy was to make selective forays against military installations, power plants, telephone lines and transportation links; targets that would not only hamper the military effectiveness of the state, but frighten National Party supporters, scare away foreign capital, and weaken the economy. This we hoped would bring the government to the bargaining table. Strict instructions were given to members of MK that we would countenance no loss of life. But if sabotage did not produce the results we wanted, we were prepared to move on to the next stage: guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

The work of the MK went through several phases: the sabotage operations of the early 60s; a period of relative inactivity resulting from the capture and imprisonment of most of its leadership (including Mandela); the establishment of military camps in Tanzania, Zambia, Angola and Mozambique; the training of thousands of South African cadres in the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic; the vastly-expanded sabotage campaign of the 1980s; and the mission to infiltrate dozens of senior ANC and MK leaders back into South Africa to help lead the underground struggle against apartheid.

From the beginning, the aim of Umkhonto was not to win a military victory against apartheid – there were too many factors militating against that. As Joe Slovo noted, with his characteristic irony: “Reality shows that, contrary to other countries in southern Africa, we have no basis for a classical guerrilla struggle. We have never had a hinterland, and we do not expect to.”

Furthermore, the movement had to take into account the efficiency, size, experience, resources and sheer brutality of apartheid South Africa’s security services. “The enemy has at his disposal a mighty military machine and an enormous apparatus for reprisal. This combination of factors continues to make us place our main emphasis on the political struggle. (ibid).

Ultimately, the MK’s activities served as “armed propaganda“: shattering the illusions of apartheid invincibility; inspiring activists on the ground in the townships and trade unions; disrupting what martyred Umkhonto chief of staff Chris Hani called the “sweet life” enjoyed by the white South African population; and, crucially, breaking “the paralysing impotence that inevitably prevailed as a result of the centuries of the white minority’s predominance”.

The combination of revolutionary violence with mass civil resistance was designed to provoke a crisis in the enemy’s camp that would at least force them to the negotiating table. In this, it was largely successful.

At all times, the MK’s work was linked up with the broader global struggle against imperialism, and especially the Africa-wide struggle against European colonialism. Mandela spent the first few months of 1962 in Africa, his first port of call being Ethiopia, where he was a delegate to a meeting of the punchily-named Pan-African Freedom Movement for East, Central and Southern Africa (PAFMECSA). At this event, he called for the unity of Africa’s anti-colonial and anti-racist forces, and emphasised the role of revolutionary violence: “Force is the only language the imperialists can hear, and no country became free without some sort of violence”.

Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom contains the following fascinating passage about the study he did when preparing the start of the armed struggle:

“Any and every source was of interest to me. I read the report of Blas Roca, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, about their years as an illegal organisation during the Batista regime. In Commando by Deneys Reitz, I read of the unconventional guerrilla tactics of the Boer generals during the Anglo-Boer War. I read works by and about Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro. In Edgar Snow’s brilliant Red Star Over China I saw that it was Mao’s determination and non-traditional thinking that had led him to victory.”

This quote is remarkable for the insight it gives into Mandela’s creative thought as well as his political leanings. For one thing, it’s interesting for a black South African liberation fighter to look to his oppressor for lessons in revolutionary warfare, and it took a brilliant mind like Mandela’s to see the parallels between the African struggle against apartheid and the Afrikaner struggle against British imperialism. He saw that there was an anti-colonial kernel lying somewhere beneath the despicable and inhumane exterior of Boer rule, and he identified a self-image of rebelliousness that he was able to play to decades later in order to win sections of the Afrikaner people over to the project of reconciliation and nation-building.

Another interesting aspect of the quote above is that the MK – whose leadership was shared between the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) – was obviously looking to the socialist world for inspiration. The Soviet Union became the major supplier of training, weapons, finance and diplomatic support for the ANC (as detailed in Vladimir Shubin’s very useful book ANC: A View From Moscow), but it was to China and Cuba – the countries that had combined the fight for national sovereignty with the struggle for socialism – that the fledgling South African armed liberation movement looked for strategic inspiration.

As for Mao’s “determination and non-traditional thinking”, it’s clear that Nelson Mandela shared these strengths which – along with his legendary compassion and belief in the human spirit – constituted essential weapons in the struggle for freedom. There was never any guarantee that apartheid would fall. If it weren’t for the heroic resistance and strategic brilliance of the liberation movement, apartheid would likely still be in place. Political struggle requires not just determination (the sort of determination that allows you to remain a revolutionary through 27 years of prison), but also a deep understanding of your own forces and those of your enemy; flexibility; creativity; the will to fight and the will to negotiate. All of these, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had in abundance.

Communism, non-racialism and the SACP

One somewhat unfashionable fact about Nelson Mandela is that he was – at least at the time of his arrest in August 1962 – a communist. The ANC and SACP had always denied Mandela’s party membership, so as not to add grist to the mill of the apartheid state’s complaint that the anti-apartheid struggle was an extension of the ‘global communist threat’, directed from Moscow; however, in the SACP’s obituary of Mandela it was acknowledged – without doubt by prior arrangement with Mandela himself – that he had been a central committee member of the South African Communist Party.

Mandela’s party membership serves to emphasise the longstanding alliance between the ANC and the SACP – a relationship which has been decisive in shaping the liberation movement. The fruits of this alliance can be summarised as follows:

  1. A non-racialist approach to participation in the freedom struggle. The ANC/SACP policy was that the struggle against apartheid, whilst primarily fought in the interests of the most oppressed group (black Africans), was also a struggle to transcend the division of society along racial lines, and that therefore the struggle should embrace people of all races, so long as they were genuinely committed to a non-racial democracy.

    As explained in the ANC’s classic Strategy and Tactics document: “Our policy must continually stress in the future (as it has in the past) that there is room in South Africa for all who live in it but only on the basis of absolute democracy … Committed revolutionaries are our brothers, regardless of the group to which they belong. There can be no second class participants in our Movement. It is for the enemy we reserve our assertiveness and our justified sense of grievance”. This policy proved very effective, as it frustrated the apartheid state’s never-ending attempts to cause tensions between blacks and Indians, between Xhosa and Zulu, between white progressives and African nationalists, and so on. Furthermore, it created a precedent of unity and respect that constitutes the basis for a new, post-apartheid national identity.

  2. Alignment of the South African national struggle with the global socialist forces. This led to the ANC receiving abundant practical support from the socialist countries, in particular the USSR and the German Democratic Republic. In addition to the provision of funds and diplomatic solidarity at all levels, military and political training was given to literally thousands of MK fighters.

  3. The working class and oppressed masses were seen as the major support base of the liberation struggle, and progress continues to be measured primarily in terms of how much it benefits those that suffered most under apartheid.

Mandela’s life story has been so thoroughly white-washed that his relationship with the SACP is rarely talked about. But Mandela himself never tried to play down the role of the SACP, nor would he succumb to the demands of the western powers and the apartheid state that the SACP be pushed out of the alliance tent.

The ANC made numerous necessary – if painful – compromises in order to attain the release of Mandela and his comrades; in order to begin meaningful negotiations towards the end of apartheid; in order to achieve the unbanning of the ANC and other banned organisations; in order to gain support at UN level for the ending of apartheid; in order to avoid civil war and anarchy; in order to avoid capital flight and economic collapse. And yet it has never submitted to intense pressure to break its alliance with the SACP. Responding to the apartheid government’s statement that it would not negotiate with the ANC while it was so closely associated with communists, Mandela wrote to then Prime Minister PW Botha in 1989:

“No dedicated ANC member will ever heed a call to break with the SACP. We regard such a demand as a purely divisive government strategy. It is in fact a call on us to commit suicide. Which man of honour will ever desert a lifelong friend at the instance of a common opponent and still retain a measure of credibility among his people? Which opponent will ever trust such a treacherous freedom fighter? Yet this is what the government is, in effect, asking us to do – to desert our faithful allies. We will not fall into that trap.”

Mandela continued to defend and promote the role of the SACP during his tenure as President (1994-99). In his report to the 50th National Conference of the ANC in December 1997, he remarked:

Over the decades, including the last three years, the SACP has proved itself to be our steadfast ally in the struggle to end white minority domination and its legacy, and to create a genuinely non-racial society. It is on the basis of this common commitment that we, the ANC, look forward to the further strengthening of our relations with the SACP to promote this common objective of the national democratic movement.

The ANC-SACP alliance remains strong up to the present day. There are four SACP members in the Cabinet, and many senior figures in the ANC are also SACP members (including Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary general). The SACP continues to be the largest and most influential communist party in the continent of Africa.

Nelson Mandela’s philosophy may have been reduced by certain of his latter-day admirers to a sort of harmless-old-man liberalism, but his actual words and deeds provide clear evidence of his militant commitment to the cause of the most oppressed. He identified with any ideology that promoted the interests of the ‘wretched of the earth’, no matter if that ideology was (and is) considered in the west as the epitome of evil. In his famous speech at the Rivonia Trial, he commented:

It is perhaps difficult for white South Africans, with an ingrained prejudice against communism, to understand why experienced African politicians so readily accept communists as their friends. But to us the reason is obvious… For many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with us, and work with us. They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society. Because of this, there are many Africans who, today, tend to equate freedom with communism.

The extended reflections in his autobiography on how he overcame his own prejudice against communism and how he came to value Marxist thought are so fascinating as to be worth quoting at length:

I had little knowledge of Marxism, and in political discussions with my communist friends I found myself handicapped by my ignorance of their philosophy. I decided to remedy this. I acquired the complete works of Marx and Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong and others, and probed the philosophy of dialectical and historical materialism. I had little time to study these works properly. While I was stimulated by the Communist Manifesto, I was exhausted by Das Kapital. But I found myself strongly drawn to the idea of a classless society which, to my mind, was similar to traditional African culture where life was shared and communal. I subscribed to Marx’s basic dictum, which has the simplicity and generosity of the Golden Rule: ‛From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.’

Dialectical materialism seemed to offer both a searchlight illuminating the dark night of racial oppression and a tool that could be used to end it. It helped me to see the situation other than through the prism of black and white relations, for if our struggle was to succeed, we had to transcend black and white. I was attracted to the scientific underpinnings of dialectical materialism, for I am always inclined to trust what I can verify. Its materialistic analysis of economics rang true to me. The idea that the value of goods was based on the amount of labour that went into them seemed particularly appropriate for South Africa. The ruling class paid African labour a subsistence wage and then added value to the cost of the goods, which they retained for themselves.

Marxism’s call to revolutionary action was music to the ears of a freedom fighter. The idea that history progresses through struggle and that change occurs in revolutionary jumps was similarly appealing. In my reading of Marxist works, I found a great deal of information that bore on the types of problems that face a practical politician. Marxists gave serious attention to national liberation movements, and the Soviet Union in particular supported the national struggles of many colonial peoples. This was another reason why I amended my view of communists and accepted the ANC position of welcoming Marxists into its ranks.

A friend once asked me how I could reconcile my creed of African nationalism with a belief in dialectical materialism. For me, there was no contradiction. I was first and foremost an African nationalist fighting for our emancipation from minority rule and the right to control our own destiny. But, at the same time, South Africa and the African continent were part of the larger world. Our problems, while distinctive and special, were not unique, and a philosophy that placed those problems in an international and historical context of the greater world and the course of history was valuable. I was prepared to use whatever means necessary to speed up the erasure of human prejudice and the end of chauvinistic and violent nationalism… I found that African nationalists and African communists generally had far more to unite them than to divide them.

This is a profound statement of the case for an alliance of communist and national liberation forces, and has application well beyond the boundaries of South Africa.

From armed struggle to negotiations

Having been so closely associated with the transition from nonviolence to armed struggle, there is poetry in the fact that Mandela is also closely associated with the suspension of the armed struggle in 1990 and the move towards a negotiated end to apartheid.

The National Party government had long insisted that the suspension of the armed struggle by the ANC/MK was a precondition for negotiations, and the ANC in turn had long insisted that there was no question of ending armed struggle whilst the government refused to negotiate and whilst its police and army were waging war against the black population. It is well known that Mandela could have won his release from prison many years earlier had he been willing to renounce the armed struggle. His principled and powerful response to these offers – read by his daughter Zindzi to a mass rally in Soweto in February 1985 – is now a classic document of the struggle:

I am not a violent man… It was only when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us that we turned to armed struggle. Let Botha renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. Let him unban the people’s organisation, the African National Congress. Let him free all who have been imprisoned, banished or exiled for their opposition to apartheid. Let him guarantee free political activity so that people may decide who will govern them.

I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom. Too many have died since I went to prison. Too many have suffered for the love of freedom. I owe it to their widows, to their orphans, to their mothers and to their fathers who have grieved and wept for them. Not only I have suffered during these long, lonely, wasted years. I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free. I am in prison as the representative of the people and of your organisation, the African National Congress, which was banned.

Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts… I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.

Given that the ANC leadership had stuck to its principled position on armed struggle for nearly three decades, many in the movement were surprised and dismayed when, in August 1990, the Pretoria Minute was signed, announcing that, “in the interest of moving as speedily as possible towards a negotiated peaceful political settlement … no further armed actions and related activities by the ANC and its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe will take place.”

To some, this was betrayal. Indeed, there remain elements within the South African left (along with those comfortable middle-class radical intellectuals in the west who absolutely insist on third world liberation movements pursuing the most militant possible strategy) who still feel that the armed struggle should have continued to the bitter end.

However, this misses the point that circumstances had changed in several significant ways. Firstly, the ANC and other liberation organisations had been unbanned, political prisoners freed, political exiles returned, and serious negotiations towards democratic elections begun. With these victories – won through armed struggle, mass defiance, strikes, international pressure, and the changing military-political situation in southern Africa as a whole (thanks in no small part to the heroic intervention by Cuba at Cuito Cuanavale) – there was little justification or mandate for the continuation of the armed struggle. “While it had always accepted the human and material cost of protracted struggle, the ANC had, as a matter of abiding principle, sought a more humane resolution of the conflict without compromising the basic objectives of struggle” (source). Another decisive factor is that the USSR – by far the biggest backer of the MK – was by this time in a state of turmoil (it ceased to exist little over a year later), and its willingness and ability to support a guerrilla army were much reduced (the decline and fall of the USSR was deeply felt by socialist and national liberation movements across the world, from Ireland to Latin America to Southern Africa).

The suspension of the armed struggle removed a major roadblock to progress in the negotiations, and also served to focus attention on the most lunatic sections of the Afrikaner right-wing, who were armed to the teeth and perfectly willing to wage a war rather than accept transition to a non-racial democracy. That no such war took place is testament to the correctness – brilliance, even – of the ANC’s tactics at this point.

Although Chris Hani is sometimes put forward as a more courageous and militant politician who would have saved South Africa from the endlessly compromising Mandela, it is a matter of recorded fact that Hani unambiguously supported the ceasefire, for example writing in 1991: *”In the current political situation, the decision by our organisation to suspend armed action is correct and is an important contribution in maintaining the momentum of negotiations.”

Building a new South Africa

anc_rallyThe first democratic elections of 1994, won by the ANC with a clear majority (63% to the National Party’s 20%), did not establish a socialist utopia. The vast inequality, the desperate poverty, the white privilege, the male domination, the corporate power, the white-owned press, the intense violence: the accumulated injustice of three and a half centuries of colonial white supremacy didn’t go away overnight. The aims set out in the Freedom Charter were not instantly achieved, and indeed some of them still seem far off, two decades later.

To some, this apparent failure is an indication of Mandela having “sold out”: the whites offered him ‘apartheid lite’ – a continuation of the semi-colonial status quo but with the addition of a few smiling black faces in the government – and he went for it. To others, any failings of post-apartheid South Africa can be traced to Mandela and his comrades being dazzled by neoliberal economics and therefore turning their back on the socialist-oriented economic path laid out in the Freedom Charter.

Both of these narratives tend to ignore the very important progress that the South African government has made over the last two decades. Both narratives also tend to downplay the fact that the ANC, in negotiating an end to apartheid and leading the first democratic government, faced economic, political and social problems of almost unimaginable dimensions. It inherited a society that was bitterly divided, characterised by fear, distrust, hatred and violence. Apart from the obvious threat from the Afrikaner far-right, there were also deep divisions within the black community (carefully nurtured by the apartheid state over the course of many decades). The threat of civil war – from a combination of white fascists, Inkatha Freedom Party tribalists and bantustan leaders – was all too real, and a serious structural collapse or civil war could easily have led to foreign intervention and the type of hell that Mozambique and Angola endured for nearly two decades after liberation.

On the economic front, there was a clear possibility of total collapse if the corporations decided to sabotage the economy. There was also a threat of a major ‘brain drain’ if the professional whites felt they didn’t belong in an ANC-led South Africa (tempting as it must have been to say “just let them leave”, the fact is that any modern state requires educated people, and the whites had preserved for themselves a near-monopoly on education). Plus of course, the sudden disappearance of the liberation movement’s major state-level backers (the USSR and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe) meant that the new South Africa had no real choice but to look to the west for development investment – a situation that has thankfully now changed with the rise of China and the BRICS bloc. Some of the complexities of the negotiation process are described in the following passage:

During negotiations, representatives of the previous order sought an outcome that would leave many elements of the apartheid system intact. On the other hand, the liberation movement sued for democratic majority rule as understood throughout the world. The transitional measures were seen by the liberation movement as necessary compromises to ensure the broadest possible legitimacy of the new order and to use the advances made as a beach-head to a truly united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous society. At the point of change of government in 1994, the state was manned at all senior levels by apartheid functionaries; the economy was almost totally in the hands of whites; many of the parties sought constitutional outcomes that would guarantee white privilege; and networks of apartheid and extreme right-wing destabilisation remained burrowed, or had multiple links, within the state. These and other realities impacted on the manner in which the programmes of change were introduced.

The fact is the local and international conditions did not exist for a quick transfer to socialism. Joe Slovo commented as early as 1987 – three years before the unbanning of the ANC – that “it is not possible to transform South Africa into a socialist country overnight”.

This [the projected post-apartheid society] is, of course, not a socialist society. It rather is a society that starts correcting the historic injustices and discrimination against blacks, thus creating the foundation and further conditions for a socialist South Africa. Therefore we are of the opinion that the shortest way to socialism in South Africa is that of non-racist democracy in which the people really have a say. However, this will still be a long way. No matter what vision one has of South Africa, the first thing that must be done is to destroy racism. Therefore, we must not tolerate attempts that take discussions about the details of a post apartheid society as an excuse to avoid or distort this basic issue.

This remains a realistic analysis of the national democratic revolution: a more or less fragile class alliance of all forces opposed to apartheid – the economic, political, social and cultural legacy of which is still in the process of being dismantled. Twenty years later, the ANC’s updated Strategy and Tactics document resulting from the 2007 National Conference reiterated this path:

The main content of the National Democratic Revolution is the liberation of Africans in particular and Blacks in general from political and socio-economic bondage. It means uplifting the quality of life of all South Africans, especially the poor, the majority of whom are African and female. At the same time it has the effect of liberating the white community from the false ideology of racial superiority and the insecurity attached to oppressing others. The hierarchy of disadvantage suffered under apartheid will naturally inform the magnitude of impact of the programmes of change and the attention paid particularly to those who occupied the lowest rungs on the apartheid social ladder.

To successfully pursue any kind of progressive agenda in the circumstances required an extremely subtle and complex strategy, and a large dose of tactical compromise. Whilst acknowledging that there’s still a long way to go, it’s important to recognise the significant steps that have been taken along the road to justice.

Wiping out legal apartheid

Apartheid as an institutionalised system of white supremacy has been dismantled. Gone are the days when “a black man with a BA was expected to scrape before a white man with a primary school education” (Long Walk to Freedom). Where there were pass laws, now there is freedom for all to come and go as they please. Where there was legally enforced segregation, now people are free to associate with whomever they choose. Where there were bantustans, now there is a vision for a united national identity of all tribes and races. Where the state was set up to serve the interests of the white minority alone, now it is oriented towards creating a better life for the African masses. Where education was largely denied to the black population, now it is available for all. Where there was deep repression of all political activity deemed to be ‘subversive’ (i.e. favouring equality), now people have full democratic rights. Where the working class had very limited labour rights, now workers’ unions are part of the government. As comrade Mandela said: “the principal result of our revolution, the displacement of the apartheid political order by a democratic system, has become an established fact of South African society”.

This wiping out of legal/political apartheid is no small accomplishment. When people assert that the modern South Africa is “worse than apartheid“, they downplay a particularly evil form of oppression, and they trivialise the historic achievements made in overturning minority rule. The continuing denial of basic human rights and national self-determination to the Palestinian people should remind us that there was nothing inevitable about the end of apartheid. To break minority rule; to defeat the whites’ demands for a permanent parliamentary veto; to avoid civil war, military intervention, balkanisation, power vacuum and economic anarchy – these were all remarkable achievements.

Orienting the state toward the needs of the oppressed

It has become popular among parts of the left (especially in the west) to describe the ANC as having capitulated to neoliberalism. The ANC, on the other hand, considers itself as a “disciplined force of the left, organised to conduct consistent struggle in pursuit of a caring society in which the well-being of the poor receives focussed and consistent attention. In terms of current political discourse, what it seeks to put in place approximates, in many respects, a combination of the best elements of a developmental state and social democracy. In this regard, the ANC contrasts its own positions with those of: national liberation struggles which stalled at the stage of formal political independence and achieved little in terms of changing colonial production relations and social conditions of the poor; neoliberalism which worships the market above all else and advocates rampant unregulated capitalism and a minimalist approach to the role of the state and the public sphere in general; and ultra-leftism which advocates voluntaristic adventures including dangerous leaps towards a classless society ignoring the objective tasks in a national democratic revolution.”

Which view is more accurate? It’s certainly true that multinational corporations have a major stake in the South African economy, and that the government has been keen to present the country as being ‘investor-friendly’. Furthermore, the figures for unemployment and inequality are intimidatingly high. As President Zuma himself points out, “our country still faces the triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment, which we continue to grapple with”.

However, as prominent South African economist Haroon Bhorat notes, “these numbers belie the efforts of a benevolent state, which has used substantial fiscal revenue to expand social assistance. Currently, over a quarter of all South Africans receive government welfare checks, constituting 3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product… The share of South Africans with access to formal housing (77 percent), electricity (84 percent) and running water (72 percent) has increased drastically since 1994.”

In a recent interview, Blade Nzimande sums up the achievements of recent years, contrasting them with the picture of doom and gloom promoted by the (still predominantly white-owned) media:

They present South Africa as if it is falling apart. But over the last five years alone we have seen enormous gains for ordinary South Africans. Life expectancy has risen by four years, now averaging at 61. We’ve completely turned around the Aids denialism that was such a problem only recently. Improvements in education have been very impressive. Last year 78.2 per cent of school-leavers passed their final exams. It was less than 60 per cent in 1994. Sixty per cent of university students are now black or women. The government is also investing in a new health insurance scheme that will ensure everyone in the country gets coverage, and we’ve cleaned up the water supply, so over 80 per cent now have clean drinking water. We’re investing in our children. Of 12 million schoolchildren in South Africa, nine million receive a free school meal each day. The country is absolutely loyal to the ideals of the anti-apartheid movement.”

The increase in life expectancy – due largely to the “industrial scale distribution of antiretroviral drugs by the public health sector” – has been described by Professor Salim Abdool Karim, president of the South African Medical Research Council, as being “of the order usually only seen after a major societal shift, such as the abolition of slavery”. Mother-baby HIV transmission rate has decreased from 8.5% in 2008 to 2.7% in 2011.

The youth literacy rate is now around 98%, and the overall literacy rate is 87% – up from 70.1% in 2001, and the third highest in Africa. The number of black South Africans graduating from the country’s universities has increased more than fourfold in the past 20 years. The number of new teacher graduates doubled from 6,000 in 2009 to 13,000 in 2012.

Even the New York Times admits that, “since the end of apartheid, the government has built well over two million homes, brought electricity to millions of households and vastly increased the number of poor people with access to potable water. The average annual incomes of black-led households almost tripled from 2001 to 2011, according to census figures released late last year, and a growing percentage of the adult black population has gone to high school, with an increasing sliver going to college.”

South African author Jonny Steinberg notes that “84% South Africans now have electric lighting compared to 58% in 1996, while 85% of five and six year olds were attending school, compared to 35% 15 years ago. The poorest have benefited the most. All the extra things they are receiving now come directly from government. The ANC has built 1.8 million houses and given them away for free – it has literally changed the spaces in which they live. This is unprecedented anywhere in world.”

Efforts to diversify and industrialise are starting to yield results. For example, the government has promised that within the next five years, it will be able to procure at least 75% of its goods and services from South African producers. In spite of the global recession, South Africa’s economy has grown at a fairly steady 3.2% from 1994, and has experienced negative growth in only three out of 73 quarters.

Unemployment remains a massive problem – one inherited from an apartheid economy that didn’t even attempt to incorporate skilled black labour. The issue is compounded by the changes in the global economy towards digitalisation, and by the economic crisis. While the government is working to create jobs via its massive infrastructure programmes, it has put an extensive social welfare system in place. The number of South Africans receiving social grants has risen from 2.4 million to 16.1 million.

South Africa is unquestionably a better place to live than it was in 1994, but its achievements do not constitute long-term economic justice. The SACP is correct to point out that the “major socio-economic gains have been made ‘against the flow’ of the dominant growth trajectory; they are the result of government-led efforts and (to a lesser extent) of popular struggles. They have been largely based on efforts of reform and redistribution at the margins – a redistributive politics of ‘delivery’ out of surplus without fundamentally transforming the productive economy itself.”

In short, capitalism remains in place – not because the government favours capitalism but because to completely alienate capitalist class interests at the present moment would be to put the national democratic revolution at serious risk. Such a situation of a mainly capitalist economy administered by a progressive, socialist-oriented government is similar to the prevailing political economy in Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina and elsewhere. It certainly has its limitations, but it has been proven to be capable of delivering tangible benefit to the poorest sections of society. By no reasonable definition can it be considered ‘neoliberalism’.

The progressive family of nations

Fidel and MadibaThe west was hopeful that post-apartheid South Africa would exist within NATO’s sphere of influence and would be a dependable regional ally to imperialism, as it was under apartheid. These hopes were quickly frustrated. In spite of tremendous pressure to break his links with ‘undemocratic’ states and ‘terrorist’ groups, Mandela resolutely refused to turn his back on those who had rendered profound support to the South African liberation movement. During a trip to the US just a few months after his release from prison, Mandela was asked by Kenneth Adelman, former director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, why he was on such good terms with “supporters of international terrorism” such as Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi. Mandela replied without hesitation:

Yasser Arafat, Colonel Gaddafi, Fidel Castro support our struggle to the hilt. There is no reason whatsoever why we should have any hesitation about their commitment to human rights in South Africa. They are placing resources at our disposal to win the struggle.

Mandela’s attitude on this question did not change once in power. In 1997, presenting Gaddafi with South Africa’s prestigious Order of Good Hope, Mandela declared: “Those who feel we should have no relations with Gaddafi have no morals… Those who feel irritated by our friendship with President Gaddafi can go jump in the pool.”

Socialist Cuba remained a major inspiration for Mandela, and the South African government maintains excellent relations with Cuba to this day. South Africa remains a strong supporter of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, and the boycott of Israel is official ANC policy.

Even well into old age, Mandela remained unquestionably on the right side of the global barricades – “a friend to those engaged in the struggle for justice across the globe”, to use the words of Gerry Adams, another great freedom fighter and part of the guard of honour at Mandela’s funeral. Speaking at the International Women’s Forum in Johannesburg in February 2003, Mandela delivered a scathing attack on the west’s plans for war against Iraq:

“Both Bush as well as Tony Blair are undermining an idea [of UN multilateralism] that was sponsored by their predecessors. They do not care. Is it because this Secretary General of the United Nations is now a black man [Kofi Annan]? They never did that when secretary generals were white… If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America… What I’m condemning is that one power with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust. All that he wants is Iraqi oil.

South Africa’s political/military role in the region – and further afield – has been completely transformed. The apartheid state was a bulwark of reaction, creating havoc in Angola and Mozambique, colonising Namibia (then South West Africa) and propping up the racist Ian Smith regime in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). It was a reliable friend of Israel, and was only happy to do the dirty work of the CIA in southern Africa.

Modern South Africa on the other hand plays a positive role as part of the Southern African Development Community, engaging usefully in the Central African Republic, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has refused to allow itself to be used as a battering ram against Zimbabwe, and has given protection and asylum to Haiti’s exiled anti-imperialist president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

As Abayomi Azikiwe writes in his excellent tribute to Mandela: “Under Mandela, South Africa would serve as an example to all oppressed and struggling peoples throughout the world. The country continues today to be in solidarity with the liberation movement of the Palestinians and the people of the Western Sahara, and maintains positions in support of African unity and economic integration.”

Although it made a bad error in voting for the no-fly zone against Libya, the Zuma administration went on to lead African Union efforts to negotiate a ceasefire (efforts which sadly failed due to the intransigence of the criminal NATO invaders).

China is now South Africa’s biggest trading partner by far, and South Africa joining the BRIC group of Brazil, Russia, India and China placed it firmly within the leadership of an emerging Global South, based on multipolarity and south-south cooperation. This network – “the progressive family of nations” – is starting to slowly break US global hegemony and is opening up a space in which countries can develop freely in a supportive global context.

Maintain unity in the struggle to build a new South Africa and defeat internal and external enemies

“Unity is fundamental for us, particularly to the achievement of the goals of the Freedom Charter. Divisions are a luxury we cannot afford. They do not belong to us and will not serve our people, but the enemy and his agents.” (source)

As outlined above, impressive progress has been made towards a just, prosperous, united South Africa. Nonetheless, vast problems remain, and many people are frustrated with the rate of progress. Unemployment is unacceptably high. The power of the multinationals has not been broken, and the redistribution of wealth is still in its very early stages (the reality is that colonial relations in some centres of power, especially the economy, remain largely unchanged”). Enormous inequality persists, and this is still closely correlated with the race question (as Zuma points out: “All reports point to the fact that white males are still in control of the means of the production”). The land reform process has barely begun. The streets are still violent, and corruption is a major issue (although it seems progress is being made on this score).

In short, the national democratic revolution is still incomplete. This fact is clearly recognised by the ANC itself:

Steadily, the dark night of white minority political domination is receding into a distant memory. Yet we are only at the beginning of a long journey to a truly united, democratic and prosperous South Africa in which the value of all citizens is measured by their humanity, without regard to race, gender and social status.

Land reform, job creation, increased industrialisation and wealth redistribution are the key tasks of the coming period, along with continuing the work at a regional and global level to create more favourable circumstances for socialist development. It is time for a “radical socio-economic transformation to meaningfully address poverty, unemployment and inequality”. What political organisation is fit to take the lead in these tasks?

Many loud voices on the left are arguing that the ANC is past its sell-by date. Combined with the voices on the right – that have never stopped denigrating the ANC – we’re left with a loud chorus singing its anti-ANC hymn. With a ‘free’ press that is dominated by big (white) capital, this hymn gets broadcast to the masses constantly via newspaper, internet and TV. Although the chorus is louder than before, it is by no means a new phenomenon. Mandela identified it back in 1997:

The prophets of doom have reemerged in our country. In 1994, these predicted that the transition to democracy would be attended by a lot of bloodshed. Disappointed in their expectations by what actually happened, they nevertheless never abandoned their resolve to spread despair. The pivot of their offensive is that the history of Africa is a history of failure and disaster. Accordingly, they adhere to the openly racist position that a South Africa led by the African National Congress and no longer under white minority rule, will, inevitably sink into failure and disaster. And so they go about their business to highlight and elevate anything that is negative. Neither do they hesitate to tell lies or to invent stories so long as this advances their purposes… They advance this agenda of gloom and doom on which the enemies of real progress and social transformation rely to create the conditions for the defeat of the ANC, so that they are better able to ensure that no progress and no transformation occur…

They [the white opposition] believe that their fortunes lie not so much in policies they can propagate, but in their success in projecting themselves as tireless fighters for the defeat of the ANC. Their task is to spread messages about an impending economic collapse, escalating corruption in the public service, rampant and uncontrollable crime, a massive loss of skills through white emigration and mass demoralisation among the people either because they are white and therefore threatened by the ANC and its policies which favour black people, or because they are black and consequently forgotten because the ANC is too busy protecting white privilege.

Is this not reminiscent of the current media onslaught against the ANC and SACP – a campaign which is enthusiastically taken up by the mainstream press in the imperialist countries? Although the ANC has ‘played ball’ to an extent, it is by no means the preferred choice of international capital. Its liberation struggle roots; its social base in the oppressed; its membership of BRICS; its strong relations with ‘pariah’ states such as Cuba, Zimbabwe and the DPRK; its leadership role within Africa: all these things and more make the west decidedly uncomfortable. There are very few things the US and European ruling classes would like more than to see the ‘Democratic Alliance’ apartheid-nostalgia-brigade come to power in South Africa, and the barrage of left-sounding critiques of Mandela being printed in the mainstream press (such as that by Slavoj Žižek) is in support of that aim.

In such a context, and in the complete absence of any serious contender for leadership of the South African masses, unity is absolutely critical to prevent the forces of reaction from regaining the upper hand. The lessons of history are there to be learned. As Mandela warned: “Besides the advanced productive forces at the disposal of the colonial powers, one of the central reasons for the defeat of indigenous communities was division and conflict among these communities themselves”

The defenders of apartheid privilege continue to sustain a conviction that an opportunity will emerge in future, when they can activate this counter-insurgency machinery, to impose an agenda on South African society which would limit the possibilities of the democratic order to such an extent that it would not be able to create a society of equality, that would be rid of the legacy of apartheid. Accordingly, various elements of the former ruling group have been working to establish a network which would launch or intensify a campaign of destablisation, some of whose features would be: the weakening of the ANC and its allies; the use of crime to render the country ungovernable; the subversion of the economy; and the erosion of the confidence of both our people and the rest of the world in our capacity both to govern and to achieve our goals of reconstruction and development. This counter-revolutionary network, which is already active and bases itself on those in the public administration and others in other sectors of our society who have not accepted the reality of majority rule, is capable of carrying out very disruptive actions. It measures its own success by the extent to which it manages to weaken the democratic order.

Numerous alternatives to the ANC have been – and are being – set up. But can they play a progressive role when the only unity they promote is an unprincipled unity with tribalist conservative demagogues against the mainstream of the liberation movement as represented by the ANC, Cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions) and the SACP?

None of this is said in order to deny, or make light of, the problems, contradictions and differences within the ANC. The issues of cronyism, corruption, bureaucracy are real and understood (such problems are of course not unique to South Africa, and can be found in progressive and reactionary states alike). And the ANC continues to comprise a broad range of class interests, which exist in a sometimes uneasy coexistence. These problems are perfectly well understood within the organisation: “Patronage, arrogance of power, bureaucratic indifference, corruption and other ills arise, undermining the lofty core values of the organisation: to serve the people! How the ANC negotiates this minefield will determine its future survival as a principled leader of the process of fundamental change, an organisation respected and cherished by the mass of the people for what it represents and how it conducts itself in actual practice.”

But breaking up the leadership of a national democratic revolution that has been in place for over a hundred years is not something to take lightly. Certainly there’s no indication that Mandela would ever have advocated a break with the ANC. Apart from anything else, he left the organisation a significant portion of his estate! Mandela was a party man. Stepping down as party leader at the ANC conference in December 1998, he said: “A name becomes the symbol of an era. As we hand over the baton it is appropriate that I should thank the ANC for shaping me as a symbol of what it stands for. I know that the love and respect that I have enjoyed is love and respect for the ANC and its ideals.” Attempts to justify splits and spin-off organisations on the basis of “upholding Madiba’s legacy” are utterly disingenuous.

The only realistic path for those wishing to push South Africa in a more progressive direction is to work within the mainstream of the liberation movement to do just that. This is precisely what Cosatu and the SACP do, and it parallels the work of communists within the Brazilian government, or Marxists within Sinn Féin. If the left abandons the mainstream of the struggle, it means “surrendering the leadership of the national struggle to the upper and middle strata.” Who does that help? Not the South African masses, but international capital.

Mandela-ChrisHaniChris Hani, a few weeks before his untimely death, predicted this new phase with eerie precision.

I think finally the ANC will have to fight a new enemy. That enemy would be another struggle to make freedom and democracy worthwhile to ordinary South Africans. Our biggest enemy would be what we do in the field of socio-economic restructuring. Creation of jobs; building houses, schools, medical facilities; overhauling our education; eliminating illiteracy, building a society which cares, and fighting corruption and moving into the gravy train of using power, government position to enrich individuals. We must build a different culture in this country… and that culture should be one of service to the people.

Celebrating the legacy of Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani means to protect the unity they worked so hard to create; to complete the revolution that they did so much to further; to build and improve the organisations they served so selflessly; to serve the people of South Africa; to finish the work of building a new society and undoing the damage of three and a half centuries of ruthless, racist oppression.

poster

The following is a slightly expanded version of a speech given by Carlos Martinez at a recent event marking the 120th birthday of Mao Zedong.


Giving a short assessment of the life of someone like Mao Zedong is not an easy job. The man was politically active for over half a century; he lived through the Chinese Revolution of 1911 (which established the Republic of China); the formation of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921; the revolutionary civil war of 1925-27; the revolutionary civil war of 1927-36; the war of resistance against Japan; the war of liberation; the birth of New China (it was Mao who proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949); the construction of socialism; the Korean War; industrialisation of China; modernisation of China; the Sino-Soviet split and the breakup of the united world communist movement; the intense and at times deadly inner-party struggles within the CCP; and so on. It was an incredibly momentous period of history – a story of never-ending struggle – and he was a leading protagonist. Therefore I can’t possibly hope to do justice to his legacy in a half hour speech! For that reason I’m just going to focus on a couple of points that I think are worthy of discussion.

I’d like to start off by posing a question. And that is: what if there’d been no Mao? In what way would China – and indeed the world – have been different? How many people wouldn’t have lived long, meaningful lives? How many people wouldn’t have had enough to eat? How many people wouldn’t have learnt to read and write? How many people _wouldn’t _have made it past the age of 35? Would China have even broken the cycle of underdevelopment that it had been locked in for so many centuries? Would the ‘ century of humiliation‘ have become two centuries of humiliation? Would China even exist as a united country, or would it have been broken into pieces by the different colonial powers? Would China still be run by warlords, like Afghanistan is? Would China be the economic and scientific powerhouse that it is today? Would China have lifted fully hundreds of millions of people out of poverty? Would China – before the revolution one of the poorest, most economically backward countries in the world – have landed a rocket on the moon a few days ago, becoming only the third country to achieve such a feat? Would it be launching telecoms satellites on behalf of Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador? Would the socialist experiments in Latin America be receiving the financial support they need to build their social programmes? Would there be any meaningful threat to US global hegemony?

Western historians slander Mao

In the west, this question is usually approached in a very different way. There was this monster of a man, Mao Zedong, and he killed millions of people. According to some very well-paid historians, Mao is single-handedly responsible for what they say is the biggest famine in human history. There are maybe hundreds of western academics competing with each other to provide the biggest, the most shocking, the most appalling, the most awe-inspiring number in their favourite game: ‘How Many People Died Because Of Chairman Mao’.

For example, the popular book Mao’s Great Famine, by Professor Frank Dikotter, actually estimates that as many as 60 million people died during the four-year period of the Great Leap Forward – 1958-61. And that has suddenly become the accepted figure in western academia now. How is that even possible?! Was the Great Leap Forward devised as some kind of mass extermination programme, that it could wipe out 10% of China’s population? Of course, it’s no problem for people like Dikotter to get their books published, because their role is to attack socialism rather than to provide evidence and meaningful historical analysis, but at least make some attempt to be credible! For example, we’re supposed to ignore the fact that, in spite of this unprecedented loss, China’s total population didn’t go down during that time; in fact it increased from 650 million in 1958 to 680 million five years later!

The Great Leap Forward wasn’t a crazed population control scheme; it was an ambitious programme, led by Mao, to achieve rapid industrialisation and collectivisation, the idea being to make a much-needed final break with underdevelopment, backwardness and poverty. That’s a good cause! Were there excesses? Were there serious mistakes? Did many people suffer terribly, including to the extent of starvation? Yes. Mao himself admitted this. There were mistakes and there was also a disastrous series of droughts and floods. But one cannot go from that to calling it “the greatest crime ever committed against humanity”. For whatever the problems of the Great Leap Forward, it was not the Nazi holocaust; it was not the forced transportation of at least a hundred million African slaves; it was not the vengeful murder of 10 million Congolese by the armies of King Leopold; it was not the death of 35 million Chinese at the hands of Japan’s imperialist armies during 1937-45; nor was it the policy-driven famines created by the oh-so-civilised British administrations in India and Ireland.

I’m not here to go into detailed refutations of the nonsense that people like Dikotter come out with – there’s plenty of excellent material available on that topic, for people that are interested. But it is very important to refute the slander, to refute this idea of Mao as ‘monster’. The point of the whole ‘Mao was a monster’ narrative is specifically to denigrate the Chinese Revolution. What these academics are trying to do, what their job is, is to prove the superiority of capitalism over socialism; to prove the superiority of colonialism and imperialism over national sovereignty and self-determination. In effect, they’re saying: you people were better off when we were in charge! But when we investigate the actual facts (“seek truth from facts!”), we are able to prove the direct opposite: that is, the superiority of socialism over capitalism; the superiority of national sovereignty over colonialism and imperialism.

What capitalist country has achieved so much, in so short a time, compared with what’s been achieved in China, and what was achieved in the Soviet Union? And where the capitalist countries have achieved a high level of development, what has the cost been? What laid the basis for such development in Europe and North America? Slavery, colonialism and brutal class oppression. The deaths of millions upon millions. The perpetuation of a system of global apartheid which we’re still struggling to get rid of today. Does anyone imagine that British factory workers at the time of the industrial revolution had a nice life? Did they have ample food, spare time, access to education, healthcare and cultural facilities?! Hardly. And even they were massively privileged compared to the African slaves, transported in their tens of millions to the Americas; or the masses of India, Kenya, Ireland and elsewhere, whose lives were broken through British plunder and colonial policy. The progress of the socialist world is not rooted in slavery and colonialism but in the collective efforts of its people.

As an aside, I should mention that this Professor Dikotter has a slightly patchy record as a historian. A vehement anti-communist, he has argued for rehabilitating the legacy of Chiang Kai-shek (never mind the millions he killed!) and he used his Inaugural Lecture at SOAS to claim that Britain’s forcing opium onto the Chinese population in the mid-19th century really wasn’t that bad!

How many people lived because of Chairman Mao?

mao-zedong-1So really there’s a bit of a gap in the market when it comes to modern Chinese history. Instead of ‘How Many People Died Because Of Chairman Mao’, let’s ask: ‘How Many People Lived Because Of Chairman Mao’? If it’s reasonable to attribute all unnatural deaths in China since 1949 to this one man, then surely it’s also reasonable to attribute all life beyond the 1949 life expectancy to the same man!

Before the revolution, life expectancy in China was around 35 years. China was ravaged by famine, war, stagnation, feudalism and colonial brutality. By the time Mao died in 1976, life expectancy had almost doubled, to 67 years. Now it’s 76. The pre-revolution literacy rate in China was around 20%. By the time Mao died, it was around 93%. China’s population had remained stagnant between 400 and 500 million for a hundred years or so. By the time Mao died, it had reached 900 million – clearly, something changed for the better; clearly circumstances were generally favourable for human life! Women, ground down by millennia of feudal backwardness, were able to make unprecedented gains towards attaining social equality. A thriving culture of literature, music, theatre and art grew up and suddenly became accessible to the masses of the people – even to the endlessly ground-down Chinese peasantry, who had never had access to such things. Chinese land was irrigated. Universal healthcare was established. China – after a century of foreign domination – maintained its sovereignty, developed industry, developed the means to defend itself militarily, helped other nations – less than a year after the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China, China sent an enormous volunteer army, led by one of the great revolutionary heroes, Peng Dehuai, to fight with the Koreans against the US. 180,000 Chinese soldiers gave their lives in that war.

So the Mao era was not the nightmare it is sometimes painted as. Mao was not a monster; he was one of the truly great revolutionary leaders of the 20 th century, and it’s correct that we recognise him as such. To talk of Mao’s mistakes is fine; that’s important too. He was after all a human being, and by definition made mistakes. Being the leading figure in a revolution that covers a quarter of the world’s population, his mistakes had a little bit more impact than other people’s mistakes! I, for one, make mistakes all the time, but I have very little in the way of power or influence and therefore nobody really notices! But when it comes to Mao, the mistakes were those of a great revolutionary, an exceptional leader who, more than any other single person, is responsible for the liberation of China.

The Mao era and the post-Mao era

Slightly more sophisticated bourgeois analysts will tell you that, OK, China has made impressive progress, but this has only been since the introduction of market reforms and foreign investment. Well, it’s certainly true that incredible progress has been made in recent decades, but that progress is built on what came before it. Without the basic industrialisation that took place in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the policy of opening-up could have led to disaster; to China being returned to semi-colonial status, its economy totally controlled by the imperialist powers as it was before liberation. But that hasn’t been the case, precisely because it’s built on the base of what was achieved in the first three decades of People’s China. The 1981 document ‘Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China’ explains this succinctly:

“The establishment of the socialist system represents the greatest and most profound social change in Chinese history and constitutes the foundation for the country’s future progress and development.”

This crucial role of the first decades of socialist construction is still recognised in modern China: “The First Generation of Collective Leadership with Mao Zedong, the founder of both CPC and New China, at the core led the whole party and the people of all ethnicities for the fulfillment of the socialist transformation and the establishment of the basic socialist system after new China was founded in 1949, and laid a vital, crucial basis for the ensuing explorations.”

If you’ll pardon the expression, there’s no Chinese Wall between Mao’s China and post-Mao China. There are different tactics and policies, but the overall direction remains: building a strong, modern, prosperous, educated, cultured, socialist China, capable of defending itself, capable of providing a decent standard of living to all its people, and capable of contributing to a global project of making the world a better place.

The impact of the Chinese Revolution on the rest of the world

Africa is ripe for revolution - Chinese posterI wonder what sort of situation the rest of the world would be in now if it hadn’t been for Mao and the Chinese Revolution? I put it to you that the world would be a very different place, and a much less hopeful one for the masses of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Historically of course there is the support for liberation struggles in Zimbabwe, in Algeria, in Korea, in Tanzania and elsewhere. Also it’s important to note that China’s revolutionary model was particularly relevant and particularly inspirational to many countries that were, similarly to China, locked in colonial subjugation and underdevelopment. The ideas of people’s war, of revolutionary base areas, of building a peasant army: these concepts resonated across Africa, Asia and Latin America, and I think it’s fair to say that, more than anyone, it was Mao Zedong and the Chinese Revolution that helped to expand the scope of Marxism from the industrial working class of Europe to the oppressed masses worldwide.

Today, those countries of the Global South that are working hard to improve the lives of their populations are deeply appreciative of the support they get from China. Venezuela’s rise over the last 14 years would have been extremely difficult without Chinese support. Chinese support is also massively important to Cuba, South Africa, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua and lots of other places. There is a real opening now for the stranglehold of imperialism over the third world to be broken. It seems to me very unlikely that this would be happening had it not been for the Chinese revolution; had it not been for the incredible courage, brilliance and inventiveness of Mao Zedong and his comrades.

Non-traditional thinking – the fight against dogma

Another great revolutionary, Nelson Mandela, who as you know sadly died just two weeks ago, wrote in his autobiography about what had inspired him in the days when the ANC and the SACP were working out their strategy:

“I read works by and about Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro. In Edgar Snow’s brilliant Red Star Over China I saw that it was Mao’s determination and non-traditional thinking that had led him to victory.”

This idea of ‘non-traditional thinking’ is indeed a very important aspect of Mao’s legacy. Although many Maoists one comes across in the west these days are painfully dogmatic and seem to think that Mao’s works provide some sort of blueprint for revolution, Mao was totally against the idea of books as blueprints. He understood very well that there are no simple formulas for conducting a revolution. His writings and speeches constantly called for creative and serious analysis of specific problems, rather than the application of formulas. He was pretty harsh about it! In his pamphlet Oppose Book Worship, he says:

“Unless you have investigated a problem, you will be deprived of the right to speak on it. Isn’t that too harsh? Not in the least. When you have not probed into a problem, into the present facts and its past history, and know nothing of its essentials, whatever you say about it will undoubtedly be nonsense. Talking nonsense solves no problems, as everyone knows, so why is it unjust to deprive you of the right to speak? Quite a few comrades always keep their eyes shut and talk nonsense, and for a Communist that is disgraceful… Of course we should study Marxist books, but this study must be integrated with our country’s actual conditions. We need books, but we must overcome book worship.”

So today, to follow the example of Mao is not to do everything Mao did; is not to treat Mao’s strategy as the One Strategy to Rule Them All; is not to head to the hills and create revolutionary base areas; rather, it is to try and emulate Mao’s bravery, his creativity, his understanding, his total dedication to the people; and to celebrate his legacy; to celebrate his contribution to China and to the world.

Arirang mass games

What follows is an extensive interview with Yongho Thae, Minister of the Embassy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in London, conducted by Carlos Martinez. The interview took place at the DPRK embassy in London in October 2013. Topics covered include the DPRK’s nuclear programme, the nature of the DPRK’s political system, the DPRK’s place in a changing global political landscape, tourism, Syria, and Latin America. Given that the DPRK is considered by the imperialist states as ‘enemy number one’, it is essential for anti-imperialists to make an effort to understand and defend it.


The western media narrative claims that DPR Korea’s nuclear programme is a major threat to world peace. Why does the DPRK have nuclear weapons?

When the western press comments on the nuclear programme of the DPRK, it never talks about the core reasons behind that programme; it is only interested in justifying US bullying; it wants people to be blind to the underlying logic of our position. Our policy is simple and easy to understand: we need a nuclear deterrent.

Before I go into this issue, I’d like to clarify that it is still the DPRK’s policy to denuclearise the Korean peninsula. It has always been our policy to get our country out of the threat of nuclear war. In order to reach that aim, there was no choice but to develop our own nuclear capacity.

After the Second World War, the US was the only country in the world that had nuclear weapons. In order to further their strategy of global domination, they decided to use an atomic bomb against Japan. The facts show that there was no need for the US to use such a weapon in that situation. In Europe, in May 1945, Hitler was defeated and the war ended. In the Pacific, the tide had turned totally against Japanese imperialism. It was obvious that the Soviet army would take part in the war against Japan, and Japan was losing the war with the US. It was just a matter of time before the Japanese war effort collapsed. Japan could not win against the combined forces of the Soviet Union, Europe, China and the US, so they were looking for a way out. There was absolutely no need for the US to use nuclear weapons. Inside the US establishment, there were fierce arguments as to whether these weapons should be used. The people of the world didn’t understand about the destructive power of nuclear weapons – only US leaders knew. They wanted the world to find out about how mighty these weapons were, so that the world would be forced to go along with US policy. In order to achieve this aim, they didn’t take into account how many lives would be lost. To them, the lives of ordinary Japanese people are like the lives of dogs, of animals. They would kill as many as possible in support of their geopolitical aims.

So the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later on the USSR developed nuclear weapons too. As time went on, the Soviet nuclear arsenal played the role of counterbalancing the possibility of US nuclear weapon usage. That is the main reason that the US couldn’t use these weapons in the second half of the 20th century. Later on the nuclear weapons club was expanded to include China, Britain and France. In terms of world peace as a whole, the enlargement of the nuclear club would intuitively be seen as a bad thing, but the reality was that the possession of nuclear weapons by China and the Soviet Union was able to check the use of nuclear weapons by anyone for any purposes. I think this is a fact we should admit.

As far as Korea is concerned, you know that Korea is just next door to Japan. Many Japanese lived in Korea, because Korea was a colony of Japan. Our media system at the time was run by Japanese. So when Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred, we heard about it and we understood very well the scale of this disaster. The Korean people understood very well how many people were killed in the space of just a minute. So the Korean people have a very direct experience of nuclear warfare from the beginning.

The Korean War started in 1950. The Americans thought they could easily win this war, because they had all the advanced conventional weapons and they mobilised 16 satellite countries. At this time China was only just liberated – the People’s Republic of China was just one year old. Meanwhile the Soviet Union was still recovering from the vast destruction of the Second World War. So, the US thought it could easily win the Korean War. However, they found out that their arrogance was misplaced. In fact, the Korean War was the first war that checked US ambitions.

The Korean People’s Army and the Chinese volunteers fought with incredible strength against the US. From the US point of view, this was a war against communism. But the communists had the full support of the people of these countries. Korea and China were rural countries, where the people were motivated by the idea of getting their own land. It is the Communist Party – the Workers’ Party of Korea – that distributed land equally to all farmers. So the WPK had the full support of the people, and the masses of the people took part in the Korean War. They knew the situation of their brothers and sisters in South Korea – dominated by landlords and US interests – and understood that if the DPRK lost the war, the rule of the landlords would be restored and the land reform reversed. So that is why the ordinary Korean people got involved. Everybody got involved and did not hesitate to make every sacrifice.

When he saw that the war was not going according to plan, Eisenhower asked his advisers: how can we win this war? The American generals suggested using the nuclear threat. The US felt that if they warned the population that they were going to drop a nuclear bomb, the people would flee from the front. Having witnessed the effects of nuclear warfare just five years previously, millions of people fled North Korea and went to the south. The result of this is that there are still 10 million separated families.

So you can see that the Korean people are the direct victims of nuclear bullying – us more so than anybody in the world. The nuclear issue is not an abstract one for us; it is something we have to take very seriously.

After the Korean War, the US never stopped its hostile policy towards Korea. Today they say that they cannot normalise relations with the DPRK because the DPRK has nuclear weapons. But in the 60s, 70s and 80s, we didn’t have nuclear weapons – did they normalise relations then? No. Rather, they continued trying to dominate the Korean peninsula with their own military force. It is the US that introduced nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. In the 70s, in order to check the influence of the Soviet Union, they deployed nuclear weapons in Europe and also in South Korea. The US never stopped threatening the DPRK with these weapons, which were just next to us, the other side of the demilitarised zone. Korea is a very small country, with a high population density. It is quite clear that if the US used its nuclear weapons, the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe would be unimaginable.

The DPRK government had to find a strategy to prevent the US from using these weapons against us. In the 1970s, there were discussions among the big powers as to how they could prevent nuclear war. What the big five counties agreed is that they would stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Only five countries would be allowed to have nuclear weapons; the others would not. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was born in 1970. The NPT clearly states that nuclear power states cannot use nuclear weapons for the purpose of threatening or endangering non-nuclear states. So the DPRK thought that if we joined the NPT, we would be able to get rid of the nuclear threat from the US. Therefore we joined. However, the US never withdrew its right of pre-emptive nuclear strike. They always said that, once US interests are threatened, they always have the right to use their nuclear weapons for pre-emptive purposes. So it’s quite obvious that the NPT cannot ensure our safety. On this basis, we decided to withdraw and to formulate a different strategy to protect ourselves.

The world situation changed again after 11 September 2001. After this, Bush said that if the US wants to protect its safety, then it must remove the ‘axis of evil’ countries from the earth. The three countries he listed as members of this ‘axis of evil’ were Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Bush said that, in order to remove these evils from the earth, the US would not hesitate even to use nuclear weapons. Events since then have proved that this was not a simply rhetorical threat – they have carried out this threat against Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now it comes to North Korea. There was DPRK Framework Agreement between the Clinton administration and the DPRK in 1994, but the Bush administration canceled this, saying that America should not negotiate with evil. The neo-cons said that ‘evil states’ should be removed by force. Having witnessed what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, we came to realise that we couldn’t put a stop to the threat from the US with conventional weapons alone. So we realised that we needed our own nuclear weapons in order to defend the DPRK and its people.

In additional to the direct nuclear threat, I must point out that there is also the issue of the ‘nuclear umbrella’. The US extends its nuclear umbrella to its friends, such as Japan, South Korea and the Nato countries. But Russia and China aren’t willing to open up a nuclear umbrella to other countries, because they are afraid of the response from the US. We realised that no country will protect us from US nuclear weapons, and therefore we came to understand that we must develop our own.

We can say now that the choice to develop our own nuclear deterrent force was a correct decision. What happened to Libya? When Gaddafi wanted to improve Libya’s relations with the US and UK, the imperialists said that in order to attract international investment he would have to give up his weapons programmes. Gaddafi even said that he would visit the DPRK to convince us to give up our nuclear programme. But once Libya dismantled all its nuclear programmes and this was confirmed by western intelligence, the west changed its tune. This led to a situation where Gaddafi could not protect Libya’s sovereignty; he could not even protect his own life. This is an important historical lesson.

The DPRK wants to protect its security. We ask the US to give up its hostile policy; to give up its military threat; to normalise relations with the DPRK; to replace the armistice treaty with a peace treaty. Only when the American military threat against the DPRK is removed; only when peace-guaranteeing mechanisms are established on the Korean peninsula; only then can we talk of giving up our nuclear weapons. In other words, the US should take the issue seriously; it should take a positive approach to solve this matter.

We are proud that, even though there is a huge US military presence in the Korean peninsula and in northeast Asia, so far we have been very successful in preventing another war on the Korean peninsula. The US war machine never stops. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria… every day, hundreds of innocent people are dying because of imperialist policy led by the US. But after the Korean War finished in 1953, the DPRK has been able to maintain peace on the Korean peninsula, and we think this is a great achievement.

Were you hopeful that, with the election of Barack Obama, the US position on Korea would improve?

Well, Obama’s policy is different from that of Bush and the conservatives. Instead of solving these problems directly, he is moving to a position of ‘strategic neglect’. Obama wants to keep the issue as it is rather than taking real steps to improve the situation. The current administration says that there are too many pending issues for the US to solve.

There have been some interesting visits to the DPRK recently, for example by Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, and by Dennis Rodman, the basketball star. Do these perhaps – even in a very small way – indicate that there are some people within US ruling circles that are interested in improving relations with the DPRK?

It’s very difficult to say whether those visits will have a positive influence. What the DPRK wants to do is to deliver a message to the American people that the DPRK is always willing to address and solve problems; that the DPRK wants to improve its relations with the US; that the DPRK does not consider the US as its permanent enemy. We hope that these visits of prominent US citizens will help to convey this message.

Do any of the other imperialist powers – for example Britain, France, Australia – have a more constructive position in relation to the DPRK, or do they follow the US lead?

There is a bit of a different approach. For instance, the US government has never extended diplomatic recognition to the DPRK as a sovereign state, whereas US allies such as Britain and Australia do accept our existence; these countries support a policy of engagement with the DPRK.

Does the US still maintain nuclear weapons in South Korea?

That is really hard to say, because US nuclear weapons are more sophisticated and modernised compared with the 70s and 80s. They have more nuclear submarines. They have weapons that are smaller and more difficult to detect. So it is difficult to say if there are nuclear weapons permanently stationed in South Korea. But it is very obvious that US nuclear weapons visit South Korea on a regular basis. Just recently, the US engaged in joint military exercises with Japan and South Korea. For those exercises, the US aircraft carrier George Washington entered the South Korean harbour of Busan for three days. What kind of planes are carried on the George Washington? Fighters and bombers that can easily drop nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.

In March this year, the US introduced B52 bombers on the Korean peninsula for military exercises, simulating nuclear bombing raids on North Korea.

The US policy is to neither deny nor confirm whether they have nuclear weapons on South Korea. But the fact is that they can introduce these weapons and launch a strike at any time, so whether these weapons are actually there on the ground right now is not so relevant.

You’ve lived here in London for some time and presumably have some idea about how British people think about North Korea. The stereotype is that it’s an ‘undemocratic’ country where people don’t have the right to vote; where people don’t have any freedom of speech; they don’t have the right to criticise the government; they don’t have the right to participate in the running of the country. Is that a fair characterisation?

I think the general impression the British people have is shaped by the bourgeois media. What I can say is that those people who have done more serious investigation, especially those who have visited the DPRK and have seen our achievements with their own eyes, have a totally different impression of my country.

Pyongyang skylineThe number of British tourists has been increasing in recent years – this year alone it will be almost 500. There are nine British travel agencies who operate tours of the DPRK. Visas are never denied for tourists. I have met with some British tourists who had just returned from the DPRK, and they were so surprised to see how different it is from their impressions that they had picked up in the media. They didn’t know that the DPRK is a socialist country where there is free education, where there is free medical care, where people’s health is fully guaranteed, where there is free housing. They didn’t know all these good aspects of North Korea. Most of them, before they visit my country, imagine that our streets are full of malnourished people, that there is no decent transportation, that everyone looks sad, that there is no real cultural life, etc. But when they get to Korea they see that it is entirely different. For example, public transportation is almost free – you pay a little money but compared with what you pay in Britain or the US it is basically free. They couldn’t believe that Pyongyang city is full of big apartments and houses, built and given to the people free of charge. They were also surprised that there were so many schools, much better equipped than British state schools. They found out that North Korean children are generally at a much higher educational level than their British counterparts; that the vast majority of North Korean children enjoy free after-school activities, learning piano, violin and so on. They found out that there was no begging in the streets, no drug problems. They found out that they could leave their hotels at any time of night and go out in the streets without fearing for their safety, since there are no problems of robberies and gangs.

So they were shocked, and they asked me why the British media is so negative all the time about the DPRK and never mentions its positive aspects. My answer is that the media wants to depict the DPRK as an evil, as a type of hell, because they want to tell the British public that there is no alternative to capitalism, to imperialism. They want people to believe there is only one economic and political system; therefore it is against their interests to say anything positive about the socialist system.

So if people in this country want to visit North Korea, it’s easy to do so?

Yes. There are many well-known companies such as Regent Holidays, Voyagers, Koryo Tours and others that organise group tours. Because the media depicts the DPRK so badly, the number of people interested in visiting is actually getting bigger and bigger.

If you go on a tour, would you typically visit only Pyongyang?

Pyongyang schoolNo, you can visit any place you like. There are more and more options emerging all the time. For example, many tourists want to visit for just one day, so they can do a one-day trip via the border with China. Another trip we have started is a train trip, with trains going from China to Korea. Also now there is an air trip, with outdated passenger aeroplanes (typically made in the USSR in the 50s or 60s), which are quite fashionable with many tourists. Now a New Zealand company is organising a motorcycle tour of the whole Korean peninsula. One can find such tours available on the internet.

These tours have increased a lot over the last 3-4 years, as we have much more of the supporting infrastructure now, so the tourist industry is more open and diverse. We feel that it helps us to establish stronger cultural relations with other countries.

Each socialist country has had its own way of organising popular democracy and participation, for example the Soviets in the USSR, and the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution in Cuba – structures that allow people to manage the affairs of their workplaces and localities, solving their basic problems and electing people to higher bodies at regional and national levels. Is there something along these lines in North Korea?

Of course. We operate democracy at every level of our party and government. As you know, the major party of government is the Workers’ Party of Korea. This party is a mass party with a membership of millions, and is organised along democratic centralist lines. If someone in a given party structure (a cell) is not working according to the party line that has been discussed and agreed upon, then there would be a criticism by other party members and that member is given a chance to correct his behaviour. At each level of the party we use this system of criticism, self-criticism and accountability in order to maintain efficient and correct work.

We have a Supreme People’s Assembly, which could be considered the equivalent of the British parliament. Under this Supreme People’s Assembly, there are assemblies at province, city and county levels. The members are all elected, and these bodies meet frequently. They are responsible for taking important decisions, in a normal democratic way. For example, given a limited budget, they might have to take a vote as to whether to spend money on building a new kindergarten, or improving a hospital, and so on. In this way, broad masses of people are involved in the process of managing society. If the bodies don’t function correctly, there are mechanisms for people to criticise them and to appeal against bad decisions and negative work. For example, if water sanitation in a particular village needs to be improved, then local people can go to the council to protest. If their protest is taken into account and the situation is improved, that is good. If not, people can appeal higher up – to the city or province level – to make sure that the council is representing them properly.

Is the WPK the only political party in North Korea?

There are many parties and mass organisations besides the WPK, such as the Catholic Party and the Social Democratic Party. We do not consider that we have ‘ruling’ and ‘opposition’ parties – the parties are all on friendly terms and cooperate in developing our society. These other parties all participate in the people’s assemblies – as long as they get enough votes. They are even represented in the Supreme People’s Assembly.

People have a prejudice against our country that decisions are only made at the top by only one person, but how is this even possible? Running a country is a complicated process that needs the energy and creativity of many people.

I’m interested to understand how has DPRK been able to survive the last two decades, in such a difficult global political context. The Soviet Union – the biggest socialist country – collapsed; the people’s democracies in Eastern Europe no longer exist. How is it that, in a hostile international environment, the DPRK has been able to keep going?

Arirang mass gamesThe past two decades have been the most difficult period for us. We suddenly lost our major trading partners, out of nowhere, with no warning. This had a major impact on our economy. And with the disappearance of the USSR, the US moved to a policy of intensification, believing that our days were numbered. The US intensified its economic blockade and its military threat. They stopped all financial transactions between the DPRK and the rest of the world. The US controls the flow of foreign currency: if they say that any bank will be the target of sanctions if it does business with the DPRK, then obviously that bank has to go along with them. The US issued such an ultimatum to all companies: if they do business with North Korea, they will be subject to sanctions by the US. This is still in place. The US government thought that if they cut economic relations between the DPRK and the rest of the world, we would have to submit to them. The only reason that we have been able to survive is the single-hearted unity of the people. The people united firmly around the leadership. We worked extremely hard to solve our problems by ourselves.

If the UK one day suddenly lost its markets in the US and Europe, would it survive? If all financial transactions are stopped, how can a country survive? And yet we did survive.

Is the global situation more favourable now for North Korea and for other countries that are pursuing an independent path?

Yes. The past two decades were very difficult: not only did we have to survive economically but we also had to frustrate US military intentions; therefore we had to put a lot of investment and focus on strengthening our army, building weapons and developing our nuclear capability. Now that we have nuclear weapons, we can reduce our military investment, because even a small nuclear arsenal can play a deterrent role. We are in a position where we can make the US hesitate to attack us. Therefore we can focus more on people’s welfare now.

Do you think that the relative economic decline of the US and Western Europe will help Korea?

We have to wait and see. It is true that US economic power is declining, but precisely because of this, the US is trying to consolidate its political and military power. At the moment, this is reflected in the ‘pivot to Asia’, which is really about China. The importance of the Korean peninsula is therefore increasing, due to its proximity to China and Russia. The Korean peninsula is sort of a pivot point from which the US thinks it can exercise control over the big powers.

The war in Syria has been a key issue in world politics over the last 2-3 years. The DRPK continues to be a supporter of, and friend to, Syria. What is the basis for this relationship?

Mural celebrating DPRK-Syria friendshipIn the past, our late president Kim Il Sung had very comradely relations with President Hafez al-Assad. Both leaders shared the viewpoint that they should fight against imperialist policy. Syria was always a strong supporter of Palestinian self-determination, and was an important pillar against US and Israeli policy in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the DPRK was an important pillar against US policy in the Korean peninsula. So both countries share the same policy in relation to struggling against imperialist policy worldwide. This is the basis for the solidarity between the two countries.

Historically, Syria was not our only friend in the Middle East: we were very close with Nasser’s Egypt and with Yasser Arafat and the PLO – these leaders and countries shared the same philosophy of independence and development. This shared philosophy still exists between Syria and North Korea.

Under the pretext of introducing human rights and democracy in the Middle East, the US and its partners are creating chaos. Their so-called ‘Arab Spring’ policy has created a situation where hundreds of innocent people are killed every day. People are fighting each other in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, everywhere. This is a reflection of US divide and rule policy. Israel – the most important regional partner of the US – is a small country, whereas the Arab world is quite big; so the US and Israel are afraid of the unity of the Arab world. How can they break this unity? They try to create hatred among the different political organisations, among different religious groups, among different countries. Once this hatred is created, they encourage people to fight each other. This is the “freedom” they have brought: the freedom for people to kill each other. This is the strategy for guaranteeing the security of Israel.

It is essential that the Arab people understand the policy of divide and rule. This policy has been used for hundreds of years by the British Empire, the Americans and other imperialist empires. People have to unite in order to protect their children.

Over the past 10-15 years, there have been some important changes in South and Central America, the region historically considered as the US ‘backyard’. There are now progressive governments not only in Cuba, but also in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Do you think this is a promising development?

I think so, yes. The people of South America are more conscious than ever before. Previously, Latin America was dominated by US imperialism, with most governments – many of them brutal military dictatorships – directly supported by the US. But these states didn’t improve the lives of the ordinary people. So now people have come to understand that they must break the relationship of dependency with the US. They have decided to take up their own destinies. Just look at Venezuela: Venezuela has been an oil-rich country for a long time, but only once Chávez got into power was the oil wealth distributed so that ordinary people could benefit.

The DPRK has positive relations with Latin American countries. We have now opened our embassy in Brazil. We have good relations with Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela; Cuba of course. Chávez wanted to visit North Korea, but in the end his health didn’t allow it. But he always promoted good relations between Venezuela and North Korea. He is certainly very much missed.

Bishop, Castro, Ortega

Thirty years ago today, the leader of the Grenadian Revolution, Maurice Bishop, was gunned down by his own comrades, the result of a disastrous split within the governing New Jewel Movement.

There are many stones still to be unturned in connection with the revolution’s collapse and the anti-popular coup that paved the way for US invasion, but it’s clear that the movement fell victim to the sectarianism, dogmatism and individualism that emerge with frustrating frequency on the left. Combined with the systematic campaign of destabilisation and psychological warfare waged by the US, these factors led to the destruction of one of the most promising political processes of the latter part of the 20th century.

Maurice Bishop was a popular, creative and intelligent revolutionary, with an intuitive grasp of where the masses were at. The clear leader of the Grenadian Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the corrupt and pro-imperialist administration of Eric Gairy, Bishop was a brilliant communicator, and his mutual empathy with the masses of the people was one of the major driving forces of the revolution – not unlike the relationship between Fidel and the Cuban people, or Chávez and Venezuelan people. In many ways, Bishop could be considered as the Hugo Chávez of his time. The Cuban government’s statement on the day after his death sums him up nicely:

“Bishop was one of the political leaders best liked and most respected by our people because of his talent, modesty, sincerity, revolutionary honesty and proven friendship with our country.”

muralIn addition to leading the fight for economic, political, social, racial, gender and cultural justice in Grenada; and in addition to working tirelessly to improve the lot of ordinary Grenadian people; Bishop was also a great friend to the socialist and anti-imperialist world. Fidel Castro saw him as a true brother and comrade, and Cuba embraced Grenada whole-heartedly, giving desperately-needed aid and expertise. Grenada built up close relations with (Sandinista) Nicaragua, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, East Germany, DPR Korea, Mozambique, Libya and Syria. Grenada also became a pole of attraction for black power activists from the US. Little wonder it was considered such a threat by the forces of imperialism. An example had to made of the first English-speaking country in the western hemisphere to walk the road of socialism.

Hugh O’Shaughnessy writes: “[Washington’s] rage reached paranoiac proportions when Grenada started close co-operation with Cuba and the USSR. Grenada’s action challenged the hegemony that Washington was expecting to extend throughout the Caribbean after the withdrawal of the British who had dominated it for two centuries.” (‘Grenada – Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath’)

The arrest and murder of Bishop and his close comrades by members of the Grenadian armed forces created a favourable context for the US to enact its invasion plans, which had been “nursed in secret at the State Department and the Pentagon for four and a half years” (O’Shaughnessy). The assassination was carried out by army officers acting under the instructions of the NJM faction centred around Bernard Coard. This group considered itself the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ trend to counter Bishop’s ‘petit bourgeois’ trend; however, its supposedly revolutionary actions were to set Grenada back by decades.

Fidel commented on this issue in some detail at the time:

“Today no one can yet say whether those who used the dagger of division and internal confrontation did so motu proprio or were inspired and egged on by imperialism. It is something that could have been done by the CIA – and, if somebody else was responsible, the CIA could not have done it any better. The fact is that allegedly revolutionary arguments were used, invoking the purest principles of Marxism-Leninism and charging Bishop with practising a personality-cult and drawing away from the Leninist norms and methods of leadership. In our view, nothing could be more absurd than to attribute such tendencies to Bishop. It was impossible to imagine anyone more noble, modest and unselfish. He could never have been guilty of being authoritarian; if he had any defect, it was his excessive tolerance and trust. In our view, Coard’s group objectively destroyed the Revolution and opened the door to imperialist aggression … Look at the history of the revolutionary movement, and you will find more than one connection between imperialism and those who take positions that appear to be on the extreme left.”

stampThe Cuban government’s statement of 20 October 1983 predicted: “Now imperialism will try to use this tragedy and the serious mistakes made by the Grenadian revolutionaries to sweep away the revolutionary process in Grenada and place the country under imperial and neocolonialist rule once again.”

A week later, this prediction was proven painfully correct, as Reagan sent tens of thousands of troops to ensure that the Grenadian Revolution was comprehensively wiped out.

There is much research still to be done on the Grenadian Revolution, and many lessons to be learned. Such lessons are all the more relevant in today’s context of several Latin American and Caribbean countries pursuing their own roads to socialism. The US and their allies would love to do to Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina what they did to Grenada. Destabilisation continues in a thousand different ways.

Meanwhile, the successes of Grenadian socialism – even if short-lived – continue to inspire progressive people around the world. The legacy of Maurice Bishop and the New Jewel Movement must be kept alive.

What follows is a selection of interesting quotes from Bishop, sourced from:

  • “In Nobody’s Backyard” (a fantastic volume of Bishop’s speeches edited by Chris Searle and published by Zed Books, ISBN 0862322480)
  • Hugh O’Shaughnessy: “Grenada – Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath.” (Sphere Books, ISBN 0722165617)
  • This New Internationalist interview

On the danger of Grenada’s example

“We are obviously no threat to America. Nor is Cuba for that matter. I think Washington fears that we could set an example for the rest of the region if our Revolution succeeds. In the Caribbean region you’re talking about small countries with small populations and limited resources, countries that over the years have been classic examples of neo-capitalist depend­encies. Now you have these new governments like Nicaragua and Grenada that are attempting a different experiment. They are no longer looking at development as how many hotels you have on the beach but in terms of what benefits people get. How many have jobs? How many are being fed, housed, and clothed? How many of the children receive education? We certainly believe in Grenada that the people of the English-speaking Caribbean want to see an experiment like that succeed. They want to see what we are trying to build come about. America understands that and obviously if we are able to succeed where previous governments following different models failed, that would be very, very subversive.”

On revolutionary spirit and vigilance

“Revolutionaries do not have the right to be cowards. We have to stand up to fight for our country because, the country is ours. It does not belong to anybody else”

“When will imperialism learn? Yes, they can kill our bodies but they can never kill the spirit of a people fighting for their liberation, they can never kill the spirit of a people fighting for their country and fighting to push their country forward.”

“As we have said so often, imperialism never rests and so we must continue to be on our guard, continue to be vigilant, continue to expand and strengthen our revolutionary People’s Militia. We must keep our eyes open for new tricks, for new variations of the enemy’s plan, for new devious twists and turns on the propaganda, and on the economic and the military fronts.”

“We saw how the CIA actually succeeded in turning back the progress of the organised workers’ movement in Chile, by both open and covert activity, and we in the Caribbean must be particularly vigilant in recognising their position and subversion of the workers’ cause, for imperialism will never rest in its resolution to crush the onward march of the progress and emancipation of our struggling people”

On propaganda, education, cultural imperialism and decolonisation

“We hold the truth itself to be revolutionary and we shall stand firm by its side.”

“Backwardness in the field of information is a fundamental reason for the fact that the international exchange of information is only a one way process. Basically, a veritable flood of information flows from the major imperialist cities to all corners of the globe, whereas there is a mere trickle in the opposite direction.”

“It is imperative to eliminate psychological warfare and cultural neocolonialism from intercourse between states and peoples.”

“The colonial masters recognised very early on that if you get a subject people to think like they, to forget their own history and their own culture, to develop a system of education that is going to have relevance to our outward needs and be almost entirely irrelevant to our internal needs, then they have already won the job of keeping us in perpetual domination and exploitation. Our educational process, therefore, was used mainly as a tool of the ruling elite.”

On free speech, human rights and democracy

“There are those (some of them our friends) who believe that you cannot have a democracy unless there is a situation where every five years, and for five seconds in those five years, a people are allowed to put an ‘X’ next to some candidate’s name, and for those five seconds in those five years they become democrats, and for the remainder of the time, four years and 364 days, they return to being non-people without the right to say anything to their government, without any right to be involved in running their country.”

“We don’t believe that a parliamentary system is the most relevant in our situation. After all, we took power outside the ballot-box and we are trying to build our Revolution on the basis of a new form of democracy: grass­roots and democratic, creating mechanismsand institutions which really have relevance to the people, If we succeed it will bring in question this whole parliamentary approach to demo­cracy which we regard as having failed in the region. We believe that elections could be important, but for us the question is one of timing. We don’t regard it now as a priority. We would much rather see elections come when the economy is more stable, when the Revolution is more consolidated. When more people have in fact had benefits brought to them. When more people are literate and able to understand what the meaning of a vote really is and what role they should have in building a genuine participatory democracy.”

“The right of freedom of expression can really only be relevant if people are not too hungry, or too tired to be able to express themselves. It can only be relevant if appropriate grassroots mechanisms rooted in the people exist, through which the people can effectively participate, can make decisions, can receive reports from the leaders and eventually be trained for ruling and controlling that particular society. This is what democracy is all about.”

“We don’t just speak about their kind of limited human rights but we talk about the human rights that the majority has never been able to enjoy, the human rights that they believe only the minority is entitled to: the human rights to a job, to decent housing, to a good meal when the day comes, to be able to form and to join a trade union, to be able to ensure that you can live a life of dignity and decency. All of these human rights have been the human rights for a small minority over the years in the Caribbean and the time has come for the majority of the people to begin to receive those human rights for the first time.”

“We have a very different conception of human rights than so-called Western demo­cracies. We see human rights much more in terms of economic rights: people having the right to jobs, housing, health and education. Civil and political human rights of course we have no quarrel with. We support them, but we take a different political and class position on these questions than Western clemocracies. When you raise the question of political prisoners people have to be very frank about this and admit a number of things. First, many Western democracies have thousands of political prisoners. Consider the UK in relation to Northern Ireland. In America Andy Young after all has said that blacks in American jails are political prisoners. I could not agree more with regard’ to the system that tries them and the racism that is endemic in it. Our position is that people who are threats to national security have to be kept away from society – both in their own interests, and more funda­mentally in the interests of the new society we are trying to build.”

On destabilisation

In Nobody's Backyard“Destabilisation is the name given to the most recently developed (or newest) method of controlling and exploiting the lives and resources of a country and its people by a bigger and more powerful country through bullying, intimidation and violence. In the old days, such countries – the colonialist and imperialist powers – sent in gunboats or marines to directly take over the country by sheer force. Later on mercenaries were often used in place of soldiers, navy and marines. Today, more and more the new weapon and the new menace is destabilization. This method was used against a number of Caribbean and Third World countries in the 1960s, and also against Jamaica and Guyana in the 1970s. Now, as we predicted, it has come to Grenada. Destabilisation takes many forms – there is propaganda destabilization, when the foreign media, and sometimes our own Caribbean press, prints lies and distortions against us; there is economic destabilization, when our trade and our industries are sabotaged and disrupted; and there is violent destabilization, criminal acts of death and destruction… As we show the world – clearly and unflinchingly – that we intend to remain free and independent; that we intend to consolidate and strengthen the principles and goals of our revolution; as we show this to the world, there will be attacks on us.”

“Destabilisation can work only when the people do not know that it is happening. It is a total failure when it is exposed and when the people see it for what it is. The people of Grenada must learn what this destabilization is, because then we cannot be fooled by it.”

“We think of the scientific way in which they have evolved a new concept which they have called destabilization: a concept aimed at creating political violence, economic sabotage; a concept which when it fails, eventually leads to terrorism. We think of the attempts to use local opportunists and counter revolutionaries—people who try to build a popular base, people who fail in building that popular base, and people who as a result of having failed to fool the masses then turn to the last weapon they have in desperation: the weapon of open, naked, brutal and vulgar terror—having given up all hope of winning the masses, these people now turn their revenge on the masses. They now seek to punish the masses, to murder them wholesale; to plant bombs in the midst of Rallies; to try to break the back of the popular support of the Revolution; because imperialism was frightened and terrified by the Grenadian masses on March 13, 1980 when 30,000 of our people gathered in one spot to celebrate one year of People’s Victory, People’s Progress, People’s Benefits. They were terrified by that, and as a result they now seek to intimidate, to brow beat, to frighten and terrorise the masses to get them to be afraid to assemble, to get them to be afraid to continue to build their own country in their own image and likeness.”

(NB. All of this extremely apt in the context of the current onslaught against Syria)

On independence

“Grenada is a sovereign and independent country, although a tiny speck on the world map, and we expect all countries to strictly respect our independence just as we will respect theirs. No country has the right to tell us what to do or how to run our country or who to be friendly with. We certainly would not attempt to tell any other country what to do. We are not in anybody’s backyard, and we are definitely not for sale. Anybody who thinks they can bully us or threaten us clearly has no understanding, idea, or clue as to what material we are made of. They clearly have no idea of the tremendous struggles which our people have fought over the past seven years. Though small and poor, we are proud and determined. We would sooner give up our lives before we compromise, sell out, or betray our sovereignty, our independence, our integrity, our manhood, and the right of our people to national self-determination and social progress.”

“We are a small country, we are a poor country, with a population of largely African descent, we are a part of the exploited Third World, and we definitely have a stake in seeking the creation of a new international economic order which would assist in ensuring economic justice for the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world, and in ensuring that the resources of the sea are used for the benefit of all the people of the world and not for a tiny minority of profiteers. Our aim, therefore, is to join all organizations and work with all countries that will help us to become more independent and more in control of our own resources. In this regard, nobody who understands present-day realities can seriously challenge our right to develop working relations with a variety of countries.”

On Chile and the hypocrisy of imperialism

“Has Reagan ever been interested in elections and democracy? When did Reagan ever call on Haiti to hold elections? When did Reagan ever call on the butcher Pinochet in Chile or on South Korea to hold elections? Is he calling upon racist South Africa to hold elections? No! Even when Allende in Chile had in fact won power through elections what did the American President – Nixon at the time do? Nixon, Kissinger and Helms sat down the night after Allende won the elections in September 1970 and they worked out their plan of aggression and destabilisation against President Allende. Allende didn’t say no more elections. He didn’t arm working people to try to close down the reactionary paper El Mercurio as he should have done. Allende relied on the parliamentary form that they wanted him to rely on. But because he was a socialist and was independent and was bringing benefits and justice to his people, the American elite went out of their way to crush him ruthlessly. And the criminal they put into power has yet to be told by the so-called democratic United States to call an election.”

(NB. Eric Gairy, the Grenadian President overthrown by the NJM, was a strong supporter of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile)

On Cuba

Maurice Bishop and Fidel Castro“Your revolution, comrades, has also provided the region and the world with a living legend in your great and indomitable leader, Fidel Castro. Fidel has taught us not only how to fight, but also how to work, how to build socialism, and how to lead our country in a spirit of humility, sincerity, commitment and firm revolutionary leadership.” (before a crowd of 1.5 million people on May Day in Havana, 1980)

On the role of repression under socialism

“All revolutions involve temporary dislocations and, for a period, it is always necessary to restrain the abuses and excesses of a violent or disruptive minority in the interests of consolidating the revolution and bringing concrete benefits to the long-suffering and formerly oppressed majority.”

On the long path towards socialism

“It took several hundred years for feudalism to be finally wiped out and capitalism to emerge as the new dominant mode of production and it will take several hundred years for capitalism to be finally wiped out before socialism becomes the new dominant mode.”

Chavez Assad

On 10 April 1993, one of the greatest heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle, Chris Hani, was gunned down by a neo-fascist in an attempt to disrupt the seemingly inexorable process of bringing majority rule to South Africa. Although direct legal culpability for this tragic assassination belonged to only two men – a Polish immigrant by the name of Janusz Waluś and a senior Conservative Party MP named Clive Derby-Lewis – the crime formed part of a much wider onslaught against the ANC and its allies. This onslaught – paramilitary, political, legal, psychological, journalistic – was not primarily conducted by fringe lunatics such as Waluś and Derby-Lewis, but by the mainstream white political forces and their puppets within the black community (such as the Inkatha Freedom Party). The leaders of the ANC, and particularly the MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed liberation movement with which Chris Hani’s name will forever be associated) were subjected to a wide-ranging campaign of demonisation. This campaign created conditions such that political assassinations of anti-apartheid leaders became expected, almost inevitable. Of course, the more ‘dovish’ leaders of the main white party, the National Party, were quick to denounce Hani’s assassination; but the truth is that they were at least partly responsible for it.

Speaking at Hani’s funeral, Nelson Mandela spoke of this phenomenon: “To criminalise is to outlaw, and the hunting down of an outlaw is regarded as legitimate. That is why, although millions of people have been outraged at the murder of Chris Hani, few were really surprised. Those who have deliberately created this climate that legitimates political assassinations are as much responsible for the death of Chris Hani as the man who pulled the trigger.”

Turning to the current situation in Syria, we see a parallel between the “climate that legitimates political assassinations” in early-90s South Africa and a media climate that legitimates the “limited military strikes” being planned in Washington.

The Syrian state has been under direct attack by western imperialism for the last two and a half years (although the US and others have been “accelerating the work of reformers” for much longer than that). The forms of this attack are many: providing weapons and money to opposition groups trying to topple the government; implementing wide-ranging trade sanctions; providing practically unlimited space in the media for the opposition whilst effecting a near-total media blackout on pro-government sources; and relentlessly slandering the Syrian president and government. In short, the western media and governments have – consciously and deliberately – “created this climate that legitimates” a military regime change operation against Syria.

An anti-war movement that takes part in war propaganda

Building a phoney case for imperialist regime change is, of course, not unusual. What is really curious is that the leadership of the anti-war movement in the west – the people whose clear responsibility is to build the widest possible opposition to war on Syria – has been actively participating in the propaganda and demonisation campaign. Whilst opposing direct military strikes, they have nonetheless given consistent support to the regime change operation that such strikes are meant to consummate.

Wilfully ignoring the indications that the Syrian government is very popular, Tariq Ali – perhaps the most recognisable figure in the British anti-war movement – feels able to claim that “the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people want the Assad family out”. Indeed, he explicitly calls for foreign-assisted regime change, saying “non-violent pressure has to be kept up externally to tell Bashar he has to go.”

Rising star of the British left Owen Jones used his high-profile Independent column of 25 August this year (just as the war rhetoric from Cameron, Hollande and Kerry was reaching fever pitch) to voice his hatred of the “gang of thugs” and “glorified gangsters” that run Syria, before worrying that “an attack could invite retaliation from Iran and an escalation of Russian’s support for Assad’s thugs, helping to drag the region even further into disaster.” Jones evidently doesn’t know very much about Syria, but that doesn’t stop him from participating in the Ba’ath-bashing: last year, his response to a bomb attack in Damascus which killed several Syrian ministers was the gleeful “Adios, Assad (I hope)”.

According to Stop the War Coalition national officer John Rees, “no-one can minimise the barbarity of the Assad regime, nor want to defend it from the justified rage of its own people.” Any objectively progressive actions ever taken by the Syrian government (such as its support for Palestine and Hezbollah) are nothing more than “self-interested and calculated acts of state policy” – which claim is rather reminiscent of the Financial Times accusing Hugo Chávez of “demagogy” in pushing for land reform in Venezuela!

Rees is only too clear that the number one enemy for Syrians is the government, and that pro-west sectarian Saudi-funded rebels are a secondary enemy – a position virtually indistinguishable from the Israelis, who state: “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” Further, Rees believes that what is really needed is to “give the revolutionaries the chance to shake off their pro-western leaders and defeat Assad.” That’s presumably if they’re not too busy eating human hearts or murdering people on the basis of their religious beliefs.

These are not isolated examples. It is decidedly rare to find a British anti-war leader mentioning Bashar al-Assad and his government in anything but an intensely negative light. Bashar is “brutal”; he is a “dictator”; he should be indicted at the International Criminal Court. Frankly, this leader of independent, anti-imperialist Syria is subjected to far more severe abuse from the mainstream left than are the leaders of Britain, France and the US. In the imperialist heartlands of North America and Western Europe, the defence of Syria has been left to a small minority, although thankfully the (far more important) left movements in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and elsewhere have a much richer understanding of anti-imperialist solidarity.

At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious: if you’re trying to spread anti-war sentiment and build the most effective possible movement against military action, then taking part in the demonisation of the country under threat is probably not a very smart strategy.

This campaign of propaganda, lies and slander has been very effective in creating a public opinion that is ambivalent at best in relation to the attack that is under preparation. Whilst most people may be “against” bombing Syria in principle, to what extent are they passionate enough to actually do anything to prevent this criminal, murderous act from taking place? Two million people marched against war in Iraq (and given the right leadership, they would have been willing to do considerably more than just march); yet no demonstration against war on Syria has attracted more than a couple of thousand people. Would thousands of people be willing to participate in direct action? Would they be willing to conduct, say, a one-week general strike? Would workers follow the great example of the Rolls Royce workers in East Kilbride and actively disrupt imperialist support for regime change? Highly unlikely. And this is because all they have heard about Syria – from the radical left to the fundamentalist right to the Saudi-sponsored Muslim organisations – is that Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator whose overthrow is long overdue.

OK, but haven’t we just prevented a war?

In the light of the House of Commons exhibiting an unusual level of sense by voting against Cameron’s motion authorising use of force against Syria, some anti-war activists were quick to claim that the “sustained mass power of the anti-war movement” has “undoubtedly been a decisive factor.” Members of this movement should “recognise what we have achieved in recent weeks : we have stopped the US and Britain from waging a war that, if the British parliament had voted the other way, would already have taken place, with who knows what consequences.”

Now, optimism and jubilation have their place, but they shouldn’t be used to deflect valid criticism or avoid serious reflection. Anybody who has been involved in the anti-war movement in Britain over the past decade will have noticed the level of activity steadily dwindling. Just two years ago, we witnessed a vicious war fought by the western imperialist powers (with Britain one of the major instigators) in order to effect regime change in Libya. Over 50,000 died. Murderous racists were brought to power. A head of state was tortured and murdered , while imperialism celebrated. Decades of development – that had turned Libya from a colonial backwater into the country with the highest living standards in Africa – have been turned back. Stop the War Coalition weren’t able to mobilise more than a tiny protest against this war, and yet we are expected to believe that, two years later, Britain suddenly has a vibrant and brilliantly effective anti-war movement capable of preventing war on Syria? This is obviously not the case.

Regardless of how much attention the British public pays to the anti-war movement, the fact is that public opinion in the west is only a small factor in the much larger question of the balance of forces. Syria is different to Libya in that it has powerful allies and that it has never disarmed. Furthermore, it shares a border with Israel and is capable of doing some serious damage to imperialism’s most important ally in the Middle East. This makes military intervention a highly dangerous and unpredictable option from the point of view of the decision-makers in Washington, London and Paris.

The uprising was supposed to take care of this problem. A successful ‘Arab Spring’ revolution – armed, trained and funded by the west and its regional proxies in Saudi, Turkey, Qatar and Jordan – would have installed a compliant government and would have constituted an essential milestone in the imperialist-zionist regional strategy: the breakup of the resistance axis and the overthrow of all states unwilling to go along with imperialist diktat. This strategy – seemingly so difficult for western liberals and leftists to comprehend – is perfectly well understood by the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah: “What is happening in Syria is a confrontation between the resistance axis and the U.S./Israeli axis. They seek aggression against the resistance axis through Syria in order to destroy Syria’s capabilities and people, marginalize its role, weaken the resistance and relieve Israel.”

Beyond the Middle East, a successful ‘revolution’ in Syria would of course be a vital boost to the US-led global strategy: protecting US hegemony and containing the rise of China, Russia and the other major developing nations.

And yet, in spite of massive support given to the armed opposition; in spite of the relentless propaganda campaign against the Syrian government; in spite of Israeli bombing raids on Damascus; in spite of a brutal and tragic campaign of sectarian hatred being conducted by the rebels; in spite of the blanket support given to the rebels by the imperialists and zionists; the Syrian Arab Army is winning. The tide has clearly turned and the momentum is with the patriotic forces. Hezbollah have openly joined the fray. Russia has sent its warships to the region and has demonstrated some genuine creative brilliance in the diplomatic field in order to prevent western military strikes. Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela and others have been immovable in their demands for a peaceful, negotiated solution to the crisis.

Nobody in imperialist policy circles expected things to turn out like this. The ‘revolution’ was supposed to have succeeded long ago. As a result, the western ruling classes have moved from a firm, united policy (i.e. help the rebels to victory and then ‘assist the transition to democracy’) to chaos, confusion and division. There are hawkish elements that want to bomb their way to victory, and there are more cautious/realistic elements that realise this would be an incredibly dangerous course of action for the western powers and for Israel. Imperialism is faced with a very delicate, even impossible, balance: trying to preserve its increasingly fragile hegemony whilst actively attacking the global counter-hegemonic process. It is a case of “damned if they do and damned if they don’t”.

Such divisions within the ruling circles in the west are to be welcomed, but it would be an act of significant deception to claim victory for a western anti-war movement that has persistently refused to ally itself with global anti-imperialism.

Decriminalise and defend Syria

If we are going to build an anti-war movement capable of mobilising people in a serious way to actually counter imperialist war plans for Syria, we cannot continue with the hopeless “neither imperialism nor Assad” position, which is designed to avoid the obvious question: when imperialism is fighting against the Syrian state, which side should we be on?

A far more viable anti-war slogan is: Defend Syria from imperialist destabilisation, demonisation and war.

But can we really defend this brutal, oppressive, repressive regime? Wasn’t the much-missed Hugo Chavez just being a bit of a nutcase when he expressed his fondness for “brother President Bashar al-Assad” and worked to counter the offensive against Syria by shipping fuel to it?

As with so many things, we have to start with a total rejection of the mainstream media narrative. The country they paint as a brutally repressive police state, a prison of nations, a Cold War relic, is (or was, until the war started tearing it apart) a dignified, safe, secular, modern and moderately prosperous state, closely aligned with the socialist and non-aligned world (e.g. Venezuela, Cuba, DPR Korea), and one of the leading forces within the resistance axis – a bloc that the imperialists are absolutely desperate to break up.

In the words of its president, Syria is “an independent state working for the interests of its people, rather than making the Syrian people work for the interests of the West.” For over half a century, it has stubbornly refused to play by the rules of imperialism and neoliberalism. Stephen Gowans shows that, in spite of some limited market reforms of recent years, “the Ba’athist state has always exercised considerable influence over the Syrian economy, through ownership of enterprises, subsidies to privately-owned domestic firms, limits on foreign investment, and restrictions on imports. These are the necessary economic tools of a post-colonial state trying to wrest its economic life from the grips of former colonial powers and to chart a course of development free from the domination of foreign interests.”

The Syrian government maintains a commitment to a strong welfare state, for example ensuring universal access to healthcare (in which area its performance has been impressive) and providing free education at all levels. It has a long-established policy of secularism and multiculturalism, protecting and celebrating its religious and ethnic diversity and refusing to tolerate sectarian hatred.

Syria has done a great deal – perhaps more than any other country – to oppose Israel and support the Palestinians. It has long been the chief financial and practical supporter of the various Palestinian resistance organisations, as well as of Hezbollah. It has intervened militarily to prevent Israel’s expansion into Lebanon. It has provided a home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, who are treated far better than they are elsewhere in the Arab world. In spite of massive pressure to do so – and in spite of the obvious immediate benefits that it would reap in terms of security and peace – it has refused to go down the route of a bilateral peace treaty with Israel. Palestine is very much at the forefront of the Syrian national consciousness, as exemplified by the Syrians who went to the border with Israel on Nakba Day 2011 and were martyred there at the hands of the Israeli ‘Defence’ Forces.

True to its Pan-Arabist traditions, Syria has also provided a home to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees in the aftermath of NATO’s 2003 attack.

Whatever mistakes and painful compromises Ba’athist Syria has made over the years should be viewed in terms of the very unstable and dangerous geopolitical and economic context within which it exists. For example:

  • It is in a permanent state of war with Israel, and has part of its territory occupied by the latter.

  • While it has stuck to the principles of Arab Nationalism and the defence of Palestinian rights, the other frontline Arab states – Egypt and Jordan, along with the reactionary Gulf monarchies – have capitulated.

  • It has suffered constant destabilisation by the western imperialist countries and their regional allies.

  • It shares a border with the heavily militarised pro-western regime in Turkey.

  • It shares a border with the chronically unstable Lebanon (historically a part of Syria that was carved out in the 1920s by the French colonialists in order to create a Christian-dominated enclave).

  • Its most important ally of the 70s and 80s – the Soviet Union – collapsed in 1991, leaving it in a highly precarious situation.

  • Its economic burdens have been added to by longstanding sanctions, significantly deepened in 2003 by George W Bush, specifically in response to Syria’s support for resistance movements in the region.

  • Its economic problems of recent years have also been exacerbated by the illegal imperialist war on Iraq, which created a refugee crisis of horrific proportions. Syria absorbed 1.5 million Iraqi refugees and has made significant sacrifices to help them. Given that “Syria has the highest level of civic and social rights for refugees in the region,” it’s not difficult to understand how its economic and social stability must have been affected.

  • In recent years, Syria has been suffering from a devastating drought “impacting more than 1.3 million people, killing up to 85 percent of livestock in some regions and forcing 160 villages to be abandoned due to crop failures”. The root of this problem is the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, as one-third of Israel’s water is supplied from Golan.

  • Given the number of different religious sects and ethnicities within Syria, it has never been difficult for the west and its regional proxies to stir up tensions and create unrest.

While there is clearly a need to enhance popular democracy and to clamp down on corruption and cronyism (in what country is this not the case?), this is well understood by the state. As Alistair Crooke writes: “There is this mass demand for reform. But paradoxically – and contrary to the ‘awakening’ narrative – most Syrians also believe that President Bashar al-Assad shares their conviction for reform.”

So there is every reason to defend Syria. Not because it is some sort of socialist utopia, but because it is an independent, anti-imperialist, anti-zionist state that tries to provide a good standard of living for its people and which aligns itself with the progressive and counterhegemonic forces in the region and worldwide.

Tasks for the anti-war movement

If the anti-war movement can agree on the need to actively defend Syria, then its tasks become relatively clear:

  1. Clearly explain to the public that this is not a revolution or a civil war, but an imperialist war of regime change where the fighting has been outsourced to sectarian religious terrorists. It is not part of a region-wide ‘Arab Spring’ process of “overthrowing reactionary regimes”; rather, it is part of a global process of destabilising, demonising, weakening and removing all states that refuse to play by the rules. It is this same process that brought about regime change in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Grenada, Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, Congo, Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Brazil and elsewhere. This process was described in a very clear, straightforward way by Maurice Bishop, leader of the socialist government in Grenada that was overthrown 30 years ago: “Destabilisation is the name given to the newest method of controlling and exploiting the lives and resources of a country and its people by a bigger and more powerful country through bullying, intimidation and violence… Destabilisation takes many forms: there is propaganda destabilisation, when the foreign media, and sometimes our own Caribbean press, prints lies and distortions against us; there is economic destabilisation, when our trade and our industries are sabotaged and disrupted; and there is violent destabilization, criminal acts of death and destruction… As long as we show the world, clearly and unflinchingly, that we intend to remain free and independent; that we intend to consolidate and strengthen the principles and goals of our revolution; as we show this to the world, there will be attacks on us.”

  2. Stop participating in the demonisation of the Syrian state. This demonisation – repeating the media’s lies against Syria, exaggerating the negative aspects of the Syrian state and downplaying all the positive things it has done – is totally demobilising. It is preventing the development of a meaningful, creative, courageous, audacious anti-war movement.

  3. Campaign for an end to trade sanctions on Syria.

  4. Campaign for an end to the arming and funding of rebel groups by the British, French and US governments and their stooges in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan and Kuwait.

  5. Send peace delegations to Syria to observe the situation first hand and report back. The recent delegation by Cynthia McKinney, Ramsey Clark, Dedon Kamathi and others is an excellent example that should be emulated.

  6. Campaign for wide-ranging industrial action in the case of military attack.

  7. Support all processes leading to a peaceful, negotiated resolution of the Syrian crisis, reflecting the will of the vast majority of the Syrian people.

The defence of Syria is, at this point in time, the frontline of the struggle worldwide against imperialist domination. It is Korea in 1950, Vietnam in 1965, Algeria in 1954, Zimbabwe in 1970, Cuba in 1961, Nicaragua in 1981, Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011, Palestine since 1948. It’s time for us to step up.

Further reading

Patrick Seale’s biography of Hafez al-Assad, ‘Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East’, provides an excellent overview of 20th century Syria and a very balanced, detailed depiction of the Ba’athist government.

The following articles are also particularly useful:

Alastair Crooke: Unfolding the Syrian Paradox

Asia Times: A mistaken case for Syrian regime change

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb: Assad Foreign Policy (I): A History of Consistence

Amal Saad-Ghorayeb: Assad Foreign Policy (II): Strategies of Confrontation

Monthly Review: Why Syria Matters: Interview with Aijaz Ahmad

Stephen Gowans: Syria, The View From The Other Side

Stephen Gowans: What the Syrian Constitution says about Assad and the Rebels

Up-to-date anti-imperialist analysis of the Syria crisis can generally be found at Workers World, Liberation, FightBack, Lalkar, Socialist Action, Global Research, Pan-African News Wire, Proletarian, What’s Left and ASG’s Counter-Hegemony Unit.

Cuba

The 26th of July is celebrated in Cuba as the Day of National Rebellion, in honour of the attack on the Moncada army garrison in Santiago de Cuba on 26 July 1953. This attack, led by Fidel Castro, was the beginning of the revolutionary armed struggle against the Batista regime.

To help mark 60 years of the Cuban Revolution, I have put together a list of 20 reasons why all sensible, progressive people should support and defend Cuba.

1. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world

Cuba’s literacy rate of 99.8% is among the highest in the world – higher than that of both Britain and the US. The Cuban Revolution has placed a very strong emphasis on literacy, considering it an essential component of empowering the population. Just two years after the seizure of power in 1959, the Cuban government embarked upon one of the most ambitious and wide-ranging literacy campaigns in history, sending tens of thousands of students to the countryside to form literacy brigades. Within a year, the literacy rate was increased from 70% to 96%. Additionally, over the past 50 years, thousands of Cuban literacy teachers have volunteered in countries around the world including Haiti and remote indigenous communities in Australia.

2. Health-care is free, universal, and of high quality

It is a small, poor island that does not exploit other countries and which suffers from a suffocating economic blockade, yet Cuba “boasts better health indicators than its exponentially richer neighbour 90 miles across the Florida straits.” Life expectancy is an impressive 79. Infant mortality is 4.83 deaths per 1,000 live births compared (better than the US figure of 6.0, and incomparably better than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean, which is around 27 deaths per 1,000 live births). Cuba has the lowest HIV prevalence rate in the Americas. There is one doctor for every 220 people in Cuba – “one of the highest ratios in the world, compared with one for every 370 in England.” Healthcare is community-based, prevention-oriented, holistic, and free.

As Kofi Annan said: “Cuba demonstrates how much nations can do with the resources they have if they focus on the right priorities – health, education, and literacy.”

3. Education is free, universal, and of high quality

If you want to understand the true nature of a society, then a study of its education system is a good place to start. In Cuba, high quality education at every level is regarded as a human right, and has been the major priority of the government from 1959 onwards. The result is that a poor, underdeveloped country with widespread illiteracy and ignorance has become one of the most educated nations in the world. (Incidentally, you might think that a ‘dictatorship’ obsessed with preserving its grip on power – as the Cuban government is portrayed in the imperialist world – would worry about the consequences of creating generations of skilled critical thinkers!)

This article by Nina Lakhani in The Independent gives a useful overview:

“Education at every level is free, and standards are high… The primary-school curriculum includes dance and gardening, lessons on health and hygiene, and, naturally, revolutionary history. Children are expected to help each other so that no one in the class lags too far behind. And parents must work closely with teachers as part of every child’s education and social development… There is a strict maximum of 25 children per primary-school class, many of which have as few as 20. Secondary schools are striving towards only 15 pupils per class – less than half the UK norm.

“School meals and uniforms are free… ‘Mobile teachers’ are deployed to homes if children are unable to come to school because of sickness or disability… Adult education at all levels, from Open University-type degrees to English- and French-language classes on TV, is free and popular.”

The quality of Cuba’s education is recognised at the top international levels; for example, Cuba is ranked at number 16 in UNESCO’s Education for All Development Index, higher than any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean (and higher than the US, which is ranked at number 25).

4. The legacy of racism is being wiped out

Pre-revolutionary Cuba was, in effect, an apartheid society. There was widespread segregation and discrimination. Afro-Cubans were restricted to the worst jobs, the worst housing, the worst education. They suffered from differential access to parks, restaurants and beaches.

The revolution quickly started attacking racism at its roots, vowing to “straighten out what history has twisted.” In March 1959, just a couple of months after the capture of power, Fidel discussed the complex problem of racism in several speeches at mass rallies.

“In all fairness, I must say that it is not only the aristocracy who practise discrimination. There are very humble people who also discriminate. There are workers who hold the same prejudices as any wealthy person, and this is what is most absurd and sad … and should compel people to meditate on the problem. Why do we not tackle this problem radically and with love, not in a spirit of division and hate? Why not educate and destroy the prejudice of centuries, the prejudice handed down to us from such an odious institution as slavery?”

The commitment to defeating racism has brought about tremendous gains in equality and racial integration. Isaac Saney writes: “It can be argued that Cuba has done more than any other country to dismantle institutionalised racism and generate racial harmony.”

Of course, deeply ingrained prejudices and inequalities cannot be eliminated overnight, and problems remain, especially as a result of the ‘special period’ in which Cuba has had to open itself up to tourism and some limited foreign investment. Racism thrives on inequality. However, Cuba remains a shining light in terms of its commitment to racial equality.

Assata Shakur, the famous exiled Black Panther who has lived in Cuba for several decades, puts it well:

“Revolution is a process, so I was not that shocked to find sexism had not totally disappeared in Cuba, nor had racism, but that although they had not totally disappeared, the revolution was totally committed to struggling against racism and sexism in all their forms. That was and continues to be very important to me. It would be pure fantasy to think that all the ills, such as racism, classism or sexism, could be dealt with in 30 years. But what is realistic is that it is much easier and much more possible to struggle against those ills in a country which is dedicated to social justice and to eliminating injustice.”

Isaac Saney cites a very moving and revealing anecdote recounted by an elderly black man in Cuba:

“I was travelling on a very crowded bus. At a bus stop, where many people got off, a black man got a seat. A middle aged woman said in a very loud and irritated voice: ‘And it had to be a black who gets the seat.’ The response of the people on the bus was incredible. People began to criticize the woman, telling her that a revolution was fought to get rid of those stupid ideas; that the black man should be viewed as having the same rights as she had – including a seat on a crowded bus. The discussion and criticism became loud and animated. The bus driver was asked to stop the bus because the people engaging in the criticism had decided that the woman expressing racist attitudes must get off the bus. For the rest of my trip, the people apologized to the black comrade and talked about where such racist attitudes come from and what must be done to get rid of them.”

Who can imagine such a scene occurring on a bus in London, Paris or New York?

5. Women’s rights are promoted

Cuba has an excellent record in terms of building gender equality. Its commitment to a non-sexist society is reflected in the fact that 43% of parliament members are female (ranking fourth in the world after Rwanda, Sweden and South Africa). 64% of university places are occupied by women. “Cuban women comprise 66% of all technicians and professionals in the country’s middle and higher levels.” Women are given 18 weeks’ maternity leave on full pay, with extended leave at 60% pay until the child is one year old.

A recent report by the US-based Center for Democracy in the Americas (by no means a non-critical source) noted: “By several measures, Cuba has achieved a high standard of gender equality, despite the country’s reputation for machismo, a Latin American variant of sexism. Save the Children ranks Cuba first among developing countries for the wellbeing of mothers and children, the report points out. The World Economic Forum places Cuba 20th out of 153 countries in health, literacy, economic status and political participation of women – ahead of all countries in Latin America except Trinidad and Tobago.”

6. Community spirit still exists

Modern capitalism breaks down communities. Consumerism and individualism create isolation and depression. Poverty creates stress and family tension. Inequality leads to crime, which leads to a culture of fear – something that is completely inimical to the project developing a sense of community and togetherness. Anyone who has experienced life in a modern western city will understand this only too well.

Cuba provides a very different example. It is an exceptionally safe country, with very little in the way of violent crime. With a high level of participation in local administration, social stability, social welfare, low unemployment and a media that promotes unity rather than disunity, Cuba’s sense of community is something that visitors quickly notice.

Assata Shakur mentions this, and contrasts it with the US:

“My experience in the United States was living in a society that was very much at war with itself, that was very alienated. People felt not part of a community, but like isolated units that were afraid of interaction, of contact, that were lonely. People didn’t build that sense of community that I found is so rich here [in Cuba]. One of the things that I was able to take from this experience was just how lovely it is to live with a sense of community. To live where you can drop in the street and a million people will come and help you. That is to me a wealth that you can’t find, you can’t buy, you have to build. You have to build it within yourself to be capable of having that attitude about your neighbours, about how you want to live on this planet.”

7. There will be no capitulation to capitalism

The Cuban leadership have had any number of opportunities to sell out their people and to abandon the cause of socialism. If Fidel had been willing to convert himself into a fluffy social democrat, abandon militant internationalism, abandon the government’s commitment to equality and social justice, and accept the subjugation of Cuba’s economy to the IMF and World Bank, he would be portrayed throughout the western world as a brilliant and righteous man. Instead he has spent over half a century being portrayed as a ruthless, corrupt dictator.

Many expected that Cuba would give up the cause when its major supporters – the Soviet Union and the eastern European people’s democracies – did. It was an era when socialism seemed doomed; the “end of history.” And yet the Cubans never considered such an option. They could see the type of catastrophic consequences that capitalist restoration would bring: massive impoverishment and demobilisation of the masses; the collapse of the basic moral fabric of society; an explosion of crime, drugs, racial division, alienation, prostitution; along with, of course, the accumulation of obscene wealth in the hands of a few. In a thinly-disguised attack on Gorbachev’s policy of endless compromise with the west and his readiness to throw away any semblance of revolutionary leadership and vigilance, Fidel said in 1989:

“It’s impossible to carry out a revolution or conduct a rectification without a strong, disciplined and respected party. It’s not possible to carry out such a process by slandering socialism, destroying its values, discrediting the party, demoralising its vanguard, abandoning its leadership role, eliminating social discipline, and sowing chaos and anarchy everywhere. This may foster a counter-revolution – but not revolutionary change.”

The 2002 Constitution, approved by 98% of the electorate, states:

“Socialism, as well as the revolutionary political and social system established by this Constitution, has been forged during years of heroic resistance against aggression of every kind and economic war waged by the government of the most powerful imperialist state that has ever existed; it has demonstrated its ability to transform the nation and create an entirely new and just society, and is irrevocable: Cuba will never revert to capitalism.”

Over a million people – nearly a tenth of the country’s entire population – turn out to celebrate International Workers’ Day every May 1st. In spite of some limited market reforms that have been implemented in order to revitalised the economy, Cuba is still very much organised along socialist lines. The working class has a firm grip on political power. In an era such as ours, Cuba’s continuing commitment to socialism is very much something to celebrate.

8. Cuba is a functioning socialist democracy

Cuba is far more democratic than Britain or the US. The process of decision-making is far more open to grassroots participation, and is in no way connected with wealth. It is easy enough to see that one cannot expect to be successful in politics in the capitalist countries without a good deal of money behind you; political success is therefore predicated on the financial backing of the wealthy, who expect return on their investment. Political representation in Cuba is nothing like this. Representatives are elected by the people, and are expected to serve the people.

Despite popular belief, elections do take place in Cuba. They take place every five years and there have been turnouts of over 95% in every election since 1976… Anybody can be nominated to be a candidate for election. Neither money nor political parties or orators have a place in the nomination process. Instead, individuals directly nominate those who they think should be candidates. It is not a requirement that one be a member of the Communist party of Cuba to be elected to any position. The party does not propose, support nor elect candidates.” As a result, the Cuban Parliament has representatives from across society, including an exceptionally high proportion of women.

Beyond representative democracy, Cuba also has a meaningful direct democracy. The Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) were formed in the early years in order to organise the population to defend the revolution. “Membership is voluntary and open to all residents over the age of 14 years. Nationally 88% of Cuban people are in the CDRs. They meet a minimum of once every three months to plan the running of the community; including the organisation of public health campaigns to promote good health and prevent disease; the upkeep of the area in terms of waste and recycling; the running of voluntary work brigades and providing the adequate support to members of the community who are in need of help (for example in the case of domestic disputes etc). The CDRs discuss nationwide issues and legislation and crucially, feed back their proposals to the National Assembly and other organs of popular democracy.”

Looking at the Cuban system of democracy, you begin to understand the painfully shallow nature of western-style parliamentarism, where ‘democracy’ means nothing more than “the oppressed [being] allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament.”

9. Cuba is a key member of the progressive family of nations

Cuba continues to pursue policies of south-south cooperation and anti-imperialist unity. Its foreign policy has in no way been swayed by the never-ending propaganda and manipulation of the corporate press. It maintains excellent relations with Venezuela, China, DPR Korea, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Brazil, South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe, Syria, Belarus, Iran, Russia, Ecuador, Laos, Algeria and other not-very-fashionable countries. Cuba was a founder member of ALBA and is very active in the recently-formed CELAC. It consistently uses its role at the UN to support the progressive nations and oppose imperialism, for example voting against resolutions seeking to demonise Syria and speaking out boldly against the despicable war on Libya.

10. Cuba is a friend to Africa

Africa is the continent that has suffered most and benefitted least as a result of the rise of capitalism. Its enormous contribution to world history has been all but forgotten, and much of the continent exists in a state of chronic underdevelopment, the result of half a millennium of slavery, colonialism and imperialism at the hands of a rising western Europe.

Cuba, recognising its own African roots (“the blood of Africa runs deep in our veins,” as Fidel famously said), has from very early on in its revolution supported and built close links with Africa. Its role in defending Angola and liberating Namibia and South Africa is one of the most inspiring examples of revolutionary international solidarity. Nelson Mandela put it well:

“The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character… We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.”

Cuba has excellent, mutually supportive with many African states. One way it provides support is by offering thousands of fully subsidised places at its universities (for example, there are 1,200 South Africans currently studying medicine in Cuba). Cuba is very active in the fight against the scourge of AIDS internationally, for example having helped Zambia to start manufacturing its own antiretrovirals.

11. Cuba has achieved sustainable development

The World Wildlife Fund called Cuba “the only country in the world to have achieved sustainable development,” measured as a combination of human development index and environmental sustainability. Cuba is a world leader in the adoption of environmentally friendly technology. “Organic urban farms in Havana supply 100% of the city’s consumption needs in fruit and vegetables” – rather different to London, where we rely on a disgustingly exploitative and ecologically disastrous cash crop system.

Cubans understand that the protection of the earth’s resources is a global project. Fidel Castro has been very vocal at international bodies for over 20 years, particularly in drawing attention to the responsibilities of the imperialist countries, whose ruthless quest for profit has caused untold damage to the planet. “With only 20% of the world’s population, [the imperialist countries] consume two-thirds of all metals and three-fourths of the energy produced worldwide. They have poisoned the seas and the rivers. They have polluted the air. They have weakened and perforated the ozone layer. They have saturated the atmosphere with gases, altering climatic conditions with the catastrophic effects we are already beginning to suffer.”

12. Poverty is becoming a thing of the past

Considering it is an third world nation with limited natural resources, suffering under economic blockade and coping with the loss of its major trading partners in the early 90s, Cuba’s achievements in wiping out poverty are spectacular.

A Cuba Solidarity Campaign fact sheet notes:

“Before 1959 only 35.2% of the Cuban population had running water and 63% had no WC facilities or latrines; 82.6% had no bathtub or shower and there were only 13 small reservoirs. Now 91% of the population receives sustainable access to improved drinking water. Sanitation has been a priority since the revolution and 98% of Cubans now have sustainable access to improved sanitation.

“Before 1959 just 7% of homes had electricity. Now 95.5% of Cubans have access to electricity. Solar panels and photovoltaic cells have been installed in schools and clinics in isolated areas.”

Income disparity is exceptionally low. No Cuban starves; no Cuban is homeless; no Cuban is deprived of education, healthcare or housing. There are very few countries in the world that show such unambiguous dedication to people’s basic human rights.

13. There is no homelessness in Cuba

A country that truly cared for its people would move heaven and earth to ensure that they all had somewhere to live. This is exactly what Cuba does. Rich countries like Britain and the US (which has over 600,000 homeless) could learn a thing or two.

14. Cuba makes an important contribution to science

At the time of the revolution, Cuba was stuck in a vicious cycle of underdevelopment, without the knowledge, resources or political will to use science as a tool to improve the lives of its people. Now there are over 230 institutions devoted to scientific research and innovation. Cuba’s biotech industry is considered the best in the world among developing countries, and has generated important innovations in cancer research, AIDS research. Cuba created the world’s first vaccine against meningitis B. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Peter Agre has stated that “what this small country has done in the progress of science and eradication of diseases is worthy of recognition,” adding that Cuban science’s greatest asset is its large pool of highly qualified, enthusiastic young scientists.

15. Free medical training is given to thousands of international students

Cuba provides full free medical training (including food and board) for hundreds of students from across the world, with a special emphasis on Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. With over 10,000 current students, la Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina may well be the largest medical school in the world. The quality of the training is world class: the school is fully accredited by the Medical Board of California, which has the strictest US standards. The only contractual obligation for students is that, having completed their training, they return to their communities and use their skills to serve the people. Another demonstration that socialism implies a level of humanity, compassion and altruism with which capitalism simply cannot compete.

16. Gender justice is being achieved

Cuba has, over the last 20 years, been making dramatic progress towards full equality for all, regardless of sexual preference. Cuban-American journalist David Duran writes: “Cuba is leading by example and positively affecting the lives of not only the LGBT people who reside there but others all over the world who see these massive changes taking place so quickly in a country where most would think the topic of homosexuality would be off-limits.”

The National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) campaigns for “the development of a culture of sexuality that is full, pleasurable and responsible, as well as to promote the full exercise of sexual rights.” This includes working to combat homophobia and to move on from the ‘machismo’ culture often associated with Latin America.

In a display of humility and honesty very rare for a politician, Fidel Castro in 2010 admitted responsibility for the mistreatment of homosexuals in Cuba in the early decades of the revolution.

17. Natural disasters are dealt with better than anywhere else

Like other countries in the region, Cuba is vulnerable to hurricanes, flooding and earthquakes. These natural disasters, if not properly prepared for, can cost thousands of lives. However, with its well-oiled Civil Defence System and highly mobilized population, “Cuba is one of the best-prepared countries in the world when it comes to preventing deaths and mitigating risks in case of disasters.” Although recent hurricanes have caused major disruption and economic damage, the numbers of dead and injured have been impressively low as a result of Cuba’s preparation and relief efforts. One need only compare this with the US government’s response to Hurricane Katrina (with its 1,833 fatalities) to see the difference in priorities between the two countries’ governments.

18. Cuba’s major export is doctors

Cuba’s ‘Operation Miracle’ has helped restore sight to millions of people across Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuba also has a huge number of doctors working in other countries of the Global South, helping to spread Cuba’s hard-won expertise in the field of saving lives. “A third of Cuba’s 75,000 doctors, along with 10,000 other health workers, are currently working in 77 poor countries.”

In response to the Haiti earthquake disaster of 2010, Cuba immediately (within hours) sent 1,500 medical personnel to help with the relief efforts. “They worked in 20 rehabilitation centres and 20 hospitals, ran 15 operating theatres and vaccinated 400,000 people. By March 2010 they had treated 227,143 patients in total (compared to 871 by the US).” Cuba has even offered to develop a complete programme for reconstructing Haiti’s healthcare system. Emily Kirk and John Kirk note: “Essentially, they are offering to rebuild the entire health care system. It will be supported by ALBA and Brazil, and run by Cubans and Cuban-trained medical staff. This is to include hospitals, polyclinics, and medical schools. In addition, the Cuban government has offered to increase the number of Haitian students attending medical school in Cuba. This offer of medical cooperation represents an enormous degree of support for Haiti.”

Cuba provides Venezuela with 31,000 Cuban doctors and dentists and provides training for 40,000 Venezuelan medical personnel (in exchange for which, Cuba receives 100,000 barrels of oil a day – a great example of two countries cooperating on the basis of their strengths).

19. Cuba loves sport

The Cuban Revolution has, from the beginning, recognised the value of sports in terms of promoting health, building community and developing national pride. Since 1959, Cuba has developed a wide-ranging sports infrastructure and has achieved massive levels of participation. In the 54 years since the revolution, the island has won 67 Olympic gold medals, compared with just four in the preceding 60 years. It consistently comes second (behind the US) in the Pan-American Games, punching well above its weight.

20. Cuba loves culture

Cuba places a strong emphasis on affording its citizens the facilities for cultural expression and enabling them to nurture their talents. Cuban children are guaranteed free access to artistic education, including musical instruments. There are more than 40 art schools, along with a system of neighbourhood cultural centres around the country for enabling art and music. The state level support, combined with a deep-rooted culture of music and dance, makes for a hugely vibrant and participatory culture. Music is everywhere in Cuba, and being a street musician is a state-licenced job. “If you stop to listen, you’re expected to pay, and musicians are around every corner.”

The full range of musical forms are supported and promoted, from classical music to Cuban folk music to hip-hop. The Ministry of Culture even has a division devoted to hip-hop, and Fidel has referred to rap as “the vanguard of the revolution.”

SUPPORT CUBA!

Cuba is under constant threat from US imperialism. Its development is made unnecessarily difficult by an unfair and illegal blockade. Yet it stands as one of the great beacons of socialism, and deserves the support of progressive people everywhere.

Some essential reading

  • Isaac Saney – Cuba: A Revolution in Motion
  • Richard Gott – Cuba: A New History
  • Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own
  • DL Raby – Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today
  • Theo MacDonald: The Education Revolution
  • Piero Gleijeses: Conflicting Missions
  • George Lambie: The Cuban Revolution in the 21st Century
  • Salim Lamrani: The Economic War Against Cuba
America Under Communism

Let’s talk about the C-word: Comm**ism. So much more shocking than the other C-word. What is it, and why is everybody so afraid of it?

You’d think it’d actually be pretty popular. I mean… it makes quite a lot of sense. What does it mean? It means a classless society, built on common ownership of the means of production, that by definition works to overcome the worst inheritance of human history: poverty, starvation, war, racism, sexism, national oppression, social alienation, inequality, exploitation. A collaborative, participatory society that seeks to elevate the oppressed to the highest levels of happiness, education and culture; that builds upon all advances in human understanding in order to create a qualitatively new way of being. This isn’t the place to dive into the theory, but let’s face it, it sounds great.

And yet, in the collective mind, ‘communism’ is a dirty word. When we think of communism, we don’t think of progress, literacy, economic uplift, culture, national reconciliation, peace, creativity, diversity. Rather we think of secret services, prisons, indoctrination, brainwashing, stale uniformity, dictatorship, militarism, bread queues, ration books. We think of the world described by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. We think pretty much exactly what senator Joseph McCarthy wanted us to think about communism: that it is the enemy of freedom.

This image is of course unfair, and represents a massive propaganda victory for the real enemy of peace and freedom: the imperialists. Ever since the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 – almost a century ago – the media and education systems in the ‘free world’ have made anti-communist propaganda one of their most central tasks. The wretched of the earth rising up and expropriating the oppressors? That’s the sort of contagious idea that has to be nipped in the bud. Hence the endless and intense slander campaign against any socialist country that ever existed, from the Soviet Union to Cuba, from Vietnam to Venezuela, from China to Albania, from People’s Korea to Yugoslavia. Any progress made by these countries is totally ignored; any problems and failures are magnified out of all proportion; issues are distorted and lies are spread.

Am I saying that these socialist countries, led by communist parties, were/are perfect models of this new type of society? Clearly not. There were, and are, massive problems in the building of socialism and laying the foundation for a future communism. However:

1) All of these problems are exaggerated by a well-funded western media and academia, and all too often the ‘statistics’ about socialist history are based on the claims of highly dubious McCarthyite ‘scholars’.

2) Issues regarding repression must be seen in the context of socialist states having to protect themselves within a hostile international atmosphere where the enemy spares no effort to destabilise and attack them (just look at the 600+ attempts by the CIA to kill Fidel Castro).

3) Building a new society and getting over the inheritance of feudalism and capitalism is never going to be easy.

4) Most accusations pointed at the socialist countries generally speaking apply in much greater measure to the capitalist countries. For example, no socialist country in history ever had anything like the incarceration rate of the modern day USA.

5) Whilst it’s popular to talk about the “crimes of communism”, what about the “crimes of capitalism”? Such as, for example:

  • The transatlantic slave trade
  • The genocide of the native populations of the Americas and Australia
  • The numerous famines in India and Ireland brought about by British colonial policy
  • Apartheid
  • The dispossession of the Palestinians
  • The killing of 10 million Congolese by Belgian colonialism
  • The 13 million that die every year due to malnutrition (wholly preventable but for capitalist greed)
  • The rape of Africa
  • The wanton destruction of Vietnam and Korea
  • The Opium Wars
  • The Nazi holocaust
  • Systemic racism
  • The cult of the individual and the breakdown of community
  • The destruction of cultures across the globe
  • The monopolisation of wealth by a small handful of implausibly rich people

It’s quite obvious to any thinking person that, even if we accept the extremely dodgy and dubious claims of CIA-payroll historians like Robert Conquest, the “crimes of capitalism” far outweigh any “crimes of communism”.

6) Meanwhile, in the face of great difficulties, socialist countries have achieved some pretty extraordinary things.

Let’s take China for example. Pre-revolution life expectancy was around 35; now it’s around 74. Literacy was under 20%; now it’s 93%. It has witnessed the most rapid poverty alleviation in history. Its people were looked down upon as the scum of the earth. As WEB DuBois said in a broadcast on Radio Peking:

“What people have been despised as you have? Who more than you have been rejected of men? Recall when lordly Britishers threw the rickshaw money on the ground to avoid touching a filthy hand. Forget not the time when in Shanghai no Chinese man dare set foot in a park which he paid for.”

And who doesn’t know that Cuba provides by far the highest standard of living for ordinary people anywhere in South America and the Caribbean; that it has a life expectancy of 79 and literacy rate of 99.8%, in spite of a cruel economic blockade; that it has done more to eradicate the scourge of racism than any other country in the western hemisphere?

And who doesn’t know that the Soviet Union brought about a profound improvement in the living standards of the vast majority of its people; that it defeated Nazi Germany and saved Europe; that it provided crucial support to the liberation movements in Africa, to Cuba, to Nicaragua, to Vietnam, to Korea; that it brought about a transformation of the republics of Central Asia, ground down for centuries by competing colonial interests? When we think of communism, why isn’t it all this that we think of?

Certainly, many individuals have suffered unfairly in socialist countries. But why is the blame always assigned to ‘communism’? If I want to see oppression and repression, I can take the briefest of walks down Tottenham High Street. If I want to see corruption, bureaucracy and the centralisation of power, I can observe the proceedings at Westminster. But these things don’t get attributed to ‘capitalism’. Most people who walk past dozens of homeless people each day don’t turn into zealous anti-capitalists (more’s the pity). Anti-communism is the dominant narrative, and so it’s easy to adapt to. Anti-capitalism is not at all the dominant narrative, and to adapt to it is to face isolation and abuse.

The question is: can the C-word be re-claimed, or has the propaganda war already been lost? Are sensible, progressive people so put off by any mention of communism that they immediately disregard anything associated with it? Do we need new terminology for the basic principles of equality, people’s power and social justice? I have come across quite a few very decent and principled people putting forward such an argument – that the C-word is beyond the pale. I’m not convinced. Imperialist cultural hegemony isn’t going to broken unless people who oppose it stand up confidently and loudly for what they believe in. Are we simply going to allow free reign to slander and disinformation? Should we leave prejudices intact? To use a parallel from the world of religion: could Muslims get rid of islamophobia by changing the name of their religion to, say, Democratic Mohammedanism?

Prejudices need to be attacked. Disinformation needs to be exposed. People’s psychological/ideological/cultural reliance on imperialism needs to be broken. That won’t happen if we keep playing by the enemy’s rules.

Like Malcolm said:

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”