Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Y Badayev - Bolsheviks In the Tsarist Duma

For revolutionaries who believe that there is a higher form of democracy than that of Bourgeois Parliamentarianism, what to do during elections is the sort of discussion that sparks intense debate. For the Bolsheviks in the years of Tsarist rule it was even more complex because the Russian Parliament, the Duma, existed only as a gesture towards democracy from the Tsar.

In this context the Duma was of limited power - but more importantly, it was seen by some on the left as the first stage in the struggle for the capitalist order, rather than the feudalistic Tsarism that prevailed.

Lenin's Bolsheviks took a principled position. They tried to win seats in the Duma, in the face of extreme hostility from the ruling class, but not for the reasons most other parties tried to do so. The Bolshevik candidates saw the Duma as an arena were they could in a period when their organisation was illegal, spread propaganda and socialist ideas with a level of immunity. Revolutionary socialist ideas were popular - tens of thousands of workers voted for the Bolshevik candidates, thousands of workplace groups sent messages of support - but it was hard to organise. The Tsar's police force ran an efficient network of spies, newspapers and publications were regularly seized. Socialists, Trade Unionists and activists were regular imprisoned and exiled.

But in an era when some were proclaiming that socialism was a future ideal, and the important political task was to win a Bourgeois Parliament like that of the West, the Bolsheviks recognised that they couldn't run the risk of sowing illusions in parliament. The key thing was to use their position to educate, inspire and organise the workers movement. This was made easier by the way that the Duma was stacked against the representatives of the workers movement.

Badayev was one of the Bolshevik deputies. His was a background in engineering and he was a longstanding Bolshevik activist. His account is fascinating for many reasons - in part because of his stories about how they evaded the police and how revolutionaries had to organise in an era when simply being discovered with a socialist newspaper could mean years of exile. But the most important parts of the book are those in which he describes how socialists can use parliament, or other elected bodies to raise the workers movement to new heights. Because it was legal to print speeches of the deputies, it meant that organisatins could distribute speeches by socialists. The deputies could become the focus of networks of workers - collecting money for strikes for instance.

Take the struggle for the 8 hour working day - a key demand of the workers movement in Russia in the early 1900s. The Duma and the Tsar was never going to grant this - it would have to be won by mass struggles and protests. But the Duma became a part of the battleground. The Bolshevik newspaper Pravda explained:

"Of course we do not for a moment expect that the Fourth Duma will pass this bill. The eight-hour days is one of the fundamental demands of the workers in the present period. When this question is raised in the Duma the other parties will be forced to declre their attitude towards it and this will assist in our struggle for the eight-hour day outside the Duma. We appeal to all workers to endorse the bill. Let it be introduced not only in the name of a group of deputies, but in the name of tens of thousands of workers."

As Badayev says, "the very failure of the bill could be made the occasion of further revolutionary agitation".

The deputies, despite their small numbers were very successful. They were able to strengthen and inspire millions of people across Russia, particularly with the work they did to highlight examples of workplace abuse or inter-workplace solidarity. Raising tens of thousands of rubles for strikes in far off Baku, shows just how much their were successful.

The rising revolutionary mood against the Tsar and against capitalism that took place in the pre-war period was curtailed by the outbreak of the patriotism that marked the start of World War One. The Tsar took the opportunity to clamp down on workers organisations, and the Bolshevik deputies were arrested. Even in those difficult times, thousands of workers took action in support of their deputies - a far greater mark of respect than many so called "workers representatives" would get today.

For socialists today, there is much to learn from Badayev's book. It isn't intended as a blueprint for organisation today. Nor is it really a guide for elected representatives. But it does show how socialists who do get elected can use their positions to strengthen the movement. It also shows the need for flexibility and organisation fluidity to adapt to changing circumstances. Over a hundred years later, we've much to learn from Badayev and his comrades.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Alan Sillitoe - Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a novel whose rage still rings out fifty years after it's first publication. Post war 50s Britain is a bleak place. Rationing has just ended, there are jobs aplenty, but war seems to be always on the horizon. Arthur Seaton is a young man in his mid-twenties. He doesn't think there is a future and his life revolves around the weekend, when he can escape in a blur of alcohol, sex and the occasional outbreak of violence.

"For it was Saturday night, the best and bingiest glad-time of the week, one of the fifty-two holidays in the slow-turning Big Wheel of the year, a violent preamble to a prostrate Sabbath. Piled-up passions were exploded on Saturday night, and the effect of a week's monotonous graft in the factory was swilled out of your system in a burst of goodwill."

Arthur's inward monologue, his ruminations on life and society carry you along with them, his dull repetitive work at the lathe becoming a metaphor for the weeks and years that stretch ahead.

You can see why it caused a stir on its publication. Its brilliant style, combined with the honest portrayal of working class life and the social tensions as a new generation of men and women grow up, determined not to live the restrictive lives of their parents, must have terrified some in the establishment. But Albert's musings on revolution and destruction aren't about a dream of a better world - they're about a violent destruction of the one he hates.

As Arthur juggles his affairs, dodging vengeful husbands and finally finding stability, you feel somewhat disappointed. After all, as the novel ends, Albert seems set upon the path of becoming what he despises. Yet this in part is the point. The author is telling us there is no hope. No alternative - only a struggle to survive. As Arthur ruminates at the end;

"And trouble for me it'll be, fighting every day until I die. Why do they make soldiers out of us when we're fighting up to the hilt as it is? Fighting with mothers and wives, landlords and gaffers, coppers, army, government. If it's not one thing it's another, apart from the work we have to do and the way we spend our wages. There's bound to be trouble in store for me every day of my life, because trouble it's always been and always will be. Born drunk and married blind, misbegotten into a strange and crazy world, dragged though the dole and into the war with a gas-mask on your clock, and the sirens rattling into you every night while you rot with scabies in an air-raid shelter. Slung into khaki at eighteen, and when they let you out, you sweat again in a factory, grabbing for an extra pint, doing women at the weekend and getting to know whose husbands are on the night-shift, working with rotten guts and an aching spine, and nothing for it but money to drag you back there every Monday morning."

But something was changing. Ten years after its first publication, the world exploded as men and women across the globe decided that the world should be different. The anger and frustrations at the system so aptly summed up by Arthur Seaton at his lathe, spilled out into protest, demonstration and near-revolution. Arthur might not have joined those rioting against capitalism in the streets near the Sorbonne, in Grosvenor Square or in a hundred other places - he's far to cynical for that. But he'd have understood their anger and raised a pint to them.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Marcus Rediker - Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Marcus Rediker's book is subtitled "Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750". It would seem to be a niche area of interest, but as with his other history writing, Rediker explores far more than the narrowness of his title suggests.

The world of the early 18th century was a very different place to the one we inhabit today. Capitalism, has now spreed to every corner of the globe, but then it had only taken deep root in Western Europe and the Eastern Seaboard of the North Americas. Much of the rest of the world was something to be exploited and plundered by the more power Western powers. In this world, shipping was of great importance. For the trading of everything from foodstuffs to slaves, raw materials to emigrants, you needed ships and their crews.

Without sailors, ships didn't sail. A fact that sailors understood well and frequently used to their advantage. The world of the sailor was a cruel and vicious one. Captain's had virtually limitless rights to punish and even murder the crew. The law courts appeared to offer an impartial restriction on the violence of the captain, but in reality the courts (and the rest of the state apparatus) sided most often with the interests of capital.

In this context, the life of the seaman was an brutal one. It was brutal because of the violence the captain dished out in order to maximise the profits of his voyage. It was brutal because of the constant attempts to undermine the life of the seaman in the interest of further profits - the reduction of rations, the withholding of wages and the fines for the most minor of misdemeanors. It's no surprise that sailors fought back. They cursed their officers, occasionally they struck back and sometimes they mutinied and turned pirate. This review isn't the place to discuss further Rediker's fascinating depiction of pirate life in the early 18th century. Suffice to say Pirates were far from the swashbuckling heroes of our TV screens. They organised a collective lifestyle that is the exact opposite of the hierarchical ship life they had left behind. They had elected officers, accountable to the crew and though feared, the vast numbers of pirates on the seas frequently avoided fighting altogether.

The heart of Rediker's book though, is an attempt to explain the changes going on in the world of work, which the sailors were at the forefront of. Seaman, Rediker argues, were the first workers to loose their individual identity in the way that we understand today. They no longer owned their own tools, but had become a small cog in a collective machine. They had no control over the means of production but sold their labour power for the best deal they could get. They were driven together into a collective environment, lorded over by a master whose job was to squeeze every last penny of profit from their sweat.

"for all of these men, self-protection - from harsh conditions, excessive work, and oppressive authority - was necessary to survival. Too often... 'all the men in the ship except the master' were 'little better than slaves.' Social bonds among sailors arose from the very conditions and relations of their work. These men possessed a concrete and situational outlook forged within the power relations that guided their lives. Theirs was a collectivism of necessity."

And they used their collective power to great effect. "In 1729 the seamen of the Young Prince, when ordered to heave anchor, 'one and all...unanimously agreed to stop & swore Goddamn their Bloods if they would heave the Anchor or go any further with the said Ship but would go on Shore'". Rediker points out that the very world "strike" originates with the sailors who "struck" the sails down and refused to allow a ship to sail.

This collective nature of work, as well as the international character of their work, meant that sailors were at the heart of struggles, protest and demonstration along the whole of the Atlantic seaboard. Rediker argues that it isn't to fanciful to suggest that the very notion of "rights" developed as a result of the political input of sailors with their new collective identity to early land-based struggles.

So the story of the seamen of the 1700s is the story of class struggle. An emerging class struggle that reflected the changing economic and political landscape. It was a struggle that expressed itself through dancing and songs. Valued sailors were ones who could work, but could also sing and tell tales. Rediker's thoughtful and fascinating book is important because it allows us to further understand the blood and violence from whence our modern system was born.

But it also reminds us that people always resisted the arrival of capitalism, and all it's most dehumanising aspects, and fought for a different type of world.

Readers might be interested in this video of a speech on Pirates by Marcus Rediker to the Bristol Radical History Group.

Related Reviews

Rediker - Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age
Rediker - The Amistad Rebellion
Rediker - The Slave Ship
Rediker and Linebaugh - The Many Headed Hydra

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Sembène Ousmane - God's Bits of Wood

There are many reasons why socialists support strikes. The most obvious of them is that they are the best way that workers can use their power to win changes and improvements to their lives.

But there is a more important reason. Anyone engaging in collective action changes themselves. The old ways no longer seem right. Attitudes and beliefs are shaken, changed and sometimes discarded. The belief in your own class and its ability to organise is strengthened. In the biggest strikes, the very fabric of society is threatened. As Marx put it, in a slightly different context, "All that is solid, melts into air".

It is because he understands this aspect of the struggle that Sembène Ousmane's great novel is so powerful and engaging. Centering on the great strike of the workers on the Dakar-Niger railway in the late 1940s, Ousmane describes the way in which the workers are driven to strike and how they change.

The strike is marked by bloodshed as the authorities resort to brutal force on the very first day. The workers seem to expect it, this is after all, colonial Africa and the European powers' rule has always been marked by violence. Ousmane doesn't dwell on the racism and horrors though - he was writing for an African readership after all. But he concentrates on the way the strikes and their families are.

So the strike is marked by rumour and gossip. As the days become weeks, families have sold everything they have and food and water is in short supply. But suffering is collective. Those who don't strike aren't simply ignored, they are almost incomprehensible to those fighting for their livelihoods.

At the heart of the story is the way that the role of women changes. From being second class citizens they become at first the breadwinners - trying to find ways to feed the family, to powerful fighters on their own. These changes bring their own problems. Turning your world upside down like this doesn't please everyone. Not least the religious leaders who argue that the strike, being the work of communists, must be ended.

But its the women who take centre stage. Whose own action sets the scene for the final confrontation of the story. At the novel's end, the women are changed forever, and they know it. But so are the men, and so is the community. One of the strikes leaders argues that this is a class war. A battle between exploiter and exploited. One where skin colour is only important because the whites are the ruling class. Workers everywhere have shown solidarity, even from France, to the strikers' surprise.

The collective understanding and developing identity is important. Senegal was starting down the road to independence as the events described are happening. This development of an identify forged in struggle is important for Ousmane, writing as he was on the eve of independence. Few books come close to showing what a strike is like for those taking part. Even fewer come close to allowing us to sense the real power of working men and women.