Herring and Class Struggle

Capitalism came late to Iceland. At the end of the 19th century this large, wind-swept, thinly populated island was made up of small towns, farms and seasonal fishing stations. Then European capitalists saw another Klondike in the herring-rich waters of the north Atlantic..

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Byltingin í Rússlandi - The Revolution in Russia - Part Three Bolshevism (continued)

This is the continuation of part three of my translation of Byltingin í Rússlandi - The Revolution in Russia by Stefán Pjetursson. This little book was published in 1921 by young Icelandic socialists who identified with the 1917 Russian Revolution and wanted to defend and explain it to the wider left and trade unionists in Iceland. I am posting it in mini-chapters because it is so long. 

The earlier chapters are available below ending with the first part of chapter three, which describes Lenin and what the author knew and understood about Lenin's character and politics.
My introduction to Byltingin í Rússlandi

The Sources, Preface and Introduction contain more about their reasons for writing.

Part One: Reaction and Progress

Part Two: The Revolution

Part Three: Bolshevism, a portrait of Lenin

Reminder: Bylting í Rússlandi uses the New Style Russian calendar - the Gregorian calendar - introduced in Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1918 which added thirteen days to the Old Style Julian calendar. This is why the author refers to the revolutions in February and October as the March Revolution and the November Revolution. I have kept the author's dates in my translation.

Part Three: Bolshevism and Marxism

Lenin and the other Bolsheviks follow the essentials of socialism as laid out in the teachings of Karl Marx. Let’s say a few words about those here. Nowadays, states throughout the developed world suffer intolerable capitalist oppression. This system is built on a relatively small group of of rich people that has control over land and the means of production and takes the working class—which is called free—to serve itself.

What the working class gets paid for its work is generally no more than is strictly necessary to live and work. All the other dividends of production are taken by the rich. Vast accumulation is achieved by taking more and more of the value of the working class’s work into their own pockets. Working people don’t own anything—they are proletarians; they have nothing but their ability to work for capitalists and so they have to work for the bourgeoisie, the employers.

In reality, isn’t this just the old slavery masked?

As long as the bourgeoisie hold the means of production, workers will be subject to whatever conditions, or disadvantages that this group of people inflict on them. Otherwise they and their family will starve. Mankind is increasingly being divided into two classes - bourgeoisie and proletarians - oppressors and the oppressed.

But the bourgeoisie who control the means of production, also have to compete for the control of the world market. So they also have to compete with each other. This stupid battle uses all kinds of shameful weapons—treachery, deceit, all sorts of underhand behaviour and worse. It is true that competition pushed people to find continually newer ways to produce cheaper goods than before. But who profits because they have taken up new and better machines? Not the working class, not ordinary people, just the bourgeoisie.

The development of production has meant better machines that usually make workers redundant, because as machines improved they need fewer and fewer workers to control them. Workers have to struggle with unemployment and all kinds of poverty and distress. Their conditions and their welfare are of little concern to employers and the bourgeoisie on easy street.

But when the majority of people get so little for their work, hardly enough to get by on, it is no wonder that they cannot buy much. The result is the majority of manufactured goods in the world don’t sell. It causes a deep crisis in the markets, even large companies go bankrupt and unemployment and hunger follow. There is nothing to be done about this, no matter how large the company is.

The bourgeoisie cannot control recessions. Time passes, production grows and they become obscenely rich. In reality, employment and production grows over their heads. They don’t have control over it. For the majority, the workers this situation is intolerable and finally the workers—the proletariat—rose against the bourgeoisie and overthrew their power with revolution. The revolution now happening in Russia will soon spread worldwide, say the Bolsheviks. 

Communist Manifesto

There is probably no clearer way to explain the teachings of Karl Marx, theoretical father of the Russian communists—the Bolsheviks—and the entire world’s communists than by reproducing here extracts from the Communist Manifesto, which was published in 1848 and written by Marx himself with his comrade Engels.

“The history of all past ages is the history of class struggle[1]. The oppressed and the oppressors have continually fought each other, in secret and openly. Each time the fight has ended, either in society being transformed by revolution or with both sides being ruined.

The Bourgeoisie

Bourgeois society that rose from the ruins of the feudal order has not wiped out class differences. It has created new classes in place of the old ones, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle. But there is something special about the modern age of money. It has simplified class divisions. All human society kind is being divided into just two opposing classes—the rich and the proletariat.

Of course the bourgeoisie has created a revolution in production methods and transport but as soon as it rose a new social structure formed. Great industry and trade has put power in the hands of the money men. Governments now are nothing but committees of people that exist to look after the common interests of the rich.

The bourgeoisie has wrought great changes. Human dignity has been turned into cash values, it has established a ruthless free trade. The need for ever larger markets because of growing production has driven it to conquer the whole world. But by creating a world market, human consumption and production have become international. In place of the old needs, satisfied by each country’s own production, rose new wants that for satisfaction require the products of the most distant lands and regions.

Instead of the limited area which each nation satisfied before, there are now global business connections meaning that nations become more or less dependent on one another. Meanwhile spiritual values are becoming the same in every country. All of which leads to the national divisions between people gradually disappearing.

Over the last century dominated by the bourgeoisie, they have created forces of production greater than all the preceding generations managed. But the bourgeoisie is like a magician who can no longer control the demons he has conjured up. For decades, the history of industry and commerce has been nothing but the history of the rebellion of productive forces against production, against property rights, which in their which modern form is the basis for the existence of the bourgeoisie and their rule. In this respect, it is enough to point to the trade crises, which repeatedly threaten to ruin our entire society.

The weapons with which the bourgeoisie defeated feudalism are now turned on them. But they haven’t simply made the weapons by which they will eventually be destroyed, they have also created the army to wield them—the workers, the modern proletariat.

The Proletariat

The workers get barely enough from their work to eke out a living and remain human. They are not just the slaves of the bourgeoisie; with each passing day they are enslaved to the machines, the foremen and particularly to individual capitalists. And what makes this oppression all the more vile is that its goal is merely the gratification of the avaricious.

As soon as the proletariat was formed, it began to struggle against the bourgeoisie. At first individual workers fought them, then all the workers in the same factory, then all those in the same kind of work in one area. At this stage, the workers are spread out through the country, unorganised and in competition with each other. But with the development of industry, the proletariat multiplies and it becomes more and more concentrated. As its strength grows so it feels that strength more. The struggle between individual workers and employers gradually becomes class struggle. 

The workers create associations against the bourgeoisie. They band together to win acceptable wages, they even create societies for rebellion and riots erupt. But although the workers in these battles sometimes get their specific demands met, this is not the greatest gain they win. No, their organisation, strengthened after each bout is the most valuable fruit of struggle at this stage. And finally improved communications strengthen their union so that small, local battles become almighty class struggle.

The proletarian owns nothing. His family life is nothing like the family life of the bourgeoisie. Every country is oppressed by capitalism, no one country is better for him than another. He does not know the sense of national pride. The Law, traditions, religion—are all in his eyes, cloaks of the bourgeoisie. They use them for their own ends, to strengthen their own financial interests.

All classes that took power in past centuries have tried to maintain their position by imposing their system on the masses. The proletariat cannot just take power unless they abolish the existing system. They have nothing themselves that they need to secure; they have to tear down all the old privileges. All previous systems have served the minority or at least its interests, but the proletarian movement fights for the common interest and serves the overwhelming majority of people.

The proletariat cannot get its rights; it cannot gain a freedom separate from the whole system that weighs down on it, without that system exploding.

What is the relationship now between communists and the proletariat?

Their goal is the same as all other proletarian parties: To gather the proletariat together in one class, overthrow the power of the bourgeoisie and take control on behalf of the proletariat.

The capitalists are terrified that the communists will abolish individual property rights. But let’s be clear, in our societies’ individual property rights do not exist for nine tenths of the population. And the remaining property rights of the few only exist because the majority have nothing. 

You accuse us of wanting to abolish individual property rights that are inextricably linked to the majority of people having nothing at all. You accuse us of interfering in your right to own. Well that is what we are going to do.

Communism does not strip anyone of their right to personal property. But it does strip from people the ability to use such assets to crush others. It has been claimed that all desire to work will disappear and everything will be ruined when individual property rights are abolished. If that were true, society would have collapsed long ago from human sloth, because nowadays those that work own nothing, while those that do own something are precisely the people who don’t work.

It is claimed that Communists desperately want to destroy the fatherland and eliminate patriotism. But workers do not have a fatherland. It is not possible to take from them something that they do not have. Division of human beings into countries will gradually disappear when capitalism is overthrown. In all likelihood divisions will disappear completely when the proletariat has taken power. International proletarian revolution, at least in developed countries is one of the necessary conditions for gaining its freedom.

When individuals stop oppressing and impoverishing each others, so will states. When all hostility is over between classes, there cannot be any hostility between countries. When the proletariat has taken power, it will focus first on taking capital away from bourgeoisie and will nationalise the means of production, to make them assets for everyone. So when the class distinctions have gone and all production is in the hands of ordinary people, then the state will cease to be a political power. 

Political power in reality is nothing but the power of one class to oppress others. But when the proletariat gathers together in one class to fight the bourgeoisie, when by revolution they take power into their own hands and end the old systems of production, then they will immediately lose all the conditions for class distinctions as well as the particular attributes that make them a special class.

The old system of classes and class distinctions will be replaced by a human society where the free development of each individual is the condition for the free development of all.

The manifesto ends with these words:

Communists disdain to hide their views. They declare publicly that their goal will only be achieved by tearing down the old system. Above you, who now hold power, looms the Communist Revolution. The Proletariat has nothing to lose but its chains. But they have a whole world to win.

Proletarians of all countries, unite!

[1] The author(s) summarises the Communist Manifesto.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Iceland, circumcision and the evolution of racism

The bill that proposes to ban male circumcision in Iceland is a racist attack on Jews and Muslims and needs to be understood in the wider development of racism across Europe. It is also part of the “rise of racist discourse” in Iceland, criticised by the United Nations last year.

Progressive Party MP Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir, who headed up the bill claimed the bill is intended to protect children and has nothing to do with religion. There has also been a lot of talk about mutilation as though female genital mutilation (FGM) and male circumcision are in anyway similar. Since the bill was laid before the Icelandic parliament in January this year, 400 doctors in Iceland have signed a statement supporting the proposed ban and according to one poll 50 percent of people in Iceland support it.

Male circumcision has nothing to do with the horrors of Female Genital Mutilation. For Jews and Muslims it is a practice integral to their faith and identity and every year millions of boys around the world are circumcised without it causing health problems. If the bill is passed it will become a crime to circumcise a boy under 18 years old for religious reasons with a maximum of six years in jail.

Politicians and people with power or influence in the country are using racism to protect and enhance their position and have been doing so for at least the last five years.

Cultural centre

Back in the summer of 2013, Reykjavik City Council promised to provide a plot of land for Muslims in Iceland to build a cultural centre with space to hold prayers, provide education and foster community support. The land was to be free but the community itself would have to raise money for the building.

Four days later, Reykjavik’s former mayor Ólafur F. Magnússon wrote an opinion piece in Morgunblaðið newspaper equating Islam with terrorism. He urged Icelanders to oppose the mosque that would threaten, “Our national culture and security”. The Progressive Party wasn’t likely to win seats in the City elections at the time, but the Party’s leader, Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir also criticised the City Council’s plan and her Party’s Facebook page became a focus for opposition to a mosque and race hate.

The Party then won two seats on the city council in the elections. Its Chair, the then Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, kept quiet even though one of Party’s deputy MPs, Þorsteinn Magnússon, resigned because he and Sveinbjörg Birna appeared happy to use racism to gain votes.

Racist attack

Later that year racists left a nasty pile of severed pigs heads and torn pages of the Muslim holy book, The Koran daubed with red paint at the site of the proposed mosque. Óskar Bjarnason who was photographed and interviewed by Icelandic newspaper Visir admitted that he and about 20 other people had done this to stop the mosque. He added that next time they would use blood not paint. Despite this admission and the obvious threat of violence, shamefully Benedikt Lund of Reykjavik City Police said there was no evidence to investigate the hate crime because the City Council had cleaned the heads away.

We have seen this process of developing racism and Islamophobia all over Europe since the financial crash in 2008 and we know where it leads. There are far-right and fascist members of parliament in Greece, France, Hungary and last year 94 members of the far-right The Alternative for Germany (AfD) were elected to the German parliament. Of these, “at least half are Nazis or have links to the Nazi scene like the Identitarian Movement.”

Victor Orban has been elected Prime Minister for the third time in Hungary this week with a vicious anti-immigration and Islamophobia campaign. The Nazis in Jobbik came second.

The slogan of anti-fascists across Europe is Never Again because we understand that the Nazis and fascism were not an aberration. And the murderous machine they built that perpetrated the Holocaust was the result of concrete situations and their ideology. We understand that if we don’t fight racism and fascism, it can happen again.

War, poverty and political crises in the Middle East and Africa have driven hundreds of thousands of migrants to search for a better life in Europe. Some people have made it as far as Iceland, in some cases believing that they would face less racism than in Southern Europe or Scandinavia.

Anti-racist activists, advocacy groups and growing public support in 2014 in Iceland supported the refugees and asylum seekers. But then a story broke that linked a prominent asylum seeker to violent crime. Campaigners smelt a rat and after protests and an inquiry we learned that a Minister’s aide confessed to the leak. Reykjavík District Court said that, “ the sole purpose for leaking the memo was ‘to impugn the reputation’ of the asylum seekers in the face of growing public protest over their treatment.”

Since then websites set up to support Syrians refugees have been inundated with race hate. Just the month before 70 asylum seekers were deported last year, the national broadcaster RÚV reported that conditions in the Víðines asylum centre as dirty and damp with too little food that was barely-heated. To reach the Immigration Service in Reykjavik the refugees have to walk for almost an hour to the nearest bus stop. And all this despite articles saying Iceland needs more immigrants.

But refugees resettled in small towns have been welcomed with overwhelming solidarity and ordinary Icelanders have tried to protect immigrants from the abuses of the state, including dawn raids and people being dragged out of churches. 

A victory

Today they have scored a victory. Protests saved an Afghan father Abrahim and his 11 year old daughter Haniye from deportation and today the little family were finally granted asylum.

This shows strong campaigns can push back racism in Iceland but there also needs to be more understanding of anti-Semitism and its effects, including this bill to ban circumcision. It is great to see Iceland’s Catholic Bishop speak up to defend Jews and Muslims but the greatest social weight in Iceland is its trade unions and its time they stood up to this bigotry.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Capitalism and the restructuring of fishing and fisheries across the world

When anthropologist Jane Nadel-Klein described how "capitalism can create and then dismisses a way of life", she was talking about the fishing villages of east Scotland. But the same could be said of any of the tens of thousands of fishing communities that developed fishing and fish processing industries over the last century from Iceland to New Zealand. The "dismissal" of these fishing villages has been part of the restructuring of global capitalism known as neoliberalism in response to the falling rate of profit since the end of the long post Second World War boom.

The restructuring of fisheries was intended to increase the profitability of commercial fishing, which it most certainly has for corporations and large boat owners, as the page from Statistics Iceland  below shows. The total catch from Icelandic fisheries in 2016 was almost half a million tonnes less than in 2005, yet it was worth twice as much as the 2005 catch had been.

The increase in value of Iceland's total fish catch 2005-2016

The resulting destruction of many fishing communities has been a by-product of consolidation of capital, privatisation of fisheries, over-fishing, the imposition of Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) in the name of sustainability and the financialisation of quotas into commodities in their own right. All of which has led inexorably to the closure of factories and fewer small boats being able to make a living for their crews and owners.

Nadel-Klein's book Fishing for Heritage was published in 2003 and since then anthropologists have been looking in depth at the results of this process in different areas of the world. Penny McCall Howard's superb book Environment, Labour and Capitalism at Sea focuses on the people "working the ground" in the prawn fisheries of the west coast of Scotland, to investigate how capitalism and its drive for profit is systematically wrecking the fisheries and the livelihoods of the fishers. I have reviewed Environment, Labour and Capitalism at Sea in the latest edition of International Socialism Journal.

Environment, Labour and Capitalism at Sea
by Penny McCall Howard

Fiona McCormack's Private Oceans: The Enclosure and Marketisation of the Seas examines how Individual Transferable Quotas work in New Zealand and Iceland and considers Hawaii where ITQs have not yet dislodged a fisheries management system based on maximum annual catches. The book ends in Ireland with examples of the effects of the Common Fisheries Policies from Donegal and the island of Árainn Mhór. I recently reviewed Private Oceans for Climate and Capitalism and while it contains a lot I disagree with, the book is full of fascinating detail and the voices of the fishers at the sharp end of neoliberal restructuring.

Private Oceans: the Enclosure and Marketisation of the Seas
by Fiona McCormack

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Byltingin í Rússlandi - The Revolution in Russia Part three Bolshevism

This is the beginning of part three of my translation of Byltingin í Rússlandi - The Revolution in Russia by Stefán Pjetursson. This little book was published in 1921 by young Icelandic socialists who identified with the Revolution and wanted to defend and explain it to the left in Iceland. I am posting part three in mini-chapters because it is so long. The first part describes Lenin and what the author knew and understood about Lenin's character and politics.

Bylting í Rússlandi uses the New Style Russian calendar—the Gregorian calendar—introduced in Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1918 which added thirteen days to the Old Style Julian calendar. This is why the author refers to the revolutions in February and October as the March Revolution and the November Revolution.  I have not changed the dates back in my translation.

My introduction to Byltingin í Rússlandi

The Sources, Preface and Introduction contain more about their reasons for writing.

Part One: Reaction and Progress

Part Two: The Revolution

Part Three: Bolshevism


The 1917 November Revolution ended the bourgeoisie’s grip on power in Russia. Under the red revolutionary flag the proletariat—the workers—had risen against them and burst their fetters. Under the red flag the Bolsheviks changed their future and overthrew the capitalists. Now the proletariat held power.

Footnote in the original:
“The word öreigi, (in foreign languages proletariat) according to Marx and other socialist writers, refers to all those who have nothing to live on but their own work, they own neither the means of production nor do they employ workers. Therefore the proletariat is not just manual workers but also other waged workers such as civil servants, office workers and many others. In this book the word has the same meaning.”

The dictatorship of the proletariat was no longer a future dream—their leaders held power. They made no secret of their intention to break with the old system they said it was condemned to death. A new social order was coming that would change everyone’s quality of life so that they would be able to enjoy full maturity of mind and body.

They were also perfectly clear about how difficult this would be. The Bourgeoisie still had a large following to command in Russia. They rose against the dictatorship of the proletariat and armed themselves across the country. The old bureaucracy refused to obey the Bolshevik government. Russian ambassadors around the world refused to recognise it and despite being sacked and replaced, the problem was not solved as foreign governments refused to acknowledge the new ambassadors. 

Great property owners stopped paying tax, made a huge fuss in the papers and in meetings and used all kinds of armed violence to wreck the revolution. And the internal chaos was compounded by the invasion of the most destructive foreign enemies. Of all the agreements ever made, probably none was more difficult than that made by the Bolshevik government about the war. It was supported by the proletariat—the people, who bore the hunger and filth and soldiers who defended them against powerful domestic and foreign enemies whose armies were well armed and supplied.

Many would have been discouraged at such a prospect but not the Bolshevik government. With the gargantuan effort that only extreme danger can spur, they fought all their enemies at once to save the revolution and crush the opposition. In this great battle the entire revolutionary party was united. Many of its prominent people have proven to be the most heroic, but there are two who have been head and shoulders above the others and are the best known abroad. These men are Lenin and Trotsky, so it is appropriate to sketch their lives, work and teaching.

Lenin whose real name is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born on 23 April 1870 in Simbirsk on the Volga. He is Russian and can trace his family to nobility, though his immediate forbears have been neither wealthy nor particularly badly off. When he was quite young he went to the Gymnasium school at Simbirsk and from there at 17 he went to the Kazan University. He soon learned about the grim reality of the authorities’ injustice when he hadn’t been in university a year and was thrown out for being part of a political student group involved in some minor fracas in Kazan. Lenin had been one of the most liberal students and for that he was expelled. That same year, his brother Alexander was executed in the capital for being part of a conspiracy against the Tsar, Alexander III. Despite this blow, Lenin did not allow himself to be discouraged. Now he began to think seriously about politics and quickly became a radical socialist.

In 1891 he came to the capital city and there read law but besides his studies, he put his heart and soul into spreading the socialist message writing many newspaper and magazine articles which were distributed surreptitiously. There was no freedom of the press and the authorities would have seized such articles if they had known they were spreading socialist ideas.

In 1895, Lenin was one of those trying to develop connections with industrial workers in the capital to improve their conditions. Then the Russian authorities decided he had been quite enough of a thorn in their side and arrested him with various other workers’ leaders. Lenin was sentenced to three years exile in Siberia and after exile was banned from major Russian cities, university towns and industrial centres. 

Lenin arrested 1895 [not in original]
It was clear that the authorities did not want to give him any chance to work amongst Russian workers. Though it was a difficult decision, Lenin chose to live abroad. Despite not being able to live and work at home because of the authorities’ injustice and violence, he focused all his energy on working for the victory of the working class, not just in Russia but around the world. 
Although he was in central and western Europe for the first 16 years of the 20th century he was in constant touch with the socialists in Russia and was one of the most influential members of their party. He wrote a great deal on many subjects in these years and published more than one newspaper. Some of what he wrote was smuggled into Russia and distributed widely. 

Lenin was a radical socialist from the start, he believed that revolution was the only way and refused to work with the bourgeoisie. Shortly after the turn of the century, this was the sharpest dispute in the Russian Socialist Party and why it split. At the meeting to discuss the matter, the majority agreed with Lenin and so were called Bolsheviki (those of the majority). It is Lenin who is the foremost theorist of Bolshevism, which in reality is only socialism in its most radical form. So when riots and strikes broke out all over Russia during the Russian-Japanese war, Lenin saw an opportunity for the working class to get started. He returned home and stayed in the capital for a while—it was then that he met Trotsky, one of the most important leaders of the Petrograd workers. 

It is well known that this revolution was crushed and reaction and oppression triumphed. The authorities used the opportunity to take revenge on people at the forefront of the struggle for freedom, whose only choice was to flee the country or risk being killed. Lenin went into exile but continued to work for his party. He had some good friends and supporters in those years, which have now become famous such as Zinoviev, Lunacharsky and Kamenev. These people went to great lengths so their strategy could be followed in Russia with newspapers, articles and the like. 

Lenin had little choice about how he lived in his exile years, but he did not much mind since he has never been known to look after his own interests. The most partial and ignorant of his opponents accuse him of selfishness and other low character flaws. Part of their campaign of lies is to damage Lenin in the eyes of the world and especially of ordinary people who all the fat cats fear will turn to follow the Bolsheviks’ strategy.

World War

When the world war began Lenin was in Galicia[1]
 and it appears that the Central Powers made no attempt to impose restrictions on him. It could well be that it occurred to the various authorities that the foremost theorist of the Russian revolutionaries could be useful to them. What is certain is that Lenin went to Switzerland without hindrance but the authorities made a mistake.

It is more likely that Lenin would gain a substantial following among ordinary people in Central Europe and elsewhere, than become a politician of the Central Powers. He has never been and never will be useful to their infamous methods.

In Switzerland, Lenin published a newspaper and made no secret of his wanting to see Russia lose the war. He said that the people of Russia would only be harmed by new conquests but on the other hand, he was sure that losing the war would at least wreck the Russian monarchy. Otherwise of course, Lenin was of one of the fiercest opponents of the war and one of the leaders of the group of socialists that set up the Zimmerwald meeting in September 1915 in Switzerland, to oppose the war and impress on ordinary people in the warring countries that to keep fighting was to spill their own blood to enrich capitalists and strengthen the chains that capitalism had laid on them.

Lenin was right when he thought that the defeat of Russia would bring down the monarchy. As already mentioned, the March [2] 
1917 revolution began when the war had been going for 32 months and Russia had lost many men and a great deal of land. The new authorities decided to give all exiles the opportunity which Lenin took to come home. It has since been repeatedly said that the Germans paid as much as they could for his journey and that he must have taken their money. It is probably true that the Central Powers hoped that Lenin would work for peace if he got home. But for Lenin to have taken money from them and become an agent of central European fat cats is incredibly unlikely. And of all the incidents pointed to later as such, not once has it been the peace treaty between Russia and the Central Powers because for so long Lenin was famously one of the most implacable opponents of the war waged throughout the world.

It is understandable that the capitalists put this story about with many others to undermine his influence, because capitalist oppression has hardly ever had a more dangerous enemy than Lenin. When he came home, Lenin threw himself into work with the Bolsheviks’ supporters and quickly became foremost amongst those who insisted that the revolution must continue until bourgeois rule was secure. The revolution, he said, could not succeed until the proletariat had taken all power into its own hands. And he worked entirely to this end. No other man has worked as energetically to seize all power from the capitalists and lay the foundations of a new classless order.

Few, who saw Lenin, would imagine that he is the outstanding man that he really is. It would not be said that he was much to look at. The Russian monarch’s secret police had described him in their files like this;
“Short, thick, short-necked, round and red in the face, shaven with a moustache and goatee beard, small nose that turns up slightly at the end, penetrating gaze, bald, high forehead; nearly always carries a raincoat on his arm, has various hats or caps, walks in a determined fashion”.

We may add to this description that he has a black goatee, small moustache and deep wrinkles on his forehead that have been carved by the tremendous effort and worry that have been loaded on him in the last few years.

Lenin is always good tempered and smiling but under this harmless exterior lies limitless self confidence, exceptional intelligence, steel hard concentrated will and great resolution. These fine commanding talents of Lenin’s are rarely, if ever used in overbearing or raging at subordinates or committee members as is often the case for people who hold similar positions. No, he avoids issuing orders—it is usually enough to advise his fellow committee members, since they assign so much importance to what he says.

To tell the truth Lenin has to carry little of the routine. It is said that his home life is exemplary and he is well married. He is so frugal that it is alarms everyone—those who know him and equally many of his opponents, he is amazingly unselfish in every way.

Lenin is not a sentimental man. Coldly and calmly, he worked to achieve the ends to which he has sacrificed his life. He has shown unswerving courage in the struggle against those who would hinder the proletariat’s progress under his leadership. Lenin did not hesitate for one moment to forge the way by whatever means necessary and though he is not at all vengeful, he is dauntless and relentless in the struggle to bring capitalist oppression to its knees.

[1] In 1917 Galicia was the largest and most northerly region of the Austrian Empire and straddles what is now the border between Poland and Ukraine—not to be confused with the region of Galicia in northern Spain.

[2] The first Russian revolution in 1917 began when women demonstrated on International Women’s day for bread and peace on 8 March (23 February OS).

Monday, 1 May 2017

Happy May Day - the international workers holiday

Happy May Day everyone, here's a 1931 May Day march led by Iceland's Communist Party in Reykjavik.

Friday, 28 April 2017

International Workers Memorial Day - Mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living

Today—28 April—is International Workers Memorial Day when workers and their trade unions round the world, remember everyone killed at work. It’s a day to mourn the dead and demand better health and safety, better conditions and that if the worst happens that employers accept responsibility and pay proper compensation to workers’ families.

The history of fatal and serious accidents for every countries’ workers is very long. In Iceland, the highest numbers of deaths were probably amongst fishers—men and women—who were most likely to drown or die of cold. But farm workers also got killed collecting “scurvy grass” from cliffs, which was needed for its vitamin C. Women, whose work was washing clothes in rivers or geothermal hot water pools, drowned or suffered fatal burns.

Terrible conditions and weather caused accidents and often people assume these are historical events and don’t happen now. But in February this year one man was hospitalised and another died when hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide got into their accommodation through the water supply of the fish factory that employed them in Reykjanes, South West Iceland.

A worker running the Bæjarins bestu hot dogs kiosk in Reykjavik last September narrowly escaped being crushed when a crane from the building site adjacent collapsed against the door of the small building. The timber that the crane was carrying landed in the carp park next to it and Bæjarins bestu’s staff member had to get out by climbing through the window.

And in April last year fisherman Ólaf­ur Jó­hann­es Friðriks­son died when he fell overboard from a fishing boat in Húnaflói bay, Northwest Iceland.

It is easy to say accidents will always happen, but they are much more likely where workers are pushed to speed up, where companies cut corners to save money or small fishing boats lack the latest safety equipment.  Internationally there is a growing problem of suicide among workers and small farmers driven to despair by overwork and too little pay.

Trade unionised work places are safer workplaces. But to drastically reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries suffered at work, we are going to have to challenge the system that puts profit before safety and ordinary people’s lives, wherever they are.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

When news of the beginning of the 1917 Russian Revolution reached Iceland

Copenhagen 15 March 1917[1]
Last Sunday revolution began in Russia. Parliament refused the Emperor’s order to dissolve. An elected committee of 12 MPs declared itself the new regime in Russia. The new government arrested all politicians loyal to the Emperor. Thirty thousand troops and people of Petrograd support the new government. In three days the new government has taken power in Petrograd and announced nationwide that the revolution is necessary to secure transport and a national food supply. Petrograd's food shortages have caused the revolution. The Duma (Russian parliament) established an executive committee with Rodzianko as chair. General strike in Moscow.

Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið published the telegram with news of the first victory of the Russian Revolution—the fall of Tsar Nicholas—on 17 March 1917, two days after the bloody dictator abdicated. That day, the most radical left wingers of the Social Democrats in Reykjavik set up the Reykjavik Union of Socialists, Jafnaðarmannafélag Reykjavikur to work for socialism in Iceland.

The fall of the Russian dictator (left) and the price of bread (right),
push adverts off the front page

Socialist ideas were not new idea in Iceland. The first left wing paper published there— Alþýðublaðið, The People's Paper—edited by Pétur Georg Guðmundsson, came out in 1906 and socialist newspaper Dagsbrún, edited by Ólafur Friðriksson, started in 1915. Dagsbrún was bought in 1917 by Iceland’s Social Democratic Party, Alþýðuflokkurinn which was set up in 1916 to represent the trade unions, but almost immediately some of its members were discussing setting up a more radical group of socialists within it.

Russia’s revolution was the impetus they needed. Einar Olgeirsson says in his memoir, Kraftaverk Einnar Kynslóðar that the founding meeting of Jafnaðarmannafélag Reykjavíkur was held in Bárubúð, the hall owned by the Seaman’s Union, Báran, on Vonarstræti, where Reykjavik City Hall is now. The group grew rapidly with a mixture of people who called themselves social democrats, communists and others who were somewhere in between and included lots of seamen[2].

Many of those joining Jafnaðarmannafélag Reykjavíkur went on to become leading socialists nationwide and in the trade unions. Einar Olgeirsson who was then 14 years old, became a leading member of Iceland’s Communist Party (ICP) founded in 1930 and was elected an ICP member of parliament.

The First World War

Despite the initial popularity of the First World War in Europe, its reality—the mass slaughter of young working class men, hunger and the indifference of their rulers meant that socialist ideas were spreading. In Iceland, news of the war was followed closely in the newspapers and newsreels in Reykjavik's cinemas, such as Gamla Bíó where the film, Battle of the Somme was shown three times a day from Sunday 11 March 1917. The film was made in 1916 shortly after the battle by Britain's War Office official photographers as propaganda for the Allies, but it shocked its audiences with the reality of the slaughter.

The war was also a disaster for ordinary people in Iceland. By 1914 the country’s economy was integrated into the world markets that the war had smashed up. Salt fish exports to Spain were disrupted, unemployment, hunger and shortages of essentials including heating oil, grew with the British and German attacks on shipping.

Morgunblaðið reported the calculations of the quarterly statistical paper Hagtíðindin of the price increases in Iceland's staple goods—80 percent on average, since the beginning of the war.

Price rises July 1914 – January 1917

65 %
Garden fruit & vegetables
Other fruit
Tea, chocolate, cocoa
Butter and fat
Milk, cheese and eggs
Bacon & salted lamb
Soda and salt

As the war dragged on, Dagsbrún, defined cheap as "an ancient word, no longer in use" and buying sugar as, "to stand about idly without success".

Thousands of Icelanders were colder and hungrier and wanted to change their lives.

News of the first week of the revolution reached Iceland in bits and pieces—the Russian emperor was in prison, his brother Michael had taken his place, an article considered the profound effects this must have on the Duma, the token parliament, which now, it said, held power. What about Russian politicians, Rodzianko, the serious thinker and his enemy the reactionary Protopopov? And Nicholas wanted to hand power to his young son.

In the first weeks of the revolution it appears that Icelanders didn't know that women in Russia marching for peace and bread on International Working Women's Day had sparked the movement that toppled the Tsar. Icelanders in Denmark may have heard, but letters home were censored by the British military. Still a Reykjavik newspaper quoted the paper of the Young Socialists in Stockholm saying Russia wanted to make an independent peace with Germany and had sent officials to Switzerland to negotiate.

Then the provisional government announced that political prisoners were to be freed, there was to be free speech and freedom of the press. A representative government would be established with free general elections and the old police force would be replaced by a citizens militia answerable to parliament. 

Kerensky, the minister of justice said that the old government would be held accountable for their crimes against the people but none of them would be condemned without a trial.

The allied powers, the news said, welcomed the revolution because they wanted to see Russia waging the war efficiently. The London papers embraced the new developments and only saw a risk in riled up Russian workers being distracted from war production. Leaders in England sent telegrams to the provisional government about it.

Women march for bread and peace in Russia 1917
on International Working Women's Day,
23 February Old Style and 8 March New Style 

The shock waves from revolutionary Russia in that first week gave millions of people the hope that life could be better than poverty and endless work. In underdeveloped Iceland, with its few small towns, isolated farmsteads and fishing stations, the revolutionaries' ideas and victories were to become the catalyst for trade unions, socialist and communist groups to mushroom in its poor soil.
In future posts, I'll be looking at the Icelanders who travelled to revolutionary Russia to learn from it and how their experiences came to shape generations of militant workers in Iceland.

[1] Russia used the Julian or Old Style calendar until 24 January 1918, which was 13 days behind, so 15 March in Europe and the United States was 24 February in Russia. To change to the Gregorian calander or New Style, add 13 days. 
[2] One Miraculous Generation, Kraftaverk Einnar Kynslóðar, Mál og Menning, p30.