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 (continued) Bolshevism and Marxism

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