Mikhail Gorbachev

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Another Lesson from France: How to Maintain a Diverse, Pluralist Press

There’s a very interesting passage in Denis MacShane’s 1986 Fabian Society pamphlet, French Lessons for Labour, where he describes how the French have been able to create a diverse and pluralistic press. Apparently it’s the most diverse in Europe with the exception of Sweden. This has been achieved partly through legislation drafted at the country’s liberation during World War II, but which was never enforced, which would have removed newspapers from the ownership of Nazi supporters and collaborators, the nationalisation of the distributors and state subsidization.

In fact, France, partly by design, partly by chance, has the most pluralist press in Europe outside Sweden. The design lies in the laws passed at the liberation in 1944/45 which dispossessed the owners of the right-wing papers which had supported Hitler before 1939 and the Vichy regime after 1940. A right of reply law and, more important, one that nationalised the press distribution agency were also passed. The latter means that left-wing newspapers and magazines are on sale in the most remote parts of France and the distribution censorship which is exercised in Britain by the two main wholesale/retail companies does not exist in France. In addition, the Government subsidises the press with cheap postal tariffs, zero VAT rating and, on occasion, direct subsidy.

The chance lies in the willingness of businessmen or corporations to put up money on left-of-centre newspapers and to support them during periods of low or zero profits. Le Matin, Liberation and the left-wing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur (circulation 400,000) all provide a width of reporting and comments In addition, Le Monde, whose independence is assured by the right of journalists to elect its editor, maintains an objectivity and authority, and an influence because of those two values, which are not automatically hostile to a socialist government. (P. 17).

However, attempts to pass similar legislation to the 1944/5 laws in order to stop the Vichy collaborator Robert Hersant from owning 19 national and provincial papers in 1984 and 1986 was a failure, partly due to a press freedom campaign from the right.

This issue of media ownership and bias is acutely relevant on this side of the Channel as well. Since the 1980s, the press and media in Britain has been owned by a decreasing number of powerful individuals, who may also have other business interests. These individuals, like Rupert Murdoch, have been able to exert oligarchical control of the media, maintaining a strong Tory bias. Media and press bias against Labour was particularly acute during Thatcher’s administration and was certainly a factor in the 1987 general election. It has also been very much in evidence over the past five years, when even supposedly left-wing newspapers like the Mirror, the Guardian and the Observer, ran stories attacking Labour and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as well as the radio and television networks.

Media bias has also partly been responsible for the right-ward movement of the Labour party itself under Tony Blair. Blair was backed by the Murdoch press, and former ministers have said that Murdoch was an invisible presence at every cabinet meeting as Blair worried how his policies would be viewed by the press magnate. He was also able to gain the support of other papers with the exception of the Heil, but continued to hope that he would eventually win over that rag. I think it’s likely that press ownership will become even more restricted if some papers go under due to the Coronavirus lockdown. Even before the lockdown, the Express changed owners as its former proprietor, the pornography Richard Desmond, sold it to the Mirror group.

The willingness of businessmen to support left-wing newspapers is a crucial factor. When the Daily Herald went bust in the 1960s, to be bought by Murdoch and relauched as the Scum, it actually had a higher circulation that many of the other papers. What brought it down was the fact that it was unable to attract advertising. And I’ve encountered censorship by the distributors myself. Way back in the 1980s during the period of glasnost and perestroika introduced by Gorbachev, an English edition of Pravda was briefly available in some British newsagents. This was an exciting time as Gorbachev signed arms limitation treaties with Reagan ending the Cold War, and introduced reforms in the Soviet Union intended to turn the country into a multi-party democracy. I tried ordering it from my local newsagent in Bristol, but was told it was impossible. It was only being carried by one of the two national distributors. The one that served my area simply wouldn’t carry it.

And the newsagent chains can also exercise their own censorship. When it started out, Private Eye was seen as very subversive and viewed with distaste by many people. Many newsagents wouldn’t stock it. And at least one of the newsagents in the ‘ 90s refused to put its edition satirising the public attitude at Princess Di’s funeral on their shelves. When I asked what had happened to it when it wasn’t on sale in my local newsagents, I was told that it hadn’t come in yet. Well, there seemed to be many other newsagents, who hadn’t had it delivered either. After it returned to the shelves a fortnight later, the Eye published a series of pieces, including letters from readers, who’d had similar problems finding a copy, revealing what had actually gone on. One of the newsagents, John Menzies, had objected to the issue and its cover, and so refused to sell it.

Britain would definitely benefit considerably from similar policies towards the press as that of our friends across Le Manche. But I think getting such legislation through would be almost impossible. There were demands for workers’ control of the press in the 1980s, partly as a reaction by journalists on papers bought by Murdoch as he expanded his noxious empire. They were also concerned about editorial control and bias as the press passed into the hands of fewer and fewer owners. Those demands were obviously unsuccessful. Any attempt to pass legislation providing for state subsidisation of left-wing papers would be howled down by the Tory press as interference in press freedom and the state bailing out failing companies in contravention of the Thatcherite doctrine that market forces should be allowed full reign and failing companies and industries should be allowed to go under.

And I can’t imagine any law to deprive former collaborators or supporters of Hitler of ownership of their papers going down at all well with the Daily Mail, which is notorious for its support of Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists and articles praising Hitler before the outbreak of the War. John Major in the last days of his administration wanted to pass legislation breaking up Murdoch’s empire, but by that time it was too late – Murdoch had already switched to Tony Blair and the Labour party and Major’s government was in no position to do anything about Murdoch’s pernicious control of the press.

This problem is likely to become more acute if some newspapers fold due to lack of sales during the lockdown and the impact of the internet. Media ownership is restricted enough as it is, without Murdoch trying to destroy the Beeb so that Sky and the other cable/satellite stations can take its place. It may not be too long before Murdoch’s hold on the media becomes a true monopoly. In that event, government action to break it up will become a necessity. But given the uniform opposition it would face from the press, it’s questionable if it would be successful.

Or as governments increasingly ingratiate themselves with the Murdoch press in return for its support, even be considered as an option.

Gorbachev’s Final Programme for the Russian Communist Party

Robert V. Daniels’ A Documentary History of Communism in Russia from Lenin to Gorbachev (Burlington, Vermont: University of Vermont Press 1993) contains the last party political programme Gorbachev. This was put forward at the last party plenum in 1991 before Communism finally collapsed. It’s an optimistic document which seeks to transform the totalitarian party and the Soviet Union’s command economy into a democratic party with a mixed economy. Gorbachev also cites as the principles underlying the transformation not just the values of the Communist party, but also the wider values of democracy, humanism and social justice.

The extract’s several pages long, and so I won’t quote it in full. But here some passages that are particularly interesting, beginning with Gorbachev’s statement of their values.

  1. Our Principles

… In its political activity the CPS will be guided by: – the interests of comprehensive social progress, which is assured by way of reforms…

-The principles of humanism and universal values.

-The principles of democracy and freedom in al ltheir various manifestations…

-The principles of social justice…

– The principles of of patriotism and internationalism…

-The interests of integrating the country into the world economy.

Section III, ‘Our Immediate Goals’ declares

… The CPSU stands for the achievement of the following goals:

In the political system. Development of the Soviet multinational state as a genuine democratic federation of sovereign republics;

setting up a state under the rule of law, and the development of democratic institutions; the system of soviets as the foundations of the state structure, as organs of popular rule and self-administration and of political representation of the interests of all strata of society; separation of powers – legislative, executive and judicial…

In the area of nationality relations: Equal rights for all people independently of their nationality and place of residence; equal rights and free development of all nationality under the unconditional priority of the rights of man…

In the economy. Structural rebuilding (perestroika) of the national economy, re-orienting it toward the consumer;

modernization of industry, construction, transport and communications on the basis of high technology, overcoming our lag behind the world scientific technical level, and thinking through the conversion of military production.

transition to a mixed economy based on the variety and legal equality of different forms of property – state, collective and private, joint stock and cooperative. Active cooperation in establishing the property of labour collectives and the priority development of this form of social prosperity;

formation of a regulated market economy as a means to stimulate the growth of economic efficiency, the expansion of social wealth, and the raising of the living standards of the people. This assumes free price formation with stage gains to needy groups of the population, the introduction of an active anti-monopoly policy, restoring the financial system to health, overcoming inflation, and achieving the convertibility of the ruble.

working out and introducing a modern agrarian policy; free development of the peasantry; allotment of land (including leaseholds with the right of inheritance) to all who are willing and able to work it effectively; state support of the agro-price parity in the exchange of the products of industry and agriculture;

comprehensive integration of the country in the world economy, and broad participation in world economic relations in the interest of the economic and social progress of Soviet society.

In the social sphere. Carrying out a state policy that allows us to reduce to a minimum the unavoidable difficulties and expenses connected with overcoming the crisis in the economy and making the transition to the market…

Averting the slide toward ecological catastrophe, solving the problems of [Lake] Baikal, the Aral Sea, and other zones of ecological impoverishment, and continuing the liquidation of the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.

In education, science and culture. Spiritual development of the people, impoving the education and culture of each person, and strengthening morality, the sense of civic duty and responsibility and patriotism…

IV. Whose Interest the Party Expresses

… In cooperation with the labour movement and the trade unions we will defend the interests of the workers, to secure: due representation of the working class in the organs of power at all levels, real rights of labour collectives to run enterprises and dispose of the results of their labour, a reliable system of social protection…

We stand for freedom of conscience for all citizens. The party takes a respectful position toward the feelings of believers…

… We are against militant anti-Communism as a form of political extremism and negation of democracy that is extremely dangerous for the fate of society…

V. For a Party of Political Action

Communists are clearly aware that only a radically renewed party – a party of political action – can successfully solve new tasks.

The most important direction of renewal for the party is its profound democratization. This assumes the independence of the parties of the republics that belong to CPS, and space for the initiative of local and primary organizations.

… Guarantees must be worked out in the party so that its cadres never utilize their posts for mercenary interests, never speak contrary to conscience, and do not fear a hard struggle to achieve noble ends.

The renewal of the party presupposes a new approach to the understanding of its place in society and its relations with the state, and in the choice of means for the achievement of its political goals. The party acts exclusively by legal political methods. It will fight for deputies’ seats in democratic elections, winning the support of voters for its electoral platform and its basic directions of policy and practical action. Taking part in the formation of the organs of state power and administration, it will conduct its policy through them. It is ready to enter into broad collaboration wherever this is dictated by circumstances, and to conclude alliances and coalitions with other parties and organizations in the interest of carrying out a program of democratic reforms. In those organs of power where the Communist deputies are in the minority, they will assume the place of a constructive opposition, standing up against any attempt at infringing with the interests of the toilers and the rights and freedoms of citizens. Collaborating with other parliamentary groups, Communist deputies will manifest cooperation toward positive undertakings that come from other parties and movements…

The CPSU is built on the adherence of its members to the ideas of certain values. For us the main one of these is the idea of humane, democratic socialism. Reviving and developing the initial humanitarian principles of Marx, Engels and Lenin, we include in our arsenal of ideas the entire richness of national and world socialist and democratic thought. We consider communism as a historic perspective, a social ideal, based on universal human values, on the harmonious union of progress and justice, of the free self-realization of the individual.

(pp.379-82).

It’s an inspiring document, and if it had been passed and Communism and the Soviet Union not collapsed, it would have transformed the Communist party into a modern, centre-left party, committed to genuine democracy, religious freedom, technological innovation and development, tackling the ecological crisis, rooting out corruption within the party and standing with other groups to defend workers’ rights. I do have a problem with its condemnation of extreme anti-Communism. You would expect this from a leader who still wanted the Communist party to be the leading political force in the Soviet Union. It could just refer to groups like the morons who set up various Nazi parties and organisations in the 1980s. They had absolutely no understanding of what Nazism stood for, just that it was anti-Communist. But that clause could be used against other, far more moderate groups demanding radical change. I was impressed, however, by the statement that the Communists should be prepared to take a back seat in opposition. This completely overturns the central Communist dogma that the party should always take the leading role, even when in a coalition with other parties. It’s how Stalin got them to win democratic elections, before purging and dissolving those parties and sending their members to death or the gulag.

Ultimately the programme failed. One reason is that Gorbachev really didn’t understand just how hated the Communist party actually was. When I was studying the rise of Communist and Fascist regimes at college in the mid-80s, one of the newspapers reported that there were underground pop groups in the USSR singing such ditties as ‘Kill the Commies and the Komsomol too.’ The Komsomol was the Communist party youth organisation.

Daniel Kalder in his book Dictator Literature: A History of Despots through their writing (Oneworld: 2018) that Gorby’s project was undermined by the release under glasnost of Lenin’s suppressed works. Gorbachev had based his reforms on a presumed contrast between a democratic, benevolent Lenin, who had pledged Russia to a kind of state-directed capitalism in his New Economic Policy, and Stalin with his brutal totalitarianism, collectivisation of agriculture and the construction of the Soviet command economy. But Lenin frequently wrote for the moment, and his writings contradict themselves, though there is a central strand of thought that is consistent throughout. More seriously, he himself was viciously intolerant and a major architect of the Soviet one party state through the banning of other parties. The newly republished works showed just how false the image of Lenin as some kindly figure was, and just how nasty he was in reality.

But even after 30 a years, I still think Gorby’s proposed reforms are an excellent guide to what socialism should be. And his vision was far better than the bandit capitalism and massive corruption of Yeltsin’s administration, when the Soviet economy melted down. And its anti-authoritarianism and intolerance of corruption makes it far better than the regime of the current arkhiplut, Vladimir Putin. Although it has to be said that he’s done much good restoring conditions after Yeltsin’s maladministration.

And it’s also far better than the neoliberalism that has infected the Labour party, introduced by Tony Blair in Britain and Gerhard Schroder in Germany. I think we need something like Gorbachev’s vision here, in the 21st century Labour party, instead of further Thatcherism under Starmer.

The Tories Are Economic Saboteurs – Get the Gulags Ready!

The former Soviet Union had a series of legislation defining and punishing economic crimes. As all industry and agriculture was nationalised and the country a single-party totalitarian state, any attempt to disrupt this situation was considered subversive and attack on the Soviet system and state itself. This meant that people could be jailed for organising a strike or industrial dispute, or for simply trying to set up their own, independent private company. This was actually permitted under the Soviet Constitution, but was limited to self-employment. Thus when Gorbachev started glasnost and liberalising the economy in the 1980s, one of the first developments was the rise of private taxis by people with their own cars. Under hardliners like Brezhnev, however, any attempt to set up one’s own company was strictly punished, and the offending entrepreneur sent to the gulags. It was declared to be and punished as sabotage and anti-Soviet activities.

Stalin justified his terror and mass arrests in the 1930s through lies that the Soviet Union and its economic development were under threat from an army of saboteurs. Secret agents and collaborators with the capitalist West, including the followers of his exiled rival, Trotsky, were active causing disaffection with Stalin’s personal rule and plotting to cripple and destroy Soviet industry and agriculture. 30 million Soviet citizens were falsely accused, convicted and either executed or sent to the gulags to die of starvation and overwork.

But now in neoliberal, capitalist Britain, the Tory party really does seem to be trying to sabotage this country’s industry and agriculture. Boris Johnson’s Tory are heavily funded by hedge funds, who are shorting the British economy. They’ve gambled on a no-deal Brexit ruining Britain. And so Boris and his coterie are pushing for precisely that type of exit from the EU. Yesterday the Boorish Bozo and his minions announced that they were going to tear up the deal they’d already agreed with the EU, in order to push for something better. This, as Mike has pointed out, just shows the EU that we can’t be trusted. It’s weakened our position, and made such a disastrous Brexit even more likely. At the same time, it’s been estimated that a third of British farmers could go under in five years thanks to such a Brexit and the probable imposition of agricultural tariffs by the EU.

If Boris and the Tories, or at least his faction, are determined on a no-deal Brexit, because it will destroy British firms and farms, for the enrichment of the hedge funds, then they are guilty of economic sabotage.

In the Soviet Union, they’d be sent to the gulag for it. But as it stands, they’re supported by the British media, and so distort and spread lies blaming everyone but themselves, especially the EU.

See: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2020/09/07/if-johnson-is-ready-to-renege-on-eu-withdrawal-agreement-whats-the-point-in-a-trade-deal/

I can’t remember where I read it, but one of the commenters on Mike’s blog also suggested that after Boris has done his job and wrecked our once great nation, he’ll take his money and flee abroad.

Which is what any number of truly horrific dictators have done throughout history. I’m thinking of people like Idi Amin, the butcher who ruled Uganda in the 1970s. After he was ousted he fled to Yemen or Jordan or somewhere, where he holed up very comfortably in a luxury hotel.

One of the problems with the developing world is that its dictators and ruling class loot their countries and peoples without putting anything back. They don’t spend the money they’ve stolen consuming any of their nations’ traditional products. They just hoard it abroad in Swiss bank accounts. Mugabe in Zimbabwe is a case in point.

And Boris and the Tories are doing something similar. Which means that what is said about these tyrants can be said about them:

The Tories are kleptocrats trying to turn Britain into a third world country!

If there are people, who count as ‘economic criminals’ who deserve to be thrown into a forced labour camp, it’s them.