Socialist Classics: Paulo Freire, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’

Issue 56 (June 2014) saw Tara O’Sullivan discussing a revolutionary approach to education and social change.

In 1845, as he was working out a way of seeing things which would revolutionise the world, Karl Marx noted that some materialists see people as utterly dictated by their education and circumstances, a view which forgets “that circumstances are changed by people and that the educator must himself be educated”. At the end of the day, education, education, education is at the heart of what socialists seek to do. This is not just a question of what goes on in school classrooms —crucial as that is—but how people learn to understand and shape their world, and how socialist ideas get presented and accepted. The idea that the way knowledge is shared is at the heart of social change, and that social change is at the heart of the way knowledge is shared, formed the foundation for the work of Paulo Freire.

Freire was born in Brazil in 1921 into a comfortable middle-class family. But the economic depression of the following decade took a toll on his family’s fortunes and, although they later recovered their position, the uncertainty of this period may well have helped to shape Freire’s outlook. He became a teacher, eventually working on literacy programmes among the country’s poor. They were so successful that he was forced into exile when a military clique seized control of the country, but he continued his work in Chile. He published Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968, expounding the philosophy behind his educational practice.

He characterises the conventional model of education bitterly:

This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students).… Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositors and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and ‘makes deposits’ which the students patiently receive, memorize and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education…

While lip service is nowadays officially paid to a more mutual interaction between teacher and students, this is more appearance than reality. Even banks themselves have replaced the officious managers of old with a supposedly more customer-friendly open door, while still playing the same role in perpetuating inequality. Likewise, education is still premised on lodging information in students’ heads to be regurgitated as required for the sake of exams, points, quali­fications. Even with the best will on the part of teachers, the imperative to allocate people to roles in the capitalist economy ultimately shapes how they are taught.

Real education works very differently, insists Freire:

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.… Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information. …there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only men who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.

(The book constantly refers to the thoughts and actions of “men”, with women not getting a look in. While this terminological failure could be partly put down to the over-gendered language of the times, Freire’s failure to even mention the specific nature of how women experience the world is a more fundamental one.)

As against ‘banking’ education, which takes for granted the world as it is, “problem-posing education involves a constant unveiling of reality… not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in trans­formation”. The educator’s “efforts must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking”, meaning that “both are simultaneously teachers and students”.

the problem-posing educator constantly re-forms his reflections in the reflection of the students. The students—no longer docile listeners—are now critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher. The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and re-examines his earlier considerations as the students express their own. …the organized, systematized, and developed ‘re-presentation’ to individuals of the things about which they want to know more.

Such education is unapologetically revolutionary, challenging the existing order of things and working towards a different, human society. Struggle for such social transformation is needed for emancipatory education to work, but the critical thinking entailed in such education is just as necessary to achieve that transformation:

It is only when the oppressed find the oppressor out and become involved in the organized struggle for their liberation that they begin to believe in themselves. This discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection… it would be a false premise to believe that activism (which is not true action) is the road to revolution. Men will be truly critical if they live the plenitude of the praxis, that is, if their action encompasses a critical reflection…

“Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift.” The human­itarian approach to education essentially reproduces the ‘banking’ concept. While it is concerned with the well-being of the poor, and often sincerely, it still sees itself holding the keys to knowledge, allowing the oppressed judicious doses of cut-and-dried facts to be learned. Even if the avowed aim is to help them live better lives, “not even the best-intentioned leadership can bestow independence as a gift”.

Here and throughout the book, Freire is not just discussing the activity of educationalists as such, but of all who aim to bring people a greater awareness of the world. The lines between classroom education and the political education of a revolutionary movement aiming to change consciousness and the world are deliberately blurred —or rather, their basic identity is affirmed, “the eminently peda­gogical character of the revolution”.

So there is no room for the notion that a liberating pedagogy is something to be introduced ‘after the revolution’. First of all, this conception of revolution as a single point in time is mistaken: “the taking of power is only one moment—no matter how decisive—in the revolutionary process… there is no absolute ‘before’ or ‘after’, with the taking of power as the dividing line”. To postpone education based on dialogue and problem posing to an indefinite future means sticking with ‘banking’ education for the present. Even if the information to be deposited within passive learners is revolutionary in intent, this approach inherently contradicts the revolution:

they cannot use the methods of banking education in the pursuit of liberation, as they would only negate that pursuit itself. Nor may a revolutionary society inherit these methods from an oppressor society.… In the revolutionary process, the leaders cannot utilize the banking method as an interim measure, justified on grounds of expediency, with the intention of later behaving in a genuinely revolutionary fashion. They must be revolutionary—that is to say, dialogical—from the outset.

Revolutionary education is a means as well as an end, a method of bringing about change as well as its result. The same goes for the way revolutionaries organise: “organization only corresponds to its nature and objective if in itself it constitutes the practice of freedom”. Indeed, critical and creative dialogue through every phase “is one of the most effective instruments for keeping the revolution from becoming institutionalized and stratified in a counter-revolutionary bureaucracy”.

However, “for the Leftist sectarian, ‘tomorrow’ is decreed beforehand, is inexorably pre-ordained”. He treats people “as objects which must be saved from a burning building” rather than as subjects of the revolutionary process. He “feels alarm at each step they take, each doubt they express, and each suggestion they offer”, considering himself “the proprietor of revolutionary wisdom—which must then be given to (or imposed upon) the people” by “monologue, slogans and communiqués”.

As against that, “Scientific revolutionary humanism cannot, in the name of revolution, treat the oppressed as objects to be analysed and (based on that analysis) presented with prescriptions for behaviour… cannot designate its leaders as its thinkers and the oppressed as mere doers”. Their objective is

not to ‘win the people over’ to their side. Such a phrase does not belong in the vocabulary of revolutionary leaders, but in that of the oppressor. The revolutionary’s role is to liberate, and be liberated, with the people—not to win them over.

From the word go, revolutionaries must learn while they teach: they

do not go to the people in order to bring them a message of ‘salvation’, but in order to come to know through dialogue with them both their objective situation and their awareness of that situation… Although they may legitimately recognize themselves as having, due to their revolutionary consciousness, a level of revolutionary knowledge different from the level of empirical knowledge held by the people, they cannot impose themselves and their knowledge on the people. They cannot sloganize the people, but must enter into dialogue with them, so that the people’s empirical knowledge of reality, nourished by the leaders’ critical knowledge, gradually becomes transformed into knowledge of the causes of reality.

But this does not mean stopping short at the views currently held by the people: “Neither invasion by the leaders of the people’s world view not mere adaptation by the leaders to the (often naïve) aspirations of the people is acceptable.” Freire gives the example of a grassroots demand for wage increases. It would be wrong to limit political action to such a demand, but equally wrong to “overrule this popular demand” in favour of immediate abolition of the wages system. A synthesis is needed which supports the demand while posing it as just one aspect of a wider problem whose solution necessarily goes far further than higher wages.

There are flaws in Freire’s analysis. He speaks of dialogue between “leaders” and “the people” throughout. “Usually this leadership group is made up of men who in one way or another have belonged to the social strata of the dominators”, he writes. Although he constantly stresses that they can’t be true revolutionaries until they leave behind them all traces of their old class outlook towards the poor, these leaders are an external force who “go to the people”. The vagueness, and even ambiguity, of an undifferentiated “people” is problematic, ignoring very important class distinctions and their political implications. But above all, there is no understanding that revolutionary consciousness can emerge from within the oppressed themselves, that in struggle they can bring forth their own leaders. In fact, Freire concludes that the people cannot work out their own salvation unaided: “Only in the encounter of the people with the revolutionary leaders—in their communion, in their praxis—can this theory be built.”

This is largely due to the influence of the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, whose politics are often uncritically referenced by Freire. His mistake lies in not going far enough in his insistence that liberation can only come from the people themselves. Just as teachers and students merge into one in his educational model, leaders and workers must merge into one in revolution, their functions becoming complementary and undivided aspects of a unified praxis. But it is entirely in the spirit of Freire’s own revolutionary pedagogy that we should question and hope to deepen his ideas, in the hope of better fitting them for the work of human liberation which inspired him.

Celtic soul brothers

Tara O’Sullivan reviewed a book on traditions of internationalist solidarity across the Irish Sea in Issue 45 (September 2011)

Allan Armstrong, From Davitt to Connolly: ‘Internationalism from below’ and the challenge to the UK state and British Empire 1879-95 (Intfrobel Publications)

Earlier in the year we witnessed much discussion of relationships between Ireland and Britain. Some was of interest, but the worst of it was that the debate was occasioned by the visit of a certain over-privileged woman with a big house in London, and accompanied by moronic assertion that acquiescing in such a parasitic presence was some sign of maturity. But the histories and destinies of these two islands are linked in plenty of ways infinitely more relevant than the backslapping banqueting of the rich and their retinues.

Allan Armstrong’s book examines such a part of our history, a history of combined efforts to break such power and privilege and end the injustices that working people laboured under. The official take on the period covered here focuses on the Westminster cattle trading between Parnell and Gladstone, the vagaries of the Liberal/Home Rule alliance up to the point where it notoriously ended in tears. Here, however, we see what could have been the makings of a very different kind of alliance, aiming for real political democracy and radical change in social and economic relations.

The book opens as the land war does, a sustained militant move­ment to overthrow landlordism in Ireland, which inevitably fused with the attempt to win greater national independence. As outlined here, Michael Davitt personally had higher ambitions than others in leading positions: he wanted the land nationalised, not just taken from the landlords, and an Irish republic rather than home rule within the British empire. But this point of view was only one minority strand within the movement, and one which was continually subordinated to more moderate aspirations. The author puts his finger on “Davitt’s main political weakness—his overriding concern to maintain public unity” (p 58). Again and again we read of Davitt agreeing to hush up his more radical demands, so as to prevent a common front to the enemy. The unity of the land war was firmly based on this low common denominator. In view of this, the following characterisation of Parnell’s position seems to miss the point (p 42):

A different strategy was already forming in his mind—a slower transition to peasant proprietorship and to Irish Home Rule. He was planning his own ‘counter-revolution within the revolution’—the ‘revolution’ being “The Fall of Feudalism”, or the breaking of landlord power; the ‘counter-revolution’ being the cementing of bourgeois political, economic and social power in Ireland, with the backing of the larger tenant farmers.

The Land League’s stated aim was to win ownership of the land for tenant farmers instead of landlords, while the Home Rule party had the explicit object of an Irish parliament subordinate to Westminster. Parnell’s strategy was nothing new, only a continuation of the agreed strategy: sticking to the original aims of the revolution (in so far as it can be called such), not a counter-revolution. It was the strategy of Davitt and his allies that would have broken new ground, extended the revolution further—and it was their failure to organise openly and independently for that which deserves blame for it not happening, not Parnell doing what came naturally to himself and the class he represented.

A particular quality of the period is well highlighted, drawing a lesson that needs reiterating today, on both sides of the Irish Sea (p 24):

Migrant labour played a key role. The constant changes in the class composition of the ‘lower orders’, leading to the fall or rise of certain categories of labour, initially made working class organisation more difficult, as employers deliberately promoted ethnic or sectarian divisions amongst their workforces. However, migrant labour also brought its ready-made traditions of struggle, imported by workers from other nations and regions. These traditions were drawn upon and modified in the course of struggle. They contributed to the political awareness and fighting capability of a new ethnically mixed working class.

The existence of such a contribution has been noted before, of course. Anyone who ever read a history of trade unions in England knows that if you removed all the Celtic names you would have precious little left. Armstrong doesn’t present this as just a pleasant multi­cultural curiosity, however, but recognises it as a powerful dynamic in the making and renewal of the working class, a dynamic which should be evident in struggles of our own day.

But is it the case that “From the early 1880s an ‘internationalism from below’ alliance, of Irish social republicans and Scottish, Welsh and English Radicals, was created” (p 25)? Though a deal of evidence is presented here, it doesn’t back up such a sweeping claim. We read repeatedly of links made from time to time between struggles of working people in those four countries, but nothing that constitutes anything as strong or as lasting as an alliance.

In fact, a strange construction has sometimes to be placed on the material to make it fit this interpretation. In 1886 Davitt addressed Welsh miners and condemned the exploitation they faced. This is portrayed as “further strengthening the link between land and labour” across national boundaries (p 82). But he was electioneering on behalf of a Liberal Party candidate, in the hope that a Liberal government might grant a more generous measure of home rule to Ireland—hardly a radical alliance forged in the heat of class struggle.

This leads to wondering why—apart from the intrinsic interest of the events themselves—the period 1879-95 is chosen. Sympathies and common action between radicals in Ireland and Britain, en­compassing Irish independence and social justice, were evident in earlier periods, after all. Left-wing Chartists and left-wing Young Irelanders stood together in 1848. In the 1860s and 70s radical Fenians and the International Working Men’s Association made common cause. So why 1879-95 specifically?

Armstrong explicitly argues here and elsewhere (see ‘The need for internationalism from below’, Red Banner 33, for instance) for a mutual internationalist alliance of socialists in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, in answer to the concerted efforts of those who rule these countries. While myself and Allan have had a friendly dis­agreement around whether Britain and Ireland should form an especial framework of activity for socialists (see our letters in Red Banner 34 and 36), it is a noble aim which socialists here in the western reaches of Europe can only welcome.

There is something problematic, however, about reading this perspective back into history. The concept of an “internationalism from below” alliance is entirely the author’s own, not one that ever emerged in the actual struggles of the time. Solidarity with Irish struggles was widespread, but more often on an all-British basis than consciously Scottish, Welsh or English. The emergence of these national questions was more prominent in 1879-95 than before—which presumably explains the book’s focus on the period—but Britain, even the United Kingdom, still formed the dominant terms of reference.

This is evident among Marxist thinkers of the time too, who Armstrong either criticises or claims as supporters—but the proof for their support is weak. He presents Friedrich Engels in 1891 being “in support of a federal republic for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales… He now advocated a federal republic for the four nations” (p 131-2). In reality Engels had written (in a well-known critique of a German socialist programme) that such a republic “would be a step forward” compared to the UK, while still advocating a decentralised unitary republic for Britain and elsewhere. Similarly, “Connolly pursued a ‘break-up of the UK and British Empire road to socialism’” (p 21). But while of course insisting on Irish independence, Connolly’s assault on the UK never envisaged an independent Scotland or Wales, or separate socialist organisations in Britain’s three countries (despite the option of establishing a Scottish Socialist Labour Party being wide open to him around 1903).

Again, the argument is more concerned with the early 21st century than the late nineteenth. The author makes no bones about this, as in his characterisation of many British Marxist responses to the issues (p 17):

They either see the ‘National Question’ as a diversion from the ‘real struggle’, or begin by giving their support to liberal unionist options to defend the UK. When the ‘National Question’ refuses to go away, some ‘Marxist Radicals’ end up tailing the more liberal sections of the British ruling class, when they call for more powers for the existing devolved assemblies. A few go so far as to advocate a new federal arrangement between the constituent parts of the UK.… They hide behind the formulation of support for the ‘right of national self-determination’… take their political lead over the UK constitution from the liberal wing of the British ruling class, or sometimes from the Nationalist parties…

There is much here that we can regrettably recognise, left-wingers who would prefer if questions of political democracy would con­veniently go away and leave them to the bread and butter they know best. Not alone do such issues refuse to go away, however: we shouldn’t want them to. Demands for political democracy are an integral part of our work, often powerful elements in undermining the system we oppose and developing the desire for an alternative.

But is their demand for less than full Scottish and Welsh independence the problem? Take the case of Wales. The only trouble with demanding an independent Welsh republic is that few of the people living there want one. At the moment, most of Wales wants a certain level of self-government—more than it has at present—without breaking away from England completely. This can change, of course, and any decent socialist will fight for Wales’s right to separate as soon as it wants to. But until such a time, our job is to support the Welsh people’s right to vary, weaken, or sever that link as they see fit, to determine their own national future. Socialists support the right to divorce absolutely, but leave it up to people themselves whether they want to break up or not.

This doesn’t amount to defending the UK or a reformed version of it. The grave of the United Kingdom is one every socialist should want to dance on. This forced union, presided over by acres of feudal mummery, belongs in the museum, with its Union Jack torn up for dishrags. But does it have to be replaced by discrete Scottish, Welsh and English workers’ republics, or could a socialist Britain with full autonomy and the right to separate not do the job? The oppression of Ireland has always been greater, and its partition inherently sectarian and anti-democratic, but there are a host of reasons—geographic, economic, cultural and others—why the nations which inhabit Britain might want to share a workers’ republic which accommodated their diverse needs.

If we look to mainland Europe and further afield, it is hard to find many state boundaries that don’t perpetuate some kind of injustice. The map is dotted with nations, nationalities, ethnic and cultural groups whose existence is denied and marginalised by undemocratic capitalist states. Socialism—both as a future society and as a move­ment aiming for it—will have to come up with various ways to respect their rights, and independent statehood is only one solution among many. Proposing it as the only or primary solution fails to do so, especially in cases where it isn’t wanted by the peoples involved themselves. For instance, a socialist England or Britain should go out of its way to facilitate as autonomous a relationship as Cornwall wants and to support the use of the Cornish language—but proclaiming an independent Cornish republic that hardly any Cornish people want would only be dodging the difficulties involved.

From Davitt to Connolly goes to the heart of such debates, spurning a bad tradition on the left of ignoring tough dilemmas which defy banal answers. It throws light on a crucial period of history for Ireland and its neighbours, one which contains lessons for us today. It is clearly written, not by someone bestowing his private enlightenment upon lesser mortals, but a socialist concerned above all to build a movement of equals that can take capitalism on in these islands and beyond. It deserves to be met in the same spirit.

South Africa: A revolution betrayed

Tara O’Sullivan reviewed a study of life after apartheid in Issue 36 (June 2009).

Ed Walsh, South Africa: The new apartheid (Irish Socialist Network)

When South Africa’s first democratic election took place in 1994, the sheer size of the new electorate created huge logistical problems at polling stations. A black woman in one of the queues was asked by a television journalist how long she had been waiting to vote. “Three hundred years”, she replied. The end of apartheid, the abolition of a political tyranny based on the most brutal and naked racism, still stands forth as one of the great human achievements of recent history. But the economic situation of most black South Africans has actually worsened in the intervening years: unemployment has doubled, as has the number surviving on a dollar a day. This tragic downside of the new South Africa is expertly detailed in this well-produced new pamphlet.

By the late 1980s white capital in South Africa and its inter­national allies were realising that apartheid’s days were numbered, but as one corporate bigwig quoted here put it, “We dare not allow the baby of free enterprise to be thrown out with the bath-water of apartheid.” They exerted immense pressure to ensure that any post-apartheid society wouldn’t stray from the capitalist straight-and-narrow. The usual ideological and financial pressure was reinforced by the state-backed military squads of Inkatha, raising the spectre of a civil war such as was visited on other southern African countries after independence. All this meant that even if the African National Congress were minded to rock the economic boat, they would do so at a terrifying cost.

To this external coercion, Walsh adds an internal factor usually given little attention, what he calls “The inadequacy of democratic practice within the ANC”. Working underground led to decisions being made by leaders in secret, but the same pattern prevailed even in democratic conditions. The story is told here of a leader of the South African Communist Party who expressed quite mild criticisms of the ANC, with whom his party is allied. A frenzied reaction from the ANC leadership led to a craven apology and a public recantation of his errors, the whole affair having a whiff of 1930s Moscow about it. Such an authoritarian political culture means that those articulat­ing the interests of working people against economic and political elites usually got a very muted hearing within the organisation.

The ANC’s object was never just winning the right to vote for all: it “promised to deliver both political and economic liberation”. While its Freedom Charter was long on general aspirations and short on specific measures, it did commit to nationalising mines, banks and big monopolies. Taken along with affirmations that economic power too had to be transferred to the people, this “could provide a bridge between political and economic liberation”, the author argues. But at the same time, there was always a “calculated ambiguity” to the Freedom Charter, a social vision which “was often too vague” and a constant tendency “to dilute social and economic demands to the lowest common denominator”.

This has a familiar ring to it: a cross-class movement for political freedom that promises to do right by the workers if they loyally fall in behind the leadership. History (not least Irish history) provides countless examples of such a strategy leaving the working class stuck on the bottom rung. Whenever the working class just takes its place in a movement claiming to represent the mutual interest of all classes, patriotically postponing its own demands for the common good, it ends up getting shafted. Only if it organises for its own interests, at the same time as it fights against oppression shoulder to shoulder with others, does it have a chance of avoiding that fate.

The nationalisation proposed by the Freedom Charter was never an attack on capitalism as such, but on sections of the capitalist class which had traditionally propped up apartheid. True, it could have become a bridge to somewhere else, but different classes always envisage different destinations for the journey. If the one thing everyone is agreed on is crossing the bridge, how can socialists turn things leftwards after that? Only by proclaiming the need for that turn early and often, and mobilising workers for it. Otherwise things will invariably go with the flow of the established order.

The specific changes being implemented are important, but so is the question of who implements them: which class is in the driving seat? Workers consciously and collectively directing events could have resisted attempts to maintain capitalist privilege intact. But a programme based on others granting reforms to workers from on high could readily follow the early 1990s trend of social democratic and Communist parties across the world and suddenly discover its left-wing promises to be unrealistic.

South Africa’s main trade union federation and Communist Party remain in alliance with the ANC, hoping to shift its policies to the left. But the events of the past fifteen years pose them a powerful dilemma:

can the ANC-led alliance change direction? And if it cannot, can a new movement take up the banner of radical economic trans­formation?… They will have to consider whether the symbiotic relationship between leading ANC cadres and a new black bourgeoisie—which they have themselves noted—makes a parting of the ways of the sections of the Alliance inevitable.… The evidence appears strongly in favour of those who argue that the ANC is irreformable and that left-wing forces in South Africa will have to build a new movement.

Indeed it does, and the author presents that evidence very strongly. But what he fails to do is push for a conviction. Instead, he is like a lawyer who shows the jury incontestable proof but then goes no further than observing that the accused appears to be guilty, sits down and rests his case without calling on them to put him away. Should socialists cut loose from the ANC? He concludes that “that argument may continue”, without telling us where he stands himself. It’s a fair guess that his sympathies lie with those looking to break to the left, but he would have stimulated the debate further by coming off the fence.

Possibly the most valuable chapter of the pamphlet, however, relates a successful example of opposition to the ANC in govern­ment. Over five million South Africans are living with HIV and AIDS, an oppressed group in their own right dealing with a life-and-death crisis. The official response has been notorious, with former president Thabo Mbeki letting on that anti-retroviral drugs were no use because HIV didn’t lead to AIDS at all, and a health minister even prescribing a garlic and beetroot cure! It is shown clearly here that this was no oddball quirkiness, but a deliberate policy to avoid confronting the multinational pharmaceutical companies and their expensive stronghold on the necessary treatment. A grassroots movement took on the government and global capital, and forced them to belatedly reverse their position and make cheaper drugs available. Such an approach, fighting outside the ANC and even in spite of it, holds the key to winning economic freedom.

Potentially, the South African working class is very well positioned, and its recent political traditions are exceptionally strong. The resistance of the 1980s which proved to be apartheid’s last stand was powered in part by the growth of an inspiring and combative black workers’ movement, some of whom advocated an independent strategy: “There were often fierce debates within the emerging labour movement between ‘Charterist’ trade unionists who were partisans of the ANC and ‘workerist’ militants who tended to give more stress to specifically working-class demands.” We could have done with hearing a little more of those debates and the inspiring struggles that gave rise to them, of the strikes taking place in today’s South Africa (despite repression reminiscent of the bad old days) and of the left that has stayed outside of the ANC consensus. April’s election showed how strong the ANC’s hege­mony remains, but Jacob Zuma’s promise of change could be writing cheques that he can’t cash, raising expectations that may provide openings for South African socialists.

But there is no doubt that this pamphlet is an excellent starting point in understanding the stark reality faced by working people in South Africa today. It quotes a speech by Nelson Mandela to trade unionists in 1993, speculating whether it represented genuine personal unease or an attempt to head off left-wing discontent at the pass—but whatever his motivation, it would be hard to put the question any clearer than Prisoner 46664 did then:

How many times has a labour movement supported a liberation movement, only to find itself betrayed on the day of liberation? There are many examples of this in Africa. If the ANC does not deliver the goods you must do to it what you did to the apartheid regime.

Palestine: One state or two?

In December 2007 (Issue 30) Tara O’Sullivan addressed a central point of the fight for Palestinian freedom.

This year has seen some impressive demonstrations of solidarity with the Palestinian people, in the form of protests around the world against “40 years of occupation”. The Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank is meant, of course, but it has been objected that this passes over the original dispossession of the Palestinians that marked the establishment of Israel in 1948. This is not merely a historical question, of course, but a deeper political one: what exactly are we opposing, and what exactly are we proposing as a solution?

Dominant opinion among Palestine solidarity activists favours a ‘two state’ solution, a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel. As British anti-war campaigner George Galloway has put it (Guardian, 31 August 2006), “A comprehensive settlement now would of course look much like it has for decades: Israeli withdrawal from land occupied in 1967; respect for the legal rights of Palestinian refugees to return; the emergence of a real Palestinian state, with east Jerusalem as its capital.” This is also the position of the Palestine Liberation Organisation since 1988, and UN resolutions have backed a similar approach in the past.

The first thing to recognise is that this is not actually a ‘two state’ solution at all. An equal, roughly 50/50 split of disputed territory is not being proposed, but an arrangement that gives three quarters to the Israelis and one quarter to the Palestinians. At best, it is a ‘one and one-third of a state’ solution. And the bit being left to the Palestinians is the poorest, least productive bit, the territories Israel didn’t bother stealing for two decades. For all the formal inter­national guarantees, such a truncated Palestinian statelet would likely find its freedom just as constricted by its Israeli neighbour as the Palestinians are today.

The ‘two state’ solution assumes that the problem to be solved is how to give the Palestinians some kind of a state. But that’s only half the picture: just as important as establishing a Palestinian state is removing the Israeli state. The very existence of a state constituted on sectarianism, giving rights only to one community and denying rights to another, is the heart of the problem. Reining such a state in slightly does next to nothing against its ongoing dispossession of the Palestinians, its continual belligerence towards neighbouring peoples, or its position as a prop for imperialist policy in the middle east.

Of course, calling for an end to the state of Israel leaves you open to the charge of trampling over the rights of the Israelis. While the accusation is false in itself, in can be fairly applied to some opponents of Israel. The Iranian president Ahmedinejad, for instance, who calls for Israel to be wiped off the map, holds comp­etitions for anti-semitic cartoons, and hosts conferences to promote holocaust denial. It is not uncommon to see placards on pro-Palestine demonstrations that place an equals sign between a star of David and a swastika, equating Judaism with Nazism. The fact that the same Jewish symbol appears on the Israeli flag is no excuse: if opponents of the Turkish state’s treatment of Kurds were to equate the Islamic crescent with the swastika, they would be rightly accused of Islamophobia. Within Palestine itself, the idea of a secular state of equal Jews and Arabs has lost ground to the idea of driving the Jews into the sea. One factor motivating supporters of the two state solution is a desire to distance themselves from the taint of anti-semitism.

There has been a Jewish community in Palestine as far as can be remembered, and it has every right to be there. The same goes for those who managed to escape there from the horrors of the Nazi holocaust—and socialists should be the last people to not welcome refugees. The Israelis can claim to fulfil most of the conventional criteria for nationhood, including language, thanks to the un­precedented revival of Hebrew. But there is no way they can exercise self-determination without oppressing the Palestinians. Any Israeli state, whatever borders it drew around itself, involves dispossessing Palestinians and denying their basic democratic rights.

A society that would contain all the cultures that inhabit Palestine is needed, a democratic Palestine that would tolerate no privilege for Arab or Jew. It would speak Hebrew as well as Arabic, and would go out of its way to protect and foster its cultural diversity. It would treat all Jews with equal respect regardless of doctrinal or ethnic differences (something Israel has never done), it would keep Islam, Judaism and Christianity in the private sphere with no state patronage, and would also be a home to people who fit into neither of these boxes. A united Palestine can be a secular, democratic and equal Palestine.

Many accept this, but support the two state solution as an interim measure rather than a “comprehensive settlement”, a staging post on the road to full Palestinian freedom. More than anywhere, this should cause alarm bells to ring in Ireland, where people reluctantly accepted a temporary two state solution for the sake of peace, and are still stuck in it 85 years on. Temporary two state solutions have a nasty habit of becoming permanent two state messes. Far from acting as stepping stones to full freedom, the new states tend to become further obstacles in the way. A state, with all its coercive forces, bureaucracies and elites, develops interests of its own and a powerful self-preservation instinct, which presents those looking to finish the job with yet another enemy to overcome.

A healthy opposition to irredentism also informs some supporters of two states. It is impossible, they say, to delve back into history and avenge all the sins of our fathers against each other. Of course it is—although turning the clock back to before 1948 seems reasonable enough compared to Israelis who base their territorial claims on the Old Testament! But it is precisely present injustices, rather than historical ones, that demand full Palestinian liberation. Basic needs for water, housing and work cannot be met in a confined Palestinian statelet with poor resources and infrastructure, not to mention a predatory enemy breathing down its neck.

Getting Israel out of Gaza and the West Bank seems to many an achievable objective, certainly more likely to come about than the overthrow of a state as powerful as Israel is. But twenty years after the mainstream of the Palestinian resistance settled for that objective, it seems no nearer realisation. The effort necessary to achieve it would be immense, and not that less immense than the effort necessary to liberate Palestine altogether.

Israel is a very strong and powerful state, armed to the teeth with powerful allies, and getting rid of it will probably require a revolutionary upsurge across the middle east, and possibly war as destructive as any that Israel has waged since its foundation. Given this, no one could blame Palestinians for accepting whatever com­promises are imposed upon them along the way to their freedom.

But we should be fighting those who impose such compromises on them. It is understandable that people with a gun to their head give way, but our job is surely to take that gun away from their head, and hopefully out of the gunman’s hands altogether. The acceptance of their pre-1967 situation is a consequence of the isolation and weakness of the Palestinian people. The responsibility we have is to redouble our solidarity with them, in order to end that isolation and weakness, and allow the Palestinians to pursue their liberation to the full.


Shortly after the death of Margaret Thatcher, Tara O’Sullivan looked back in anger in Issue 52 (June 2013).

With these words the Witch fell down in a brown, melted, shapeless mass and began to spread over the clean boards of the kitchen floor. Seeing that she had really melted away to nothing, Dorothy drew another bucket of water and threw it over the mess. She then swept it all out the door. After picking out the silver shoe, which was all that was left of the old woman, she cleaned and dried it with a cloth, and put it on her foot again. Then, being at last free to do as she chose, she ran out to the court-yard to tell the Lion that the Wicked Witch of the West had come to an end, and that they were no longer prisoners in a strange land.

— L Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

There’s no doubt about it, the air has been a little sweeter to breathe since 8 April. The death of Margaret Thatcher has seen a collective straightening of the shoulders. Yes, some of the more raucous expressions of joy have gone a wee bit over the top, but beyond that there is a feeling of relief, of a burden being eased, which is no less sincere for being expressed calmly. Her own triumphal wartime call to “Just rejoice at that news” has finally come home to roost. The death of an 87-year-old from a stroke, following a slow battle with Alzheimer’s, is nothing to celebrate, but Thatcher long renounced the notion of human sympathy. Many pensioners died cold and lonely deaths from her politics, whereas she slipped away peacefully in the Ritz. Her belief that “there is no such thing as society” has rebounded in society’s reaction to there no longer being any such thing as Thatcher.

In life and death, she is in a class of her own. Ronald Reagan pursued much the same policies, but never seemed to be as grimly vindictive about it—although the Atlantic Ocean may well have distorted our view. Their contemporary Charlie Haughey was another nasty piece of work, but the way he always tried to forge a consensus around his right-wing policies meant that popular reaction to his death was mainly characterised by indifference. Though Thatcher came to power through the conventional mechanism of elections, she inspires a hatred normally reserved for dictators.

The attempt to portray her as a feminist icon is a particularly obtuse expression of the media degeneration of women’s liberation into girl power. Thatcher never paid so much as lip service to the myriad disadvantages faced by her gender, and did things which exacerbated those advantages no end. Her career was not an example of a humble grocer’s daughter pulling herself up by her own efforts, but of marrying a millionaire who bankrolled her academic and political career.

In many ways, her big break came with the failure of the system she loved. The oil crisis of 1973 heralded the first big economic slump since the 1930s, and its political consequences paved her path to power. Old-fashioned paternal Toryism had to give way to unabashed attacks on the living standards of workers, but the old-fashioned paternal Tories weren’t up to the job. The space for sanding down the rough edges of capitalism got smaller and smaller, which meant that traditional Labourism got its redundancy papers too. Labour turned on its traditional supporters with a vengeance, and many of its traditional supporters were ready to return the compliment.

Thatcher’s intent was not to beat Labour at its own game, to persuade the working class that their social betters could look after them, but to split the working class, winning over enough of them to undermine the foundations of Britain’s post-war political com­promise. She told workers with jobs that they should suspect dole scroungers, workers with white skin that they were being swamped by foreigners, that they should identify with hard-working, aspiring types like herself rather than the shiftless lefties who presumed to lead them.

She got by with a little help from her enemies. The British labour movement had settled into a routine of pushing for no more than improvements in wages and working conditions, something it could do quite successfully in the long boom, and was out of the habit of a political consciousness. In the face of mass unemployment, it saw little need for a broader offensive on general economic policy, prefer­ring rear­guard actions to preserve the jobs of its members. While Labour had the votes of immigrant workers by default, the racism faced by black or even Irish people in Britain was never that high among its priorities. It clung to a bland defence of nationalised industries and services, refusing to accept that they had become remote bureau­cracies which resembled some of Thatcher’s dishonest caricature. The attempts of socialists to argue for a consciousness based on more employment, more solidarity, more popular control were brave but unsuccessful.

Thatcher was actually quite weak after coming to power in 1979, leading a divided party, unable to implement her pet policies, with unprecedented unpopularity. She never launched an all-out attack, preferring to pick off groups one by one. To begin with, she concen­trated her fire on those less likely to evoke solidarity from the labour movement. The intensified harassment of black communities met with a strong response, but mainly from those communities them­selves. Her stubborn refusal to grant political status to political prisoners in Ireland was never going to be opposed by Labour, who had introduced the criminalisation policy in the first place and could think of nothing better than despatching their spokesperson to tell Bobby Sands they would do nothing for him. The war in the South Atlantic was a godsend for Thatcher, not least because British Labour’s new-found opposition to war was trumped by its traditional loyalty to empire.

It was only with the 1983 election landslide under her belt that Thatcher really got going. Her well-timed attack on the miners was pivotal, and really threw down the gauntlet to the workers’ movement, but even here she was careful to buy off threats of industrial action from other groups of workers. Given the odds against them, it is remarkable how close the miners came, relying on half-hearted official support and an inspiring growth of solidarity from the grassroots of their class. The miners’ strike was like a football match where our side repeatedly hit the post and was on the wrong side of a couple of controversial refereeing decisions. Thatcher won her Waterloo but, like the original battle, it was a near-run thing.

Her steadfast support for Rupert Murdoch’s smashing of the print unions in 1986 helped cement media support for Thatcherism, important in winning her third election the following year. But even now, she didn’t have it all her own way. Much is made of inherent Conservative decency reasserting itself in 1990 to replace her with a less offensive eejit. But the splits in the Tory facade and the way her own comrades dumped her in the end is evidence of the growing dis­content she was provoking in Britain. Her mirage of “a property-owning democracy” was reaching its inevitable end in a property crash. Public sector strikes had begun to take place again, and even to win. She might possibly have managed to force the poll tax through at the height of her power, but with her tide gone out it was a bridge too far.

Of course, the damage was done by then. The reason we hate her so much—the reason so many of us are vowing to visit her last resting place with a full bladder—is not so much for what she wanted to do, but the fact that she succeeded in doing it. Thatcher’s reign saw a depressing series of humiliating defeats for the working class and the left, and the repercussions are with us still.

It is painfully true to say that Thatcherism is still alive and kicking the hell out of working class people. The mark she left on politics in Britain and beyond—more of an ugly stain, really—is still blatantly visible. Irish history tells of conquerors being eventually assimilated by the natives, but Thatcher’s conquest was so strong that those who came to power after her demise remain helplessly under its sway. Labour parties proclaim that “there really is no alternative” to Thatcherite policies, and they are not for turning. For all her stubborn railing against the European Union, its treaties impose as a con­stitution­al imperative the unleashed free market and low public spending which she loved.

So does the left need its own Thatcher, an unapologetic class warrior, but one who fights for our side instead of theirs? No, because our job is very different to hers. Putting an end to oppression cannot involve a mirror image of it. Building a society of free people living and working in solidarity means people taking control of their own destinies, never abdicating that responsibility to any leader or leaders, however benign. It cannot be a matter of cynical calculation by politicians, but of openly challenging and replacing capitalism.

The only homage we owe Thatcher is our hatred. But she did articulate a radical change in politics and society, a total philosophical project rather than surface reform, and did so with persuasive skill. She can still look up and laugh at us unless and until socialism develops the capability to do likewise, and consign her political legacy to the same depths as herself.