Friday, October 31, 2008

We must dare to invent the future!

The 25th anniversary of the Burkina Faso revolution

by Edwin Bentley

BURKINA Faso was different. Foreign dignitaries arriving in the capital, Ouagadougou, during the 1980s would be picked up at the airport in an old Renault 5 from the government’s transport pool. The minister of education of this West African country received the same wages as a schoolteacher, and Burkinabé diplomats attending United Nations meetings in Geneva would share a room in the cheapest bed and breakfast just across the border in France to save money.
No Mercedes, no shopping trips to Paris and London, no Swiss bank accounts. This was a country that had embraced its reality as an underdeveloped ex-colonial backwater, and in so doing had found the strength, unity, and dignity to look to the future with optimism.
From 1983 to 1987 the people of this West African country – previously known as Upper Volta – lived through a revolution which we can now see as a process of national liberation that shook off the shackles of neo-colonialism. The revolution was eventually crushed by its enemies, but as we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Burkina Faso revolution we can celebrate its achievements and value it as a shining example for future African liberation.
Formal independence from France in 1960 had changed nothing for the vast majority of the seven million Burkinabé (as the people are called) who endured 98 per cent illiteracy in rural areas, a total absence of healthcare, feudal social structures, and rampant corruption by the tiny ruling class of some 30,000 government employees and landowners.
The Burkina Faso revolution was a mass movement, but it was lead, inspired, and represented by a young army officer, Captain Thomas Sankara. Sankara was born the son of a low-ranking colonial policeman on 21st December 1949 in the town of Yako. He always said how lucky he had been to receive a secondary education, something completely outside the dreams of the majority of his countrymen. Sankara joined the army and did much of his training overseas, particularly in Madagascar. It was there that he became politicised, as a consequence of witnessing a wave of strikes and demonstrations in 1972. Military duties back home were interrupted by further training and studies in Morocco and France. These travels lead to Sankara’s first contact with revolutionary ideas. “Thanks to reading, but above all thanks to discussions with Marxists on the reality of our country, I came to Marxism.” Together with like-minded military personnel, he formed an organised communist group within the army.
A gifted orator, strikingly handsome and with boundless energy, Sankara was invited to join the progressive military government of Jean-Baptiste Ouedragou in January 1983, and served as prime minister, but this government was overthrown by yet another coup on May 17th. Sankara and his closest collaborators Henri Zongo and Jean Lingani were arrested for a while, and on their release they worked underground to organise opposition to the reactionary regime in power. Meanwhile another of Sankara’s closest supporters, Blaise Compaoré, held out against the régime at the Army base in the town of Po. Sankara, Lingani, and Zongo and a large number of supporters escaped to Po. It was from there that the revolution started. On 4th August 1983 Blaise Compaoré and 200 soldiers marched on Ouagadougou the capital, overthrew the government and formed the Conseil National de la Révolution (National Council of the Revolution, or CNR), with Thomas Sankara as president.
From the first day of the revolution, in his broadcast to the nation on the night of 4th August, Sankara invited the people to form local Comités de Défense de la Révolution (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, or CDR). These CDR became the method for exercising direct democratic control over the organs of state and local administration. Members were elected by direct voting by everyone in the village or urban neighbourhood. Not only within the country, but also amongst Burkinabé overseas, the CDR were the everyday instruments of democratic power.
Sankara saw his main role as one of animating and encouraging the CDR under the slogan “Raise consciousness! Act! Produce!”, helping ordinary working people to understand that they could run their country; that power really did lie in their hands, and that everyone had a part to play. Of course, there were many mistakes caused by human error and petty squabbles, but the CDR meant that for the first time every Burkinabé had a say in public life. As Sankara said, “We must dare to invent the future.”
The legal system of the country had remained unchanged since colonial days, and represented the interests of the former ruling elite. The courts and the old laws were therefore replaced from January 1984 by the Tribuneaux Populaires de la Revolution (TPR, or People’s Revolutionary Courts), with the judges all appointed from among the working people. On 3rd January, Sankara told the first session of the TPR: “There is no need for the judges to know the old laws; they only need to let themselves be guided by their sense of popular justice.” He made it clear that the main purpose of the TPR was: “To bring to light and publicly expose all the hidden social and political sides to the crimes perpetrated against the people, and to help them understand the consequences of them in order to draw lessons of social morality and practical politics.” Perhaps surprisingly to many observers, the TPR turned out to be remarkably successful in combating all sorts of crime, by helping people understand that criminal behaviour and corruption had no place in a socialist society.
On the first anniversary of the revolution, the name of Upper Volta was changed to Burkina Faso, which in the local languages means “The Land of Upright People”. Speaking during a cultural visit to Harlem in New York later that year, Sankara explained that “Upper Volta” was a purely colonial name, and that adopting a new name for the country symbolised its re-birth. He was deeply aware that all of Africa had been divided indiscriminately by the European imperialists, and that virtually none of the African countries had rational boundaries. But Sankara knew that it was impossible to turn the clock back to some imaginary pre-colonial golden age, and concentrated on accepting present-day realities and starting again to build something new.
“Starting from scratch” was certainly the core slogan of the Burkinabé revolution. The CNR never once proposed grandiose prestige projects. It focussed on low-technology plans that would lead to the greatest possible improvement in the lives of people within a sometimes non-existent budget. The country simply did not have the resources to provide schools for every child at once, so a campaign was launched to ensure that everyone who knew how to read and write would teach a certain number of others. In just the first two years of the revolution, literacy was almost trebled from eight per cent to 22 per cent, and 35,000 adults were trained as literacy instructors.
In 1983, Burkina Faso had one doctor per 48,000 inhabitants and one of the highest mortality rates in the world. The CNR rapidly moved to make basic healthcare available to everyone, and for the first time established centres for maternity and baby care. Perhaps the greatest achievement was the vaccination programme. In just two weeks in 1985, for example, volunteer health workers vaccinated 2.5 million children against measles, meningitis, and yellow fever. And these were not just Burkinabé children; foreigners crossed the borders and were vaccinated too. After only two years, by 1985 infant mortality had fallen from 208 to 145 for every 1,000 live births. By early 1987 river blindness – onchocerciasis — had been completely eliminated from the country.
Innovative technology was sometimes amazing in its simplicity, such as the mass manufacture by hand of thousands of simple clay stoves to replace the open fires that most people had used for cooking. The northern parts of Burkina Faso are in the Sahel, the very arid region on the edge of the Sahara. Because of the need to provide wood for cooking, deforestation had taken place at an alarming rate. The clay stoves were introduced to reduce wood consumption. Direct measures to protect the environment included mass tree planting; over a 15-month period 10 million trees were planted, and in the villages and settled agricultural areas each family was encouraged to plant 100 trees a year and take care of them. In towns, anyone given the tenancy of municipal housing was evicted if they failed to look after the trees for which they were responsible. In the villages, local people were entrusted with the management of forestry resources.
Agriculture employed the vast majority of Burkinabé, but feudal patterns of tenancy prevailed. The landowners were able to demand unpaid labour and tribute payments from their tenants. The CNR abolished these feudal rights, nationalised and redistributed land, and encouraged co-operatives. A National Union of Peasants was established. Irrigation was an age-old problem and there were no funds to build concrete dams, so with all available hands taking part, villages built their own simple earth dams, with reservoirs for the dry season. Agricultural production increased. For the first time ever, public housing schemes were launched. Just simple two-roomed bungalows built with mud bricks and managed by the local CDR, but something previously unimaginable.
But it was perhaps in the field of the emancipation of women that Sankara’s ideas had most impact. Sankara was profoundly influenced by Engels’ writings on the origins of social structures, and he applied them to the realities of Burkina Faso, where women did most of the manual work without enjoying any rights. He taught that women suffered doubly in neo-colonial societies. Firstly, they experienced the same suffering as men, and secondly, they were subjected to additional suffering by men! “Exploited in the fields and at home, yet playing the role of a faceless, voiceless extra. The pivot, yet in chains. Female shadow of the male shadow.”
Sankara and the CNR – which itself included women members – ensured that women were fully involved in decision making and public administration. As he said: ”The genuine emancipation of women is one that entrusts responsibilities to women, that involves them in productive capacity and in the different fights the people face.” Women played a powerful role in the CDR, served as ministers and as provincial governors. Forced marriages, polygamy, and genital mutilation were forbidden and family planning promoted.
Revolutionary Burkina Faso had close ties with progressive governments throughout the world, but maintained membership of the non-aligned movement and was the client state of no one. Sankara visited the Soviet Union in October 1986, but the closest international ties were with Nicaragua and Cuba and, in Africa itself, Mozambique. Samora Machel was something of a hero for Sankara, and the two were personal friends. Machel’s assassination by South African agents in an aircraft explosion was a cause for great sadness.
Burkina Faso was a good friend of the Polisario Front that sought the independence of the former Spanish Sahara from Moroccan occupation, and supported the cause of Palestinian liberation. The generally progressive government of Gerry Rawlings in neighbouring Ghana was friendly towards the Revolution, and there were joint military manoeuvres, but most West African countries were at best cool and often hostile towards Burkina Faso. On Christmas day 1985 troops from the neighbouring country of Mali even briefly attacked Burkina Faso following a dispute over the frontier.
Relations with Europe and North America were very difficult, but the CNR had no expectation of a helping hand from countries that were only interested in the exploitation of Africa. Sankara openly rejected aid from the imperialist countries, pointing out that hand-outs from the rich simply created a culture of debt and dependency and destroyed emerging local economies.
Burkina Faso was capable of feeding itself, and it was up to the Burkinabé to get their own house in order. Technical and social help was another matter when it came from friendly countries like Cuba, but the CNR was always aware of the impossibility of receiving no-strings help from the imperialists. When a French politician told Sankara that West Africans should be grateful for all the help they received from France, the Burkinabé leader replied that the French should be grateful for all the Africans who spent their lives sweeping the streets of Paris and cleaning the Metro!
What went wrong, when the Burkinabé revolution had clearly been such a success? Sankara himself had admitted in his speech on the fourth anniversary of the Revolution that time was needed to establish proper political structures. The CDR had functioned well, but they were clearly not a political party and the level of political education was low.
Sankara wanted everyone to take the time to catch up; revolutionary enthusiasm had to be properly channelled into a Marxist-Leninist party. This level-headedness by Sankara was opposed by ultra-leftist elements who wanted to go full steam ahead in immediately overthrowing all remaining vestiges of pre-revolutionary Burkina Faso without thought to the consequences. Some commentators have classified these people as “Maoists”, whereas they exhibited all the characteristics of Trotskyites in condemning everyone and everything and demanding immediate solutions.
These ultra-leftists, as is so often the case, made common cause with feudal landowners and the old ruling families, and with government employees who wanted to get back to the days of graft and corruption. To this alliance can be added the neo-colonialist leaders of neighbouring countries, particularly Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast, who feared the export of the Burkinabé revolution, and also the French government of Mitterrand. Inevitably, Burkina Faso’s growing links with Nicaragua and Cuba also made it a target of the United States.
Sankara undoubtedly contributed to his own demise by his openness and transparent honesty in everything he did. An austere but friendly soldier who was happy to lead a spartan lifestyle, he upset those who were not prepared to make personal sacrifices and this lead to vendettas against him. Sankara was sometimes naive and assumed that everyone shared his values. Earlier that year, for example, he had sought to re-appoint schoolteachers who had been dismissed for taking a counter-revolutionary stand. In good faith, he believed that the teachers had mended their ways, but his opponents in the CNR used this decision as another way of attacking him.
On 15th October 1987, Thomas Sankara and 12 others were gunned down by an aide of Blaise Compaoré, who had been one of the leading lights of the revolution. Compaoré immediately seized power, abolished the National Council of the Revolution (CNR) and dissolved the CDR. Resistance went on for a few days, but the Revolution was over. Compaoré has been in power ever since.

Communist Renaissance meet in Paris

by New Worker correspondent

THE POLE de Renaissance Communiste en France (PRCF) held a highly successful conference in Paris last weekend with delegates from across France gathering in a spirit of militancy and optimism. The New Communist Party of Britain was represented by Theo Russell from the Central Committee, who joined other fraternal guests from Cuba, Greece, Algeria, Spain, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Denmark, Belgium and Pakistan for the second national conference of the French anti-revisionist communist movement.
The PRCF is still a party in process of formation with many potential members still inside the revisionist and openly right-wing Communist Party of France (PCF), and growing left-wing opposition within the PCF by factions demanding a return to class struggle.
Plans to drop the word “communist” at the PCF’s congress next month are expected to lead many more members leaving the party in the New Year, but its draft resolution has dropped its open attacks on the Soviet Union and former socialist states for the first time in decades, in an attempt to retain the waverers.
The PCF’s official membership has slumped from 800,000 to under 100,000, with most of those leaving “scattering” into isolation or non-communist activity.
The Communist Renaissance leadership declared the organisation of factory cells as the PRCF’s most urgent priority, noting that the PCF’s decision to close down its factory branches in the late 1980s created a space that was filled by Trotskyist unions.
not alone
Several delegates stressed that the PRCF alone cannot bring about revolution, and that change was only possible through mobilising the working class.
Delegates also condemned the reactionary role of the CGT union confederation – previously linked with the PCF – giving examples of manipulation, vote-rigging and even using lawyers to prevent strikes and telling workers “you have ignored our instructions and must pay the cost”.
Veteran anti-Nazi resistance leader Leon L’Andini told delegates that almost 20 years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall capitalism was in severe crisis, with the new situation presenting new dangers, such as attempts in Europe to criminalise communists and militants by re-writing history.
Georges Gasteau of PRCF’s national committee described the threat now posed by capitalism to all humanity as “capitalist exterminism”.
The PRCF opposes the EU in its entirety, including the Treaty of Rome itself, demands the return of troops from Afghanistan (a demand supported by the 70 per cent of French people), and France’s departure from Nato.
The conference adopted a position supportive of the People’s Republic of China and opposing counter-revolutionary interference, but also supporting workers and communists defending socialism and resisting corruption and the negative effects of capitalist production.
The conference was addressed by a representative of the NMPP workforce, a national newspaper distribution cooperative set up in 1947, which is under attack by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in an effort to break a symbol of past working class gains.
for a year
The workforce has fought for a year with the PRCF, the only political party in France to give its support. Sarkozy was accused of acting for allies in the media with close ties to the arms industry, and foreign interests such as the German Axel Springer group, hoping to move into the French market.
The PRCF’s second conference was a highly successful, militant and inspiring event and an opportunity for the PRCF and NCP to establish close ties which will undoubtedly grow stronger in the future.
photo:Theo Russell with a French comrade

Friday, October 17, 2008

It's a great idea but it will never work...

About 70 students squeezed into a lecture room at Varndean Sixth Form College, Brighton, last Thursday to hear Ray Jones, chair of the South-east District New Communist Party. This was part of a series of lectures organised by Roy Cullen of the Politics Department covering a broad range of viewpoints. The following is what Ray had to say.

WHEN PEOPLE hear I’m a communist they often say, “Oh, communism is a great idea but it will never work.” The implication is that capitalism may not be a good idea but at least it’s practical.
The reply that usually springs to mind is whether the starving in the slums of South America, India or Africa find it so practical — or for that matter the homeless on the streets of Brighton.
But after the recent financial events around the world surely we should be asking, does it really work at all!
The writing is on the wall for all those who have eyes to see. Banks have been going under or have been bailed out by governments with loans of billions of dollars. The British government has stepped in with £500 billion and the term semi nationalisation has been used, yet still it goes on. Will we see another crash like the one in 1929?
Or will it be even worse and capitalism descend into chaos?
When the final crisis will come is impossible to predict but it will come in spite of states intervening in ways that make capitalist purists’ eyes water! These methods smack too strongly of socialism for them — their god is still the Market.But capitalist governments know that they have no other choice. Its either that or be swept away in a flood of either revolution or barbarism.
This not socialism of course but merely the capitalist state propping up its system. That is the role of the state.
They will of course try to make working people pay for this problem through taxes and loss of services and we will have to resist that.
But this intervention may have progressive aspects in so far as it helps working people in this crisis (if it does); in so far as it begins to lay the foundation of a different economic system of state ownership and in so far as it suggests to the workers that perhaps private ownership is not as essential as we have been led to believe!
After all if capitalism is so efficient and so necessary why is it that when a major war or crisis breaks out every thing fundamental to the economy is nationalised?!
It would be vastly ironic if George W Bush went down in history as the president who laid the basis of socialism in the USA!
But why do capitalist crises happen?
To try to answer this it is necessary to look at the roots and nature of capitalism.
With the industrial revolution, capitalists found that they could employ people in factories producing goods to be sold on the market and at the end of the process they were left with huge amounts of money.
Where did this surplus, this profit, come from?
There are still economists today who find this a mysterious, mystical process but Karl Marx had an answer in the 19th century.
Value is added to the materials by the labour of the workers. The goods could be sold over and above all the costs of producing them because of the work, the labour power, expended on them.
Workers only spend part of their time producing enough goods to make, when sold, enough money for their own wages. The rest of the time they are in fact producing profit for the owners.
Because the owners, the capitalists, controls the process, the means of production, they are in the position of being able to cream off the profit produced by the workers for themselves.
They ensure that wages are less then the extra value put into the goods and they pocket the difference.
You often hear of manufacturers “adding value” to their goods by making them more complex. They are adding more labour time to the product which adds value and means they can put up the price.
A T-shirt with a design on is worth more, all other things being equal, than a plain one. What is different? The extra work gone into it (plus some extra costs but these tend to be small).
If the capitalist passed on this value where it is due, the workers, the capitalists would be no better off — so they try not to!
But there are limits to this exploitation of workers. The work force has to be able to maintain itself — they wouldn’t want workers dying of starvation on the job would they? That would be messy and inconvenient!
But beyond that there are limits set by the social conditions of the time: such as the demand for labour on the labour market — because workers’ labour becomes a commodity too.
But limits are also set by the strength of the workers themselves – because workers are not like pieces of cloth or sewing machines.
They are capable of understanding the situation and they are forced into collective defence of their living standards in unions and eventually for their broader rights in political parties.
And so you have the essential and continual conflict within capitalism between bosses and workers over the value added by labour power.
Surprisingly perhaps an increase in machinery and technology by itself actually decreases the profit of the capitalist because there is less labour power needed and less labour power means less value and less surplus value — that is profit.
To escape this problem the capitalist must increase the scale of the whole production process so the number of workers is increased.
Although each individual worker produces less profit there is over-all more profit produced, which helps in the short term. But then the next improvement in technology, spurred on by competition, sets the process in motion again and so on in a vicious circle.
Or the capitalists can try to decrease the workers’ share to maintain or increase their own. The profit must come from somewhere, if not from their workers at home then from workers overseas, where wages are lower.
Many British companies have shifted manufacturing abroad to areas of cheap labour — even services such as call centres have been moved.
Wars are fought to establish influence over areas of the world and enable capitalists, joined together in national states, to control resources. Iraq of course is a good example — although the US is having a lot more trouble getting the oil than it expected!
Wars also destroy commodities, weapons as well as everything else, and therefore help counteract over production — which is the bane of capitalism.
Capitalism struggles to produce more profit and in the process more goods are produced. Prices fall because less value is going into the goods and because of competition between the capitalists and the tendency to flood the market.
But wages also fall because there are fewer jobs on the labour market and competition for jobs increases. Also there is deskilling on a large scale and therefore lower wages. So the workers, the majority of the population, still cannot afford to buy the goods.
So the system goes into a nosedive, as in the 1930’s, until enough goods are destroyed in war or wasted or a new technology comes along and helps them squeeze more profit from the workers.
Millions die therefore, in war or famine, in the service of capitalism.
These problems are not brought into the system by militant workers or communists but are part of it. Part of the nature of capitalism.
It’s true that this time the crisis seems to have started in the US housing sector with mortgages being given to people who could never afford to repay them to — such an extent that the whole banking system started to go into melt down.
Banks stopped lending to each other because no one was sure who was in serious trouble and then the anarchy of the stock market came into play. And when banks cease to lend to each other this limits their ability to lend to others.
Capitalism needs the credit system to oil its wheels — but it can’t stop its abuses and out and out swindles that escalate as the crash approaches.
So businesses stagnate and eventually go under without credit. People are unemployed and cannot pay their debts or buy goods and so the whole thing snowballs.
But the US economy never really recovered from the stock market crash of 2002 when the so-called internet bubble burst.
Even the stimulus of $2 trillion in military spending over five years did not significantly increase employment and now the jobless numbers are rising swiftly in a low wage economy.
We can see the low wage economy being built in Britain with so many young people doomed to the fast food industry.
The system cannot go on forever. This may not be final apocalyptic crisis but if we do not do something about it, if we do not guide its death throws into a revolution that produces a collective, planned, rational society that is not based on exploitation, eventually the end result will be melt down and barbarism.
That is why we need a party that understands this and acts accordingly. We in the New Communist Party are trying to build that party.
This party must fight for the good of the working class as a whole — not just a section of it.
It must work to unite the class around demands that advance and benefit all workers because only a united working class can ultimately win against a capitalist class which, history has shown, will fight desperately to keep what it has.
And it must fight both for short term and long term aims. Both for immediate reforms such as:
• for better wages and conditions,
• better education,
• better health services,
• better housing,
• a better environment,
• against war,
• against authoritarianism and injustice and for more democracy (that is more say for the workers),
• against racism, sexism and homophobia, which can divide the workers.

And for revolutionary objectives at home and support for socialism in other countries such as north Korea, China, Cuba, and Vietnam.
Short term victories are possible. They are good in themselves and act as schools of struggle, but in the longer term a revolution, the overthrowing of capitalism, is necessary to right the wrongs in our society.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Artic Meltdown

By Renee Sams

The scramble for the spoils of global warming has already begun with the oil giants bidding record prices for large areas of oil-bearing land and off-shore in Arctic ready for the bonanza. Canada and Russia with thousands of miles of Arctic coastline and already lining up to make sure of they get a share of the spoils
Earlier this year Royal Dutch Shell broke records with their bidding for a lease in the Chukchi Sea and the other mega-corporations are not far behind to grab a piece of the action.
Shell made bids exceeding $100 million for rights to drill a single 3-mile by 3-mile northwest Alaska for oil and gas drilling.
The Chukchi Sea is home roughly one-tenth of the world’s endangered polar bears as well as walruses and whales. Alaska’s North Slope is also home to a number of indigenous villagers who rely on the sea doe cultural and nutritional subsistence.
To make sure that the US gets all that it wants the coastguard cutter is on its way to map the floor of the Chukchi Gas as part of America’s continental shelf and their right to any oil that is found.
Fuelling the drive to the Arctic is the US Geological Survey which revealed that the area north of the Barents Sea may hold as much 90 billion barrels of oil and about 1669 trillion cubic feet of gas.
This is about 13 per cent of the world’s total reserves of oil and 30% of the total undiscovered total of gas.
America’s Arctic is on the front line of global warming. The Arctic regions are warming at a rate that is about twice as fast as the rest of the world, and climate change poses a danger to the fragile environment. For the first time in human history the North Pole can be circumnavigate.
Rising temperatures are already a threat to the remaining polar bear population which needs the ice to hunt for the seals it needs for food, the walrus, seal and penguin populations are all now in an extremely vulnerable position. .
In the Pacific there are hundreds of small islands with land that is a mere metre or two above sea level people and preparing plans to evacuate their homes before they are swept away by the rising tides. A move born of desperation.
President Remengesau of Palau, a small island in the Pacific warned: “Palau has lost at least one third of its coral reefs due to climate change related weather patterns. We also lost most of our agricultural production due to drought and extreme high
“These are not theoretical, scientific losses – they are the losses of our resources and our livelihoods…For island states, time is not running out, it has run out. And our path may very well be the window to your own future and the future of our planet.”