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Review of a history of oppression: The Tamils of Sri Lanka

Review of a history of oppression: The Tamils of Sri Lanka

Danielle Sabaï


In February 2011, the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, celebrated the 63rd anniversary of the island’s independence. In his speech, he stressed the necessity of “protecting the reconstructed nation”, as well as protecting “one of the oldest democracies in Asia”, its unity and its unitary character.

This speech came nearly two years after the end of the war on 19 May 2009, between the Sri Lankan state and the "Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” (LTTE). The military command of the LTTE was decimated in the last two months of a merciless war which had led to tens of thousands of deaths since the early 1980s.

Some thirty years of civil war have transformed the Sri Lankan political landscape. Once an island characterised by a developed social policy and high development indicators, Sri Lanka is today ravaged by state violence, the militarisation of society and an authoritarian state.

The end of the war has in no way opened a period of peace and still less settled the Tamil national question. The Sri Lankan government, whose powers are concentrated in the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa and brothers, has not sought to remedy the structural causes which led to the civil war. The state remains Sinhalese nationalist and racist in its essence and rejects any devolution of powers which would allow the different communities to envisage the future together.

The President is at war against his people. State violence is also exerted against Sinhalese, journalists and political activists who oppose him but also against workers as a whole. Despite the end of the war, the government has maintained the Prevention of Terrorism Act which allows it to muzzle its opponents. All communities suffer from the collapse of the rule of law. No peace can last if it does not rest on any political will to settle disputes.

The history of Sri Lanka is rich in lessons. It illustrates to what point attacks against minorities are the premises of more general attacks against workers whatever their ethnicity. They lead inevitably to a weakening, if not a collapse, of democracy. It is important and necessary to review the historic roots which are at the base of the formation of this specific state having led to the emergence of two antagonistic nationalisms: Buddhist Sinhalese nationalism and its reaction, Tamil nationalism.

The germs of inter-communal dissension

Sri Lanka, Ceylon until 1972, has been profoundly marked by several centuries of colonisation. The strategic position of the island in the Indian Ocean explains its successive conquest by the Portuguese, Dutch and British.

The main communities of the island, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, originate from successive migrations from India. The first took place in the 6th century BC by migrants coming from the North West of India and practicing Buddhism [1]. They slowly melted with other groups coming from southern parts of India to form the Sinhala community [2]. This was followed around 300 years later by a smaller migration of Hindu Tamils from the south of India. The Tamil migration continued in the north of the island for several hundred years and at the end of the 12th century, the peninsula of Jaffna constituted a separate state with a culture and language different from Sinhalese.

Neither the Sinhalese nor the Tamils can claim to be the first to have peopled the island since when they arrived, Ceylon was already occupied by a hunter gatherer people, the Veddah or Wanniyaletto, who are today almost completely assimilated in the different communities.

The different social formations which would emerge on the island were however not compartmentalised. In the kingdom of Kandy, for example, the Nayakkar dynasty emerged from the Vijayanagar Empire of southern India. Although the dynasty had been Tamil and originally Hindu, they converted themselves to Buddhism and were fervent promoters of it.

Under Portuguese and then Dutch colonialism, the coastal regions of the island were integrated into world trade in agricultural products from the early 16th century, facilitating the rise of a merchant capitalism. The coastal population was in its majority Sinhalese and Buddhist but trade exchanges made it a place of interconnection where Arabs, Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers mingled [3].

In the peninsula of the North, which was poorer, only the missionaries ventured, converting a minority of the population, previously mainly Hindu, to Christianity. Social relations of a feudal type, in particular a rigid caste system, persisted.

Upon their arrival at the end of the 18th century the British extended foreign domination to the interior of the island in the kingdom of Kandy. They developed big plantations there, imposing a new mode of production, plantation capitalism. They grabbed the communal lands previously devoted to pasturing of herds and the forests where the peasants practiced slash and burn cultivation, characterising them as “waste lands” to better resell them at a derisory price to British colonists. They would develop infrastructures which would allow the direction of the products of the plantations onto the world market.

Even if it only partially destroyed the pre-capitalist modes of production, plantation capitalism imposed itself rapidly, coming to dominate the island’s economy from the beginning of the 20th century.

The dominant classes of the pre-existing formations became almost naturally the comprador bourgeoisie [4]. Whether of Sinhalese, Burgher, Muslim [5] or Tamil origin, they found a common interest with the nascent bourgeoisie of the planters. Imbued with the colonial culture, they would send their children to study at Oxford and Cambridge, so as to ensure a place alongside the colonial aristocracy.

Numerous members of the Ceylonese bourgeoisie owned their own coconut, coffee or rubber plantations. Thus, unlike neighbouring India, in Ceylon a national bourgeoisie fighting for independence did not emerge. The latter did not play a motor role in the first movements of agitation against the colonial power at the end of the 19th century. Opposition first took the form of Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim religious movements who fought against the privileges of the Christian minority (made up of both Sinhalese and Tamils) and against Western culture.

The British colonial power, which feared a coming together of the interests of the Tamil and Sinhalese bourgeoisies, played upon division to the hilt. Specific and community-based interests became paramount. The Tamil elites demanded favourable treatment in exchange for their loyal service in the colonial administration. For their part, the Sinhalese built networks of communal associations, the Mahajana Sabha, resting on the rural Sinhalese elites – ayurvedic physicians, Buddhist monks, schoolmasters and so on.

The Ceylonese workers’ movement emerged at the same time as plantation capitalism. The Ceylonese workers were mainly Sinhalese peasants expelled from their ancestral collective lands by the colonial power to work in the construction of roads and railways and in the docks. They maintained a toehold in the rural world however. Meanwhile, to ensure work was carried out on the plantations and in the towns, the British colonist had called on Indian Tamil workers from Tamil Nadu who they kept apart from the local workers. The workers’ movement was thus divided from its birth.

Although there were in the early 20th century several workers’ struggles involving workers of all origins and confessions, the nationalist and xenophobic discourse of the Sinhalese nationalist leaders had a profound impact on the working class of Sinhalese origin.

In the 1920s, new workers’ struggles allowed the development of an urban working class which was more unified, defending its own class interests beyond the castes which had survived and community based identities. A trade union confederation and a political party modelled on the British Labour Party emerged under the leadership of A.E. Goonesinha. The political control he exerted, both on the party and the trade union, was however fatal to the workers’ movement. During the great depression of the 1930s, Goonesinha did not hesitate to brand the Tamil plantation workers as being responsible for high unemployment and to accuse Indian merchants of dispossessing small Ceylonese landowners. The use of Sinhalese chauvinism was an easy and rapid means of constituting an electoral base which allowed him to win the parliamentary elections in the Sinhalese constituency of central Colombo. This was a fatal blow to universal suffrage - which had just been granted in 1931- by an unscrupulous politician who deployed it to electoralist ends.

The constitution of a Sinhalese nationalism

Nationalist and racist themes were subsequently regularly used by the ruling politicians for electoral ends or to implement a class policy. Thus, the first law adopted by the first independent Ceylonese government [6], the Citizenship Act, rendered stateless the Tamil “Indian” workers who had been settled for three of four generations in the island, under the pretext that they could not prove that they were Ceylonese by parentage or by naturalisation. The second law withdrew the right to vote under the pretext that they were not Ceylonese!

These laws took the vote away from all the plantation workers of the centre and south, or a tenth of the electoral body. That allowed the ruling UNP to eliminate a million votes, much of which have previously gone to the Left parties and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the main Ceylonese workers’ party. [7]. This party had been created in the 1930s by young intellectuals who had been won to Communist ideas during their studies in Britain and the United States of America.

The Tamil workers on the plantations would not find much help from among the North-Eastern Tamil members of parliament. Most of the latter voted for these retrograde laws. A dissident group led by S.J.V.Chelvanayakam founded the Federal Party [8]

This was a fatal blow against the Sri Lankan workers’ movement which became divided along ethnic lines. This major political defeat was a portent for the future. The use of nationalist appeals against a part of the population, considered wrongly as foreign, was soon applied to other ethnic minorities and in particular against the Sri Lankan Tamils from the north and east of the island. From 1949, the UNP government of DS.Senanayake put in place a policy of attribution of land to Sinhalese peasants who had been deprived of it. This policy was applied in the east of the island in a Tamil majority area. The arrival of these peasants modified substantially the demographic and therefore electoral composition of the constituencies concerned and thus gave a fiefdom to Sinhalese politicians who had lacked one.

In 1951, Bandanaraike [9], motivated by personal ambition, left the UNP to found the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP). It rested on the Maha Sabha [10], one of whose main objectives was to promote Sinhalese-Buddhist culture throughout the island. The SLFP was constituted on the basis of the Sinhalese petty bourgeoisie giving it support among the rural masses neglected both by the comprador bourgeoisie of the UNP and by the LSSP whose base was rather among the workers (even though it represented also paysants in some rural constituencies).

1956 constituted a major political turning point for the island. A year of presidential elections, 1956 also represented for the Sinhalese Buddhists the 2,500th anniversary of the death of Buddha as well as the anniversary of the “peopling of Ceylon” and the origins of the Sinhalese people. The electoral campaign was the opportunity for Sinhalese chauvinist outbidding.

Bandanaraike campaigned on the slogan “Sinhala Only” and proposed that Sinhalese replace English as the sole official language of the island. In the 24 hours following his investiture, the measure was decreed. This law was all the more unjustified in that before independence in 1944, the legislative council had voted by a very large majority for a law adopting Sinhalese and Tamil as official languages for education, examinations and parliamentary debates, recognising the importance of the equality of the languages.

The Sinhalese community was not however homogeneous. It was itself divided by lines of caste, class and regional differences. The state identified itself with Sinhalese nationalism but not with the Sinhalese community as a whole. It was the middle classes and the Buddhist clergy, through the Maha Sabha, who would contribute to the dissemination of Sinhalese nationalist ideology. This petty bourgeoisie was convinced that this chauvinist policy would bring it jobs by reducing the opportunities of the Tamil minority.

The renunciation of the left parties

Founded in 1935, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), Ceylonese section of the Fourth International from 1940 onwards, was the first party to demand the independence of the country against British imperialism. From its foundation, it developed significant work in the mass movements and trade unions. The second biggest party on the island in terms of size, the LSSP was the main workers’ party and also the main opposition party in parliament until the emergence of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

A multi-ethnic and multi-cultural party, it included among its members militants of different languages, religions, genders and castes. Its activists fought attacks on workers whatever they were as well as the inter-communal divisions of the working class. Thus, when after independence, the first UNP government voted through the Citizenship Act rendering the plantation Tamils stateless, the LSSP was one of only two parties which opposed it. The party denounced a racist decree, directed against the working class and damaging to democracy.

However, in 1956, the internal situation of the party had qualitatively evolved. Internal struggles and a first split in 1945 had weakened the party. The divergences mainly concerned the question of the construction of the party: branch of a South Asian party or party in the national framework. In 1950, after several years of political conflicts fed by personal rivalries and generational divergences, Philip Gunawardena, main founder of the LSSP, left the party and founded a new one, the Viplavakari - LSSP (LSSP-Revolutionary). A third of the party joined the VLSSP following the political reverse by the LSSP during the general elections of 1952. During the presidential election of 1956, the VLSSP allied with the Bandaranaike’s SLFP to form a coalition, the People’s United Front (MEP), which came first in the elections. The VLSSP openly betrayed the workers by voting for the "Sinhala Only Act” with all the majority parties. Only the Tamil minority parties and the LSSP opposed it in parliament. The leader of the LSSP, Colvin R. de Silva, presciently observed that this law, which made Tamils second class citizens, rested on a disastrous logic: “two languages, one nation; one language, two nations”.

The passing of the "Sinhala Only Act” in 1956 was followed by strong protests from the Federal Party. In 1957, the SLFP in government and the Federal Party signed the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam agreements promising a regional autonomy to the provinces of the North and East. Tamil, in particular, became the official language of the administration of these two regions. But the Sinhalese chauvinist forces organised by the Buddhist monks, on whose support Bandaranaike had relied to gain power, launched a virulent campaign against this agreement. On April 9, 1958, the United Front of Monks (Eksath Bhikku Peramuna-EBP), an organisation of reactionary and racist Buddhist monks, besieged the residence of the prime minister. The same afternoon, one year after having signed it, Bandaranaike renounced the pact. Subsequent Tamil demonstrations in Jaffna were severely repressed by the police. In Colombo and other regions Sinhalese nationalists launched pogroms against the Tamils leading to criminal arson and murders organised in complete impunity by Sinhalese hooligans and thugs. The violence unleashed soon escaped any control but Bandaranaike refused to intervene for fear of upsetting the Sinhalese nationalists. In vain. In 1959, he was assassinated by a member of the EBP.

The Buddhist monk making vows of abstinence and poverty gave way to a much less spiritual monk who used his traditional position to exercise power. Bandaranaike had utilised Sinhalese nationalism to come to power but he was incapable of detaching himself from it after he had succeeded in his aims. The Pandora’s box was opened, and it was impossible to contain the Sinhalese nationalist racist forces unleashed.

The LSSP could have been an important element to oppose this nationalist and racist drift. Its strength rested in its ability to organise the masses at the rank and file. It has shown this during the organisation of an immense hartal [11] against the UNP government in 1953 which paralysed the country. Overwhelmed, the government took refuge on a ship. But when it was in a position of strength, the LSSP did not push the struggle to its advantage. [12]

This positioning prefigured the capitulations to come. The working class base of the party shrunk under the pressure of the inter-communal conflicts and the electoral successes of the SLFP destabilised the leadership of the LSSP. Defeat in the elections of 1960 disoriented the party. N. M. Perera, the main organiser of the LSSP’s mass work, proposed forming a coalition government with the SLFP which was rejected by the majority of the party, but the LSSP parliamentary group supported the vote of confidence in the newly elected government against the “main enemy” of the UNP which had continuously ruled Ceylan since 1948 [13]. In 1964, Perera engaged the majority of the party in a coalition government with the SLFP and the Ceylon Communist Party [14], the government being led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the widow of the prime minister assassinated seven years earlier. The earlier political demands of the two left parties in favour of equal rights for the plantation Tamils and parity of status between Sinhalese and Tamil languages were put aside. In the same year, the LSSP was expelled from the Fourth International which saw entry into the SLFP government as a political treason.

A minority group around Bala Tampoe and Edmund Samarakkody continued to defend the traditional positions of the LSSP in a new party. But the only mass political party which had defended workers regardless of their ethnic origin had betrayed, leaving a political vacuum in the working class and strengthening Sinhalese nationalism. [15]

In 1968, the SLFP, LSSP and CP formed the United Front which won the 1970 elections. The LSSP and CP, definitively converted to parliamentarism, justified this alliance by the desire to oppose the UNP, “the party of foreign and Ceylonese capitalist interests" whereas the United Front campaigned for a policy of industrialisation through import substitution, the development of social protection and the nationalisation of the Bank of Ceylon, transport and the tea plantations.

The policy of this government was however less progressive than it appeared. It was Sirimavo Bandaranaike who pushed further the political logic of discrimination against North_Eastern origin and plantation Tamils to satisfy her electoral clientele. That had significant repercussions on the economic policy pursued. In a difficult economic conjuncture owing to the first generalised world recession in 1974-75, with an unprecedented increase in unemployment, the UF government sharpened discriminatory policies which were already in place and invented new ones: the “Sinhala Only Act” was used to exclude Tamils from the police, army, courts and governmental services in general; the policy of colonisation of Tamil areas was accentuated; the plantation Tamils were voluntarily or forcibly repatriated to Tamil Nadu. Standardisation of access to universities, which was deeply discriminatory against part of the Tamil community, was imposed. This racist policy was implemented by parties who identified themselves with the workers’movement. How could the coming generations of young Tamils still have confidence in the Left parties?

All these discriminatory policies had the goal of transferring resources to the Sinhalese to the detriment of the Tamils. In 1971, however, the government faced a very significant insurrection from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a group made up of young Sinhalese living in the south of the country, mainly rural and members of the petty bourgeoisie. Such an uprising of youth, supposedly the main beneficiaries of the political measures taken, show how much the discrimination against the Tamils did not benefit the majority of Sinhalese and did not alleviate poverty and unemployment. The ruling coalition responded with a terrible repression. Several thousand youths were killed by the army and the police and more than 10,000 were jailed [16]

The emergence of the Tamil national question

In the early 1970s, the crisis in relation to the Tamil minority deepened. In 1972, Colvin R. De Silva, the former historic leader of the LSSP and then minister for constitutional affairs, drew up a new constitution which, among other things, gave Sinhalese the status of sole official language, established Buddhism as virtually the state religion. It removed section 29 of the 1947 Soulbury Constitution that guaranteed certain protection clauses for ethnic and religious minorities. It also introduce a new fundamental rights chapter that was applicable to North-eastern Tamils but not to those plantation Tamils who were stateless because it only protected citizens.

At the economic level, the policy of the government was profoundly discriminatory with respect to the Tamil community. The nationalisation of the plantations was accompanied by a redistribution of land in favour of the Sinhalese majority. The linguistic policy of the government deprived young Tamils of jobs after their studies. The new standards of access to the university were perceived by middle class youth as one discriminatory measure too far with respect to their community. This measure mainly affected the young Tamils of Jaffna, who were more educated. It did not affect the youth of the East, from Vanni and the plantations of the centre who for the most part did not go to university. It was nonetheless the detonator for big mobilisations and the entry into politics of a new generation of Tamil youths.

The Federal Party and the Tamil United Front (TUF) [17] began to distil a nationalist rhetoric which proclaimed the unity of all Tamils beyond class and caste inequalities. At this time, the notion of Tamil identity was real but it was not the substance of the Tamil community. In everyday life, belonging to a caste and a village constituted the main vectors of identity and dominated social relations.

The battles of the FP and TUF did not go outside of parliament, leaving a vacuum occupied by these young Tamil militants in Jaffna. Since independence, the attempts at political negotiations with the different parliamentary parties (SLFP and UNP) and the campaigns of Satyagraha [18] of the Federal Party had brought no solution to the Tamil cause. The refusal of the state to accord a minimum of autonomy and devolution led these young militants to reject the policy followed by the traditional Tamil political parties.

The young Tamil generations no longer believed in the possibility of developing their rights by democratic means. Only a separate state seemed to them to guarantee their linguistic, religious and cultural rights. Thus the question of a separate Tamil state emerged as the sole alternative and the means of winning it could rest neither on parliamentary battles or traditional campaign of agitation.

A major event marked the beginning of a cycle of violence [19]. In January 1974, a literary meeting to celebrate Tamil language and culture was organised in Jaffna. It was supported by the TUF. The coalition government led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike did not like it but did not dare to oppose it directly. When a final meeting attracted nearly 50,000 participants, the riot police attacked the crowd leading to the death of seven people. Following this event, the TUF and FP accentuated a campaign against the mayor of Jaffna [20], launched from 1972, accusing him of being a "traitor". These vicious attacks ended with him being assassinated on July 27, 1975 by a member of an organisation formed in 1974, the Tamil New Tigers. This new organisation changed its name to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1976.

No less than thirty groups engaged in violent actions of which the assassination of the mayor of Jaffna was the symbolic beginning. Among these groups, some like the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) were left-wing organisations. The LTTE for its part was situated on a nationalist and pragmatic terrain. But they were above all fashioned by the origin of most of the founder members, educated young students from the Jaffna middle class and rather high caste.

Ethnic tensions worsened throughout the 1970s but the armed Tamil groups remained marginal until the mid 1980s. In July 1983 a second major rupture took place. Following an ambush in which 13 police officers were killed by the Tigers, Sinhalese nationalists unleashed a pogrom in Colombo and its surrounding areas. Several thousand Tamils were killed, houses burned, shops looted. That led to a significant wave of immigration of Tamils to the north of the island and abroad. Following this tragic event thousands of young Tamils joined the armed struggle and the guerrilla struggle turned into civil war.

No progressive organisation was in a position to offer a political alternative. Sri Lankan democracy had been profoundly sapped for too long a time. In 1977, Junius Richard Jayawardene, elected Prime Minister following the victory of the UNP against the United Front, again changed the constitution, concentrating powers in the hands of a super President. He had created the National Union of Workers (Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya – JSS), in fact an organisation of hooligans used to intimidate, indeed kill his opponents, break strikes, and attack Tamils. The Sri Lankan working class was more than ever divided according to ethnic lines. The main left parties, the LSSP and the CP, had been contributors to this situation having for a long time renounced their convictions and political principles in exchange for ministerial posts. Everything was in place for a civil war which would lead to new massacres and precipitate the retreat of the workers movement as a whole especially after the defeat of the July 1980 strike movement.

The 1980s and the domination of the LTTE

On the other said of the Palk Strait, India was not indifferent to the pressure exerted by the 50 million Tamils living in Tamil Nadu and sympathising with the Lankan Tamil cause. During the 1980s, certain Tamil groups were militarily trained, armed and financial supported by the Indian state’s intelligence arm, the Research and Analysis Wing – (RAW).

Following the Indo-Lanka accords of 1987, India intervened directly in the north of the island. It deployed a “peacekeeping force”. The agreements, signed in July 1987 by the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayawardene, sought to establish a certain autonomy in the North and East where Tamils were in the majority, the fusion of its two provinces (fusion which should be validated by a referendum) and the recognition of an equal status between the Tamil and Sinhalese languages.

But despite a common reference to the Thimphu Declaration [21] which aimed to present a unified and common basis for the many Tamil groups, the political divisions and personal antagonisms remained. Among them, the LTTE would emerge as the dominant group. From the early 1980s, the Tigers organised the brutal killing of the main leaders of the other armed Tamil groups, in particular those organisations identified with Left and therefore mass-based politics

Moderate Tamil activists, pro-Indian activists, and democrats not supporting the objective of a separate Tamil state were forced into exile or killed. The TULF was considerably weakened politically by the LTTE’s assassination of its main leaders, A. Amirthalingham and Yogeswaran. By eliminating or forcing into exile the main leaders of the other organisations of struggle, the LTTE destroyed all democracy inside the Tamil national liberation movement. They did not seek to unite the different Tamil-speaking communities of Sri Lanka. On the contrary, in 1990, they were guilty of ethnic cleansing, notably by the expulsion of almost 100,000 Tamil speaking Muslims from Jaffna district in the space of 48 hours. In a certain way, the LTTE shared with the Colombo government that they fought the same criminal conception of an ethnically pure society, rid of every minority.

In the early 1990s, the Tigers no longer had any real opposition. They could then present themselves as the “sole legitimate representatives of the Tamil people” and seek external political support. Their objective of a separate Tamil state became the sole proclaimed objective, separating it from the question of the rights demanded by Tamils and mortgaging any democratic resolution of the civil war.

Some lessons from the history of an oppression

This historic recapitulation of the Tamil question in Sri Lanka allows us to draw valid political lessons for other continents and other struggles which give it a universal scope.

The organisations of the workers’ movement should never abandon a part of their own. One cannot claim to emancipate the workers from exploitation while allowing a minority among them to become the victims of vindictive racism, indeed worse, directly participating in their oppression. Discrimination and violence exerted against an ethnic minority will return later against the workers as a whole and their organisations. Sri Lanka is the sad illustration of it. The Sinhalese workers have gained nothing from the oppression of the Tamils and the LSSP and CP, in allowing them to fall, precipitated their degeneration.

So far as the Tamil Tigers are concerned, full scale militarisation and maximalism were fed by the negation of the democratic rights of the Tamils themselves and thus the possibility of self-organising struggles. No socialist and democratic society can be created by organisations which justify murder in the name of the necessities of the armed struggle.

In all fights against national oppression, or against the oppression suffered by certain ethnic groups, there is the need to recognize the right to self-determination. The only progressive solution is the defence of equality between citizens, whatever their origin, sex or religion. Today the material and political conditions for the exercice of self-determination rights do not exist. Since Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state, its minorities should be granted rights including political, cultural and linguistic rights, to reverse historical oppression or discrimination.

Today, there is an urgent need to address justice and reparations for the Tamils and Muslims who were displaced and dispossessed during the war and for the Hill-country Tamils who are still economically disenfranchised. Rather than so doing, the current government of Sri Lanka has profited from the military “victory” over the Tamil Tigers in 2009 to restrict still further democratic liberties, block any opposition and on this basis attack all workers whatever their ethnic origin. The new trend in economic development further causes uneven development and inequality for the majority of the Sri Lankan people. Therefore, there will not be any progress toward social justice and democracy without linking the political settlement of minorities’ demands with the class struggle of all workers for social justice and redistribution. In that perspective, devolution of state power could be an important step to empowering local communities and minorities against this authoritarian and centered State.

-Danielle Sabaï a member of the NPA and the Fourth International. She is one of IV’s correspondents for Asia.


[1] Buddhism, which emerged in the 6th century BC in India, was originally an interpretation of Hinduism based on tolerance and moderation. Its main divergence with Hinduism rests on the rejection of the caste system. Ceylon is the only place where Buddhism developed by maintaining the caste system

[2] See, Meyer Eric Paul (2009). The Specificity of Sri Lanka: Towards a Comparative History of Sri Lanka and India.Economic and Political Weekly

[3] Descendants of mixed marriages between Dutch or Portuguese and Ceylonese

[4] The word “comprador” designates a bourgeoisie in a developing country drawing its wealth from foreign trade rather than a bourgeoisie having interests in the production of national wealth

[5] In Sri Lanka, Muslim identity does not rest only on religion but has developed as a specific ethnic identity. Although most Muslims speak Tamil, they do not consider themselves as "Tamil Muslims” but as Tamil-speaking Muslims

[6] The first independent government in 1948 was led by D.S. Senanayake and his party the United National Party (UNP).The UNP was the party representing the interests of the comprador bourgeoisie. It won power at independence without ever having led the struggle against British imperialism

[7] For more details on the LSSP refer to Pierre Frank, The Fourth International: The long march of the Trotskyistspublished by Ink Links, London, 1979, pp 112-117. Ervin, Charles Wesley. "Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and Sri Lankan radicalism," in The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest Ness, Immanuel (Ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2009. Blackwell Reference Online. 07 May 2009

[8] The Federal Party was a party of parliamentarians representing the interests of the Tamil bourgeoisie. The Tamil name of the Federal Party was the Lankan Tamil Self-Governement Party. However, its programme was not addressed to the Tamil workers of the plantations who fought for their political rights but to the Sri Lankan Tamils originating from the North and East of the island.

[9] Solomon Bandaranaike was a rather distant relative of Senanayake in the hierarchy of the UNP, the party of “nephews and uncles”, too distant to hope to come to power .This is what led him to set up his own party, the SLFP, to ensure himself as rapidly as possible an electoral base. There were Tamils among the founders of the SLFP but they left the leadership once the party became aggressively Sinhala Bouddhist. Nevertheless the SLFP always had Tamil members and supporters including in Jaffna and the East even during the years of war

[10] A Sinhalese association defending Sinhalese culture based on the Mahajana Sabha which grouped the rural elites

[11] A general strike and a complete cessation of any activity

[12] For a critical analysis of the position of the LSSP following the hartal of 1953, see: Sivanandan Ambalavaner. Racism and the Politics of Underdevelopment. Race & Class- XXVI-1, and Hensman, Rohini; The Role of the Socialist in the Civil War in Sri Lanka.

[13] The Fourth International publicly disavowed this vote as well as the budget vote the same year

[14] The Ceylon Communist Party was formed in 1943 after the expulsion of the Stalinist current of the LSSP in 1940. This current refused to lead the struggle against colonialism because of the alliance between the USSR and British imperialism during the war

[15] Up to 1985, the RMP (Revolutionary Marxist Party), led by Bala Tampoe, was recognized as the Sri Lankan section of the FI. Another prominent RMP leader was Upali Cooray. Following a division in this organisation in 1981 there was not de facto a functioning section until 1991 when the World Congress recognised the Nava Sama Samaja Pakshaya, although Bala Tampoe and the comrades around him continued as individual members.

The origins of the NSSP are in a Left or "Vama" tendency that emerged inside the post-1964 LSSP. This tendency, leaders of which were expelled by the LSSP in the early 1970s, developed around students and lecturers in Peradeniya University then broadened to include working class members of the LSSP as well as more radical older leaders of the LSSP. The Vama tendency became an open organisation in 1977, after several years of maintaining an inside/outside relationship with the LSSP and took the name of Nava Sama Samaja Pakshaya (New Socialist (or Social Equality) Party). The NSSP was banned in 1983 after the July pogroms and only legalised again in 1985. Some of its leaders and members were killed by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) during the 1987-1990 insurrection and also by the LTTE in the same period. The NSSP is one of the few parties that has consistently defended the right to self-determination for the Tamil people.

The Vama tendency had come into contact with the Militant Tendency (Ted Grant) through its supporters who went to Britain to study. They became affiliated with the Militant international current but developed ideological differences as well as strategic differences on Sri Lanka. The NSSP broke with the Militant tendency in 1988-89 and developed relations with the Fourth International.

[16] The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna was a revolutionary movement but since its beginning it had xenophobic tendencies, regarding Hill-Country Tamil workers saw as fifth-colomnists for india expansionism . It became an unbridled Sinhala chauvinist Party.[[For more on JVP see Skanthakumar, Balasingham. “People’s Liberation Front of Sri Lanka (JVP)” in The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, Ness, Immanuel (Ed), Blackwell Publishing, 2009. Blackwell Reference Online. 07 May 2009.

[17] Coalition formed in 1972 comprising several Tamil parties including the Tamil Congress (ACTC) and the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) and which became the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1976 after the Federal Party had joined the coalition

[18] Peaceful mobilisations of the type advocated by Mahatma Gandhi

[19] On this subject see UTHR (J) – Chapter 2.

[20] He was elected as an independent but supported the SLFP

[21] On July 13, 1985, the different Tamil groups, meeting in the capital of Bhoutan Thimphu, agreed on three key points: recognition of a distinct Tamil nation and its right to self-determination, the guarantee of the territorial integrity of an independent Tamil state, the safeguarding of the fundamental rights of Tamils outside of their state.

The Martyred Professor : Saba Dashtiyari of Balochistan

Obituary: The Martyred Professor
By Malik Siraj Akbar

I do no know any young Baloch of my generation who was not keen to meet Professor Saba Dashtiyari during his early school days. As a school student in Panjgur, my hometown, I first heard about Saba, who was brutally shot dead on Wednesday night in Quetta where he was among the very few remaining brave men who would still take a walk on Sariab Road in spite of serious law and order problems confronting the provincial capital.

As young kids, we had heard charming stories about a Baloch professor who was an atheist but, ironically, taught theology and Islamic studies at the University of Balochistan. Another thing that fascinated us about him was the narrative that he spent most of his salary on the promotion of Balochi language academies and preparation of Balochi text books.

I was in my early teens when I met Professor Saba at Panjgur’s Izat Academy, a local organization that used to publish a Balochi language liberal magazine Chirag under the editorship of Karim Azad. The magazine was eventually shut down because of a chronic financial crunch.

My interactions with Saba increased in Quetta at the University of Balochistan. There were always two things one could not overlook while entering the University: the heavy presence of the Frontier Corps (FC) and Saba Dashtiyari’s table surrounded by students. Saba ran kind of a (liberal) university within the (strictly controlled) university. He was an easily approachable professor who would sit outside the canteen to share ideas with students. While getting into our classrooms, I would often see two to three students sitting with the Professor at around 10:00 am. Within two hours, when I’d walk to the same place, the circle of the students by that time would have expanded to 20 to 30.

If you walked individually, he’d excuse the group of students surrounding him and call at you “Biya day  bacha” (Come over, boy) but if you walked in a group of students, “he’d pluralize it “biye e day bachikan”  (Come over, boys).

The group of students that surrounded the Professor often comprised of progressive and liberals. One would barely make sense of the composition without squinting at the books they carried in their hands. These students held books written by free thinkers like Bertrand Russell and others held some Russian fictions by Leo Tolstoy or Maxim Gorky. There were the ones who’d be holding Syed Sibth-e-Hassan’s work or that of Dr. Mubarak Ali.

After seeing these books, one would sit down to listen to the contents of the discussion taking place on this exceptional circle. Discussions headed by Saba were far more liberal and enlightening than what we could learn from our classrooms.  The participants of the discussions would talk on a variety of topics ranging from politics, religion, revolutions, nationalism to taboos  like sex and homosexuality. Students often wondered why rest of the professors at the university were not as liberal and easily approachable as Saba.

The great Professor’s humbleness dated back to his family background. He came from a low-income family of Karachi which had actually migrated from Dasthiyar area of Iranian Balochistan. Thus, he alluded to his ancestral town throughout his life with his last name “Dashtiyari” (which meant someone who came from Dashtiyar).

Saba was born in 1953 in Karachi and attained his basic education in the slums. He obtained a Masters degree in Philosophy and Islamic Studies from the Karachi University. In 1980s, he began to teach at the University of Balochistan. His love for different languages took him to the Iranian cultural center where he spent four years to learn Persian and then learned Arabic from the Egyptian Radio.

Very few people took the responsibility of promoting Balochi language and culture with such a great personal and professional commitment as Professor Dashtiyari did.

Although, he silently remained involved in teaching and promoting the language for around two years, he subsequently realized he was not sufficiently contributing to the Baloch movement. Thus, he walked outside the University and joined as an activist. During the last three years, Saba was seen in the forefront of the movement demanding the release of thousands of missing Baloch persons. He used to sit at different hunger strike camps to sympathize with the families of the missing persons and address various seminars.

In one such seminar, a female journalist interrupted Saba’s speech and said she would not let him speak on Balochistan. The lady’s interruption did not discourage or humiliate the Baloch professor who said in front of an august gathering that he would exercise his right to freedom of expression. Freedom in its all forms meant a life to him.

Two days before coming to the US, Saba and I spent around five hours together in Quetta. After he transported two boxes of books to a Karachi-based academy, we sat along with some other friends in Quetta’s Pishin Stop at a fast food restaurant to discuss the situation in Balochistan.

I inquired about the remarkable transformation in his personality and  the causes that forced him to become an activist. In response, he sounded very frustrated with the state of affairs in Balochistan and did not mince words.

“Pakistan is a colonial state,” he said, “It is trying to eliminate the Baloch people and their culture. As professionals, we have to understand it’s our responsibility to come forward to assure our people that they are not alone.”

He believed that the Balochs should establish parallel educational institutions to counter the official propaganda and efforts to assimilate the Baloch into an alien culture. He was perturbed over the lack of official encouragement for the Balochi language and emphasized on the need for societal efforts to preserve the Baloch identity.

A practical man, he had established a prestigious Balochi reference center which was named after Syed Zahoor Shah Hashimi, another respected Balcoh intellectual.

He never married; spent whole his life for the promotion of Balochi language and culture.

Before I bid farewell to him outside his residence at the University Colony, Saba referred to my upcoming trip to the US and instructed: “Day Bacha mara odha washnaam bekan” (Oh boy, do make us proud there — in the US).

It is utterly futile to demand an inquiry into Saba’s murder as a probe is not what is going to help. All that we need to mourn is the great loss of an extraordinary educator of Balochistan. This is no longer a secrete how the government is target killing Baloch professors, writers, journalists, lawyers, human rights activists and political leaders. This is a period of unity among the people of Balochistan and the Balochs all over the world.

Every day, I receive a number of phone calls, emails and Facebook messages advising or ‘ordering’ me to “be careful” over whatever I write. What does it actually mean to be careful? There is no way carefulness can bring an end to this traumatic cycle of systematic elimination of Baloch scholars. It is worse not to speak up against this barbaric cycle of violence. The killing of enlightened writers and professors, such as Saba, is simply a clear message to all the liberals that we should either give up or get prepared to be killed.

I know getting killed is a heavy price for anyone of us to pay for our work but to live under oppression and injustice is like getting killed every other day. There is no justice without struggle. We all need to stand up for truth and refuse to succumb to this challenge.

It’s no cliché: Saba was unique and irreplaceable. You will not find a man who’ll spend his salary to impart cultural awareness and secular education at a time when the State of Pakistan is spending billions of rupees with the assistance of its Saudi cronies to radicalize the Baloch society by constructing more and more religious schools to counter the liberal nationalist movement.

Dakar 2011 WSF: Political and Popular Success for the Assembly of Social Movements (ASM)[1]

Dakar 2011 WSF: Political and Popular Success for the Assembly of Social Movements (ASM)[1]

Olivier Bonfond

April 2011

After several years of stagnating,[2] the Assembly of Social Movements (ASM), a process that brings together anticapitalist social forces, achieved a significant qualitative leap forward during the latest WSF that was held inDakar from 6th to 11th February 2011. Over and above the popular success which meant that the assembly was one of the major events of the WSF, the ASM succeeded in reaching a consensus on a truly shared agenda of struggles, as well as respecting the diversity and various priorities of respective social movements. It also made major decisions on the next steps to be taken towards a genuine international coordination of social movements. Such breakthroughs now have to be carried through into the field of social struggles, and this progress now needs to be consolidated through struggles on the ground, as well as facing the huge challenge : how to provide a global response to the new offensive of major capitalist interests, and make a positive contribution to transforming the balance of power in relations in favour of the working classes in the South and in theNorth.

The ASM in Dakar 2011: a popular success story

After the WSF opening march on 6th February that brought together some 60,000 participants, the ASM was one of the main events of the forum in terms of participation, mobilization and convergence. In a highly charged atmosphere, almost 2,000 activists, including dozens ofsocial movements and networks from all over the world came together on 10thFebruary. This atmosphere was partly due to the current revolutions in the Arab world. The participants reasserted their determination to fight together against capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism, and all forms of oppression and discrimination. The social movements present also adopted and applauded a final declaration[3] that will be a roadmap for struggles to come.


This success was no mere chance. It was the result of the intense efforts made by the ASM international facilitating group over the previous months. The third world seminar of social movements that took place in Dakar in November 2010 was one of the key elements.[4] During that strategic seminar several Senegalese and African social movements were able to share their views on the next WSF, appropriate the ASM process, and decide to get involved. The creation of a specific group for the preparation of the 2011 Assembly played a major role, not only in terms of the quality of support and massive mobilization during the assembly, butalso to ensure a greater degree of involvement, transparency and democracy in the decision-making processes: extensive invitations to preparatory meetings, fast and efficient communication, organization of several hours of debate, creation of a drafting committee for the final declaration… such elements are far from negligible details, and they should be maintained as examples for the future. It is important to bear in mind that logistics and politics cannot be dissociated, and that behind each political act there are committed men and women who are working and shouldering responsibilities.


In spite of all these efforts, there was no guarantee of success. In recent years the ASM has gone through difficult times. On the one hand several social movements dissociated themselves from the process; an example was those that chose to focus on climate change. Other social movements were caught up in supporting movements that have implemented neoliberal policies (the Prodi government in Italy from April 2006 to January 2008 to mention just one example).The WSF in general and the ESF in particular are definitely weaker than they were in the past. On the other hand, the ASM was ‘attacked’ by part of the International Council of the WSF that sees it as a threat and does not want it to become too significant within the WSF. For over two years, several social movements have managed to restore a constructive dialogue within the IC on the legitimacy and usefulness of the ASM, including for the WSF process as a whole. This did not prevent some people from trying to lay obstacles in the path of the ASM in Dakar 2011. One illustration: a couple of hours before the assembly was scheduled to be held, we did not know where it would take place… Fortunately the preparatory group was able to respond swiftly and ensure that the ASM had a room with enough seats, a sound system, and interpretation.


Two other positive elements deserve to be mentioned. First the ASM invited new actors to participate, in particular the Senegalese hip hop movement, which not only gave strength and power to the meeting by their forceful opening, but also contributed to the ASM dynamics by sharing their experience of local struggles, and contributing their expertise in communication and popular education. Secondly, in spite of the many activities around the WSF, after expressing their support for the Tunisian people following the overthrow of the neoliberal dictator Ben Ali, the ASM were able to hold an action in support of the Egyptian people. This took the form of a sit-in in front of the Egyptian embassy in Dakar on 11th February 2011, only a few hours before Mubarak’s official departure.


Dakar 2011 ASM: a political success

Over and above the significance ofsuccessfully holding the final assembly as such, we should bear in mind thatthe ASM is first and foremost a process that aims to support the convergence of struggles, help articulate social movements and construct common agendas and schedules for actions and mobilizations. After some difficult times in the past few years, the social movements involved in the ASM in Dakar succeeded in defining interesting strategic and political perspectives, particularly on the thorny issue of prioritizing struggles.


For several years the social movements involved in the ASM had faced the challenge of how to define priorities in struggles. It was essential for the ASM to resolve this issue since consolidating our struggle against capitalist globalization and reversing the labour/capital balance of power at global level involves articulating our various approaches in a general movement that needs to be both massive and coordinated. This can only happen if the social movements define shared priorities in their various actions. We must find the means of repeating what happened in 2003 with the war in Iraq: there was global mobilization by hundreds of social movements that brought together millions and millions of people who demonstrated. Even though this mobilization with 12 million people demonstrating in February 2003 did not prevent the war, if we want to win victories, to conquer and defend people’s rights, we still need massive popular mobilization to counter the cold logic of capital. Recent uprisings in Arab countries are a timely reminder.


Reaching a consensus on the need to reach this goal was not at all an issue within the ASM. However finding a single concrete objective on which to focus energies was a different matter entirely, as choosing one automatically means abandoning another. Social movements generally focus on one or several issues: food sovereignty, water, biodiversity, public debt, women’s rights, racism, war, militarization, neocolonialism, GMOs, human rights, climate change… to name but a few . What basis is there for deciding that, say, food sovereignty will be the priority issue for a couple of years? The question had not been solved before the Dakar WSF. Discussion had always come to thesame conclusion: while it is necessary to come together to support specificshared demands, all struggles are equally important, and it is most difficultif not impossible to choose one specific issue and decide it will be the shared priority for all social movements[5].


However failing to resolve this issue had concrete strategic consequences for the ASM: the final declaration at the end of global assemblies or strategic seminars listed all sorts of issues in anattempt to be inclusive, and outlined a calendar of events with the main dates for action and mobilization already scheduled by the various social movements. This certainly comforted connections and solidarity but it failed to federate social forces around any single issue. This resulted in the dissipation of strength.


At the 2009 Belem WSF a first qualitative leaphad consisted in deciding on ‘only’ four dates for global mobilization in 2009. The ASM Belem declaration[6] was a significant step forward in that it provided the catchphrase ‘another world is possible’ with a concrete content as it focused on a number of radical anticapitalist, antiracist, feminist, ecological and  internationalist alternatives.


At Dakar, the preparatory session discussion focused global mobilization on two dates: one on March 20th, to support the continuing revolutionary processes in the Arab world. The second is October 12th, with a global day of action against capitalism. Many people did not expect an outcome like the support for the revolution and struggle against the capitalist system. Of course, the international context has played a decisive role, with a global crisis of the system and popular uprisings that have (finally) restored legitimacy and a new dimension to the concepts of anti-capitalism and revolution. Another key element is the integration of these two dates with four major global struggles: the fight against transnationals, the struggle for climate justice and food sovereignty, the fight to end violence against women, and the struggle for peace, against war and colonialism. Thefinal declaration made these key current struggles of the social movements more visible. Although the specific dates connected to these struggles do not inthemselves appear, they are implicit. It is important to bear in mind that the huge amount of preparatory work contributed greatly, and explains this success story, as well as contributing to the hours of high-quality discussion between members of social movements from all over the world.


Of course we are still a long way from winning the struggle. Today’s battles are still all too weak and isolated, compared with the global strength of capital; and in spite of the victories that certain peoples have succeeded on winning, capital remains hegemonic and continues its hold on all aspects of life (political, social, ideological, the media…). It is not because two global dates have been chosen that the situation will change more quickly. Nevertheless the declaration and the orientation agreed on, show that the social movements are gaining in political maturity and, given the current international context, that they are ready to include their specific struggles in an overall struggle against the capitalist system.


Another positive aspect emerging from the Dakar ASM is its enlargement and its internal functioning. An observation must bemade: after ten years existence, the ASM still has not managed to develop avirtuous dynamic that would allow it to create a genuine coordination of global social movements. The causes are multiple, and are both internal and external. Tensions with the WSF process have certainly played a role, but are far from being the only reason.


An important element to bear in mind is the fact that the ASM has always wanted to avoid institutionalisation, a rigid structure and international leadership, a political orientation set in stone or even formal and exclusive membership. Although these concerns are perfectly legitimate in principle, an overtly restrained strategy has resulted in an opposite excess, namely that of a lack of identity and definition of a specific way of working; all this has caused low visibility and appeal of the process.


The ASM process has involved deep reflection in recent years; this has been especially supported by organizing strategic seminars that identified weaknesses, and introduced remedial measures. At the Dakar WSF several very important decisions were taken in this regard.


Renewal and strengthening of the ASM facilitation group: the first global seminar on social movements was organized in Brussels in September 2006, a global facilitation group of ASM was formed[7]. The objectives of this group, composed of around fifteen networks and movements in order to maintain a geographical and sectoral balance, were to develop the entire process as a whole, stimulate exchange and convergence, facilitate the preparation of major events such that the WSF, ensure continuity of discussion, improve communication by circulating relevant information and facilitate linkages between the ASM and the WSF process, especially the International Council. Unfortunately, this group failed to function and achieve the objectives. There are many reasons for this, but the cause was the inability of movements - already deeply involved in their own series of struggles - to delegate a specific person to take up the work required by these tasks.


Various discussions have however indicated that the facilitation group is a positive initiative.  This means that five years after its creation it now needs to be renewed and revitalized. The main idea is to achieve a positive balance, (at thematic, sectoral, & geographical level, withoutforgetting gender balance) and work in a relatively open and flexible way. It is important to bear in mind that the ASM is not aimed at becoming a structure with its own leadership or specific goals. The ASM is a tool that emanates from real, existing struggles, in order to strengthen, articulate and help them to converge. Nevertheless, in order to make decisions that are relevant to andinvolve social movements around the world, it is necessary to have a space for discussion and decision-making that is both efficient, transparent and democratic.


Continue the expansion work: This step is fundamental because to build a real capacity for mobilization at all levels, international or regional networks will not suffice. It is important for all the social forces that are part of the ASM dynamics to assume genuine ownership for it, and support and strengthen it by translating it into their own realities and actions. But for the moment, apart from the social movements that are active in the WSF process and / or involved in international dynamics, the thousands of social movements bravely struggling to defend their rights at local and national level are essentially unfamiliar with the ASM.  The facilitation group and all social movements involved in the ASM now need to address this urgent and importantissue. They need to make contact with and establish dialogue and cooperationwith these movements.


Continue to decentralize: In 2006, after five years of participating in the WSF and ASM, it appeared important for social movements involved in this process to take stock, both of the state of the process itself and of the evolution of the international situation. This was achieved at the first global seminar on social movements that was held in Brussels in September 2006. A hundred delegates, representing fifty organizations from around theworld took part. In January 2010, the social movements decided to hold a second global seminar in São Paulo from 22nd to 24th January. Understandably, thisseminar was characterized by a strong Latin American presence; it contributed to making concrete progress on a number of things, particularly in relation to the Latin American context, such as conducting a major campaign against foreign military bases in Latin America. Based on these results, it was decided to develop the decentralization process by holding similar seminars in four continents. The third seminar of social movements was held in Dakar in November 2010 ahead of the WSF. Given the impact of this seminar, both in terms of involvement of African social movements as well as the success and the global dynamics of the ASM, it is clear that this process of continental decentralization should continue. An agreement of principle was reached to hold the next seminar inAsia. As well as the strategic seminars, it would also be interesting to develop Continental Assemblies of social movements over and above the global assemblies that take place during the World Social Forum. This decentralization is especially important to expand the process, thereby increasing the capacity to mobilize at local, national and regional levels; this is a fundamental aspect if we want peoples’ demands to have a real impact on politicaldecision-making.


Develop a more precise reference document on the political orientation and the working of the ASM: One important issue facing the ASM is that it is impossible to know precisely which social movements are part of the ASM process. Indeed, there is no ASM membership list, and none of the final declarations adopted at a WSF have listed the signatures. Although this mayrepresent certain advantages, it nevertheless weakens the process, hiding its true representativity, and raising questions about the democratic nature of its operation. What is the ASM? What does it represent? Who are the members? How does it work? How are decisions taken? How is an ASM statement written? Formost individuals and social movements, apart from those who are active in the process, it is very difficult or impossible to answer these questions. During discussions conducted in Dakar, the ASM facilitation group decided to launch a process to develop a reference document that would provide a clearer definition of the political orientation and ASM working methods. Although its nature and scope have yet to be determined, the preparation of this document, whether it will be called a charter, a platform or a reference text, needs to be drawn up with all due consideration and as collectively possible; time needs to be taken for the drafting process to allow the expansion of the dynamic and involvement of new social movements.

If things move forward in the right direction, that is to say, with an active facilitation group involved in the coordination of social struggles, a broadening of the process in as many countries and regions as possible, a clear political orientation and effective and democratic functioning, as well as an ability to massively mobilize at global level, the ASM can fully play its role: that of transforming the balance of power in favor of the oppressed all over the world.


After a relatively weak but nevertheless positive global action on 20th March 2011[8] that was linked to the urgency to show immediate support and international solidarity with the struggling people in the Arab world, the global action that is planned for next 12th October will provide a new important test for assessing the commitment of social forces within the ASM. Irrespective of this, as a process of convergence for anti-capitalist struggles, the ASM has its place and its legitimacy in the struggle against capitalism and in building a world that is socially just and respectful of nature.


Translated by Christine Pagnoulle, Sushovan Dhar and Judith Hitchman



[2] C.f. Olivier Bonfond, «Historique et perspectives de l’AMS» ; http://www.cadtm.org/Historique-et-perspectives-du (in French)

[5].CADTM as well as several other social movements have always favoured this position and ar eprepared to defend theidea of a shared single theme without however setting aside their central theme.

Repercussions of the Velusamy Judgement.

Repercussions of the Velusamy Judgement.

After two decades of litigating on behalf of over 50,000 women across Maharashtra, our experience has been, that when a destitute Hindu woman approaches a court for a meager sum of maintenance under S.125 Cr.PC, the common ploy adopted by the husband (under the guidance of his lawyer) is to deny the validity of the marriage by pleading that he has an earlier valid marriage  subsisting  and hence the woman is not entitled to maintenance.

It is an irony that while it is the man who has flouted the law of monogamy as prescribed by the Hindu Marriage Act, it is the woman, who is called upon to pay the price. She is denied the crucial and basic right to maintenance. This is indeed a travesty of justice.

Over the years, several judges of various High Courts and the Supreme Court, have tried to give some respite to women  by invoking the principle of ‘beneficial legislation’. In an important ruling in 2005 in Daga v. Daga, the  Supreme Court had commented that bigamous marriages, though illegal, are not ‘immoral’ and maintenance cannot be denied on this basis rendering the woman a destitute.   Way back in 1976, Justice Kania of the Bombay High Court (who later became the Chief Justice of India), while upholding the rights of a woman in a bigamous marriage under the Hindu Marriage Act had held that

“Since the Act is a social legislation, it could not have been the intention of the legislature to deprive a Hindu woman, who was duped into contracting a bigamous marriage, her right to claim maintenance.

Several other rulings have held that the right of maintenance under S.125 Cr.PC is a beneficial provision enacted for the purpose of providing a summary remedy to a wife to prevent vagrancy and destitution. It does not finally determine rights and obligations of marriage. It is a well settled principle in law, that beneficial legislation must be liberally interpreted in order to benefit the very class of people for whom it was enacted. Thus, the section must include within its purview a wife whose marriage suffers from some technical defect.

But the recent ruling, D. Velusamy v. D. Patchaiammal in October, 2010 which denied maintenance to women in marriage like relationships with men who are already married seems to have undone  the  positive impact of all the earlier judgements. In this ruling, Justice Markandey Katju termed such women as ‘mistresses’ and ‘keeps’ undeserving of maintenance. He discussed  in great detail, how a married man is not free to contract with another woman and hence is not liable to pay maintenance, even if he is living with this other woman. Not once in the judgement is a word of reprimand to the man who has duped both his first wife and then the second woman. Subsequently, the review petition filed by some concerned groups before the same bench pleading the court to expunge the  derogative comments has also been dismissed.

It appears that instead of moving forward we seem to be moving backwards into regressive spaces by placing ourselves on a moral high ground by endorsing a fallacious belief in the monogamous nature of Hindu marriages. Today the ground level reality is that, because of the adverse publicity that the judgement received, trial courts are rejecting petitions of women who are unable to ‘prove’ a valid marriage, at the time of filing under S.125 Cr.PC.

The ruling has also blocked the remedy under PWDVA which was supposed to bring redressal to precisely this category of women. PWDVA uses a broad (and presumably Western) term ‘live in’ relationships in order to cover the widest range of relationships, it does not specifically address the  situation which is most common in India,  of women who are in marriages which are accepted by the community as valid, despite the fact that the woman is the ‘second wife’.  Hence, after the Velusamy ruling a need has arisen to address this concern frontally.

It is common knowledge that despite the codification which brought in monogamy, Hindu marriages have continued to be bigamous. The question that we need to ask is NOT whether they ‘ought’ to be monogamous, but whether we are bound by a  constitutional duty and obligation to protect the basic and fundamental  rights of a large number of both rural and urban women, the citizens of India, who wittingly or unwittingly, are entrapped within technically defective marriages.

We at Majlis are planning to launch a campaign to undo the harm caused by theVelusamy ruling. We are looking forward to your support to strengthen this campaign. We will also appreciate if you would share with us  cases that are dealt by your group / organisation, where women have been denied maintenance on the sole ground that the marriage is invalid as she is the second wife. This will help us to take the campaign forward.

We thank you in anticipation of your support.

With warm regards,

Flavia Agnes and the Majlis Team.

Support the Campaign


Judgements that have upheld the rights of women in technically defective marriages.


Luxembourg: Class struggle in a ‘haven of peace and social progress’

Luxembourg: Class struggle in a ‘haven of peace and social progress’

Steelworkers protest outside in the Luxembourg headquarters of ArcelorMittal, May 2009.

By Murray Smith

May 1, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal – Luxembourg is one of the smallest countries in the European Union, and also one of the richest. However, in spite of its small size, it has some features that provide an acute illustration of broader tendencies that exist within the European Union and the advanced capitalist countries in general. The two most striking aspects of Luxembourg are its importance as a financial centre and the multinational character of its workforce.

Up until 30 years ago the economy of Luxembourg was dominated by heavy industry, centred on iron and steel. Like other Western European countries it was severely affected by the crisis of the 1970s. A process of restructuring and downsizing of the steel industry followed, carried out under the direction of what was then the European Community, via the Davignon Plan, and affecting not only Luxembourg but other countries, in particular West Germany, France and Belgium. Eventually the Luxembourg national steel company, ARBED, merged in 2002 with the French company Usinor and the Spanish Aceralia to form Arcelor, which was in its turn taken over by the Indian steel company Mittal in 2006. Today, ArcelorMittal is the largest steel producer in the world. It has its headquarters in Luxembourg and still employs several thousand workers in the country to produce high-quality steel, many fewer than Arbed employed in its heyday (4000 production workers today, as against 30,000 in 1975). Nevertheless, even though the steel industry is a shadow of its former self, its history still looms large over Luxembourg and in particular over the workers’ movement.

The southern part of the country, the centre of the iron and steel industry, is known as the “Red Lands”, from the colour of the iron-laden earth.  But the name could also aptly describe the political colour of the area, the most left-wing part of the country, centred on Luxembourg’s second city, Esch-sur-Alzette.


Luxembourg, like a number of other EU countries, has undergone a process of deindustrialisation. Of course there is still an industrial sector, including not only steel, but also some new high-tech industries such as SES, founded in 1985, which produces satellite telecommunications equipment. But today it is the tertiary, service sector that is dominant. And as the industrial base of Luxembourg has narrowed, the country, and above all its capital, has become a major financial centre.

On a world level, 80 per cent of exports consist of material goods (including iron and steel) and 20 per cent services (including financial services).  Luxembourg is exactly the opposite: 20 per cent of its exports consist of material goods (of which steel still represents 37 per cent) and 80 per cent services. Financial services alone account for more than 50 per cent of exports. This compares with 30 per cent for Switzerland and only 10 per cent for Singapore. Luxembourg has 0.007 per cent of the world’s population and 0.095 per cent of world GDP. It has, however, 15 per cent of exports of financial services: 17th place in the world; 65th place for material goods (source: WTO). Within the EU, with 27 per cent of exports of financial services, Luxembourg is second only to the United Kingdom[1]. Speculative capital in Luxembourg represents 50 times the country’s GDP, while the funds held by the banks represent 30 times GDP. Luxembourg has a larger share of investment funds than any other EU country. In particular it holds an incredible 85 per cent of the cross-border trade in Europe in UCITS collective investment funds[2]. The sums involved run into trillions of euros. (One example of a Luxembourg-based UCITS fund was LuxAlpha, the principal European antenna of the Madoff scam.)

The growth in the financial sector is not particular to Luxembourg, although Luxembourg provides an extreme example of it. On a European level, it reflects on the one hand a certain process of deindustrialisation in the advanced capitalist countries, with a shift of material production towards emergent economies and the growth of the services sector. But the financialisation of advanced capitalist economies is above all an expression of the tendency for profits to be directed towards finance because of the lack of sufficiently profitable productive investment. And of course the vast sums of money that are placed in the Luxembourg financial sector do not come from Luxembourg (or only to a small degree), but from all over Europe and the world. And Luxembourg does everything it can to attract this capital. Taxes on business, at 21.1 per cent, are the lowest in the EU (EU average 44.2 per cent).[3]

Luxembourg’s success in carving out a place for itself in the new financialised international constellation explains in large part the maintenance of relatively high standards of living and of social protection. At the same time the dominance of finance is an Achilles heel. Luxembourg was quite sharply hit by the 2008 financial crisis and remains vulnerable to future shocks. Probably as a delayed effect of the 2008 crisis, bankruptcies in 2010 in the financial sector were higher than the total of the three previous years combined. But bigger dangers lie in wait. Luxembourg contributed 200 million euros to the loan for the Greek bailout and 50 million for Ireland. It may be thought that it was cheap at the price, when you consider that  holdings of debt by Luxembourg banks and financial institutions in the so-called PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) amount to 62 billion euros.  So Luxembourg, like its larger neighbours (Germany, France, UK …) is in fact protecting its own banks and financial institutions. After the recent annual visit of experts from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to take the pulse of the Luxembourg economy, the newspaper Le Quotidien reported that “the IMF points out that the banks situated in Luxembourg are susceptible to being exposed through their international groups to the sovereign debts of certain European countries. This problem is considered by the IMF to be serious” (April 5, 2011).

Working-class composition

The other very important feature of Luxembourg is the composition of its population and in particular of its working class. Luxembourg has a population of 500,000, which now includes 43 per cent of non-citizens. This is the highest percentage in both the EU and the countries of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Within the school system the proportion of non-Luxembourgers is around 50 per cent. The vast majority of the resident migrant population is from the EU, only 6 per cent coming from outside.

This is the result of a conscious immigration policy by successive Luxembourg governments from the 1950s onwards, seeking to encourage white European migrants. By far the largest group of immigrants comes from Portugal. The small population of non-European origin includes a contingent from the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde. Non-citizens have certain voting rights after five years of residence, but have been slow to use them. Unlike Luxembourg citizens, who are automatically put on the electoral register, foreigners have to make the request. All foreigners can vote in local elections after five years’ legal residence. EU citizens can vote in European elections, but only Luxembourg citizens can vote in parliamentary elections. Foreigners can apply for Luxembourg citizenship after seven years of residence. There has been an increase in demand since a 2009 reform making it possible to have dual nationality.

Migrants play a key role in the Luxembourg economy and social structure. In 1980, the number of those paying social security contributions, a good indication of the size of the workforce, was 158,000. Non-Luxembourgers already represented 33 per cent of the total. Today the workforce is 349,000, a 120 per cent increase. And whereas the number of Luxembourgish workers has only increased by 4 per cent in 30 years, the number of non-Luxembourgers has shot up, now representing 68 per cent of all workers – 24 per cent of the workforce are migrants who live in Luxembourg and 44 per cent are “cross-border workers” (frontaliers) who live outside Luxembourg and commute to work there every day. The biggest contingent comes from France, followed by Belgium and Germany (47 per cent of frontaliers are from France, with 23 per cent each from Belgium and Germany). When we look at the private sector, the percentage of Luxembourg citizens is even lower than in the economy as a whole, at 25.4 per cent. French workers alone account for 27.34 per cent, followed by Portuguese, Belgians and Germans, all between 11 and 13 per cent. Non-Europeans account for just over 3 per cent. Unsurprisingly Luxembourgers are much more strongly represented in the administration and more generally the public sector and are much less present in manual and unskilled jobs (less than 10 per cent in the building industry, for example).

This important role of non-Luxembourg workers, both residents and frontaliers, has a number of consequences. In the first place, leaving aside the frontaliers who live and vote in their countries of origin, a considerable percentage of migrants living in Luxembourg are outside the political process, especially as regards the national parliament. Luxembourg citizens, including of course those of foreign origin, vote to elect a parliament and government which take decisions that concern many residents (and non-residents) who have no say in these decisions.

Luxembourg political parties do have non-Luxembourg citizens among their members (the Socialist Party – LSAP – has just announced that 13 per cent of its members are non-citizens, an increase from 6 per cent two years ago), but they are still very largely composed of Luxembourg citizens. Their composition certainly does not accurately reflect the diversity of the workforce or even the resident population. There are however organisations which do better reflect this reality – the trade unions.

Trade unions

The trade unions in Luxembourg are relatively strong. A comparative study in 2003 listed Luxembourg among a dozen or so European countries where trade union membership was rising. The four Luxembourg trade union groupings cited in this study showed growth of more than 40 per cent between 1993 and 2003.[4]  A recent study shows an overall level of unionisation of 41 per cent, which places Luxembourg seventh in the European table, according to the OECD.[5] This percentage refers only to workers resident in Luxembourg, whatever their nationality, not to frontaliers, but the latter are also organised in Luxembourg unions. The two main union confederations at least are actively engaged in recruiting them and have offices in the regions of France, Belgium and Germany adjoining Luxembourg. Over a longer period, reflecting the transition from industry to services, the level of unionisation has actually decreased, from 64 per cent in 1970-71, indicating that union membership, while increasing, has not kept pace with the rapid expansion of the service sector and particularly of finance. However, at 39 per cent, the level of unionisation in the banking and insurance sector is still quite significant.

The main union grouping is the Independent Trade Union Confederation of Luxembourg (OGBL) with 66,000 members. Historically, the OGBL has been close to the Socialist Party (LSAP), but the links have become very much distended with the neoliberal evolution of the LSAP. The OGBL has now taken a position that membership of its executive bureau is incompatible with being a member of the Luxembourg or European Parliament or occupying a position of responsibility in local government. Following the 2009 elections Jean-Claude Reding, president of the OGBL, came out with a very forthright statement: “The Socialist Party must know that we will not take account of their participation or not in the government. If the party remains the ally of the unions and defends the social state, we can only be delighted. If it is not capable of playing this role, it would be better if it did not go into government. Moreover, it would come into conflict with us.”

The second biggest confederation is the Luxembourg Christian Trade Union Confederation (LCGB), which as its name suggests is close to the Christian Social People’s Party (CSV), and in this case there seems to be no problem with the link. The union’s president is in fact a CSV member of parliament. The General Confederation of Civil Service Workers (CGFP) is a sectoral union. The fourth union grouping is based around ALEBA, the Luxembourg Association of Bank Employees. Then there is the FNCTTFEL (Landesverband), which organises rail and other transport workers and local government workers. There are some other, minor unions. In spite of this plurality there seems to be less inter-union rivalry than in, for example, France. There is however a definable (and majority) class-oriented wing of the trade union movement, consisting of the OGBL, FNCTTEL and ALEBA. This bloc at present controls the CSL, a chamber elected by all workers in the private sector which regularly produces documentation and analyses that are useful for trade unionists and those on the left generally.

Luxembourg social model

The two main political parties are the CSV and the LSAP. They govern in coalition. But the CSV is the dominant force, having won 38 per cent of the votes and 26 out of 60 seats in the 2009 legislative election. It and its predecessor have been in government, generally in coalition, and invariably providing the prime minister, for all but six years since 1918, except of course during the interregnum of the German occupation from 1940-44. The LSAP, whose vote has been in steady decline since 1964, received 21.6 per cent of the vote in 2009. Other pro-capitalist parties are represented in parliament. The Democratic Party (DP) is an unashamedly liberal formation, comparable to the German Free Democratic Party. The Greens (Dei Greng) cannot be characterised as being on the left – they represent what might be called “eco-liberalism”. They govern the municipality of Luxembourg City in coalition with the DP. There is also a somewhat eclectic populist party, the ADR.

An absolutely central element of class relations in Luxembourg is the so-called “Luxembourg social model”, sometimes simply described as the “Luxembourg model”. The basis of this is that social questions should be dealt with and if possible resolved in consultations between government, employers and the unions, through a process of conciliation and compromise, with the aim of arriving at a consensus. This does not only, or even primarily, concern wages which are negotiated with employers. It covers social security, unemployment pay, the minimum social wage, the minimum guaranteed income (RMG), taxation, pensions and so on. The rationale is that the “social model” provides a high level of security for workers and their families and that in return social conflicts, strikes, etc., are reduced to a minimum. Indeed strikes are only authorised after a process of conciliation has been gone through.

Let us look briefly at what the Luxembourg workers’ movement has to defend.

Indexation of wages, linking them to price rises, was won for the public sector after World War I, for heavy industry in 1936, for all workers in 1975; a minimum social wage was introduced after the World War II, and is at present the highest among the 20 EU member states that have a minimum wage. There is a state pension system, described by the IMF and the OECD as “very generous”, a health-care system, etc. Child benefits are the highest in the EU. A study showed that in 2008 Luxembourg had the strongest job protection legislation in the EU and the second strongest in the OECD after Turkey (the United States came last). On the other hand, in terms of hours worked per year, Luxembourg has among the highest in the EU, 1806 (1876 in the UK) and unlike the situation in most EU member states, the number of hours worked actually increased between 2000 and 2008. And the overall high standard of living conceals inequalities. There are poor people in Luxembourg who have difficulty making ends meet. Housing in particular is very expensive. Nevertheless the overall picture is one of high living standards and a strong level of social protection. And it should be noted that in this respect that Luxembourg has gone against the general tendency in the EU in that social protection has actually been extended over the last 20 years, whereas elsewhere it has in general been eroded via liberal counter-reforms. But as we shall see these gains are now coming under attack.

The key to the functioning of the Luxembourg social model is the concept of the tripartite, meetings held regularly, usually once a year, between employers, government and unions. The present Tripartite Coordinating Committee was established in 1977, but its roots go back much further. Dialogue between unions and employers began to be institutionalized in 1924 with the creation of the first Chambres professionnelles on an industry by industry basis. In 1936, following on a demonstration by 40,000 workers, there was established the National Council of Labour, an organism for conciliation between the unions and the employers, and the first collective bargaining agreements were signed. 1966 saw the creation of the Economic and Social Council. The specific immediate role of the tripartite established in 1977 was to establish a social pact to oversee the restructuring and downsizing of the steel industry. Until 1980 employers and unions had a veto over decisions, but subsequently decisions were taken by consensus. Until 1986 the parliament was involved, but this did not happen again until 2008, under the impact of the financial crisis.

Evidently for the system to work correctly there has to be a certain degree of social cohesion, a spirit of compromise, and for that each of the partners has to have an interest in the process. This has been placed under some strain by the crisis – and also by the reaction of the EU, national governments and employers to the crisis.

Haven of peace and social progress?

In Europe on the whole there is a sharpening of class relations, a sustained offensive against the social gains, rights and standard of living of the working class, young people and pensioners.[6] Clearly, the speed and intensity of this offensive varies from country to country. Luxembourg may seem like a haven of peace and social progress. Someone arriving from say, Britain, might well think they’d died and gone to heaven. But although things have so far moved more slowly here, the direction is unmistakable.

Everyone claims to defend the Luxembourg social model. Not only the unions, but the government and the employers. As far as the government and the employers are concerned, such declarations are partly because the population is profoundly attached to this model and no one can afford to appear not to support it.  But the attachment to social peace is unfeigned; it is an asset which helps to encourage foreign investors.  As Francois Bausch of Dei Greng put it during the tense negotiations of the 2010 tripartite: “It is never good to put social peace in question. It is one of our great assets in order to convince enterprises to come to Luxembourg. Unlike in France for example, they have the guarantee that there won’t be a strike every couple of days.”

In order to preserve his room for manoeuvre, Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker was obliged to reject the crude aggressiveness of the initial Franco-German project for a competitiveness pact, refusing to accept outlawing of wage indexation and the pension age being fixed on a European level. Juncker not only loudly defends the Luxembourg model but even allows himself such demagogic sallies as “after all, we don’t carry out policies for the banks and big capital”. Which, of course, is precisely what he does do.

Luxembourg is an integral part of the EU and has been since the beginning. Juncker himself is president of the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers. He will oversee in his own way the application of neoliberal EU policies to Luxembourg. And where he advances prudently, others beat the war drums. There is a clearly identifiable hardline, neoliberal faction in Luxembourg, including among others Yves Mersch, president of the Central Bank, Michel Würth of the UEL (main employers’ organisation) relayed in the political sphere by the minister of finance, Luc Frieden, the new president of the CSV parliamentary group (and former president of the ABBL, the Luxembourg bakers’ association) Lucien Thiel, and the DP.

The year 2010 was marked by sharp political tensions as the meeting of the tripartite failed to reach agreement after a series of meetings in March and April.  An offensive conducted by finance minister Frieden and the employers aiming at the liquidation of wage indexation was met by the intransigent refusal of the unions. There were other issues involved, in fact a whole plan of austerity, but it was around the index that the conflict crystallised. Already a year before, on May 16, 2009, in the run-up to the legislative elections in June that year, there had been a demonstration of 30,000 workers around the slogan, “We will not pay for your crisis!” More precisely, a communiqué of the OGBL in March 2010 declared, “the crisis must not be used as a pretext for any kind of social dismantling”. But it is precisely the policy of the EU to use the crisis in this way. Following on the breakdown of the tripartite there was a series of political manoeuvres. After a special congress the LSAP took a position in defence of the index. Juncker threatened to break the logjam by the government taking decisions, but did not do so. Significantly, the union front held together.  The OGBL declared that the index was worth a general strike.

The crisis rumbled on over the summer, becoming sharper in September as the prospect of the adoption of the budget approached. The government had decided on a reform of child benefits which disadvantaged frontaliers. The unions produced a show of strength, with a rally of 5000 on September 16, including delegations from unions in France, Belgium and Germany. The OGBL had programmed and announced four regional demonstrations in October, to which the LCGB announced its support.

Finally, the government resorted to the stratagem of convoking a bipartite with the unions. An agreement was concluded by which the index stayed, with a moratorium on its application until October 2011, and some secondary concessions. The proposed demonstrations were cancelled. The crisis was defused and there was a palpable sigh of relief in many quarters.  The left of centre weekly Le Jeudi produced an article entitled “The consensus found  again”, which ended “as  for the third partner of the tripartite, the employers, they can only take note today of the failure of their propositions of social deregulation, even if they could have believed in them over recent weeks”. But it was not as simple as that, far from it. The employers protested loudly at the government-union bipartite. But they were rewarded a few weeks later with a government-employers bipartite in which they won concessions, notably subsidies which covered the cost of indexation and of an increase in the minimum wage. This time it was the unions who protested.


So somewhat laboriously, the Luxembourg social model had worked. What is the situation now? First, it is one thing to declare that “we will not pay for your crisis”, it is quite another not to do so in practice. And there the figures speak clearly; the austerity plan is being applied. Adding up the cost of all the government’s measures (crisis tax, solidarity tax, income tax increases, increased charges for health insurance …), we arrive at a figure of 231 million euros to be paid by individual taxpayers, as against a possible maximum of 62 million for companies. The weight of taxation falls on the revenues of labour, not on those of capital. Second, in 2009 the OGBL defined “red lines” which the government could not cross without provoking a frontal conflict. One of those red lines was the index. The other two were the reduction of starting salaries in the civil service and an increase in the retirement age. The two principal measures that the government is presently proposing cover those points. The government is proposing not only to reduce starting salaries in the civil service but to introduce a system of continuous assessment of the “performance” of government employees, opening the door to the individualisation of salaries. The proposed reform of pensions, piloted by the Socialist Party minister Mars Di Bartomeleo, does not actually raise the retirement age. What it does do is to announce that while it will still be possible to retire on a full pension at between 60 and 65 after 40 years’ work, future pensions will be worth 15 per cent less than today’s. Which implies at some point raising the retirement age, and/or encouraging workers to make up the shortfall by taking out private pension plans. This corresponds to the long-term aims of the EU – to move from public pensions to private pension funds, leaving the state pension as a safety net for the poorest citizens. And there is no guarantee that the index will remain untouched.  The IMF has helpfully suggested excluding food and petrol prices from its calculation, a way of maintaining the form of indexation while emptying it of its content. On another front, the opening of postal services to competition is due to come into force in 2013 and the telephone sector has been hived off, following the example of other countries.


There are therefore conflicts on the horizon which will generate tensions in the Luxembourg social model. They will still be conducted within the parameters of this model. But the sense that is given to it will vary. The unions will defend the traditional model in which they obtained real gains, attacking the employers and government for moving away from this. The OGBL, during the crisis of the tripartite in 2010, while stoutly defending its positions, criticised the employers for their “extremist” positions and for breaking off the social dialogue and the government for its “duplicity”.

For their part, the government and the employers will continue to adhere to the form of the tripartite, while trying to transform it into an organism where the unions are co-opted into negotiating improved productivity and competitiveness – the two key words for European capital –  for enterprises in Luxembourg. The importance of the index is not so much, or not only, what it costs employers, but the very existence of such a mechanism (characterised by the OECD as “archaic”), incarnating as it does the link between wages and inflation, not productivity or competitiveness.

So far the unions have demonstrated a considerable will to resist. What is most striking is that the political expression of this resistance is much weaker. It is not possible to speak of a left wing in the LSAP, although that does not mean that there are not individuals who are more to the left, more attached to the defence of workers’ interests.  But in fact the only party which consistently defends the point of view of organised labour is Dei Lenk (The Left).

Dei Lenk (The Left)

Dei Lenk was formed in 1999. But it came out of a previous history.  An important part of its roots lie in the Communist Party of Luxembourg (KPL). The KPL, formed in 1921, was for several decades a force in Luxembourg politics. It was sufficiently strong in 1944/45 to be included in the government, as were the Communist parties in France, Italy and Belgium at the same period. It reached the high point of its support in 1968, with over 15 per cent of the popular vote and six MPs. From there it declined, losing its last MP in 1994. There were no doubt sociological reasons for the decline, in the weakening of the industrial working class. But the party remained uncritically pro-Soviet and rigidly Stalinist in its internal functioning and political conflicts broke out, leading to a split and the creation of the New Left (Nei Lenk) in the early 1990s. The principal leader of Nei Lenk was Andre Hoffmann, who was later elected to parliament for Dei Lenk in 1999. The other main component of Dei Lenk was the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the Luxembourg section of the Fourth International. When Dei Lenk was formed the KPL initially participated, but subsequently withdrew, though some of its members remained. In 2004 the KPL and Dei Lenk both stood candidates and the split vote led to no one being elected. Dei Lenk had to wait till 2009 to win back a seat, again with Andre Hoffmann, who enjoys great personal popularity.

Dei Lenk is still a small party, with about 300 members. (But that figure has to be taken in a Luxembourg context. In 1964, the KPL, with several MPs, had, according to the US State Department, only 500 members.[7] Today the LSAP claims 5800 members.) Dei Lenk is however active on many fronts. The question of being present in parliament is important for the party’s visibility, but it is its campaigning activity that is most important. In 2005, without parliamentary representation, Dei Lenk played a central role in the campaign around the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, where to general surprise the “no” vote was nearly 44 per cent – and was in the majority among industrial workers and young people. Last year Dei Lenk organised a campaign on the right to work and on employment protection.

On April 3, Dei Lenk held its 8th national congress. Present were representatives of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) and the Left Party from France and Die Linke from Germany. Dei Lenk is an active member of the European Left, which has affiliates in more than 20 countries. The main subject of the congress was the preparation of this autumn’s communal (municipal) elections, where Dei Lenk hopes to win seats in the main towns and reinforce its implantation locally. The guideline of the campaign is, faced with the crisis, to make the communes centres of resistance and springboards for alternative policies. The central theme of the campaign will be housing. There is very little social housing in Luxembourg. To rent a three-bedroom apartment costs approximately the minimum wage, and house prices have risen by 20 per cent since 2005.  More broadly defence of public services will be at the centre of the campaign, along with proposals to involve citizens in the running of local authorities. Another proposal is to abolish the residence requirement for non-Luxembourg citizens and put them automatically on the electoral roll.

The congress also adopted resolutions in solidarity with the Arab revolutions, against repressive measures towards asylum seekers and in opposition to nuclear power – on the latter issue a very wide spectrum of opinion has crystallised in Luxembourg. Andre Hoffmann set the cat among the pigeons by revealing in parliament that the Luxembourg national pension fund was investing in Tepco, the owner of Fukushima, and other companies involved in producing nuclear power – as he had previously revealed its investments in companies producing depleted uranium armaments.

Dei Lenk is an anti-capitalist party in a country where it would be illusory to hope for a rapid transition from capitalism. It therefore has to combine immediate demands and campaigns with opposition to the system and explanation of the class nature of the government and the state, against the widely held idea that it is an independent arbiter. As Serge Urbany, spokesperson for Dei Lenk, put it at the congress, the party has to become a social and ecological alternative “to the capitalist system and within the capitalist system” that is to propose concrete responses to the problems of today while defending the need for another type of society. That means not simply saying “no” to the government’s attacks, but proposing alternatives. For example, by placing the burden of taxation on companies and in particular the financial sector, rather than on wage earners. And in relation to the government’s plans to reform the civil service, proposing that measures to improve public services should come from committees representing civil servants and those who use the services. Dei Lenk has also launched the idea of a socio-ecological regional[8] development fund, which would invest particularly in alternative forms of energy.

As regards its view of the future society, article 1 of Dei Lenk’s statutes explain that overcoming capitalism is not an end in itself, but “the means of establishing an active democracy, including in workplaces and the economy”. It goes on to stress that the aim is to end not just economic exploitation, but also social, sexual and ethnic oppression and discrimination. It concludes by saying that “there is no ready-made plan of a socialist society, the society of tomorrow will emerge from the reality of today, from the needs and the demands of women and men living in today’s society”.

Opinion polls indicate that Dei Lenk can increase its representation in parliament and in local government. But even at present, its influence is wider than its modest forces might indicate. In particular, it is taken seriously by and attracts the sympathy of many trade unionists. An indication of this is the fact that since the beginning of the year Dei Lenk has had formal meetings and exchanges with delegations from most of the main trade unions, not only from the more class-oriented wing like the OGBL and the FNCCTFEL, but also the LCGB and the CGFP.  Given that the unions will be at the centre of the battles to come, that is a very positive sign.

[Murray Smith is a member of the anti-capitalist party Dei Lenk (The Left) in Luxembourg.]


(1)   Figures from Statec (official Luxembourg statistical service), Economie et statistique, Working Paper 42/2010, “The Evolution of the Market Share of Luxembourg’s Exports of Goods and Services between 1999 and 2009” Peter Hock, Guy Schuller.

(2)   Financial Times, November 15, 2010].

(3)   PwC analysis, “Paying Taxes 2011 – the global picture”.

(4)   http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/eiro/2004/03/update/tn0403105u.htm

(5)   Statec, Regards 12-2011, Sur la syndicalisation au Luxembourg.

(6)   See my article, “The European workers’ movement: dangers and challenges”, http://links.org.au/node/2220.

(7)   Benjamin, Roger W.; Kautsky, John H. (March 1968). "Communism and Economic Development"American Political Science Review 62

(8)   Luxembourg is part of one of the EU’s “great regions”, along with the French Lorraine region and parts of Belgium and Germany.

Gorakhpur workers movement - Workers occupy locked out mill

Gorakhpur workers movement - Workers occupy locked out mill

Workers in Gorakhpur have occupied a locked out yarn mill since Monday to press for their demands. Workers in Gorakhpur have been agitating for several weeks on their demands. The struggle intensified after May 3 when hired criminals called by the owners of a factory fired on them injuring 19 workers.

The lock out in two factories of VN Dyers Ltd - a textile mill and a yarn mill - is going on since April 10. 18 workers of these two mills have been dismissed by the owners. The workers are demanding the reinstatement of dismissed workers, opening of the locked out mills and a high level enquiry into the firing incident. The owners, the labour department and the local administration have been trying to tire out the workers or break their unity, but have failed. For the past some days, the owners have been trying to start the mills without the sacked workers but the workers have resolutely refused to go back to work unless their dismissed co-workers are taken back. The owners were also threatening to start the mill by taking in new workers.

In the meanwhile, workers has gained another small victory. The SHO of Chiluataal police station has been transfered, who was involved in brutal lathi charge on workers and repression of movement. Workers alleged that SHO Mr. Gajendra Rai was acting as a henchman of industrialists.

On Monday, the workers entered the yarn mill and occupied all its shops. They have not budged from their positions since then despite threats and intimidation by the police and PAC (provincial armed constabulary). Meanwhile, a large number of workers are on the vigil outside the factory and have been supplying food to the workers inside. The Joint Front for Struggle on Workers' Rights  has said that the workers will not leave the mill until all the dismissed workers are taken back and a decision is announced to start the mills without any conditions.

Meanwhile, activists supporting the  Gorakhpur workers movement have conveyed to the state government and the local administration that if the workers’ demands are not met, a large protest rally by  several trade unions will be held in Gorakhpur. They criticized the state government's approach of treating the movement as a 'law and order problem' and have urged the authorities to look into the basic cause of the movement - which is rampant violation of labour laws in all the industries in Gorakhpur.

The philosophy of praxis in the thought of Rosa Luxemburg

The spark ignites in the action - the philosophy of praxis in the thought of Rosa Luxemburg

Michael Löwy

In his presentation of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach (1845), which he published posthumously in 1888, Engels described them as “the first document in which is deposited the brilliant germ of the new world outlook”. Indeed, in this little text Marx surpasses dialectically – the celebrated Aufhebung: negation/conservation/elevation – the preceding materialism and idealism, and formulates a new theory, which we could describe as the philosophy of praxis. While the French materialists of the eighteenth century insisted on the need to change material circumstances so that human beings could change, the German idealists affirmed that, thanks to the formation of a new consciousness of individuals, society would be changed.


Against these two unilateral perceptions, which both led to a dead end - and the search for a “Great Teacher” or Supreme Saviour - Marx affirms in Thesis III: “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change [Selbstveränderung] can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.” [1]. In other words: in revolutionary practice, in collective emancipatory action, the historical subject – the oppressed classes - transforms simultaneously both material circumstances and its own consciousness. Marx returns to these problems in The German Ideology (1846), writing the following: “this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” [2]

That means that revolutionary self-emancipation is the only possible form of liberation: it is only by their own praxis, by their experience in action, that the oppressed classes can change their consciousness, at the same time as they subvert the power of capital. It is true that in later texts - for example, the celebrated 1857 Preface to the Critique of Political Economy - we find a much more deterministic version, which regards the revolution as the inevitable result of the contradiction between the forces and relations of production; however, as his principal political writings attest, the principle of the self-emancipation of the workers continued to inspire his thought and his action.

It was Antonio Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks in the 1930s, who used, for the first time, the expression “philosophy of praxis” to refer to Marxism. Some people claim that it was simply a trick to mislead his fascist jailers, who might be wary of any reference to Marx; but that does not explain why Gramsci chose this formula, and not another, such as “rational dialectic” or “critical philosophy”. In fact, with this expression he defines, in a precise and coherent way, what distinguishes Marxism as a specific world view, and dissociates himself, in a radical fashion, from positivist and evolutionist readings of historical materialism.

Few Marxists of the twentieth century were closer to the spirit of this Marxist philosophy of praxis as Rosa Luxemburg. Admittedly, she did not write philosophical texts, and did not work out systematic theories; as Isabel Loureiro correctly observes, “her ideas, dispersed in newspaper articles, pamphlets, speeches, letters (…) are much more immediate answers to the conjuncture than a logical and internally coherent theorisation”. [3] Nevertheless: the Marxian philosophy of praxis, which she interprets in an original and creative way, is the dominant current – in the electric sense of the word - of her work and her action as a revolutionary. But her thought is far from being static: it is reflexion in movement, which enriches itself with historical experience. We will try to reconstitute the evolution of her thought through some examples.

It is true that her writings are traversed by a tension between historical determinism - the inevitability of the collapse of capitalism - and the voluntarism of emancipatory action. That applies in particular to her early works (before 1914). Reform or Revolution (1899), the book thanks to which she became known in the German and international workers’ movement, is an obvious example of this ambivalence. Against Bernstein, she proclaims that the evolution of capitalism necessarily leads towards the collapse (Zusammenbruch) of the system, and that this collapse is the historical road which leads to the realization of socialism. This amounts, in the final analysis, to a socialist variant of the ideology of inevitable progress which has dominated Western thought since the Enlightenment. What saves her argument from a fatalistic economism is the revolutionary pedagogy of action: “in the course of the long and stubborn struggles, the proletariat will acquire the degree of political maturity permitting it to obtain in time a definitive victory of the revolution.” [4]

This dialectical conception of education through struggle is also one of the main axes of her polemic with Lenin in 1904: “The proletarian army is recruited and becomes aware of its objectives in the course of the struggle itself. The activity of the party organization, the growth of the proletarians’ awareness of the objectives of the struggle and the struggle itself, are not different things separated chronologically and mechanically. They are only different aspects of the same struggle”. [5]

Of course, recognizes Rosa Luxemburg, the class can be mistaken during this combat, but, in the final analysis, “Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee”. The self-emancipation of the oppressed implies the self-transformation of the revolutionary class through its practical experience; this, in its turn, produces not only consciousness – a traditional theme of Marxism - but also will: “The international movement of the proletariat toward its complete emancipation is a process peculiar in the following respect. For the first time in the history of civilization, the people are expressing their will consciously and in opposition to all ruling classes. (…).Now the mass can only acquire and strengthen this will in the course of day-to-day struggle against the existing social order – that is, within the limits of capitalist society.” [6]

One could compare the vision of Lenin with that of Rosa Luxemburg with the following image: for Vladimir Ilyich, editor of the newspaper Iskra, the revolutionary spark is brought by the organized political vanguard, from the outside towards the interior of the spontaneous struggles of the proletariat; for the Jewish/Polish revolutionary, the spark of consciousness and revolutionary will ignites in the struggle, in the action of masses. It is true that her conception of the party as organic expression of the class corresponds more to the situation in Germany than to Russia or Poland, where already the question of the diversity of parties defining themselves as socialist was posed.

The revolutionary events of 1905 in the Tsarist Russian Empire largely confirmed Rosa Luxemburg in her conviction that the process of the development of consciousness by the working masses resulted less from the educational activity – Aufklärung – of the party than from the experience of the direct and autonomous action of the workers: “The sudden general rising of the proletariat in January under the powerful impetus of the St. Petersburg events was outwardly a political act of the revolutionary declaration of war on absolutism. But this first general direct action reacted inwardly all the more powerfully as it for the first time awoke class feeling and class-consciousness in millions upon millions, as if by an electric shock. (…) Absolutism in Russia must be overthrown by the proletariat. But in order to be able to overthrow it, the proletariat requires a high degree of political education, of class-consciousness and organisation. All these conditions cannot be fulfilled by pamphlets and leaflets, but only by the living political school, by the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of the revolution.” [7]

It is true that the polemical formula on “pamphlets and leaflets” seems to underestimate the importance of revolutionary theory in the process; besides, the political activity of Rosa Luxemburg, which consisted, to a considerable degree, of writing newspaper articles and pamphlets – not to mention her theoretical works in the field of political economy - shows, without any doubt, the decisive significance that she attached to theoretical work and to political polemics in the process of preparing the revolution.

In this famous pamphlet of 1906 on the mass strike, the Polish revolutionary still uses the traditional deterministic arguments: the revolution will take place “following the need for a natural law”. But her concrete vision of the revolutionary process coincides with Marx’s theory of revolution, as he presented it in The German Ideology (a work which she did not know, since it was published only after her death): revolutionary consciousness can only become generalised in the course of a “practical” movement, the “massive” transformation of the oppressed can be generalised only during the revolution itself.

The category of praxis - which is, for her as for Marx, the dialectical unity between the objective and the subjective, the mediation by which the class in itself becomes the class for itself - allows her to overcome the paralysing and metaphysical dilemma of German social democracy, between the abstract moralism of Bernstein and the mechanical economism of Kautsky: whereas, for the former, the “subjective” transformation , moral and spiritual, of “human beings” is the condition for the advent of social justice, for the latter, it is the objective economic evolution which leads “inevitably” to socialism. That enables us to better understand why Rosa Luxemburg was opposed not only to the neo-Kantian revisionists, but also, from 1905 onwards, to the strategy of the passive “wait-and-see policy” defended by what was called the “orthodox centre” of the party.

This same dialectical vision of praxis also enabled her to overcome the traditional dualism incarnated in the Erfurt Programme of the SPD, between reforms, or the “minimum programme”, and the revolution, or “the final goal”. By the strategy of the mass strike in Germany which she proposed in 1906 - against the trade-union bureaucracy - and in 1910 - against Karl Kautsky - Rosa Luxemburg outlined a road that was capable of transforming economic struggles or the battle for universal suffrage into a general revolutionary movement.

Contrary to Lenin, who distinguished “trade-union consciousness” from “social democratic (socialist) consciousness”, she suggested a distinction between latent theoretical consciousness, characteristic of the workers’ movement during periods of domination of bourgeois parliamentarism, and practical and active consciousness, which emerges during the revolutionary process, when the masses themselves - and not only members of parliament and party leaders - appear on the political stage; it is thanks to this practical-active consciousness that the least organized and most backward layers can become, in a period of revolutionary struggle, the most radical element. From this premise flows her critique of those who base their political strategy on an exaggerated estimation of the role of organization in the class struggle - which is generally accompanied by an underestimation of the unorganized proletariat - forgetting the pedagogical role of revolutionary struggle: “Six months of a revolutionary period will complete the work of the training of these as yet unorganised masses, which ten years of public demonstrations and distribution of leaflets would be unable to do”. [8]

Was Rosa Luxemburg therefore spontaneist? Not quite… In the pamphlet The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions (1906) she insisted, referring to Germany, that the role of “the most enlightened, most class-conscious vanguard” is not to wait “in a fatalist fashion”, until the spontaneous popular movement “falls from the clouds”. On the contrary, the function of this vanguard is precisely “hasten (vorauseilen) the development of things and endeavour to accelerate events”. [9] She recognizes that the socialist party must take the political leadership of the mass strike, which consists of “informing the German proletariat of their tactics and aims in the period of coming struggle”; she goes so far as to proclaim that the socialist organization is the “vanguard of the entire body of the workers” and that “the political clarity, the strength, and the unity of the labour movement flow from this organisation”. [10]

It should be added that the Polish organization led by Rosa Luxemburg, the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL), clandestine and revolutionary, resembled the Bolshevik Party much more than it resembled German social democracy… Finally, an aspect that is often ignored must be taken into account: it concerns the attitude of Rosa Luxemburg towards the International (especially after 1914), which she conceived of as a centralized and disciplined world party. It is not the least of ironies that Karl Liebknecht, in a letter to Rosa Luxemburg, criticized her conception of the International as being “too mechanically centralised”, with “too much `discipline’, not enough spontaneity”, considering the masses “too much as instruments of action, not as having their own will; as instruments of action desired by and decided on by the International, not as desiring and deciding themselves” [11].

Parallel to this activist voluntarism, the determinist (economic) optimism of the theory ofZusammenbruch, the collapse of capitalism, victim of its contradictions, does not disappear from her writings, on the contrary: it is at the very centre of her great economic work, The Accumulation of Capital (1911). It was only after 1914, in the pamphlet The Crisis of Social Democracy, written in prison in 1915 - and published in Switzerland in January 1916 under the pseudonym “Junius” - that this traditional vision of the socialist movement at the beginning of the century was to be transcended. This document, thanks to the expression “socialism or barbarism” marks a turning-point in the history of Marxist thought. Curiously, the argument of Rosa Luxemburg starts by referring to the “objective laws of historical development”; she recognizes that the action of the proletariat “contributes to determining history”, but seems to believe that it is only a question of accelerating or delaying the historical process. So far, nothing new!

But in the following lines she compares the victory of the proletariat to “a leap of humanity from the animal world into the realm of freedom”, while adding: this leap will not be possible “until the development of complex material conditions strikes the incendiary spark zündende Funke of conscious will in the great mass”. We find here the celebrated Iskra, the spark of revolutionary will which is able to make the dry powder of material conditions explode. But what does this zündende Funke produce? It is only thanks to a “long chain of violent tests of strength” that “The international proletariat under the leadership of the Social Democrats will thereby learn to try to take its history (Seine Geschichte) into its own hands…” [12]. In other words: it is in the course of practical experience that the spark of the revolutionary consciousness of the oppressed and exploited ignites.

By introducing the expression socialism or barbarism, “Junius” referred to the authority of Engels, in a writing going back “forty years” - undoubtedly a reference to Anti-Dühring (1878): “Friedrich Engels once said: ´Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism´.”[Ibid.] In fact, what Engels wrote is quite different: “both the productive forces created by the modern capitalist mode of production and the system of distribution of goods established by it have come into crying contradiction with that mode of production itself, and in fact to such a degree that, if the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place”. [13]

The argument of Engels - primarily economic, and not political, like that of “Junius” - is rather rhetorical, a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the need for socialism, if we want to avoid the “destruction” of modern society - a vague formula: it is not easy to see exactly what it encompasses. In fact, it is Rosa Luxemburg who invented, in the strong sense of the word, the expression “socialism or barbarism”, which was to have such a great impact in the course of the twentieth century. If she refers to Engels, it is perhaps to try to give more legitimacy to a fairly heterodox thesis. Obviously it was the world war, and the collapse of the international workers’ movement in August 1914, that ended up by shaking her conviction of the inevitable victory of socialism. In the following paragraphs “Junius” developed her innovating point of view: “Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war. This is a dilemma of world history, an either/or; the scales are wavering before the decision of the class-conscious proletariat”. [14]

We can discuss the significance of the concept of “barbarism”: it is is undoubtedly a question of a modern, “civilized” barbarism - thus the comparison with ancient Rome is not very relevant - and in this case what was affirmed in the Junius pamphlet turned out to be prophetic: German fascism, supreme demonstration of modern barbarism, could seize power thanks to the defeat of socialism. But what is most important in the formula “socialism or barbarism” is the term “or“: what is involved is the recognition that history is an open process, that the future is not yet decided - by “the laws of history” or the economy - but depends, in the final analysis, on “subjective” factors: consciousness, decision, will, initiative, action, revolutionary praxis. It is true, as Isabel Loureiro underlines in her very fine book, that even in the Junius pamphlet - as in later texts of Rosa Luxemburg - we still find references to the inevitable collapse of capitalism, the “dialectic of history” and the “historical need for socialism”. [15] But in the final analysis, the formula “socialism or barbarism” provides the foundations of another conception of the “dialectic of history”, distinct from economic determinism and the illuminist ideology of inevitable progress.

We find again the philosophy of praxis in the middle of the polemic in 1918 on the Russian Revolution - another capital text written behind bars. The essential thread of this document is well-known: on the one hand, support for the Bolsheviks, and their leaders, Lenin and Trotsky, who saved the honour of international socialism, by daring to make the October Revolution; on the other, a whole series of criticisms of which some - on the land question and the national question - are quite debatable, while others - the chapter on democracy - appear prophetic. What worries the Jewish/Polish/German revolutionary is above all the suppression, by the Bolsheviks, of democratic liberties - freedom of the press, of association, of assembly - which are precisely the guarantee of the political activity of the working masses; without them “the rule of the broad masses of the people is entirely unthinkable”.

The gigantic tasks of the transition to socialism “which the Bolsheviks have undertaken with courage and determination” - cannot be carried out without “the most intensive political training of the masses and the accumulation of experience”, which is not possible without democratic liberties. The construction of a new society is virgin terrain which poses “a thousand problems” that are unforeseen; however, “Only experience is capable of correcting and opening new ways.” Socialism is a historical product “born out of the school of its own experiences”: the whole of the popular masses (Volksmassen) must take part in this experience, otherwise “socialism will be decreed from behind a few official desks by a dozen intellectuals”. For the inevitable errors of the transition process the only remedy is revolutionary practice itself: “the only healing and purifying sun is the revolution itself and its renovating principle, the spiritual life, activity and initiative of the masses which is called into being by it and which takes the form of the broadest political freedom”. [16]

This argument is much more important than the debate on the Constituent Assembly, on which the “Leninist” objections to the text of 1918 have been concentrated. Without democratic liberties the revolutionary praxis of the masses, popular self-education through experience, the self-emancipation of the oppressed, and the exercise of power itself by the working class are impossible. Georg Lukacs, in his important essay “The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg” (January 1921), showed with great acuity how, thanks to the unity of theory and praxis - formulated by Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach – the great revolutionary had succeeded in overcoming the dilemma of the impotence of social democratic movements, “the dilemma created by the pure laws with their fatalism and by the ethics of pure intentions”. What does this dialectical unity mean? “We have seen that the proletariat as a class can only conquer and retain a hold on class consciousness and raise itself to the level of its – objectively-given – historic task through conflict and action. It is likewise true that the party and the individual fighter can only really take possession of their theory if they are able to bring this unity into their praxis” [17].

It is therefore surprising that, hardly one year later, Lukacs wrote the essay - which would also appear in History and Class Consciousness (1923) - entitled “Critical Observations on Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Critique of the Russian Revolution’“ (January 1922), which rejects en bloc the whole of the dissenting comments of the founder of the Spartacus League, claiming that she “imagines the proletarian revolution as having the structural forms of bourgeois revolutions” [18] - a not very credible accusation, as Isabel Loureiro demonstrates. [19] How can we explain the difference, in tone and content, between the essay of January 1921 and that of January 1922? A rapid conversion to orthodox Leninism? Perhaps, but more probably the position of Lukacs in relation to the debates within German Communism. Paul Levi, the principal leader of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany), had opposed the “March Action” of 1921, a failed attempt at a communist rising in Germany, supported with enthusiasm by Lukacs (but criticized by Lenin…); expelled from the Party, Paul Levi decided in 1922 to publish the manuscript of Rosa Luxemburg on the Russian Revolution, which the author had entrusted him with in 1918. The polemic of Lukacs with this document is also, indirectly, a settling of accounts with Paul Levi.

In fact, the chapter on democracy of this document by Luxemburg is one of the most important texts of Marxism, of communism, of critical theory and of the revolutionary thought of the twentieth century. It is difficult to imagine a refounding of socialism in the twenty-first century which does not take into account the arguments developed in these feverish pages. The most lucid representatives of Leninism and Trotskyism, such as Ernest Mandel and Daniel Bensaïd, recognized that this 1918 criticism of Bolshevism, concerning the question of democratic liberties, was in the final analysis justified. Of course, the democracy to which Rosa Luxemburg refers is that exercised by the workers in a revolutionary process, and not the “low intensity democracy” of bourgeois parliamentarism, in which the important decisions are taken by bankers, contractors, soldiers and technocrats, free from any popular control. The zündende Funke, the incendiary spark of Rosa Luxemburg, glowed one last time in December 1918, when she addressed the Founding Congress of the KPD (Spartacus League).

Admittedly, we still find in this text references to the “the law of the necessary objective development of the socialist revolution”, but it is really about “the bitter experience” that the various forces of the workers’ movement must go through before finding the revolutionary road. The last words of this memorable speech are directly inspired by the perspective of the self-emancipatory praxis of the oppressed: “The masses must learn how to use power by using power. There is no other way to teach them. Fortunately, we have gone beyond the days when it was proposed to “educate” the proletariat socialistically. Marxists of Kautsky’s school still believe in the existence of those vanished days. To educate the proletarian masses socialistically meant to deliver lectures to them, to circulate leaflets and pamphlets among them. No, the school of the socialist proletariat doesn’t need all this. The workers will learn in the school of action. (zur Tat greifen)”. Here Rosa Luxemburg refers to a famous formula of Goethe, Am Anfang war die Tat!. At the beginning of all is not the Word but the Action! In the words of the Marxist revolutionary: “Our motto is: In the beginning was the act. And the act must be that the workers’ and soldiers’ councils realize their mission and learn to become the sole public power of the whole nation”. [20] A few days later, Rosa Luxemburg would be assassinated by the paramilitary Freikorps - mobilized by the social democratic government, under the authority of the Minister Gustav Noske, against the rising of the workers of Berlin. *** Rosa Luxemburg was not infallible, she made mistakes, like any human being and any activist, and her ideas do not constitute a closed theoretical system, a dogmatic doctrine which could be applied to any place and any time. But undoubtedly her thought is an invaluable source of inspiration to try to dismantle the capitalist machine and think of radical alternatives. It is not an accident that it has become, in recent years, one of the most important references in the debate, in particular in Latin America, on a socialism of the twenty-first century, capable of going beyond the impasses of the experiences conducted in the name of socialism in the last century – both social democracy and Stalinism. Her conception of a socialism that is both revolutionary and democratic - in irreconcilable opposition to capitalism and imperialism - based on the self-emancipatory praxis of the workers, on self-education through experience and on the action of the great popular masses thus becomes strikingly topical. The socialism of the future will not be able to do without the light from this glowing spark.

Michael Löwy, a philosopher and sociologist of Brazilian origin, is a member of the New Anti-capitalist Party in France and of the Fourth International. A Fellow of the IIRE in Amsterdam and former research director of the French National Council for Scientific Research (CNRS), he has written many books, including The Marxism of Che Guevara, Marxism and Liberation Theology, Fatherland or Mother Earth? and The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America. He is joint author (with Joel Kovel) of the International Ecosocialist Manifesto. He was also one of the organizers of the first International Ecosocialist Meeting, in Paris, in 2007.



[1] Karl Marx, Early Writings, p 422, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1975

] http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/index.htm

[3] Isabel Loureiro, Rosa Luxemburg. Os dilemmas da acao revolucionario Unesp, Sao Paulo, 1995, p 23

] http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/index.htm

, http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1904/questions-rsd/index.htm

[6] Ibid.


[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Karl Liebknecht, To Rosa Luxemburg: Remarks concerning her draft these for the ´International´ group, published in French in Partisans no. 45, January 1969

] http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1915/junius/index.htm

] http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/index.htm

[14] Luxemburg, op. cit.

[15] Loureiro, op. cit., p 123

, http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/russian-revolution/index.htm

[17] Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, Merlin Press, London, 1971, pp 39, 43

[18] Ibid. P 284

[19] Loureiro, op. cit. P 321

, http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/31.htm