FREE DOWNLOAD: Fightback Issue 47, Syrian Voices

Fightback is pleased to offer a free download of the latest issue of our magazine, Syrian Voices.

From the editorial by Ani White:

It has been over 10 years since the Syrian Revolution first broke out in early 2011, as a part of a broader regional uprising widely dubbed the “Arab Spring.”

After beginning as an inspiring democratic moment, the Syrian Revolution has become increasingly fragmented: bloody Assadist counter-revolution forcing armed conflict, opportunistic intervention by international actors, and sectarianism have all displaced the memory of the democratic revolution for many. Yet Fightback maintains that remembering the democratic, non-sectarian, popular nature of the initial movement is essential. There are still many lessons to learn from this experience, both positive and negative.

A revolution in practice demands a revolution in thought. However, sections of the left have learnt nothing from a regional uprising which challenged dictatorial regimes regardless of their geopolitical alignment. Instead, these ‘anti-imperialists’ have maintained a US-centric perspective that focuses solely on geopolitics, and erases ground-level experiences in Syria and elsewhere. Fightback rejects this perspective, in favour of a renewed left internationalism relevant to contemporary movements.

We must centre Syrian Revolutionary voices when discussing the Syrian Revolution, in keeping with the general principle of ‘nothing about us without us’ which applies to many struggles. In this issue we have compiled a series of interviews with Syrians reflecting on the revolution, conducted over 2018-2022, including one Fightback interview and three transcripts of interviews from the Where’s My Jetpack podcast. The interviewees are all diasporic, reflecting both the structural barriers which silence those remaining in Syria and surrounding refugee camps, and the diasporic nature of the Syrian community generally.

We hope these interviews help to keep the flame of the revolution alive, readying us all for the fire next time.

Bringing workers and science together

Review of A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World by Jess Berentson-Shaw (Bridget Williams Books, 2018) by DAPHNE LAWLESS. From the new issue of Fightback magazine on “Ideology” please subscribe.

Cover of "A Matter of Fact"

Reading Jess Berentson-Shaw’s A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World – published in 2018, before the COVID excrement really hit the fan – is eerie, precisely because so much of what she was talking about three years ago is doubly important to understand now. Those of us who are despairing at the way science denialism has infected our communities, movements and families, and how it leads them slowly but inevitably down the fascist rabbit-hole, should take the opportunity to learn its lessons now.

In this review, I want to discuss how Berentson-Shaw’s argument both parallels and adds to the concept of “ideology” as Marxists usually understand it; and consequently, what Berentson-Shaw’s approach to communicating science to a mass audience might mean for the whole project of socialist agitation and propaganda, as we understand it.

Facts and narratives

Jess Berentson-Shaw trained as a public health scientist and describes her agenda as being “how we build public and political support for more inclusive and evidence-based policy” (page 137). Her job, and the project of this book, is to examine why building public support based on evidence and scientific logic faces so many obstacles in a modern media environment. Berentson-Shaw’s colleague at communications non-profit The Workshop[1], Marianne Elliot, puts the problem succinctly in her introduction:

I’ve spent many years trying to communicate research evidence in ways that move people to action… I was trying to persuade people with facts, despite those facts being in conflict with their previous experiences, and the stories they had constructed to make sense of those experiences. (4–6)

Elliot talks about her experience with trying to promote the concept of a rise in basic benefit levels as the best response to child poverty. But all the evidence and social science in the world wasn’t enough to convince people who deeply believed that the needy would simply waste that money on drugs and alcohol. Even people who had grown up in poverty accepted this self-blaming story.

The question of stories – or to put it another way, narrative – is crucial for understanding how ideology works:

People process information (facts or data) more accurately, understand it and engage with it better, when it is conveyed through a narrative – whether that be written, told, painted, danced or acted. Story is retained; data less so…

Narratives are not a simpler form of information – rather, they are complex and enduring. They map well to the way in which our brains process information and lay down memory. Narratives may simply be the default mode of human thinking (91)

Narratives are so resilient because, once established, they effectively filter out information that contradicts them. Narratives are mental models in which:

people build a causal chain of events. If new information seeks to replace a single link in that chain but no other links, then it causes a failure in the mental model. People no longer have a coherent story. It stops making sense, so they reject it. Once a good story is formed, it is very resistant to change because all elements in a good story fit together. (38–9)

More than a decade ago, psychologist Drew Westen noted that “stories always trump statistics, which means the politician with the best stories is going to win”, while author Thomas Frank lamented: “It’s like a French Revolution in reverse in which the workers come pouring down the street screaming more power to the aristocracy.”[2]. Westen and Frank were referring to the G. W. Bush era, a time which seems gentle and rational in retrospect compared to the full-throated embrace of irrationality of the Trump movement. The sad fact is that the narratives of the reactionary Right were getting more public traction than the neoliberal centre, or the radical left, 10 years ago; since then, matters have gotten much worse.

However, while Berentson-Shaw agrees that “a basic understanding of the science of story is an important skill for anyone dealing with, and talking about, good evidence” (108), it’s not just as simple as some argue, that the liberal establishment are just “bad at messaging”. (It’s probably not a coincidence that the people who say things like this are often “messaging experts” themselves, looking for a job.) The great virtue of Berentson-Shaw’s short book is that it explores, in ways backed up by evidence, the reasons why people become prone to believe misinformation and stories which work against solidarity. It’s not enough to simply repeat Marx’s dictum that “the ideas of the ruling class become the ruling ideas” – we need to explore the process by which this social process takes place.

Misinformation: supply and demand

In my article on the spread of Red-Brown ideas in the movements in this country and overseas, I was at pains to point out that there was both a “supply and demand” problem with this kind of misinformation.[3] There certainly was and is a very prominent apparatus of government agencies, media outlets and rogue billionaires doing their best to defecate in the meme pool; but all of that could only be effective if it was telling people things they were already happy to believe.

Berentson-Shaw ably discusses both sides of this issue, and points out that there’s nothing new about the rich and powerful sowing disinformation. The New Zealand Herald was founded during the settler government’s wars in the Waikato and Taranaki, with a specific agenda (a “red lens”) of depicting Māori as being bloodthirsty savages and a threat to Pākehā colonists, thus justifying wars of confiscation against them (21). Corporate science denial – a set of tools developed originally in the 1960s by tobacco companies, and more recently deployed to prevent significant action against climate change – is aptly described by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in Merchants of Doubt, and its playbook was being used by anti-vaccination fraudsters such as Andrew Wakefield long before COVID arrived (24-5).

At the heart of misinformation is often power and money, followed up by a human appetite for the shocking or controversial. Misinformation is used to subvert democracy, to sell the cultural stories that maintain people’s relative position and power in society, to make money, or because people fear change that truth brings with it. (22)

Media bias and social media algorithms also help to shovel disinformation in front of people’s eyes, of course; research has indicated that:

false news was more novel and therefore more sharable… the structure of new media fosters the quick and wide dissemination of misinformation and a resilience to correction (21, 27).

The Marxist concept of ideology – whereby capitalist ideals of individualism and competition become seen as “natural”, even where they contradict ordinary people’s tendencies to solidarity – is recalled where Berentson-Shaw complains about “wider social narratives” discouraging pro-social behaviours:

One of the barriers to people being able to express or act on their pro-social values is when the wider social narrative acts in opposition. It does not make it impossible, but it certainly makes it harder to act on pro-social values, and feeds into a perception that there is a gap between an individual’s prosocial values and everyone else’s values. (109)

But the other side of the coin with which Berentson-Shaw deals are the psychological factors which make individuals, or communities, liable to resist facts and truth and accept misinformation. It’s worth paying particular attention to some of these, because socialist activists or even intellectuals are certainly not immune from these cognitive traps.

The most important thing to remember is that – in contradiction to the “just-so” stories of neoclassical economics – people are not simple rational calculators of their own best interests:

most people incorporate technical and scientific issues quickly into our thinking using mental shortcuts. Rather than rationally weigh the strength of evidence in a scientific claim we analyse it immediately using our values, beliefs and feelings as a guide. Our emotional response is critical to developing the initial impression of validity. (17)

Berentson-Shaw mentions concepts familiar to anyone who’s dealt with the questions of how people form their beliefs, such as “cognitive dissonance” and “confirmation bias” (37). But an additional factor that paradoxically helps misinformation to spread is that we trust our friends – or, at least, we assume that people with whom we are having a friendly interaction are telling the truth. When alienated people “go down the rabbit hole” and find a supportive community in a conspiracy theory or even a cult, it becomes increasingly hard to re-join the “reality-based community”.

With many options to choose from, people can seek sources that only confirm their existing beliefs and worldviews. Incorrect information is more likely to go unchallenged and echo chambers and ‘cyber ghettos’ are built that create a more polarised public – polarisation being the strengthening of one’s original position or attitude, measured by how absolute that position is. (27)

Another factor is for loud minorities to be able to pretend to be majorities, and to build consensus around themselves (something we can see happening in real time with anti-vaxxers and transphobes on social media):

Repetition can become particularly problematic in social media contexts… Pluralistic ignorance is when the frequency and volume of a minority-held belief leads the majority of people, who do not share this belief, to mistakenly believe that it is what most people think… As a consequence, they move to accepting that minority belief out of a desire to fit in… Conversely, this frequency can mean those in the minority believe they hold the majority opinion – the ‘false consensus effect’. (43–4)

Perhaps the most important factor in Berentson-Shaw’s account, however, is the role of values and beliefs in what kind of narratives people tend to believe:

Where facts and issues become very polarised – for example, genetic modification, climate change, immunisation, gender pay inequities – there tends to be a clear conflict over values and beliefs… What the knowledge-gap literature shows is that people can be aware of, even understand, the evidence, but it may not match what they believe. Or they do not see it sitting well with the values they feel are most important. (28)

To illustrate this, Berentson-Shaw discusses the contrasting values of those who hold anti-vax ideas, and those who accepted the case for anthropogenic climate change. Anti-vaxxers were “much more likely to believe in the conspiracies, highly valued their personal/individual freedom and had strong individualistic values”, while in contrast climate change believers were “people who prioritised egalitarian and communitarian values”, more likely to “accept restrictions on commerce and industry as a way to mitigate the risks” (30).

There’s a rather cynical saying from the world of small-group socialist politics: programme generates theory. That is – far from the conceit of “scientific” socialism that political ideas emerge from study of the facts, evidence, analysis and logic – groups usually decide what they want to do first, then come up with rationalisations and justifications for it. This seems to have similarities to what Berentson-Shaw argues: that beliefs “tend to be contextually dependent and uphold our values” (61), rather than the other way around. You can’t argue someone out of a position that they weren’t argued into.

Against intellectual elitism

Berentson-Shaw knows from her own experience that having “truth” and “facts” on your side isn’t quite enough when you’re trying to make a public argument:

I also became quite rigid about ‘scientific truth’. That is not unexpected when your job is to find only the best evidence researchers can produce and eviscerate the rest. I did not easily listen to the concerns of others about science, or bend to consider their experience… I considered more the lived experience of others, what they value and why. I understood that my facts might not matter to people, regardless of how true they were. (9)

This is refreshing humility coming from a trained scientist.The progress of the COVID Delta outbreak in Aotearoa New Zealand has tragically shown the limits of “official science” in communicating with marginalised communities – particularly with Māori, who have no reason to trust anything coming out of a colonial state and its intellectual apparatus.[4] Berentson-Shaw understands the problem with the inherent biases of the scientific institutions themselves:

It is well documented that science itself can be biased in regard to who gets to do research, whose issues are researched and what questions are asked and how… In New Zealand, we are coming to see that science is not neutral across ethnicity, race and gender. …We are working to ensure that indigenous Māori knowledge – mātauranga Māori – and European systems of science work in partnership. (32)

It’s not just a matter of getting the information out there – if “the phone is off the hook” (to use a rather outdated metaphor) in the target communities, then the message will not get through:

The information deficit model of communication assumes that we (as purveyors of evidence) simply need to plug a knowledge gap to ensure that people both understand and act… Knowledge is rarely a good predictor of people believing in evidence or acting on it. Research has found that once a range of personal and cultural factors are taken into account, there is actually a very weak and, in some cases, negative relationship between knowledge and attitudes to evidence. (16)

All the most successful lies are based around a kernel of truth, and the kernel of truth upon which fascistic disinformation goes something like this: the neoliberal corporate and technocratic elite aren’t on the same side as ordinary people, and you can’t trust what they say. This could almost be mistaken for a dumbed-down version of Marxist analysis of how ideology works under capitalism. The mischief comes with the reason why this is supposed to happen. Instead of a materialist discussion of how the ideas of the ruling class become the ruling ideas, the Right-wing populists offer conspiracy theories. The effect of these is to build an alliance between the most oppressed and some of their worse oppressors – as “the ordinary people”, bearers of “traditional values” or “common sense”– against a supposed conspiracy of degenerate Others who act out of sheer wickedness, or perhaps allegiance to Satan.

Some argue that the problem is a lack of “critical thinking” skills among the masses. Berentson-Shaw agrees that “putting in place the building blocks of critical thinking when people are young is key” (47). However, she also stresses the factor of sheer overload in the modern mediascape:

The mountain of new information that comes the way of both professionals and the general public, and the presence or absence of the necessary skills to apply to that information, is perhaps less relevant than simply having insufficient mental bandwidth and time to consider it all (19)

It’s probably also worth noting that conspiracy theorists think they’re doing “critical thinking” when what they’re doing is reflexively dismissing official sources, while effortlessly swallowing memes they saw on an anonymous Facebook account. Berentson-Shaw distinguishes scepticism, which is real and valuable, from this kind of combination of extreme distrust and extreme gullibility.

Eerie predictions

Reading this at the peak of New Zealand’s COVID Delta outbreak was eerie at times. The parts which are most striking are the sections dealing with vaccine resistance and associated conspiracy theories – which have been a problem long before COVID brought the body count into the millions worldwide. Berentson-Shaw’s account of scientific bureaucracies neglecting to deal with the values and beliefs of their audiences, and then wondering why “the facts” are rejected, uncannily predicts exactly the kind of holes in the science communication response which have led to resistance to vaccination and public health measures, particular among alienated Māori, and its exploitation by fascist opportunists such as Brian Tamaki. I almost jumped to see a reference to the work on science communication of Dr Shaun Hendy (107) – who since August has become one of the most prominent modellers of the Delta outbreak in the New Zealand media, and recipient of death threats from the anti-vax mob.[5] It’s also chilling to realise that, long before COVID:

In a study of YouTube videos, in which the search terms ‘vaccination’ and ‘immunisation’ were used, around half of the videos returned in the search were unfavourable to immunisation and the content of those that were unfavourable to immunisation contradicted the science. (27)

Those who had very unfavourable beliefs about the science of vaccination were much more likely to believe in the conspiracies, highly valued their personal/individual freedom and had strong individualistic values. Education and other individual characteristics relating to people’s position in society or experiences did not feature in their attitudes towards vaccination (30)

Truly, COVID has brought into sharp public relief these issues of disinformation and communication which were the concern only of political obsessives and “ivory tower elites” a couple of years ago; in the same way, it has highlighted the massive disconnection of Māori from not only New Zealand’s public health system, but even the sphere of public debate. Misinformation is a plague as deadly as COVID, and the two reinforce each other as they consume the most marginalised communities.

What’s in it for us?

Berentson-Shaw is writing from the point of view of a science communicator, rather than a political theorist. Once upon a time, Marxism used to pride itself on being “scientific” – Australasian communist author Jean Devanny once gave it the delightful name of “working-class science and philosophy”. But whether we see ourselves as scientific or not, we have the goal of communicating ideas and facts that (we believe) will help working people and oppressed communities defend themselves and organise to create a better world. Like science communicators, we are struggling against not only deliberate misinformation spread by governments, corporates and their paid “communications experts”; but against cognitive biases, communication difficulties, and what Berentson-Shaw describes as ”the wider social narrative act[ing] in opposition” (109).

Berentson-Shaw is clear about the stakes involved, in terms that socialists would heartily endorse:

If people do not act on good information, if misinformation prevails, if we cannot get traction on big and difficult issues with science and good evidence to guide us, then climate change goes unmitigated, children go unvaccinated, gender inequity persists, negative stereotypes prevent action on racism, poverty is perpetuated (33–4)

Berentson-Shaw’s essential insight for socialists as well as science communicators is that communication has to go both ways.

Trust and credibility involves relationship-building. Understanding the extent of that erosion requires that individual researchers, communicators and institutions who have information to convey first listen, attend to, and connect with the experiences of people before they can talk (33)

The equal and opposite danger to the arrogant scientist (or sectarian activist) lecturing people on what’s good for them is the opportunist pundit who tells people what they want to hear:

One way to overcome this kind of unhelpful emotional response, the research shows, is to avoid making threats to people’s beliefs. That however has its problems, as to simply avoid challenges to people’s beliefs to keep people’s feelings in a useful zone does not always allow people to see new and more accurate information…

What the values literature adds is that instead of simply avoiding threats to people’s beliefs or engaging only with their emotions, if we prioritise helpful values then it is possible to engage emotion constructively. (73)

The goal is therefore to understand the values held by a given target audience, and to craft a narrative whereby those positive values are reinforced by the evidence and factual information being provided.

Berentson-Shaw identifies two symmetrical mistakes that communicators can make. One is known by the traditional name of “preaching to the choir”:

It is spectacularly easy to fall into the trap of only ever communicating with people who value and believe the same things as you… We call these people ‘our base’, and communicating directly with them is called ‘activating our base’… However, we cannot focus exclusively on the base to develop and deliver messages – we need others to see the evidence. (83).

On the other hand, it’s also important not to overstate the importance of the “rabbit hole community”. A lot of attention has been put on how to get people out of the rabbit hole – similar to great debates on how to “deradicalize” someone who has become a white supremacist or a violent jihadi. To overly concentrate on this group, however, neglects the fact that it is still a tiny minority:

One danger of polarisation to communicators is that it drives them to focus only on the vocal minority – polarised people. The ‘silent majority’ of bystanders is overlooked and we can end up talking past, over or around the very people we most need to connect with (28)

The political priority should therefore be “building a fence around the rabbit hole” – preventing more ordinary people from falling in, focusing on that section of the population whom Berentson-Shaw refers to as “the persuadables” (83).

Berentson-Shaw argues that a problematic prevailing myth in current society is “the values perception gap” whereby we imagine that other people are more selfish and less caring than they really are: “we underestimate the care we have for each other, and this prevents collective action on the big social and environmental issues of our time.” (78–9) Conversely, “using messages that primarily engage with economic or fear-based arguments as a reason to believe evidence and act has little evidence of impact” (79) – something that activists both in the field of public health and climate change activism might pause to consider.

It seems as if Jess Berentson-Shaw has ended up dealing with the question that Rosa Luxemburg posed more than 100 years ago – of bringing together science and ordinary people (perhaps not “workers”, precisely). Her approach is, in the best sense of the term, a democratic one; neither elitist nor populist, neither telling the great unwashed what’s good for them, nor backing away from challenging bad ideas for fear of unpopularity. She emphasises the need for “public participation”, which, she stresses,

…is utterly different from consultation, consultation being a very didactic process with clear power imbalances between people. At their best, public participatory processes are iterative, deliberative processes that bring together research experts with community experts and political experts and give them equal voice… (80)

Deliberative processes may help uncover the values involved in the consideration of research and make clear what the public is concerned about. If we plan to engage people’s values as part of communicating evidence, then which values specific groups prioritise involves a different sort of work (82)

It’s worth quoting Berentson-Shaw’s conclusions in depth, because they seem equally as pertinent to political activists as they are for science communicators:

It is important to first understand the values currently held by those who you most need to connect with and persuade, in order to build a robust approach. Then frame existing ideas about the world … using cognitive and linguistic techniques and technologies to engage the values that are most helpful. A strong narrative is also needed to work with people’s default mental processes for attending to and recalling narrative information, and to convey a whole causal chain of events. To construct a strong narrative we must first understand the existing stories in society. Finally, and most importantly, however, all of this starts with debiasing ourselves as researchers and communicators, finding technologies of humility [emphasis added] to listen to and be receptive to others, and so creating a space in which a better transfer of good information is able to occur. (101)

If a socialist might find something lacking in these conclusions, it may be that Berentson-Shaw might be a tad overconfident in the power of good science communication and participatory processes to overrule the basic ideologies of capitalism. We can heartily agree that “psychology has a role in researching and working to diminish ‘contemporary culture’s focus on consumption, profit, and economic growth” (109-10) – but only alongside and informing a mass democratic movement. That’s surely not a job for the science communicators – but perhaps the political activists can learn.


[2] BBC News, 30/01/10, “Why do people vote against their own interests?”


[4] See for example Flo Kerr’s grim article from October:


Ukraine: Time for International Anti-War Solidarity

from Socialny Rukh (Social Movement), Ukraine:

The Kremlin has pulled the Russian army to the Ukrainian borders and is threatening to intervene if the US, NATO, and Ukraine do not fulfill their demands. We, the Ukrainian socialists, call on the international left to condemn the imperialist policies of the Russian government and to show solidarity with people who have suffered from the war that has lasted almost eight years and who may suffer from a new one. In this address, “Social Movement” reveals the phenomenon of the revival of Russian imperialism, describes the situation in Donbas, and proposes steps to ensure peace.

The resurrection of Russian imperialism

After the collapse of the USSR, only one superpower remained in the world – the United States. But nothing lasts forever and now their hegemony is declining. US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq brought catastrophic wars to the peoples of these countries and ended in disgrace for the United States. Unfortunately, the decline of American imperialism has been accompanied not by the emergence of a more democratic world order, but by the rise of other imperialist predators, fundamentalist and nationalist movements. Under these circumstances, the international left, accustomed to fighting only against Western imperialism, should reconsider its strategy.

In recent decades, there has been a revival of Russian imperialism, which is now trying to get the US to redistribute spheres of influence in the world. The facts show that falling into the sphere of influence of Putin’s Russia does not bring any good to the people. Right now, Russian troops are in Kazakhstan with the aim of forcefully suppressing the popular uprising. These actions confirmed the reactionary nature of the CSTO, which was created not to protect countries from external aggression, but to strengthen the influence of the Kremlin and to protect unpopular regimes from revolutions. De facto Russian troops in Kazakhstan also protect the interests of both American and British capitalists, who own a significant part of the oil industry in Kazakhstan.

Russia has played a similar role in the Belarusian protests. The Kremlin sent its propagandists to replace the striking media workers and announced the formation of a reserve of security officials to be sent to Belarus. Just like in the 19th century, when the Russian Empire was the gendarme of Europe, the Putin regime is now becoming the roadblock of social and political changes in the post-Soviet space – any social movement in this territory is forced to think about how not to become an irritant for the Kremlin.

We express our gratitude and solidarity to the Russian left-wing activists who oppose the imperialist policies of the Kremlin and who are fighting for democratic and social transformations in their country. Only a revolution in Russia and the overthrow of the Putin regime can bring stability, peace and security to post-Soviet countries.

The situation in Donbas

The Kremlin accuses the Ukrainian authorities of planning a military offensive in Donbas, but that is a blatant lie. Zelenskiy’s policy indicates that after multiple unsuccessful attempts to achieve peace after coming to power, he has abandoned plans to change something in Donbas. We condemn the neoliberal and nationalist policies of the Ukrainian authorities, but they are in no way justifying the imperialist aggression of Russia.

Russia constantly accuses Ukraine of not fulfilling the political part of the Minsk agreements, but it itself constantly violates the security part of them. The latest example was the non-continuation by Russia of the mandate of the OSCE mission to monitor the Ukrainian-Russian border, although it is provided for in paragraph 4 of the Minsk Protocol. On the part of the self-proclaimed republics controlled by the Kremlin, there were always incomparably more restrictions on the freedom of movement of representatives of the OSCE mission on the contact line, but despite the obstacles, the OSCE in recent years has recorded many times more violations of the conditions for the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the front line precisely by the “DPR” and “LPR”. But the main thing is clause 10 of Minsk-2, which was never implemented: “The withdrawal of all foreign armed formations, military equipment, as well as mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine under the supervision of the OSCE. Disarmament of all illegal groups.” There were and there are Russian troops in Donbas, but the Kremlin still hypocritically denies this.

Contrary to the myth, which is popular among some Western leftists, the regimes in the “DPR” and “LPR” are not the result of popular will. The heads of the “DPR” and “LPR” are integrated into the ranks of the ruling elite of the Russian Federation and have become the mouthpiece of the Kremlin’s most aggressive predatory sentiments. In the “republics” themselves, any opposition political activity, even the most loyal to the Russian government, is suppressed.

At the same time, the territories of the “republics” are rapidly de-industrialized. Infrastructure is deteriorating, and public transport networks are being dismantled in cities. Even for enterprises whose products are exported through the Russian Federation, multi-month wage arrears have become the norm. Workers’ protests culminate in the kidnapping of activists and the introduction of military equipment.

In addition, Donbas has already become a zone of environmental collapse. Many mines are closed without proper conservation measures, which has resulted in the contamination of drinking water. According to the UN estimates, Donbas, while being one of the most densely populated parts of Ukraine, is the area which is filled with the most landmines in the whole world.

What is to be done?

Now the Kremlin denies the subjectivity of Ukraine and the possibility of direct negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. The Russian government wants to agree on everything with the United States, while completely discarding Ukraine. But the decision to resolve the conflict should be made while taking into account the views of people whose lives directly depend on the conflict and the way it will be resolved. Ukraine should not become a bargaining chip in the agreements between the two imperialist states.

We strive for a peaceful, neutral Ukraine, but for this the Kremlin must end its aggressive imperialist policy, and Ukraine must be provided with security guarantees more serious than the Budapest Memorandum, blatantly trampled by the Russian Federation in 2014.

Not harboring illusions about the policy of Western governments serving big capital and their own goals, we believe that the interests of the Ukrainian working people can be taken into account by them only under the pressure of progressive movements and the public of these countries.

First of all, it is necessary to finally end the fighting in Donbas and prevent possible provocations on the contact line, which can be used as a pretext for a new intervention. Therefore, the first step should be the introduction of a UN peacekeeping contingent in Donbas. We are aware of the problems with existing peacekeeping missions and remember that sometimes blue helmets did not prevent massive violence. But under the current Ukrainian circumstances, this is a necessary forced step.

The issues of a long-term political settlement of the conflict should be resolved only after the security issues are over. The end of hostilities should reduce the severity of the conflict and after that it will be easier to discuss possible compromises. The conditions for future reintegration must also be prepared.

The next steps should be:

• The complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Donbas. One of the best means of pressure on the top of the Russian Federation would be the seizure of the property and assets of Russian oligarchs and officials in London and other places.

• Creation of an international program for the restoration of the war-affected region and assistance to its inhabitants (including through the confiscation of what was plundered by Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs).

• Revision of the socio-economic course proposed to Ukraine by the West: instead of destructive neoliberal reforms under the pressure of the IMF – the cancellation of Ukraine’s external debt.

• More inclusive and progressive humanitarian policies in Ukraine, ending impunity for the Ukrainian far-right and abolishing “de-communization” laws.

• Provision of guarantees for the observance of human rights for those who lived in the “DPR” and “LPR”, the adoption of an amnesty law for those who did not commit war crimes.

The war in Donbas has claimed the lives of thousands and forced millions of people to leave their homes. The threat of escalation hangs over Ukraine like the sword of Damocles and greatly narrows the scope of progressive politics. The future of the socialist movement in Ukraine depends on international solidarity.

FIGHTBACK open online educational conference, 23rd January 2021

An online-only educational event organised by Fightback (Aotearoa/Australia)

Schedule (NZDT):

11am-12pm: International

Rocio Lopez (US), on Bernie Sanders and electoral populism

12-1pm: Break

1-2pm: Matike Mai/indigenous-led constitutional transformation

Erin Matariki Carr (lawyer of Ngāi Tūhoe and Ngāti Awa descent)

2-3pm: Far right in Aotearoa/NZ

Byron Clark (video essayist)

3-30pm: Break

3.30-4.30pm: Union & Workplace Struggles

Tilde Joy, Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (Australia)
Chloe-Ann King, Raise The Bar (Aotearoa/NZ)

4.30-5.30pm: Building new organisations
Sue Bradford (veteran of the Aotearoa/NZ socialist and green Left)

You can‘t vote for communism


Over the last couple of years, we have seen leftist activists throwing themselves into electoral movements – Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and more recently the movement for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and for Bernie Sanders in the US[1]. To some extent, enthusiasm about these popular campaigns is certainly understandable after decades of only defensive or unsuccessful left wing struggles which were not able to achieve structural change. However, there is also a lot of confusion about what to actually expect from an electoral strategy, since these movements often talk the language of radical change (e.g. Sander’s “political revolution”) and socialism, but in fact only have a social democratic program for regulating capitalism. I would argue that for radical leftists, it makes sense to figure out where we actually want to get – let’s call it communism – in order to figure out how to get there and what our practice should look like. (Spoiler alert: electoralism is not such a practice.)

What is communism?

In The German Ideology, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels write that communism is not “a state of affairs which is to be established”, but the “real movement which abolishes the present state of things”. However, they still make some points about how this “state of affairs” that will be reached through the abolition of the present state of things might look. For example, in the Communist Manifesto, they write that communism is an “association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”, and in the Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx names “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” as the principle of the highest form of communism.

This means that wage labour, as well as the commodity form and thus money and private property, would be abolished. People would get what they need without having to give anything (like money) for it in exchange. People would manage re/production[2] in a self-organized way and distribute the goods that are produced either freely (in case of abundance) or to those who need them most (in case of scarcity). This should not be misunderstood as an ethical utopia where people have to be inherently “good”. Rather, communism is a societal structure where the inclusion of others is functional. Since people do not produce in isolation from each other, but within networks of free cooperation, they have to take into account the needs of those with whom they cooperate – if they cannot force them to cooperate through wage labour (which is a form of coercion) or a state apparatus, like today.

The problem with state socialism

This goal of communism has generally been shared by most Marxists (as well as anarcho-Communists), even if they may not have explicitly thought about the organization of a communist society in detail. Where they diverge from faction to faction, however, is the question of how to get there.

Traditionally, many Marxists have focused on gaining state power first to establish a transitional society. They can refer to Marx’ Critique of the Gotha program here, where Marx named “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” as the principle of the highest form of communism, which was in his opinion only possible when the productive forces were sufficiently developed. Until then, he suggested a model where people would not receive according to their needs but according to how much they worked, and where the state would not be abolished, but led by workers. Vladimir Lenin later called this transitional stage “socialism” to distinguish it from the ultimate goal of communism. I will call it state socialism here, since socialism is often used in a much broader sense.

The problem with state socialism is that it leaves fundamental capitalist relations intact. The difference between it and capitalism is that production is not organized by the market where capitalists compete to try to increase profits, but by the state that tries to centrally plan the production. This leads to the question of how this central plan is enforced. This can happen either through brute force, or – which is much easier – through wage labour. Private property is not abolished, but people only get access to it when they work according to the plan. The commodity form, and thus the contradiction between use value and exchange value, remains intact. People might be motivated to produce good use values, but they have to orient themselves towards exchange value in order to make a living. The state as economic planner is interested in good, yet cheap products, while the production units are interested in minimizing their effort while getting more money (or other equivalents) from the state. Thus, they still need to externalize costs and increase exploitation, almost like in capitalism. The lack of market competition takes removes some of the pressure to produce exchange value, but also leads to crappier products.

While there are many problems inherent in state socialism, the biggest question is probably how this transitional stage is supposed to move forward towards a much freer communist society which would include the withering away of the state. For most Marxists, gaining state power in order to establish socialism became the priority; the question of how to reach communism became secondary at best. Historically, state socialist countries have all either developed brutal, totalitarian bureaucracies, collapsed altogether, or moved towards free market capitalism. Nowhere has there been a development towards communism.

This did not, however change the goal of many state socialists of gaining state power. They share this goal with reformist social democrats like Corbyn and Sanders. In fact, it seems to have become so much of a priority for them that they actually forget what they wanted to get state power for in the first place – which is why they throw themselves into electoral movements for moderate social democrats, just because they speak a seemingly radical language of “socialism”.

The problem with reformism

These reformist, social democratic electoral movements have not questioned capitalism – far from it. In fact, Sanders has explicitly said multiple times that when he refers to democratic socialism, he means a welfare state like in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries – regulated capitalism, so to speak. While it would of course be a life-saving improvement to have Medicare for all, it is also necessary to consider the limitations of such a social democratic programme.

Within capitalism, the state is dependent on a growing economy, which generates the jobs and tax money that the state needs in order to actually do anything. When a state establishes high social and ecological standards, such as a high minimum wage or a carbon tax that make production more expensive for companies, they tend to move to other countries where they can produce more cheaply. Historically, social democracy has only been possible under specific circumstances, such as high growth and productivity rates, or the inter-system competition with the Eastern bloc in the post-war era. Social democracy is also inherently limited to a single nation state. To regulate capitalism in a way that makes it socially just and ecologically sustainable without externalizing costs is impossible. This can also be seen in social democracy’s favorite example of Sweden. While that country does have a relatively high carbon tax, this is reduced for those sectors that produce for export and have to compete internationally.

Even if social democratic reformism might attain some improvements, it cannot solve capitalism’s fundamental contradictions, let alone pave the way for communism.

Communism is a movement from below

If the state is not a tool that can be used to establish communism, how do we get there instead? If we do not consider communism a question of who holds state power, but a question of social relations beyond state and market, we can already see it everywhere in embryonic forms. Communism is alive in the commons; both traditional commons where land and other resources are shared and used for people’s needs, as well as modern commons such as open source software. It can even be seen – though in a very restricted way – within the capitalist economy, where self-organization has become a productive force. But most of all, it is alive everywhere where people resist oppression and build relationships of solidarity. In struggle, it is not a question of ethics or charity to include other peoples’ needs, but it is functional: we can only win when we stick together. The role of a communist movement might be to link all those existing communist relations together, to appropriate resources such as land, housing and means of production and organize re/production in a communist way – without the mediations of state and market.

If the state has any role to play in this, it would be to distribute resources to the movement. It is much more likely, however, that communism needs to be fought for against the state. This does not mean that communists should necessarily abstain from voting. Through elections, we have the possibility to vote for our preferred enemy, for conditions under which struggle might be easier. However, we should not put our energy into electoral movements for some boring social democrats who actually have nothing to do with communism at all. You can’t vote for communism; you have to build it from below.

[1] as analyzed and criticized by Daphne Lawless in the latest Fightback issue on electoralism:

[2] Production and reproduction, which are no longer separate spheres.