Archive for the ‘Bulgaria’ Category

Commemorating Christian Martyrdom: The Armenian Genocide

April 24, 2015

Armenian Gospels

Armenian Gospel Book from the Monastery of Gladjor, c. 1321

Today is the centenary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide. This was a series of massacres carried out by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenian people. The Armenians had risen up, like the other, majority Christians subject nations in the Balkans across the Black Sea to gain their freedom from the decaying Turkish empire. To counter this, the last Turkish sultan, Talat Pasha issued a firman ordering that the Armenians should be rounded up and slaughtered. 1.5 million Armenians, men, women and children were butchered.

The Pope caused controversy earlier this week when he marked the massacres, calling it the first genocide of the 20th century. I’m not sure if this is quite true, as I think about ten years or so previously the German colonial authorities in East Africa had also organised a genocide of the indigenous Herrero people. The occasion has a wider, European significance than just its attempt to exterminate the Armenians. Hitler noted the way the other European powers remained silent and did not act to stop it. This convinced him that they also wouldn’t act to save the Jews when the Nazi state began to persecute and murder them in turn. As he said ‘Who remembers the Armenians?’

Denial of Genocide by Turkish Authorities

Unfortunately, the genocide is still controversial. Robert Fisk in his article in Monday’s Independent discussed the Turkish government’s refusal to recognise the massacres as a genocide. Pope Francis’ comments sparked outrage amongst the Turkish authorities, and the Vatican’s ambassador to Turkey was summoned to meet the prime minister. Fisk himself recalled the abuse he had received from Turks outraged by his discussion of the genocide. He stated he began receiving mail about the issue when he personally dug the bones of some of the Armenians out of the sands of the Syrian desert in 1992. He stated that some of the letters were supportive. Most were, in his words, ‘little short of pernicious’.

In Turkey any discussion or depiction of the Armenian genocide as genocide was brutally suppressed. A few years ago, the Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, was killed for writing about them. Liberal Turks, who wish their nation face up to this dark episode of their history, have been imprisoned. The great Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, was sent to jail a few years ago. His writing on the genocide was judged to be ‘insulting to Turkish nationhood’, a criminal offence.

Fatih Arkin, Turkish Director, on Movie about Genocide

Dink’s assassination has, however, acted to promote a greater discussion and awareness of the genocide, and a large number of both Armenians and Turks are now pressing for the Turkish government to recognise it as such. Indeed, the Turkish-German film director, Fatih Arkin, made a film about the genocide, The Cut which premiered in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, in January.

In the interview below, Mr Arkin talks about he was moved to make the film following Dink’s assassination, and the number of Turks, who also join with the Armenians in demanding their government officially recognise the atrocity. Among those is the grandson of one of the leading perpetrators. What is interesting is that the film received a wide release in Turkey with no opposition or move to ban it.

Fisk on Turks Who Saved Armenians

This seems to show a new openness amongst the Turkish people as a whole about the genocide. And Fisk in his article notes that there many courageous and humane Turks, who refused to comply with Sultan’s orders, and saved Armenians. He stated in his article that these included at least one provincial governor, as well as lesser Turkish soldiers and policemen. Fisk felt that the Armenians should compile a list of these heroes, not least because it would make it harder for politicians like Erdogan, the country’s prime minister, not to sign a book of condolences, which included their names.

And these men were courageous: they risked their lives to save others from the carnage. There is absolutely no reason why they should not also be commemorated. In Judaism, I understand that righteous gentiles, who save Jews from persecution, are commemorated and believed to have a part in the olam ha-ba, the world to come. There is a section of the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem, which displays the names of such righteous gentiles, who saved Jews during the Third Reich.

Syriac Evangelistary

The Miracle at the Pool of Bethesda, from a Syriac Evangelistary

Massacre of Syriac Christians as Part of Wider Pattern of Massacres

The massacre of the Empire’s Christian minorities was not confined to the Armenians, although they are the best known victims. Other Christian peoples, including the Syriac-speaking churches in what is now Iraq and Syria, were also attacked and massacred, in what has become known as ‘the Day of the Sword’. The massacres also spread into Iran, where the Christian communities there also suffered massacres. They too deserve commemoration.

Peaceful Relations between Christians and Muslims Normal in Ottoman Empire

Historians of the Turkish Empire have pointed out that the Armenian genocide, and similar massacres committed by the Ottoman forces in the Balkans during the nationalist wars of the 19th century, were largely the exception. For most of the time Christian and Muslim lived peacefully side by side. Quite often Muslims and Christians shared the same cemeteries. And in one part of Bosnia, at least, the local Roman Catholic church stood bang right next to the local mosque. There were even a small group of worshippers, who seem not to have differentiated between Christianity and Islam.

There’s a story that one orthodox priest, while officiating mass at his church, noticed a group of people at the back wearing Muslim dress. He went and asked them why they were attending a Christian church, if they were Muslims. The people replied that they didn’t really make much difference between the two faiths. On Friday, they prayed at the mosque, and on Sunday they went to church.

Historical Bias and Nationalist Violence by Christians in 19th century Balkans

Historians of the Balkans have also pointed out the dangers of religious bias when discussing the various nationalist wars in the 19th century. In the 1870s the Ottoman Turks committed a series of atrocities suppressing a nationalist uprising in Bulgaria. This outraged public opinion in England, and provoked the Liberal prime minister, Gladstone, to demand that the Turks be ‘thrown out of Europe, bag and baggage’. Other British and American observers noted that atrocities were hardly one sided. Christians also committed them, but these were ignored by the West. One author of a book on the Balkans I read back in the 1990s argued that the various atrocities committed in this period were caused not so much by religious differences, but from nationalism, and so were no different from other atrocities committed by other countries across the world, and in western Europe today as part of ethnic and nationalist conflicts, such as Northern Ireland.

British Empire and Atrocities in Kenya

Other decaying empires have also committed horrific atrocities, and attempted to cover them up. It was only after a very long legal campaign, for example, that the British government admitted the existence and complicity in the regimes of mass murder, torture, mutilation and internment in Kenya to suppress the Mao Mao rebellion. See the book, Africa’s Secret Gulags, for a complete history of this.

ISIS and the Massacre of Christians

The commemoration of the genocide of the Armenians, and by extension the other Christian subject peoples of the Ottoman and Persian Empires at the time, has become pressing relevant because the persecution today of Christians in the region by the resurgent Islamist movements, like ISIS, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. Yet these groups differ in their attitude to the massacre of non-Muslim civilians from that of the Turkish government. The official Turkish attitude has been silence and an attempt to suppress or rebut the genocide’s existence. This points to an attitude of shame towards them. ISIS, which last Monday murdered 30 Ethiopian Coptic Christians, shows absolutely no shame whatsoever. Far from it: they actually boast about their murder and enslavement of innocent civilians.

Conversion of Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians by Force, and Murder of Civilians Contrary to Muslim Law

I was taught at College that their actions contravene sharia law. Islamic law also has a set of regulations for the conduct of warfare, which rule out the conversion of the ‘Peoples of the Book’ – Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians – by force. Nor may women, children and non-combatants be harmed. And this has been invoked by the ulema in the past to protect Christian and other minorities in the Ottoman Empire. In the 17th century one of the Turkish sultans decided he was going to use military force to make the Christians in the Balkans convert to Islam. He sought approval for his course of action from the majlis, the governing assembly of leading Muslim clerics, who issued legal opinions on questions of Muslim law and practice. They refused, on the grounds that it was un-Islamic. The sultan backed down, and his planned campaigns against his Christian subjects were abandoned.

ISIS Also Butcher Muslims and Yezidis

Nor do ISIS, and similar Islamist movements limit themselves to attacking Christians. We’ve also seen them butcher and enslave the Yezidis, as well as other Muslims, simply for being the ‘wrong’ type of Muslim. For ISIS, they, and only they, represent true Islam. The rest are part of the ‘juhailiyya’, the world of darkness and ignorance, who must be fought and conquered.

Need to Commemorate All Victims of Atrocities

The Armenian genocide and its victims should rightly be remembered, as should so many other holocausts since then. Not only is this owed to the victims and history itself, but also to stop similar massacres occurring. And we need to remember that the capacity for such evil is not confined to particular nations, but can be found throughout history and humanity.

More Racism and Homophobia from UKIP: Their Candidate for Oxford West

April 1, 2015

Hope Not Hate have just posted another piece reporting the racist, Islamophobic and anti-gay comments of another Kipper candidate on his Facebook page. This time, the prospective politico is Alan Harris, the party’s candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon. In addition to his candidacy, Harris is also the chairman of the Kipper’s branch in West Oxford. The article contains screenshots from Harris’ Facebook page in which he claims that ‘f****ing Muslims’ object to British culture, like bacon sandwiches; objects to Morrison’s in London for refusing to sell poppies in case it offends Muslims; and claims that Romanians and Bulgarians are only here for the job centres, and are responsible for robbery on the tube. He also asks the rhetorical question why he can’t say in his own country that black is a colour, and gays are ‘queers’. He also shares a story posted last year by the Bolton branch of the BNP. The article questions whether Morrison’s in London actually did refuse to sell poppies. As for ‘black’ not being a colour, I’ve heard that someone, somewhere, has made a loony pronouncement like this, but it ain’t general. As for not referring to gay people as ‘queers’, well, not only is it Harris’ country, it’s also theirs. And like everyone else, they have a right not to be sneered at. Even so, some gays have adopted ‘queer’ as an attempt to reclaim the word. As for Harris, it appears that he just another prejudiced Kipper with a hatred of Muslims and gays, and inclinations towards the Far Right. Like so many others. I’m starting to wonder if there’s anybody in Farage’s little army, who isn’t a BNP-lite stormtrooper. At the moment it appears that there’s so many of them, pretty soon Hope Not Hate will be just doing articles on the entire membership, one by one.

The Bulgarian Peasant Party’s Solution to the Housing Problem

June 1, 2014

Last week I blogged on the several contemporary issues, which were similar to those tackled by the Bulgarian peasants’ party, BANU, nearly a hundred years ago. These were a local village power company, which was run as a co-operative by the whole community. It was thus similar to the idea of the Utopian British Socialist, Thomas Spence, for the communal ownership of land by the individual parishes, and also to the idea of the Bulgarian peasants’ party for the transformation of Bulgarian agricultural society through the formation of peasant cooperatives. I also remarked on the way the Bulgarians had also set up a policy of allowing the banks to provide loans on reasonable rates to credit cooperatives as a way of driving out the moneylenders. This is a problem that now besets British society, through the return of loan sharks and payday loan companies, like Wonga, that offer extortionate rates, because of wage freezes and cuts to welfare benefits.

Bulgaria, like modern Britain, also suffered from a housing crisis, made worse by the influx of thousands of refugees displaced by the First World War. They attempted to solve it through a mixture of policies, one of which was similar to the Bedroom Tax. They laid down the maximum amount of space that a family could occupy in a property, so that there would be more space available for the homeless. They also set about building cooperatively owned tenement blocks. R.J. Crampton describes these policies in A Short History of Modern Bulgaria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1987) 90).

The principle of maximum holding was applied to urban as well as rural property. The post-war refugee invasion had placed severe strains upon the already hard-pressed housing resources of Bulgaria’s towns, particularly Sofia. According to Agrarian legislation no family was to occupy more than two rooms and a kitchen, with an extra room for every two children over fourteen. Office space was also subject to restriction, and in the case of both domestic and office accommodation commissioners acting on behalf of the ministry of the interior had extensive powers to enforce the new and widely resented regulations. A second and more popular response to the housing shortage, and one much in conformity with Agrarian philosophy, was to encourage the building of new apartment blocks cooperatively financed and thereafter owned by their inhabitants. This reform survived the fall of the Stamboliiski regime and cooperative building continued through the inter-war period.

The German radical Socialist party, the USPD, also had a similar policy in the same period, for the same reasons: to solve the shortage of housing caused by the First World War.

What’s needed isn’t the Bedroom Tax, which is really an excuse to cut Housing Benefit by pretending to withdraw a subsidy that never in fact existed, if tenants of supposedly under-occupied properties don’t move out to suitable homes, which also don’t existed. What is needed to solve the problem is simply building more social and genuinely affordable housing, which the Conservative actively seem to oppose. When the ‘right to buy’ legislation was passed, councils were forbidden from building more council houses, and ‘affordable’ properties are only pegged at 80 per cent of the market worth, which means that in many parts of the London houses are well out of the price range of the very poorest, who need them. It’s possible that cooperation schemes, like those enacted by the Bulgarians, might be part of the solution.

Something like the Bulgarians’ legislation limiting the maximum amount of space families can occupy could also be applied to private housing. The Bulgarian policy was based on the view that you should only possess what you can actually work yourself. Thus there was a maximum amount of land allowed to be cultivated by peasant farmers. Large landowners were forced to sell the excess land to the smaller peasants, so that each peasant farmer had just enough for his needs and those of wider Bulgarian society.

The great French anarchist, P.-J. Proudhon, had a similar view. Much of his Mutualist anarchist system was based on his experience of peasant society in the Jura, where he grew up. While he didn’t set the maximum amount of space people could occupy in their houses, he did recommend that people should lawfully own only what they could actually practically use themselves. Thus, landlords, who held multiple properties, which they rented out, should have all but the property they themselves lived in expropriated and given to the people, who needed them.

I believe a similar policy could be usefully implemented today. Perhaps we need the ‘right to buy’ principle extended to all the private tenants, now forced to rent homes at exorbitant rents because of the way available housing was bought up by people seeking to rent them out later in the housing boom of the 1990s. I also believe that there are many under-occupied private homes, with considerable space going without tenants, in certain parts of London, such as Knightsbridge, Kensington and Westminster.

And possibly Chipping Norton. I can’t see how Dave Cameron, whose government is responsible for the Bedroom Tax, and who has said repeatedly that ‘We’re all in it together’, would possibly object to having to share his home with a couple of crusties.

Radical Balladry: Folk Protest Songs against the Credit Trap

May 31, 2014

On Thursday I published a post about the way the Bulgarian peasants’ party, BANU, attempted to provide reasonable credit from banks lent to peasant credit cooperatives as a way of destroying the moneylenders that had plagued Bulgarian rural society, as a result of whom hundreds of villages had found themselves in serious debt. I suggested that we needed something similar to act against usurers, such as Wonga and the other payday loan companies. Thousands of people in Britain have now also found themselves heavily in debt because of the way they have been forced to rely on such companies, as well as criminal loan sharks, because of low wages and the repeated slashing of benefits by successive governments. People have also been caught in the credit trap through the absurdly easy terms on which it was available during the boom years. Advertisers must share their responsibility for this, has the television adverts for the services of Wonga and the various credit cards suggest that this is all free money, which the borrower doesn’t need to worry about paying back. It’s a seductive message, and all too many people have been taken in and deceived by it.

Jess has also commented on this post with her encyclopaedic knowledge of the long tradition of radical British folk music. She notes that there was an outcry at the way many people were finding themselves in debt through hire purchase when this was introduced in the 1950s. Then as now, Right-wing think tanks attempted to justify the creation of easily available credit, which could lead the poor and vulnerable into a never-ending cycle of debt. This indeed occurred, and was bitterly criticised in song by Graham Gouldman and Jeff Beck. Jess writes

“Britain too in the 21st century has seen the return of the loan shark and moneylender as thousands, perhaps millions, have got into serious debt. Some of this has been through the absurdly easy credit that was offered in the boom years, ”

The availability of ‘absurdly easy credit’ was one of the cornerstones of the neo-liberal agenda.

Way back in 1958 the IEA published their apologia for the money-lending industry ‘Hire Purchase in a Free Society’ [Harris, Naylor & Seldon]

A typical IEA publication of the period, it contains a few gems;

“Social Impact;
Criticism of hire purchase has not come only from moralists who condemn the practice on the grounds that it ensnares people into debts they cannot afford to repay’ morphs into, with an aside from Walter Greenwood’s condemnation of ‘tick’ in ‘Love on The Dole’ to the assertion that;

“Harry [the character condemned by supposedly old-fashioned notions of debt as a weekly ‘mill-stone around the debtors’ neck’ got his new suit…”

Just how deeply the tally-man was disliked, generally, is suggested in this song from Graham Gouldman, (recorded with great reluctance by Jeff Beck)

“To our house on a Friday
A man calls every week
We give him a pound
When he calls on his round

To our house on a Friday
A man calls every week
We give and we get
And we’re always in debt

With his plan he carries all we’re needing
With his plan most anything is ours
He’s the Tallyman, oh yeah
He’s the Tallyman

Shoes and socks, hard wearing for the children
Village frocks all in the latest style
From the Tallyman, oh yeah
From the Tallyman

To our house on a Friday
A man calls every week
We’ve made him a friend
So he’s here to the end

From cradle to grave
We expect him to say
Here’s tick to the end
So we’ve made him a friend
Here’s tick to the end
So we’ve made him a friend”

[Beck objected to Mickie Most’s insistence on a ‘catchy’ follow-up to ‘Silver Lining’ and hated the production, rather than Graham Gouldman’s lyrics]

The debt problem is likely to become even more severe with the government’s cuts to the buffer amount of money allowed to families before they are considered to have been overpaid tax credit, and the use of private debt collectors to pursue the poor, who have been mistakenly overpaid. So this is another song that could reasonably be revived and adapted to suit the new conditions created by Wonga and the like, and now the Inland Revenue.

As for the latter, one of the experts on Japanese monster movies on TV – I think it may have been the great Phil Jupitus – once said that the only time you ever heard cheering during a Godzilla movie was when the epic fire-breathing radio-active dragon from the depths trashed the headquarters of their Inland Revenue in Tokyo. If only something similar would happen to the house of whichever vicious Tory apparatchik dreamed up this bill.

Godzilla

Godzilla: First the Japanese Inland Revenue offices in Tokyo, but will he trash Osbo? We live in hope!

Peasants of Britain Unite and Kick Out the Pay Day Loan Sharks

May 29, 2014

In my last blog post, I looked at the similarities between a community power company set up by the people of a village here in England, and the various schemes for the cooperative reorganisation of society from Thomas Spence’s Land Plan, for the communal ownership of land by each parish community, and Bulgarian Agrarian National Union’s plans for a national and then international society of cooperative peasant communities.

There’s another policy of the party of the Bulgarian peasantry, which I feel very strongly should be adopted by 21st century Britain: legislation and the reform of the banks to cut out and suppress the pay day loan companies, like Wonga and the rest of the sharks. After the liberation from Ottoman rule hundreds of villages in rural Bulgaria had been forced into serious debt to private moneylenders. Many of the Muslim and ethnic Turkish landowners had emigrated or fled to Turkey, leaving large amount of land available for the Bulgarian peasants. There were, however, no banks available to provide them with the loans and credit they needed to purchase the land and essential tools, and so they turned instead to private moneylenders.

The Bulgarian peasants’ party, BANU, and the peasants’ union which preceded it, attempted to combat this by establishing credit cooperatives. After BANU took power in 1919, they attempted to prevent the moneylenders from reappearing by passing legislation insisting that the banks lend money to the cooperatives on reasonable terms.

Britain too in the 21st century has seen the return of the loan shark and moneylender as thousands, perhaps millions, have got into serious debt. Some of this has been through the absurdly easy credit that was offered in the boom years, when people were encouraged to spend as much as they could through credit cards. Other causes include rising rents and mortgages as well as an increase in prices, while pay has been frozen or even cut. The government’s cuts to unemployment benefit have also forced some to turn to private moneylenders, as the amounts provided by Jobseekers’ Allowance is inadequate, sanctions are imposed seemingly arbitrarily according to the whim of the government and the targets set by the DWP to get people off benefit. Those, who are considered to have left their job without good reason are denied benefit for weeks, and the government is considering imposing a waiting time of about three weeks for new claimants before they can get their money.

As a result, Britain has seen a resurgence, not just in criminal loan sharks, but also in the payday loan companies, like Wonga, which offer easy loans at truly extortion rates. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Julian Welby, is recommending a system of Credit Unions to tackle this. Critics fear this will be inadequate. It may well be, but that doesn’t mean that Credit Unions need not part of a broader programme to combat this. We need legislation to cut down the rates at which Wonga and the other loan companies can lend, to reduce them from the 5,000 per cent odd interest rate they are at the moment to something far more manageable. In America, surely one of the most capitalist nations in the world, they aren’t allowed to lend at over 20 per cent. Passing legislation to insist that everyone gets a living wage would also be a massive improvement, as would a complete stop on benefit sanctions, delays in payment and actually raising the amount of money paid to something people can actually live on.

All this, however, would mean abandoning the harsh, neoliberal economic orthodoxy that demands that the poor be penalised, simply for being poor, under the pretext that somehow their poverty is their own fault. And the Tories and their Tory Democrat allies really don’t want to do that by any means. It’s time for the British peasants to follow the Bulgarians of 1919 to throw out the payday loan companies, and kick the Tories out of office.

Village Power Companies, the Spencean Land Plan and the Bulgarian Peasants’ Party

May 29, 2014

A village was in the news last week for setting up its own solar power company. I’ve forgotten which programme it was on. It could have been the local news, Points West, on the BBC 1 for this part of the West Country, or, alternatively on the One Show. The village had initially been intended for fracking, but the villagers had examined that and very firmly decided against it. They had turned instead to solar power. They had set up a massive array of solar panels, which not only provided the village with its own energy, but also sold some on to the national grid. The power company was owned by the village as a whole, and each villager received a dividend from the profits generated by the company.

The feature was accompanied by questions about the practicality of such schemes. It was pointed out that you needed an awful lot of solar panels and would have to wait several years before the investment paid off. The number of solar panels required were so great, that it was well beyond the ability of a single person or family to afford. There were also questions about whether individual villagers should be included in the scheme, if they didn’t want to. The schemes’ inclusion of all the villagers made this a possibility, though the organisers made the point that because of the way it was actually set up, this didn’t actually happen.

Very many people now have solar panels on the roof, providing them with cheap electricity, or selling it to the electricity companies. This was the idea expanded from a single household to a whole community. Way back in the 1990s New Scientist had also carried a story about scientists working to develop power units, which would allow household to generate their own electricity and sell also sell it to the power companies, very much like the system with household solar panels.

It also reminded somewhat of Thomas Spence’s land plan. Spence was an early late 18th and 19th century Socialist. He advocated reforming Britain into a federation of autonomous parishes. Each parish would own the land in common, with the profits from the rents given out each quarter day to all the parishioners, whether men, women or children. It was effectively a form of land nationalisation, with the land turned into a co-operative.

It also reminded me somewhat of the programme of the pre-Second World War Bulgarian peasant party, the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union under its leader, Stamboliiski. BANU weren’t Socialists. They strongly supported private property, but believed in an egalitarian world where each individual would own enough, with no one having too much or too little. But just as humanity had an individual dimension to its nature, which demanded private property, it also had a social aspect with required co-operative action. They thus advocated that the Bulgarian peasant farmers should unite in a system of co-operatives that would allow the country to develop and enjoy modern prosperity.

R.J. Crampton describes this part of their ideology this in the book A short History of Modern Bulgaria (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1987) 87.

It was only in 11918 that BANU adopted an official programme, the ultimate objective of which was to create an egalitarian society based upon private ownership of the means of production and the absence of the exploitation of one man’s labour by another. The focus was primarily but not solely upon the peasantry. The party’s, and especially Stamboliiski’s vision, was of a society in which no peasant owned too much and none too little land, in which they lived in clean, modernised villages furnished with electricity, communications and recreational facilities and a developed educational system. Though private property was to remain the basic form of ownership – Stamboliiski had once described it as ‘the motive force for work and progress’ – individual properietors were to help each other through the cooperative system, which was to provide credit, to store harvested crops, and to market produce. The cooperative idea was a fundamental aspect of Agrarian ideology, and was meant not only to provide material benefit, but, through that provision, to lead to the evolution of new forms of civic political morality and organisation. Stamboliiski’s long-term vision saw a society in which all producers had voluntarily joined the cooperatives, and in which the latter had become so influential that they provided the basis for local government and administration. Cooperation was not only to provide a new form of local organisation, but could, it was felt, even lead to the merging of nation-states into a free association of peasant communities – a true peasant, or green, international.

It seems to me that the village power company in rural England was merely a modern form of Spence’s land plan and BANU’s village co-operatives, except whereas Spence had based his utopian society on communal land, this was based on communal power. Nevertheless, it also shows that as society and technology develop, the old, Utopian Socialist and radical ideas return. They are still relevant, even in the Tories’ supposedly new age of cut-throat Thatcherite individualism and private enterprise.

Gorbachev and the Introduction of Co-operatives in Perestroika

May 7, 2014

Aganbegyan Pic

Abel Aganbegyan, leading economist of Perestroika

One of the ways the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, attempted to reinvigorate the country’s economy was through the establishment and transformation of state industries into workers’ co-operatives. They were also intended to create jobs for workers, who had been made unemployed through Gorby’s other reforms aimed at making the country’s industries more efficient. This started with 1986 Law on Economic Activity, which permitted a very limited amount of private enterprise. The only people permitted to work for themselves, either as self-employed or in co-operatives, were pensioners, students and employees working after hours. The materials they used had to be surplus to those of the state industries. The co-ops were restricted to a list of 29 permitted activities, such as taxi-driving and dress-making. This effectively legalised what many Russians were already doing any way. In March 1988 the restrictions were further lifted, so that the co-ops were allowed to pay staff and do business with foreign nationals. A further law in August 1990 allowed the co-ops near total freedom. By the end of 1990 there were nearly 260,000 co-operatives employing 6.2 million people, including those with other jobs. They produced 70 billion roubles’ worth of goods and services. 10 billion roubles were for the Soviet population. The co-ops were originally envisaged as small firms, but three-fifths of the new enterprises were in the former large state industries.

However, the impact of the co-operatives on the retail market was much smaller. Co-operatively managed garages, home decoration, household repairs, tailoring and dressmaking, catering, small manufacturing and retail only accounted for 2 per cent of the products bought by Russian consumers. Many of the new co-operatives also became more-or-less ordinary capitalist industries by a law which allowed profits to be drawn on investment, rather than the amount of work put in. See ‘Co-operative’ in Andrew Wilson and Nina Bachkatov, Russia Revised: An Alphabetical Key to the Soviet Collapse and the New Republics (London: Andre Deutsch 1992) pp. 49-50.

Abel Aganbegyan, the Soviet economist and chief architect of perestroika, describes the reasons behind the establishment of the co-operatives and the experiments in setting up the system in his book, The Challenge: Economics of Perestroika (London: Hutchinson 1988) pp. 196-9. He states that they were set up to give Soviet workers a sense of responsibility as co-owners, describes the co-operative’s management system, including the election of brigade officials and directors. There was even a nationwide competition to find the new manager for the Riga car factory, organised by Komsomolskaya Pravda, the newspaper of the party’s youth group. Describing the election of managers and officials, he writes:

The working collective carries out its functions both directly at meetings of the whole working collective and through democratically elected Councils to represent its interests. The decision to broaden the rights of the working collective was not taken dogmatically, but out on the basis of generalisation of the experience accumulated at individual enterprises in the Soviet Union. At the Kaluga Turbine Factory, for example, a council of brigade leaders, representing the working collective’s interests, has been operating effectively for many years. The fact is that here collective labour brigades were genuinely organised. Each brigade elects its brigade leader, so that the brigade leaders’ council is a democratically elected body. The factory has major productive and social results to its credit and, moreover, the long-term development policy of the enterprise is in the main the responsibility of the brigade leaders’ council.

For the first time working collectives are being given extensive rights such as the right to elect the manager. This affects the election of managers of all ranks: the brigade elects the brigadier, the workers and section foremen the section head, the working collective of the factory elects the director of the factory, and the whole working collective of the association elects the General Director. These elections are planned as a creative process. They must be preceded by public competition for managerial posts, with a preliminary selection made by, say, the working council. Each candidate then meets with the workers in the sections, departments and enterprises, attends meetings and meets with representatives of public organisations. Each candidate for the post of manager draws up a programme of action and presents it to the working collective. Secret elections then take place with votes cast for a specific person, whose particulars and potential are known, and for a definite development programme for the enterprise. (pp. 197-8).

He then proceeds to describe the election run by Komsomolskaya Pravda for the ailing Riga Car Factory.

This factory produces the RAF microbuses which gained popularity in their day, but had eventually ceased to meet the increasingly sophisticated demands as needs changed and technology developed. The factory was in a deep crisis and stopped fulfilling the plan. A new leader was needed. Under the aegis of the newspapers Komsomolskaya Pravda a nationwide competition was held for the post of director of the factory. A total of four thousand applications was received from all corners of the country and a commission was specially created composed of car construction specialists (from the Ministry of Car Industry), from the factory and from local bodies. About thirty candidates were shortlisted. They studied the factory and made their proposals for it. One the basis of a detailed examination of these more concrete data the list of candidates was further reduced to eight. They came to the factory, familiarized themselves with the work, stated their views on how to improve the situation and finally the working collective in a secret ballot selected its factory director. This turned out to be V.L. Bossert, an energetic young manager, 35 years of age, who up to them was working as the manager of the Omsk Factory, a major producer of gear boxes for the Moskvich car. The collective supported the candidacy of this new director and gave its views on his programme for the full reconstruction of the factory and the design of a new model of microbus which would be on a par with world standards. Having elected the director, the collective began to work intensively and soon fulfilled the plan. The number of claims for replacement of defective goods was reduced. The financial situation of the enterprise improved, people started to receive prizes and work motivation grew. Parallel to this, work continues on designing a new car and reconstructing the factory.

This experience has proved to be successful and it has caught on. Based on the RAF factory’s example, tens and even h7undreds of other enterprises have organised elections for directors. Success is assured wherever this is carried out not as a mere formality, but were competition is guaranteed, where time is given and conditions are created for the preparation of imaginative programmes of development for the working collective, and where people really feel they are participating in the advancement of their enterprise at management level. In discussing the question of appointment of leaders by election, we have studied attentively the experience of other socialist countries, Bulgaria and Hungary. In Hungary in particular, this democratic mechanism has been very effective. In re-election for the post of direct 8 % of former directors were voted out, but 92% had their competence at management confirmed by the collective. In this was the quality of managers has been improved. pp. 198-9).

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The Apprentice’s Sir Alan Sugar: Now imagine someone in overalls and work boots saying to their boss ‘You’re fired!’

The competition sounds like a radical Socialist version of Top Gear or Dragon’s Den. Certainly it would have been interesting to see Clarkson covering the election by car factory workers of their manager, all the while careering round Moscow or, in this case, Riga, while making sneering comments about the condition of the roads and Soviet era cars. As for Dragon’s Den, it might be a bit too dangerously subversive for the Dragons. After all, it turns the class system on it’s head by empowering the workers to sack incompetent bosses. Which might actually make it perfect as a kind of anti-Apprentice. After all, how many of the more pompous captains of industry, priding themselves on their ability to make ‘tough decisions’ to close down factories and throw thousands out on the streets for their profit and that of the shareholders, would welcome standing in front of committee of proles and being told ‘You’re fired’. Now that really is an idea for a TV show.