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Interview with US socialist Steve Bloom

10 March 2006

Gerry Fitzsimons

Steve Bloom is a New York based socialist, a leading member of the Solidarity movement and an Anti-war Activist, on a recent visit to Belfast in February he gave the following interview to Gerry Fitzsimons.

Firstly, Steve spoke about the relationship between revolution and national liberation.

 It is a difficult fusion – between revolution and national liberation. The only really good example is Cuba, where you can say this was consummated and it happened. Everywhere else, in South Africa, in Palestine in Ireland, it failed. In Venezuela it looks like it is materializing again. 

· Would you like to say what the ‘objective conditions’ for such a consummation are? 

I think one of the factors clearly is the strength of the ruling classes – and I suppose a wishful connection [in the case of Ireland] between the IRA and the Irish ruling class in the South. It was always something which the IRA wanted, so the Irish ruling class could impose their terms for such an alliance. Whereas in a country like Venezuela, the balance of forces between the masses and ruling elite is much more tentative and the masses have much more of an ability to intervene in politics. The extra role of imperialism is another factor – the weight of British imperialism vis a vis the Nationalist population [in Ireland]. It is almost impossible for the US to contemplate intervening in place like Venezuela. Even without the Iraq War with the level of resistance that is likely in Venezuela it seems to me that imperialism is in a weaker position to impose itself on that struggle.

· I’d like to turn to the situation in the Middle East; this intervention is expanding, for as we speak more troops are being sent to Afghanistan. What do you think is the long term prospects for that strategy? Do you think there will be wider involvement considering that the emphasis in some circles is on the ‘exit strategy’?

I think the strategy of the US in Afghanistan is to try and get other nations to take over some of the responsibility so they can withdraw US troops I don’t know if there is a net increase of imperialist troops. One of the things that I neglected to mention at the public meeting was that in fact when we talk about the ‘exit strategy’ it is an exit strategy hat never the less wants to leave US forces in the region – they would like to disengage from having to be the police force among the Iraqi civilian population. They would like to develop and indigenous force to do that. They certainly want a regime that is friendly to the presence of the US bases and US interests in the region.

· One of the things that is very clear from any study of the region is that Israel has been at war now for fifty years. And this current expansion may mean that type of level of war and small scale wars being fought more regularly to try and maintain the influence of American capital in the region - how far would you say that’s true?   

I think that is being contemplated by the rulers of the USA. The problem is that they need to change public opinion so that this would be tolerable. Israeli public opinion is convinced of the imminent threat of the Palestinian ‘hordes’ – that’s the ideological prop, so they have no choice but to tolerate the high level of military activity on the part of the government. But the American population is not used to this and conceivably if they could maintain that there was the active threat of Al Qaeda and that’s what they were combating in the World, they could develop that level of tolerance. But even in the last few years because of Iraq, everyone sees that Iraq is not connected with September 11th attacks. This is an adventure on the part of the Bush administration – no ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were found. So I think they would have a lot of difficulty in carrying on a policy of permanent war.

· But there is an argument within the ruling class as to how the war should have been fought and the neo-Cons specifically, that they should have targeted Al Qaeda and Bin Laden, rather than Iraq. The argument being if the US had not gone into Iraq we could be able to concentrate our forces on Al Qaeda and finding Bin Laden. Do you think that position has gained or lost ground?   

I can’t see it as a major player in the whole equation. We hear it projected by politicians and Anti-War people who say why we don’t use the armed forces to find the terrorists. There are pro-War people who say the same thing but this is a very small and weak voice wherever you do hear it. 

· Is there a perception that the continued involvement in Afghanistan is similar to the involvement in Iraq?

People have mostly forgotten about Afghanistan. It doesn’t make for news coverage. If you ask the public they would be hard pressed to give an opinion. There are always voices within the Anti-War demonstrations that say ‘don’t forget Afghanistan’. But even for the most part the Anti-War movement doesn’t focus on it.

· Do you think that is a deficiency on the part of the Anti-War Movement

Oh Yes – but the Anti-War movement has so many political deficiencies. Most of the US Anti-War movement would like to ignore the US’s intervention in Palestine. There is a militant wing of the movement that tries to explain – just as with Afghanistan – that this is an issue we must address. Similar questions come up regarding Iraqi civilians’ versus US troops. The focus is on how many US soldiers have died – and people say that we have moral commitment to talk about Iraqi dead – not just US dead. There is a little more general receptivity to that kind of argument. But still there is tendency to fall back on how many US soldiers have been killed. 

· How much of a possibility is it that the US would engage Israel to make a pre-emptive strike against Iran?

It is a pressing issue. I am not sure to what extent it is real or how much it is the most convenient distraction they can raise to try and mobilize public opinion or generate public opinion. But to the extent that they want to make it a real issue, I think the most convenient form would be some kind of Israeli action - although, nothing can be quite ruled out at this point. 

· Can you see a situation where we have a major crisis over Iran? 

Well, Iran does not have nuclear weapons and claims that it has no prospect for developing nuclear weapons. There is no other nation that is going to attack the USA with nuclear weapons over Iran. So I think the level of crisis will be about ‘what will the USA do’. I think they are sure to know that use of nuclear weapons would make the US position untenable in world public opinion. So my guess is that whatever happens will be with conventional weapons.  I don’t think that the US has the intention at this point of invading Iran – they can’t even maintain the occupation of Iraq. At the level they would like to so air strikes are possible. Using Israel as a proxy for air strikes is probable but I think we will be at some level of simmering crisis and not potential nuclear catastrophe. 

· Do you think that the Anti-war movement is prepared for that eventuality – of a simmering Iran-US-Israel crisis? 

I think most of the Activist layer is prepared to mobilize and struggle. Our experience is that with each involvement of the masses of the class of the US population, people understand better with the experience of Iraq under their belt. I think people are less likely to believe lies and mystifications the US Government tell. Then there is always a period of time where the movement has to build up before a mass response. 

· The situation here was that there was a massive reaction and millions demonstrated against the prospect of the War. However, as soon as the invasion took place then there was a rapid decline in the Anti-War movement now we are only dealing with hundreds rather than thousands. Were there the same peaks and troughs of involvement in the American Anti-War movement?

We had the same phenomenon before the War started, there were truly massive protests in the lead up to the war, and then an acute drop off when the invasion of Iraq actually took place. I think in the period in the run up to the War people had the illusion that they could stop the invasion. And there was profound demoralisation and disappointment when the US decided to go head. While the US appeared to winning an easy military victory it was the same relatively small demonstrations rather than in the tens of thousands. Though what we have seen since the end of the invasion when Bush declared ‘mission `accomplished’ and when it generally dawned on people that the actually hadn’t ended – that there was a continued level of resistance by the Iraqi people and an escalating number of causalities. In the early days it was one or two a week now it’s two a day then five or ten on some days. As that level of attrition was maintained there has been a deepening level of opposition. So that demonstrations have truly grown in size over this last period. The biggest one was last September 24th when there was hundreds of thousands –certainly between 100,000 and 200,000, in New York City. That is the biggest we have seen and it far surpasses anything in the acute phase of the War. The phenomenon of Cindy Sheehan last Summer – just an ordinary Mother whose son was killed. She tried to have a meeting with President Bush and Bush refused to see her. She then camped out at the Texas White House. That got national publicity and she went on tour. People got a big shock when they compared the resources gien to the war to the reaction to hurricane Katrina.

· Would you say that that disparity has changed attitudes to the Bush regime? 

It is one of the constant refrains that people use at Anti-War rallies. The common refrain of activists is if Katrina had happened in Beverly Hills [California] the population would have been treated quite differently. The evacuation before the storm was left up to individuals to take off on their own. If you had transportation, if you had the ability to pay for lodging out of town you could evacuate. If you did not have those options then you were left to your own devices and had no alternative except to stay. The best that was suggested was the New Orleans Super Dome. When people reached there, there was no superstructure was put in place – water, food – everything was lacking. And the victims of this were overwhelmingly Black and poor. 

This was blatantly visible on the American TV screens and in the newspapers. So for at least a few weeks the racial divide and the class structure of the way aid had been handled and distributed was visible. To give another example, the oil refineries were backup and running within a few days after Katrina. Even to this day there has been no effort to rebuild hospitals and schools – the things that were wiped away – things that human beings need – have been ignored. Naturally, this becomes less visible as time passes it is less in the news and on peoples consciousnesses, accept those who are actually involved in the Katrina movement. But the movement has become a significant factor not in mainstream American politics, but at least on the left and among activists. There is a substantial overlap of concern between Katrina activists and Anti-War activists. 

Iraqi Veterans and Military Families are two groups that have been part of the resurgence of the Anti-War movement – organising a march to New Orleans to make the link and draw connections about the waste of resources in Iraq and needles squander, and the inability to save lives.

· Do you think that the Left and the socialist movement has benefited from those connections being made? 

To some extent; the Left and the socialist movement in the US are very weak. What has happened is almost a spontaneous people to people solidarity. Socialist groups are active in the solidarity movement. But at this point I don’t think it translates significantly into people identifying with an ‘anti capitalist left’ as somehow the back bone of the movement. 

· Would you say that there is still an exceptionally low level of Working Class struggle in the United States compared to the 1960s and 1970s? 
Working Class struggle has been low – even in the 1960s and 1970s. There was a very substantial youth rebellion and radicalization of the Black Community. But the working class as a class through its own organisations has not been a significant factor in American politics since the late 1940s after WWII when there was a substantial strike wave in 1946. Since that time there was a hold over effect in the 1950s when the CIO had a certain political leverage. But it ties itself completely to the Democratic Party and has constantly lost strength – that strength has not been regained. Part of the AFL/CIO and the Change to Win Coalition is to re-establish that influence within the Democratic Party. But they have no leverage because the Union Movement itself is so weak. And as long as their perspective continues to be going into the Democratic Party and benevolent capitalism – it will remain weak.

One of the reasons it has remained weak, is that there is no real determination to have the anti-trade Union Regan laws repealed. 

Not just the Regan laws but the Taft-Hartley Act from the 1950s, which make it very difficult for Unions to really organise as an independent force and it used to be at least a mantra of some Democratic Party politicians and the urban leadership to repeal Taft?Hartley – even that has been dropped from the agenda. So for your typical class collaborationist their agenda moves to the right as the ruling class agenda moves to the right – they set themselves up on the left wing of the possible and the possible is shifting dramatically. 

· This also appears to have given the green light to some left wing theorists develop and argue for alliances and activities that they previously would not have done would you say this was simply a consequence of the shift to the right?

I think it is more complex than either of those. The thing I am always looking for and those of us revolutionary socialists are looking for, is the reaction from the rank and file and when that begins to show itself. We had a very important experience in New York City with the recent Transit strike. The strike took place last December, the Union leadership was elected several years on an ‘insurgent’ platform – this pretty much gave rise to a left bureaucratic machine and it didn’t think it had to have an intention of going on strike or militant class action. Frustration and anger within the Union rank and file continued with a militant stand on the part of the employers – The Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The Strike was very well supported and very successful despite there being little enthusiasm from the top. It was 95-99% effective in terms of people staying out – picket lines were well organised. Information was circulated to various work locations around New York City. The Strike ended after three days when a deal was struck between the Union President and the Transport Authority, which was approved by the executive of the Union. However, the Deal was rejected by the Rank and File which was spilt almost 50-50; the margin was seven votes against the Contract. But it shows such a disparity between what the Union officialdom was doing and the obvious substantial feeling in the ranks that this Union was not doing enough. The main issue in the Strike was that the new members would be forced to pay greater amounts into their pension fund than the previous employees. And that this is the first time that any significant Union has gone on strike in order to defend workers who weren’t yet hired. It has a been a pattern of ‘collective bargaining’ in the US to give up future benefits for future employees, in order to supposedly preserve the benefits of current employees. In the long time this substantially reduces the ability of the Union to organise and defend workers rights. 

What was significant to many of us was the first day of the Strike when the people of New York were polled the overwhelming majority said that they supported the Union. This is almost unheard of in a strike in the United States where the media portrays the strikers as greedy workers who just want more than anybody else. So the fact that a substantial layer of the population in a city like New York would see that here was a union that was fighting for something that was really meaningful for workers more generally, which wasn’t just for themselves – that the predominant issue was over pensions and not just for current work force. 

There is a growing understanding in the Union that all future contracts should be by a rank and file based committee or that such a organisation should have input into the process; which is not something that the Union officials want to see. The New York Transport Authority and the government would like to oppose binding arbitration that would probably deliver something worse than the Permanent Contract and the workers understand this. This whole story demonstrates that we cannot identify the Union movement with the current labour officials. There is a process that goes on among the rank and file and at some point that’s the source it seems to me we have to look to, for the possibility that the Union movement will again a vibrant force in American Politics. 


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