The Common Thread in Today's Crises, and Some Thoughts on Joseph Stalin

Talk at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County (Orange, NJ)

Grover Furr September 25, 1994

A month ago, when I spoke with the president of our congregation about talking to you today, the pages of the newspapers and the television news were filled with news about Rwanda. But so quickly does disaster follow crisis, that since August the genocide in Rwanda has been replaced in the media by the tensions with Cuba, and that by the invasion of Haiti. These international events have crowded from the front pages the domestic issues that dominated them until this past Spring, and continued throughout the summer: the crime bill; the welfare issue; and that of national health care.

I think there is a common thread that unites all of these issues; a similarity that leaps out above all the horrifying particulars. None of these issues can be properly understood, whether in their particularity or in their interconnection with each other and with our own lives, unless we see that they are all different manifestations of the exploitation of the working class of the world. The consequences of this exploitation are tragic for them, and for the middle class as well, to which most of us here today belong.

Let's start with Rwanda. Accounts in the mainstream press have hidden from us the fact that the terms "Hutu" and "Tutsi" have been mainly artificial distinctions during the past half century or so. This is because the media have deliberately obscured the role of Western imperialism in creating the Rwandan disaster.

The European powers divided up Africa at the Berlin Conference of 1884, and what is now Rwanda was given to Germany. The German imperialists -- racist to the core, like all imperialists -- thought the taller Tutsis were the "superior race", and chose them to be their lieutenants in imperialism. This is the "divide-and-conquer" strategy of all imperialists since the Roman Empire. However, differences between Tutsis and Hutus are minimal -- they speak the same language -- and there has been much intermarriage. Whatever their distant origins, they were and are, like the French or English, basically one people.

The Belgian imperialists, who took over the colony after Germany lost it in WWI, realized the difference between Hutu and Tutsi would have to be emphasized, if the "divide-and-conquer" strategy were to be effective. So they declared any wealthy person a Tutsi, any poor one a Hutu. To underscore the ethnic differences they were creating, the Belgians issued identity cards marking someone forever as either "Hutu" or "Tutsi." They long favored the Tutsis, but just before independence switched to favoring the Hutus, who were naturally more numerous, as the poor are always much more numerous than the rich. They then turned the countries of Rwanda and Burundi over to the chiefs they had educated, trained, and pitted against one another.

The Hutu government of Rwanda was supported by France throughout the slaughter. When defeat seemed likely for the Hutu army -- the one that killed perhaps one million people -- French paratroopers were sent in to protect it. Defeated anyway, the Rwandan Hutu army, still under French protection, retreated into Zaire, where it was, and is, fed by the United States, its officers still cared for by the French army, and from where it has declared that it will reinvade Rwanda as soon as it gets the chance. If and when it does, French arms and American food will have made it possible.

What lies behind all this slaughter and misery is the continuing story of imperialism. Imperialism has always had profit as its purpose -- profit from natural resources, from markets, and, of increasing importance today, from cheap labor. Africa is a rich source of natural resources and the last great untapped source of cheap labor. The so-called 'tragedy' of Rwanda is the result of the rivalry of Western imperialists to keep control over this strategically situated area. The African working class, including the small farmers, are pawns in this game of destabilization.

Now let's look at Cuba. As we know, despite Fidel Castro's heavy-handed rule, virtually all the Cuban balseros are fleeing the hardships of the US embargo. Let's consider this embargo.

The US broke relations with Cuba and forbid trade with it after the Castro government, in 1960, nationalized some American plantations in Cuba, reimbursing their owners at the valuation that these US corporations had put on their properties for the purposes of paying Cuban taxes -- in other words, at very low rates. From the US rulers' viewpoint, Castro's crime was that he broke away from US economic and political domination, taking from them a source of very high profits.

Another aspect of Castro's crime was that he raised the price of Cuban labor. He did this by increasing spending for social welfare programs: health care, education, and pay. The result was that Cuba had, until last year, the highest standard of living of any Latin American country, and a lower infant mortality rate than exists in the north part of Manhattan island. Castro also acted as though Cuba ought to be able to be politically independent, and made economic deals with the USSR. They proved treacherous -- Castro never realized the political cost these ties would bring -- but they seemed better than the deal Cuba had with the US under Batista.

Castro was and is basically a reformer. He never was a communist, in the sense of someone trying to create an egalitarian society. But it's for these economic reforms that Cuba has been under attack for thirty years. The US government sees in Cuba a bad example -- the example of a government that has made significant progressive reforms for the working class the most prominent part of its program. If this example were to spread to US-dominated countries in Latin America, it would cost US corporations billions in profits. In fact, it was to stop similar reforms from being put into effect in Nicaragua and El Salvador that the US supported the fascist murderers in both those conflicts in the '80s.

And what would we American workers and middle-class people think if a little Caribbean country were to carry out such significant reforms for its working class? It would be very bad for business. So subversive things like raising the living standard of the majority of the population cannot be tolerated.

As for Haiti, I refer you all to two important recent articles by Allan Nairn, a former "Nader's raider", one in Multinational Monitor for July/August, the other in the October 3 issue of The Nation. Nairn talked with World Bank and US government and military officials involved in planning US responses to Haiti. All agreed that the US has supported the murderous Haitian military in the past, including after the military coup against President Aristide in 1990, and will continue to support a strong Haitian military in the future. All agreed that Aristide was overthrown because he promised to increase social welfare spending for the miserably poor Haitian workers and farmers -- specifically, an increase in the minimum wage and a social insurance program. This would have raised the cost of labor in Haiti. In addition, Aristide permitted popular organizations to form freely, which threatened to further erode the profits of the rich.

Aristide was, and is, a modest reformer, no more. He never proposed the kind of sweeping changes that Haitian workers, like those all over the world, really need. He never, any more than Castro, proposed ending exploitation -- capitalism -- once and for all, at least not for the foreseeable future. And he had a tragic -- in fact, a criminal -- faith in the electoral process, that the Haitian elite and military would abide by it. That faith cost him his position, and thousands of his followers their lives.

The US officials Nairn interviewed made it clear that they consider the Haitian working population to be their enemy. Why did the US wait three years before trying to restore Aristide? Because the US was hoping the fascist generals would make Haiti run smoothly, and because it took the US government that long to pry out of Aristide the concessions they wanted -- that he would abandon his social welfare goals. Last summer Aristide signed an agreement with the IMF that will create favored conditions for international investors, and that spells doom for his promises of social security and an increased minimum wage.

In each case -- Rwanda, Cuba, and Haiti -- imperialist powers act to preserve their ability to extract maximum profits. The super-exploitation of these workers abroad also harms us, here in the US. First, capital -- and therefore jobs -- move abroad as areas of cheap labor are secured abroad. As US workers lose their jobs, there are fewer jobs for lower and middle management people -- the "middle class" -- and less income for those who work in service industries. Second, the mere presence of pools of cheap labor anywhere in the world acts as a threat, a dead weight to pull down wage and benefit levels everywhere.

And that is happening to us here. This summer a modest move to provide universal medical coverage to all Americans has been decisively defeated by business groups who openly declare that they do not want to spend the money. Welfare recipients -- that is, workers who are unemployed because there are no jobs, and there is no prospect that there ever will be any jobs -- are demonized. Once again, the media never point out that lower welfare benefits hurt, not only those unemployed on welfare, but employed workers too, because welfare acts as a kind of "minimum income", more than which employers must offer if they want to attract employees. Higher welfare payments, therefore, would benefit all employed workers; that is precisely why they are so strongly opposed by business.

Finally, prisons are built because the social causes of most crime -- poverty, unemployment, and the violence of exploitation and racism -- are natural, desirable byproducts of capitalism. Crime, and the fear of crime, make working people identify with the conservative forces of law and order, and deflect attention away from the economic and political causes of exploitation, of which crime is one natural result. So, in reality, crime is highly functional to an exploitative social order.

It's rather simple to see that the common thread uniting the major issues that have exercised us in the past six months or so, on both the international and domestic pages, so to speak, is -- exploitation.

There is a world-wide attack against the working class. The attack is coordinated by international capital, which can flow from one end of the globe to the other with the push of a computer key. And there is no international, coordinated fight-back against it by workers and others around the world!

All this makes me think of Stalin. No figure is more vilified and demonized in capitalist culture than that of Stalin. We're are told that this is because he "killed 50 million people." Well, the research of modern bourgeois scholars has disproved this. But, whatever the mistakes, whatever the casualties that can be laid at Stalin's door, it can hardly be because of them that he is so violently attacked. ALL capitalist countries have always supported and rewarded mass murderers galore. Just this month former President Carter worked out a deal with the fascist killers of Haiti that will permit them to retire in comfort.

I think the reason Stalin is vilified is because, in his day at the helm of the Soviet Union, the exploiters all over the world had something to worry about! There was a worldwide movement against exploitation, against capitalism, against nationalism and ethnocentrism, that inspired hundreds of millions of workers and middle-class people too, all over the world. It had many weaknesses; ultimately it failed. But while it existed, no exploiter could feel safe. There was a worldwide organization whose declared aim it was to fight against exploitation, racism, fascism, everywhere.

That's why I feel some kinship with Stalin and the communist movement of his day. What the majority of humanity needs today is an international movement like that one, to co-ordinate the fight against exploitation -- just as the IMF and the World Bank, Exxon and Reebok, the US and French and the other governments, coordinate the fight FOR exploitation. We need an organization to stand up for the exploited majority of the world!

How inspiring it would be if there were demonstrations all over the world in favor of universal health care in the US! in favor of workers' rights in Haiti! Against American imperialism in Cuba, or French and US intervention in Africa.

How fine it would be for ALL of us if there were some kind of powerful organization that existed for one purpose only -- to fight against the horrors that beset us on all sides, every day, in our own lives and in the news! To put an end forever to the exploitation that leads inevitably to these same horrors!

It's not impossible. Such an international organization existed, just a few decades ago. It can be done. I think the future of all of us, and of our children and grandchildren, depends very profoundly upon when -- how soon -- this kind of movement against exploitation and its horrors arises in this world again.

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Furr, "Talk on Today's Crises and Thoughts on Stalin" 9/25/94 | | last modified 5 Jun 98