In the spring and summer of 1999, the Balkans, particularly Kosovo, was the hot topic on the Left. Quite frankly, I found most of the discussion rather alienating, mostly because so much of it was rather divorced from reality: not just what was happening, not just why it was happening, but also what could by done anyone among us regular citizens to effectively intervene. What I heard was story-telling based as much on corrosive cynicism as on ideology or what amounted to special pleading based on choosing sides.

Cynicism? In America? I must be imaging things, you say.

DSA’s official position was:

DSA calls for:

  • The withdrawal of all Serbian military and paramilitary forces from Kosovo and the subsequent disarmament of the KLA.
  • The introduction of an international force including significant non-NATO elements in Kosovo to protect all residents of Kosovo and ensure the autonomy of a democratically elected provincial government.
  • The return of all refugees to Kosovo.

Whatever the case, here are two articles I wrote for New Ground. The first is from New Ground 64, May — June, 1999.

Avoiding the Politics of Posture:

Whatever Became of the Peace Dividend?

The large print giveth and the fine print taketh away.

by Bob Roman

The fiasco in Kosovo may divide the Left as no other issue has since the Vietnam war. In a fine fury of resolutionary socialism, groups are calling for a holy war against Serbian fascism, support for NATO intervention, support for UN intervention, support for the KLA as a national liberation movement, support for Serbian socialism, opposition to any intervention as it inevitably serves the interest of the ruling class. Pick one or pick several and combine them, you’ll find the left supporting it.

And to what end? It is hard enough to find the levers to build consensus for or against domestic policies, but if they are not obvious, at least the levers are there. Given the administrative nature of most foreign policy, what prospect is there for any change in a meaningful time frame? Much of the debate over Kosovo is so devoid of any prospect for influencing events that the energy it generates has more to do with posture than politics.

If anything good can come of this mess (and a worse case scenario might be The End of the World as We Know It), it will come out of coalition building around issues that we agree on, whatever our specific position on Kosovo.

One promising possibility is military spending. It is not acceptable that this war, whatever its merits, is being financed by cutting housing subsidies to the poor and by cutting money available for food stamps, yet this is exactly what is happening. And while the additional moneys voted by this Congress are relatively free of “pork”, the conventional beltway wisdom is that the next year’s budget, being an election year, will bring the pigs swarming to the trough.

Eliminate homelessness, preserve and expand Social Security, provide health care for all, provide the means for quality public education, even relative luxuries like a space program: under the self – imposed Congressional budgeting restrictions, you have a choice. We can either do these things or we can have a military that is capable of fighting two and a half wars anywhere in the world, simultaneously.

To this end, Chicago DSA has joined with the Chicago Jobs with Justice Committee on New Priorities in building a broad coalition of groups that is committed changing our government’s priorities. As a first step, the coalition is urging support for an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill that would cut the number of ground troops that the United States keeps permanently stationed in Europe from 100,000 to 25,000 over a period of three years. 15,000 would be removed by September 30, 2000, and an additional 30,000 would be removed each of the next two years. This amendment will be offered by Representatives Barney Frank (D-MA) and Christopher Shays (R-CT).

What can you do?

  • For a start, write your congressman, even your state legislators, supporting this amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill. Write to them about your feelings about Kosovo, whatever those are. But write to them; they need to know that these are issues that have a concerned constituency.
  • Attend teach-ins and demonstrations. Be judicious; otherwise you may find yourself in bed with some very strange bedfellows. And while these are not the most efficient ways of learning about issues, it’s worth doing; you’ll gradually become part of a network of people who can be mobilized around the particular perspective that you endorse. And like the first point above, it makes the issue(s) visible and thus viable.
  • Be prepared to contribute. In a market society, money provides the tools for organizing. It’s hardly sufficient, and it’s possible to throw too much money at a problem, but it’s absolutely necessary.
  • Finally, if you would like to be on our list of people to notify first about actions around military spending, please call the CDSA office to let us know: (773) 384-0327.

The second article is from New Ground 65, July — August, 1999.

The Kosovo Debate

by Bob Roman

On Friday, July 9th, the Open University of the Left and Chicago DSA co-sponsored a debate, “The Kosovo War: Lessons for the Left”. It was both a great success and a dismal failure.

Held at Roosevelt University, some 90 people gathered to hear Mark Weinberg from Chicago DSA, Peter Hudis from News & Letters, Louis Paulsen from the Workers World Party, Robbie Bogarde from the Kosovo Task Force, Kevin Martin from Peace Action and Barry Romo address this topic. Kevin Martin was unable to participate due to illness and Carl Nyberg took his place.

As a meeting, the event was a great success. A great deal of credit must go to Kathleen DeSautels from the Eighth Day Center for Justice, who was a superb moderator. Within the constraints of a seven minute time limit, Mark Weinberg did a good job presenting both the official DSA position and the range of opinions within DSA. Likewise, the other speakers made articulate, mostly, and sometimes impassioned presentations for their positions. The audience was mostly well behaved and their participation was generally reasonable. All things considered, this should count as a real accomplishment.

But as a debate about the lessons of Kosovo, the meeting was a nonstarter. At best, there was something of a consensus that Kosovo shows “something is wrong with the left”. Unfortunately, the specific diagnosis for what is wrong generally seemed to be that others on the left did not agree with whatever position was being articulated. Certainly there was no attempt to define a future political agenda to which most might agree regardless or in spite of any ideological disagreements.

Maybe this was inevitable. The title of the debate presupposed that there is a single “left” within which there is enough agreement over values, philosophy, politics, etc., for a fruitful debate to be possible. It may also be simply true that “what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”.

Those of you in Chicago who missed the event will have an opportunity judge for yourself. CATV Cable Channel 19 will broadcast an abridged version of the meeting on Saturday, August 14, at 2 pm and 7 pm.

Mash Note

everyone should get at least one

Handed to me while I exited a Brown Line CTA train at Quincy & Wells. The door closed behind me almost before I had the time to even look at her.

mash note
Drawing by anonymous.

I still have the hat. It serves as a fine litmus for people prepared for something different. Or not.

Winter Has Come

photos from 1358 W. Greenleaf, Chicago

This is the view from my bedroom at 1358 W. Greenleaf. I lived there for about a quarter century, and for about a third of that time, I really did want to move. But the lease was up at the end of April, right when I would always be submerged with time-limited work: No time for apartment hunts, no time for packing, no time for moving.

But the place did have its benefits. In courtyard buildings, you must be jealous of your privacy. It’s not clear to me if all the inhabitants of the four dozen or so apartments knew this, but even so, sometimes stuff happens: the fights or quarrels, romance, insanity… the various dramatic episodes of peoples’ lives. Once there was even a movie shoot.

I really should have kept a journal.

But these are calmer moments.

1358 W. Greenleaf
View from 1358 W. Greenleaf, circa 2002. Photo by Roman
1358 W. Greenleaf
View from 1358 W. Greenleaf, circa 2002. Photo by Roman
1358 W. Greenleaf
View from 1358 W. Greenleaf, circa 2002. Photo by Roman


Science Fiction and Socialism

There has been an ongoing debate on the left about whether markets have any place in a post-capitalist society and indeed what role markets should play in the transition to such a world. Back in 1999, that topic stimulated a good bit of discussion among members of Chicago DSA. A version of this brief article was my contribution to the discussion. It ran in New Ground 64, May — June, 1999.

Incidentally, the link between SciFi and ideology is not particularly original to this article. Folks have been compiling lists of ideological science fiction, both left and right not to mention other dimensions, for years and years. My list and discussion thereof was abbreviated by the space available in the print newsletter.

More …

by Bob Roman

It is easy enough to dismiss the debate between market and non – market socialisms as an argument over labels. Certainly that is in large part true. But the reason the debate persists and the reason it evokes such passion is that it speaks to a central aspect of socialist identity and hope.

Perhaps this is captured best by Michael Harrington’s favorite parable. Imagine, he might say, a desert civilization where water is precious, so precious that it is money. People fight and die and connive over it. Governments covet it. Marriages are made and broken because of it. Water is the basis of all exchange and the motivation of all that is accomplished.

Someone from this civilization, being told of a city where there are public water fountains and where children are sometimes allowed to turn on the fire hydrants in summer to frolic in the water, would be sure you were crazy. For that person would know, with an existential certitude, that it is human nature to fight over water and to do nothing without the motivation of water. And yet, here today, we have “socialized” water; no matter who you are in our society, you can be pretty certain of having a drink when you need one.

And in some speeches Harrington would add that if we could solve the problem of economics then we might have an opportunity to learn how to love one another.

But would we? And what would such a society look like? How would people live? This is beyond the ken of economics, and what little Marx said about it over the years, in sum, sounds vaguely like California. But there is a large body of speculative fiction that deals directly and indirectly with just this topic.

There are a number of strands of opinion represented in this literature, and while space here is a scarce commodity, here are some major themes and some examples worth reading.

The dominant opinion in the 1950s and early 1960s was that post-economic society would be the end of history, at least, if not the end of civilization and possibly the end of the world. The best example of this is the classic film, the 2001 / Star Wars of its time, Forbidden Planet. The ruins of that civilization are all that we see, but the narrative makes the danger explicit for a society where all individuals have the power of a god: the end of the species. A fairly lame “novelization” of the screen play was published in 1956, but you’ll have better luck finding the video. Another example is Murray Leinster’s pulp quality novel, The Duplicators, which argues for at least the end of civilization. Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars begins in the city of Diaspar, where nothing has happened for hundreds of millions of years: the end of history for sure! (The story begins, incidentally, with the hero deep in what we would today call a virtual reality game. This was published in 1956.)

More recent work is more kind, but would we learn to love one another? One complication is that not everyone might enter into the “post economic” society at once. This serves as the basis for conflict in a great many novels. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever Peace is a particularly interesting example as it takes place in the near future with interesting consequences though, unfortunately, it’s not particularly good story-telling. Other better examples are almost any of Iain M. Banks’ “Culture” novels; I’d recommend Consider Phlebas or The Use of Weapons. Other notable examples are Samuel Delany’s Triton or John Barnes’ A Million Open Doors.

But would we learn to love one another? We might find other things to fight about. Some good examples are John Barnes’ Earth Made of Glass or Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.

I’ve only just skimmed the surface, yet I can’t end without mentioning Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy Green Mars, Red Mars and Blue Mars; or an interesting look at a society where markets, if important, have become clearly secondary, Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth; or Gregory Benford’s high-tech anarcho-syndicalist The Jupiter Project.

Ironically, while the political left wanders in ideological confusion, it’s basic aspirations are still quite strong in speculative fiction.

Post script: here’s a sample from the so-called “real existing socialism” bloc, from Czechoslovakia circa 1963:

Julie Was a Free Spirit

Julie was a free spirit, living not on the street but next to it, not in poverty but in a well-to-do suburb of it. With nothing but health and youth, she had wealth enough. That was then. Now she has a family of three, and son Mathew is never going to grow up no matter his age.

The street looms with night siren threats. Roaches wage guerrilla war. Money measures her life. Her hip-not-hippie husband is a balm, but… He seems free to her. Then on those golden Mathew-shackled afternoons, the chaotic apartment silent of husband and her healthy daughters, it speaks to her of loss: of the not so creeping years that pass, the music never played, the words never wrote. And it seems almost too much for her to bear.


Photo by Roman.

October 30th Day of Action

North America Is a War Zone!

It may be premature to be speaking of the labor movement in the past tense, but if the 1% succeed in crushing the life out of it, this article, published in New Ground 61, November — December, 1998, is another bit of evidence demonstrating that we haven’t gone down without a fight.

October 30th Day of Action: North America Is a War Zone!

by Amy Traub, Dan Graff and Bob Roman

If the recent media blitz about globalization has taught us anything, it is that the entire world is now tremendously interconnected, that what happens abroad can profoundly affect conditions here and vice-versa. The Youth Section of the Democratic Socialists of America, both nationally and here in Chicago, are currently working on an international campaign in support of the labor rights of factory workers in Tijuana, Mexico.

In this particular case, the hundred some workers at the Han Young factory in Tijuana weld truck chassis exclusively for Hyundai Motors, a Korean corporation. Due primarily to unsafe and unsanitary working conditions – including absence of ventilation, faulty equipment, and lack of protective gear – workers at Han Young decided in June of 1997 to form a union so they could collectively bargain for better conditions.

After the overwhelming majority of workers voted to join an independent union, the government labor board declared that the election was invalid since the workers were already represented by a union. This union, the CROC (Confederacion Revolucionario de Obreros y Campesinos) was one of the corrupt organizations closely tied to the PRI, the political party which has ruled Mexico for the last 70 years. Without the knowledge of the people working there, the Han Young management had negotiated a “protection contract” with the CROC in which the company paid off union leaders in exchange for labor peace.

“The CROC collects money directly from the employers and holds no meetings,” explained one worker, “its representatives only come to the factory when there is trouble, to tell the workers to go back to work.”

It is understandable that workers would want to exercise their rights (guaranteed by the Mexican Constitution and, theoretically, by NAFTA) to organize an independent union that would actually represent their interests. Yet results of three separate labor board supervised elections, all in favor of independent unionization, have not resulted in recognition of the union. Workers have been bribed, threatened, fired, beaten, menaced with arrest, mislead, defamed, and victimized by suspicious “accidents”.

Thousands of other workers in Mexico’s northern maquiladora (export-oriented manufacturing) sector face similar conditions when they try to claim their legal rights. They are exploited as cheap labor by transnational corporations under the rubric of “free trade” even as their own basic freedoms to organize amongst themselves and speak out about their working conditions are violated with impunity.

The international solidarity efforts that Han Young workers have explicitly called for (including marches, boycotts, demonstrations, letters from prominent religious leaders and organizations, speaking tours by Han Young workers, hunger strikes and even solidarity actions by Hyundai workers in the corporation’s home country of Korea) have already had some success. Because of international pressure, workers who had been illegally fired were reinstated with back pay. But the independent union, democratically elected by the plant workers on several occasions, has still not been officially recognized. Without recognition, they cannot legally negotiate a contract or go on strike. That’s why international efforts continue, and youth members of the Democratic Socialists of America in the U.S., the New Democratic Party in Canada, and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in Mexico planned simultaneous demonstrations in cities across the continent on October 30th.

Forum on Han Young Workers
On Thursday, Oct. 29, on the University of Chicago DSA sponsored a forum on the striking Han Young workers. Nearly thirty students and community members attended the forum, a very good turnout in the face of horribly stormy weather that evening. Panelists included David Moberg, a senior editor at In These Times and journalist specializing in labor issues, Amy Traub, a student at the University of Chicago and coordinator of the Han Young support work on campus, and Dan Graff, a representative the Labor Rights Task Force of the Nicaragua Solidarity Committee, which has been helping coordinate Han Young solidarity support in the Chicago area.

The panelists provided an update on the situation at Han Young, where workers have been on strike for union recognition since May 1998, and analyzed the crisis in light of the impact of NAFTA, economic globalization, and the potential internationalization of the labor movement.

The forum also served as the lead-in for a protest of a local Hyundai dealership, scheduled for the next day as part of an International Day of Action to support the Han Young strikers. The DSA Youth Section (as part of the International Union of Socialist Youth) held events in New York, Boston, Santa Barbara, San Diego, and Chicago.

Hyundai Protest on Chicago’s South Side
On Friday, October 30, thirty folks, mostly from the University of Chicago, picketed Quality Hyundai at 92nd St. and Western Ave. in Chicago. Chanting “Hyundai, Hyundai, respect labor rights!” and “Hyundai Motors, we’ll cut you down to size, unless you respect the right to unionize!”, the protesters received support from honking motorists during rush hour traffic.

The dealerships’ management was clearly irritated, and one staffer informed us he would definitely notify Hyundai headquarters of the action. The highlight of the day: a prospective car buyer talked with protesters and then opted not to shop at Hyundai. “Keep up the good work,” he shouted as he drove away.

September 19th Day of Action
The October 30th National Day of Action in support of Han Young workers was not the first this fall. On Saturday, September 19th, the Campaign for Labor Rights coordinated a similar effort. The DSA Youth Section planned its day of action on October 30th because a number of its chapters, including the University of Chicago, did not begin their academic year until after September 19th.

The Chicago action was coordinated by the Chicago Jobs with Justice Cross Border Organizing Committee and the Nicaragua Solidarity Committee Labor Rights Task Force. Some 40 people, including 9 DSA members mostly from the UofC Youth Section and Greater Oak Park DSA, turned out for a picket line outside of New Rogers Pontiac-Hyundai at 27th and Michigan in Chicago. The management there was more than irritated, but after a Donald Duck tantrum, the afternoon passed peaceably.

North America Is a War Zone
In other cross border action, the Dana Workers Alliance, along with the AFL-CIO, Canadian Labour Congress and the National Union of Workers in Mexico, has filed complaints under the side agreements to NAFTA against the Dana Corporation for firing union supporters and brutalizing employees at its Echlin brake plant in Itapsa, Mexico. In the States, the UAW, Steelworkers and Paperworkers represent some 12,000 Dana workers. Other members of the Dana Workers Alliance include the Teamsters, Canadian Auto Workers, UNITE and UE.

The railroad industry has become increasingly international as well. As a consequence, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, Maintenance of Way Employees, and STFRM (the Mexican rail union) have formed an alliance to share information and coordinate action.

U.S. and Canadian railroads have long owned lines across the northern border, but Mexico has recently privatized its railroads. Organized into several regional monopolies, the privatization law requires majority ownership by Mexican investors; however, all but one of the regional lines are dominated by U.S. railroads. U.S. staffing practices are spreading south of the border, resulting in layoffs.

The internationalization of the U.S. rail industry has spread beyond Mexico. The Kansas City Southern, for example, not only has a 49% stake in Mexico’s northeastern railway, TFM, but also runs Panama’s railway. The Wisconsin Central also runs the freight service in New Zealand and Britain.