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A Prophecy, a Protest, a Priest | The Nation

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A Prophecy, a Protest, a Priest

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Recently, The Economist took out a full-page advertisement in the Financial Times of London boasting that it had predicted the coal miners' strike six years ago. Read today, the magazine's article is indeed impressive, but its authors had no unusual powers of divination. They merely quoted from a report by the Conservative Party's policy group on nationalized industries, issued on the eve of the party's 1979 electoral victory.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

Foreseeing a confrontation with the unions, the report stated, "The eventual battle should be on the ground chosen by the Tories...the most likely battleground will be the coal industry " It then listed measures a Thatcher government should take in preparation for the offensive: "Build up maximum coal stocks...make contingency plans for the import of coal...introduce dual coal-oil firing in all power stations." It also recommended a scheme "to cut off money supply to the strikers," the establishment of "a large, mobile squad of police" to keep order and the recruitment of "good non-union drivers...to cross picket lines with police protection."

In their meticulous planning for the strike, the Tory strategists took everything into account--except the determination the miners have shown and the strength of their resistance. Production is down, the balance of trade adversely affected and the pound weakened, but the costly strike, now in its tenth month, continues.

The peddlers of the Thatcher line In the media have had the extraordinary cheek to place all the blame for the national calamity on Arthur Scargill, the miners' leader, who in their version is naturally being inspired by the Kremlin and supported by Muammar el-Qaddafi. In reality, the strike is a demonstration of the lengths and expense to which a capitalist government is willing to go to "teach the workers a lesson." Yet he who dares to speak of class struggle is accused of being a dangerous and silly leftist--so unfashionable, my dear, so terribly out of date.

To say that France was paralyzed by the strike of civil servants in October would be to exaggerate. Although planes were grounded, tram service impaired and mall deliveries slowed to a trickle, the one-day action, called to dramatize demands for pay raises to keep pace with inflation, was hardly a success. In part, this was due to the reluctance of civil servants, who had voted massively for Mitterrand, to strike against "their" government. Also, because of the high rate of unemployment, the fonctionnaires feel somewhat guilty about what the general public considers to be their "pampered" status. When speaking of the privileged, the press seldom refers, say, to Marcel Dassault, the aircraft tycoon whose declared income is more than a thousand times the French minimum wage. Instead, it alludes to the postman, who earns just above the minimum. You see, the entrepreneur takes risks, while the postman is guaranteed job security. In the present climate of opinion, journalists find it is more advantageous to their careers to write that teachers or nurses should be grateful for their "privileged status," and accept a cut in real wages, than to condemn a society that breeds mass unemployment.

The most revealing comment on the strike was the headline in Libération, a trendy Paris daily founded by Maoists in 1973, which proclaimed, "Aujourd'hui Moins d'Etat" ("Less State Today") No, the story was not designed to praise the government services-education and welfare and the like-of which people were deprived by the strike. Its Maoist origins long forgotten, Libération is a pillar of "modernity." It praises the nouveaux philosophes (the leftists of the 1960s who recanted and are now the new conservatives) and shares their belief that the private sector is the epitome of virtue, and the state, evil personified. But the headline unwittingly illustrated the absurdity of that view.

There is much to be said about the welfare state, its assets and drawbacks. The capitalist establishment, for instance, must decide whether it can still afford transfer payments to those in need, which are so useful in easing social tensions. The left must ponder how to construct a different society in which the people have control over social services and can make them respond to their needs. There is also room for debate on the "unwithering" of the state. But if the left doesn't clearly define the state's role, if it doesn't distinguish administration from oppression, providing services from upholding class rule, the debate will be an empty one. Do the contemporary prophets of modernity, represented in the pages of Libération, really want to confine the state to the role of gendarme? Will they openly say that good education, good hospitals, good transport, should be available only to those who can pay for them? Occasionally a headline is a flashlight, illuminating old wares disguised as novelties.

West Germany has become Europe's school for scandal. The resignation of the leader of the Bundestag, the threat hanging over Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the proof that millionaire businessman Friedrich-Karl Flick paid off a leader of the Christian Democratic Union in 1973 to influence its choice of a successor, the Teutonic precision with which Herr Flick's accountant kept track of the money distributed since then to Bonn's political establishment--here you have all the ingredients for a splendid and ongoing story. The French papers did not miss this opportunity. Libération covered the Wassergate story well and without any patriotic smugness. It didn't deny that such a scandal could happen in France but asked whether it would be exposed.

If Libération's reporting was good, its comments were strange, revealing how the political mood in France has changed in the past ten or fifteen years. Ten years ago the paper would have described the scandal as an example of capitalist corruption, the seamy side of a political system no longer triumphant but historically doomed. The editorial writer would have borrowed Brecht's famous dictum about the twilight of small thieves and the reign of big criminals ("What is it robbing a bank compared with setting up a bank?"). Today, the writer does not see the root of the trouble in money, he sees it in human nature, arguing that every country has its sinners. Well, not quite. Come to think of it , repression in Poland, injustice in the Soviet Union, tell us something about their societies, while corruption in Bonn or Washington tells us something about fallible humanity. Champions of the double standard, they see the crimes perpetrated by the Communist regime in Poland and are blind to those committed by a pro-Western government in Turkey. But sometimes they are unpleasantly surprised, as in the recent case of Jacques Abouchar, a French television reporter who was imprisoned in Afghanistan.

I was delighted when Abouchar, who had crossed the Afghan frontier illegally with the insurgents and had been arrested by the Russians, was released from his jail cell in Kabul. Popular pressure and the Soviet Union's desire not to spoil relations with France did the trick. But some of the conservatives who had hoped to use the journalist's arrest for propaganda purposes must have had a shock when they read his account of his experience in Le Nouvel Observateur. Since the American press did not reprint the article, I will quote from it at some length.

In the first place, Abouchar was astonished that so many people were shocked by his detention. What would have been the reaction in France if a Pravda correspondent had been caught with Corsican bomb-throwing protesters or with the rebels fighting France's client in Chad? he asked. "True, because we are a democracy, we would have simply sent him back to the Soviet Union. But our spontaneous reactions would have been the same as those of the Afghans and the Russians."

Seeking no excuses for the invaders, Abouchar did not idealize the resisters either. In his Kabul cell, he had more in common with the Communist with whom he talked about Saint-Simon and Toynbee than with the prisoners who, five times a day, prayed to Allah. "The invasion, that was unacceptable. But between the Afghan Communists and the ayatollahs, the former might still be preferable.'' Don't misunderstand me Abouchar, a socialist, is no fellow traveler. He has only contempt for the French C.P., which tried to blame the Afghans for the arrest and acted as if the Russians were not involved. That attitude, however, does not prevent him from telling the truth as he sees it: "The men of the principal resistance movement, financed and armed by Pakistan, are religious fanatics, They send a shiver down the spine." Or from noticing that nobody in France is really interested in Afghanistan: "The day after my return, I went shopping. People talked to me only about the gulag. This gives food for thought to someone who is trying above all to tell what he had actually seen and heard." There are times when one is not at all ashamed of belonging to the second-oldest profession.

Did a quarter-million or 400,000 people gather around Father Jerzy Popieluszko's coffin in Warsaw on November 3? They were a multitude, the equivalent of a crowd of more than a million in New York City, and they attested to the popularity of Solidarity, if not to its power. Despite the arrests of three security policemen in connection with the murder of the pro-Solidarity cleric, the case is still shrouded in mystery Why did the officers allow Popieluszko's driver, a potential witness, to escape if they intended to commit murder? Was the assassination premeditated or was the priest's death a "professional accident,'' the result of a beating? After all, the autopsy now officially admits that before being drowned, he was tortured. Were the culprits relying on protection higher up? If so, how high and how far? At this point we must switch to the political aspects of the affair, which raise another set of questions.

The first is for General Jaruzelskl: Can one break the power of the secret police while preserving a police state? In his initial comment, Lech Walesa seemed to stress this dilemma, telling Jaruzelski, in effect, The plotters are your enemies as well as ours, so let's join together to fight them. In other words, Jaruzelski needs the popular support that only the labor movement can provide to stand up to his opponents in the government and their Soviet backers. But one might also ask Walesa a question: How can you cooperate with someone who does not want to talk to you, as the general has said repeatedly he does not? He is keen on a deal with Jozef Cardinal Glemp (who, incidentally, had criticized priests, mentioning no names, who become involved in secular affairs for not rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar's). Walesa's critics within Solidarity, both under- and aboveground, insist that the movement flex its muscles by forming human rights committees to monitor the police and by staying token protest strikes. They, in turn, must answer a question: How does one apply effective pressure on the regime without crossing the Rubicon?

The Communist Party, now in uniform; the Catholic Church, with its varying shades of opinion; and Solidarity, with its opposing factions, are all agreed on one thing: the imperative need to avoid an explosion. But Walesa's critics do have a point. The government will bargain only if it is forced to do so. To paralyze an industry or the country as a whole is merely a beginning, yet the search for a constructive compromise will probably not be resumed until the workers show, as they did more than four years ago, that they can bring the country to a standstill. In historical terms, the burden of proof is thus placed, once again, on the shipwrights of Gdansk or the miners of Silesia. Miners here, miners there. To stress class struggle as a factor in the politics of Eastern as well as Western Europe really calls for the gaucherie of your unfashionable correspondent.

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