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Movements of Labor: A Report on the LeftEast-Solidarity Network Convergence

Since 2011 and as part of the organization of LeftEast as a media platform, members of the LeftEast collective have organized summer schools in Budapest, Sofia, Kaunas, Istanbul and Skopje. Their aim has always been always twofold – or as we wrote once, dialectical – working with movements on the ground to connect regionally but also connecting to each other’s successes, challenges, and ongoing struggles, and producing the solidarity that textual exchange alone fails to deliver. ELMO and EAST are among the regional networks such collaborations have contributed to, making this practice ever more important. But organizing such events has been logistically challenging to achieve every year given the struggles of the regional social movements to reproduce themselves and the general difficulties we have faced. After postponing summer schools in Tuzla and Bucharest, we were hit, like everyone, with the impacts of Covid-19, and then by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Indeed, while emboldening nationalists and liberals of all stripes, the war has also diminished, divided, and disoriented the left, especially in postsocialist countries. Disagreements on the correct position, even when they are simply a matter of nuance, have hampered cooperation among leftist groups at national or international levels. Moreover, while practical solidarity with the victims of the war is imperative, the lure of geopolitics has — temporarily or permanently, we do not know yet — attenuated the already weak links between the postsocialist left and actual working-class struggles.

The Road to Tbilisi

This is why LeftEast editors were delighted to accept the Georgian labor union Solidarity Network’s invitation to host our 2023 convergence, “Movements of Labor.” In addition to re-rooting us in a class-based politics, it was also an excellent opportunity to de-virtualize and grow our larger network, and to work towards cohering a broader left in the region. Thanks to the generosity of a number of progressive foundations, this turned out to be the biggest of the seven summer convergences LeftEast has held since its emergence a decade ago, with participants coming from places as diverse as Kyrgyzstan, Montenegro, Lithuania, Armenia, Palestine, and Mississippi. East-Central Europeans still constituted the bulk of the 60+ participants, but the setting of Tbilisi meant that representatives of the post-Soviet left, especially the Caucasus and Central Asia, were able to attend. Not everything about the organization was so straightforward: in addition to a few organizational hiccups and last-minute cancellations, we faced some structural limitations: we could not invite labor activists from inside of Russia as doing so would have exposed them to new laws against “conspiratorial discussion of politics with foreign citizens.” Nor, despite some effort to this effect, were we able to form relations with and invite leftist groups from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, or Turkmenistan.

Upon descending to Tbilisi, we quickly found out that our Georgian hosts were operating under rather hostile conditions. While they did not reflect the sentiments of most Georgians we encountered at our convergence and in our plentiful interactions with people we met outside of it, “Never Back to the USSR!” stickers and anti-communist graffiti were ubiquitous in the center of the city. Then during introductions, one of the Georgian attendees was presented to us as the chair of an illegal communist party. “Why illegal?”—we wondered. “Because since Saakashvili communist ideology has been criminalized.” Indeed, as we learnt in the first day of the convergence, under Mikhail Saakashvili’s presidency, the Georgian state embarked on neoliberal reforms with an ideological zeal not seen anywhere else in postsocialist countries. Running an independent labor union is difficult in the absence of even a minimal safety net, in the face of hostile labor law, employers confident that they have the state’s back, and intelligentsia all too happy to red-bait you, with labor migration serving as the ultimate safety valve for social discontent. 

Measuring our forces

Yet on the first day of the convergence, on our tour of the Revolutionary Caucasus, we also learned that our Georgian comrades were literally sitting on immense resources, at least in the form of a powerful historical tradition. Our guide and Solidarity Network activist, Georgi Meskhi, began the tour with the former Tbilisi Theological Seminary, a modest institution meant to train lower-ranking clergy, which over a couple of decades in late nineteenth century graduated more revolutionaries than most distinguished universities with centuries worth of alumni, and ended it with the Avlabar Typography of the Caucasian committee of Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which during the fateful years of 1903-1906 published leaflets and whole illegal newspapers in Georgian, Russian, and Armenian. 

This dialectic between extreme adversity and resistance ran through the program of the convergence. Our Georgian comrades’ introduction to their country’s recent political history was followed by a session on post-Soviet labor struggles with speakers from Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. The moderator’s attempt to strike an optimistic note ran up against the sheer reality that the forces of capital in each of these countries are so much stronger than the forces of labor. Russia’s war on Ukraine, like Azerbaijan’s on Armenia, has introduced new labor regimes, even more hostile to labor organizing. War has made it harder for workers to identify primarily as workers—rather than as Armenians, for example—and act collectively in pursuit of their interests as workers. Growing national tensions have made the organizing of ethnically diverse workplaces even more difficult.

The theme of labor struggles kept returning thanks to sessions on global labor organizing, and on building alternative economies, which among other things, presented the work of cooperative economy movements  in Kaunas, Lithuania and Jackson, Mississippi, USA. The session on global labor organizing was anchored in exchange of experiences of struggle; it highlighted the importance of connecting the local and the global, including how local initiatives were informed, influenced and inspired by comrades’ struggles across the globe. In a separate panel devoted to healthcare work and prefaced by the recent report by our Georgian comrades on Social Consequences of the Privatization of Healthcare, Georgian nurses organized by Solidarity Network shared their experiences alongside accounts of their Ukrainian colleagues from the Be Like Nina movement, who have facilitated the establishment of independent medical worker unions. To jump-start the Georgian reforms from a clean slate, for example, the Saakashvili government fired whole categories of workers such as nurses from their profession and made them reapply for their jobs. Retaining one’s job was often predicated upon bribing the management of the newly privatized hospitals. But many nurses lost their profession permanently, others left the country for Western Europe or Russia, typically finding jobs as house-workers or carers for the elderly or the young, along with all the miseries of an undocumented status. While some of the radicalism of neoliberal reforms may have been specific to Georgia, the general logic of state divestment from and commercialization of healthcare felt familiar to their Ukrainian colleagues from Be Like Nina. Organized initially as a protest against the abysmally low wages and the destructive reforms piled on the Ukrainian healthcare system, their movement grew into a mass organization over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, giving nurses a voice to protest the state’s abysmal response in the hospitals. Even today, when they are put under even greater pressure on account of the war and work-related protests are banned, they continue their work of creating medical unions and defending medical workers’ rights throughout Ukraine.

Connecting social struggles 

Labor migration–also suggested in the “Movements of Labor” title — was another major focus of the convergence. For Georgia itself, the official figure of labor migrants is a fifth of all working adults, in reality probably more. Two sessions were explicitly devoted to the topic: one, about the reproduction of “whiteness” through Eastern European workers’ migration to the North/ West and a workshop that attempted to apply our long term social movement based knowledge production on gentrification and financialization of housing in the region to massive shifts in the housing market that followed Ukrainian and Russian migration through capital cities in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Balkans.

In addition, the convergence featured significant engagement with theory, first in the form of two sessions that sought to arm the audience with two concepts, already dominant in Western Marxism but only recently making inroads to postsocialist contexts: primitive accumulation and social reproduction. A feminist theory and praxis session was also dedicated to the question of how these theories are applied on the ground by feminist movements working in the region. The very necessity for socialists to learn theory produced by Marxist critique applied to our region by figures silenced by local censure and regional language barriers was defended in Nana Absava’s presentation of the book Economics or Unified Political Economy? by her late husband, the Marxist political economist Djemal Pachkoria. Speaking to us in Georgian and belonging to a Soviet generation, she and the other students of Pachkoria visibly stood out from the remaining convergence participants. This wasn’t the first time LeftEast has sought to facilitate the connection between the two cohorts of the region’s left–a younger, postsocialist generation that had come to socialism largely via Western Marxism and an older generation of true Marxists formed in the late-Soviet era and marginalized in the remaining 30 years — but it was particularly moving. A final session on workers’ needs and feminist struggles articulated the experience of and necessity for socialist  feminism in the region.

Last but not least, we spent time thinking about the future. A panel on Media Strategy introduced the East European Left Media outlet (ELMO), which has emerged over the last few years via some of its member publications: in addition to LeftEast, the Croatian Radnička Prava, the Moldovan Platzforma, the Bulgarian Dversia, and the Romanian Gazete de Arta Politica. Other left media platforms outside of the ELMO network such as the Kyrgyz KyrgSoc and the Azerbaijani Workers’ Voice were also invited to present on their work. The session shared the process through which the network emerged and has managed to produce and translate left news and analysis across 8 regional languages, sought ideas for moving the dense and lively network of cooperating media in the region forward, and for expanding it, given lack of funding.

The last day’s sessions were dedicated to strategic discussions of “where next,” of how to foster lasting collaborations among the region’s left. We recognized the ways in which labor struggles have finally taken central rather than peripheral stage reorganizing the work of older and producing a new generation of regional movements and independent unions: a huge and impressive amount of work done in adversary conditions and hostile labor regimes. At the same time, two core topics that continuously come up as central to our struggles were outlined. Firstly, the necessity to understand better what part of our work is easier and perhaps more effectively done locally and which should become part of more active international collaboration. Secondly, the always important question of how we sustain ourselves and our movements, on local, national, and regional level, given the acute crises of social reproduction that we are immersed in while capitalist capture around us is always stronger. Some ideas were suggested to the first effect, including a transregional campaign for the liberalization of strike laws and requesting income redistribution from extracted migrant-level within the European Union and its associated members, in the first place. Moving forward, participants expressed the wish to connect trans-generationally, directly involve the very subjects of our theory and activism, be they workers, carers, the targets of racial, gender, economic injustice, and also consider more closely the issues of burnout and mental health in our activist communities.

Finally, we felt and benefitted from Georgian hospitality — valuable work of social reproduction — which enveloped us through the day and every evening, the supras, laden with indescribably tasty food, the songs our Georgian comrades sang, the poetic toasts they raised, as well as the generosity of numerous strangers we talked to in Tbilisi and beyond. This is not only meant as a thank-you to our hosts from the Solidarity Network but also as a hopeful sign for the future of Georgian socialism and internationalism. Despite the ravages of thirty years of neoliberalism, Georgia has retained much of its society — in the sense of care for people you do not know — something that has disappeared or at least become much more attenuated elsewhere in the postsocialist world. We learned again that to struggle for socialism, we must maintain our society and nurture the social.