George Soros, philanthropist and founder of the Open Society Foundation, is under attack – both from the far right and the Stalinist Left. Why should the democratic Left defend a multi-billionaire hedge fund owner and currency speculator?
There have never been as many billionaires in the history of capitalism as there are today. Collectively, they account for a historically unprecedented concentration of private wealth. Individually, for the most part, they remain unknown to public opinion, and enjoy their lifestyles in private.
Some, however, have become publicly prominent in different ways, ranging from the Koch brothers in the United States, who are supporters of the American Republican Party and of far-right extremist groups in different countries, to the cheerful cynicism of Warren Buffet (“Yes, there is a class struggle and my class is winning”) to Bill and Melinda Gates, with a foundation that supports a wide range of mainstream liberal causes. And then there is George Soros.
The case of George Soros is unique inasmuch as he is the only prominent billionaire who actively promotes progressive causes through his Open Society Foundation and who has become the target, precisely for that reason, of outlandish smear campaigns by heads of governments, conspiracy theorists and political thugs ranging from the far-Right to the would-be Left. Much of this comes from Eastern Europe, but not only. Why?
Just as the negative of a photograph sometimes shows revealing detail not visible with the same clarity in the photograph itself, so some personalities become clearer defined through their enemies. .
The list is inevitably headed by Viktor Orban, the autocrat who invented “illiberal democracy”, a contradiction in terms and a deliberate lie: when a democracy is “illiberal” it is not a democracy but something else. Orban has scored a huge majority (the recent legislative elections except in Budapest, where the opposition won two thirds of the seats) in return his party, FIDESZ, to power, by scaring the Hungarian people with another deliberate lie. He claimed that Soros’ concept of an “open society” was part of a secret plan to flood Hungary (and Eastern Europe) with millions of Middle Eastern (Moslem!) refuges, thereby threatening the integrity and identity of the Hungarian nation.. This was spread all over Hungary in an expensive campaign with racist and anti-Semitic undertones (Soros is of Hungarian origin and he is a Jew, therefore suspect of “Jewish conspiracies”).
In actual fact, the concept of “open society” originates with Karl Popper (1902-1994), the Austrian political scientist and philosopher. Popper was a radical Marxist in his youth, broke with Marxism after a traumatic experience with Communist adventurism in1919, moved towards social-democracy and asocial liberalism, escaped to Britain in 1938 when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany. When the war broke out, he made his way to New Zealand, where he taught at the University of New Zealand became a lecturer at the Workers’ Education Association. During the war he wrote his major political book: The Open Society and its Enemies”, published in 1945. It is a manifesto in defence of liberal democracy, against Nazism and Stalinism.
After the war Popper returned to Britain where he resumed a distinguished academic career. One of his students at the London School of Economics was George Soros, who had directly personally experienced the destruction of democracy by totalitarian systems and was determined to defend it. Soros is a disciple of Karl Popper. His Open Society Foundation was named in honour of Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies.
Orban of course knows this. In 1989 he received a scholarship from the Soros foundation to study political science at Pembroke College, Oxford. He is now trying to close down the Central European University, founded in 1991 and funded since by George Soros, with the aim of promoting open societies.
As for the anti-semitic overtones of Orban’s attack, and his stoking of hatred against refugees, one might have expected a more prudent approach from the leader of a country which, in 1944, sent 430,000 of its citizens to their death in Nazi extermination camps for being Jews (1), and where some 200,000 of its citizens had to flee to Austria and Yugoslavia in 1956 when the Hungarian revolution was crushed by the Soviet military intervention. But the man knows no shame.
While Orban is distracting and scaring the Hungarian people with lies and fake news, FIDESZ is relentlessly pushing through a regressive program of social disinvestment, which includes the dismantling of the public welfare system, with massive benefit cuts, an unsustainable pension system, declining health and education supports and a reactionary discourse on gender issues riddled with patriarchal and medieval language.
In Romania, the presidents of the so-called Social-Democratic Party, currently in government, Victor Ponta and his successor Liviu Dragnea, also the present Vice Premier Minister, both with a record of conviction in various fraud and corruption cases, have attacked Soros, the latest being Dragnea linking Soros to some unspecified foreign intelligence organization.
An older political lie in Romania is that the Social-Democratic Party is a social-democratic party. It is in fact the organization of the surviving kleptocratic elite of the former Communist regime. They get away with it because there is no one left who remembers what a social-democratic party is supposed to be like. This is the party which tried to amend existing legislation to legalize graft, and forced the closing down of the government’s anti-corruption authority, causing hundreds of thousands outraged citizens to demonstrate in the streets of Bucharest throughout the month of August, demanding the resignation of the government.
This is not a Right/Left issue. There is no Left in Romania, except small circles of intellectuals. There are only two mass movements, the pro-corruption party – for now – (in government and the anti-corruption coalition (in opposition), backed by the president Klaus Johannis, who is facing an impeachment threat from the government party. On August 22, the pro-corruption side received unexpected support from Rudolph W. Giuliani, US president Donald Trump’s lawyer, allegedly in a personal capacity, who in an open letter to the Romanian president, deplored the “excesses” in the country’s anti-corruption drive.
The anti-corruption movement has called on the European Union for help. Unfortunately the social-democratic group in the European Parliament, where most know little about Romania and have forgotten much of what they might have once known about socialism, for opportunistic and tribal reasons hesitates to oppose a party which is part of its group. Not so the Greens / European Free Alliance , who have demonstrated a higher standard of understanding and integrity.
And then, as one might expect, we have the undisputed leader and co-ordinator of the international right wing authoritarian and neo-fascist onslaught, Vladimir Putin. As early as 2015, the Russian government banned two branches of Soros’ charity network, the Open Society Foundation and the Open Society Institute, from operating in the country, alleging that they represented a “threat to the foundations of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation and the security of the state.”
Putin had accused Soros of sponsoring the popular revolution in the Ukraine in 2014, which swept away the Putin-backed regime and replaced it with a democratic political society. Of course there is a big difference between supporting democratic mass movement, which is a common and legitimate activity, and creating a democratic mass movement, which is beyond the power of any billionaire. Putin, however, subscribes to the police conception of history (2), according to which peoples are denied the capacity to ever conduct democratic revolutions independently. Revolutions can only happen as the result of conspiracies. or, as Stalin said: “Cadres decide everything.”
In an interview earlier this year, Putin had the audacity to compare “meddling” by the Soros foundations with interference by Russian agents in democratic elections, as in the US presidential elections of 2016. Here is the autocratic ruler of a powerful country governed by a tight circle of KGB veterans, where political opponents are assassinated with impunity, resorting routinely to military blackmail against its neighbours, saving a murderous autocracy in Syria and prolonging a civil war creating millions of refugees, daring to compare his enormously destructive record to the Soros foundations.
The list goes on: from Macedonia through Poland and Turkey and the Philippines to Kazakhstan, autocrats and reactionary politicians have attacked Soros and harassed or outright suppressed the Open Society Foundations, denouncing them as a threat to the established order – their established order.
The Global Labour Institute is a labour service organization guided by the principles and values of democratic socialism. So where do we stand with respect to the billionaire George Soros and his Open Society Foundations? Let us Look at the main issues:
George Soros is a “liberal democrat”? We stand with the democrats. Preferably without adjectives, but we accept adjectives that expand and deepen the meaning of democracy, like “social democracy”, or “industrial democracy”, not those that restrict or falsify its meaning. Orban’s “illiberal democracy” is a shameless lie, as is its cousin “guided democracy” which can only be taken seriously in countries where reality constantly outpaces satire. Also, there is nothing “Western” about democracy: it is a universal value. We had a proof this year when democracy broke out in Malaysia, replacing a regime threatening to be become a corrupt autocracy. And democracy is the major contentious issue between Taiwan and Hong Kong, on the one hand, trying to preserve a society where freedom and justice are a reality, against pressure from China trying to impose its autocratic mould.
In its philosophical sense, “liberal” is redundant (democracy can only be liberal) in its economic sense, it is restrictive, and too easily associated with “neo-liberalism”). (as we all know, also in democratic societies autocracy is a reality in economic life). We would welcome an acknowledgement by Soros that workers’ rights and trade union rights are an integral part of the human rights agenda he has so effectively defended.
George Soros is a Jew? That is an easy one: we stand with the Jews. No, not with Netanyahu, who is a small-time crook and should be in jail. No, with the Jewish people, for their extraordinary contribution to an enlightened human society, over millennia, despite horrifying persecutions and discrimination. We stand with our comrades in the Jewish labour movement. We honour the memory of the Bund, the party of the Jewish proletariat in Eastern Europe, an important party of the socialist Left before World War II, the only socialist mass party in history to have been destroyed, not because their leaders were jailed or killed, but because their very membership was exterminated. We honour the memory of Henryk Ehrlich and Viktor Alter, leaders of the Bund – Alter was a member of the Executive of the Socialist International – who were murdered in the Soviet Union where they had sought refuge from the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. We honour the memory of Marek Edelman, the military leader of the Bund who fought the Waffen SS when the Warsaw ghetto rose in revolt in April 1943, who survived to join the Polish resistance and in the 1980s was a leader of Solidarnosc. And, yes, we honour the Zionist Left who fought with the Bund and the Labour Zionists in the Warsaw ghetto and after the war were the first to advocate a two-State solution for a fraternal coexistence with the Arabs of Palestine. And yes: we want the anti-Semitic rabble to know, whoever and wherever they may be, that we stand with the Jews.
But hold on, George Soros never had any connection with the labour movement anywhere, and how can a billionaire be our friend? The answer is that we are dealing here with simple issues. The overriding reality in world politics today is the relentless advance of reactionary forces which, under different labels, are converging to destroy whatever progressive elements were inherited in European and North American societies, and not only there, after the victory over fascism in World War II, and eventually to destroy democracy itself. For the labour movement, this is an existential issue. There is no bigger issue at this time.
Political democracy – universal suffrage and women’s suffrage – and later different measures of democracy in social and economic relationships, have been the major historical achievement of the labour movement, together with the conquest of freedom of thought, freedom of association, freedom to speak, write and publish, the right to strike, the right to free education and health – the entire institutional and cultural edifice created to ensure a society with freedom and justice for ordinary people, is now under threat, and unions, as often, are in the first line of fire because they are the only democratic structure that has a capacity to resist, even if all of them don’t always know it.
Unions are under attack not necessarily by outright suppression, that’s old stuff, crude and may attract unwanted attention. More sophisticated methods are available, more in keeping with he spirit of the times: better to keep outer appearances intact while turning the organization into a tool of the State. The subversion and corruption of unions is now the favourite tool of autocracies, backed by threats wherever necessary, and it is not receiving the attention required by the international movement.
Do we need a billionaire to defend ourselves? Good question. Who else is there? Look around you: the main institutions of the international labour movement are nowhere to be seen. The International Trade Union Confederation and some of its allies are too busy recruiting the so-called trade unions allied with Putin and other authoritarian governments. The European Trade Union Confederation is too busy carrying out EU policy. The International Labour Organisation is losing its core purpose in promoting fundamental workers’ rights and has become ever more technical, bureaucratic and useless, with its workers’ representatives asleep at the wheel. International consciousness has dramatically declined in this century. National confederations and unions are for the most part caught in short-sighted issues, mesmerised by the unfolding horror-show of right-wing populism, winning some battles while losing the war.
Soros will not solve our problems, but his enemies are the same as ours, and meanwhile his Open Society Foundation is a very large roadblock for the tanks of tyranny. For the time thus gained, we must be grateful – and use it.
Soros is a maverick, a billionaire with a conscience, and that conscience is telling him that public service is more important than amassing personal wealth. Last year he donated USD18bn to his Open Society Foundation, out of an estimated fortune of USD32bn, making his foundation the third largest in the world and at his time the most effective opponent of all forms of autocracy, tyranny and dictatorship. He is correctly perceived and feared as such by all enemies of democracy. That is what the international war against Soros is all about.
(1) Another 19,000 had been murdered in 1941 and 1942, and 80,000 in 1944, by the Hungarian authorities.
(2) cf. Manès Sperber, The Police Conception of History (essay), in “The Achilles Heel”, Doubleday, 1960, 224 p.