Friday, 27 April 1990


Paul Anderson, review of Not Fade Away by Barrie Keefe (Theatre Royal Stratford East), Tribune, 27 April 1990

Miriam Karlin takes the lead role of Grace Webb in Barrie Keeffe's latest play at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, Not Fade Away. Grace is an old lady, the widow of a communist who "jacked it in and took up fishing" after the Hungarian revolution.

She escapes from incarceration in the old people's home in Essex where she has been put by her rich son, and goes back to Forest Gate in East London, her home for 60 years. There she befriends Bonner (Paul Barber), a young black man, after he is beaten up by football supporters outside the pub.

He takes her home and she gets stoned on his grass. Bonner and his sister Marie Louise (Angela Bruce), who is on the game, let her stay to look after Marie Louise's two daughters - until their place is raided for drugs.

In the sixties, Grace had played the piano in the local pub, and the play is punctuated by some marvellous Cockney renditions of sixties hits. It's a simple sentimental tale with a simple message - that racism stinks and that we write off the old – but it is well told with considerable wit and energy. Karlin's performance is superb. She is on stage for almost the whole play, and her presence is absolutely commanding. All in all, a great night out: the Theatre Royal has done it again.

Friday, 20 April 1990


Tribune leader, 20 April 1990

The victory of the right in the East German general election shows that East Germans want rapid unifica­tion and, crucially,  a currency agreement which allows them to exchange their East German Marks for the same number of Deutschmarks. Many East Germans voted right for the simple pragmatic reason that the sister parties of those currently governing in Bonn will be better able to negotiate the transition in East Germany's status than the sister parties of those in opposition.

It would be wrong for the left to carp: this is the very stuff of democratic politics. How transient can be 20-point leads in opinion polls! Moreover, the election result does not necessarily demonstrate that East Germany is irre­vocably conservative: it could all be very different next time round, particularly if, as seems very likely, the right fails to deliver on its more extravagant promises. The timetables for currency union and political unification put forward by Lothar de Maiziere's coalition are unrealistic, and the shock of exposing the East German economy to market forces could well damage the right's credibility.

Nevertheless, the result is a serious setback to the left, not just in East Germany but throughout Europe. At one level, it is a blow to expectations that a social-democratic "third way" would prove popular in post-communist societies. More important in terms of Realpolitik because of the pivotal role of West Germany in Europe, it has major implications for West German politics. The Federal Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, is now riding a wave of popularity. That makes it unlikely that his Foreign Minister, Hans Dietrich Genscher, a liberal, will abandon coalition with the right. And that makes it very difficult for the West German Social Democrats to win power after the West German election later this year – even though their candidate for the chancellorship, Oskar Lafontaine, is the best they have had since Willy Brandt.

If the SPD does not enter government, the balance of  power in western Europe will remain firmly to the Atlanticist right. The pace of demilitarisation will be slower, and moves towards a new European system of common security to replace NATO and the Warsaw Pact more tentative (or even non-existent). The likelihood of the European Community's social charter being given real teeth will diminish,  and so will the chances of western Europe acting in concert to ensure the Germany is not the only part of eastern Europe to the fate of becoming merely a source of cheap labour. European  strategies  to  encourage  sustainable world development will be less of a priority. And so on.

This should give the British Labour Party pause for thought. Since 1987, it has increasingly meshed its foreign and defence policies (and to some extent its economic  policies) with those of the West German SPD. Although this marks a welcome change from the Little Englander  assumptions of old, it has also led to a tendency blithely to assume that all Labour's problems will be solved by a shift to the left in West Germany in 1990. The events of the past week suggest that it might not be a bad idea to start considering what to do if that shift doesn't happen.


Paul Anderson, review of The Socialist Debate by Bogdan Denitch (Pluto, £19.95), Tribune, 20 April 1990

In the first chapter of The Socialist Debate, Bogdan Denitch describes the milieu, on the radical fringes of the Trotskysant New York intelligentsia, in which, as a young Yugoslav immigrant to the United States, he was politically active in the forties: "In the eternal almost talmudic debates between leftist grouplets we were for the sailors at Kronstadt, and the anarcho-syndicalists and POUMists in Barcelona in 1937, and the Left Opposition in Russia in the late twenties and thirties. We opposed the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We opposed the forcible extension of Soviet power throughout Eastern Europe and the imperialist agreements of Yalta and Tehran which legalised the new division of the world. Our journal of choice was Dwight McDonald's wonderful Politics, and I was heartbroken when he stopped publishing in 1949 with a gut-wrenching issue entitled 'Dilemma'."

The dilemma was whether it was possible to maintain a politics of opposition to both superpowers at a time when there seemed to be no base for any such thing and the west appeared a lesser evil. McDonald thought that it was time to give up; Denitch was one of the small group of leftists who decided to stick to their "Third Camp" guns. Forty years on, he is still playing the same tune, albeit with a lot less revolutionary rhetoric.

The Socialist Debate is a strange hybrid of a book. It seems to have been conceived as a "why you should be a socialist" tract, but fortunately Denitch is incapable of resisting the temptation to engage in polemic of great sophistication. His current political position is characterisable as workerist left social democracy. "Today it might be ironically appropriate to raise the slogan: forward to classical reformism," he writes after an enthusiastic passage on Sweden's advanced wel­fare state.

This is a rather unfashionable stance, but he defends it with a verve unmatched on the traditional British democratic left. Like many of his generation, he shares the Leninist distrust of self-managed, non-party politics, and some of his best passages are withering assaults on the woolly politics of the "new social movements". He is also extremely provocative on "fundamentalist" greens, whom he savages for arcadian anti-rationalism; and he attacks with relish the ideas of well-off critics of consumerism and full employment.

Although Denitch marshals some good arguments, in the end his old leftism, with its tendency to reduce all politics to class politics, fails to convince. Never­theless, this is a worthy effort – and its bibliography and footnotes are an excellent guide to the best left writing of the past 40 years.

Friday, 13 April 1990


Paul Anderson, review of Marya by lsaac Babel (Old Vic), Tribune, 13 April 1990

Isaac Babel died in 1940, a victim of Stalin's purges. He never saw a production of his short play Marya, written in the early thirties. Performances were banned immediately after its publication in 1934.

It's not hard to see why it attracted the wrath of the party censors: its view of the hardships of the civil war is emphatically not the stuff of Stalinist myth, even if its heart is firmly on the side of the revolution.

Marya is set in Petrograd in the winter of 1919. The war is raging just outside the city. There is a curfew every night. Food and fuel are scarce. The black market, prostitution and drunkenness are flourishing. The once wealthy Mukovkin family is attempting to adapt to post-revolutionary life in much-reduced cir­cumstances.

The father of the family, once a Tsarist general, is gradually reconciling himself to the Reds. One of his daughters, Ludmilla, tries to combat poverty by holding out the promise of marriage to a Jewish black marketeer; the other daughter, the Marya of the title, is nursed by his niece and the women's old nanny. In a series of vignettes of everyday life, Babel traces the family's history to the rape of Ludmilla, her subse­quent arrest for prostitution, the old man's death and the allocation of their rooms to a pregnant working girl and her man. Marya never appears on stage.

Babel's writing is understated, with much left to the imagination, yet the play is extraordinarily evocative of a society in crisis. Christopher Hampton's adapta­tion is well served by the actors, with Geoffrey Bayldon as the old general and Allan Corduner as the black marketeer particularly good. Roger Michell's production turns the scene-changes into spectacular Futurist happenings with crowds of workers toiling away in clouds of steam amid the clatter of machinery.

This is no twentieth-century masterpiece, but it does give a taste of what might have developed had the dark night of Stalinism not descended on Soviet culture.

Saturday, 7 April 1990


Paul Anderson, review of Socialism in Britain by John Callaghan (Blackwell, £11.95), Tribune, 27 April 1990

John Callaghan's previous work includes one of the best critical studies of British Leninism, The Far Left in Britain, so perhaps it should be no surprise that the crucial event in Socialism in Britain, an overview of organised socialism since the 1880s, is the Russian revolution of 1917.

Before the Bolshevik seizure of state power, the running among British socialists was being made by proponents of a participatory democratic socialism with workers' control at its core, notably the guild socialists and syndicalists, "Leninism changed the radical socialist catechism," writes Callaghan. "Henceforward the focus of Marxist activity was party building for the purpose of smashing the bourgeois state, crudely understood as 'bodies of armed men'."

Meanwhile socialism rapidly came to mean the system of power in the USSR, which, it was noted, was perfectly compatible with the most barbarous practices developed in capitalist industry. "Now it was possible for British Marxists to argue that as long as the Bolshevik party-state existed these 'superficially capitalist' industrial forms were of no consequence." It was not until the sixties that the radical democratic themes of socialism in the 1910s were to reemerge. In the intervening half-century, the fortunes of the Communist Party ebbed, flowed and ebbed again, while the Labour left veered between wooing the CP and denouncing it as a tool of totalitarianism.

Callaghan picks his way through the complexities of the British left's relationship with the Soviet Union and its proxy with great skill and without making sweeping judgements. But it is clear that he believes British socialism to have been severely handicapped by its failure to conceive of any alternative to left management of capitalism other than bureaucratic command — a failure mirrored in the post-war years by the rapid collapse of left  pressure on the Attlee government for a foreign policy that was neither Atlanticist (and Empire loyalist) nor pro-Moscow.

Callaghan's chapters on the sixties, seventies and eighties are the weakest in the book, largely because (despite his best efforts) he underpays the importance of social movements and overestimates the role of Leninists in -setting the left agenda.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue with his assessment of the contemporary Labour Party: "Although the Labour Party can still have its uses, the party is slow to adapt to changing values and ideas and can easily lose touch with its constituency. Labour's fixation with parliament and government has always functioned to the neglect of social struggles which form popular consciousness, and in the last 20 years in particular it has ceased to be the major source of the socialist, or indeed any other, radical vision."

This book, with its reminder of just how weak British socialism has been for most of its life, is a worthy supplement to Henry Pelling, G D H Cole, Ralph Miliband, James Hinton and the rest. It deserves a wide readership, not least because it buries once and for all the traditional Labour left illusion that socialism has mass support in Britain and has failed to make headway only because of the treacherous behaviour of Labour leaders.

Friday, 6 April 1990


Paul Anderson, review of All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare (Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican), Tribune, 6 April 1990

Barry Kyle’s production of Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well has its moments, but is for the most part rather uninspiring. All's Well works only if plebeian Helena's rejected passion for aristocratic Bertram is credible, but Patricia Kerrigan and Paul Venables don't quite pull it off.

He is bland and plain rather than haughty and dashing, and it's difficult to understand either what she sees in him or why he runs off after the King of France has made him marry her. That, in turn, makes it hard to make sense of her willingness to go to near-absurd lengths to trick him into bed.

Nevertheless, the main comic action is well done, and there is some excellent acting on display, particularly Bruce Alexander's Parolles, all swank and bluster, and Geoffrey Fishwater's Lavatch, the unhappy fool.

Sunday, 1 April 1990


Paul Anderson, review of Resources of Hope by Raymond Williams (Verso, £9.99), Sanity, April 1990

Raymond Williams, who died last year, was undoubtedly one of the most important and serious British left-wing writers of the post-war years. He was a man with the intellectual range of Jean-Paul Sartre or George Orwell, and he deserves the international readership that Sartre and Orwell enjoy. He was as interesting and elegant a novelist as he was a cultural theorist and occasional political essayist.

This book collects 27 of his essays, mainly political polemics, written over a period of 30 years on topics as diverse as state funding of the arts, the significance of the 1926 general strike, the weaknesses of the "English parliamentary tradition" and the politics of the eighties peace movements. Through them all runs a thread of radical democratic anti-capitalism which has an ambiguous relationship with the established institutions of the British Labourism. Williams was at the same time appreciative of the traditions of the British Labour Party and trade unions and uneasy at what they had spawned.

He was in essence a humanist Marxist New Leftist, whose basic approach to the world was at odds not only with the bureaucratic corporatism of Keynesian social democracy and the disaster of "actually existing socialism" but also with the sectarian neo-Leninism of the "57 varieties" and the arid scholastic Althusserian structuralism of New Left Review at its seventies worst. That much is clear in any one of the essays collected here, but never more than in "Socialism and Ecology", written in 1982, one of the  most cogent statements ever of the need for a radical green politics, taking issue with some of the conservative assumptions of the twentieth century left about economic growth.

Yet Williams backed Harold Wilson In 1964, never engaged in public criticism of the Communist Party or of other vanguardist sects, and kept contributing to NLR even at its nadir. Williams was a fine example of a man who believed that hair-splitting disputes with rivals on the left were an unnecessary and stupid diversion from attacking the real enemy. Nevertheless, some of his silences are telling.

For example, his often brilliant essay "The Politics of Nuclear Disarmament", written in 1980 as the western peace movement was exploding on to the scene (and still worth reading for its dissection of the parochialism of traditional British nuclear unilateralism), barely mentions the existence of the Soviet nuclear rearmament programme, which mirrored Nato's plans (as they then were) to install cruise and Pershing II in western Europe.

To be sure, he argues against defending the "workers' bomb" and says in a rather coded way that Soviet manipulation of the peace movement would be unwelcome. And of course, the main task of the western left and peace movement was always (and remains) to change the course of its own ruling class. Bui there's something missing here – something that should not have been missed, however likely it was to fuel controversy: Williams didn't grasp the nettle of developing a critique of "actually existing socialism". Why, I'm not sure, though it's a common enough nettle to ignore wilfully on the British left, even since Gorbachev has admitted the failings of what the Communist Party always said was perfect. Perhaps it's just the old maxim of making a priority of one's own predicament – a principle that Williams certainly followed in his concern for local community, best explored in his fiction. Or perhaps it's all generational: most people I've met under the age of 40 find 1917 about as much an inspiration as 1688.

None of this is meant to put you off reading this book. It's an excellent introduction to Williams's ideas, thoughtfully edited and well produced. And Williams is essential reading. But he was not a leftist pope. His contribution was above all to a discursive culture of opposition. He wrote to provoke discussion and dissent, and should be read with that In mind.