Friday, 21 December 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 December 2001

The death last week at the age of 86 of Vernon Richards, who edited the anarchist paper Freedom for what seemed like aeons, brings an era to an end.

Of course, there are plenty of people still around who played a part with Richards in the myriad adventures with which he and Freedom were associated from 1945 onwards. There are even a few survivors from what you might call the “George Orwell left” of the 1940s, that strange marginal milieu of anarchists and democratic socialists – including Tribune – that kept the critical libertarian impulses of the British left alive at a time when most self-proclaimed socialists were singing the praises of technocratic social democracy or totalitarian communism. Richards first became a minor public figure in 1945 when, with two anarchist comrades, he was imprisoned for incitement to disaffection of the armed forces. Orwell and Tribune, although disagreeing with their view of the war, backed them to the hilt on civil libertarian grounds.

But now Richards has gone, there is no one left, as far as I'm aware, who actively participated with Orwell and others in an earlier defining moment: the libertarian left's struggle in the late 1930s to publicise Stalinist treachery in the Spanish civil war.

The son of an Italian anarchist exile, Richards responded to the social revolution in Spain in 1936 by resurrecting Freedom, then moribund, and renaming it Spain and the World. Its purpose was unashamedly propagandist – to highlight the revolutionary achievements of the Spanish anarchists. But, along with the similarly small-circulation press of the Independent Labour Party and the Trotskyists, it was exceptional among left publications in Britain in telling the truth about the attempt by the Soviet Union, through its proxies in Spain, to hijack the Republican war against Franco's Nationalist uprising, destroy the revolution and create a pliant puppet state – a course of action that did as much to ensure Franco's eventual victory as the refusal of France and Britain to support the Republic.

(Anyone in any doubt about that this is what happened should read the documentation from the Soviet archives published this year in the marvellous Yale University Press Annals of Communism series, Spain Betrayed, which makes an incontrovertible case against Moscow.)

At the time, most of the left in Britain – as elsewhere – simply looked away, preferring to see the struggle in Spain as a simple one between democracy and fascism, with the Soviet Union and the Spanish communists on the side of good against evil. Victor Gollancz turned down Orwell's offer of the book that became Homage to Catalonia, which blew the gaffe on the whole story; Kingsley Martin at the New Statesman refused to publish a review by Orwell that denounced the communists as a counter-revolutionary force. At Tribune, set up by Stafford Cripps and others as part of a campaign to unify the Labour Party, the Communist Party and the ILP, the thorny question was dealt with by the simple expedient of not referring to it in print – much to the consternation of the ILP.

The wilful refusal of the British left to face up to what the Soviet Union was doing in Spain, combined with its simultaneous failure protest against the show trials and the Great Terror in the Soviet Union itself, remains perhaps its most shameful episode – as many left-wingers came to realise after the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact.

Yet the refusal still stubbornly endures: in the current exhibition on the Spanish civil war at the Imperial War Museum, to take just one example, Moscow’s perfidy barely warrants a mention. One reason, undoubtedly, is the fact that so many Britons, most of them working-class communists, died fighting for the Republic in the International Brigades: 526 of the 2,400 who volunteered. Faced with their sacrifice – and with the conviction of their surviving comrades that theirs was an uncomplicatedly good fight – many on the left still think it indecent to point out that the anti-fascist struggle was sabotaged from within by the Soviet Union’s machinations.

Here, however, Richards was unsentimental. Throughout his life, he argued that the idealism and bravery of the Brigadiers should not be an excuse for evading the truth about Spain. And however much you might disagree with everything else he stood for – Richards was an inveterate critic of parliamentary reformism and much else that is at the core of Tribune’s democratic socialism – on that he was surely right. The left could have done with a few more like him.
  • Spain Betrayed : The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, edited by Ronald Radosh, Mary R. Habeck and Grigory Sevostianov, is published by Yale at £27.50

Friday, 7 December 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 7 December 2001

Israel's extraordinarily violent and indiscriminate response to last weekend’s appalling suicide bombings, attacking Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Gaza and Ramallah and sending in F-16s against the Palestinian police headquarters in Jenin, has forced the vexed question of what to do about Israel and Palestine back to the top of the international agenda.

Not that it should ever have been shoved to one side in the first place. It is fatuous to claim that the atrocities of September 11 or the fanaticism of Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts-cum-protégés were caused by the festering wound of Israel-Palestine — let alone justified by it. But there should never have been any doubt in anyone’s mind that finding a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is urgently necessary if the post-September 11 rhetoric of a global campaign against terrorism is to prove anything other than empty sloganising. And while the eyes of the world have been fixed on Afghanistan, a massive Israel-Palestine crisis has been unfolding.

It is in no sense to defend the Hamas suicide bombers’ vile actions to say that they are hardly surprising. The great hopes of September 1993, when Yitzak Rabin and Arafat met in Washington to sign the Oslo accords, holding out the prospect of a process leading to the establishment within a decade of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza coexisting peacefully with Israel, have long since melted away. And the fault lies largely with the Israelis.

It was Israeli intransigence over settlements, the status of Jerusalem and the rights of Palestinian refugees that led the Palestinians to break off talks and then launch a second intifada against Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza.

And particularly since February, when Ariel Sharon became Israeli Prime Minister, the Israelis have taken an ever more uncompromisingly hard line on Palestinian unrest, isolating the West Bank and Gaza economically, assassinating Palestinian radicals and making repeated armed incursions into Palestinian areas, killing hundreds of civilians in the process.

In response, Palestinian public opinion has swung sharply behind the leftists and Islamists. In recent months, it has become increasingly clear that Sharon’s intention is to topple Arafat’s Palestinian Authority — and thereby to destroy any chance of a resumption of the peace process.

Until this week, however, it has been just about possible to hope that the United States and Europe would act as a restraint on Sharon. In October, when Sharon sent the tanks into six Palestinian towns after the assassination of the Right-wing minister Rehavam Zeevi by the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the US State Department and President George Bush told the Israelis in no uncertain terms to get out.

Both the US and Europe rejected Sharon’s attempts to get them to bracket the Palestinian Authority with the Taliban as a safe haven for terrorists. (They balanced this by putting pressure on Arafat to clamp down on the PFLP, Hamas and other Islamist militants — a course of action that he took, even though it undermined his already faltering political position.)

Yet this week the US effectively gave the green light to Sharon’s hard-line response to the suicide attacks. “The President’s point of view is Israel is a sovereign power. Israel has the right to defend itself,” declared the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, on Monday. “The president thinks it is very important the Palestinian jails not only have bars on the front, but no longer have revolving doors on the back.”

This apparent change of position is extremely worrying. Coupled with Sharon’s unprecedentedly extreme denunciation of Arafat on Monday and the harshness of the Israeli strikes on Monday and Tuesday, it raises the spectre of Israel mounting an all-out attack on the Palestinian Authority — a course of action that would lead inexorably to a bloody Israel-Palestine war, triggering a massive international crisis that would convulse the whole Middle East. Even if this does not come to pass, there is a real danger that the security clampdown now being implemented by Arafat at American insistence will spark a Palestinian revolt so severe that the Palestinian Authority collapses. It is unlikely that it would be replaced by an entity more friendly to Israel.

In these dangerous circumstances, it is imperative that the US and Europe make it clear publicly that they are not prepared to give Sharon a free hand. While empathising with Israeli grief over last weekend’s victims, they must insist that he ends his punitive policies in Gaza and the West Bank at once — and demand that he sits down to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority about a complete and permanent Israeli withdrawal from those territories and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

Friday, 23 November 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 23 November 2001

Er, sorry, folks — but I’m afraid last week’s Tribune was just a little disappointing. In the week before it went to press, nearly everything the paper had said in the previous month about the war in Afghanistan had been rendered obsolete by the turn of events. I know the difficulties of producing a weekly with limited resources. But surely the collapse of the Taliban warranted more than a news piece and a leader?

I’m not crowing about being proved right about the American military intervention. The defeat of the Taliban is a good thing in itself — the scenes of celebration in Kabul speak for themselves — but what happens next is uncertain and might be dreadful. I have no intention of following The Sun, Christopher Hitchens, Polly Toynbee, Anne McElvoy, David Aaronovitch et al in demanding grovelling apologies from opponents of the war as tribute for wobbles and misinterpretations . There is a long way to go yet; success is not guaranteed. It’s not wimpish to worry about the consequences of B-52 bombing raids. And it is still possible that Afghanistan will collapse into bloody factional feuding amid mass starvation.

Nevertheless, those who have lampooned the opponents of the war do have a point. Let’s leave aside for a moment the Trots and Stalinists, the small band of conservative peaceniks and the Muslims. The mainstream peace movement has come, predictably, from the democratic left: the Labour anti-war lobby, Tribune, the New Statesman, the Greens, CND. And that democratic left milieu has been wrong both in its analysis of what has been going on and in its prescriptions for what should happen next.

Contrary to widespread predictions, the US has not been embroiled in a “quagmire”, let alone a “new Vietnam”. The Taliban did not prove invincible warriors: they scarpered. The bombing did not result in giant civilian casualties. There have been verified massacres by the Northern Alliance, but so far nothing to compare with what hapened in 1992, let alone with the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Far from preventing aid getting through to starving civilians, the military action has made it possible to feed thousands who would otherwise have been unreachable.

Of course, inadequate understanding of rapidly changing circumstances in faraway countries is nothing new. Imperfect foresight is inevitable. No one guessed that the Soviet Union would implode until it actually did. I still sometimes lie awake at night at the memory of declaring in these pages, back in 1989, that we would not see German reunification in our lifetime. Ahem, whoops, well, it happens to us all, doesn’t it?

But there is more to the peace movement’s failure than making bad predictions in good faith. As during the Gulf war in 1991, the Bosnian war of the mid-1990s and the Kosovo war in 1999, it is remarkable how far its errors of judgment have been driven by fatalism, a pessimism of the intellect uncompensated for by even a glimmer of the optimism of the will. Time and again over the past month, I have come away from meetings adressed by Labour left and CND opponents of the war with a gloomy sense that they not only thought the US military action would not work — they actually wanted it to fail.

In line with this, just as over the Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo, the mainstream peace movement has had no qualms, in pursuit of the largest possible anti-war mobilisation, about giving new life to some of the most unpleasant parasites in the leftist pond: the Leninist advocates of “anti-imperialist” revolutionary defeatism who believe that any enemy of capitalism is a friend of the workers.

In case you missed it, the Socialist Workers’ Party refused to condemn the September 11 attacks. The committee that has organised the demos against the war is dominated by the SWP and loaded with representatives of every other Stalinist and Trotskyist sect — 57 varieties, all unfit for human consumption, as the old libertarian slogan had it. Each one of these believes in its heart of hearts that the best outcome of the war is defeat for America and its allies — in other words, victory for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. I could only cringe at the spectacle of decent democratic socialists and Greens and liberals standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these charlatans at last Sunday’s anti-war demonstration.

So what, you think. Occasionally it is necessary to ally oneself with bad people to defeat a greater evil. That is what happened between 1941 and 1945, when Britain embraced Stalin in order to defeat Hitler. (It is also what the US has done in Afghanistan, supporting the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, but let that pass.)

When you don’t need to play that game, however, there’s no sense in doing so. And if the peace movement continues to ally itself with the revolutionary defeatists, it will lose all credibility — as it did over the Gulf, Bosnia and Kosovo. That doesn’t bother me insofar as I am a supporter of this war. But I also worry about the survival of a credible left in Britain. And on that one, right now, the optimism of the will is being sorely tested.

Friday, 9 November 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 9 November 2001

The most important thing about the war in Afghanistan is that, nearly five weeks in, we still don’t have much of a clue about what is really going on.

We know that things haven’t gone the way the Americans expected at the very beginning. The initial bombardment of military installations with cruise missiles and “smart” bombs did not lead to the collapse of the Taliban regime. Nor did it make possible the introduction of special forces on the ground: the first attempt to do so, apparently staged at least in part to provide uplifting TV news pictures, appears to have come close to disaster.

We also know that, since that fiasco, the US has shifted strategy to bombing the Taliban’s front lines and supporting the offensive of the Northern Alliance. We can be sure that there have been some civilian casualties, that the refugee crisis has become even worse, and that many people who at first supported the US action — most importantly various governments in the Islamic world — are now extremely apprehensive, despite the efforts of the Americans and their foremost ally, Tony Blair, to shore up support. And it is obvious that winter is now upon Afghanistan, and that this will make both military action and the supply of relief to the starving civilian Afghan population much more difficult.

But beyond this, all we have to go on is hunch. Have there been many civilian casualties from the American bombing raids? Well, there’s nobody credible who knows and is in a position to tell.

The Taliban say there have been, but their claims are suspect for obvious reasons; and so far their guided tours for foreign journalists of claimed atrocity sites have not yielded conclusive evidence of anything other than a few tragic targeting errors.

On the other hand, the US says there haven’t been many civilian casualties, but its claims are suspect too — not least because its only means of assessing the body count is satellite photography.

Does the Northern Alliance have any hope of inflicting a decisive military defeat on the Taliban? Again, there’s no trustworthy source of information. There are journalists with the Northern Alliance. But most are miles from any military action and can do nothing but relay rumours and write colour pieces. Some of their reportage is very good — but the more honest of them recognise that all they can do is provide mood music.

What about the military strength of the Taliban and morale among their troops? All we have to go on is American satellite photographs and the word of refugees and a handful of deserters. There are conflicting claims about the number of Afghan civilians facing starvation and about the ability of the aid effort to feed them. As for the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden, his vulnerability or his plans, well, no one has the faintest idea.

All of which means that — unless you believe either that there was never any justification for American military action against the Taliban or that any military action against the Taliban is justified — it is extremely difficult to come to an informed opinion about what should be done next.

So far, contrary to the claims of some prophets of doom, there is no reason to conclude from the available evidence that the American intervention has been an unmitigated disaster, with thousands of civilian casualties and no prospect of success.

It remains possible that the bombing of Taliban lines will pave the way for successful action on the ground, which in turn will lead to the collapse of the Taliban regime and perhaps even the capture of Bin Laden and destruction of his Al Qa’ida forces. It remains possible too that the relief of famine will not be unduly hampered by the military action.

But there are also no grounds for unalloyed optimism. In particular, the danger that the military action will undermine any chance of averting mass starvation is horribly real. And even though it is unrealistic to expect instant success in the military campaign, the longer the bombing goes on without significant action on the ground, the more it will appear that the US has no idea of how even a first victory in the war against terrorism will be achieved.

On balance, given that the military action still has a reasonable chance of success — and that the alternative, a victory for Bin Laden and the Taliban, would be a disaster for the whole world — the US and its allies continue to deserve the support of the left.

But that support should not be unconditional. If the campaign grinds on with no sign of a military breakthrough while making impossible the provision of aid to the starving, it should be halted, at least temporarily, and a new strategy drawn up. We are not at that point yet, we might never get to it. But it could be with us very soon.

Friday, 26 October 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 26 October 2001

Call me obsessed with the arguments of past if you like, but I've been struck over the past few days by the number of otherwise sensible people on the left who absolve the former Soviet Union from any blame for the rise of psychotic Islamist fundamentalism in Afghanistan.

The spark was a piece by Julie Burchill – who is, of course, far from sensible – in last Saturday's Guardian. In it she declared that she felt vindicated at last for pleading in the 1980s for western support for the Soviets in Afghanistan, "the forces of civilisation against the forces of barbarism", to "stop the Islamofascists in their tracks as surely as the democracies could have stopped the forces of fascism proper in Spain if only they hadn't looked the other way".

How preposterous, I thought – and said so that evening in the pub to a bunch of leftie mates, none of whom I'd previously suspected of harbouring lingering admiration for the Red Army's murderous exploits in the Hindu Kush.

Oh no, they all said. She's right. At least the communists let women go out without the veil. At least girls could go to school. At least they made a start on land reform ...

Somewhat surprised by this response, I asked other liberal and left-wing friends what they thought – and with a couple of exceptions they were of much the same opinion.

The Soviet intervention might have been crude, their argument went, but the real villains of the piece were the fundamentalist mujahedin, who would have got nowhere without the material backing of the west. Which shows that La Burchill strikes a chord with my generation even now – but also that few on the left in Britain paid very much attention to Afghanistan when it last dominated the news.

Because the truth is that the Soviets intervened in 1979 not to defend a decent moderate secular modernising socialist regime but to topple a bunch of wannabe Pol Pots whose dictatorship had alienated most of the country's population and now faced imminent collapse in the face of popular insurgency. The Kremlin engineered a coup and sent in the troops to avert the end of Soviet hegemony in a territory it wanted as part of its bloc.

The regime installed by the Russians, though certainly a little more reasonable in its administration of everyday life than what had gone immediately before, had no popular support outside Kabul and a few big towns. It was utterly intolerant of dissent and completely dependent on Soviet backing. And the Soviet occupation force soon distinguished itself by launching a bloody counter-insurgency war, indiscriminately targeting civilians, that makes the current American assault on the Taliban look a model of restraint.

Unsurprisingly, this had the effect of recruiting thousands to the ranks of the mujahedin, who at this point were neither particularly fundamentalist – during the early 1980s the Afghan resistance was predominantly on the moderate end of Islamism and by no means committed to international jihad without end – nor, before 1981, the beneficiaries of significant western material support.

They weren't particularly effective either, though they did enough to keep the Red Army busy, and by the 1983-84 there were signs that they were tiring and prepared to parley. Had Moscow and Kabul then offered them a peace deal and a government of national reconcilliation, it is unlikely that most of them would have refused. Instead, the Soviets stuck pig-headedly to the pursuit of the unwinnable counter-insurgency war until well into 1986, and the die was cast for disaster.

This is not to exonerate the west for its despicable role in what subsequently ensued. America decided to bankroll and arm the most fanatical diehard mujahedin faction from 1981-82; and after the Soviets withdrew, humiliated, from Afghanistan in 1989, it ensured there was no peace agreement between the more moderate mujahedin and the beleaguered regime the Russians left behind in Kabul. During the protracted civil war that raged through Afghanistan in the 1990s, the west looked the other way.

The root cause of the Afghan catastrophe was, however, Soviet imperialism. Had Moscow resisted the temptation to intervene in 1979 or opened talks with the mujahedin in 1984, the "Islamofascists" would indeed have been stopped in their tracks.

Which is perhaps not much help to anyone looking for guidance as to what to do today. But it's always a good thing to get your facts right.

Friday, 12 October 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 12 October 2001

So the phoney war is over. As I write, American forces have launched bombing and missile attacks on targets in Afghanistan for two nights running, backed by the British on day one. For better or worse, what appears to be a major battle has begun — and, for better or worse, the British left has to decide where it stands.

During the phoney war, it was relatively easy. As I said in my last column, apart from a few morons who rushed into print to tell the world that America had it coming on September 11, the left was united both by its horror at the outrages in New York and Washington and in urging the US not to do anything stupid in response.

That, however, kept open all sorts of possibilities — at least in the imagination — that are now closed for ever. As soon as the raids started, “Hang on for a moment” stopped being a tenable position, however credible it might have been a week or even a day before. The options now, to put it brutally, are “Victory to the heroic Islamic anti-imperialist fighters”, “Stop this madness at once” or “Let’s hope it works”.

The first of these options is easy enough to dismiss, although I’m afraid there are a few Leninists still loyal enough to the memory of old Vladimir Ilyich (and stupid enough) to embrace it. A victory for the Taliban and Bin Laden — and for Bin Laden it would be victory simply to evade death or capture or for his organisation to survive to commit further outrages — would be a disaster for everyone else.

“Revolutionary defeatism”, the Leninist injunction to work for the defeat of one’s own side in “imperialist” war and then turn defeat into insurgency against one’s own ruling class, was never other than a mendacious recipe for terror, bloodshed and dictatorship. Its “successful” application in current circumstances would mean civil war raging through the Arab and Muslim worlds with Islamist fascist terror running rampant.

Not least because this is a plausible worst-case scenario, many on the left argue for the hostilities to cease at once. The evidence against Bin Laden and the Taliban is inconclusive, they say. And if the objectives of the attacks on Afghanistan are to capture or kill Bin Laden or to topple the Taliban regime, there are grounds to be sceptical about the likelihood of success, particularly with winter only a month away. Moreover, continuing with the assault means that thousands of innocent civilians might die (in part because it makes impossible the relief of the famine that was gripping the country long before September 11).

Even if civilian casualties are minimal, the attacks have already provoked a wave of anger throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, and it is not difficult to imagine what this might portend: a surge of Islamist militancy, the collapse of this or that regime, a bloody showdown in the Occupied Territories. Surely it makes sense for the US and its allies to think again and stop the military action right now?

Well, in our dreams perhaps. In reality, we have to face the fact that they are not going to do it, at least in part for good reason. Now the US has opted for military action, its withdrawal would be celebrated by Bin Laden and the Taliban as a stunning victory. And the consequences of that are — see above — too dire to contemplate.

It is because of this that I find myself reluctantly in the “Let’s hope it works” camp. I am not an enthusiast for raining bombs and missiles on poor defenceless civilians or for subjecting them to slow death by starvation. Nor do I believe the United States — or the developed west as a whole — has the right to impose its will as it chooses throughout the world.

I share the anti-war lobby’s doubts about the unintended consequences of the attacks. But I am persuaded of the guilt of Bin Laden’s Al-Qaida network for September 11 and of the Taliban regime’s reliance upon and support for him. And now limited military action against both Bin Laden and the Taliban has begun, there is no credible alternative to continuing with it.

It needs, however, to be accompanied by a radical recasting of western, particularly US, policy towards the Arab and Muslim worlds if it is to have a chance of success. It will not be enough merely to destroy the Taliban and capture or kill Bin Laden— difficult as either may prove.

The US and its allies will also have to ensure the establishment of a decent democratic Afghan regime and provide it with the means of rebuilding after more than two decades of civil war. They will have to make it clear that the age-old policy of propping up corrupt oligarchies in most Arab states is at an end. And, most important of all, they will have to show the world that they are serious about forcing Israel to give up the Occupied Territories to a Palestinian state.

Friday, 21 September 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 September 2001

The ramifications of the vile outrages in New York and Washington are immense: on that everyone agrees. But what will happen next is anything but obvious. As I write, the United States and its allies are preparing for action, but what exactly it will comprise is unclear. It seems most likely that we will see an armed attack on targets associated with Osama bin Laden, along with a determined effort to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that has given him sanctuary.

But an all-out assault on Iraq, apparently given serious consideration by the Bush administration last week, cannot be entirely ruled out. Then there are the possibilities of a social explosion in Pakistan or the Occupied Territories, or the use of weapons of mass destruction. And what if there are further terrorist atrocities in the US – or France, or Germany, or Russia, or Britain?

In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the left throughout the west has been jittery. The mainstream left response to the September 11 attacks, in Britain as elsewhere, was one of horror at the inhumanity of the terrorists and sympathy for the victims. A handful of cretino-Leninists and anti-globalisation activists – and, to its eternal shame, the New Statesman – celebrated imperialist pig Amerika getting its comeuppance at the hands of the oppressed, but these were marginal voices, as they deserve to remain.

In the fortnight and more since those shocking, spectacular pictures appeared on the world's television screens, their full impact has sunk in. The rhetoric of the politicians, for a change, articulates a mood among the whole population. This was an attack on our very civilisation, in that it targeted and destroyed the sense of safety that we took for granted most of the time in most of the developed world. Now, we dream nightly of dying in terrorist outrages – or of our children or our friends or our parents dying – and our feelings of disgust and empathy have been edged by doubt and fear.

The biggest worry is that America will do something stupid that makes matters even worse – which on past experience is far from unlikely. Over the past 100 years, the period in which the US has been the world's greatest power, America has on occasion been the shining beacon to the world evoked by the leader-writers of the Times and the Telegraph – most importantly in the 1940s, when it played a key role both in defeating Hitler and in containing Stalin in Europe, but also more recently in the Balkans, where without its intervention Slobodan Milosevic and his vile cronies would now have established an ethnically cleansed Greater Serbia.

The US has also, however, been a cynical villain, supporting at different times a plethora of vicious right-wing regimes, anti-democratic coups d'etat and terrorists. And even when it has acted on the international stage with the best of intentions, its efforts have often had effects radically different from those it desired. Its support for Israel's right to exist, for Afghanistan's right to national self-determination or for the containment of Saddam Hussein since the Gulf war – to take just the three examples most relevant to the current crisis – cannot be dismissed simply as imperialist power-projection. All were, and remain, worthy causes.

But the means used by the US in their pursuit – backing Israel uncritically, arming the most fanatical mujahedin, imposing sanctions that hit the Iraqi people rather than the regime – have had massive unintended consequences: the growth of Hamas in the Occupied Territories, the rise of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, the consolidation of Saddam's position in Iraq.

It is by no means inevitable that the "war on terrorism" declared by George Bush and subsequently joined by Britain and dozens of other countries will rebound so terribly. As long as military action by the coalition is precisely directed at Bin Laden and other perpetrators of terrorism – in other words, as long as civilian casualties are minimal – it is entirely possible that there will be few if any bad unintended consequences. On the other hand, it is all too easy to imagine a scenario in which the terrorists are unharmed and indiscriminate killing of civilians provokes a wave of anti-western indignation throughout the Islamic world, recruiting thousands to the fanatics' ranks who unleash a wave of terror that makes September 11 seem puny.

At least some members of the US administration are aware of the dangers – notably Colin Powell, the secretary of state – as indeed are Tony Blair and the other European leaders that have rallied to America's side.

So far, thankfully, it seems that their pressure for restraint has been successful. How long it will remain so is, however, unclear. We live in nerve-racking times.

Friday, 14 September 2001


Review of Victor Serge: the Course is Set on Hope by Susan Weisssman (Verso £20), Tribune, 14 September 2001

The life of the revolutionary, journalist and author Victor Serge was truly extraordinary. Born Victor Kilbalchich in Belgium in 1890 to exiled Russian revolutionary parents, he first achieved notoriety in his early twenties as a member of a gang of individualist anarchist bankrobbers in France, for whose exploits he was jailed in 1913. On his release in 1917, he went to Barcelona and participated in an unsuccessful anarcho-syndicalist uprising, then returned to France and was arrested and jailed again. Released once more in 1919, by now disillusioned with anarchism, he made his way to Russia, joined the Bolsheviks and became a leading figure in the Communist International, playing a key role as a propagandist in its doomed attempt to foment revolution in Germany in the mid-1920s.

Back in Russia in 1926, he joined Trotsky's Left Opposition, which was engaged in a bitter struggle with Stalin inside the Soviet Communist Party. After its defeat, as Stalin consolidated his grip on power, he stayed in Russia, under constant threat of arrest, writing a history of the Bolshevik revolution and three novels based on his experiences as a young man. Eventually, in 1933, he was arrested and exiled to a remote village. An international outcry followed, and in 1936 he was expelled from the Soviet Union (without the manuscripts of four books completed during his incarceration, which were seized by the authorities), eventually finding his way back to France.

In Paris, he collaborated with the exiled Trotsky - and fell out with him - and wrote three more novels and three other books offering coruscating left-wing critiques of the Stalinist regime. He escaped from Paris under German fire in 1940 and left France for Mexico in 1941 where he continued to write prolifically until his death in 1947.

Most remarkable of all, the literary products of this extraordinary life were not mere hack work: they include some of the masterpieces of the 20th century. Serge's Memoirs of a Revolutionary is one of the most compelling autobiographies ever written, and the best of his novels – Men in Prison, Birth of Our Power, Conquered City, The Case of Comrade Tulayev – have deservedly acquired a reputation as classics of political fiction.

Susan Weissman, an American academic, writes about Serge as an unashamed enthusiast. Her new biography concentrates on the development of Serge's relationship to the Soviet Union: there is little here on him before he arrived in Russia in 1919, on his personal life or on his literary oeuvre as such. Weissman's emphasis is legitimate – the Soviet Union was Serge's main preoccupation for his last 30 years, and he was a pioneer of critical Left analysis of Soviet society – and her research is thorough. She is particularly good on the deadly intrigues of Stalin's secret agents against the Trotskyists and their allies in the 1930s and on Serge's bust-up with Trotsky at the same time.

If there is one let-down, it is that the book plods. It is not simply that Weissman's account lacks the panache of Serge's own writing. A bigger problem is her penchant for labouring points of Marxist doctrine. She takes it as axiomatic that the Bolsheviks were right about just about everything as long as Lenin was alive, and she spends an inordinate amount of effort defending Serge against accusations that he deviated from this or that article of Leninist faith.

Unfortunately, the effect is to undermine her claim that he remains more relevant than ever today. To show that Serge in the 1940s resisted the heretical temptations of anarchism – or, heaven forbid, "Right Menshevism" – might be the way to effect his rehabilitation among card-carrying Trotskyists. But it is hardly the strategy to adopt if you're trying to convince the rest of the world. The Bolshevik revolution is a dead duck. Serge is worth reading despite, not because of, his (by the end wavering) faith in it.

Friday, 7 September 2001


Paul Anderson, review of various collections of work by George Orwell, Tribune, 7 September 2001

The publication in 1998 of a complete hardback edition of George Orwell's Collected Works – all the novels, published journalism and surviving broadcast scripts, letters and notes, edited by Peter Davison – was universally heralded as one of the greatest triumphs of serious publishing in living memory, as indeed it was. It was extraordinarily comprehensive in its scope, and the editing was meticulous, erudite and informative.

There was just one problem: the price. At £850 for the boxed set of 20 volumes, it was beyond the budget of most public libraries, let alone the average reader. To make matters worse, it was at first impossible to buy individually the 10 volumes in the Collected Works covering Orwell's journalism and letters. These contained the most exciting material put together by Davison – the scores of articles and letters excluded by Orwell's widow Sonia (mostly because she disliked their Left-wing politics) from the selection of his journalism and letters she edited with Ian Angus in the 1960s.

Although Secker and Warburg eventually set about releasing the Davison journalism and letters volumes individually in hardback, they were still £40 or upwards a throw. It was only last autumn that they began to appear in paperback. And it's only this week that the paperbacking has reached very best of them – three volumes covering the period 1943-46 that include a large proportion of Orwell's most accomplished journalism, much of it in the pages of Tribune.

Orwell became literary editor of this paper in late 1943 after a two-year stint at the BBC, where he wrote news summaries and highbrow radio magazine programmes for transmission to India and the Far East. (The surviving transcripts and BBC-related letters are collected in three volumes by Davison, paperbacked this spring; the most interesting of this material was publshed in the 1980s in two volumes edited by W J West.) Whereas Orwell's freedom to express his own opinion had been severely constrained at the BBC – by the nature of the work rather more than by the censor – at Tribune Aneurin Bevan, then doubling as unofficial leader of the opposition and editor, allowed him to do whatever he liked.

Orwell, an irregular contributor to the paper since 1940 when it belatedly split with the Communist Party over the Hitler-Stalin pact, seized his opportunity with relish. In the 15 months he was on the Tribune staff he wrote an almost unbelieveable amount: Animal Farm, a string of incisive reviews and essays (some but not all for Tribune) and 59 installments of a column for Tribune, "As I Please", that has deservedly become a model of how to do radical periodical journalism. Orwell continued to knock it out – rather less regularly – until 1947, though he left Tribune in 1945 to join the Observer as a foreign correspondent.

The three volumes from the Collected Works that are published in paperback this week cover Orwell's time as a Tribune staffer, his Observer assignment and a spell of freelancing while working on 1984. Among the more familiar essays here are such classics as "Politics and the English Language", "The Prevention of Literature" and "The Decline of the English Murder" – but the greatest pleasure for me was being able to read 67 out of the total of 80 "As I Please" columns in chronological order and unexpurgated. The range of Orwell's subject matter and the vigour of his argument is simply breathtaking: more than 50 years after they were written, they still jump off the page.

The best of Orwell's journalism and letters coming out in the paperback edition of the Collected Works has not been the only good Orwell publishing news of this summer. Penguin has now completed the paperbacking of all the fiction from the Davison edition. And for those who baulk at paying even £20 for each volume of the journalism and letters or don't want to go the whole hog on ephemera, Penguin has issued four themed volumes edited by Davison at £7.99 apiece, each one including one of Orwell's full-length books and a selection of his other writings on its topic as well as an introduction by a well-known current author.

Of the four, the best is Orwell and Spain, which combines Homage to Catalonia with an acerbic introduction by Christopher Hitchens and a well chosen mix of letters, documents and articles on the Spanish civil war, the effect of which is to reinforce Orwell's indictment of the Soviet betrayal of the revolution and sabotage of the Republican cause. Almost as good is Orwell and Politics, which contains Animal Farm, many of Orwell's key political essays and an introduction by Timothy Garton Ash, though as a whole it is less focused – hardly surprising considering that Orwell wrote about every imaginable aspect of politics. (The book also includes an incomplete version of Orwell's infamous list of communist sympathisers in Britain, which various people have suggested shows him to be the worst kind of political grass. In fact, as Davison makes clear, Orwell kept the list for his own journalistic purposes and used it as the basis for another list, much shorter and yet to be released by the Public Records Office, advising a Foreign Office propaganda unit of whom it should not employ as propagandists. That hardly counts as a major misdemeanour. Indeed, in the circumstances of the time – the Soviet Union was blockading Berlin and seemed set on war with the west – it was a wholly honourable thing to do.)

The problem of focus is even more noticable in Orwell's England (centred on The Road to Wigan Pier, with an introduction by Ben Pimlott) and Orwell and the Dispossesed (with Down and Out in Paris and London at its core and an introduction by Peter Clarke), not least because it is just about impossible to separate Orwell's thoughts about nation from those about class. But this really is a small criticism: there are extraordinary riches here, with welcome surprises even for readers well versed in Orwell.

Orwell was posthumously traduced as a right-wing cold warrior both by the pro-communist left and by the anti-communist right. With all that is now in paperback, no one now has the excuse not to recognise him for what he was: the greatest and most continuingly relevant British Left writer and thinker of the 20th century.
  • The paperback volumes of George Orwell's Collected Works published this week by Secker and Warburg at £20 each are I Have Tried to Tell the Truth 1943-44, I Belong to the Left 1945 and Smothered Under Journalism 1946. Orwell and Spain, Orwell and Politics, Orwell's England and Orwell and the Dispossesed are published by Penguin at £7.99 each. All these books are edited by Peter Davison.

Friday, 31 August 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 31 August 2001

So Melita Norwood, the south-east London granny who was revealed a couple of years ago to have spent 40 years spying for the Soviet Union, is to publish her memoirs. The news needs to be taken with just a pinch of salt. It appeared, after all, on the front page of the Sunday Times, which has made a habit of getting it wrong in this line of business. Most notoriously, six years ago after it falsely claimed that Michael Foot had been KGB Agent Boot it was forced to issue a grovelling apology and pay him substantial damages (some of which he gave to Tribune).

But let’s assume that the Sunday Times has got its facts right this time. What will Norwood, formerly Agent Hola, say? Well, to be honest, I haven’t a clue. I’ve never spoken to her, and I don’t know the identity of 88-year-old Melita’s “socialist” friend who is apparently co-writing her book. All I know is that her friends say precisely the same as the papers did when she was first unmasked as a spy: she’s a lovely old dear who just happens to be an unapologetic hardcore Stalinist – OK, I agree the two don't sit easily together – and she regrets nothing.

Of course, it’s possible that her book will be a sensational exposé of Soviet espionage during the cold war, revealing the names of dozens of agents, detailing hundreds of spectacular operations and showing that the Communist Party of Great Britain, of which Norwood was a member, played a crucial role in doing the covert dirty work of the totalitarian regime in Russia.

But I have a sneaking suspicion it won't be anything of the sort. For a start, I'm prepared to bet that Norwood is writing not so much to set the historical record straight as to explain the nobility of her motives in passing military secrets to a vicious police state – the usual communist mendacity about the late and unlamented Soviet Union being a force for peace and progress that deserved any help it could get. If she does know about anything other than her own spying operation, which is unlikely, I don't think she'll spill the beans.

More important, though, it's a moot point whether there are many more beans to spill. On the available evidence, it would be a big surprise if the CP did much more for Moscow in the line of espionage than we already know about (except possibly in Spain in the 1930s and in the 1980s peace movement). The CP was certainly a subsidised servant of the Soviet Union for most of its life – but its role was above all propagandist, and propagandist organisations by their very nature do not provide good cover for spying. It would be less surprising to discover hitherto-unknown Soviet intelligence operations or hitherto-unmasked agents. But there is little reason to believe either that Britain was crawling with Soviet spies during the cold war or that those that were here did much that is not already familiar.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Norwood affair, however, is the nonchalant way in which nearly everyone has treated "the spy who came in from the garden", as one paper dubbed her. Apart from a couple of right-wing Tory MPs and a handful of columnists of the same bent, no one called for her immediate arrest and trial when she was first exposed. The general consensus is that Norwood's spying happened a long time ago in different political circumstances, and that it's not really fair to subject an old lady to the full force of the law. Although there is little sign that the British appetite for tales of Soviet espionage has disappeared, it seems that most Brits think it was all a bit of a joke.

This attitude is a far cry from that prevailing in the United States, where the issue is as contentious as it ever was – largely because of the release in recent years of hitherto secret materials, both in the US and in Russia, that cast light on some of the most controversial spying cases of the Cold War, notably those of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Alger Hiss.

The Rosenbergs were members of the Communist Party of the USA who were executed in 1953 after being found guilty of passing American nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union; Hiss, a senior figure in the Roosevelt administration, was jailed in 1950 for perjury after denying claims that he was a secret communist and spy. Both the Rosenbergs and Hiss strongly protested their innocence at the time, and they became left-wing causes celebres as the most prominent victims of the anti-communist hysteria whipped up by Senator Joe McCarthy and others.

The material released in the past few years, however, shows that both the Rosenbergs and Hiss were guilty as charged. Or at least that's the view of one group of polemicists, mainly but not all on the Right, including the onetime left-wing journalist David Horowitz and the ex-communist historian Ron Radosh, whose sour memoir of the CPUSA, Commies, has just been published. Their critics, mainly on the left, argue with equal force that their evidence is inadequate, if not on the Rosenbergs at least on Hiss – a point put brilliantly in the left-wing weekly The Nation last month by its former editor, Victor Navasky, a veteran anti-McCarthyite.

There is something unsettling about the vehemence with which the American argument is being conducted, and the attempt of by some on the Right to use it as a means of rehabilitating McCarthy is shocking. But the seriousness of the American debate is salutary. The KGB and its predecessors were not at all funny. I don't think Norwood should be prosecuted or that she can be held personally responsible for all the KGB's crimes – but we should not forget that she was a member of an organisation that killed thousands of people and ruined millions of lives.

Friday, 17 August 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 17 August 2001

I wasn’t planning to have another go at our dearly beloved Foreign Secretary this week – but no one else has written the response that his last piece in these pages demanded (When-oh-when are you dozy Tribune-reading klutzes going to wake up to the fact that Britain's relationships with the United States and Europe are a little more important than whether you vote Liberal Democrat in Tory seats in the south-west of England? I just ask.)

In case you missed it, Jack Straw's most recent column in Tribune (July 27) was an impassioned defence of "Son of Star Wars", George W Bush's hare-brained plan for a ballistic missile defence (BMD) system to protect the United States against, well, no one we can identify with certainty at present, but it might at some point include Iraq, Libya and North Korea.

So much is wrong with Straw's case that it's difficult to know where to start. When I first read his piece, I was gob-smacked by his phoney faux naif tone: it's amazing that no one seems ever to have told him that a man in his position claiming to be a clueless chump comes across as a clueless chump.

But what really sticks in the craw is his crass dismissal of anyone who thinks there is a better means of organising defence policy than either missile defence or nuclear deterrence, the threat of "mutually assured destruction" that has kept the world in a state of neurotic terror for S3 years. "Who opposed MAD in the cold war and prefers it now to missile defence?" he asks rhetorically. 'The answer is some of those who say we should have nothing to do with missile defence. It's not a very convincing answer."

This is, of course, a dig at his predecessor as Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who was sceptical about Bush's plans and was once, in his European Nuclear Disarmament days in the 1980s, an eloquent critic of deterrence.

But this is about more than settling scores in the Cabinet. The truth is that, regardless of what you think of deterrence, ballistic missile defence is a dangerous project. Not only will it cost an incredible amount of money that could be better spent. It will undermine the whole arms-control regime established over the past 35-odd years. Deploying a BMD system would be a unilateral abrogation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, one of the key international arms agreements of the cold war, setting off a BMD-related arms race and inviting all and sundry to wreck every other arms control agreement ever signed.

The existing arms control set-up is not perfect. But, contrary to the Bush and his friends on the US right, it needs to be reinforced rather than swept away. Arms control treaties show that political means can be used to keep military technology in check. We need more of them, with greater scope. If some existing agreements are not working, we need not to ditch them but to make them effective by any means necessary, from intensive diplomacy to rigorous sanctions.

That is the line of every other social democratic government in Europe. Straw's position is a pathetically craven attempt to win favour from the Bush administration.


Meanwhile, out of the public eye, a big change is afoot in the small world of the New Politics Network, the tiny outfit – 285 members – that inherited the mantle and riches of Straw's old buddies when he was a student leader, the Communist Party of Great Britain. Last month, I spent a weird Saturday morning at the avowedly post-Leninist network's AGM (held, oddly, in the Marx Memorial Library in London, with a bust of old Vladimir Ilyich looking on) at which the ex-comrades decided, pending a vote of members, to turn over the assets of the organisation to a trust.

So what, you might think. Except that the assets (mostly real estate inherited from the CPGB, originally purchased directly with subventions from Moscow) are worth around £4 million. Putting them into a trust means that NPN members will cede control of the kitty to unelected trustees – former-CP bigwigs and usual-suspect great-and-gooders – who will dish out largesse to their favoured respectable "progressive" causes in perpetuity. It's a patronage scam of the worst kind, and as a member of the NPN – never a CPer, I joined because I really am a post-Marxist democratic pluralist and mistakenly took the ex-commies on face value – I argued at the AGM for retention of the organisation's constituional status quo, whereby members can decide democratically where the assets go when, as seems inevitable, the whole show is wound up. Given the decrepitude of the organsiation, I said, it would be better to hand over the cash to people who are genuinely doing something worthwhile (the NPN has spent £250,000 in the past 18 months on bugger-all) and fade away peacefully.

We liquidationists were not organised, and we were beaten 19-9 in the AGM vote by a popular front of mugwumps and pensioner leadership loyalists. I reckon we'll lose the vote of the membership too. But, as the old left cliché goes, the struggle goes on.

Friday, 27 July 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 July 2001

One of the most consistently frustrating features of politics in the age of soundbites and focus groups is the almost pathological reluctance of most professional politicians to make any case in public that is remotely controversial.

Of course, politicians have always avoided arguments when they think they are on to a loser. I remember with a shudder the asinine debate on British membership of the Common Market in the run-up to the 1975 referendum, when most of the politicians on both sides preferred to talk about the price of a large white sliced loaf and a quarter-pound of tea rather than the real issues at stake.

But the scale of evasion has grown massively over the past 15-20 years as spin doctors and marketing consultants have become ever more pervasive in politics.
The received wisdom these days is that nothing turns off the punters more than an argument, and that the main result of engaging an opponent or a critic in rational debate is to give legitimacy to his or her point of view. Far better to ignore your opponents and critics, dismiss them as extreme, eccentric or old-fashioned, or silence them by fair means or foul — and simply press ahead with your controversial measure until it acquires the status of fait accompli.

That makes you look strong, which is certainly much better than appearing wise or rational and might even be the perfect state of being in modern politics. As long as you are careful in your handling of the media — all questions agreed beforehand, answers learnt by heart, no interviews with “hostile” journalists et cetera — you should be able to get away with anything short of a poll tax, a devaluation or the provision of passports to dodgy businessmen.

I first came up against this phenomenon in Labour circles when, in the aftermath of the 1987 general election, the Labour leadership decided to drop the policy of ditching Britain’s “independent nuclear deterrent” and removing American nuclear weapons from British soil. The change was pushed through Labour’s policy review process without a single senior Labour politician ever offering a sustained argument for it in public. Afterwards, the best anyone managed to come up with by way of justification was a cynical declaration that times had changed. Because the Russians were more open to disarmament initiatives, we no longer had to be.

The trend became more marked in the Labour Party with the rise to the shadow chancellorship of Gordon Brown, a man who will do anything to avoid explaining his position in public if there is the remotest chance that someone might disagree with him. He refused to justify his silence on the over-valuation of the pound during the sterling crisis that led up to Black Wednesday. He declined to be drawn into defending his enthusiasm for the Maastricht treaty. And he dodged all debate on pensions policy, public spending or taxation.

But it was after Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994 that the refusal to engage or justify really became endemic. “New” Labour didn’t argue the case for sucking up to big business and the yellow press – it just did it, utterly shamelessly. It was the same with adopting the Tories’ spending plans and promising a referendum on joining the euro.

Since 1997, shirking discussion has been the Government’s norm. No one ever explained why we needed the Dome, or postponement of British entry into the single European currency, or single-parent benefit cuts, or undemocratic reform of the House of Lords, or toothless freedom of information legislation, or the scrapping of student grants — we just got them. And, amazingly, hardly anyone bothered to complain or demand that the government account for its actions.

In the past few weeks, however, something has changed. True to form, no one in government has bothered to justify the two most controversial measures of the second term announced so far — the apparently only half-formulated plans to hand over delivery of more public services to the private sector and Gordon Brown’s refusal to compromise with Ken Livingstone over London’s underground.

But the response, from MPs, press, unions and public alike, has been unlike anything “New” Labour has had to face before. People simply cannot understand why the government thinks the private sector offers a solution to chronic understaffing and poor management in the public services — or why Brown believes the tube could be improved by being split up and run by private companies in the same way as the railways.

Through their unwillingness to account for their actions, Blair, Brown and their minions have managed the considerable feat of appearing at once cowardly and arrogant. And for the first time it seems that their pig-headedness in pursuing unpopular policies could land them with their own poll tax. Which raises the crucial question of who will be the Michael Heseltine and John Major of the Labour Party . . .

Sunday, 1 July 2001


Paul Anderson, Chartist column, July-August 2001

The biggest surprise so far of Tony Blair’s second term has been the sacking of Robin Cook as foreign secretary and his replacement by Jack Straw. In the run-up to the election, all the supposedly informed press commentators had it that Cook would stay in place and Straw would get the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Unsurprisingly, the move provoked a rash of speculation – not least because Straw has a reputation as a hard-line Eurosceptic. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was one of the most prominent rising stars in Labour’s anti-European wing, a protégé of Barbara Castle and Peter Shore (in whose two unsuccessful campaigns for the Labour leadership Straw played a key role). He was privately opposed to Britain signing the Maastricht treaty in 1991 and ever since, along with Margaret Beckett and David Blunkett, has been one of the strongest voices in the Labour leadership – albeit behind closed doors – for staying out of the single European currency. Notably, unlike Cook and most other currently senior Labour figures who were anti-European in the early 1980s, Straw has never publicly renounced his Eurosceptic views.

So why is he now foreign secretary – the position that carries most responsibility for our relations with Europe? One reason, undoubtedly, is that Gordon Brown wanted Cook, an enthusiast for early entry into the euro, out of the way.

As Cook’s former adviser, David Clark, made clear in a biting polemic in the Guardian immediately after the reshuffle, the chancellor could not bear Cook straying on to his territory by making warmly pro-euro speeches. Insiders say Brown made his feelings clear to Blair on several occasions, though it is not clear whether he actually demanded that Cook be replaced. Whatever, once Cook went, Straw was the only politician around of sufficient seniority who wanted the job.

Of course, it is just possible that this is all there is to the story – that Straw’s appointment is significant only in so far as it minimises the chances of public disagreements between the Foreign Office and the Treasury while the government assesses Brown’s “five economic tests” for euro membership.

In line with this, it is certainly true that Straw has not made public statements dissociating himself from the government’s “wait-and-see” position on the euro. And it is at least plausible that he has decided to abandon his erstwhile anti-Europeanism to the point of recommending euro membership when the time comes – even if it is rather difficult to imagine such a turnaround being convincingly executed.

But, particularly in the wake of Brown’s Mansion House speech, in which the chancellor declared for “pro-euro realism” -- with the emphasis on the “realism” – it is difficult to believe that Blair did not intend Straw’s elevation to signal a markedly more cautious approach to the euro. There has been no explicit statement from the government that Britain will not join the euro this parliament. Everything now suggests, however, that this is the government’s plan. It is hardly surprising that both the reshuffle – which also involved the appointment of another former Eurosceptic, Peter Hain, as Europe minister and the removal of the pro-euro Stephen Byers from the Department of Trade and Industry – and Brown’s speech have set alarm bells ringing throughout the euro-zone and won warm praise from the Murdoch press.

(They have also, incidentally, made a mess of the plans of the pro-euro lobby in Britain. After six months of masterful inactivity, the main organisation in it, Britain in Europe, largely funded by business but with some trade union support, had intended to relaunch itself with a big splash in the immediate wake of the election. The sacking of Cook and Brown’s hyper-cautious speech eclipsed its efforts, and it is now desperately trying to find out what exactly the government is up to.)

Europe is not, of course, the whole of the FO’s brief, and nor does Europe appear to be the only reason Cook was fired. Although he had a good working relationship with Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, he was an opponent of the American National Missile Defence scheme. As soon as it became clear that the Bush administration saw NMD as a central element of policy and was not prepared to listen to European concerns about its impact on the arms control regime, Cook’s position came into conflict with Blair’s determination to sustain the “special relationship” come what may (a determination shared, incidentally, by Brown, as he made clear in some little-noticed passages at the Mansion House).

Other things being equal, it is unlikely that this would have led to Cook’s demise: he would simply have had to buckle under when Blair insisted that Britain was backing NMD, just as he did on arms sales to Indonesia and on several other issues in the first term. But other things were not equal, and Cook went.

What Straw will be like as foreign secretary remains to be seen. His first weeks in post have been unremarkable apart from a shouting match with a television journalist – off camera – who accused him of being evasive during an interview on the fringes of the June European Council meeting in Gothenburg. That meeting hit the headlines because of rioting in the streets, but it was significant too for confirming an ambitious timetable for EU enlargement despite the Irish referendum rejecting the treaty of Nice.

Although it has been a major priority of the Blair government, enlargement has barely figured in the European debate in Britain – but it has the potential to become even more controversial than the euro. If all goes according to schedule (admittedly a big if), within three years the first applicant countries from east-central Europe will be admitted to the EU. That means several million people keen to share in western Europe’s riches, many of them prepared to come to work in the west – and many western governments are nervous about the prospect of a flood of economic migration and desperate to put major constraints on the EU’s new citizens’ freedom of movement.

As it happens, immigration and policing are the only aspects of EU policy in which Straw had significant experience as home secretary. Given his record, it is unlikely that he will be playing a very liberal role in the two years of gruelling negotiations that must take place if enlargement is to go ahead as planned. But then perhaps that is another reason Blair gave him the job.

Friday, 22 June 2001


Paul Anderson, review of The End of Parliamentary Socialism by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (Verso, £14.99), Tribune, 22 June 2001

Can it really be 20 years since the Labour deputy leadership battle between Tony Benn and Denis Healey? It seems like only yesterday that this great movement of ours tore itself to pieces over the rival claims of two former Cabinet Ministers – the Left-wing populist aristo and the Right-wing Atlanticist bruiser – to a non-job that really wasn’t worth having.

At the time, although many of my Leftie friends thought Benn was the saviour of socialism, I couldn’t see what was so marvellous about him or the movement of which he was the figurehead. Greater democracy inside the Labour Party was all very well, but it was no panacea. And the Bennite programme, though it contained lots of good things (such as unilateral nuclear disarmament and getting rid of the House of Lords), was undermined by an idiotic nationalist economic policy centred upon withdrawal from the Common Market. Most important, there was no way a Bennite Labour Party could ever win a general election.

As for municipal Left of the era – most visibly Ken Livingstone – well, it was great if you were part of it or had the oppressed-minority credentials to be deemed worthy of a generous grant for your pet project. But otherwise, cheap bus fares aside, forget it.

I’ve moved on politically since the early 1980s, but the Labour left of the early 1980s still leaves me cold. Not so Panitch and Leys, whose book, a history of Labour in the past 30 years from a critical left perspective (now in a second edition four years after its first appearance), is in essence a defence of the continuing relevance of the “new Labour left” – the Bennites, the local government Left and their supporters among ordinary Labour members – of two decades ago.

The authors enthuse about everything from mandatory reselection of MPs to the industrial strategy of the GLC. In line with this, every development since about 1981-82 has been a turn for the worse, from the expulsion of Militant to the record of the Blair government since 1997.

They tell their story well, and there is some sense to it. There were undoubtedly some bright ideas around on the left in the late 1970s and early 1980s about making the state more democratically accountable, and at least some of the Labour left took them seriously. And it’s true that New Labour, with its enthusiasm for deregulation and big business, is not simply the invention of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but the product of a process of accommodation to the market that goes back at least to Neil Kinnock’s assumption of the Labour leadership in 1983.

But it is simplistic to argue, as Panitch and Leys do, that the “new Labour left” was beaten by a conspiracy of right-wingers. Its failure had as much to do with its incompetence, the unpopularity of its political alliance with Trotskyism and the unsustainability of its Little Englander position on Europe. The left of today needs to learn from the early 1980s – but it needs to do so critically and not look back nostalgically to a mythical golden age.

Friday, 8 June 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 8 June 2001

Trust Tony Blair to ruin it all. There I was last Friday, feeling a little tired after staying up most of the night watching the election but in an unusually upbeat mood – Tories routed, few Labour losses, Lib Dems up, Trots and Stalinists consigned to the dustbin of history. And then he makes David Blunkett Home Secretary and fires Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary, giving his job to Jack Straw.

Yes, it’s the nightmare scenario. Labour’s most instinctive authoritarian as guardian of our civil liberties and a former evangelist Europhobe running our relations with Europe.

It is Straw who scares me more. Blunkett’s populist rhetoric on law and order is more extreme than his predecessor’s. And his prejudices – particularly against homosexuality – are more markedly conservative. (He once famously outraged the readers of this paper with a column in which he described his “revulsion at the idea of touching another man”.) But, at risk of tempting fate, I can’t for the moment imagine how he can be any worse than Straw in terms of policy.

Straw, however, is almost certain to be much, much worse than Cook in the Foreign Office. And that’s not just because Straw was so uninspiring in the Home Office.

Some on the left have attacked Cook for hypocrisy, arguing that his promise of an ethical basis for foreign policy was broken by arms sales to Indonesia, sanctions against Iraq and military intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

I have some sympathy with these critics on arms-to-Indonesia, on which Cook’s opposition was over-ruled by Blair, and rather less on Iraq, where sanctions were (and are) a blunt instrument to deal with the real villain of the piece, Saddam Hussein.

But on the whole I think Cook did an excellent job in difficult circumstances. His roles in the Kosovo and Sierra Leone interventions were entirely honourable, particularly his part in persuading the West to issue the threat of invasion of Kosovo by ground troops, which did more than anything else to persuade Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw.

Equally important, in his four years in office Cook did more than any other politician to repair the damage done to Britain’s relations with the European Union by the Tories. Unlike Blair and Gordon Brown he was and is at ease in European politics. He did his best to persuade the other Governments of the EU that Britain was serious about signing up for the euro. He did not lecture them time and again on the supposed need for deregulation and flexible labour markets. And he did not side automatically with the US on every question. On “Son of Star Wars” in particular he was a voice for restraint.

It is in the conduct of our relations with Europe that Cook will be most missed. Straw comes to Foreign Office with no experience of European politics and, more important, carrying all the baggage of an unrepentant early-1980s Labour Little Englander.

Twenty years ago, of course, anti-Europeanism was dominant in the Labour Party. But few were quite so obsessively Europhobic as Straw. A founder of the notoriously anti-European Labour Common Market Safeguards Committee, he was a consistent propagandist for the anti-European cause (not least in the pages of Tribune). In 1980, he told a special Labour conference that “a central part of our manifesto must be a pledge to withdraw from the Common Market immediately”. He made his first moves up the greasy pole after becoming an MP as a protege of Peter Shore, Labour’s most ardent anti-European of the period.

All of which was a long time ago – and of course people change their minds. But, unlike most other current Labour leaders who were anti-European in the early 1980s, Straw has never given even the slightest hint that he thinks differently now. For the past four years he has been one of the Cabinet’s most consistent opponents of the euro.

So why is he now Foreign Secretary? The most straightforward explanation is that Blair and Brown have decided to give up on joining the euro for some time – which is more plausible than most commentators suggest. Otherwise, the only half-credible explanation I have heard is that it is part of an elaborate gambit to avoid press reports of a split between the publicly pro-euro Cook and the publicly agnostic Brown. According to this scenario, Straw has secretly abandoned Euroscepticism, but has agreed to play mum until Brown produces a report recommending euro entry. The Foreign Secretary then fakes a Damascene conversion and – hey presto! – the great British public votes for the single currency.

I can’t believe Blair is stupid enough to think that such a crude coup de theatre would possibly work. But then I didn’t think he’d be stupid enough to fire Robin Cook.

Friday, 25 May 2001


Paul Anderson, review of The Trial of Henry Kissinger by Christopher Hitchens (Verso, £12.99), Tribune 25 May 2001

In recent years, Christopher Hitchens has made a speciality of polemics that puncture the reputations of public figures — most notably, his books on Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Bill Clinton. The latter, No One Left To Lie To, caused outrage among American Democrats and their friends abroad.

Hitchens, they spluttered, had had the temerity to attack the president from the left when – horror of horrors — the right was also having a go. But no one ever convincingly answered his indictment of Clinton as a right-wing sleazebag, and the bOok remains the best short introduction to American politics in the 1990s.

Now Hitchens has turned his fire on Henry Kissinger, and it is the turn of American conservatives and their friends abroad to froth at the mouth. In the Spectator last week, Conrad Black, the magazine's proprietor, described The Trial Of Henry Kissinger, whose subject was "one of the 20th century's great statesmen", as "so contemptible that it almost makes the case for judicial bookburning". Similar sentiments have been expressed in several other reviews in the right-wing and liberal press.

It is not surprising that Kissinger's friends and admirers are upset. Hitchens's book is an extended argument for the prosecution of Kissinger for war crimes and the crimes against humanity that it says he committed when he was running the United States's foreign policy in the late 1960s and 1970s.

This is not the sort of thing that should happen to "great statesmen". What's more, Hitchens makes his case with considerable verve, marshalling his evidence with skill and relentlessly piling on the invective. It is very easy to read this book in a single sitting and hard not to be swayed by it.

Many of the episodes described by Hitchens will be well known to Tribune readers, at least in outline — the mass killings of civilians by American bombing and other military action in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the US administration's role in the murderous coup against Salvador Allende in Chile and its encouragement of the bloody Indonesian annexation of East Timor.

But there is plenty of telling new detail, much of it culled from recently released official documents, even where Hitchens is travelling a well-trodden path. And there are several points where he examines allegations that will be unfamiliar to anyone but aficionados of modern American history about Kissinger's role in undermining a possible peace deal in Vietnam in 1968, for example, and about the American government's part in assassinations in Bangladesh and Cyprus.

The book is not perfect. It could have done with footnotes so that anyone who wanted could check Hitchens's sources independently.

And it doesn't quite persuade on every single detailed charge. But it is wholly convincing in its central argument that, in crucial respects, US foreign policy during the Kissinger years was criminal, and that the chief architect and executor of that policy should be held responsible for his actions. Which is, of course, rather unlikely, but that is one reason that Hitchens was right to write this book.

Friday, 18 May 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 18 May 2001

Warning! This column is now the subject of a directive from Labour headquarters at Millbank instructing Labour activists to give it a complete ignoral. And just so no Tribune reader has any excuse to do otherwise, here is the memo in full:

“The Daily Mail are contacting candidates about Paul Anderson’s piece in Tribune exhorting Labour supporters to vote Lib Dem to keep out Tories.

“Line to take: We do not endorse a campaign of tactical voting. We have Labour candidates in every seat and urge all voters to vote Labour.

“Background: There is a mythology about tactical voting which would have us believe that we only won in 1997 because a lot of people voted for us who are really Liberal Democrats. In fact there are very few committed Lib Dems, their support has a huge turnover from one election to the next, and nor do Lib Dem supporters necessarily believe in Lib Dem policies like proportional representation. But often Lib Dems are very organised at a local level and people who are natural Labour supporters, but believe they don’t live in a ‘Labour’ area, think it’s best to keep the Tories out. But it should never be an option.

“Probably less tactical voting took place in 1997 than it ever had before and to our gain — we won eleven seats from being in third place. So our task is to make sure all our supporters know it’s worth voting Labour wherever they live.”

My first thought on reading this was that it was quite an honour to be taken seriously enough by the powers-that-be to warrant an official (though not very rapid) rebuttal. My second was that the directive was what a spin doctor would call a load of bollocks.

And I’m not just talking about the tortured syntax or the strangely (and I think unintentionally) Orwellian undertones of the statement that “it should never be an option” to “think it’s best to keep the Tories out”. The truth is that every single survey shows that there was more tactical voting in 1997 than ever before — and that it benefited both Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Throughout the country, voters who wanted to get rid of a sitting Tory decided not to vote for their first-preference candidate but for another who was better-placed to win. Indeed, so marked was the phenomenon that the Liberal Democrats won 46 seats, up from 20 in 1992, despite winning a percentage point less of the popular vote in the country as a whole. Nearly all the professional psephologists agree that Labour won at least 40 more seats in 1997 than it would have done had voters not voted tactically for Labour whose first-preference party was the Lib Dems.

It is utterly barmy for Labour to make a big thing about how bad tactical voting is on principle – for the simple reason that it needs all the tactical votes it can get itself. And that means tactical votes not just from Lib Dem supporters but from loads of others as well – from voters whose first preference is the Greens or the Socialist Alliance and, just as important, from those whose lack of enthusiasm for the government is tempting them to abstain.

Tactical voting is nothing more or less than voting for the lesser evil – and, as a regular Labour voter who has more often than not voted in the belief that the party is the best of a bad bunch, I don’t have any problem with that. Nor will the millions who vote Labour on June 7 thinking “Well, they’re dreadful, but at least they’re better than the Tories” – who will include, I guess, most readers of Tribune who are not standing as candidates.


Finally, a riposte to Steve Platt, who argued last week that the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Socialist Party will be irrevocably converted to pluralism and democracy by their experience of working together and with non-aligned socialists in the Socialist Alliance.

I’m sorry to disagree with an old pal — well, actually I’m not — but I simply don’t see why the Trots can’t revert to authoritarian revolutionary sectarianism whenever they choose. After all, it is what has happened every time before when Leninists have adopted the tactic of setting up “fronts” with democratic socialists, from the old Communist Party’s flirtation with the TUC in the 1920s through to the Anti-Nazi League and the anti-poll tax movement.

Of course, individual members of the Leninist sects will undoubtedly have their eyes opened by the Socialist Alliance experience. But the organisations are a different matter altogether. They remain undemocratic in their internal organisation, in their methods and in their ideology. And until they renounce all that, democratic socialists should keep a wide berth.

Friday, 4 May 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 4 May 2001

I seem to be making a habit of stepping on Tribune readers’ toes. After a couple of months of being slagged off by correspondents for my columns in favour of anti-Tory tactical voting, I’m now getting the flak for having a go at the Socialist Alliance. The deputy editor tells me that this week’s letters page includes several more assaults on me for dismissing the Trots and their allies’ chances at the general election.

Well, once again I regret nothing. In fact, I can’t resist the temptation to wind up my critics even more. Because the truth is that I didn’t go half as far as I could have on the Socialist Alliance. For the Trots and the other Leninists that dominate the Alliance are not just quixotic in their electoral challenge to New Labour, as I argued in my last piece. They are also the enemies of all that democratic socialists should hold dear.

First, though, it’s important to be clear about what the Alliance is. In the pub last week, a couple of Alliance-supporting friends – I do have some, honest – complained that I’d misrepresented it by describing it as essentially Leninist, a coalition of the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Socialist Party (formerly Militant), with only a handful of other participants. It was true, they admitted, that the SWP and the Socialist Party were the biggest groups involved and that most Alliance parliamentary candidates belonged to one of them. But, they went on, simply by agreeing to work together and with non-aligned leftists, the two parties were de facto abandoning Leninism and embracing a pluralist approach to politics.

Now, I wish this were true: nothing would please me more than for the Trots to see the error of Lenin’s ways and recant. But there is absolutely no evidence that it is. The decision of the SWP and the Socialist Party to work together and with other socialists is purely tactical and utterly cynical. Unless I’ve missed something – and I’ve spent several mind-numbing hours searching through their recent publications to check – neither has ever even considered renouncing the elitist, manipulative, anti-democratic politics that is the essence of Leninism. Both retain the long-term goal of establishing, as the Bolsheviks did in Russia, a revolutionary single-party dictatorship that ruthlessly suppresses free elections, independent trade unions and media and “bourgeois” freedoms of speech and assembly. And both still believe that any means is justifiable in pursuit of this goal and that history dictates they must prevail.

Today, they have decided it is “necessary” to pretend to be pluralist and democratic and cosy up to other socialists. But after the election one or other could decide – no, probably will decide – that it is “necessary” to split the Alliance in order to create a purer revolutionary party. And in the distant future, one or other might conclude that it is “necessary” to murder or imprison and torture those who stand in the way of the revolution (including socialists) just as Lenin’s secret police, the Cheka, did in Russia.

Of course, the last scenario is rather difficult to imagine. Revolutionary civil war does not appear to be on the cards in Britain. And it is hard to conceive of the Trots you meet selling papers on the high street every Saturday – a bunch of hectoring students and past-it beardie bores – ever setting up a vicious secret police. Over the past 80 years, Britain’s Leninists have been laughably unsuccessful by any criterion, let alone in establishing themselves as they would wish as the directors of a murderous single-party state, and it is implausible to suggest that their luck is about to turn.

So, say some democratic socialists, why make such a fuss about their long-term goal? If you forget about their daft dream of emulating the Bolsheviks, they go on, Britain’s Leninists are nothing more than socialists of a slightly more left-wing bent than most – and valuable allies in the struggle against the depredations of New Labour.

Call me a sectarian all you want, but this argument sucks. It amounts to: “Sure, they have an evil plan, but we’ll hold hands with them because they’ve no chance of ever putting it into practice.” Apart from being a hostage to fortune – don’t forget that people used to say that Hitler had no chance of ever gaining power – it ignores the extent to which the Leninists’ every action in the here and now is corrupted by their belief that the establishment of a terrorist dictatorship justifies any means. Even unsuccessful Leninists are required by their ideology to be mendacious, manipulative, authoritarian and cynically contemptuous of democracy. Rather than embracing them as allies, democratic socialists should shun them.

Tuesday, 1 May 2001


Paul Anderson, Chartist column, May-June 2001

This general election campaign has a strange feel to it. It’s taken for granted by just about everyone that Labour will win another handsome victory. Indeed, for the past month, the broadsheet newspapers have been so sure of the result that they’ve been concentrating their political coverage on speculation about who leads the Tories after their inevitable defeat.

At the same time, however, there seems to be no great enthusiasm for New Labour wherever you look. Even Tony Blair’s most loyal supporters in the press can summon up only the faintest of praise. Out in the real world, all the anecdotal evidence suggests that Labour Party members and supporters are less motivated than at any time since 1979. The Labour camp is extremely nervous about the likely level of abstention among its core working-class voters.

Loyal Blairites — of whom there are remarkably few — complain that this just isn’t fair. For the first time, they say, a Labour government is set to win a full second term. For the first time, a Labour government hasn’t been brought to its knees by a major economic crisis. For the first time, a Labour government has done pretty much what it came to power promising to do.

All of which is true. So why is there so little admiration for the government either in the Labour Party or among the population at large? One reason is undoubtedly that people judge it less on its record vis a vis its policy promises than on its overall standards of behaviour and its handling of unforeseen events. Even before the cash-for-passports scandal and the foot and mouth epidemic, it was difficult to be greatly impressed on either score — witness the Bernie Ecclestone, Derek Draper and Geoffrey Robinson affairs, the repeated reports of feuding in the cabinet, the London mayor fiasco, the David Shayler scandal, the Dome, the fuel crisis et cetera. New Labour in government might not be as sleazy, incompetent and prone to panic as the Tories, but it doesn’t have too much to boast about.

But this is not the crux of the matter. More important by far is the widespread sense of disappointment that Labour in power has not made more of a difference in policy terms. Despite Labour’s best efforts to dampen expectations in the run-up to 1997, epitomised by the minimal promises in the party’s manifesto, Blair came to power on the crest of a wave of popular hope.

Although Labour, in its desperation to pre-empt accusations of betrayal, had made it as clear as it could that it would not put right every wrong in its first term, even its most sceptical supporters felt that it would be able to do much more than it said it would. And as it became obvious that, in fact, there was no chance of Labour deviating from its chosen ‘safety first’ strategy, disillusion set in big time.

This has been particularly apparent among political activists of different kinds, both inside the Labour Party and outside it, and among the left-leaning intelligentsia. For most of these people, even those on the traditional Labour right, the great hope of 1997 was that Labour in government would prove more recognisably social democratic than it had appeared in opposition. That hope still exists — just — but it is now much deflated.

The government’s embrace of privatisation and deregulation has been unconditional, and its expansion of workers’ rights minimal. Its measures to redistribute by stealth have failed to stop the continuing growth of income and wealth inequalities. Most important, Gordon Brown’s decision to stick to Tory spending plans for two years means that public services are as bad today as they were four years ago. Things might get better in the second term as the spending spree begun by Brown in 1999-2000 starts to take effect, but with an economic downturn in the offing it would be foolish to count chickens.

For constitutional reformers, the 1997 Labour victory held out the prospect of a root-and-branch transformation of the British political system. Electoral reform for the Commons, a democratically accountable House of Lords and devolution to the English regions would rapidly follow the introduction of devolution to Scotland and Wales and first-stage Lords reform. Within a couple of years, however, it was evident that the government had no intention of doing more than the bare minimum promised in the manifesto — and it now seems that the constitutional reform programme is as good as dead for the second term.

The story is much the same in other spheres. Pro-Europeans have seen their hopes of early British entry into the single European currency cruelly dashed. Freedom-of-information campaigners’ optimism at the government’s initial efforts disappeared by the time its final legislation was passed. Environmentalists, the anti-hunting lobby and opponents of the arms trade feel just as let down.

Of course, Blair and the rest of the Labour leadership couldn’t care less what activists and intellectuals think, believing them to be unrepresentative of the public as a whole and out of touch with the views of the all-important swing voters of Middle England. And to some extent they are right: Labour members’ concerns about single parents’ benefits and Charter 88’s complaints about the lack of momentum behind Lords reform are not, unfortunately, widely shared.

But the disillusion of activists and intellectuals does find an echo in the wider population insofar as the focus of popular disenchantment with the government is its failure to do more to improve Britain’s schools, hospitals, transport system and public housing. This hardly counts as an upsurge of radical socialist sentiment: just getting our public services up to the level taken for granted in continental Europe would be quite enough for most people. It is a mark of how far Labour has shifted politically in the past 10 years that even this modest goal now seems strangely utopian. But unless the government starts to deliver tangible improvements to public services in the next couple of years, it’s a safe bet that there will be no third term.

Friday, 20 April 2001


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 20 April 2001

On the face of it, it’s difficult to see why everyone is making such a fuss about the day of anti-capitalist action planned for 1 May in London. So 1,000 anarchists, radical leftists, Turkish Stalinists and assorted crusties turn up in Oxford Street, a few of them have a punch-up with the cops, a McDonald’s gets trashed and a statue defaced? Well, unless someone is badly injured or killed – OK, it’s a serious unless – big deal.

There is, I guess, a chance that a mini-riot will have an impact on the election campaign, though I’m not sure what that might be: I can’t see Jack Straw being skewered by Ann Widdecombe because the police were too soft. And I suppose it won’t do the tourism industry much good if television pictures of fighting on the streets are beamed across the world, though it’s a moot point whether they’ll do any more damage than pictures of burning animal carcasses and wrecked trains.

A few broken windows and bruised bodies will not, however, shake capitalism to its foundations or bring the country to the brink of revolution. Come 2 May, it’s safe to say, it will be business as usual.

So why do the anti-capitalists bother? Of course, they’re angry – with varying degrees of justification – about injustice and meat-eating and multinationals. They’re alienated from traditional politics. And some of them get a buzz from chucking stuff at the police. But the crucial motivation is simply that it’s great fun to outrage respectable opinion. If the press and the political class didn’t get into such a lather about the threat they posed, most of the anti-capitalists would stay at home.


Meanwhile, the Trots are limbering up for what they say will be the most concerted ever left-wing electoral challenge to Labour. The Socialist Alliance – essentially a coalition of the Socialist Party (formerly Militant) and the Socialist Workers’ Party, though there are a couple of other small Leninoid fractions involved and a handful of independent lefties – is running candidates in 100 seats in England and Wales. In Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party (the core of which is Militant’s Scottish organisation) is contesting all 72 seats.

I’m not remotely tempted to vote Socialist Alliance, and wouldn’t be even if it had a chance of winning seats – but that’s not my point here. Rather, it’s to remind readers of just how quixotic the Trot challenge actually is.

Even though no single far-left grouping has ever put up as many as 172 candidates in a general election before, there have several elections in which one of them has contested 50 or more seats. The Communist Party put up 100 candidates in 1950, 57 in 1966 and 58 in 1970, and the Trotskyist Workers’ Revolutionary Party stood 60 in 1979.

But although the CP won two seats in 1945, not a single far-left MP has been elected since. And in terms of share of the vote, the far left’s record has been risible. Even in 1950, the CP managed to take an average of just 2 per cent of the vote in the seats it fought; by 1970, the last time it attempted a substantial nation-wide election campaign, it was down to an average of just over 1 per cent. (The CP’s figures for share of the national vote were even more pathetic.) The WRP in 1979 took an average of just 0.5 per cent in the seats it contested.

Needless to say, everything could be different this time around: an optimistic Trot would say that the CP was never able fully to mobilise left-wing opposition to Labour because it was compromised by its Stalinism, while the WRP was incapacitated by its lunacy. Somehow, however, I doubt the Socialist Alliance will do any better than previous far-left challengers. There is of course a great deal of left-wing dissatisfaction with the Blair government – but it is trifling by comparison with the disillusionment felt by the left in 1979 or even 1970. If the Trots get more than an average of 2 per cent of the vote, I promise I’ll shave every hair off my head.


Finally,  two simple questions to all those Tribune contributors and correspondents in the past few weeks who have sung the praises of Castro’s Cuba. If it’s so bloody marvellous, why doesn’t the regime allow free multi-party elections? If the Cuban people really do support Castro, wouldn’t they give him a landslide victory and prove that whingeing democrats like me don’t know what we’re talking about?