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.