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.