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.