Friday, 25 January 2002


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 25 January 2002

The other day in the pub, the local Trot took time off failing to persuade two rather attractive women students to go to a meeting on the rail dispute in order to beard me for this column's line on Afghanistan. "Your trouble is you don't understand imperialism," he declared. "You see, this war is all about America securing access to oil."

It was hardly an original point. Indeed, I've lost count of the number of times I've heard it from various Lefties. But leave that aside. The real problem was that he was talking fatuous nonsense.

Yes, I know that American oil companies are interested in exploiting the vast oil reserves of the former Soviet republics of central Asia and that a pipeline through Afghanistan would be a means of getting the oil out that doesn't run through Russia or Iran. And yes, I know that George W Bush is an oil man and that one of the results of the Afghan war could be a substantial permanent American military presence in central Asia.

But the US did not launch its military action because of oil. It did so - to risk stating the obvious - because of the September 11 attacks and the role of the Taliban regime in sustaining the perpetrators. It was necessary to overthrow the Taliban in order to deny al-Qaida its most important supporter and to reduce (though of course not eliminate) its ability to mount further outrages. Oil had nothing to do with it.

Which is not to say that oil will not be a very important factor in American policy towards central Asia and Afghanistan from now on. Indeed, it might even be the determining factor, with Washington using all its influence to get governments in the region to agree to allow American oil companies in.

This, of course, is what the Trot denounces as “imperialism”. To me, however, it is by no means obvious that big oil companies descending on central Asia would be a bad thing. Afghanistan's economy has been destroyed by years of war; and, largely because of the disastrous legacy of Soviet-style "socialism", the countries of central Asia are economic basket cases. Oil is just about their only hope of prosperity in the medium term – but they need large-scale investment to be able to benefit from it. And, like it or not, American oil companies have the capital they desperately need.

Of course, the oil companies would certainly strike as hard a bargain as possible. And it is undoubtedly the case that, unless there is fundamental democratic reform of the central Asian states, the benefits of oil revenues coming into their hands will not be felt by all their citizens equally. There is a real danger that, as in the Middle East, America will use its muscle to prop up corrupt oligarchical regimes with appalling records on human rights.

All things considered, however, people in central Asia and Afghanistan are likely to be better off if American oil companies move in big time than if they don't. As the old joke has it - I think it's from Tanzania circa 1970, though it might be Polish: "There's only one thing worse than being exploited by multinational capitalism. Not being exploited by multinational capitalism."


The Trot also told me some interesting news about the Socialist Alliance, the ragbag of Leninist sects that fought the general election last year and won a derisory 57,553 votes for socialism in England and Wales. (Its Scottish counterpart did much better, but that’s another story.)

It has now split, with its second-biggest constituent sect, the Socialist Party -- that’s the former Militant Tendency, otherwise known as the Revolutionary Socialist League - deciding it doesn’t like being bossed around by the Alliance’s biggest constituent sect, the Socialist Workers’ Party. Meanwhile, nearly all the non-aligned lefties who joined the Alliance during the election campaign in the belief that it would prove a genuinely pluralist democratic organisation have left in disgust at the sects’ antics.

The upshot is that the Socialist Alliance is now little more than the SWP and a handful of the looniest loonies in left politics, among them Socialist Organiser and the Stalinist fruitcakes who call themselves the Communist Party of Great Britain. (Aficionados of this sort of stuff will know that they are not in fact the Communist Party of Great Britain, which turned itself into Democratic Left, then into the New Times Network and subsequently into the New Politics Network. Nor are they to be confused with the Communist Party of Britain, the weird Stalinist organisation that publishes the Morning Star. But that’s yet another story.)

As regular readers of this column will know, I hate to crow when I’m proved right by the turn of events. But just this once, didn’t I say that the Alliance would end in tears?

Friday, 18 January 2002


Review of Communism: A Brief History by Richard Pipes (Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, £16.99), Tribune, 18 January 2002

Richard Pipes, the veteran Polish-American historian of modern Russia, is dismissed by many on the left as a right-wing Cold War fossil – he's been teaching at Harvard since 1950 and was a member of Ronald Reagan's National Security Council as director of Soviet and East European Affairs in the early 1980s.

But he also has a deserved reputation for serious academic work on the last years of Tsarism and the first years of the Soviet regime. And as recently as a couple of years ago, his The Unknown Lenin, an annotated collection of documents laying bare the fanaticism, irrationality and lack of political judgment of the founding father of Bolshevism, rightly won praise across the political spectrum for its thoroughness and originality.

Communism: A Brief History, an 180-page introduction to and obituary for the idea, programme and practice of its title, is, however, unlikely to win many plaudits. Apart from a single chapter on the origins and politics of Leninism, it is a lazy piece of work that offers insight into little apart from the author's own ideological prejudices.

Pipes is simplistic on the intellectual roots of the communist idea, plodding on Stalinism, superficial on the reception of Soviet communism in the rest of the world and utterly predictable in his conclusions. Yup, folks, in case you haven't realised: "Historical evidence indicates that the liberties of individuals can only be protected when property rights are firmly guaranteed, because these rights constitute the most effective barrier to state encroachments . . . the goal of Communism, the abolition of property, inevitably leads to the abolition of liberty and legality." Oh no. Not again!

Even where he is right – for example on Lenin's responsibility for creating the police state that Stalin developed into the epitome of terrorist dictatorship – his arguments are flaccid and unconvincing. Definitely not his best work.

Friday, 11 January 2002


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 11 January 2002

If anyone had suggested even five years ago that the Tories would adopt a more democratic stance than Labour on reforming the House of Lords, he or she would have been dismissed as a fool.

But that is precisely what is happening today. As the second stage of Lords reform, the Government wants a second chamber with just one-fifth of members elected. The Tories have yet to declare their hand, but it is increasingly clear they will push for at least 50 per cent of members of the new Lords to be elected.

How on earth did things come to this? Part of the story is Tory opportunism. The Conservatives are aware that 177 MPs, nearly all Labour and Liberal Democrat, have signed a Commons motion calling for a wholly or substantially elected upper house. And they reckon that by playing the democratic card they will be able to attract enough support to defeat a Government Lords reform bill in the Commons.

But the only reason the Tories are in a position to be opportunist is the mix of pusillanimous caution and cynical love of patronage that has characterised Tony Blair’s approach to changing the Lords ever since his (completely unnecessary) retreat from removal of all hereditary peers during the first stage of reform.

On Blair’s initiative, each step the Government has taken in defining its proposals for the second stage of reform – from the appointment of Lord Wakeham, a known opponent of an elected second chamber, at the head of a Royal Commission on the Lords, through to Lord Irvine’s White Paper last year – has taken it further away from support for a democratic upper house.

The Government says that it wants a largely appointed Lords because it does not want to undermine the primacy of the democratically elected Commons. But this argument is fatuous. A largely elected upper house could easily be prevented from sabotaging the decisions of the lower house.

Most obviously, its powers could be limited by law, as the powers of elected second chambers are everywhere else in the world. Alternatively, or in addition, its democratic legitimacy could be diluted by making it indirectly elected, for example by regional assemblies (as in Germany or Holland) – though in Britain’s case this would clearly require the completion of the process of devolution left unfinished by Labour in the last parliament.

Of course, even an indirectly elected second chamber would have the democratic legitimacy to force the Commons and the Government to listen to it and to account for their actions – which a largely appointed second chamber, stuffed with the washed-up cronies of party leaders along with a smattering of the non-party great-and-good, could never have. Which is the reason that Blair and his fellow control-freaks want a largely appointed second chamber – and the reason that their anti-democratic scheme should be scuppered.


On a related theme – well, it’s related insofar as it’s about the Labour leadership’s control-freakery and contempt for democracy – I was somewhat surprised to hear that the editor of this organ has been omitted from the shortlist in the selection of the Labour candidate to fight the forthcoming by-election in the late Ray Powell’s seat of Ogmore.

It’s not just that Mark Seddon is a member of the Labour National Executive Committee (albeit a Left-wing trouble-maker), has already been a Labour parliamentary candidate (albeit in unwinnable Buckingham) and has all of the things that Ogmore needs – a battered Jaguar, a lifelong passion for all things Welsh, good looks et cetera.

It’s also that the decision to stitch him up can only rebound on Labour. At the last general election, Ogmore was a safe Labour seat: Powell held it with a majority of 14,000. But that doesn’t mean it will be safe in the by-election – any more than many supposedly safe Labour seats turned out to be so in the elections to the Welsh assembly in 1999, when Plaid Cymru won unprecedented victories in south Wales.

Lest we forget, the main reason for that debacle was contemptuous, heavy-handed fixing by the Labour leadership in London, which demoralised Labour activists in Wales and turned off the voters in droves. Refusing the members of Ogmore constituency Labour Party the right to choose or reject Comrade Seddon – and I’m told the chances that they wouldn’t have picked him were high – is likely to have a similar effect. It’s a bit of a long shot still, but I’m going to bet a fiver on a shock Plaid victory.

Friday, 4 January 2002


Review of Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse 1970-2000 by Stephen Kotkin
(Oxford University Press, £16.99), Tribune, 4 January 2002

The demise of the Soviet Union and its model of "socialism" remains one of the greatest puzzles of late-20th-century history.

Even as late as 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev took power, Soviet communism appeared to be a permanent feature of world politics. It had its problems, of course. All the economies of the Soviet bloc were performing sluggishly. In east-central Europe, the whole system had quite obviously lost what little popular legitimacy it might once have enjoyed. And Moscow was embroiled in a bloody conflict in Afghanistan from which there seemed to be no escape.

But the collapse of the whole shebang was implausible. The single-party police states of the Soviet bloc appeared robust enough to face down any conceivable challenge, and the capacity of the Soviet military was awesome. Few analysts saw the system's economic problems as potentially catastrophic. Unpleasant it might have been, but  "actually existing socialism" was here to stay.

So where did it all go wrong? For Stephen Kotkin, an American academic, the only way to begin to answer that question is to take an extremely long-term view. His short book (245 pages including footnotes, illustrations and index) argues that the Soviet collapse cannot be understood unless it is put into two contexts: the inability of the Soviet model to match in any way the performance of the capitalist welfare-state democracies after 1945; and the deep-rooted conviction of Gorbachev and his supporters of the possibility of what the reform communists in Czechoslovakia in 1968 had called "socialism with a human face".

In essence, his case is that Gorbachev's belief that the system could be reformed in a humanistic way without being massively destabilised was a gigantic mistake. "Hesitant for ideological reasons to support full-bore capitalism", Gorbachev underestimated until it was too late the extent of the malaise afflicting the Soviet economy, a giant rust belt that had been kept going since the early 1970s only by unsustainable subsidies from oil exports.

Meanwhile, his policy of glasnost  seriously undermined popular acquiescence in the regime by destroying its legitimising historical myths and allowing almost unlimited access to Western consumer culture (though not the consumer goods). Faced with growing conservative opposition inside the Communist Party, he made the fatal mistake of sidelining the party, the only organisation that truly held the Soviet Union together, in the name of 1917-style direct Soviet democracy. After he let east-central Europe go in 1989 without even token resistance, the whole edifice was doomed.

All this is a persuasive counter to the argument often heard on the western Left that Gorbachev's reform strategy would have worked had it only been given more time and lots of Western support. Kotkin is also right to emphasise the extent to which the disastrous economic performance of post-Soviet Russia since 1991 is the result less of "shock therapy" or privatisation than of its Soviet inheritance, "a socio-economic landscape dominated by white elephants that consumed labour, energy and raw materials with little regard for costs or output quality" and "unfettered state officials whose larceny helped cashier the Soviet system".

Armageddon Averted is least convincing in its emphasis on idealism as the underlying motive of Gorbachev and his comrades: raw interest in self-preservation on the part of an elite that recognised its time was up was far more important. But this is an excellent accessible account of an extraordinary turn of events that changed our world far more profoundly than September 11 2001.

Tuesday, 1 January 2002


Paul Anderson, Chartist column, January-February 2002

In purely economic terms, the launch of euro notes and coins on 1 January does not matter a great deal. Monetary union has been in place three years, and business transactions in euros have long been commonplace. The only significant economic effect of the new money is greater price transparency for consumer goods — though it remains to be seen how far that will translate into levelling down of prices.

But the arrival of euro notes and coins is massively important symbolically. Up to now, monetary union has been intangible to most citizens of the euro-zone. Now they are dealing with it physically all the time. Euro notes and coins cannot but make them aware of the central importance of European Union institutions in their everyday lives.

The impact of the changeover in Britain is harder to assess. Pro-Europeans in the government are hoping that its arrival will soften British opposition to joining the single currency. They believe that, as Brits use the euro on their holidays this summer, they will come to realise that it is nothing to be afraid of.

With the help of a little judicious campaigning by the government, their argument goes, the opinion polls will start to show the gap narrowing between those against and those in favour of joining. The Treasury will then conclude that Gordon Brown’s famous “five economic tests” have been passed — and everything will be set fair for a referendum on British euro membership some time in 2003 or 2004, which the “yes” campaign will win at a canter. The Tories will be left in disarray and Labour will romp home in a third successive landslide in 2005 . . .

This is a plausible scenario — but it is a touch optimistic. For a start, it is by no means certain that Brits using the euro on holiday will do anything to reduce opposition to British membership of the single currency. The anti-euro camp’s prophecies of chaos might have been made to look foolish by the smoothness of the changeover in early January, but it remains a powerful and articulate lobby with a simple, emotionally attractive case and, most important, the means to get it across to the public.

Back in the 1970s, the anti-Common Market lobby had little support in the press and the backing of no major political party. Today, the anti-euro camp enjoys the unconditional and vigorous support of the right-wing press — Rupert Murdoch’s four titles, the Mail and its Sunday sister paper, the two Telegraphs — as well as the Conservative party. With economic growth in the euro-zone sluggish and likely to remain so, it will not be hard for them to mount a case for staying out.

In such circumstances, it is questionable whether anything other than a major populist campaign in favour of euro entry, with the explicit backing of the government and emphasising the benefits of the continental model of “social capitalism”, has any hope of changing public opinion. Yet this is something the government has so far shied away from.

If public opinion on the euro doesn’t show any sign of shifting, it is most unlikely that the government will risk a referendum. And it has a ready-made means of wriggling out of its commitment to one by deciding that the five economic tests have not been passed.

There was a lot of fuss at the beginning of January about the remarks of the most senior civil servant in the team doing the economic assessment, Gus O’Donnell, to the effect that economics was not clear and unambiguous and that the decision on euro entry would have to be taken by politicians. But he was doing no more than stating the obvious: ultimately, joining the euro is a political, not an economic, decision. And it would be very easy to adapt the economic assessment to support either entry or staying out (at least for now), depending on what makes most sense politically.

Here, public opinion on the euro — though crucial — is not the only factor. The government is also aware that a euro referendum could be used by disgruntled voters to register an anti-government protest. Up to now, the Blair government has had a remarkably easy ride from the British public. But this will not necessarily last forever. On all sorts of issues — the health service, the railways, education — there are signs that the public is growing impatient. Add an economic downturn (by no means impossible despite the current talk that Britain has escaped the world recession), and it could easily be that by 2003 the government is really struggling.

In other words, it is still worth taking claims that the referendum will happen this parliament with a large pinch of salt. Put simply, there’s too much that could go wrong in the next couple of years.