Friday, 15 November 2002


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 15 November 2002

Graham Day of Falkirk wrote a letter last week complaining that my last column was "more concerned with re-fighting the sectarian battles of 30 years ago than with taking the left forward in 2002" – and his point has been echoed (sort of) by a couple of friends. "I don't give a monkey's about the bloody IMG and WRP any more," one old anarcho buddy told me on the phone. "I'd completely forgotten they existed until I read your piece." "I don't know why you bother," said my chum from the Socialist Alliance in the pub. "Who needs to be reminded of all that old stuff?"

OK, point taken, me old mateys. I suppose it is rather a long time since the heyday, if that's the right word, of the nuttier Trots. In my defence, though, I was writing about a new television programme dealing with the secret state's infiltration of the far left in the 1970s. More important – and maybe I should have spelled it out in the last column – there are real similarities between the left then and today.

The International Marxist Group and the Workers' Revolutionary Party might have disappeared off the radar a long time ago – although, bizarrely, one faction of the old IMG has found a niche for itself as Ken Livingstone's office staff. (Well, the world revolution has to start somewhere, doesn't it comrade?)

But Leninist sects only marginally less pernicious than the WRP and only a little less deluded about their world-historical role than the IMG are very much a part of the current scene. Witness the sectarian warfare that has all but destroyed the Socialist Alliance or the "revolutionary defeatist" (in other words, pro-Saddam) position taken by some of the leading lights in the organising committee of the Stop the War Coalition.

Also very much part of the 2002 left are bone-headed 1970s-style anti-European Labour leftists who think nothing of lining up with the most reactionary Tories in pursuit of the goal of keeping Johnny Foreigner at bay. So too are thick-witted left trade union leaders, schooled some years ago as Stalinist cadres, who are convinced that they are the vanguard of the working class but have the strategic acumen of lemmings.

And then there are the deluded anarcho direct-actionists who think that capitalism will crumble if the next demo is big enough, and the almost-but-not-quite-anarcho anti-globalists who believe that the best solution for world poverty is to deny the poor of the Africa and Asia the benefits of capitalism.

Aaaargh. It's difficult to deny that the left at its worst is pretty much the same as it was 10, 15 or 20 years ago – apart from the fact that there's no longer a Soviet Union to excuse for its crimes against humanity. The worst of the left is still utter rubbish.

What really gets me down, however, is that there's not much more of the left these days than the worst of it. Thirty, 20, even 10 years ago, the idiocies of the Leninists, left Europhobes, Third Worldists et al were tempered by the existence of a strong democratic and libertarian left current – based on the centre-left of the Labour Party but stretching from left liberalism and the principled minority of the Labour right through to the intelligent libertarian fringe of the far left. It had several notable defining features: its commitment to individual liberty and to extending the scope of democratic decision-making; its antipathy to authoritarian states throughout the world (whatever their ideology); its political realism (at very least, scepticism about "the revolution"); and, most important, its social egalitarianism.

This democratic socialist left was once the ideologically dominant force in British left politics. But it is now in a worse state than at any time in the past 50 years. In fact, it has almost disappeared.

For all Labour's faults in the 1980s and early 1990s, it remained a democratic socialist party: Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Roy Hattersley and John Smith all came from the democratic socialist Labour tradition. Tony Blair did not – and under his direction, with the help of others, New Labour has effectively abandoned the causes of liberty and equality.

One might have thought that this would at least have prompted democratic socialists to protest loudly, but on the whole it has not. Indeed, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that the democratic socialist perspective is invisible apart from Hattersley's Monday column in the Guardian. Some democratic socialists have been co-opted into government and can't be expected to utter a coherent sentence until they get out. Some are old or have died. But most seem simply to have given up.

I'm not quite ready to do that yet. But it does seem to me that "taking the left forward in 2002", as Graham Day puts it, is a matter of reviving a prone body that is in real danger of expiring. And I'm not really sure where to start.

Friday, 1 November 2002


Chartist, November-December 2002

The big news in European left politics this autumn has undoubtedly been the victory of Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrat-Green coalition in the German federal elections in late September.

It was remarkable not least because, for most of the year, it had seemed extremely improbable that Schroeder would retain power. The centre-right bloc of the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, had led in the opinion polls until 10 days before the election. And its candidate for the chancellorship, the CSU’s Edmund Stoiber, believed he had won even after the votes had been cast. Almost incredibly, he claimed victory on the basis of inaccurate exit polls – only to concede defeat after real votes had been counted.

Of course, Schroeder’s victory was narrow. The share of the vote taken by the SPD was 38.5 per cent, down from 40.9 per cent in 1998 and only 9,000 votes ahead of the CDU-CSU nationwide. The ruling coalition would not have been returned had it not been for the exceptional performance of the Greens – who fought an excellent campaign focused on the charismatic foreign minister Joschka Fischer and took 8.6 per cent, up nearly two percentage points, their best ever share of the vote. As it is, its majority is slim, down from 21 to nine seats in the Bundestag, and it remains to be seen whether it will survive a whole term. With nearly 10 per cent of the workforce unemployed and growth sluggish, the government is particularly vulnerable on the economy.

Nevertheless, the result is a resounding success for the centre-left – and one that has major implications both for German domestic politics and for the rest of Europe and the wider world.

Domestically, the election not only confirmed the Greens as Germany’s third party ahead of the liberal Free Democrats – who won a disappointing (for them) 7.4 per cent – and appears to sound the death-knell for the former-communist Party of Democratic Socialism in what was East Germany. Its onetime supporters deserted it in droves for the SPD, and it failed to reach the 5 per cent threshold for proportional representation in the Bundestag. With only two seats in the new parliament, down from 36 in the last, its future as a player in German politics at the federal level is now bleak.

It is on the European and wider international front that the German election result is most significant. Most obviously, Schroeder and Fischer won after – some would say by – explicitly distancing themselves from the Bush administration’s sabre-rattling on Iraq. Their stance caused uproar in Washington, but it has also drawn their government closer to Jacques Chirac’s French government, which is also openly sceptical about precipitate unilateral American action.

But this is not the only issue on which Berlin and Paris find themselves in agreement. Both are in trouble under the terms of the stability and growth pact because, with their economies stagnant, they are spending much more than they are receiving in tax revenue – and both are increasingly open to the idea that the pact should be reformed to allow eurozone states more room to spend their way out of recession. There have been too many false dawns for the sort of “Eurokeynesianism” advocated by Jacques Delors and other European social democrats in the late 1980s and early 1990s for this to cause an outbreak of rejoicing on the left, but the signs are definitely more hopeful on this score than for several years.

The Germans and French are also increasingly prepared to cobble together compromises to ensure that EU enlargement happens on time – witness the way Chirac and Schroeder stitched up a deal to preserve the Common Agricultural Policy at the Brussels summit in October, to the apparent chagrin of Tony Blair.

All this has led to much speculation about the revival of the Franco-German axis that dominated west European politics – more specifically, the politics of the European Community – in the 1980s and early 1990s. Yet, although the new warmth between Berlin and Paris is significant, it is not the whole story.

For a start, even before the next round of EU enlargement takes place in 2004, the ability of the EU’s two most populous countries to call the shots is not what it was 10 years ago, let alone 20. With the enlargements of the 1980s and 1990s to take in Greece (1981); Spain and Portugal (1986); and Sweden, Finland and Austria (1995), and with the concomitant growth of qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers on a variety of policy areas, even the big countries have to get smaller allies to back them. France and Germany acting together are undoubtedly a heavyweight act, but they cannot steamroller through anything they want. Once Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia join the fold from 2004 – as, after Ireland’s yes vote in its referendum, they are almost certain to do – the idea that a Paris-Berlin axis can drive European politics becomes almost laughable.

What is more, France and Germany disagree profoundly on one of the most important bones of contention in current EU politics – the future constitutional framework for the enlarged EU.

The Convention on the Future of Europe, which has been deliberating in Brussels under the chairmanship of former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, has not set the world alight. Indeed, it has been largely ignored by the media, not only in Britain, where European politics has never been taken seriously, but also on the continent.

Yet the issues that it is discussing are crucially important. The EU has had a problem with its lack of democratic accountability since long before it became the EU. Put bluntly, it has been clear for years that most of its crucial decisions are made behind closed doors by means of intergovernmental stitch-up in the Council of Ministers – with the rest emanating from the unelected European Commission. Democrats have long argued for reform, either by making the EU more answerable to national parliaments or by increasing the powers of the European Parliament.

With enlargement, however, relying on intergovernmental stitch-up becomes more than a democratic disgrace. It could lead to the whole EU decision-making process seizing up in intractable arguments. Everyone now agrees that institutional reform of the EU is an urgent necessity.

The problem for Giscard is that the two main recipes for reform that have been put forward are incompatible. On one hand, federalists – crudely speaking, Germany and most of the smaller states, though not the Scandinavians – think that the way to avoid stasis and increase the democratic legitimacy of the EU is to create a supranational polity in which intergovernmental horse-trading is reduced and the European Parliament assumes greater powers. On the other, the intergovernmentalists – Britain, France, Spain and the Scandinavians – see increasing the accountability of the EU to national governments and parliaments as the only possible solution.

Unsurprisingly, no compromise acceptable to all has emerged from the convention – but unless it does it is difficult to conceive of enlargement not being an almighty mess. It’s just possible that the new Franco-German entente will yield a solution, but at present the signs are few and far between.

The final significance of Schroeder’s victory is that, together with the election success of the Swedish social democrats just before it, it appears to have stemmed the advance of the right in continental politics, which now seems to have reached its furthest points this spring with the socialist disaster in the French presidential and National Assembly elections and the spectacular success of the Fortuyn List in Holland. The 1998 dream of social democratic hegemony in Europe is still a pretty distant one these days, but at least it seems less hopelessly utopian than it did this summer.


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 1 November 2002

Like quite a few other former far leftists, I turned on the telly last Sunday to watch the first part of True Spies, the BBC's much-hyped expose of the state's snooping on the left in the 1970s and 1980s, fully expecting to be overcome by a sense of righteous indignation at the way the spooks interfered with our civil liberties.

Instead, to my surprise, I found myself more amused than outraged. Of course, there were some nasty tales related – of legitimate campaigns infiltrated and undermined, of workers blacklisted and denied work for their political opinions, of union bosses who grassed up their members. But overall the effect of True Spies was to point up the ridiculousness of both the spies and the Leninists who were their main targets.

The programme kicked off with Ricky Tomlinson – now the father in The Royle Family, in 1970s real life a militant building worker and a member of the Trotskyist Workers' Revolutionary Party.

Now, if there was ever a leftist group that saw the tentacles of the secret state everywhere, it was the WRP. Led by the notoriously thuggish Gerry Healy and bankrolled at different times by Saddam Hussein and Muammar al Gaddafi, its defining feature was its paranoia. You didn't have to be mad to join, but it helped. No one who was a member could have failed to pick up the message that the WRP was, as the vanguard of the British revolution, a target of the spooks – and that constant vigilance was necessary to avert the threat they posed.

Yet here was Tomlinson playing Britain's favourite cuddly slob, feigning surprise that he could ever have been considered a threat to state security. "Subversive? My arse!" he quipped to camera.

Not his greatest performance, I'm afraid – though it was not as unconvincing as Tariq Ali's. Older readers will remember that he came to prominence as a revolutionary student firebrand in 1968 and for several years after that was a leader of the International Marxist Group, a Trotskyist outfit that was less paranoid than the WRP but shared its absurd pretension of being about to lead the British proletariat into the inevitable forthcoming revolution.

The IMG, like the WRP, considered that it was a target of the secret state: indeed, it would have been offended if it had not been, because that would have meant it wasn't taken seriously.Yet here was old Tariq blathering on about how let-down he felt that someone he trusted had been a Special Branch man and how sad it was that these rotten spoilsports had interfered with the basic democratic right to work for the violent overthrow of democracy.

Er, sorry, maybe I've missed something here, but if you spend your time boasting about how you and your comrades are going to smash the bourgeois state – or if, like the Communist Party of Great Britain, you're bankrolled by and propagandise for a hostile superpower – can you really be too shocked when the bourgeois state decides to open your mail and sends along a couple of coppers in disguise to keep an eye on you? Only if you're a complete fool.

And another thing. If you're a really serious revolutionary, is your way of trying to determine whether someone is a police stooge to go to en masse to the pub and drink 10 pints of beer with the suspect while quizzing him? Almost incredibly, this was what the IMG did with one Special Branch "hairy" who appeared on True Spies. He said that soon after this incident he decided he needed a new job. He didn't say whether the reason was the dreadful hangover or the realisation that he was wasting his life snooping on a bunch of clowns.

Not that many of the Special Branch and MI5 types interviewed on the programme seem to have recognised that most of the subversives they were trailing would have had trouble organising anything more dangerous than a 10-pint piss-up. Almost without exception, they attested to the crucial importance of their work in saving British democracy from the red extremists – an estimation of the Leninist sects' potency strangely close to their own delusions of their world-historical role.

In truth, Britain's 57 varieties of Leninist never posed a threat to the security of the British state. The CP had a certain political cachet in the 1930s and 1940s but never became a mass party – and although it had significant influence in the trade unions in the 1960s and 1970s, it neither initiated nor controlled the wave of wage militancy that swept Britain's workplaces in that era. The Trots made a lot of noise and ran a few reformist campaigns but were even more marginal except when they took over a few Labour parties (and town halls) in the 1980s.

But at least the Leninists kept Special Branch and MI5 occupied. Without the CP, the WRP, the IMG and all the rest, the spooks would have had to invent them. Who knows? Perhaps they did.