Tuesday, 18 March 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, March 21 2003

Robin Cook's resignation from the government was hardly unexpected – but it was dramatic all the same. He is the only Labour figure of top rank to have quit on grounds of principle since Tony Blair became prime minister nearly six years ago: indeed, you have to go back to 1951, when Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman left Clement Attlee's government, for a Labour resignation with anything like the impact.

Although Cook's resignation statement to the House of Commons on Monday evening was eclipsed as news by George Bush's blunt 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, it was quite the most sensational parliamentary event in this government's lifetime. In calm, measured tones, Cook eloquently demolished the case for an immediate assault on Iraq. The contrast with Jack Straw's bumbling performance at the despatch box minutes earlier could not have been more stark.

As things now stand, Cook is finished as a government politician – that much is clear. But it would be foolish to write him off. At very least, as a backbench MP he could provide the left in the Parliamentary Labour Party with the intellectual sophistication and political clout that has been so obviously missing in recent years. Then there's the possibility of a comeback in Scottish politics. He could even be the best hope the beleagured Scottish Labour Party has of staving off major losses in the forthcoming elections to the Scottish Parliament.

But what's really intriguing is Cook's position if the war against Iraq were to go so horribly wrong that Blair lost the confidence of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

This scenario has been chewed over in recent months by just about every Labour Party member I know at every level – and most of them reckon that if Blair were forced out in such circumstances, Gordon Brown would be a shoo-in as his replacement.

Until this week, I thought the same, not least because all the other names being touted as possible successors to Blair would not be credible challengers to the Chancellor. Straw? Too compromised by his role in the Iraq policy. David Blunkett? Unpopular with those Labour Party and trade union members least likely to be prejudiced about his being blind. Charles Clarke, Peter Hain and Alan Milburn haven't held high office for long enough. And John Prescott, Margaret Beckett and Cook are all – how to put it politely – big figures whose career trajectories are not on an upward curve.

But Cook's resignation has made me think again – at least about him.

Like many others on what used to be called the soft left, I was disappointed when Cook decided not to challenge for the Labour leadership after John Smith died in 1994, and I still think he would have made an infinitely better Prime Minister than Blair. Unlike Blair, he is an egalitarian, an environmentalist and a committed constitutional reformer. From 1997 to 2001, he was a very good Foreign Secretary – particularly in repairing British relations with the rest of the European Union and in pressing for intervention in Kosovo and Sierra Leone - and as Leader of the House of Commons he made a valiant attempt (scuppered by Blair) to introduce a democratic second chamber. Like everyone else I know, however, I thought his time at the top was coming to an end. Now I'm not so sure. If – and it's a big if – Blair is forced out by a military disaster, it's not just wishful thinking to suggest that Cook would be in a very strong position to replace him.

Which is not to say that I am hoping for a military disaster to force Blair out. As I write, 48 hours have not passed since Bush's speech. But Saddam has rejected Bush's demand that he and his sons go into exile. It almost certain that by the time you read this we will be at war.

This is not what should have happened: other means of dealing with Saddam should have been given more time. Blair's strategy of hanging on to Bush’s coat tails and hoping to restrain him has proved a humiliating failure, alienating domestic public opinion and wrecking Britain's relations with France and Germany, the two most important members of the European Union. War will inevitably result in the deaths of Iraqi civilians and conscript soldiers – and there is a danger that the death toll will be massive. In the worst case, the attack on Iraq could turn into a conflict involving the use of chemical, biological and perhaps even nuclear weapons that engulfs the whole Middle East. Bush and Blair have taken an extraordinary risk this week. They should not have done so.

Nevertheless, I see no credible option for democratic socialists once the military action begins other than hoping that it works – and that it works quickly, consigning Saddam and his vile regime to the proverbial dustbin of history with minimal casualties on either side. Sorry, folks, but I think I'll be giving the next anti-war demo a miss.

Friday, 7 March 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, March 7 2003

Fifty years ago this week - at 9.50am Moscow time on March 5 1953, to be precise - Iosef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known as Stalin, breathed his last.

His death was a squalid affair, entirely befitting his regime. The Soviet dictator, probably by this point clinically paranoid, had suffered a brain haemorrhage on March 2 - but medical help was delayed by Lavrenti Beria, his scheming secret police chief, who hoped to succeed him. For more than two days, Stalin lay in bed motionless, surrounded by his family and the leading figures of the Soviet Politburo, many of them drunk and all of them terrified for their futures. No one admitted that his condition could be terminal. On one occasion Beria famously demanded of the as-good-as-dead Stalin in a loud voice: "Comrade Stalin, all the members of the Politburo are here! Say something to us!"

It would be comforting to relate that Stalin's death was greeted by a universal sense of relief, but it was not. The man who turned the already-extant Bolshevik police-state into a ruthless totalitarian dictatorship, killing millions in the forced collectivisation of agriculture and committing hundreds of thousands more to slave labour, was mourned in the Soviet Union as the heroic war leader who saved the world from Nazi Germany. (Never mind that the the business was done by the poor bloody infantry.) Abroad, he was given a send-off that was at least respectful and at worst obsequious - particularly on the left.

No one was more gushing than Rajani Palme Dutt, the chief ideologist of the Communist Party of Great Britain, writing in Labour Monthly: "The genius and will of Stalin, the architect of the rising world of free humanity, lives on forever in the imperishable monument of his creation - the soaring triumph of socialist and communist construction; the invincible array of states and peoples who have thrown off the bonds of the exploiters and are marching forward in the light of the teachings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin."

In similar vein, the CPGB’s leader, Harry Pollitt - whose apologists say was sceptical about Stalinism - paid tribute to Stalin as someone whose "miracles of communist construction are of a character that even Marx would never have dared to believe possible".

Tribune, to its credit, was more sceptical. In a piece headlined "Now let's bury the Stalin myth", Michael Foot wrote: "The Nazi-Soviet pact and the frightened sycophancy towards Hitler which Stalin displayed in the two subsequent years still stand out as probably the most grievous and colossal blunder of the century . . . He sent to their deaths almost all the leaders of the revolution. He distorted the socialist aim in a manner which would have horrified both Lenin and Marx. He then falsified the history of the revolution itself."

The deflation of Stalin's reputation was not long in coming. The Berlin workers' uprising of June 1953, the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and Nikita Khruschev's "secret speech" the same year to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in which he (selectively) denounced Stalin's crimes, all saw to that. And within 15 years of his death there was a substantial scholarly literature available - at least in the affluent Western democracies - that gave chapter and verse on collectivisation, the Great Terror and just about every other aspect of his years of despotic misrule.

But the Stalin myth was never entirely buried. The Soviet tyrant remains an official hero in communist China to this day - and his memory is still revered by Russian nationalists and many leftists in the Third World. Tribune readers might take with a pinch of salt recent reports that Saddam Hussein has a library of books on Stalin and sees him as his role model: but the similarities between the two go further than their moustaches.

And even in Britain it's remarkable how Stalinism persists - albeit in a small way. The Communist Party of Britain is a pale shadow of the CPGB even of the early 1950s, but it is still able - just - to sustain a daily newspaper, the Morning Star, that retains the respect of a large swathe of the left in spite of its unthinking Stalinism. As the Independent on Sunday reminded us last weekend, Arthur Scargill of the National Union of Mineworkers and Socialist Labour Party remains an unabashed admirer of Stalin, as does Andrew Murray, the chair of the Stop the War Coalition (whom I remember in the 1980s working for the official Soviet news agency Novosti, buying full page ads in left newspapers to publish dull speeches by Konstantin Chernenko).

Which is not to claim that contemporary Stalinism poses a massive threat to civilisation as we know it: far from it. The Stalinists of 2003 are, at least in Britain, a sick joke. I just can't work out why so many on the left tolerate them. Can anyone enlighten me?

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