Friday, 27 June 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, June 27 2003

The other day, while I was looking through my files for something else, I turned up a clipping from the Oxford Mail in 1980. It was a news story about a demonstration by the Oxford Anarchist Group (of which I was then a member) on the occassion of the Soviet ambassador’s visit to speak at the Oxford Union, accompanied by a photograph of the dozen or so demonstrators.

Normally when I find things like this my first reaction is to sigh nostalgically. Weren’t we young — and wasn’t X a real stunner? How the hell did she end up marrying that chump who got that flash job in the City?

But this time I winced with embarrassment — and it wasn’t because of the haircuts or the clothes but because the slogans on our hand-painted placards were so asinine. One in particular stood out: “H-blocks, Gulag — Spot the difference, smash the lot!” (For younger readers, the H-blocks were the prison buildings in Long Kesh gaol just outside Belfast where IRA and other Northern Irish terrorist and paramilitary prisoners were held.)

We were protesting against a vile police-state, which was and is an entirely honourable thing to do. But we gave the impression that we were doing so because we thought that conditions in that vile police state were just as bad as here — rather than far, far worse. The British state’s policies in Northern Ireland at the time certainly deserved criticism, but to claim that the H-blocks were indistinguishable from the slave-labour system of Stalin’s Soviet Union was simply barmy. In our enthusiasm to make a point about our own society and its failings, we’d lost all sense of political perspective.

Ah well, you might think, that’s anarchists for you — and I’d agree insofar as anarchism’s blanket anti-statism does mean that many anarchists are peculiarly incapable of distinguishing among states. But anarchists are not the only leftists who are so keen to attack developed western capitalist democracy that they lose any sense of how much worse things are and have been elsewhere.

Indeed, cringe-making “spot-the-difference” comparisons of the “H-blocks, Gulag” type crop up time and again in leftist discourse. In the 1930s and again in the 1960s, the fashion was to describe anyone even vaguely right-wing as “fascist”. Since the 1980s, it has been the vogue in some leftist circles to describe the Labour Party’s internal regime as “Stalinist” — not because members are periodically rounded up, tortured into confessing crimes they have not committed and then shot, but because Trotskyists have been non-violently expelled from the party and outspoken critics of the party leadership have not been given plum jobs in government.

But “H-blocks, Gulag” thinking has been most noticeable of late in the post-September 11 anti-war movement. Time and again, in attacking the United States’s aggressive “war on terror”, Leftist writers and speakers have made preposterous claims about the supposed likeness of the Bush administration and al-Qaida, the Taliban in Afghanistan or Saddam’s regime in Iraq. Which is not to argue that the US is right or that it should not be criticised. It’s just that crass stupidity can undermine even the most righteous cause.

On a different matter entirely, the Guardian deserves congratulation for finding and publishing the infamous list of Soviet sympathisers that George Orwell handed over to the Information Research Department, a Foriegn Office propaganda unit, just before his death. The Guardian did rather sex up the news angle on the story, asking whether Orwell handed over the list because he fancied Celia Kirwan, a young woman friend who had just started working for the IRD — its front-page headline ran: “Blair’s babe: Did Orwell’s love for this woman turn him into a government stooge?”

But on the assumption that the list is genuine (and it appears to be), its publication should lay to rest the myth that Orwell was doing anything more sinister with it than advising the IRD that it should not hire certain people to write its anti-communist propaganda.

The 38 names on the list are all, with the exception of Charlie Chaplin and Michael Redgrave, authors or journalists; and all those with whom I’m familiar (which is not all of them) had publicly expressed pro-Soviet opinions in print at some point.

There remains the question of whether Orwell was right to hand over a list to a secret state agency not knowing whether it might be put to a use different from that for which it was prepared. But the claim that he produced some sort of “hit list” of targets for a British McCarthyism just isn’t true.

Monday, 16 June 2003


Paul Anderson, review of Orwell: The Life by D J Taylor (Chatto and Windus, £20), Tribune, June 20 2003

There is no doubt that George Orwell is an excellent subject for a biographer. He wrote two of the most influential novels of the 20th century, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four; he was an exceptionally talented polemicist, reporter and cultural critic; and he packed an extraordinary amount into his short life. He was, moreover, a notably complex human being: the old Etonian colonial policeman Eric Blair who turned his back on his class, changed his name and became a revolutionary socialist bohemian; the prewar quasi-pacifist who transformed himself into a wartime propagandist; the civil libertarian who turned over a list of Stalinist fellow-travellers to the spooks. Partly because of this complexity, he has remained a controversial figure to this day. No writer of the 20th century has attracted more fulsome praise or more excoriating denunciation.

D J Taylor is one of Britain's best highbrow book-reviewers, an accomplished biographer (his Thackeray, published in 1999, deservedly won plaudits) and a novelist of distinction. He has also been an Orwell obsessive since his teens, and he shares many of Orwell's literary enthusiasms (Swift, Dickens, Gissing).

Who could be better placed to write a life of Orwell? Well, if it hadn't been done before, hardly anyone - and if it hadn't been done before, Orwell: The Life would be hailed universally as the nearest thing to definitive you can get. Taylor has immersed himself in Orwell's writing and has trawled the archives. He has interviewed dozens of people who knew Orwell. He knows the secondary literature backwards. Orwell: The Life is an impressive piece of scholarship, well written and fair. It is generally sympathetic to Orwell but acknowledges his faults and even sets out the case against him.

The problem is that it has been done before. There were dozens of takes on Orwell's life between his death and the late 1970s, some good and some dire, but none of them done with the benefit of access to Orwell's own papers. In 1972, however, Orwell's widow Sonia gave Bernard Crick unrestricted access to the papers, and in 1980 Crick's magisterial George Orwell: A Life was published.

Now, there's a case for arguing that Crick's biography doesn't successfully capture Orwell's inner life (though you could equally well say that Crick resisted the temptation of engaging in the sort of amateur psychological speculation that has marred subsequent biographies). There have also been some important Orwell-related documents that have emerged since Crick first published - notably a version of his notorious list of fellow-travellers, but also material from the Soviet archives (turned up by Gordon Bowker for his new biography) that shows just how close Orwell came to being liquidated by the Stalinists in Spain. Several very good short books have been written contesting various aspects of Crick's take on Orwell, the best of them John Newsinger's Orwell's Politics.

But on most of the big things, Crick has not been found wanting - and, good as Taylor's Orwell is, too much of it retells a familiar tale. There is some interesting new material on Orwell's early life, but otherwise the freshest bits of Taylor's book are the short essays on various aspects of Orwell - his voice, his attitudes to the Jews, his paranoia - that he scatters through the main narrative. So much hard work and craft have gone into this book that it almost seems churlish to suggest that Taylor should have dropped the traditional biography and produced a collection of essays. But it is what I think.

Sunday, 15 June 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column June 13 2003

I'M not sure exactly why, but I felt deflated this week after Gordon Brown's announcement that we shan't be joining the euro for a while.

It was hardly that I was expecting anything else. True, I'd felt a little twinge of hope when Will Hutton reported in the Observer a few weeks back that Tony Blair was so fed up with the Chancellor's obstructionism on the euro that he'd decided to shunt him off into the Foreign Office. And even as late as Monday morning, I found myself imagining Gordon stunning the world by declaring that there was a persuasive case for British euro membership now.

But these were idle thoughts. All the evidence suggested Hutton's story was just too good to be true - and that there was a close-to-zero chance of Brown springing a surprise and giving the euro the green light. I had only modest hopes of New Labour in government even in 1997. After six years of disappointment, I reckon I've learnt that wishful thinking gets you nowhere.

So why did Brown's performance on Monday get me down? The more I mull it over, the more I realise that it's because I simply can't stand the thought of another two years - or three years, or five, or whatever - of British politics being dominated by the grind of inconclusive arguments about the euro.

It's not that I don't have my own view about it. I think Britain should join as soon as possible and put its weight behind proposals to tone down the anti-inflationary zeal of the growth and stability pact and to give the eurozone the capacity to run a redistributive fiscal policy. Britain's best hope, I believe, is to become part of a social democratic federal Europe. And we won't do that outside the euro.

The point is that I've thought this for years - and just about every other protagonist in the argument, whatever their views, is in the same boat. For all the pervasive grumbling from the sceptics that Britain has not had a proper national debate about our relationship with Europe since the 1975 referendum, the truth is that our relationship with Europe has been minutely dissected as no other political issue has been in recent times. All the positions are so well rehearsed that the argument has become stale and utterly tedious. It should be decision time.

The reason it isn't has precious little to do with the mounds of documentation produced by the Treasury on Brown's "five tests". There are of course real arguments to be had about the technical economics of joining the euro, in particular over the exchange rate at which we join; and it should go without saying that it would be mad to join if the British and eurozone economies were completely out-of-kilter.

But the Treasury documents show no such thing. Their most serious claim is that there would be a danger of inflation if Britain adopted eurozone interest rates, which is true - but we're not talking serious inflation, and in any case fiscal measures, otherwise known as increased taxes, could effectively counter the danger (as the Treasury report acknowledges).

No, the real reason that Brown put off the decision yet again is purely political. To put it bluntly, the Government is scared shitless that it will lose the promised referendum on euro entry. Which is not to say that the Government shouldn't be worried. If Britain voted no in a euro referendum, as all the polls suggest it would, Labour's credibility would be shattered, and the only beneficiaries - and I mean the only beneficiaries - would be the Tories.

Labour's mistake was offering a referendum in the first place, way back in 1996 when it was in opposition. At the time, it was greeted by nearly every commentator as a clever political gambit that not only neutralised Labour's own divisions on the euro but also had genuine cross-party popular appeal. But even then it should have been obvious that a referendum campaign would have to be fought against the rabidly anti-European Right-wing press as well as the Tories - and winning would not be easy.

Had Blair and Brown gone for a euro referendum immediately after the 1997 general election, they might just have prevailed - but instead they lost their bottle and effectively ruled out the referendum for the duration of Labour's first term. Since that defining moment, the referendum has become an increasingly daunting prospect. Monday showed that it has now rendered the Government incapable of acting decisively just as decisive action has become urgent.

Some on the Tribune Left will no doubt find some satisfaction in New Labour being hoist with one of its own petards, but I can't join them. In 1997, Blair was handed the best chance anyone has ever had of making Britain a full member of the European club. That he has blown it is his greatest political failure.


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, May 20 2003

In marked contrast to the hoo-hah in the press over Cambridge Spies, the BBC's big-budget television dramatisation of the already familiar tale of Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt, the genuinely newsworthy revelation in a new book of the identity of the Soviet agent who spied on George Orwell and other members of the Independent Labour Party contingent in Spain during the civil war in the 1930s has so far gone unremarked everywhere but the Guardian.

The story appears in a splendid new biography of Orwell by Gordon Bowker, and is the result of an extraordinary piece of historical detective work - aided by just a little bit of luck.

Back in the early 1980s, Bowker went to China to write for the Observer about the filming of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, and during his trip met several Western communists who had gone to live in China as admirers of Mao Zedong's revolution. One of them was an Englishman in his seventies, David Crook, who had arrived with his Canadian wife Isabel in the late 1940s. The Crooks had written several books on the impact of the revolution on a remote village and were now working as teachers in a Beijing university. Crook's enthusiasm for the regime was undimmed even though he had spent seven years in prison during the Cultural Revolution. He told Bowker that he had fought for the Republicans in Spain in the 1930s and had gone to China after reading Edgar Snow's sympathetic account of Mao, Red Star Over China.

Bowker wrote up Crook's story for the Listener and thought no more about it. But many years later, after publishing acclaimed biographies of the authors Malcolm Lowry and Lawrence Durrell, he started researching his book on Orwell. And in the Orwell archive in London, he came across a mention of a David Crook in a letter to Eileen Blair, Orwell's first wife, who had followed him to Spain and worked there in the office of the British Independent Labour Party in Barcelona.

Could this be the same David Crook? Bowker managed to find one of Crook's sons in London - who, to Bowker's amazement, told him that his father had spied on Orwell for the Communist International. Crook was by now very ill after suffering a stroke in Beijing - he died in 2000 at the age of 90 - but, said the son, had talked at length to a researcher in the United States and had admitted his role in Spain.

With this lead, Bowker tracked down the researcher, then scoured the archives - and turned up crucial Soviet intelligence files (in International Brigades collections in New York and London, of all places) that show conclusively that the David Crook he met in China had indeed become a Comintern agent in Spain in early 1937 after fighting in one of the International Brigades, which he had joined on the recommendation of Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain. They also show that, as part of the Stalinist campaign to liquidate Trotskyists and all other serious rivals on the revolutionary Left, he infiltrated the ILP contingent in Barcelona that was allied to the far-left (but non-Stalinist) POUM. As readers of Orwell's Homage to Catalonia will know, the POUM and its anarchist allies, hitherto the dominant force in the Catalan capital, were brutally suppressed in a Stalinist coup in May 1937.

Bowker says that Crook passed on everything he could find out about the ILPers - including Orwell - to his secret-police controllers, and that none of the ILPers seems to have suspected him. He was certainly one of the sources (along with at least one other British communist) for the indictment for treason issued by a Stalinist-controlled tribunal against Orwell and his wife just after they fled Spain in June 1937. It described both of them, wrongly, as "rabid Trotskyites", and was intended to be their death warrant.

Beyond this, Crook's precise role is murky. It is possible that he had sufficient scruples to help Orwell and others escape arrest in a raid by the Stalinist-controlled Spanish secret police, but it also likely that he played a small role in the notorious murder of Andres Nin, the POUM leader, and various other Stalinist crimes in Spain. Whatever, he remained a Comintern agent for at least another three years, ending up in China, before returning to Britain and joining the RAF. During the second world war, Bowker says, he served in RAF intelligence in Asia and the Far East.

It's a fascinating story - and one that breaks new ground. Bowker has put together the most compelling evidence so far published of direct involvement by British communists in one of Stalin's dirtiest crimes against socialism.

George Orwell by Gordon Bowker is published by Little Brown at £20.