Friday, 15 December 2006


Paul Anderson, review of The Lost World of British Communism by Raphael Samuel (Verso, £19.99), Tribune, 15 December 2006

This book of three essays recalling the life and culture of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1940s and 1950s is a reminder in more ways than one that time flies. Surely it can’t be ten years since Raphael Samuel died? Surely it can’t be nearly 20 years since the last of these pieces appeared in New Left Review? But it is, and it won’t be very long before the CP described so sympathetically here is beyond living memory.

Samuel was born in 1934 into a middle-class Jewish family, and his mother joined the CP in 1939. But although he was “brought up as a true believer” and joined the party as soon as he could, his membership was brief. He left in 1956, like so many other intellectuals, over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, then played a major part in the first New Left in the late 1950s and early 1960s before going on to found History Workshop, an organisation (if that’s the right word) bringing together academics and amateurs committed to “history from below”.

The Lost World of British Communism is a fitting way to mark the tenth anniversary of Samuel’s death. It shows him at his very best both as a historian and as a writer. The everyday life of a tiny political party that was obsessively deferential to the Soviet Union and had few major internal disputes (at least from 1939 to 1956) might not seem a promising topic – and indeed there are plenty of studies of British communism that are painfully boring. But Samuel makes the CP come alive, mixing his own and other former members’ reminiscences with excerpts from novels, letters and material from the official archives to produce what is still by far the best account of what it was actually like to be a communist 50 to 60 years ago.

But it is more than that. Samuel wrote these essays after the end of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, just as the Communist Party was going through the bitter split that finally destroyed it – and they are also his take on the state of the left at the time. And even though it feels like only yesterday that they appeared, it’s strange to be reminded how much has changed since then.

I have a hunch no one will be writing elegaically in 20 years’ time about the cosy comradeship of Marxism Today or the day-to-day rituals of Straight Left and the Morning Star. The bust-up between the “Eurocommunists”, who felt that the CP should move away from confrontational class politics and pro-Sovietism, and the “tankies”, the traditionalists who preferred business as usual, was a vicious affair that ended with schism and both factions utterly marginalised.

Samuel was writing as someone who believed that a viable socialist left could emerge from the wreckage after the defeat of the miners, the implosion of the CP and the rightward mid-1980s turn of Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party. It never happened. The past 20 years have seen a succession of single-issue campaigns – against the poll tax, against road building, against various wars – but no left revival worthy of the name. Could it have been any different if only we’d taken notice of Samuel 20 years ago and rediscovered the virtues of 1940s communism (while ditching the bad bits)? Perhaps not, but rereading these essays did get me wondering.

Thursday, 23 November 2006


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 23 November 2006

I was digging around in my filing cabinet the other day when I came across a copy of New Socialist magazine from November 1986 in which I had the cover story, a piece arguing that a Labour government would face resistance to its non-nuclear defence policy from America, other Nato countries and the military establishment.

Believe it or not, this caused a quite a stir at the time. Labour, ahead in the opinion polls, had high hopes of winning the next general election – and after the October 1986 Reykjavik summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev the party leadership was optimistic that it could make friends with Reagan. So, because New Socialist was an official Labour Party publication (remember when Labour published things?), various party spokesmen felt it necessary to issue denials that the article represented party policy, which of course brought it attention it would never have otherwise received (and, to be frank, it didn’t deserve).

Not that the small flurry of “Labour defence row” headlines mattered very much. Labour didn’t make friends with Reagan – when Neil Kinnock and Denis Healey visitied him in the White House in 1987, the US president famously mistook Healey for the British ambassador – and it didn’t win the next election. Kinnock abandoned the non-nuclear defence policy just as the Berlin Wall came down.

So why relate this trifling ancient story now? Well, it’s because chancing upon that old New Socialist reminded me of how important the politics of nuclear arms were during the 1980s, not just for me but for thousands of others. And that made me think how oddly unengaged with the politics of nuclear arms nearly everyone is today, myself included.

One reason for this is of course that the threat of nuclear armageddon is rather less immediate than it was 20 years ago. In the 1980s, we knew that if either superpower-dominated bloc started a conventional war in Europe, the other one would respond by going nuclear. Today, as far as anyone is aware, there is no one who has the bomb who is threatening to use it against us in any circumstances.

But declining fear that we will all die in a nuclear war isn’t the whole story – and for me personally it isn’t the story at all. Fear was never my main motive in getting involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and European Nuclear Disarmament. I worried a bit, but I actually thought nuclear deterrence made war very unlikely in Europe.

My problem with nuclear arms was political. The bomb kept the peace (in a dangerous way) but at an appalling cost. It gave unprecedented power to the military-industrial complexes of both blocs, was obscenely expensive, made the Cold War division of Europe an apparently immovable fixture and paralysed people with fear. Getting rid of it – through a mixture of unilateral and multilateral measures, including an enforced international anti-proliferation regime – was, I thought, a necessary precondition of confident, flourishing democracy.

I still think that, even though the Cold War is long gone and the communist police states of east-central Europe are now democracies. (Russia and most of the rest of the Soviet Union have been less fortunate.) I’m also now much more worried than I was in the 1980s that there will be a nuclear war, not in Europe but in the middle east or far east. Yet I haven’t been moved to rejoin CND by Iran’s nuclear programme, by North Korea’s test explosion or even by reports that the Labour government is about to decide to replace Trident as Britain’s “independent deterrent”. Why?

The main reason is CND’s politics. Twenty years ago, it was a genuinely broad-based mass organisation. It had more than its fair share of pro-Soviet communists and a sprinkling of Trots, but its centre of gravity was on the Labour soft left. Today, it is much smaller – and it has become increasingly indistinguishable from the Leninist far left, which blames America for all the world’s ills and supports any opposition to the US anywhere, regardless of its nature.

I could just about forgive CND for having as chair a member of a ludicrous Stalinist sect – Kate Hudson is in the Communist Party of Britain – but I can’t stomach the way it allowed itself to be led in the Stop the War Coalition by the revolutionary defeatists of the Socialist Workers Party, the Islamist reactionaries of the Muslim Association of Britain and the unspeakable George Galloway. The last straw for me was its invitation of the Iranian ambassador to its conference last year.

I’ve not learned to love the bomb – and I want to put pressure on the government not to commit itself to replacing Trident. But to turn a blind eye to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and to throw in your lot with cretino-leftist anti-imperialism, which is what CND has done, is not only deluded. It is almost to invite the government and the public not to take you seriously.

Wednesday, 25 October 2006


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 27 October 2006

Call me an old cynic if you will, but I have a sneaking suspicion that no one reacted to last weekend’s leak of Jack Straw’s latest discussion paper on reform of the Lords by exclaiming: “Wow! A 50 per cent elected, 50 per cent appointed second chamber! What a brilliant new idea!”

Because it isn’t brilliant, and it isn’t new. In fact, it was proposed, and rejected by MPs – just as every other option was rejected – last time Lords reform came up, when the late and much-missed Robin Cook was leader of the House of Commons.

What was wrong with it then is what is wrong with it now. In a democracy, the legitimacy of legislators can be rooted only in direct elections. A second chamber that is 50 per cent appointed is by definition not legitimate. And no amount of guff about the need to encourage distinguished people from all walks of life to lend their expertise to the legislative process (see, for example, Max Hastings in Monday’s Guardian) can disguise the fact. If those distinguished people want to play a part in the legislature, they should put themselves up for election – end of story. There really is no democratic alternative.

And of course everyone knows it. Indeed, I suspect that the real reason Straw has resurrected the 50:50 proposal is precisely that a second chamber lacking democratic legitimacy would not be able to challenge the primacy of the Commons. But there is another simple way of ensuring the leading role of the Commons, which is to carefully delineate in law the respective powers of the two houses of parliament. Plenty of other countries do it. There is no good reason Britain can’t do the same.


The 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution has been marked by a series of features in the Guardian and a very good book by Victor Sebestyen (which I reviewed in Tribune last week) – but I’m a little surprised at how little the left (at least in Britain) has had to say about it.

Hungary 1956 was one of the left’s great watersheds of the 20th century – perhaps not as important as the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 or the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 but certainly up there with the Spanish civil war and the Hitler-Stalin pact. Before the Soviet tanks rolled in to smash the reformist Imre Nagy government and the workers’ councils that had sprung up to defend it, it was just about possible honestly to consider that what was wrong with Soviet communism was down to Stalin’s excesses and that the regime was essentially on the right tracks. (This is not my view of the Soviet Union, need I say.) Afterwards, only fools and liars could praise the Soviet Union as a workers’ state.

Throughout the western world, Hungary caused a mass exodus from communist parties. The Communist Party of Great Britain – never a mass party like the French or Italian communist parties, but nevertheless a significant force on the left – lost one third of its membership, including its most talented intellectuals, most notably the historian and polemicist Edward Thompson. Some ex-communists withdrew into political inactivity, but Thompson and others threw themselves with vigour into creating a New Left that was explicitly anti-Stalinist and socialist.

That New Left fizzled out, but its members remained key players on the British left – as Labour MPs, in the peace movement, as writers – until the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those who are still alive are getting on a bit now, but their role in reviving what had become a moribund British left culture deserves to be marked. We need a few like them today.


Now, I know this is controversial but it has to be asked: what exactly do all those people clamouring for rapid British and American withdrawal from Iraq – from Simon Jenkins to George Galloway – think would happen if their demands were met?

Would the Iraqi people, joyous at throwing off the yoke of imperialism, settle down at once to live in peace and harmony? Somehow I have my doubts. The wave of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing currently sweeping Iraq suggests that a rapid British and American withdrawal would be the prelude to civil war and mass slaughter not unlike the catastrophe of Indian partition in 1947.

That things have come to this pass is certainly at very least an indictment of the British and American governments’ failure to plan what happened after they toppled Saddam. And we can continue to argue about whether it was wrong to topple Saddam at all. But what is important now is that Britain and America, having helped create this almighty mess, do everything they can to avert civil war. And for the life of me I can’t see how they can do anything unless they have large and well equipped armies on the ground in Iraq.

Friday, 20 October 2006


Paul Anderson, review of Victor Sebestyen: Twelve Days – Revolution 1956 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £20), Tribune, 20 October 2006

The story of the Hungarian revolution of 1956 has been stylishly told before. Two books in particular spring to mind: the British historian Bill Lomax’s Hungary 1956, published in 1976, and Sandor Kopacsi’s In the Name of the Working Class, an eyewitness account by the Budapest police chief who sided with the revolutionaries, which was translated into English in 1986.

What Victor Sebestyen manages in his new history, however, is to tell the story with verve at the same time as explaining for a post-cold-war readership the international context of the extraordinary events of October-November 1956, when an overwhelmingly working-class uprising came within a whisker of overthrowing a Soviet-imposed Stalinist dictatorship.

In Sebestyen’s account, the roles of Nikita Khruschev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and Dwight D Eisenhower, president of the United States, are – rightly – as important as those of Imre Nagy, the reformist Hungarian prime minister from 24 October to 4 November 1956, or indeed of any other Hungarian. It was Khruschev’s insistence on showing the Hungarians who was boss and Eisenhower’s refusal to do anything that might risk war that determined the revolution’s fate – its brutal suppression by Soviet invasion.

The revolutionaries resisted the tanks with petrol bombs and rifles, and the workers’ councils that were such a notable feature of the revolution continued to organise strikes and demonstrations long after ceding control of the streets to the occupiers. But their leaders were arrested and imprisoned and Hungary returned to communist dictatorship under the opportunist Janos Kadar, who remained in power until 1988. Nagy and his closest comrades were executed in 1958.

What the revolution might have turned into if Khruschev had left it to its own devices cannot of course be known. Sebestyen makes less of the role of the workers’ councils than Lomax and others, which to my mind is a shame. This was a self-managed proletarian revolution above all else, and it is not too fanciful to believe that it might just have created a pluralist, egalitarian, decentralised, self-managed socialist society.

But never mind. If Sebestyen doesn’t speculate about the potential of the workers’ councils, it is nevertheless clear from his account that the overwhelming majority of Hungarian revolutionaries wanted at very least some form of democratic socialism rather than a return to capitalism. The communist claim that the revolution was an attempt by fascists to seize power was, quite simply, a slanderous lie.

Could anything have prevented the defeat of the revolution? Perhaps if the west had threatened military action in support of the revolution, Khruschev would have been forced to back down. But the west was in no position credibly to threaten military action – the Hungarian revolution coincided with the debacle of Suez, which tore the Atlantic alliance asunder – and, of course, the Soviets had the bomb.

Sebestyen was born in Budapest and was a small child when his family left Hungary after 1956 as refugees. A respected journalist in Britain, he has a great feel for the politics of the 1950s and writes in a terse demotic style. This is an exemplary work of popular history that deserves a wide readership.

Friday, 22 September 2006


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 22 September 2006

No British writer of the past 100 years has a greater reputation as a journalist than George Orwell. His three great books of reportage, Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia – although not perhaps as ubiquitous as his two best known novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – are the only examples of British journalism from the 1930s now in print in popular editions. Every other journalist I meet, from foreign correspondents to sub-editors, says that Orwell was a major inspiration.

Yet Orwell’s journalism, or at rather his everyday journalism, is not as widely read as it deserves to be. Unless you have worked your way through the final ten volumes of Peter Davison’s magisterial 20-volume Complete Works of George Orwell, published in the late 1990s, you are unlikely to have taken in more than a tiny sample of the journalistic writing Orwell did in the last 20 years of his life.

Everything is in Davison, of course, but it is spread through more than 5,000 pages, interspersed with letters and fascinating ephemera. There was a generous selection of Orwell’s journalism published in four volumes in the 1960s as Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, edited by Ian Angus and Orwell’s widow Sonia, but Sonia kept out a lot because it was too political for her tastes. In the 1980s, the New Statesman produced a slim pamphlet of Orwell’s contributions to its pages and the writer W. J. West edited two volumes of Orwell’s broadcast scripts for the BBC in 1941-43. And a couple of years ago came a collection of his reviews and reportage in the Observer.

Until this week, however, there was a glaring gap. The routine journalism on which Orwell’s reputation is primarily based is not his work for the BBC or the Observer, let alone his half-dozen reviews for the New Statesman, whose editor, Kingsley Martin, he hated. Rather it is his columns for Tribune, 80 of which appeared under the rubric “As I Please” between 1943 and 1947. And now, thanks to Politico’s Publishing, they are all available in a single volume, Orwell in Tribune: “As I Please” and other writings, with a foreword by Michael Foot and an introduction by me.

I first realised they would make a fantastic book 20 years ago, when I started working as Tribune’s reviews editor. I was already a big Orwell fan – one of the main reasons I went for the job was that Orwell did it from 1943 to 1945 – and my office at the paper contained the bound volumes of back issues. I spent hours poring over the yellowing pages, admiring Orwell’s direct demotic writing style and his extraordinary range of subject matter.

But simply to transcribe all the columns would have taken money Tribune didn’t have or time I didn’t have, and I never got further than dreaming. Ten years ago, after the New Statesman sacked me, I suddenly found myself with time on my hands and even got a proposal together – but then another job turned up. It was only last year I decided to try to get a publisher. Chris McLaughlin, the Tribune editor, mentioned the project to Politico’s, and all of a sudden I had a contract and a deadline.

I underestimated how much time the book would take even with accurate optical character recognition software: I spent the heatwave in July proofreading rather than sitting by a pool. But now it’s out, all the effort feels worth it.

Despite the diversity of their subject matter, Orwell’s Tribune columns form a single coherent body of work. In the words of the critic D. J. Taylor in his recent Orwell biography: “One of the most engaging features of the column, read sequentially, is the sense of dialogue, points taken up, conceded or refuted, continuity rather than a trail of pronouncements which the reader could take or leave as he or she chose.”

The columns are also still remarkably relevant. If there is a single theme that runs all the way through them, it is that the left needs a more nuanced conception of politics. And this emphasis on the things the left habitually ignored – books, sport, popular racism, the sensationalism of the popular press, the slipperiness of political language, religious intolerance – rather than the programmatic core of 1940s democratic socialism or the week-by-week flow of events, makes Orwell’s Tribune columns more accessible than anything written by his contemporaries.

I’m also hoping that the book will make a bit of cash for Tribune. The paper holds copyright on the Orwell it published but has never made a penny from it, giving away permissions to republish whenever asked. Now, with a bit of luck, it should at long last benefit materially from its greatest contribution to the world of letters.

Orwell in
Tribune: “As I Please” and other writings, compiled and introduced by Paul Anderson with a foreword by Michael Foot, is published by Politico’s at £19.99. You can buy it here.

Friday, 4 August 2006


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 4 August 2006

As some of you might be aware, it’s Tribune’s 70th birthday this coming January — and boy, are we planning a party! I have been given a sneak preview of the celebration plans and can now exclusively reveal what is going to happen (with a bit of luck).

1. Anniversary special issue of Tribune
There will be a special issue of Tribune to mark the anniversary. As in 1987, 1992, 1997 and 2002, nothing will be done to plan the editorial side until two weeks before publication, when a desperate call will be made to the former member of staff who compiled the previous anniversary issue. He or she will be too busy to help. The special issue will therefore contain the same material from the archives that appeared in all previous anniversary issues. No one will notice.

2. Birthday rally in Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1

No left-wing anniversary would be complete without a rally in Conway Hall. The Tribune70th birthday celebrations will be kicked off with an event that will rekindle comrades’ memories of the good old days.

Neither the heating nor the lighting will be working properly, so comrades will have the opportunity to savour all this historic venue’s traditional mid-January ambience. The legendary early-1950s public address system will also be in use, so the whole audience will appreciate the back-chat of those on the platform although no one sitting in the gallery will hear a word from any speaker.

The rally will be advertised to start at 7.45pm with eight speakers, but will not get under way until at least 8.15pm as the editor, in the chair, waits for stragglers from the pub. It will in fact comprise 15 speakers, 10 of them representatives of trade unions who have notified the editor the day before that there will be no more funding unless their man is on the platform.

The event will begin with an oration from a foxy international comrade whose command of English is uncertain and who reveals herself, after 30 minutes of fiery anti-imperialist rhetoric, to be an unrepentant admirer of J. V. Stalin. Everyone on the platform will retain rictus grins as the editor makes repeated unsuccessful attempts to bring her diatribe to a close before introducing a member of the Cabinet.

The member of the Cabinet will begin his speech by making it clear he believes he is wearing a famous ceremonial garment, the Mantle of Nye. He will go on to detail the success of the government in reducing paperclip wastage in Whitehall. Thirty minutes into his speech there will be an opportunity for audience participation as Mr Walter Wolfgang and assorted Trotskyist hecklers make an intervention, shouting: “This is rubbish!”, “What about Iraq?” and “You are not wearing the Mantle of Nye and I claim my five pounds!” ATribune staff member will then pass a note to the editor telling him to get on with it because at this rate the meeting will end after the pubs shut. The editor will ignore it and call Mr Tony Benn to speak.

At 9.25pm, after Mr Benn sits down to warm applause from Mr Wolfgang and the Trotskyist hecklers, the general secretary of the largest trade union that subsidises Tribune will deliver a speech. By 10.55pm, after several other general secretaries and MPs have droned on at length, there will be fewer than two-dozen people in the audience, all either Tribune staff or relatives of the platform speakers. There will then be a collection, which will raise £12.47 and a £5 Argos voucher. There will follow a desperate search for a bar that is still serving and takes Argos vouchers.

3. Celebrity fundraising party, Queer Cavalier restaurant, London WC1

In addition to the traditional rally, Tribune will be holding a celebrity fundraising dinner orgainsed by Zhdanov Jenkins Associates at the exclusive Queer Cavalier restaurant in London’s Soho. Tables will cost a bargain £25,000 for rich bastards from the City who want to get in with Gordon (£2.50 unwaged and Tribune staff and contributors).

The highlight of the event will be a speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in which he will hint that he is wearing the Mantle of Nye underneath his suit. He will then make a coded reference — the import of which is made clear only to the political editor of theDaily Mail — to the effect that the owners of Britain’s newspapers can rest assured that the unions can expect no favours.

After the speech, everyone will get hopelessly drunk. At least one pissed hack will say: “I don’t know how to be an opposition journalist. I’m fucked!” — in homage to the great Mr Peter Oborne’s performance at Tribune’s 60th bash in 1997.

4. Article in Guardian Media

The editor will write an upbeat peice about Tribune for the Guardian’s Media supplement. The result will be a four-fold increase in circulation of the Guardian and a 20-fold increase in the circulation of Tribune. Really.

Friday, 7 July 2006


Paul Anderson, review of The Lost Orwell by George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison (Timewell Press, £18.99), Tribune, 7 July 2006

This book has a telling publishing history. It is a supplementary volume to Peter Davison’s magisterial The Complete Works of George Orwell, containing material discovered since the publication by Secker and Warburg of the paperback edition of the last ten volumes of that extraordinary 20-volume set in 2000-02.

You would have thought that Secker would have published it as a matter of course – but no, it decided not to put out what is effectively Volume XXI of the Davison Complete Works because, apparently, it did not think it would make enough money.

What a failure of nerve – and what a damning indictment of the economics of book publishing today, with its multi-million-pound advances for celebs’ biographies and trashy novels, and next-to-nothing for anything serious.

 Luckily, Davison’s fascinating collection has been snapped up by a new, small imprint, Timewell Press, which has done a marvellous job producing the volume to the same high standard as Davison’s Secker volumes.

This is not a book for the reader coming to Orwell’s journalism and letters for the first time: it is a collection of odds and ends, some of which would be near incomprehensible (despite Davison’s superb footnotes and introductory remarks to each set of newly unearthed documents) for anyone without a good grasp of Orwell’s life.

 But for anyone fascinated by Orwell – who remains an enigmatic figure in so many ways despite the extraordinary amount he wrote and the plethora of writing on his life and work – this book is essential reading. It starts with a long correspondence between Orwell and his French translator, Rene Noel Rambault, mainly about Down and Out in Paris and London and Burmese Days. The letters, mostly in French but with English translations provided, provide a absorbing insight into Orwell’s views of his own work and are at times very funny, not least on the translation of slang terms unpublishable in England in the 1930s – “Le mot est ‘fuck’ … Ce mot est ‘bugger’” … Le mot ‘bougre’ est le meme que ‘bugger’…” etc.

Even more amusing are the letters from Orwell’s wife Eileen, whom he married in 1936, to her university friend Norah Miles. Eileen, hitherto rather a mysterious figure, comes alive here as a witty and vivacious young woman with a wicked lack of respect for authority – even that of her husband, whom she treats on occasion as a figure of fun. I particularly like her laughing description of The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell’s 1941 polemic in favour of left patriotism, as “explaining how to be a Socialist though Tory”.

The strangest new material is that relating to Georges Kopp, Orwell’s commandant in Spain in 1937, who had a brief affair with Eileen and remained a friend of the couple: it turns out he was a Walter Mitty fantasist.

n take your pick: there are even previously unseen holiday snaps. But the item that rang a bell with me was a round-robin letter sent by Orwell as Tribune’s literary editor in 1945 to publishers urging them to send all their serious books for the paper to review and to stop deluging him with rubbish. I remember sending out something very similar in the 1980s – and it made not an iota of difference.

Thursday, 1 June 2006


Paul Anderson, Chartist, June 2006

I don’t often sign manifestos and statements. More than 25 years ago I declared (privately) my broad agreement with As We Don’t See It, the platform of the long-deceased libertarian socialist group Solidarity, which you had to endorse to join the group; and a couple of years later I did the same with the European Nuclear Disarmament Appeal, for the same reason. I have a vague memory of signing Charter 88, but if I did it would have been as the 85,000th signatory in about 1993, and the main reason would have been to get some free pamphlets. Otherwise, I’ve signed a few round robin letters in the past decade or so declaring solidarity with the people of Bosnia and Cuban political prisoners – but that’s about it.

The reasons I don’t sign manifestos and statements are simple: I don’t think they generally make a lot of difference, and I don’t think attaching my name to them makes any difference. And yet I’ve signed up for the Euston Manifesto, the rather unwieldy statement of belief in democracy, liberty and secularism that Norman Geras, Nick Cohen and various other writers, bloggers, academics and activists launched in May.

Why? The reason is sheer exasperation with a large section of the left, which – since 9/11 and particularly since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 –  has reverted to some of the worst habits of  kneejerk anti-imperialism that were so prevalent in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not an admirer of the foreign policy of George Bush. I was against the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and, particularly, Iraq in 2003, and I think that the occupation of Iraq has been badly mishandled. I believe Guantanamo Bay is a disgrace and should be closed down. I think the US should put pressure on the Israeli government to abandon the whole of the occupied territories and negotiate a peace settlement with the Palestinians.

But I cannot accept that America is the root of all evil in the world today, that it somehow deserved 9/11 or that anyone who takes up arms against it has right on his or her side. I believe that radical Islamism and secular totalitarianism are much more dangerous enemies of the most important values of democratic socialism: democracy, freedom, solidarity. My objections to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were never objections in principle to the US and its allies overthrowing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein: I thought (wrongly) that the invasions would result immediately in massive civilian and military casualties and (rightly) that the occupiers had not made adequate preparations for what came next.

None of this holds for much of the British left, however. The anti-war movement cheerfully welcomed aboard radical Islamists and apologists for Saddam. Then we had the grotesque spectacle of the radical Islamists and the most prominent admirer of Saddam teaming up with the Socialist Workers Party to fight elections. Since 2003, this left has cheered on the assassins and car-bombers of the Iraqi “resistance” and excused the anti-semitic rantings of radical Islamists. Its response to the 7/7 outrages in London last year was mealy-mouthed, and its support for the suppression of the Danish cartoons of Mohammed was craven.

I’ve been aware for ages that I have less in common with this left than I have with some people who supported the war but think that the priority now is to offer such support as we can to those Iraqis who are attempting in almost impossible circumstances to build the institutions of a democratic secular civil society. I was sceptical when various pro-war and anti-war lefties who felt much as I did suggested putting together a manifesto reaffirming the core values of democracy, liberty and secularism – it seemed too much like an assertion of the delights of motherhood and apple pie. But when I read an asinine assault on the Euston Manifesto by Andrew Murray of the Communist Party of Britain asserting the eternal verities of anti-imperialist solidarity, my anger temporarily dissolved my scepticism. I signed up – though I have since done nothing Eustonite apart from writing this article.

Saturday, 20 May 2006


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 19 May 2006

OK, and now for something to cheer you all up. It’s this magazine’s 70th birthday in six months and I’ve been spending some time beefing up on the history for a collection of George Orwell’s columns for Tribune that — with a bit of luck — should be appearing in time for the celebrations. In the meantime, here’s a quiz, and the first two correct answers to me get free copies of the Orwell book. Answers by snail-mail to Tribune Quiz, Tribune, 9 Arkwright Road, London NW3 6AN or (preferably) by email to

1. Which Tribune editor had a younger brother who became the head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency?

2. When was the Tribune Group set up?

3. George Orwell was literary editor of Tribune from 1943 to 1945. What was his next job after he left the staff?

4. Which Tribune editor became news editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Times?

5. Which founder member of the Tribune board was interned as a Nazi sympathiser during the second world war?

6. Why did the headline “Lower than Kemsley” nearly put Tribune out of business?

7. Which former Tribune editors have been accused by the Sunday Times of being Soviet “agents of influence”?

8. How long was Sheila Noble the person who really ran Tribune — I mean editorial secretary and then production manager?

9. Which senior Tribune journalist of the 1940s became a regular contributor to the pornographic magazine Penthouse in the 1970s?

10. Who was the lover of Tribune’s first editor, William Mellor?

11. Which two Labour MPs put up the money to launch Tribune in 1937 and how much did they lose in their first year?

12. What did Douglas Hill do when he was not editing the Tribune reviews pages?

13. Five people who at Tribune’s launch were either journalists on the paper or members of its board became Labour cabinet ministers. Name them.

14. Three Tribune editors also edited Fleet Street newspapers at different times of their lives. Name them.

15. Which Tribune editor founded the Good Food Guide?

16. Three Tribune editors were MPs before, during or after their spells as editor. Name them.

17. Two Tribune editors also worked on the staff of the New Statesman. Name them.

18. In which year did the headline “DON’T LET THIS BE THE LAST ISSUE OF TRIBUNE” appear on the front page?

19. Which Tribune editor now works for Al-Jazeera in New York?

20. Who was Thomas Rainsboro’?

Right, that’s enough fun: on to the real business, which of course is Gordon and Tony. No, I don’t mean it. I’m sick of the pair of them, bored with the endless wrangling, can’t see the difference between them. Whether GB has shafted TB or TB has shafted GB doesn’t mean very much to me. What I want to see is a coherent left-of-centre Labour Party with some sense of where it’s going, and I’m not getting a lot of it.

But TB/GB is unavoidable. Now Charles Clarke is out of the running, I’m reluctantly prepared to accept that there is no alternative to Brown as Labour leader after Blair. But Brown can’t take over now: he’s not up to it. And he has got to get his act up to speed pretty fast if he is going to be more than a Jim Callaghan, hanging on for a couple of years before losing to the Tories. He has the numbers in the party to be a shoo-in as leader when Blair goes (I always said 2007, incidentally) but the numbers aren’t what matter now: he needs to inspire the voters with a programme for what happens next.

He’s fine on the vision thing with the party — African babies are lovely — but it all looks too much like a 1980s Anti-Apartheid photo-call run by the Communist Party. So far, he’s probably done enough to retain or regain the “Bush is evil” crew for Labour. But he hasn’t so far worked out how to woo middle-class mums who aren’t averse to doing the right thing in Africa but worry about getting little Jemima into a decent school. Nor does he ring the bell for geezers in the boozer cheering for England.

I’m not bashing Gordon: I’m reconciled, really I am. The point is that he’s got to become much more of a man of the people if he’s going to make a success of it. The idiotic way of doing that would be to echo the law-and-ordure slogans that are the last resort of the Blair claque. But that would just piss off the party. I hope he finds an alternative.


1. Jon Kimche (1909-94) was Tribune assistant editor 1943-45 and joint editor 1946-48. His brother David, who emigrated to Israel and with whom he co-authored two books, joined Mossad, the Israeli secret service, rising to become its deputy director in the 1970s, and was director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry 1980-87.

 2. In 1964.

 3. He briefly became a war correspondent for the Observer.

 4. Nigel Williamson (editor 1984-87) left Tribune to become editor of Labour Party News, Labour's magazine for members, then moved to The Times. He now writes on rock music for several publications.

 5. Ben Greene, first cousin of the novelist Graham Greene, was invited on to the Tribune board because of his leading role in the campaign to reform the Labour Party constitution to give constituency parties greater representation on the party's ruling National Executive Committee, which fmally got its way in 1937. He did not last long on the Tribune board – he resigned in March 1937 – but the main reason he is not mentioned in most memoirs of the paper's early days is that he became a vociferous supporter of Hitler. In 1939, he became treasurer of the tiny anti-semitic and pro-Nazi British People's Party; and he was interned during the Second World War.

 6. Lord Kemsley, proprietor of the Sunday Times, the Daily Sketch and a chain of regional newspapers, sued Tribune for libel and won. Tribune was bailed out secretly by Lord Beaverbrook, proprietor of the Daily Express.

 7. Michael Foot (editor 1948-52, 1955-60) and Dick Clements (editor 1960-82) were both named as Soviet 'agents of influence' by the Sunday Times in the 1990s. Foot sued for libel, won, and gave a substantial donation to Tribune (as well as having his kitchen done).

 8. Sheila Noble was editorial secretary and then production manager from 1964 to 1994.

 9. Frederic Mullally, assistant editor 1945-47.

10. Barbara Betts (later Castle)

11. Sir Stafford Cripps and George Strauss. They lost £20,000 in the first year - almost £1 million in today's money.

12. He was and is a science fiction author. He was voted most popular children's author in a (pre-Harry Potter) poll in the Guardian.

13. Sir Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan, Ellen Wilkinson, Michael Foot, Barbara Castle.

 14. William Mellor (editor, Daily Herald, 1926-30, Tribune 1937-38), Michael Foot (editor, Evening Standard, 1942-44, Tribune 1948-52 and 1955-60), Bob Edwards (editor Tribune 1952-55, Daily Express, 1961 and 1964-65, People, 1966-72, Sunday Mirror, 1972-84).

15. Raymond Postgate (editor 1940-41).

16. Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot, Chris Mullin.

17. Michael Foot, Paul Anderson.

18. It appeared in 1988 - and within a week readers had donated £40,000 to rescue the paper.

19. Mark Seddon (editor 1993-2004).

 20. Frank Owen, who in 1942 wrote a series of articles for Tribune criticising the Churchill Government's conduct of the war which caused a sensation. Owen (1905-79) was editor of the Evening Standard (1937-41) and co-author with Michael Foot and Peter Howard, using the collective pseudonym of "Cato", of Guilty Men, the 1940 pamphlet attacking the late-1930s policy of appeasement that became an instant best-seller.

Friday, 14 April 2006


Tribune column, 14 April 2006

 If, as seems likely, Silvio Berlusconi is on his way out as Italian prime minister, it will soon be time to crack open a bottle in celebration.

Of course, it’s not clear that we have seen the back of him: as I write, he is refusing to concede defeat and demanding that spoilt votes be recounted. But as things stand it appears that the centre-left has beaten him. And that is a Good Thing.

It’s not that Romano Prodi, the leader of the centre-left, is the answer to all of Italy’s dreams. He’s a dull cove, familiar from his none-too-successful stints as Italian PM in the late 1990s and then as president of the European Commission until 18 months ago. Nor is Prodi’s coalition too promising: it takes in everyone from bits of the old Christian Democrat centre-right to bits of the hardcore Leninist left, and it’s as unstable as unstable can be. Just about all that the disparate elements of Prodi’s supporting cast agree on is that they want Berlusconi out. The narrowness of the centre-left’s victory – if victory it is – is also something of a surprise: the opinion polls taken before the poll-free end of the campaign had suggested that the centre-left had a clear lead. This too could make life difficult for Prodi, particularly in the upper house of parliament.

But Prodi is (a) a democrat; (b) a ­moderate social reformer; (c) not a media magnate; and (d) not, as far as we know, a crook. Even if he runs an incompetent administration that fails miserably to address any of Italy’s problems, he ­starts with advantages over Berlusconi. 

Berlusconi is – I hope was – a disgrace to democratic politics. He made his way to the top in business during the 1970s and 1980s by developing an unhealthily close relationship with Bettino Craxi’s Socialist Party, which was then in power as the minor partner in a coalition dominated by the Christian Democrats. Craxi in turn gave him the breaks to become effective controller of commercial television in Italy. Under investigation for corruption and with his old allies on the ropes, Berlusconi in 1994 made one of the most cynical entries into electoral politics a media baron has ever made, using his media empire to create and promote – from nothing – a populist right-wing party, Forza Italia, that won the subsequent general election in coalition with the separatist Northern League and the post-fascist National Alliance.

His first administration soon collapsed, and Berlusconi made way for the centre-left, which won the 1996 general election. But he was back in 2001 – despite having several corruption charges outstanding – and for the past five years has ruled the roost through patronage and bullying, again in league with the National Alliance.

 The most disgraceful thing about Berlusconi is not however his manner, his friends or indeed his business methods. It is the fact that, as prime minister, he has controlled something like 90 per cent of Italian broadcasting, owning three channels and appointing the controllers of state broadcasting. Such a concentration of media power makes a mockery of democracy – and breaking it down should be one of Prodi’s most urgent tasks.

 * * *

On the domestic front, all the hoo-hah over Adair Turner’s proposals on pensions has got me thinking about how I’m going to survive in my old age. And after looking at the statement from my pension scheme, I reckon that I’m going to be one of those pensioners who have to rely on the state pension and means-tested benefits. After 25 years of working my occupational pension is utterly pathetic. Now, that might change in the next 20 years if I stick in the same scheme and keep up the payments – but it might not even then, and I can’t really see the point of saving like crazy if all it’s going to mean is that I’m not entitled to means-tested benefits.

OK, if I give up on saving completely, I’m vulnerable to a future government changing the pensions regime to remove means-testing. But as things stand I am one of many people who feel a disincentive to save because I think it will probably be all right on the night. To read much of the commentary on the future of pensions, you’d think I was the lowest form of life. Virtuous people are thrifty people who put money aside and never become a burden on the state. I can’t be bothered to save because I reckon that hard-working taxpayers will bail me out in the end.

Could anything be more degenerate? But I look at it another way. Were it not for us non-savers, the British economy would be in a far worse state. The high levels of consumer demand we sustain keep millions in work. Surely our selfless consumption should be rewarded generously when we hit 65?

Friday, 17 March 2006


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 17 March 2006

The big media news in my world this week wasn’t the white paper on the future of the BBC but the launch by the Guardian of its group blog, Comment is Free, where writers from the paper’s comment pages and assorted others sound off about whatever takes their (or the blog editor’s) fancy.

 Comment is Free is a novel idea that shows yet again how seriously the Guardian takes online. The paper has been a consistent pioneer in web publishing. It was one of the first newspapers to go online and its website, Guardian Unlimited, has for several years been one of the biggest, best and most visited newspaper websites in the world.

Unlike many of its rivals, it carries everything from the print edition of the paper for free, and it doesn’t limit access to a few days. Guardian Unlimited was a pioneer in offering email alerts and text message services to readers and one of the first newspaper websites to experiment with blogging.

 But Comment is Free – it gets its name from the dictum of C. P. Scott, editor of the Guardian from 1871 to 1929, that “comment is free but facts are sacred” – is a big step into the unknown. For the first time, a newspaper has gone for the current affairs bloggers’ natural territory, the instant publication of opinion on events as they happen.  Here I should declare a couple of small interests. I work on the Guardian comment pages as a sub-editor and have no desire to lose the gig – and I have a blog of my own, Gauche, at

 The Guardian has several big advantages over most current affairs bloggers. It has dozens of professional journalists who are paid to write on every topic under the sun. It has a team of sub-editors to correct their factual errors and stylistic infelicities. And it can pay freelance contributors – which makes commissioning easy.

But will it work? It is, of course, too early to tell. As I write, Comment is Free has been up and running a little more than 24 hours. My first impression is that it’s rather good – but that it doesn’t quite do what the best current affairs blogs do.

 Most current affairs blogs are run by individuals or small groups with a bee (or several bees) in their bonnets. They are the work of enthusiasts who feel – rightly or wrongly – that their views are not getting a fair hearing in the mainstream press and on the airwaves. In Britain, for example, some of the best current affairs blogs have come from left-wingers at odds with the left consensus that it was wrong to topple Saddam Hussein: Normblog (, Harry’s Place (, Oliver Kamm (

Whether you agree with them or not, what makes them worth reading is precisely their iconoclasm, the fact that they are against the grain. The problem with Comment is Free is that the Guardian regulars who are the mainstay of the site, the columnists from the comment pages, are in this context not against the grain but the grain itself – and regular readers already have a pretty good idea of what they think about most of the key issues of the day. I’m not sure that reading them rehearsing their lines on the blog will become quite as addictive a habit as Harry’s Place or indeed the main Guardian Unlimited website. But we shall see.

 * * *

 On a different matter entirely, for a couple of days this week it felt as if the “Who killed Princess Di?” conspiracy theorists had met their match at last in loons asking: “Who killed Slobbo?” Even the BBC joined in for several hours, its website’s lead story headlined “Milosevic poisoned, says doctor” and then “Mystery over Milosevic death”.

Yet the only evidence that the death of Slobodan Milosevic was in any way suspicious is the discovery in a blood sample of traces of an antibiotic, the effects of which would have been to counter those of the heart disease medication he had been prescribed. This is odd, but the most plausible explanation for it is not that Milosevic was done away with by the forces of imperialism (or whatever) but that he was administering the antibiotic to himself in an attempt to persuade the authorities in The Hague that the treatment he was receiving for heart disease wasn’t working and that he would have to be sent to Moscow for treatment. A younger, fitter man might just have got away with it – but Slobbo the 62-year-old lard-arse could not. 

Whatever, Milosevic will be mourned by no one at Tribune. Thanks to Mark Thompson, who started filing from Yugoslavia long before anyone else took serious notice of what was happening there, this paper had a head start on the story when Milosevic sent the tanks rolling. We were the first paper to denounce the appeasement of Milosevic by the then Tory government (which was supported by the Labour front bench, to its shame) and the first to demand military intervention by the US and Britain to stop him.

Sunday, 12 February 2006


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 10 January 2006

The hoo-hah over the publication of cartoon images of Muhammad has been so disproportionate that I’m almost apologetic about bringing it up in this column. Almost, but not quite — because someone has to make the point that the real story is the disproportionality of the hoo-hah.

The most remarkable thing about the cartoons published months ago in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten is that only one of them is funny — the one of the Prophet greeting the suicide bombers in Paradise with the words “Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins”.  The rest of them are at best dull and at worst asinine — the one of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. But that might be because the origin of the cartoons was a complaint by a children’s author that illustrators would only work anonymously on a book explaining Islam to Danish kids for fear of violence from Islamist extremists. Maybe the cartoons weren’t supposed to be side-splittingly hilarious.

OK, the cartoons broke a Muslim prohibition on depicting the Prophet in illustrations. But so what? That prohibition has been broken inumerable times before without anyone making any fuss, not least by Muslims who don’t think it matters very much. More important, to state the obvious, it is not a prohibition most of the Jyllands-Posten cartoonists or the editors of Jyllands-Posten accept. And why should they, any more than they accept Muslim bans on eating pork or drinking alcohol or engaging in extra-marital sex?

All right, I admit that there is a difference, in that a devout Muslim in Copenhagen would not find it hard to avoid inadvertently munching bacon sandwiches, swigging beer or having sex but might easily inadvertently see the cartoons in Jyllands-Posten. Publishing, by definition, is not a simply matter of private behaviour.

It’s clear too, that Jyllands-Posten was deliberately attempting to provoke a reaction when it decided to publish, and by some accounts it seems to have been motivated by a rather crude antipathy to Islam.

I also accept that the cartoons might offend Muslims either because they include images of the Prophet or because a few of them (though by no means all) ridicule aspects of their faith — the ban on depicting the Prophet, the vision of Paradise, the doctrine of jihad (holy war).

But again, in the end, so what? Even if Jyllands-Posten’s provocation was gratuitous and unsophisticated — and I’m not convinced it was — it is entirely legitimate to ridicule religious belief. And much of Islam richly deserves ridicule. The same goes for Christianity, Judaism and every other religion. There is a long and distinguished tradition of ridiculing religion that goes back to the Enlightenment. And no one has the right not to be offended.

Which is not to say that Jyllands-Posten was right to publish the cartoons — just that it had a right to do so, and that that right is worth defending against the far-from-spontaneous expressions of Muslim outrage that swept the world last week. I would have expected Labour politicians in Britain to make this point emphatically and unambiguosly. Instead, we’ve had the grim spectacle of Jack Straw mumbling platitudes about how evil it is to give offence to believers and how important it is for editors to be “responsible”.

The British press has also played a far from glorious role in the affair. No newspaper has republished the cartoons — which is probably sensible given the hysteria whipped up against them by radical Islamists. Publication would place foreign correspondents and other Brits in severe danger in large swathes of the world.

But where were the clear expressions of the inalienable right to publish material offensive to religious believers? OK, there were a few in columns by the usual secularist suspects. The overwhelming majority of pundits and leader-writers opted for rambling on evasively about not pouring petrol on raging fires and the need to understand the depth of religious faith in the Islamic world. Only the Sun admitted — and then obliquely — that a major reason the papers didn’t publish is that they were scared that a Muslim boycott could harm sales.

This is not to suggest that secular democrats should abandon religious tolerance. Respect for the believer’s freedom to choose what he or she believes is another of the great legacies of the Enlightenment that deserves unconditional defence (against, among others, the most radical Islamists). But respect for the believer is not the same thing as respect for the believer’s belief. And if we can’t make it clear that this is a fundamental principle of our society, we’ve got a big problem.