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.