25 March 2003

EUROPEAN SOCIAL DEMOCRACY AND THE WAR - 1

The following interview with German foreign minister Joschka Fischer on Sunday March 23 by Der Spiegel was not reported in the UK press. So here are the key quotes, courtesy of Reuters:

BERLIN, March 23 (Reuters) - German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer criticised the United States on Sunday for starting a war framed by its national interests and said the same standards should apply for all nations regardless of their size or might.

"A world order will not work if the national interests of the most powerful nation define the criteria for the use of the military potency of this country," Fischer said in an interview with Der Spiegel news magazine.

"At the end of the day the same rules have to apply for the big, medium-sized and small countries," said Fischer, whose government has long opposed the U.S.-led military buildup in the Gulf and war against Iraq.

"The United States was always the strongest when it linked its might to the power of forming coalitions and international rules that were accepted by everyone."

Fischer also said he could not accept a vision, as he said was sketched out to him in late September 2001 by U.S. deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in which the United States would use force to eliminate "terrorist governments" in a number of countries.

"I cannot and will not accept the idea we are on the verge of a series of disarmament wars," he said. "It's not acceptable that we are faced with the alternative: either to allow a terrible danger to exist or be forced into a disarmament war."

He said the United Nations should be the place to resolve conflicts.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was the first Western leader to speak out against war in Iraq, saying last year Germany would not participate in any "military adventure" in Iraq, even though Berlin is one of the biggest contributors to the US-led "Enduring Freedom" anti-terror campaign with close to 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, Kuwait and the Horn of Africa.

"There is nothing cowardly if you pursue the aim of resolving conflicts peacefully," Fischer said. Addressing US criticism of Germany, he said being able to accept that an ally had a different view was "a sign of maturity in a democracy".


A similar position has been taken by the Swedish Social Democrats. Click here for prime minister Goran Persson's reaction to the outbreak of war and here for the official Swedish government statement.

24 March 2003

VICTOR ALBA 1916-2003

Victor Alba, journalist, militant and historian of the Catalan POUM in the Spanish civil war, novelist, political scientist and all-round awkward-squad member, is dead at 86. See Stephen Schwarz's obituary in Reforma here and Michael Mullan's in the Guardian here.

22 March 2003

UNITED FOR PEACE - 3

Henry Worthington's piece on the 1990-91 movement against the Gulf war in Britain (see below) does, as he says, make some still salient points. The current anti-war coalition - at least at the level of the formal national organisation - is if anything even more reliant on various Leninist parties, micro-parties and sects, and it's even more tolerant of pro-Saddam and revolutionary defeatist opinion. The Stop the War Coalition has a member of the executive committee of the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain, Andrew Murray, as its chair, and the quasi-Trotskyist Socialist Workers' Party (home page here) is today playing pretty much the role that Socialist Action did in 1990-91, though it is of course a much bigger outfit.

But there are big differences as well. In 1990-91, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, although much reduced in membership from the height of the campaign against deployment of cruise missiles during the 1980s, was the most important ingredient in the brew. It was still a real mass organisation, with some 65,000 members: it even had a monthly magazine available in WH Smith throughout the country, Sanity, edited by the late Ben Webb.

In line with this, CND was also engaged with the political mainstream, although again it was a pale shadow of itself in the mid-1980s, when its reach embraced most of the Labour Party and the Liberal Party. CND's national organisation in 1990-91 was run by a coalition of Labour leftists (mostly soft rather than hard left), Liberal Democrats, Greens, feminists, non-aligned activists and anarcho-pacifists.

It's worth noting that the Labour hard left - with the exception of Labour CND, run by the Trots from Socialist Action, and the ageing diehard Stalinists and pacifists in Labour Action for Peace - never really bothered itself with CND after the mid-1980s and had very little influence on CND nationally. And the Communist Party presence in the organisation, significant until only a couple of years before, had dwindled with the collapse of the CP in internal feuding in the late 1980s.

Nevertheless, one old CP stalwart, Gary Lefley, an enthusiast (like today's Stop the War Coalition chair Andrew Murray) for the CP's tiny hardline pro-Soviet Straight Left faction, had somehow been appointed CND's general secretary. (Lefley's politics were gleefully exposed at the time by Julian Lewis, now Tory MP for New Forest East but then a Conservative central office appartchik after several years of running the anti-CND Coalition for Peace Through Security, in an article for Freedom Today - for which click here.)

Apart from Lefley - who was treated as an embarassment by most of his colleagues - Leninists were notable by their absence at CND's core until the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf got off the ground. That they got a foothold was down at least in part to the flaky political judgment of Marjorie Thompson, the chair of CND.

Whatever, CND's failure to deal with the Trot manipulation Worthington describes was notable because it was surprising, though in retrospect it did show how far it had lost the plot. Today, CND (home page here) is nothing like the force it was in 1990-91. It's still there - but its membership has withered and it is utterly marginalised when it comes to mainstream politics. It's not entirely CND's fault: the collapse of the democratic left in the Labour Party and more widely in the recent past has rather a lot to do with it. But in the national organisation of the current anti-war movement, CND carries less weight than the SWP.

Another big difference from 1990-91 is the role of political Islam in the current movement. The big London demos against the current war - unlike those in 1990-91 - have been notable for the turnout by (mainly young) Islamists, who have been embraced by the SWP and the rest of the Leninist left. An unsavoury alliance if ever there was one, in my view.

18 March 2003

UNITED FOR PEACE - 2

Henry Worthington writes:
The politics of the current movement against war is reminiscent of that during the 1990-91 war in the Gulf. Here's a piece I did for the long-defunct libertarian socialist magazine Solidarity looking back on the anti-war campaign in the UK for its autumn 1991 issue, which I think makes some still salient points.

Henry Worthington: Ruthless cuckoos in the dovecot
From Solidarity, autumn 1991


When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2 last year, the British left was as surprised as everyone else. Kuwait was a faraway country of which the left knew little, the invasion a spectacular interruption to the holiday season. To be sure, the crisis in the Gulf provoked a vague unease, but after the first few days, when it seemed that Saddam might sweep south into Saudi Arabia, the prospects of all-out war seemed to recede. Once the American forces were in place in Saudi Arabia and the United Nations had imposed sanctions on Iraq, the most likely scenario seemed a lengthy process of economic attrition which Saddam could not win. It did not seem too much of a priority to set up an anti-war organisation.

Not everyone was quite so complacent. For Socialist Action, a small Ttrotskyist group, the time was ripe for seizing. By acting fast it could set the agenda for an antiwar movement. In mid-August, taking advantage of the inactivity of the rest of the left, it took the lead in setting up an anti-war coalition, the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf, doing its best to ensure that it was effectively under its control but did not appear so.

Socialist Action is a remnant of one of the pro-Cuba factions in the erstwhile International Marxist Group and is no more than fifty strong. It is nevertheless well entrenched in the Labour hard left with significant influence in the part of it that is sceptical about the idea of eventually setting up a "pure" socialist party to Labour's left. Indeed, among Trot groups it is notable for the depth of its commitment to the Labour Party and its horror of appearing "ultra-left": it works more with non-Trots than with other Trots, whom it despises for raising "maximalist" demands.

The group is influential in the Labour Left Liaison umbrella group, which includes the Labour Women's Action Committee, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Labour CND, and it has a major input into Campaign Group News, the organ of the Campaign Group of hard-Left Labour MPs. Unsurprisingly, the platform on which the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf was set up was a minimalist one - "Stop war!" - and hard left MPs and the groups in Labour Left Liaison were among the first affiliates.

National CND, for the most part innocent of Socialist Action's existence, let alone its methods, was bounced into joining the committee by Labour CND, whose secretary, Carol Turner, a Socialist Action veteran, was also secretary of the committee; the Green Party, whose international committee at the time was under the influence of another Trot faction, the tiny Pabloite group Socialists for Self-Management, was brought in at the same time. The Eurocommunist Communist Party of Great Britain and the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain, both desperate for credibility, saw a bandwagon and jumped on board, and by early September the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf looked like an impressive coalition of anti-war groups.

The reality was rather different. Socialist Action made sure that it controlled the key positions on the Committee (Turner remained secretary of the Committee throughout its existence), and it blocked attempts by CND and the Greens to get the Committee to endorse sanctions against Iraq, on the grounds that such a move would be divisive -even though the only groups that would have been excluded by such a move were 'revolutionary defeatists ' committed to backing Saddam if fighting broke out. (The idea behind this position, first formulated by Lenin during the first world war, is that in an imperialist war revolutionaries should work for the defeat of their own side, with the intention of turning it into revolutionary civil war).

For a few weeks, such people didn't bother with the Committee, seeing it as far too reformist: the Socialist Workers' Party and other trot groups put their efforts into setting up a rival to the committee, the Campaign Against War in the Gulf, on a troops out position. But the CAW soon floundered, and the SWP and the rest of the revolutionary defeatists drifted into the committee. The result was predictable. The committee's meetings turned into interminable political wrangling.

Not surprisingly, as the Gulf crisis dragged on through the autumn, the Committee proved incapable of exercising any purchase on public opinion or on the political mainstream. Just about the only thing it seemed to know how to do was call a demonstration in London - and even then it didn't have the resources to provide stewards or the wit to present interesting speakers.

The committee's efforts at the Labour Party Conference in early October were particularly disastrous. Faced with a conference opposed to war but not prepared to undermine the leadership (which was anyway rather less than bloodthirsty at this point), the committee made the extraordinary decision to put up a conference-floor fight on an anti-war resolution it knew would be badly defeated. In result, opposition to the war became identified in the Labour Party with the hard left, a kiss of death for any cause these days. With a few days hard work, the committee managed to throw away any possibility of ever having influence over the mainstream of the Labour Party.

Its attempts to woo Liberal Democrats and Tories were virtually non-existent. To the media the committee, despite constant damage-limitation by CND, came across as a bunch of unfriendly, paranoid, hectoring and above all incompetent extremists. Whereas elsewhere in Europe large swathes of centre and even right opinion opposed war before it started, in Britain the anti-war movement got stuck at an early stage in the left ghetto. By mid-November, it was quite apparent to the British government that it would face only token domestic opposition if it backed George Bush's plans to evict Saddam from Kuwait by force.

By the end of the year, it was clear even to its own supporters that the anti-war movement had failed, and that the only thing that could stop war was a climbdown by Saddam. The committee stepped up its activity when the air war began in January (and in February at last threw out the revolutionary defeatists, who had by now become a serious embarrassment), but the number of demonstrators on marches dwindled rapidly as a sense of total impotence set in. By the time the land war started, the anti-war movement was on the slide. Perhaps, as the committee leaders tastelessly put it, support would have grown again if the body-bags had started coming home; luckily we shall never know.

The point of all this is not that the war should not have been opposed. Despite the small number of allied casualties, the war was a human and environmental disaster. But the peace movement, such as it is, should not now be sitting back and saying that it was right all along: there are lessons it has to learn from the Gulf war.

In particular, it should be absolutely clear to everyone who had anything to do with the national movement against war in the Gulf that not wanting a particular crisis to turn into war is no basis on which to organise a credible opposition: it is essential that the movement from the start excludes those who, in the event of war, will support either side. In the run-up to the Gulf war Leninist advocates of revolutionary defeatism did immense harm to the cause of those opposed to slaughter on humanitarian grounds, and the peace movement should have had no truck with them.

It should also be extremely wary of allowing itself to be manipulated by small groups with their own hidden political priorities. Without CND, with its 65,000 members, the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf would have been a mere husk; outside the committee, CND could have used its resources and skills to promote its clear position of using sanctions to get Saddam out of Kuwait rather than wasting its time and energy on a coalition that could not even agree to condemn Saddam's invasion. If there is a next time, it would be unfortunate to make the same mistakes.

ROBIN COOK FOR PRIME MINISTER?

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.

9 March 2003

WAS CHRISTOPHER HILL A SOVIET AGENT? - 2

Nick Cohen of the Observer has beaten me to it on this one in his column today (click here) in which he draws attention to George Orwell's New Statesman review of The English Revolution 1640, edited by Hill and containing Hill's essay of the same title, which I didn't have to hand when I wrote my original post. Cohen eloquently makes the crucial point: "Real moles hide everything. The last thing they would do is send out Communist tracts to be reviewed in the New Statesman by hostile critics who would point out their Communism as a matter of course." Still, people might like to read the Orwell review (one of his rare pieces for the Statesman) in full, so here it is:

George Orwell: Review of The English Revolution: 1640, edited by Christopher Hill

From the New Statesman and Nation, August 24 1940

The imprint of Messrs Lawrence and Wishart upon a book on the English Civil War tells one in advance what its interpretation of the war is likely to be, and the main interest of reading it is to discover how crudely or how subtly the "materialistic" method is applied.

Obviously a Marxist version of the Civil War must represent it as a struggle between a rising capitalism and an obstructive feudalism, which in fact it was. But men will not die for things called capitalism or feudalism, and will die for things called liberty or loyalty, and to ignore one set of motives is as misleading as to ignore the others. This, however, is what the authors of this book do their best to do. Early in the first essay the familiar note is struck:
The fact that men spoke and wrote in religious language should not prevent us realising that there is a social content behind what are apparently purely theological ideas. Each class created and sought to impose the religious outlook best suited to its own needs and interests. But the real clash is between these class interests.

It is not, then, denied that the "Puritan Revolution" was a religious as well as a political struggle; but it was more than that.
In the light of the first paragraph, it is not so easy to see what is meant by "religious struggle" in the last sentence. But in that cocksure paragraph one can see the main weakness of Marxism, its failure to interpret human motives. Religion, morality, patriotism and so forth are invariably written off as "superstructure," a sort of hypocritical cover-up for the pursuit of economic interests. If that were so, one might well ask why it is that the "super-structure" has to exist. If no man is ever motivated by anything except class interests, why does every man constantly pretend that he is motivated by something else? Apparently because human beings can only put forth their full powers when they believe that they are not acting for economic ends. But this in itself is enough to suggest that "super-structural" motives should be taken seriously. They may be causes as well as effects.

As it is, a "Marxist analysis" of any historical event tends to be a hurried snap-judgment based on the principle of cui bono? something rather like the "realism" of the saloon-bar cynic who always assumes that the bishop is keeping a mistress and the trade-union leader is in the pay of the boss. Along these lines it is impossible to have an intuitive understanding of men's motives, and therefore impossible to predict their actions. It is easy now to debunk the English Civil War, but it must be admitted that during the past twenty years the predictions of the Marxists have usually been not only wrong but, so to speak, more sensationally wrong than those of much simpler people. The outstanding case was their failure to see in advance the danger of Fascism. Long after Hitler came to power official Marxism was declaring that Hitler was of no importance and could achieve nothing. On the other hand, people who had hardly heard of Marx but who knew the power of faith had seen Hitler coming years earlier.

The third essay in the book, by Mr. Edgell Rickword, is on Milton, who figures as "the revolutionary intellectual". This involves treating Milton as primarily a pamphleteer, and in an essay of 31 pages Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained only get between them a hurried mention of half a sentence. The most interesting essay of the three, by Miss Margaret James, is on the materialist interpretations of society which were already current in the mid-seventeenth century. The English Revolution, like some later ones, had its unsuccessful left-wing, men who were ahead of their time and were cast aside when they had helped the new ruling class into power. It is a pity that Miss James fails to make a comparison between the seventeenth-century situation and the one we are now in. A parallel undoubtedly exists, although from the official Marxist point of view the latter-day equivalents of the Diggers and Levellers happen to be unmentionable.

8 March 2003

UNITED FOR PEACE - 1

By all accounts, the US movement against war to topple Saddam Hussein has got big problems - and although the biggest is the hostility of public opinion, not far behind is the role that a particularly bizarre Leninist sect, the Workers’ World Party, has played in organising the anti-war demonstrations of the past few months.

The WWP is something that could only exist in the US. Its origins are in a faction of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers' Party - the main Trot organisation in the US and very different from the Brit SWP - that broke with it to support the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 (for an explanation of sorts, click here). It subsequently dropped Trotskyism, embraced Maoism and became the most hyper-activist of a plethora of small organisations of a Third Worldist Stalinist bent that played a significant role in the US left until way into the 1980s. (The American SWP followed the WWP into Third Worldist Stalinism over Cuba, but that's a different story.) The WWP is now hysterically pro-North Korean (if you doubt this, visit its home page).

Its current prominence stems from its role in setting up and running a front organisation, ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), which has organised the major anti-war demos in Washington and elsewhere. The neo-con right has had a field day (see, for example the former leftist David Horovitz's poisonous but endlessly entertaining website Frontpage) - and the WWP's role has been taken up by the mainstream press (click here for Michael Kelly in the Washington Post and here for David Corn in LA Weekly). But it has also given the serious left pause for thought (click here for the social democratic journal Dissent's symposium on Iraq). Needless to say, the role of the WWP has also been played down by people who ought to know better, including Alexander Cockburn, once of the New Statesman and once a WWP critic (click here for amusing documentation).

Remember, kids - even the best cause can be destroyed by the attentions of Leninists (and I'm not sure this is the best cause . . .).

7 March 2003

THE STALIN MYTH IS STILL ALIVE

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 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?

Respond to Tribune

WAS CHRISTOPHER HILL A SOVIET AGENT? – 1

An official historian with access to 1940s wartime files, Anthony Glees of Brunel University, says that Hill, who died last month at the age of 91, was an "agent of influence" for Stalin's Russia in the 1940s. Glees claims that Hill, the foremost British historian of the 17th century and Master of Balliol College, Oxford, during the 1960s and 1970s, was a Soviet agent when he worked for the Foreign Office on its Russia desk during the war. Inter alia, he recommended that White (anti-Bolshevik) Russian emigres teaching at British universities should be fired as a gesture of goodwill to Stalin; he was also a friend and contact of the Soviet spy Peter Smollett, who worked at the Ministry of Information (click here for news item in The Times on Glees's allegations, here for Martin Kettle's obituary of Hill in the Guardian and here for Donald Pennington's obituary in the Independent).

That Hill pushed a pro-Soviet line is undeniable. At the time — and for some time afterwards — he was an admirer of the Soviet Union, which he had visited for 10 months in 1935, and a member of the Communist Party. (The Soviet Union was also, lest we forget, a wartime ally of Britain from 1941.) But was Hill a secret CP member, as Glees contends? Rather unlikely. Glees's evidence for his assertion is that Hill had not admitted his CP membership when applying for a job with military intelligence in 1940 (he joined the FO three years later). But Hill appears to have made no attempt before this to conceal his CP membership – indeed, he was already a minor star in the CP’s intellectual firmament because of his essay "The English Revolution 1640", published in 1940 in a book of the same title (edited by Hill) by Lawrence and Wishart, the CP's publishing house. And he certainly did not try to hide his views or his party membership in later life. His book Lenin and the Russian Revolution, first published in 1947 and reprinted many times, was accurately described by A L Rowse, who commissioned it, as “a work of stone-walling Stalinist orthodoxy”; and Hill himself described his writings of the late 1940s and early 1950s as “more or less hack party stuff”. (The nadir was a gushing obituary of Stalin, a “very great and penetrating thinker”.) Hill also played a public role in the controversies inside the CP that followed the Hungarian revolution of 1956, though by then he was a critic of CP orthodoxy (he left the following year). For the rest of his life, Hill was an unashamed independent Marxist and democratic socialist: in retirement in the 1980s, he was a regular reviewer for Tribune. His historical work will live on as the testament of an extraordinary radical intellectual.