20 May 2003

NICK ANNING 1942-2003

The radical journalist Nick Anning has died at the age of 61. He was one of a vanishing breed, an inveterate freelance who did only what he wanted. He was one of the key figures on The Leveller, the libertarian left news magazine of the late 1970s, and subsequently researched and wrote on an extraordinary range of stories, among them the sinking of the Hull trawler Gaul, the Russian mafia, the porn industry and the moral panic about child abuse. Here's to you, mate. Duncan Campbell's obit in the Guardian is here.


Arthur Lipow has emailed me on the subject of the left backgrounds of the American neo-cons, and he confirms that the idea that the current neo-con mob came out of Trotskyism is very crude intellectual history. There is, however, a germ of truth in it. Several of the today's neo-cons started out in the late-1960s/early-1970s cold-warrior Social Democrats USA gang around George Meany, the hardline anti-communist boss of the AFL-CIO, and senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who challenged unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and 1976 on a cold warrior populist ticket. And the eminence grise of the SDUSA scene was Max Shachtman (1904-72) - who in the 1930s had been America's most charismatic Trotskyist and in the 1940s and 1950s had been the leader of an important "Third Camp" ("Neither Washington nor Moscow") current in far-left politics that went under various organisational guises.

Of the first generation of neo-cons, Irving Kristol was briefly an early-1940s member of Shachtman's Workers' Party, but drifted away; and during the late 1940s and 1950s Shachtman's group remained influential among the New York intellectuals: people like Nathan Glazer were, says Lipow, "part of the milieu". But the Shachtman connection with today's neo-cons (and indeed those of the 1980s) really dates from the period after Shachtman himself had broken with most of his old comrades by backing the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and then throwing in his lot with the cold warrior liberal wing of the Democratic party over Vietnam. Several key figures in the current neo-con firmament - among them Richard Perle and Jeane Kirkpatrick, both of whom campaigned for Jackson - got into politics through the Jackson-Meany-Shachtman-SDUSA milieu. But as Lipow puts it, "Take all of this as a course in intellectual history not as an organised conspiracy." A Brit connection to this cold-warrior Democrat scene is the noted historian Robert Conquest, who wrote speeches for Jackson. A brief account of Shachtman's later years is in Peter Drucker's Max Shachtman and his Left, published in 1994 by Humanities Press.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, John Kampfner produced an extraorinarily barmy piece in the New Statesman a couple of weeks ago claiming to identify a British neo-con movement in the making. One of the people he identified as a leading figure was David Aaronovitch, who has responded, very amusingly, in the Guardian, for which click here.

11 May 2003


It seems that the Daily Telegraph has not received a writ from Galloway over its allegations - but Gorgeous George has got the support of the Guardian's media columnist, Roy Greenslade, who sees the allegations against the Glasgow Kelvin MP as being of a piece with the claims that miners' leader Arthur Scargill took money from the Libyans to pay his mortgage (click here). (Greenslade was badly burned by this story, which he ran at length in the Daily Mirror, which he edited at the time. He has subsequently apologised.)

The Scargill case is a fascinating one, and there is a wealth of evidence that he was fitted up on the Libyan cash charge, most comprehensively collected in Seumas Milne's The Enemy Within.

But Scargill still has a case to answer on money during the 1984-85 miners' strike. The Libyan-cash-for-mortgage-payments story is almost certainly untrue, and it seems very likely that the spooks had a lot to do with it. But large quantities of cash for the NUM were provided by Soviet-bloc "trade unions", to whose international affiliates Scargill had quixotically attached the NUM. Their members had no say over the payments - the decisions were made by party-state officials - yet I don't recall anyone on the British left ever publicly questioning the legitimacy of the NUM's fundraising in this manner. Of course, we were in solidarity with workers in struggle, any port in a storm and so on - but it's strange all the same.

10 May 2003


I have to admit that the name of David Crook, the Soviet agent who spied on George Orwell and other ILPers in Barcelona during the Spanish civil war, rang a bell with me – but I couldn’t quite place it. After a conversation with Gordon Bowker, whose biography of Orwell has spilled the beans, I realise why the bell rang: in later years, Crook was one of the foremost British intellectual enthusiasts for Maoist China.

After Spain, the Comintern sent Crook briefly to China on anti-Trotskyist work before he returned to Britain, marrying his wife Isabel (the daughter of Canadian missionaries in China) and joining the RAF. He served in various parts of Asia during the second world war. He returned to China, travelling to the communist controlled areas, in 1947, and remained there for the rest of his life as a fervent admirer of Mao’s totalitarian regime.

With Isabel, he wrote three books on the impact of the revolution in a Chinese, village, Revolution in a Chinese Village (1959), The First Years of the Yangyi Commune (1966) and Mass Movement in a Chinese Village (1979). Crook and his wife had long careers as English teachers at the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute (later the Foreign Studies University). In 1967, he was arrested and charged with spying and spent more than five years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement. Upon his release in 1973, he joined an editorial team that produced a Chinese-English dictionary.

There's an obituary of Crook, who died 18 months ago in Beijing at the age of 90, on the Columbia College website (click here) - he studied there in the 1930s.For an interview with the Crooks about their experiences iin China, click here. For interviews with their son Michael on the web (click here and here.

Meanwhile, Rob Evans asked me to put his piece from the Guardian on the weblog. So here it is.

Rob Evans, Guardian, May 5, 2003

George Orwell, the writer who savagely attacked the Big Brother powers of Russian totalitarianism, was spied on for the Soviet Union by a fellow British volunteer during the Spanish civil war, a new book reveals.

Soviet spymasters snooped on the English writer as he became involved in rivalry between communists and Trotskyists. The communists pried into his private life to record that Orwell's wife was probably having an affair with one of his comrades. Orwell's attacks on the corruption of the Russian revolution inflicted much damage on the reputation of the Soviet leaders.

The surveillance of Orwell during the Spanish civil war is revealed in a new biography of the author by Gordon Bowker, published on Thursday. It was during this war that Orwell began to loathe communism, which he satirised in his novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Bowker writes that Orwell's experience in Spain "ultimately gave birth to his last two great novels".

In Barcelona, Orwell saw how the communists suppressed their Trotskyist allies to take control of the war against the fascists in what he called "a reign of terror". He was forced to flee Spain as the communists imprisoned their former comrades, branding them traitors.

As a relatively unknown writer, he had volunteered to fight fascism in Spain in 1937 and had joined the forces controlled by the POUM, a revolutionary socialist, anti-Stalinist party affiliated to the Independent Labour party (ILP) in Britain.

It was by chance that Orwell chose the POUM, as he did not fully understand the different political groupings in Spain. But the communists - directed by Stalin - had begun to suppress the Trotskyists and infiltrate spies into the ranks of their opponents. David Crook, a young communist from London, was ordered to spy and report on Orwell, his wife and other members of the ILP contingent. He had been taught the techniques of surveillance by Ramon Mercader, a communist who later murdered Trotsky in Mexico with an ice-pick. According to the book, Crook admits that he took his orders from the Soviet espionage agency, then known as the NKVD and later renamed the KGB, and that Orwell and the other ILP members were "of special interest to me".

He insinuated himself into the ILP office in Barcelona. Soon he had the freedom of the office and, during lunch breaks, stole files and had them photographed in the Russian embassy. He was proud that within a short time, copies of all the files in the office were in the hands of his Russian handlers. Details of his activities are held in the KGB archives, although Orwell's KGB file is still under wraps.

Among his reports was an observation that he was "95% certain" that Eileen Blair, who married Orwell in 1936, was having an affair with George Kopp, another ILP member, whom Bowker describes as "a strange Belgian adventurer". Bowker adds that Crook had been instructed by the Soviets to seek out the existence of affairs, as such information could enable the communists to blackmail vulnerable targets. In a reference to the ruling powers in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Bowker writes that Crook, who subsequently helped to kidnap opponents in Spain, was like a character "straight from the Ingsoc world of spying, intrigue, dissemblance and cold elimination".

Crook passed his reports to Hugh O'Donnell, another communist from London, whose codename was O'Brien. Bowker writes that, although Orwell was oblivious to this, "the fact that the character in Nineteen Eighty-Four who first wins the confidence of Winston Smith and then betrays him is given the name O'Brien must be one of the strangest coincidences in literature".

Orwell appears not to have twigged that the communists were spying on him. However in Homage to Catalonia, his account of his time in Spain, he wrote: "You had all the while a hateful feeling that someone hitherto your friend might be denouncing you to the secret police."

Crook and another English soldier were responsible for briefing the Soviet espionage service about Orwell and his wife. Both were subsequently accused of treason and of being "rabid Trotskyites" by the communists.

Orwell wrote to a friend on his return to England: "Though we ourselves got out all right, nearly all our friends and acquaintances are in jail and likely to be there indefinitely, not exactly charged with anything but suspected of Trotskyism.

"The most terrible things were happening even when I left, wholesale arrests, wounded men dragged out of hospitals and thrown into jail, people crammed together in filthy dens where they have hardly room to lie down, prisoners beaten and half starved."

7 May 2003


John Mason, Tribune column, May 10 2003

Last week, our “Top Gun”, George W Bush, landed a navy bomber on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln off Long Beach, California, and swaggered across the flight deck to the cheers of assembled ship’s company.

A glorious photo op, this moment will no doubt come back to haunt us in countless campaign adverts in the year to come. Appealing to our patriotism, Karl Rove and the Bush political conseilleri will seek to anoint a “commander-in-chief” rather than to elect a mere President – the sort of domestic-policy-focused “super-governor” that former President Bill Clinton was and that many of this year’s crop of Democratic presidential hopefuls appear to be.

The same evening the President made his victory speech where he justified “Operation Iraqi Freedom” as payback for the loss of the Twin Towers. “The battle of Iraq,” he said, “is one victory in the war on terror that began on September 11.” that removes “an ally of al-Qaida” and guarantees “no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime because that regime is no more”.

He might have just admitted that they “will gain none, because we haven’t found any”, but choose instead to recycle the tired claim that Saddam, the tyrant, was somehow a party to the 9/11 attacks. Looking towards the future, the President promised “America will finish what it began” - a declaration that sounds like a formula for endless wars fought by the modern equivalents of gunboats and gurkhas.

Later in the week, the President seemed to downplay his martial rhetoric by talking up tax cuts and “jobs, jobs, jobs”, but did so against the backdrop of two Abrams tanks in Ohio and the huge hulk of a Bradley fighting vehicle in California.

Clearly wars abroad and terror alerts at home will be central to Bush’s “permanent campaign” to win the popular majority that eluded him in 2000. But the question remains: “Can this formula work in 2004?”

One answer can be gleaned whilst driving down route 375 towards Kingston, New York, where there’s a parade of hand-lettered signs that read “BOE -Save our Schools”. They refer to the decision by the local Onetora School Board to close its budgetary gap by closing one of our three elementary schools and transferring its students and staff to the other two.

But since the economies in heating, light and staff salaries will not cover the anticipated funding gap; this cut in education has been married to a hefty increase in property taxes. Down in New York City, a $3.8bn deficit translates into the loss of some forty fire stations; cuts in teachers and librarians; layoffs of police and the closing of two out of five city zoos. With a New York State deficit of close to $12.9bn and Republican governor Pataki’s refusal to consider increases in state income taxes, local townships and school districts are left with only bad choices in coming years.

In neighbouring New Jersey the deficit is running around $4bn-5bn, and Democratic governor McGrivey called in the State University presidents to announce a 5 per cent cut in their budgets for this year and 10% cut for next year. In Oregon, the fiscal squeeze has lead to the dismantling of one of the nation’s finest public schools systems, which will close one month early for lack of funds. In Missouri the governor has proposed to save on electricity by turning out every third light bulb in state offices.

Everywhere, we’re facing the closing of state psychiatric facilities and major cuts in funding for the health care of the poor and elderly.

In short, there's a slow motion fiscal wreck that’s spreading across the country with some 39 out of 50 states in bankruptcy. In California, the deficit is $34bn. In Texas, the figure is $ 9.9bn. Taken altogether the state governments are in hole for some $ 80bn, or more or less the same amount that the Bush has promised for the reconstruction of Iraq.

But this year’s federal budget promises no aid for the struggling state governments other than some reimbursements for homeland security, and tax cuts for the wealthy that will only depress the states’ ability to collect revenue in the future.

The Bush administration has decided to cure the American economy by precipitating a depression in public sector employment, and with a sort of impeccable social Darwinian logic, to pass the costs onto the States who pass them in turn onto local cities and towns. Libertarian policy wonks relish this opportunity to shrink government services and rid us of the deadhead civil servants that drag on private growth, but I doubt that few people outside of Washington rejoice in these sacrifices to the market gods.

Recent polls suggest that one half of the American population now feels that they’re worse off under the Bush than under Clinton. Most of these will vote Democrat. The fires in Baghdad may be out, but the home fires are still burning.

5 May 2003


There's a fascinating piece by Rob Evans in today's Guardian (click here) reporting that a new book by Gordon Bowker reveals the identity of a young British communist, one David Crook, who spied on George Orwell and other members of the Independent Labour Party contingent in Spain during the civil war. There's also an excellent piece on Orwell by Thomas Pynchon in Saturday's Guardian, for which click here.
More to come on this