15 September 2004
I was supposed to spend last weekend decorating the hall, but I got sidetracked by reading Andrew Marr’s new book on journalism, My Trade. It’s an odd confection, part hilarious anecdote, part history, part “how to” guide. But it’s strangely addictive, not least because it contains some of the best sustained critical thinking by a practitioner that I’ve read for a long time on the state of British journalism.
Marr, currently the BBC’s political editor, has been consistently ribbed by Tribune in recent years because he was a bearded badge-wearing paper-selling Trot when he was a student at Cambridge University a quarter-of-a-century ago. (I think he was there at the same time as Martin Rowson, cartoonist and Tribune columnist, but I could be wrong.)
Now, I’m all for reminding the great-and-good of their youthful leftist foibles. I have enjoyed the recent spate of recycled anecdotes about Alan Milburn, in years gone by one of the mainstays of the Newcastle far-left bookshop Days of Hope (aka Haze of Dope), and Kim Howells, who might or might not take a sympathetic view of student occupations of campuses against top-up fees given his role in the famous Hornsey art-school sit-in in 1968.
But, hey, we all move on, and the real saddos today are the 40- and 50- and 60-somethings who have learned nothing in the past 20 or 30 years and are still peddling the same Leninist snake-oil — the Tariq Alis and George Galloways, the Andrew Murrays and Lindsay Germans.
By comparison, Marr’s journey — if not Milburn’s or Howells’s — has been one from darkness into light. These days, he is meticulous about keeping his politics to himself for professional reasons (just as he should be). But before he joined the BBC he was, both in his newspaper columns and in his book Ruling Britannia, published in 1995, an enthusiast for all the causes espoused by the thinking democratic left (or what remains of it): Europeanism, redistribution, the welfare state, devolution, proportional representation for the House of Commons, radical reform of the House of Lords.
Whatever, his new book has more than its fair share of moments. It is worth reading just for his hilarious account of his time at the helm of the Independent in the mid-1990s, which should be studied by every wannabe editor. He was pitched into it even though he had no experience as an editor since his school magazine. And he struggled from the start against almost impossible odds. His proprietors were clueless about the nature of the business they were running and, despite promises, cut his budgets (which meant job losses, which meant he lost it with the journalistic staff). Eventually he was sacked after one too many run-ins with the chief incompetent megalomaniac among his bosses, David Montgomery.
There’s also some well-told history here (albeit with a few sloppy factual mistakes). And some of Marr’s descriptions of how journalism works today are as good as any. But what’s best in My Trade is his take on the state of British journalism.
Like other left-of-centre practitioner-critics of the recent past — notably John Lloyd of the Financial Times and Martin Kettle of the Guardian — Marr is less than impressed by what he reads, hears and sees every day. He makes well directed swipes at the hackneyed emotionalism that has crept into every newspaper, the cult of celebrity and, particularly, the decline of reporting of politics and serious discussion of policy.
Unlike Lloyd and Kettle, however, Marr doesn’t consider that the problem is simply (or even largely) that journalists have been overcome by an all-pervading cynicism about the political class that renders them incapable of doing the job required of them in a democratic polity. Although he says that politcal journalists “have become too powerful, too much the interpreters” and that “the political story has become degraded”, he argues that the reasons “have as much to do with politics as with journalism”. The Labour government’s current troubles with the media are as much a deserved reaction to its strict news management regime as they are of hacks acquiring a permanent anti-politician sneer. “Central control and manipulation created, within a few years, some of the worst press coverage any government in modern times has suffered,” he writes of Alastair Campbell.
Marr identifies the real enemy as an “idle, office-bound, marketing-directed copycat culture in modern news which is turning off readers and viewers”. What journalism needs now, he says, is fewer columnists and more reporters getting out of the office and talking to real people. At the risk of giving Tribune’s new editor, Chris McLaughlin, a good excuse to get rid of me, amen to that.
14 September 2004
Steve Platt and I put in an application for the job, vacated in summer by Mark Seddon (who took over from me in 1993), because we were worried that the august organ was about to go down the tubes. Despite an influx of about £350,000 investment from the trade unions (who now own it), it's selling only 3,000 copies a week. But the paper's board decided that we were damaged goods, and that was it. I don't think either of us is that upset.
Now the job has been taken by Chris McLaughlin, until earlier this year political editor of the Sunday Mirror and currently a columnist on the Big Issue, who used to work way back when for Labour Weekly, the official party paper that closed in 1987. I know nothing else about him — to my shame I haven't read the Sunday Mirror or the Big Issue for years — but his praises are sung in the Independent today by Bill Hagerty, who was an editorial adviser to Seddon. Whatever, good luck to him.
4 September 2004
3 September 2004
Like every other leftie teenager of my generation I had that poster of Che stuck on my bedroom wall — in my case taking pride of place in a collage that included an International Socialists placard demanding “Defend the Portuguese workers’ revolution!”, some arty French shots of girls with not much on, bills for gigs I’d peeled off boards in town and assorted beer mats.
I was very proud of the overall effect, which I thought compared very well with the efforts of the Dadaist artist Kurt Schwitters, but my mum and dad redecorated the room when I went to university.
I protested, but to be honest by then I’d moved on. Most of the bands whose promotional materials I’d artfully arranged had become unfashionable with the arrival of punk, and I was no longer at all enamoured of the International Socialists, who had become the Socialist Workers Party and chucked me out. But I was particularly embarassed by the poster of Che, based on Alexander Korda’s famous photograph of him taken in 1960.
I know the image is always talked about reverentially by media studies types as iconic and everlasting — but in late-1970s Britain it became about as cool as flared trousers, for one simple reason: Wolfie Smith, the ludicrous bedsit revolutionary in the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith, who looked just like the Che in the poster. Wolfie, played by Robert Lindsay, was, to put it mildly, not the sort of character any serious (or fashion-conscious) socialist would ever wish to emulate, particularly if he had younger sisters.
More seriously, I’d also started to have big doubts about Guevara’s politics. When I put the poster up, I hadn’t known a lot about him. I knew he’d been a guerrilla leader with Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution, and I knew he’d subsequently worked tirelessly to foment revolution elsewhere and had been killed while leading an armed guerrilla uprising in Bolivia in 1967. All very romantic. But that was about it.
As I read more about the Cuban revolution and Latin America in the 1960s and the 1970s, however, it became clear that Che wasn’t quite the revolutionary hero I’d assumed him to be. Yes, he was personally courageous, single-minded and ascetic. But the guerrilla strategy he expounded and epitomised had been a miserable failure everywhere in Latin America except Cuba — and was roundly (and convincingly) condemned as suicidal adventurism by most thinking Latin American leftists.
Worse, Guevara, from the mid-1950s until his death, was an out-and-out dogmatic Stalinist — show trials, gulag and all — who was such an admirer of the Soviet dictator that he insisted on putting flowers on his tomb when he visited Moscow in 1960, fully four years after Khruschev’s “secret speech”.
If this Stalinism had simply been a matter of opinion with no effect on others, it might have been forgivable. But Guevara put his worldview into brutal practice. As a senior figure in Castro’s administration, he played a leading role in creating a single-party police state, throwing opponents into jail and banning free trade unions. And although he broke with Moscow in 1964, it was not because he had given up on Stalinism but because he thought the Soviet leadership was, unlike his hero Stalin, insufficiently committed to world revolution and crumbling in the face of petty-bourgeois deviationism.
And so it was, 25 years ago, that I came to the conclusion that Guevara was even less of a role-model than Wolfie Smith. Big deal, you might well think, but this rambling reminiscence does have some contemporary relevance. It was brought on by seeing The Motorcycle Diaries, Walter Salles’s movie about Guevara’s trip around Latin America in 1952 with his friend Alberto Granado on a battered Norton motorbike, long before he became a Stalinist.
I loved the film: it’s not quite in the class of Kings of the Road or Easy Rider or Thelma and Louise, but it’s an accomplished cinematic spectacle, as good a road movie as I’ve seen for a long time. One of the main reasons it works so well is that it doesn’t preach politics — all we see is the young Che and his mate coming up against appalling poverty and squalor and, well, being moved to do something about it.
Paradoxically, however, this is also the film’s greatest failing. What matters most about Guevara as a real historical figure is not that he was horrified by poverty and exploitation and decided to “do something” but that (after a brief flirtation with Gandhianism) he specifically and tragically chose the dead-end of armed struggle Stalinism as his mode of action — rather than, say, trade union organising or reformist democratic socialism.
It’s difficult to see how The Motorcycle Diaries could have gone into any of this and kept its coherence as a film, but the effect of its keeping the politics vague is to breathe new life into a myth that should have been buried long ago.
31 August 2004
"While we take all this on board . . . we’d still put changing circumstances ahead of any of these arguments as the decisive factors in changing people’s minds. That’s not just a reflex expression of Marxist hostility towards treating politics as a conflict of ideas, rather than (instead of as well as) a conflict of social forces, it’s the result of wondering:
- whether the phrase 'widely read', which Anderson applies to Goldman and Berkman, applies to any of the people cited
- whether the specifically 'left' individuals in the list really made more impact on changing attitudes than such figures as Muggeridge, Orwell, Conquest and others who found readers across the political spectrum, and also among the self-consciously non-political
- whether even they made as much impact as newspapers, television and other mass media . . .
- and whether the often obscure, jargon-ridden, internecine quarrels of leftists and ex-leftists about the nature of the Soviet Union ever could have mattered – or should have mattered – more than the steady accumulation of knowledge about the brute facts of life under dictatorship, to which all those cited certainly, and admirably, contributed, but which they were in no position to guide or dominate.”
OK, to take these in reverse order.
One, I wasn’t writing about the quarrel among leftists and ex-leftists about whether the Soviet Union was state capitalist or a degenerate workers’ state (or whatever), which I think played very little role in convincing the left that Soviet socialism was a dead-end.
Two, it was precisely through the mass media – in particular newspapers –that left critics of the Soviet Union had their greatest impact.
Three, I agree completely that the likes of Muggeridge, Orwell and Conquest had more influence than sectarian polemicists who directed their writings at a purely left readership (and in the case of Muggeridge and Conquest, I’m pushing it to describe them as “left” critics, though Muggeridge certainly went out to Russia in 1932 as a Fabian and I have in front of me a passage by Conquest written in the late 1950s quoting approvingly from Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Marx . . .) – but so what?
And four – all right, I admit it: I can’t really answer scepticism about how widely read left critics of the Soviet Union really were except with anecdotes and circumstantial evidence: lots of reviews of books and mentions of promotional speaking tours in the contemporary press, name checks in other people’s memoirs, articles by the relevant authors in the national press and opinion weeklies et cetera. Of course, it’s quite possible for a book to be widely reviewed yet remain unread — which happened, for example to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia – or for articles to appear in even large-circulation newspapers yet have a nugatory readership. But until someone does a trawl through publishers’ archives and old library lending records, I’m afraid anecdotes and circumstantial evidence are the best we’ve got.
30 August 2004
"We have some doubts about the suggestion that the present malaise afflicting so many leftists will pass, much as previous 'waves of cretinism' passed because . . . 'some part of the left kept its head and argued the case against the prevailing delusions consistently and publicly'.
"This seems more optimistic than the present situation warrants: try arguing with those who are thus deluded and see if they are even capable of conceding that they could possibly have got anything wrong at all. It also seems more rationalistic than the past cases he cites might suggest. It’s at least arguable that 'enthusiasm for the Soviet Union' and 'sucking up to the IRA' succumbed to the attrition of changing circumstances - ranging from very well-known historical events to less well-known but highly effective organisational manoeuvres within labour movements - rather than to rational argument, which largely (though not, of course, entirely) followed on from those circumstances. As for 'anti-Europeanism' and 'uncritical support for any third world populist would-be tyrant claiming to lead a national liberation struggle', both are still going strong in at least some sections of the left, and precisely those that are least amenable to argument. . .
"We remain unconvinced that 'left' in the singular has much use or relevance, and we’d still prefer to see the pluralism that some celebrate, others deplore and we ruefully put up with acknowledged more consistently - notably, and most helpfully, through the making of some necessary and very sharp distinctions, such as between liberal lefts and socialist lefts, and between genuinely democratic lefts and the lefts that are either anti-democratic or (even worse, because even less honest) contemptibly self-deluding about democracy and its enemies."
Well, I agree with some of that – in particular the contention that the notion of a singular "left" has little use or relevance. There are today and have been for 200 years many lefts, some of them little short of despicable. Where I disagree is in my estimation of the power of argument to change minds.
To take the example of the left's enthusiasm for the Soviet Union, because I think it's the most important left delusion of the past 100 years. I don't deny that changing circumstances had a massive effect in opening people's eyes — from Kronstadt, through Spain, the show trials, the Hitler-Stalin pact, Stalin's colonisation of eastern Europe after 1945, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 and the rise and suppression of Solidarnosc, right up to the collapse of "actually existing socialism" in 1989-91.
But the relentless arguments of left critics of the Soviet Union – seizing on these events, to be sure – also had a crucial impact. Bertrand Russell's anti-Bolshevik polemic of 1920, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, which remained in print until very recently; Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman's records of their disillusionment with Russia in the 1920s (published in the UK as well as in the US and widely read); Malcolm Muggeridge, Walter Citrine (TUC general secretary) and William Henry Chamberlin (Manchester Guardian correspondent), who all produced critical accounts of Stalin's Russia in the early to mid 1930s; George Orwell, the Tribune left, the ILP, the anarchists and the Trotskyists in the late 1930s and (particularly) the 1940s, who published a stream of material of their own and from foreign experts; the cold war social democrats from the 1950s (among whom I'd include Robert Conquest and Leonard Schapiro and most of their Menshevik-inspired friends in the US); the democratic socialist, libertarian, Trotskyist and ex-communist defenders of the Hungarian revolution; the defenders of "socialism with a human face" in Czechoslovakia and Solidarnosc in Poland; the Edward Thompson wing of the 1980s peace movement – all of them stuck to their guns, and I think they had a cumulative impact in changing the political atmosphere. Certainly by the 1960s pro-Sovietism was the prerogative of a small minority of British leftists, and by the 1980s the only pro-Soviet diehards on the Brit left were either extraordinarily stupid, on the make or both (let us not forget that the Soviet Union funded the Communist Party of Great Britain almost until its death and that freebies in "socialist" spas were enthusiastically taken up by trade unionist bollock-brains right up to the end of the 1980s).
I think it would be possible to tell a similar story of left sucess against anti-Europeanism or kneejerk third world national liberationism (with some of the same people playing key roles). Whatever, I can't see any reason why opponents of left cretinism today shouldn't prevail again. As Bob Marley put it, don't give up the fight.
27 August 2004
I’m late on this (I’ve been away on holiday) but it’s a hoo-hah that is worth noting even a fortnight on. Cohen’s argument is that something very odd has happened to the left in Britain in the recent past: in its enthusiasm for opposition to the war in Iraq, it has embraced clerical reaction for the first time ever. The Stop the War Coalition was the Socialist Workers Party getting into bed with the Muslim Association of Britain. Ken Livingstone endorsed and met the anti-Semitic Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The left and liberal press have been fawning in their treatment of Islamist bigots. No one on the left – or hardly anyone – has taken any notice of Iraqi democrats’ approval of the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Cohen concludes that “there no longer is a left with a coherent message of hope for the human race”.
I almost share his sense of despair. Unlike Cohen, I opposed the war – not because I thought it was wrong to overthrow Saddam Hussein but because I thought the US and its allies hadn’t thought it through and were taking an irresponsible risk – but like him I believe that the left in Britain and elsewhere should now be supporting those in Iraq who are trying to create a tolerant liberal democratic polity, not whining about the process through which the US and Britain went to war. I have been sickened by the way that so many of my fellow opponents of the war have gloried in every setback that the US and the interim Iraqi government have suffered. And I can’t believe the tolerance of idiocy and worse that seems to have become the norm in the liberal and left press. The left in Britain today is in a worse state than at any time in my adult lifetime.
But I’d stop short of writing off the left completely. Waves of cretinism have swept the left in Britain before – enthusiasm for the Soviet Union (most marked in the 1930s but still a factor 50 years later), anti-Europeanism in the 1960s and 1970s, uncritical support for any third world populist would-be tyrant claiming to lead a national liberation struggle from the 1960s onwards, sucking up to the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s – but they have passed, largely because some part of the left kept its head and argued the case against the prevailing delusions consistently and publicly. We need to do the same today.
Don't scotch Labour's chances
Paul Anderson struggles to decide which is worse: voting Tory or voting for the Scottish National Party. I'm afraid I can't help him, being of the view that you should always vote Labour. Perhaps though, I can help him with his confusion about the SNP.
If their desire to break up the United Kingdom wasn't bad enough, SNP members are already actively campaigning against the proposed European constitution. Romano Prodi recently made it clear that an independent Scotland would not be part of the European Union.
The soon-to-be SNP leader, Alex Salmond, is an unabashed Reaganite, believing that applying the Laffer curve to business tax is the key to a bright economic future for Scotland. Worse than that, SNP members believe that, while they're slashing taxes for business, the shortfall will be made up by increasing personal taxation.
Worst of all, they will always opportunistically back the Tories in Parliament where they calculate it will do the Labour Party the most damage. They haven't changed since they backed the Tories to bring down James Callaghan and usher in 18 years of Thatcherism.
So, if you get stuck with a Tory MP, you'll be represented by a man (because they almost always are) who is Eurosceptic, would slash public spending and opportunistically oppose everything Labour does. On the other hand, if you get stuck with a SNP MP, you'll he represented by a man (because they almost always are) who is Eurosceptic, would slash public spending and opportunistically oppose everything Labour does.
Head of Press, Scottish Labour Party Glasgow
Microscope needed for Lib Dem principles
Michael Foot hails Tribune as a truly great international socialist document. Yet, in the same edition, there is an article by Paul Anderson exhorting Labour supporters to vote for the Liberal Democrats.
I have lived in areas where Labour has not had a chance of winning, yet have always voted Labour to register my support for a socialist democratic party. In such areas, Labour activists work hard supporting the party, standing in unwinnable seats, to ensure that people have a chance to vote Labour as part of the democratic process.
In recent by-elections, the Lib Dems have jumped from third to first place. Does this mean Anderson wants us to abide by rules that they don't? In addition, since they are clearly doing this by attracting an anti-Labour vote from Tories, should committed Labour supporters give the Lib Dems such succour?
Should Labour supporters really help a party which can knock on one door and say they are against hanging and knock on the next one and say the opposite purely to gain votes?
Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten has said that he and others would like to move the Lib Dems to the Right. They could succeed and have a larger parliamentary party, increased by tactical voting.
I suggest that calling on Labour supporters to vote tactically, rather than on principle, does little to help stem the disillusionment of many in the political process.
Treacherous advice is a pernicious vice
Paul Anderson has exploited your pages to try to damage the Labour Party.
He urges people to vote tactically for the Liberal Democrats in seats where Labour starts in third place. Quite apart from the fact that there is no equivalent effort by Lib Dem pundits to get their supporters to vote Labour where we are the main challenge to the Tories, his list is compiled in complete ignorance of the local circumstances in the seats concerned, and in the knowledge that it will be used to squeeze the Labour vote in Lib Dem leaflets.
In some of the seats he mentions. Labour's vote is going up and we may overtake the Lib Dems. In others, the two parties are neck and neck and the main challenger is unclear. In yet more, there is no hope of anyone beating the Tories for the parliamentary seat, but a strong Labour campaign might deliver local Labour councillors on its coal tails.
Anderson's insistence that the differences between Labour and the Lib Dems are nugatory can only have been written by someone who has not encountered the Lib Dems' vile behaviour in local government, the constant anti-Labour sniping of Lib Dem MPs such as Norman Baker and the drive by senior Lib Dems for their party to adopt neo-Thatcherite economic policies.
Even more absurdly, Anderson says Labour supporters should vote Lib Dem in all the seats they already hold - including, presumably, the ones that Labour could actually gain from them such as Chesterfield.
His article is a slap in the face for dedicated Labour activists who are working hard in the seats concerned.His treacherous advice should be treated with the contempt it deserves.
I hate to say I told you so. If you leave Paul Anderson long enough, he will abuse his position as a columnist to try to get Labour voters to vote Liberal Democrat. And that is exactly what he has done.
Anderson is not making some abstract point in favour of anti-Tory tactical voting in his article. It is specifically aimed at getting some Labour voters to vote for the Lib Dems. It will not get any Liberal Democrat supporters to vote Labour in other constituencies. He tells us that he has sent a copy to the Lib Dems, because he knows that it will be of use to them.
What is worse, in his own words, Anderson has "carefully written it so that Liberal Democrats can use it in election material to make it look like Tribune, the Labour weekly, backs their candidate".
Tribune is not saying that Labour voters should back the Lib Dems. And Tribune was not saying that at the last general election either, when Anderson's articles were used by Liberal Democrats to claim that Tribune was supporting them then. Anderson has waited until Tribune was changing its editor before writing his article. Let us hope that the new editor responds decisively to deal with this slur on the good name of the magazine.