30 November 2006

DEATH AGONIES OF THE SOVIET UNION

There is a fascinating long piece in Der Spiegel here (in English) on the internal politics of the Soviet leadership in the Gorbachev era drawing on two books of extracts of Politburo minutes recently published in Russia (in Russian). The extracts are particularly revealing on Germany and Afghanistan — and on the extent to which Gorbachev's reform programme was resisted at the highest level of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

28 November 2006

ODONE DECLARES WAR

Here's the Blessed Christina talking paranoid codswallop at the Defend Freedom of Religion, Conscience and Thought rally held by Liberty and various god-botherers last week.



And this at a time when the government is caving in to religious lobby groups on faith schools and giving self-appointed "community leaders" an unprecedented role on every quango under the sun. Believe it or not, she was my successor but one as deputy editor of the New Statesman.

To be fair, other contributions to the rally are straight-down-the-line liberal defences of tolerance. But really...

Hat tip: Harry.

26 November 2006

HELP WANTED

Still no joy with the original George Weidenfeld cunnilingus quote. But can anyone help me with the origins of this, apparently a common Arabic saying:
Life is like a carrot. One day in your hand, the next day up your arse.

UTTERLY SHAMELESS SELF-PUBLICITY

Michael Foot gives Orwell in Tribune a smashing plug in the Observer's "favourite books of 2006" feature today (click here and scroll down) — but I fear we will end up in Private Eye ... because he wrote the foreword!

25 November 2006

OBITUARY: RICHARD CLEMENTS

Dick Clements deserves to be remembered for many reasons, but there is one thing about him that makes him a legend for me: he managed the stupendous feat of being editor of Tribune for 21 years, and he kept the paper afloat for all that time. During his editorship, Tribune enjoyed extraordinary influence in the Labour Party, and it was usually for the best.

His Tribune was the paper that in the 1960s supported the anti-H-bomb campaign, opposed the Vietnam war and Rhodesian UDI and railed against Enoch Powell. The Tribune Group, initially in 1964 little more than a gaggle of left MPs who supported the paper, became the key left caucus of the parliamentary Labour Party – and played a crucial role in Labour politics well into the 1980s. In the 1970s the Clements Tribune was where the Labour left worked out its Alternative Economic Strategy – as it turned out, a chimera – found its voice against apartheid and expressed, albeit too timidly, its solidarity with the democratic dissidents of the Soviet bloc.

I wasn’t quite brought up on the Clements Tribune, but it was part of my life from my early teenage years. My grandfather was a reader in the early 1970s and I devoured it every time I went round to stay with my grandparents. I spent hours arguing with my grandfather about what it was saying – in particular its campaign against the Common Market, which came to a climax in 1975, when Tribune led the “no” vote camp in the referendum campaign.

I disagreed with my grandfather and with Tribune then – I was a “yes” at the age of 15, as I am today – but I was hooked by the paper’s approach to politics: polemical but rational, passionate but cool. I loved the disagreements about everything, sometimes denunciatory and inflammatory, sometimes factual and dry. I read with enthusiasm the weirdly radical books and arts pages and the no-holds-barred letters and diary. There was too much stuff from boring trade union leaders and dull Labour left MPs – nothing changes – but the rest was the real thing, a vibrant pluralist democratic left newspaper run by real journalists.

It took me another 10 years to accept Tribune’s reformism, but that’s another story. By then, Clements had left the paper, had become Mr Fixit for Michael Foot when he became Labour leader and had then done the same job (briefly) for Neil Kinnock. Tribune in the meantime had gone through a life-threatening crisis after the staff took rather too seriously for the shareholders its long-standing commitment to workers’ control. Whatever, by the time I started working on Tribune in 1986, Clements was no more an occasional visitor – which is when I first met him, cadging fags from the office smokers (me and Sheila Noble) as he set about some research project.

We never became great mates, but he was always solicitous and kind, and he helped me greatly on several stories and bigger projects over the next 10 years. The idea that he was a Soviet agent – as claimed by the Sunday Times some time back – is idiotic. He was a good man who kept an institution vital to our democracy alive for a very, very long time.

23 November 2006

WHERE IS THERE TO GO IF YOU DON'T WANT TO REPLACE TRIDENT?

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.

21 November 2006

HOBSBAWM ON 1956

I'm surprised there hasn't been more comment on this, Eric Hobsbawm's take in the current London Review of Books on the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Hobsbawm, the most prominent Communist Party of Great Britain intellectual who stayed with it after 1956, is no fool: the piece has plenty of insights into the reasons Hungary rather than any other Soviet satellite exploded when it did.

But in the end he regrets nothing. The Soviet intervention was justified because the revolutionaries went too far and took their revenge on the hated secret police. The key moment, writes Hobsbawm, was

the attack by insurgents on the headquarters of the Greater Budapest Communist Party on Republic Square, temporarily defenceless except for a contingent of secret police after the withdrawal of Russian and Hungarian soldiers. The building was taken, the Budapest Party chief – a strong supporter of reform – killed, and 23 secret policemen lynched by the mob in front of the world’s newsreel cameras. It was this demonstration of anarchic fury, combined with Nagy’s increasing concessions to the maximalist demands on the street, that persuaded both Moscow and Beijing that uncontrollable disorder was impending in Hungary…

The alternative was the reform government’s number two, János Kádár, who had begun to impress the Russians. He left Budapest on 1 November as a member of Nagy’s government and returned six days later in a convoy of Soviet tanks – which made short work of the uprising once its full force was deployed. He has been denounced for his betrayal, but, unlike some other episodes in his long career, notably the execution of Nagy in 1958, it can be justified. The insurgents’ programme was beyond reach.

What was the alternative to a Russian victory, if not a quiet reform Communist regime backed by a reform-minded Khrushchev? (In subsequent years the Kádárs were to develop a family friendship with the Khrushchevs.) Nagy’s choice implied only heroic victimisation – followed sometime in the future by public rehabilitation – and a return of the Hungarian Stalinists, with or without Rákosi and Gerö. Kádár’s solution was the only one available.

"The insurgents' programme was beyond reach"? Only because the Soviet leaders decided it was and sent in the tanks. The fatalism and Realpolitik cynicism are almost Kissingeresque.

15 November 2006

WHAT A GRIM QUEEN'S SPEECH

Reasons to be cheerful are few and far between, it seems, so we've got a legislative programme that will concentrate on law and ordure — cue hysteria from the civil liberties lobby — and carbon footprints. There are odds and ends in the Queen's Speech that are long overdue (Crossrail, corporate manslaughter, free bus travel for pensioners) but this is fin de siecle fiddling. "Security" only works for Labour if it's also about working-class confidence, and too much of this stuff is scarifying triangulation that encourages fear. Get it done with, get Gordon in, and then onwards and upwards. I hope.

And sort Iraq. Please. Call me a neo-con if you want, but getting Bashir and the mullahs in doesn't strike me as too sensible. What exactly is wrong with massively upping the military presence, disarming the militias and taking it from there? Too expensive? I'm not an expert. I ask because I want to know.

8 November 2006

DON'T LET THIS BE TRUE

A disturbing story arrives from the liberal Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, claiming that Communist Party of Britain bigwig Anita Halpin, an ultra-Stalinist hack who also sits on various National Union of Journalists committees, has come into a vast amount of money.

She is, apparently, the sole living grandchild of the artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, whose painting "Berliner Strassenszene" has just been flogged — or was due to be flogged — by Christie's today in New York, with the expectation that it would raise between £10m and £14m.

The painting, it seems, was stolen by the Nazis in the 1930s, and has now been "restituted" to the nearest thing there is to its original owner.

I've no idea whether this story is accurate: the painting was certainly advertised as being on sale today, and my Swedish comrades tell me that there is no ambiguity in translation of the news piece.

But the worst possible thing that could happen to British left politics right now would be for the Communist Party of Britain to come into a pornographically large sum of money. It is utterly bankrupt politically, a throw-back to the worst of the 1930s and 1940s, when the British left intelligentsia (with a few honorable exceptions) sucked up to Stalin through the purges and his pact with the Nazis. It is the last organisation on the British left that deserves a penny.

I really, really hope that someone is having a laugh, that I've been had, that there's been a terrible mistake somewhere along the line. But if it is true: just remember, as the cash washes into the pockets of opportunists, mountebanks and charlatans, that Stalinism is the worst enemy of democratic socialism.

Update
OK, I got some of this wrong, but it wasn't a bad tip. Here's the Guardian following it up. I particularly like the fulminating CPB gen sec...

1 November 2006

SHAMELESS SELF-PUBLICITY

No one else is going to blow my trumpet, so I might as well do it myself... Reviews of my collection Orwell in Tribune are coming in — and so far so good. Sean French was positive for the Independent last Friday, Martin Rowson embarrassingly enthusiastic for Tribune the same day and Gordon Bowker critical but upbeat for the Observer last Sunday. Thanks for the kind words — and the same goes to my blogging comrades Paul Evans and Peter Robins. The Scottish Sunday Post has also apparently been very nice but I havnae seen it and cannae find it online. I was, however, thinking only yesterday that a version of the Post's famous strip cartoon The Broons could be a winner in Private Eye, what with old Gordon being a shoo-in for the Labour leadership (as predicted here, incidentally) and all that.