28 December 2003


I've been meaning to link to Attila Hoare on the British far left and Bosnia for ages, but haven't. But here it is in all its brilliance.


A University of Kent alumnus from the 1980s writes:

The activities of the Revolutinary Communist Tendency were one of the weirdest aspects of student politics at Kent.

Anti-nuclear meetings were routinely packed with RCT members who would denounce CND and call for the invention and immediate use of what was referred to as "the worker's bomb" which would wipe out in one stroke the entire world's bourgeoisie.

The group had all the hallmarks of a cult. The RCT had a particularly strange attitude towards sexual relations among its members. Sex between members was regulated by the group's central committee. Recruitment to the group was undertaken by means of what is known among religious cult watchers as "flirty fishing".

The RCT appeared to follow the line of Bolshevik commissar of social welfare Alexandra Kollontai who peddled a materialist view of sex as a physical impulse: "You make love just as you drink a glass of water."

Though this is ancient history it is possible to trace the present day concerns of the Insitute of Ideas crowd, Furedi et al, especially as regarding childhood, the family, abortion, cloning, genetic experiments with their previous crude materalism and anti-humanism.


I hear via the grapevine that the historian Walter Kendall has died. As reviews editor of Tribune in the 1980s and early 1990s I commissioned him to write whenever he could because I was in awe of his history of the left in the early years of the last century, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-21: The Origins of British Communism, published in 1969. It still stands as the most comprehensive and politically nuanced account of the debilitating effect of the Bolshevik revolution on the British left, and I'm still in awe. RIP.

17 December 2003


I’m late on this one, but what the hell. George Monbiot had an almost-fascinating column in the Guardian last week (for which click here) on the strange phenomenon formerly known as the Revolutionary Communist Party, which transmuted into Living Marxism magazine (later plain LM), which in turn spawned (inter alia) the Spiked! website (click here) and the Institute of Ideas think-tank (click here).

There are several very weird things about the former-RCP. The most obvious is its ideological trajectory. The RCP had its origins in an ultra-orthodox-Leninist faction inside the International Socialists, the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, in the early 1970s, which became the Revolutionary Communist Group. To cut a long story short, the RCG expelled a group that became the Revolutionary Communist Tendency, later the Revolutionary Communist Party, which established itself by the early 1980s as an independent Leninist revolutionary sect. It was a lot more cerebral and fashion-conscious than the SWP – for its internal culture click here and here -- but otherwise unremarkable, though in a moment of lucidity it did call for a ballot during the 1984-85 miners' strike. The RCT/RCP had a well-produced agitational paper, the next step. Otherwise, it was notable mainly for its quixotic front organisations, in particular East London Workers Against Racism (ELWAR), a squaddist fight-the-fash outfit, and, notoriously, the Red Front, a disastrously ineffective general election intervention in 1987.

But in 1988, the RCP turned the next step into a monthly magazine, Living Marxism. And in the next few years, its leading lights – particularly Frank Furedi (party name Frank Richards), the chief ideologist of the sect, and Mick Hume, the editor of the next step and subsequently Living Marxism – started to delight in taking political positions at odds with leftist orthodoxy. The RCP was formally dissolved in 1996, Living Marxism became LM, and it ruffled feathers by coming out against censorship of pornography, against moral panics on child sexual abuse, against environmentalist doom-mongering and so on.

Controversialism can make for zippy journalism, and some of this was a welcome (though hardly original) assault on a lot of leftist cant of the day. But some was taking unpopular positions for the sake of it, and some was vile nonsense – most notoriously the “stand” taken by LM (as Living Marxism had become) against reports of Serb atrocities in Bosnia, the result of which was a (wholly justified) libel action by journalists it had traduced that resulted in its closure in 2000 and the creation of Spiked! (on this, click here)

Whatever, by the time Spiked took over from LM, the former-RCP had apparently ditched just about all the leftist baggage it once carried. The output of Spiked and the Institute of Ideas has been superficially indistinguishable from the free-market libertarian right in the political positions it has taken up – and as Monbiot shows, the former-RCP has not been averse to getting into bed with people that no self-respecting RCPer in the 1980s would have touched with a barge-pole.

But the ideological journey is not the whole story. One thing that makes it particularly remarkable is that the core of the group has remained together throughout – and that its members have been almost incredibly successful in terms both of their own careers and in establishing credibility for their front organisations: they’re in there with most broadsheet newspapers, the Institute for Contemporary Arts, the Royal Society and all the rest.

How have they done it? Well, money has had a lot to do with it. The RCP in the 1980s was never very large, but it was big enough to produce the next step by exacting a tithe on its members, the standard Leninist practice. With Living Marxism /LM, however, the show went up a notch just at the time that the RCP became invisible on the activist left: colour printing, WH Smith distribution et cetera. Rumours started doing the rounds about mysterious funders – and given Living Marxism /LM’s editorial line, pro-Serb and anti-environmentalist, quite a lot of the rumours were about dodgy cash from Slobodan Milosevic, corporations desperate to buy some left credibility or even the spooks. Monbiot’s piece in the Guardian is just the latest to insinuate that the former-RCP is in receipt of money from the forces of darkness.

My intelligence suggests a different explanation of the group’s affluence: the success of some of its key members as entrepreneurs, in particular one Keith Teare (party name Keith Tompson, website here), onetime sociologist at the University of Kent with Frank Furedi, founder of Easynet and the Cyberia internet cafĂ© chain and now a Silicon Valley guru, who has made a multi-million-dollar packet in the past 10 years. Even now, Cyberia’s CEO is Phil Mullan, former RCP, Living Marxism and LM stalwart . . . Well, it beats running a general print shop as every other leftist outfit does.


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, December 12 2003

I'm not sure whether, in the current climate, this will get me fired as a Tribune columnist — but in the past couple of weeks I’ve been coming round to the idea that top-up fees are not such a bad thing.

My main job, these days, is as a lecturer in City University’s journalism department, and I know from personal experience that higher education needs more money and needs it at once.

My department deservedly has a very good reputation. Most of its graduates get decent jobs when they qualify, and the majority go on to pursue successful careers in journalism — a tribute both to the quality of our students and to the expertise, commitment and hard work of my colleagues.

But, despite its success and reputation, journalism at City is seriously short of cash. The space we occupy is cramped, overcrowded and decrepit; we don’t have enough computers and other equipment; and the salaries of lecturers have been falling behind those of journalists on newspapers and magazines and in the broadcasting media (from among whom we necessarily recruit our teaching staff) for years.

I’m sure the department can survive for some time yet making up for lack of resources with enthusiasm and hard work. But eventually it will reach breaking point — most likely, I reckon, when it becomes impossible to recruit lecturers to replace those that leave or retire or impossible to afford industry-standard technology.

The picture in other university departments is much, much bleaker. After more than a decade of relentless expansion of student numbers with little or no increase in funding, they are at breaking point already. Unless they get an influx of cash, and quick, they will not be able to continue to function.

So what should be done to relieve the university funding crisis? The Tories reckon that the answer is not to find any more money but to slash the number of students in higher education — a position echoed in last week’s Tribune by Jon Cruddas, the Labour MP for Dagenham who is a prominent top-up fees rebel, with his contention that on current trends, “a serious over-supply of graduates ... will be competing for a limited supply of graduate jobs”.

I’m sceptical about this line of argument for two reasons. First, I hold the old-fashioned socialist view that a university education is a good thing in itself, and that a civilised society should aspire to make one available to everyone capable of benefiting from one — which in my opinion means at very least the 50 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds the government wants in higher education. And second, it’s plain nonsense to think that we are anwhere near the limit of the economy’s ability to provide employment for graduates. There will always, of course, be a demand for plumbers and brickies and cleaners and so forth — but Britain’s only hope for prosperity in the globalised economy is an increasingly educated and skilled workforce.

So the universities need more cash. Where should it come from? General taxation is an option, and the Liberal Democrats have a coherent plan for bailing out higher education with a new top rate of income tax. One problem here, of course, is that overtly raising general taxation is anathema to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown: it just won’t happen. Another is that a simple increase in general taxation would not guarantee a continuing income stream to the universities: it would have to be hypothecated to prevent the Treasury diverting it elsewhere at some point in the future when university funding is not the flavour of the month.

A graduate tax (which would also have to be hypothecated) would be less of a problem politically. But it wouldn’t raise any money for years unless it were imposed on everyone who has ever taken a degree — a great idea in principle, though it immediately runs into the insurmountableproblem that the Inland Revenue has no way of identifying which taxpayers are graduates and which are not.

The upshot of all this is that I’ve been driven reluctantly to the conclusion that top-up fees have three serious advantages over the other options that have been floated. First, they are politically feasible: they do not offend against New Labour’s antipathy to overt increases in taxation, and there is no obvious practical obstacle to their implementation. Second, they deliver money at onceto the universities. And third, they will continue to deliver money to the universities regardless of future Treasury whims.

This is not to say that top-up fees are perfect. The government’s current plans might evolve towards allowing universities to charge what they like, which would genuinely create a two-tier higher education system in which elite institutions effectively exclude debt-averse working-class students. As the scheme now stands, however, the debts involved will be small, interest-free and repayable only when graduates are reasonably well-off. I’m sorry, but as a way of getting money into the universities, it’s rather neat.

4 December 2003


Stephen Marks, review of Regime Change by Christopher Hitchens (Penguin, £5.99) and Bush in Babylon: the recolonisation of Iraq by Tariq Ali (Verso, £13), Tribune, January 2 2004

These two appalling books have more in common than I expected. Their two authors, former comrades in arms, are now on opposite sides of the Iraq war barricades. Each has employed his own richly distinctive polemical style. Each starts from an initial one-sided but sound premise, and proceeds from there on automatic pilot, with little reference to the complex reallity of Iraq.

Hitchens’s starting point is the undeniable fact that Saddam’s tyranny was one of the most odious on the face of the earth whose disappearance must be reckoned a blessing. From this it is clear - to him at least - that the US and its ally are the “good guys” fighting for democracy against “Islamo-fascism” (the link with al Qaida being assumed as axiomatic) and that “the government and people of these United States are now at war with the forces of reaction”. Those who dissent from this Manichaean view are to be treated with the contempt appropriate for appeasers, fellow-travellers with tyranny, and apologists for fascism.

That there are a few considerations to be put in the other pan of the scale is either ignored or ridiculed away with arguments that would discredit a school debating society on a bad day. In particular, the idea that America’s determination ot go to war, UN or no UN, might fatally subvert any notion of a structure of international legality, is neatly sidestepped by debunking the notion of international legality itself with a brutal cynicism which even some hardened neo-con ideologues would hesitate to engage in unless pre-fortified with a few stiff drinks.

Eroding the key distinction between pre-emptive and preventive wars? Well, aren’t all wars preventive? Wouldn’t the world be a safer place for more preventive wars? As for the crummy old “just war” criteria - why, “one wonders how the theory of just war...ever managed to endorse the use of force”. So much, evidently, for a thousand years of western culture’s attempt to come to terms with the ethical bounds of warfare.

As for the effect of the war on Muslim and Arab opinion, and thus on the possibility of winning support for the real “war on terrorism” - why, the brave Hitch refuses to “meekly avoid the further disapproval of those who hate me enough already”.

There can be few things more irresponsible than Hitchens’s philistine dismissal of the key distinction between the terrorists themselves and the wider layers without whose passive acquiescence the terrorists could not operate. That a naked and cynical display of American power, on a patently confected excuse, might enrage a sufficient proportion of Arab and Muslim opinion actually to enlarge the layer of potential sympathisers appears either not to have occurred to him, or to have been ignored for the easier consolations of a quick debating point.

Almost all the dictatorships to have fallen since 1945 have done so without external military intervention. The alternative - which was never tried, and was actively opposed by Bush’s father in 1991 - was to help the Iraqis themselves to overthrow Saddam, or at least not to prevent them from doing so by crippling civil sanctions.

In the absence of an Iraqi civil society forged through that struggle, the occupation forces have no way of dealing with the Saddamite and fundamentalist resistance than by scorched-earth trigger-happy tactics which enrage the public and strengthen the insurgents - or by co-opting and strengthening reactionary tribal and sectarian leaders.

Of course it can be argued that Saddam’s regime was so uniquely oppressive that no internal overthrow was possible - but not by Hitchens, who believes that the regime was “on the verge of implosion” and that intervention was needed to rescue Iraq from “mere anarchy and revenge”.

At least Tariq Ali’s offering has the merit of reminding us of Iraq’s combative and militant history of resistance to foreign domination dressed up as “liberation” and to “preparation for self-government” (in the guise of the mandate system) as cover for the installation of a client regime by the superpower of the day.

He also supplies an entertaining postscript in the form of a collection of Hitchens 1991 polemics against the first Gulf war.

But that’s about it. For the rest, he cannot get beyond his initial insight that US motives were imperialist, and that Iraq is now an occupied country. From this, it appears to him to follow that all those collaborating with the occupation authority or participating in the governing council are “jackals” and “Vichyites” against whom we should support the distasteful crew of Saddamites and fundamentalists who appear to make up the “resistance”.

Since the collapse of Saddam a multitude of political parties, trade unions and workers organisations, independent newspapers and religious groups have sprung up. The great majority appear to combine relief at the fall of Saddam with intense suspicion of the occupiers. What is their view - or range of views - on the way forward? We are not told.

Most Iraqi parties - including the Communist Party and the more radical Worker Communist Party - demanded a provisional government drawn from an assembly convened by the UN, not the US. When this did not materialise, the US was compelled to concede a governing council which, though not sovereign, had more powers than the US had intended. The CP agreed to participate in it, the WCP opposed it, but both oppose the armed resistance groups, whose actions seem aimed at preventing the resumption of any sort of normal life, and therefore of any independent civil society.

Again, Ali gives us no information on any of this, no analysis or description of any of the diverse political forces inside or outside the governing council, or any idea of the range of political debate which must be raging in Iraq. Mind you, there is some glimmering of an awareness that the majority of Iraqis may not support the “resistance”: “This is not to imply that the whole country is desperate for a protracted war. If anything the opposite is the case. If the occupation succeeds in stabilising the country and if basic amenities are restored together with some semblance of normality then a Vichy-style operation staffed by local jackals could succeed, if only for a limited period...Were the Iraqi Communist Party, a section of the Kurdish organisations and the Shia to take such a plunge [ie to back armed resistance] it would become virtually impossible for the US to hold onto Iraq indefinitely.”

In other words - most Iraqis currently do not support the “resistance”, and political parties with mass support believe in working within the governing council, and are carrying their base with them in varying degrees... though why their influence should be so crucial in denying support to the “resistance” if they amount to no more than “jackals”, we are not told.

It is bizarre and not a little sad to see how some on the Left see the need to fit post-war Iraq into a mechanical "one size fits all" anti-imperialist framework and to treat all responses as equally and self-evidently collaborationist apart from armed resistance (and who has the guns from the old regime)? Imagine drafting the leaflets asking former political prisoners and trade unionists to stand arm in arm with their gaolers in support of Ali's analysis.

While Ali’s book will tell you a lot about obscure factional manoeuverings among Communist and Ba’athist party leaders 40 years ago, there is literally no more than the above about the attitudes of the Iraqi people today. Those interested in helping the Iraqi people build an alternative to American imperialism, Ba’athist totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism will have to look elsewhere.

1 December 2003


The Guardian carries a story today on the takeover of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament by a coalition of Trotskyists (Socialist Action) and Stalinists (Communist Party of Britain), for which click here. Its sole source is a document written by Jimmy Barnes, who has been the organiser of Trade Union CND since some time in the 1980s, when as I remember he was a stalwart of the Communist Party of Great Britain (not the same thing as the CPB) -- but the story is largely accurate, if a bit long in the tooth. Socialist Action (click here for a libertarian socialist take and here for a dissident Trotskyist perspective) and the CPB were pretty much the only organised political groups to take any notice of CND after it imploded as a mass organisation in the wake of the 1990-91 Gulf war, and their influence inside CND had been growing for some time before their candidates won an effective majority on CND's ruling bodies at the campaign's annual conference in September. Still, better late than never . . .

16 November 2003


Ian Williams, Tribune column, October 31 2003

In the bad old days of Stalin, lots of starry-eyed leftists went to Moscow and came away profoundly impressed – enough to overlook the gulags, the executions, the purges, and indeed the low living standards of most workers there.

Tribune at the time usually managed to avoid such intoxication with totalitarianism, and still does, which makes Steve Wilkinson’s shameless apology for dictatorship in Cuba (10 October) stand out even more.

The one point where he does touch on the truth is the irrational hatred of Washington for the Castro regime, and the pointlessness of the embargo. But the irrationality is mainly because Cuba is no threat. In the Caribbean, Castro is a folk hero for standing up to Uncle Sam – but even the desperate Haitian refugees head for Florida, or the Bahamas, not for Havana. I may as well add, that once, when he met me, he called me “El Vikingo”, which I rather appreciated, just as we all appreciate his tweaking the Eagle’s feathers.

Castro did add a fun Caribbean cultural element to grey east European totalitarianism. But his restrictions on the right to travel came straight from those wonderful people who built the Berlin Wall. In fact, while Wilkinson sings the praises of the socialist paradise, he does not really explain why, if it so heavenly there, so many people risk their lives to flee to the evil empire just across the straits.

It is difficult to know where to start with such a piece of uncritical rose-tinted propaganda, so we may well as begin with the immediately quantifiable lie. He says that Cuba has one doctor to 600 patients, “when Britain can only manage one for every 20,000”. This is an outright lie. Just think about it, he is claiming that cities like Liverpool or Sheffield only have a couple of dozen doctors each. Even after years of Thatcher, the NHS allows for some ten times that many doctors.

He says, “in many respects, Cuba outstrips Britain in the provision of health care and education”. Cojones, as they say on the island. Many of those doctors, and graduates, are working as cab drivers, in hotels, or even as prostitutes and escorts, because they cannot live on their Peso salary and need dollars, as indeed do those 600 patients he mentions. Every time I go to Cuba, I take a bagful of across-the-counter painkillers for friends there, because they are unavailable on the island. I not usually need to do that when I return to Britain from New York, but in Cuba, medicines are not available except for payments in dollars (or now, in euros).

As for Cuban unions, it would be enlightening to hear his account of the last strike Cuban workers dared to have, or in what way the “independent unions” negotiate with foreign employers – who, last time I checked, pay hard currency for the services of its citizens to the Cuban government which in turn pays them worthless Pesos at a ludicrous exchange rate. What makes it bearable, is a small dollar tip from a tourist is worth a week’s wages in pesos.

He says “some 95 per cent of the population participate in peaceful elections”. Of course the elections are peaceful: there are no opposition party candidates: they make a New Labour selection process seem open, since while Tony Blair’s team may rig the elections, they have not yet taken to arresting unapproved candidates. And of course there is high participation. Only the foolhardy will dare to skip in case they are labelled as dissidents and arrested like the 75 who were imprisoned last year.

Wilkinson accuses those of us protested this of “hypocrisy”. While noting that he does not mention the execution of three hijackers on whose behalf we were also protesting. I am willing to bet that he opposes the death penalty in the US. But 92 miles of water between Key West and Havana makes it bearable?

Cuba is not as repressive or dangerous as the old Latin American dictatorships. The Cuban people are indeed proud of their achievements. But the serious dissidents there are rightly concerned that by denying democracy and civil rights, Fidel Castro is paving the way for a complete Russian-style collapse on his death.

The ends never justify the means. The history of this century teaches us that the means shape the end. Even if Cuba’s progress were as good as Wilkinson claims, it would not justify the executions and imprisonments, nor could he prove that they were necessary.

But in any case, let us have a final examination of the claims of Cuba’s progress. Check out the UN’s Human Development Report. In almost every respect of social progress, education, health and prosperity, Barbados surpasses Cuba and indeed has a GDP per capita three times Cuba’s official figures – and does so without arresting dissidents, with a free press, free unions, and freedom of travel. Like most of the Caricom countries, it also defies the US on issues of principle such as the International Criminal Court – on which incidentally, Cuba agrees with the US. In fact, the Bahamas, Costa Rica and St Kitts also rank higher than Cuba – and none of them arrest dissidents either.

Democratic socialists such as those who founded Tribune have always realized that the regimes in eastern Europe brought the whole concept of socialism into disrepute and kept their distance from it. Shooting people for trying to flee paradise, and imprisoning those who try to change it, are not part of any socialist agenda that this newspaper has ever propounded. The fall of the wall freed socialists from the embarrassment of trying to apologize for or disavow the tyranny of “actually existing socialism.” We can oppose the Pentagon’s adventurism without being the fan clubs for vestigial forms of totalitarianism.

11 November 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, November 15 2003

Last week’s public spat between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair was about more than Brown’s displeasure at Blair’s refusal to give him a seat on Labour’s National Executive Committee — and it was about more than Brown’s opposition to identity cards or indeed his bizarre flirtation with Euroscepticism in the pages of the Daily Telegraph.

On this, everyone agrees. But how much more is difficult to judge. Was Brown merely asserting his status as the second-biggest beast in the Labour jungle after his return from paternity leave, with a view to (depending on your taste) grabbing a key role in writing Labour’s next manifesto, stopping Ken Livingstone’s return to Labour or stemming Peter Mandelson’s growing influence in Number Ten? Or was his display the start of an attempt to oust Blair as prime minister and take his place?

In common with every other commentator who has addressed these crucial questions, I can’t read Brown’s mind. But I suspect that he wasn’t going for broke.

However much he covets Blair’s job, it’s difficult to imagine circumstances before the next election in which he could mount a challenge. Blair’s standing inside the Labour Party is certainly at its lowest since he became leader in 1994. Brown is certainly the obvious alternative leader. But unless Blair is knocked down by the proverbial bus, discovered in flagrante with Prince Charles or branded an inveterate liar by Lord Hutton, the next ocassion on which he could be challenged for the Labour leadership is next year’s party conference — by which point Labour will be in pre-election mode.

Whatever else can be said about Brown, he is not stupid. So hunch says that last week’s shenanigans were less the start of an outright Brown bid for the leadership than a bit of opportunist self-promotion, a reminder to the world that the Chancellor remains the heir apparent, that he has ideas of his own that differ significantly from Blair’s — and that he is insistent on having a decisive influence on the manifesto, the career prospects of Red Ken and Mandy and anything else that crops up. In other words, it’s back to business as usual.

All the same, Brown did give the appearance of having lost patience with Blair, and it’s this, rather than any evidence that Brown is moving in for the kill, that has got everyone talking again about what Brown might be like as Prime Minister.

Here I have a confession to make. Ever since Blair became Labour leader in 1994, I’ve found it difficult to understand why a substantial number of Labour leftists — including the editor of Tribune and quite a few contributors — think that Brown would be significantly more sympathetic than Blair to their various causes.

Of course, Brown was, in the dim and distant past, very much of the left (though he was always a pragmatist too). And, unlike Blair, he is steeped in the traditions of This Great Movement of Ours. He speaks the lingo fluently and is rivalled as a glad-hander of trade union bureaucrats only by John Prescott.

Most important, Brown has so far been a successful Chancellor of the Exchequer in terms both of macroeconomic management (six-and-a-half years of reasonable growth, low unemployment and no currency crisis) and, to a lesser extent, of social democratic redistribution. Although his stealth strategy has done nothing to stop the increasing ineqaulity of British society, it has at least helped some of the worst-off.

But there is not a shred of evidence that Brown has been to the left of Blair in any substantive way since at least 1992. In opposition from 1992 to 1997, Brown and Blair were together responsible for the ultra-cautious, pro-business strategy that was branded “New Labour” after Blair became leader. In government, Brown has not only been the author of many keynote policies — the 1997-99 spending squeeze and 1999-2003 spending splurge, the expansion of the Private Finance Initative, the welfare-to-work programme, the five tests on British membership of the euro — but has been intimately involved in every area of policy that entails spending money. He has been as enthusiastic as Blair for labour market deregulation and private enterprise, as admiring of the American model of capitalism and as disparaging of the European model. Where Brown has differed with Blair, on the euro and on foundation hospitals for example, it has not been because he sees Blair’s position as too right-wing.

Brown has said nothing to disassociate himself from the authoritarian populism of the government’s crime and immigration policies, nothing to suggest that he supports further constitutional reform, and nothing to hint that he’d prefer a less pro-American foreign policy than Blair has pursued. The left is deluding itself if it sees Brown as the champion of anything other than Blairism with a scowling face.

30 October 2003


I'm grateful to Harry's Place for alerting the world to critical thinking among the dissident Trotskyists of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty (previously known as Socialist Organiser, before that the International Communist League etc etc) - for which click here. They're trying hard to be the Shachtmanites of our generation, for whom see previous posts - and good luck to them in that - but I still think they'd be better off if they simply abandoned Leninism altogether.


I am sad to hear of the death of John Sullivan, whom I remember both as the author of two extraordinarily funny, accurate and inspirational 1980s satirical pamphlets on the idiocies of the far left in Britain, Go Fourth and Multiply and As Soon As This Pub Closes, published pseudonymously, and as a great authority on the Basque country, in which role he wrote for Tribune and the New Statesman. There's a notice on the Weekly Worker site a couple of weeks back (for which click here).

I'm no expert on Basque politics, but Sullivan had an extraordinary nose for the British far left. Here he is, masquerading as Chus Aguirre and Mo Klonsky, on the Militant Tendency, from As Soon As This Pub Closes, published by Full Marks Bookshop in Bristol in (I guess) 1987 or 1988:

"For many people their first contact with Militant has taken the disconcerting form of hearing an audience groan as someone with a fake Liverpool accent and curious hand movements stands up and demands the nationalisation of the country's 253 leading monopolies.

"When the political novice is then told that the strange figure is a Trotskyist, she is understandably confused, all the more so if she is familiar with any of Trotsky's works. How do hand gestures, however elaborate, transform a series of reformist demands into such a fearful revolutionary perspective?"

But there was a serious point to it all: Sullivan wanted a left that worked, though I don't think he ever found it. From Go Fourth and Multiply, published in 1983 under the byline Prunella Kaur:

"Capitalism turns everything into commodities. The sad fate of left groups which set out to overthrow capitalism has a cruel irony. They have ended up selling a commodity and searching for a market, just as other entrepreneurs sell newspapers or plastic buckets.

"Few groups started out with their present miserable commercial ambitions. They didn't want to sell a product, but make a revolution.

"How did they degenerate? The groups adapted to their environment. After 1968 this meant adapting to the concepts and lifestyles of the balding generation of 1968, who were themselves becoming strongly influenced by well-established English middle-class traditions of self-fulfilment, vegetarianism, self-help, rejection of indutrialism and the modern world.

"The left has become parasitic within this milieu."

I'm not going to argue with that.

There is a fuller obituary by the late Al Richardson in the latest What's Left?, for which click here.


I missed the news that Quintin Hoare and Branka Magas had extracted a grovelling apology, small-scale damages and (apparently much larger) legal costs from Alex Callinicos, Lindsey German and Bookmarks Publications (respectively leading ideologue, editor and publisher of the Socialist Workers' Party's theoretical journal, Socialist Review) for repeating the libel that Hoare and Magas were apologists for the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman. But I've belatedly caught up now that Paul Foot has sent out an appeal for funds to pay the bill, arguing that Hoare and Magas offended against left protocol by resorting to the capitalist courts to resolve an argument among comrades.

There's good material on this on Harry's Place (click here) and Crooked Timber (click here), to which I've only a couple of observations to add.

First, although I hold with Foot's antipathy to resorting to the libel laws to resolve arguments (even with most enemies), this case is something of an exception. The SWP's campaign of denigration against those on the left in the 1990s who argued for an end to appeasement of Serbian military agression in former Yugoslavia was so vile that it is difficult to see Hoare and Magas as anything but heroes for taking it on. I do have an interest here. As editor of Tribune in the early 1990s I took much the same position on Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia as Hoare and Magas - though with little of their expertise - and was vehemently denounced by SWPers in meetings as a scumbag ally of Holocaust-deniers and fascists. Hoare and Magas became close political friends: during the mid-1990s, when I was deputy editor of the New Statesman, Magas wrote regularly and forcefully on the Bosnia war for the magazine, and I went to many meetings of the Bosnia Institute, which they set up and has done more good in its modest way than the SWP will ever do. Whatever, my solidarity remains with them, and I'm not coughing up for Foot's appeal.

Second, Foot's attitude to comrades who sue comrades seems to depend entirely on who is doing the sueing. I assume from the tone of his appeal for funds that he considers Hoare and Magas to have excluded themselves from the proletarian milieu (or whatever the current jargon is) by their actions against the SWP. Yet he used his column in the Guardian on Wednesday (for which click here) to give a massive plug for the meeting organised by the SWP at which one George Galloway announced plans to join the SWP and assorted leftists and Muslims in running candidates against the Labour Party in England and Wales in next year's European elections.

Could this be the same George Galloway who, many moons ago, threatened a libel action against Tribune over a 50-word classified advertisement mildly taking the piss out of him -- and managed to extract £2,000 from the paper out of court on the advice of m'learned friends? Indeed it could . . .

23 October 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, October 31 2003

One of the most depressing features of the past few months has been the way the traditional left has responded to the increasingly apparent difficulties of the Blair government as its second term drifts listlessly on.

Most of the traditional left — by which I mean the Leninists outside the Labour Party, the hard left inside it and quite a lot of the Tribune left — appears content to mix wallowing in schadenfreude with a barrage of negatives: no to the euro, no to PFI, no to foundation hospitals, no to top-up fees, no to US and British troops in Iraq, et cetera et cetra.

Part of my problem here is that I can’t see why most of the things the left opposes should be opposed so vehemently, or indeed at all. Although there are obvious problems with PFI, particularly in the way it can create a “two-tier” workforce with workers in private companies enjoying substantially worse pay and conditions than their public sector counterparts, I’ve yet to hear a convincing case for believing that a new PFI school is worse than no new school. On foundation hospitals, I get the terrible feeling I’ve missed something important, because I just can’t work out what all the sound and fury signifies. I’m against top-up fees — a straightforward graduate tax would make much more sense — but I’d rather have them than continue to starve higher education of funds. Opposition in principle to British participation in the euro is a mark of political cretinism pure and simple. And immediate withdrawal of the US and British forces in Iraq is a recipe for a bloodbath.

And so I could go on. What really bugs me, however, is that a string of noes is, on its own, so utterly reactive and uninspiring. At precisely the moment that the government has lost momentum and needs a new direction, the traditional left has nothing constructive to say.

Things were not always thus. The left of the 1960s and 1970s was certainly no stranger to obsessive negativity — no to the Common Market, no to incomes policy, no to spending cuts — and it had plenty of other faults, not least a programme that was economically suspect and deeply unattractive to the majority of voters. But at least it had a programme, a set of policies, however misguided, that constituted a positive alternative to the drift and crisis management of the Wilson and Callaghan governments. Today, the traditional Left lacks even an incredible alternative programme.

Which is not to say that there is no alternative. Indeed, there is one outlined rather elegantly in a book published last week — Robin Cook’s The Point of Departure.

Most of the book comprises an account of Cook’s last two years in government as leader of the Commons — and most press commentary on it has concentrated on its revelations about Cabinet arguments in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

This is undoubtedly fascinating stuff, as indeed is Cook’s story of how his hopes for democratic reform of the House of Lords were scuppered, which make it clear precisely who was the villain of the piece: “It is an awkward truth for modernisers to face, but the reason we are to be lumbered with an all-appointed House of Lords is because that is what Tony Blair had always wanted.”

But the part of the book that is most important is the chapter “Where do we go from here?”, in which Cook outlines his thoughts on how to reinvigorate the Government.

He does not shy from criticism, but his emphasis is almost entirely on positive alternatives. He argues convincingly for what he calls “value-based politics” instead of the technocratic managerialism that currently characterises the Government’s approach. Labour, he says, should explicitly embrace egalitarianism, make the case for more regulation in the public interest, particularly in pension provision and to protect the environment, and adopt radical policies to revitalise Britain’s democracy: a largely elected second chamber, the return of powers to local councils that have been taken away by successive governments and, most important, proportional representation for the House of Commons. On the international front, the government should embrace Europe enthusiastically, setting a target date for entering the euro, and press for a stronger United Nations capable of reining in the US.

Little of this will go down well with the traditional left, with its hostility to Europe and constitutional reform. But it’s a better starting point than anything it has come up with — even though the chances that the government will take a blind bit of notice are as slim as slim can be.

8 October 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, October 3 2003

Stephen Frears's dramatisation of the events that led to Gordon Brown not fighting Tony Blair for the Labour leadership in 1994, The Deal, screened by Channel Four last Sunday, was an entertaining confection — of that there can be no doubt.

But whether it was an accurate portrayal of what went on before and during the legendary meeting in the Granita restaurant in Islington is another matter.

As one Vikki Leffman put it in a letter to the Guardian this week:

“Some minor points which could have been easily checked were not. How do I know? I served the Blair/Brown table and owned the restaurant. No tablecloths, wrong table, we never served rabbit, Gordon did eat, the walls were blue . . . But why let the facts get in the way of a good story?”

It wasn’t just the tablecloths. The Deal was also weak on the political context. The impression it gave was that Brown would have been a shoo-in for the Labour leadership on John Smith’s death if only he hadn’t waited until after Smith’s funeral to start thinking about running — rather than jumping the gun as Blair did — and if only Peter Mandelson hadn’t backed Blair.

The reality was different. Brown had certainly been the most favourably positioned of Labour’s younger politicans to make a leadership bid on the previous occasion on which there had been a vacancy — in 1992, after the resignation of Neil Kinnock.

Then he had come under strong pressure, not only from Labour’s “modernisers” but also from a large part of its soft Left (including Tribune), to take his chance. He was seen as the only credible challenger to Smith, the decent, honest but terminally dull “safe pair of hands” who was the union barons’ choice. Brown seriously considered his options until the very last minute — I remember holding open a slot in Tribune one press day in anticipation of an announcement from him that he was entering the fray. But the announcement never came. Brown bottled out, pledged his support for Smith, and Smith won easily against Bryan Gould, whose campaign was doomed from the start by his fundamentalist Euroscepticism.

By the time Smith died in May 1994, however, Brown was no longer Labour’s up-and-coming golden boy. Appointed shadow chancellor by Smith in July 1992, he quickly alienated much of his erstwhile support. During that summer, as the pound came under increasing speculative pressure in the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System, he refused to argue for the devaluation that just about every economist believed the British economy needed. Then, when that devaluation came so spectacularly on “Black Wednesday”, he refused to welcome it. For the next 18 months, he stubbornly stuck to his guns, rejecting all calls to attack the beleaguered Major Government from the Left. Instead, he lambasted its tax increases.

In retrospect, this might appear a strategy of genius — but that wasn’t the way it played at the time in the Labour Party. From 1992 to 1994, Brown was subjected to an endless barrage of criticism from the left and the unions for failing to embrace a radical Keynesian economic policy. He responded by adopting what one colleague described as a “bunker mentality” — and his popularity in the party plummeted. He only just scraped on to the National Executive Committee in autumn 1993.

Meanwhile, Blair’s stock rose inexorably. As shadow Home Secretary from 1992, he made an extraordinary impact, outflanking the Tories on law and order with his rhetoric of “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” and “responsibilities as well as rights”. By late 1993, it was Blair not Brown who was Labour most lustrous rising star.

The point here is that — whatever deal was struck at Granita — Brown was by then negotiating from a position of weakness. By the time of the meeting, Blair had established himself as the hot favourite to win the Labour leadership. If Brown had decided to enter the contest, he would not have won — and he knew it. He might even have lost his job as shadow chancellor.

His only strong card was that his entering the race would syphon off some of Blair’s support — possibly enough to allow Robin Cook or another soft left candidate to come through the middle. (Cook was certainly considering his options at the time: I know because I kept open a slot on the New Statesman on press day for an announcement that never came . . .) Brown knew that if he declared he would not stand, no one else would enter the contest apart from the no-hopers John Prescott and Margaret Beckett, and Blair would become unstoppable.

So both men had an incentive to come to an arrangement. But if Blair really did tell Brown that, in return for not standing, Brown could be not only an all-powerful Chancellor but also his anointed successor, he was an extraordinarily soft touch.

11 September 2003


Stephen Marks writes:

I never thought that the politics of the Socialist Workers' Party and the Communist Party of Britain deterred significant numbers from participating in the antiwar movement before the start of the war. As long as they kept their own politics out of it and were sufficiently "unprincipled" to be open to all opponents of the war - even to the point of having LibDems on the platform - most antiwar opinion couldn't give a monkey's who was putting in the work to get the demos up and running.

But I do think the situation is changing - not because of any changes by the SWP and CPB but because life itself is throwing up new challenges in Iraq, to which the hard left answers are clearly at odds with the majority opinion of those who opposed the war.

The US administration - or at least the neo-con element - was drooling at the mouth at the prospect of reforging Iraq in the USA's image. A modern, pro-Western and democratic Iraq, refashioned by a continuing and benevolent US mandatory regime, would have a domino effect on its neighbours and beyond. It would drain the swamp of Arab and Muslim backwardness, leading to a triumph of free-market values throughout the region, to the benefit of Israel, Bechtel, Iraqi oil priced in dollars not euros, and continued US strategic domination of the region and its resources.

But life proved more complex. Iraqi opinion, while welcoming the fall of Saddam, was clearly suspicious of US motives and insisted on the most rapid possible American departure. Continuing attacks and the need to restore order and infrastructure put a premium on maximising the legitimacy of any interim authority. And the whole messy business looked like lasting much longer, and costing much more in cash and blood, than was likely to prove acceptable to the US public - or to their elected representatives with an election year approaching.

Iraqi political parties, from Shi'ites to Communists, initially agreed on demanding a political conference of all shades of Iraqi opinion, to be convened by the UN, not the US occupation forces, and which would appoint and install a provisional government. This government would decide which foreign troops should be in Iraq and for how long, who was to get what contracts for reconstruction, what should be the future of Iraq's oil industry and other key issues.

The US was compelled as a result to give the Governing Council some real powers, which was not its original intention. And as a result, most major political forces joined it. To my knowledge the only major political forces outside it are the Worker-Communist Party (as opposed to the historic Iraqi CP, which now says it models itself on Swedish Social Democracy) and the more hardline of the Shi'ites.

Interestingly British far-left publications which have given favourable coverage to the WCPI for its criticism of the Governing Council as a US stooge, nonetheless also criticise it for having illusions in the UN, to which apparently it still looks to sponsor a genuinely independent interim government.

None of us can tell what the Iraqi people "really think". But political parties that probably represent between them the great majority of Iraqis seem to think that now the allied occupation is in place, the best way forward is to exploit the US need for credibility in the transitional authority by taking part in the process and pushing for the greatest and speediest possible transfer of powers to Iraqis - as well as the speediest possible restoration of the infrastructure on which the Iraqi people depend for the restoration of any sort of normal life.

(By contrast the Saddamite and fundamentalist "resistance", by sabotaging the restoration of the necessities of daily life, make clear that its politics sees no independent role for the mass of ordinary Iraqis except perhaps as a desperate and maddened mob.)

The same pressures have also forced Bush into an embarassing U-turn at the UN. Previously denounced as dead, the Administration is now begging it on bended knee to accept an enhanced role. With obvious and justified Schadenfreude the French, Germans and Russians have kept Bush twisting in the wind for a reply. As the saying goes, God does not pay his debts in money. And there is the genuine problem of expecting others to provide troops while the US continues its absolute refusal to see US troops anwhere under other than US command.

All this can only reinforce the pressure of the Iraqis for a more rapid "Iraqisation", and under UN not US auspices. The reason of course is not any illusions about the UN. Iraqis who have suffered under its sanctions need no lectures on that score. The UN is not some White Knight of international probity, untainted by the vulgar self-interest of great power special interests. It is nothing more or less than a consensus among the powers that be constructed on the basis of horse-trading and arm-twisting.

As such however it is a preferable alternative - and the only one on offer - to the untrammeled national egoism and self-interest of the sole superpower.

What is the attitude of the left to this? I believe the majority of those who demonstrated would agree with the view taken by the bulk of Iraqi opinion. But judging from what I can see of its comments, the far left seems to have gone on to automatic pilot.

As Iraq is occupied by US imperialism, all those who work with the occupation authorities are collaborationist imperialist stooges. All the saboteurs are part of the "resistance" to whom we owe a duty of unconditional - but of course comrades, not uncritical - support. And according to Socialist Worker, the UN offices were a "legitimate target" - since after all the UN by working with and recognising the fact of the occupation, is an accomplice in it and part of the repressive mechanism of imperialist control etc etc.

There is a real problem with the Stop the War Coalition slogan "end the occupation". Reducing everything to "troops out now" is not going to mobilise the bulk of those who opposed the decision to go to war. And it will surely open up political divisions within what was the anti-war camp which ought to be debated. I dont know where that debate can take place. But given the SWP's atttitude to political argument, it certainly wont be within the StWC.

4 September 2003


I am grateful to Mike Marqusee for forwarding the following piece by two former members of the Socialist Workers’ Party in Birmingham. It appears here cut and edited.

Sue Blackwell and Rumy Hasan

We were long long-standing members of the Socialist Workers’ Party before we resigned in April 2002 (Sue Blackwell for 19 years; Rumy Hasan for 16) and now, some 16 months later, we wish to explain why we left an organisation that had played such a central role in our lives.

Let us first acknowledge our debt to the SWP: we do not intend to rewrite our histories. Both of us devoted enormous amounts of time, energy, and resources to the organisation. We remain very close to the central tenets that the SWP, in theory at least, espouses. We acknowledge that people join the SWP for the highest of motives, to change the world for the better. The party has undoubtedly achieved much that is laudable. Ours is not the sectarian diatribe of embittered ex-members. It is intended as a serious attempt to critique the organisation's failings.

We would like to imagine that most experienced, self-reflecting SWP members would agree that the SWP has a democratic deficit. But a deficit implies an excess of negatives over positives. The trouble is that in terms of party democracy, there is very little on the positive side: there is not just a democratic deficit but an almost complete absence of democracy. Compounding this is also the absence of democracy's twin, accountability . . .

Democratic debate, discussion, and decision-making necessitate voting - yet party members within the organisation rarely vote. It is a ferociously hierarchical, top-down organisation: the “line” is set by the central committee and enforced on the ground by full-time organisers . . .
For most members, their contact with the party's structures is dominated by the relationship with the organiser. Yet the organiser is not elected by the members but is imposed by the centre . . . Knowing that they are untouchable by grassroots members, organisers tend to be characterised by astonishing insensitivity and arrogance . . . Because they are appointed by, and report to, the central committee, their loyalty is cast iron. Similarly, because the central committee appoints and directs organisers, it backs them to the hilt . . .

Ostensibly, the central committee is elected at the annual conference by delegates sent by the branches (or districts, or whatever format is in existence at the time): usually one delegate for every 10 members. But what invariably happens is that the central committee recommends a “slate” of candidates, and asks whether there are any other slates. We have never known of an alternative slate being put forward. In effect the central committee elects itself . . .

This method strongly acts against the democratic spirit and stamps out critical thinking. Members tend to become submissive, passive, and hidebound - being spoon-fed the politics without thinking or evaluating counterarguments. What happened to Marx's dictum “doubt everything'? It certainly does not get applied to the party line. And when the central committee railroads through a line with undemocratic practices such as packing meetings, most members meekly accept the argument - popular with Stalinists in the past - that “it had to be done”: a mantra that excuses the most nefarious of practices . . .

When it comes to the editorship of the party's publications, democracy is completely out of the question. The argument seems to be that editors should be drawn from the central committee and their authority stems from conference. In reality, the jobs are farmed out between central committee members or those very close to them . . .

The party continuously advocates the principle "never lie to the class". But . . . [it never tells] the truth to members regarding membership figures. It has been years since these have been revealed. The reason, we believe, is that the party membership has declined enormously since the mid-1990s - we estimate its size to be about a third to a half of what it was then . . . A democratic, accountable, organisation would regularly reveal the true membership figures to its members as of right, and if they have fallen, provide an explanation. It would also enable ordinary members to demand accountability and, if need be, allow for the removal of central committee members deemed responsible. But alas, none of this happens . . .

The undemocratic culture of the party moulds the political character of members. Some maintain their independence of thought and integrity. But there is no doubt that on the left, the reputation of party members has fallen. There is the constant refrain that in non-party gatherings, others are mystified at the mechanical behaviour of SWP members, always voting the same way, talking, and behaving like automatons . . . Once the epithet "party hack" sticks, it is very rarely removed . . .

The truly bright sparks in recent years on the international horizon for left politics has been the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements. What is crystal clear from these is that millions of people wish to see an alternative to the sham democracy (or no democracy) of the present world. They are certainly not going to tolerate undemocratic and authoritarian practices of left organisations - and this perhaps helps explain why they have not joined those such as the SWP in any significant numbers. The lesson is abundantly clear: without a relentless commitment to genuine democracy, accountability, and civilised debate, the project of winning a better world will remain grounded. The SWP shows no signs of understanding this.

2 September 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, September 5 2003

I’m used to wishful thinking in Tribune, but last week's piece by the convenor and chair of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey German and Andrew Murray -- respectively apparatchiks of the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Communist Party of Britain -- really was in a class of its own.

Their message was that all is for the best in the organisation that has been the public face of British opposition to the US-British war to oust Saddam Hussein.

"Although the war has been officially 'over' for four months," they intoned, "the anti-war movement is as busy as ever." Hundreds of people have turned up to meetings and conferences "marked . . . by a vibrant and democratic spirit. The Government's troubles over the death of Dr David Kelly have vindicated the movement. The unions are on board. Dozens of exciting activities are planned in the next few weeks.

And who doubts this? Only “former leftists such as David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen and Christopher Hitchens -- who believe that the whole movement is the result of a sinister collusion between Islamic fundamentalism and the Socialist Workers' Party". But they are "utterly ignorant of the Muslim community". And the SWP "is only a problem if you come from that part of the left which has spent the past 20 years stampeding ever-rightwards". "A lesson of this past historic and exciting year," they conclude, "is that such squabbles are of minor importance."

Well, if you believe that, you'll believe that the British revolution is imminent or that Stalin's slave-labour camps were a fiction of imperialist propaganda. The truth is that the Stop the War Coalition has been a colossal failure -- and that the politics of its leading actors bears a substantial part of the blame.

Here, it is necessary to go back a bit. Before 9/11, Iraq was not a major issue in Britain. The Leninist micro-parties and other leftists had railed for years about the iniquities of the UN sanctions regime against Iraq. But lifting it would have left no way of constraining Saddam. So most of the left agreed with the government that sanctions were preferable (if not quite as they were) to removing the pressure or escalating to all-out military action.

What changed after 9/11 -- when it became clear that the US was preparing to invade Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida and overthrow the Taliban -- was that Britain’s Leninists found a cause they shared not only with part of the non-Leninist left but also with a substantial section of Muslim opinion. Led by the SWP and the CPB, they set up a committee they dominated, the Stop the War Coalition, to campaign against US imperialist aggression.

On Afghanistan, its efforts were ineffectual – two lacklustre London demos, one of 20,000 and one of 50,000 -- but that wasn't surprising. Although there were doomsayers across the political spectrum who warned (incorrectly) that the Afghan war would be a disaster, few apart from the died-in-the-wool left, the pacifists and the Islamists questioned the legitimacy of the enterprise.

But once the Bush Administration's attentions turned to Iraq, British public opinion shifted -- and for good reason. There was little evidence that Saddam had any responsibility for 9/11 or would turn belligerent again. And invading Iraq appeared extraordinarily risky, not least because of the arsenal everyone assumed he possessed. From spring 2002, it was clear that there was a potential "coalition of the unwilling" opposed to war against Iraq (unless diplomacy had been exhausted and war had UN backing) including most of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and even some Tories.

This was an extraordinary opportunity for an effective mobilisation against war. But seizing it required an anti-war movement that reflected mainstream anti-war opinion. It had to be explicit that Saddam was a legitimate target for international action short of war. And it could not be, or seen to be, a front for self-styled revolutionaries or radical Islamists on the make.

The Stop the War Coalition failed on almost every count. It organised several big demonstrations -- including one in February that was massive. But that was all. Politically, it never left the leftist ghetto. The SWP conspired shamelessly to retain organisational control. The coalition was cool towards anyone further Right than Labour's hard left (though it tolerated anti-Semitic Islamists). It not only refused to accept that Saddam was a problem but welcomed his supporters. Once the fighting started, the coalition came close (and the SWP even closer) to endorsing the heroic Ba’athist socialist resistance. Unsurprisingly, the numbers on the demos melted away.

Of course, even the most competent and inclusive campaign might not have stopped the British government going to war. But the Stop the War Coalition could not have done much worse if its leaders had been in the pay of the CIA.

24 August 2003


Alister Black (for whom click here) writes:

It is not accurate to describe Rifondazione Comunista as the moving force of the European Anti-Capitalist Left. The EACL was founded by four parties - the Scottish Socialist Party, the LCR in France, the Left Bloc of Portugal and the Red-Green Alliance of Denmark. RC got involved relatively recently, an involvement which is of course very welcome.

Paul Anderson writes:

Point taken on the origins of the EACL, but the importance of Rifondazione - and the reason it's the moving force - is that it's got rather a lot of money and can (just about, or at least so it says) subsidise European Parliament campaigns across the continent for its comrades. In the UK, the SSP is gagging for a share of the cash; and the Socialist Workers' Party is also keen to cosy up to get RC support for the Socialist Alliance in England (click here), in which it plays a dominant (and sectarian) role. It's true that the Stalinist Communist Party of Britain (the Morning Star party) has rejected the SWP's advances for an electoral alliance (click here) despite the enthusiasm of its brightest spark, Andrew Murray, chair of the Stop the War Coalition, for a deal. But the Rifondazione shilling (lira? euro?) seems to be something to play for.

23 August 2003


Paul Anderson, review of Cold War, Crisis and Conflict: The CPGB 1951-68 by John Callaghan (Lawrence and Wishart, £14.99), Tribune August 22 2003

The historian John Callaghan, professor of politics at the University of Wolverhampton, is extraordinarily prolific. In the past 20 years, he has authored no fewer than five hefty tomes, including an impressive historical overview of the British left, a magisterial biography of the Stalinist ideologue Rajani Palme Dutt and a comprehensive history of European social democracy since the 1970s.

I have long been an admirer of his work, but his latest book, a history of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1951 to 1968, just published by Lawrence and Wishart, is his best yet.

At first sight, his subject is not particularly attractive. The CP in the 1950s and 1960s was tiny in comparison with the Labour Party - the CP claimed fewer than 40,000 members in 1950 (when Labour’s official individual membership was more than 900,000) and it dipped below 25,000 in 1958, recovering to around 35,000 during the mid-1960s. It was a marginal force in electoral politics. It had lost the two parliamentary seats it won in 1945 in 1950, was humiliated in every subsequent general election and never got more than a toehold in local government.

Moreover, the CP was anything but a font of creative thinking on the left. The advocacy of an anti-fascist Popular Front that had sustained it in the late 1930s and then again in the 1940s (after an embarrassing gap during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact) had stopped making sense with the defeat of fascism and the onset of the cold war. Although the party certainly had its share of talented intellectuals in the early 1950s — the historians Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Thompson and the critic John Berger are probably the best known today — its political culture was stifling, monolithic and intellectually stale. Its defining feature was its unswerving loyalty to the Soviet Union, on which it was financially reliant - and that unswerving loyalty led most of its best minds to leave in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

Most of the party's leaders were old and undynamic, unremittingly hostile to the emerging consumer society and to the corrupting influence of rock and roll. CP publications, most of them written in a notoriously wooden style, consistently predicted an imminent catastrophic crisis of capitalism - despite all the evidence to the contrary - that would inevitably lead to the establishment of socialism.

Yet, as Callaghan makes clear, it would be foolish to underestimate the significance of the CP or simply to dismiss it as dour and deluded. Its membership was certainly small by comparison with Labour’s - and smaller than it had been in the 1940s, when the CP had basked in the reflected glory of the Red Army's heroic efforts on the Eastern Front.

But it was still much bigger than that of any far-left party either before 1941 or since 1968. And the CP punched above its weight. It sustained almost as many paid party workers as Labour (except at election time), ran dozens of campaigns and was adept at getting its people into key positions, especially in the trade unions. By the late 1960s, co-operating with other left-wingers in various union "Broad Lefts" and riding on the back of a surge of workplace militancy over wages, the CP had serious leverage in the unions both at national leadership level and among shop stewards.

The CP was also much more influential in the realm of ideas than it ought to have been. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to dismiss its encomiums to Soviet achievements and predictions of capitalist collapse. But at the time its attitudes were widely shared on the Labour left. As Callaghan demonstrates, quoting amply from Tribune, although the Bevanite left took the side of Tito against Stalin in the early 1950s and was highly critical of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution, it repeatedly let itself be lulled into wishful thinking about the trajectory of Soviet socialism, exaggerating both the prospects of de-Stalinisation and the extent of Soviet economic and technological success.

The events and the political culture Callaghan describes were a long time ago. He leaves his story with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which divided the CP into pro- and anti-Soviet factions — a division that over the next 15 years turned schismatic and destroyed the party. But the mindset of the old CP is still a factor in British left politics. The Communist Party of Britain, which controls the Morning Star, groups together most of the CP’s pro-Soviet faction and behaves just as the old CP used to – right down to sucking up to dictatorships overseas, although in recent years it has had to settle for Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.

13 August 2003


The appearance in the Guardian on Monday of a piece by the leader of Rindazione Comunista in Italy, Fausto Bertinotti (click here) has provoked some lively debate. Harry from Harry's Place has posted a comprehensive and convincing riposte to Bertinotti's central thesis that globalisation renders obsolete any sort of left reformism (click here); and Andrew Stevens from Blairista! (click here) makes the point that Rifondazione's fans on the British far left have rather a long way to go before they can claim to be in the same league.

I've not much to add here, except to point out the electoral context of Bertinotti's appeal for a new united European anti-capitalist left organisation - next year's elections to the European Parliament. Rifondazione is the moving force behind an umbrella group known as the European Anti-Capitalist Left, which draws together a disparate bunch of far-left parties including the Scottish Socialist Party and the French LCR and is hoping to draw up a joint programme for the Euro-elections (click here). The SSP, fresh from its success in the elections to the Scottish Parliament, is convinced that this initiative will help it win a seat at least in the European Parliament. In England, the Socialist Workers' Party and the Communist Party of Britian have seriously discussed the possibility of a joint electoral effort under the same banner, but so far at least it appears that they haven't been able to agree on it.

11 August 2003


Mike Marqusee writes in response to the German/Murray diatribe in the Morning Star (see below):

“A few facts:

“1. I did not write an “attack on the coalition” – the piece is a critique of the SWP’s methods, and deals as well with wider issues facing the left. Of its 2,500 words, 175 deal in any way with the Stop the War Coalition. Most importantly, it was clearly written from within the anti-war movement and in the service of that movement; it is absurd to imply that it is part of a wider “campaign” that somehow includes the New Statesman.

“2. I did not accuse the coalition of “keeping quiet” about anything . . . I do believe that the SWP’s priorities in recent months have not included mass campaigning on the missing WMD and the injustices of the occupation, and that reality has hampered the STWC in getting to grips with these issues.

“3. While it is true that I ceased being active in the STWC at a national level in early October, I have remained active in the anti-war movement both at home and abroad . . .

“4. I replied to and repudiated Nick Cohen’s attack on the anti-war movement in the New Statesman.”


The row over the role of the Socialist Workers’ Party and other Leninist revolutionary defeatists in the Stop the War Coalition (not quite started here) rumbles on. In the wake of Mike Marqusee’s critical piece on the SWP for Signs of the Times (excerpted on this weblog below and run in full here), Nick Cohen ran a – typically robust – rant in the New Statesman appropriating Marqusee as a friend of the pro-war left, which (understandably) got up Marqusee’s nose.

Now the Stop the War crew has piled in. In an article in today’s Morning Star, the chair of the Stop the War Coalition, Communist Party of Britain ideologue Andrew Murray, and its convenor, SWP appartchik Lindsey German, take issue with Cohen and Marqusee:

“The anti-war movement, centred on the Stop the War Coalition… has helped awaken the broadest sections of the country not only to a determination to secure a world peace but also to a deeper sense of social justice and the limitations of democracy as it is presently practised here. But there are some of the left who just cannot stand it. They include those like Nick Cohen, John Lloyd and David Aaronovitch who supported this war… and a few of those who opposed the war, but appear personally embittered by one thing or another. The latter seems to be the inspiration of Mike Marqusee’s return to the political arena with a widely circulated attack on the Coalition after nearly a year during which he has played no part in the anti-war movement’s work. They are a marginal minority on the left, amplified, however, by the willingness of the New Statesman, in particular, to give ample space for their campaign to be prosecuted . . .

“On August 30 [the STWC] is convening a representative People’s Assembly to address the weapons of mass destruction controversy and the defects in our democracy it exposes – an initiative agreed some time ago, which makes nonsense of Marqusee’s silly allegation that the Coalition is “keeping quiet” about the issue…”

Am I alone in detecting a note of desperation and paranoia here? Marqusee’s critique of the SWP (and by extension of Leninist manipulation of the anti-war movement) is dismissed as “silly”, but he speaks for a large swathe of anti-war opinion in his antipathy to the SWP’s typical modus operandi – and German and Murray do not address his substantive arguments. Moreover, the fact that the New Statesman has run two pieces on the same theme (before Cohen, the comedian Mark Thomas got in on the act not very effectively) indicates nothing more than that there is a real argument going on about what the left did about the war and what it should do now. (For god’s sake, the real problem is that the NS has been inflicting John Pilger and John Kampfner on us ad nauseam in recent months.)

The “marginal minority” dismissed by German and Murray isn’t marginal and isn’t a minority. The chances of the “People’s Assembly” (for which click here) – modelled on the notorious People’s Convention staged by the CP in 1941 to rally support for Stalin’s alliance with Hitler at a critical stage of the second world war (see below) – being “representative” are close to zero: it will almost certainly be packed by SWP and CPB hacks representing only themselves. It is absolutely certain that it will not ask the critical question that confronts the left today: why did we let the Leninists screw it up yet again?

26 July 2003


I am grateful for the following from thepolitburo.com (click here) on dear old Charlie Chaplin:

"When H G Wells criticised Stalin’s reign of terror, Chaplin, the unswerving party loyalist, upbraided him for selling out the cause. According to Chaplin’s own account, published long after Stalin's criminal record entered the public domain, he reproached Wells for harboring traitorous thoughts: 'When H G Wells visited me in 1935 in California, I took him to task about his criticism of Russia. I had read his disparaging reports, so I wanted a first-hand account and was surprised to find him almost bitter about it. "But is it not too early to judge?" I argued. "They have had a difficult task, opposition and conspiracy from within and from without. Surely in time good results should follow?" . . . He seemed especially critical of Stalin, whom he had interviewed, and said that under his rule Russia had become a tyrannical dictatorship.'

Once again, Orwell was right . . .


I was browsing through various websites campaigning to revoke the Pulitzer Prize awarded in 1932 to Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow correspondent who notoriously falsified his accounts of Stalin’s collectivisation of agriculture to give the impression that it was a massive success with few victims, when I came across a real gem: a site devoted to a young British journalist, Gareth Jones, who – in parallel with Malcolm Muggeridge – exposed the reality of the 1932-33 famine in the Ukraine in a variety of British and American newspapers (and was attacked by Duranty for his pains). One page on the site (click here), which has been put together by Jones’s niece Margaret Siriol Colley, includes not only a selection of Jones’s pieces on the Soviet Union but also some of Muggeridge’s for the Manchester Guardian and the Morning Post.

24 July 2003


Alan Wald has - I think definitively - knocked on the head the notion that the current US neo-con mob has anything serious to do with Trotskyism. Click here for his piece.

14 July 2003


These are excerpts from notes for a speech by Mike Marqusee to a Signs of the Times seminar that will be published at greater length on the Signs of the Times website.


The SWP is the only organised force on the left that can mount a serious national initiative. Because of its internal discipline and access to resources, it was able to move quickly to establish the Stop the War Coalition and then to go on to build the big national demonstrations (though certainly not without the essential collaboration of much wider forces). The SWP should be given credit for its work in this regard: without a single, nation-wide organising centre, a clear public focus, the anti-war movement would not have been able to make the mark that it did - which is not to say that there aren't many serious criticisms of the SWP's handling of the Stop the War Coalition.

For the most part, independent leftists have failed to organise and failed to focus; in critical moments - like the run-up to war - we are unable to act collectively, to take and shape initiatives. So criticism of the SWP must be accompanied by self-criticism. This is partly a problem of our making, a reflection of our inadequacies over many years.

The answer to the frustrations many of us have felt with the SWP is not to demonise them. Many individual SWP members all over the country make real contributions to numerous struggles for social justice. We should beware of SWP-bashing and reverse sectarianism, and of any form of red-baiting - the organised far left has a right to contribute and take part; we should not dismiss initiatives simply because they come from the SWP - in fact, those who stayed away from the Stop the War Coalition in its early days because of the SWP's prominence within it merely helped ensure the SWP's ultimate domination of it.

Most importantly, we mustn't dismiss the classical Marxist tradition with which the far left groups are associated. In my view that tradition is incomplete, but we need to know about it and engage with it and respect its struggles. If we walk away from that heritage, there is a danger that too much time will be spent reinventing the wheel.

We should also remember that the foibles we associate with the SWP - the control freakery, the intellectual dishonesty, the casual attitude towards democracy - are not confined to that group - in various measures they are shared by other far left groups, and by much of the Labour and trade union left, and the independent and anarchist left is not untainted by them.

And we should also remember that the two political initiatives often cited as relative successes by critics of the SWP - the Scottish Socialist Party and the PRC in Italy - both emerged out of groups spawned by the Leninist tradition.

Finally, the desire for unity in action is strong. Without that unity people can never fully realise their own potential power. That unity is a goal for which it's worth making sacrifices, gritting your teeth, working with people you distrust - though it must stop short at silence and complicity with what you believe to be wrong.

Having registered those caveats, I have to say, on the basis of my experience in the Socialist Alliance and the Stop the War Coalition, that I believe the SWP is constitutionally incapable of working with others on an equal, honest and transparent basis. In the end, their aim is dominance, and anything that threatens or undermines that dominance will always, in their eyes, be suspect.

I've never agreed with the SWP's programme - or the programmes offered by any of the Leninist groups - but that's not the core of the problem. It's not about programme, it's about method.

Everyone here will have had the experience of attending a meeting ostensibly to discuss or organise an initiative or campaign only to find themselves faced with a block of SWP members who have arrived with a pre-determined line and set of priorities. The non-SWPers present may hold a variety of views or doubts, but these end up rotating around the axis established by the SWP. It's a lop-sided and ineffectual discussion because a key participant - the SWP - is playing by a different set of rules, and not engaging openly and fully with the debate as others see it.

More broadly it's my experience that the SWP leadership have an alarmingly contemptuous attitude towards democracy and a knee-jerk hostility to any challenge to their views or priorities. In particular, the concept of accountability seems virtually absent from the SWP's collective consciousness. SWP members who are officers of wider bodies tend to treat them like playthings, and rarely make an effort to account for their actions and decisions to the broader movement.

The SWP consider themselves THE vanguard and despite the lip-service to pluralism retain the conviction that they ALONE offer the movement proper leadership. They seem to be driven by a highly competitive dynamic: the group and its claims must be sustained at all costs. A premium is placed on having the answers and exercising leadership. Doubt or agnosticism have no place - indeed they are regarded as weaknesses. Truth is reified in the form of a jargon - and any nuance that cannot be expressed in that jargon is ruled out of consideration.

In the end, the SWP is imbued with an authoritarian ethic - most recently confirmed by their readiness to dub as "divisive" or "disruptive" anyone who voices political preferences contrary to theirs. We've seen this in the Socialist Alliance, where they have dumped dissenters from national officer positions and crudely packed a meeting in Birmingham in order to force out one of the few genuinely independent (and respected) trade union activists the SA could boast. We've also seen it in the Stop the War Coalition where decisions are taken by the SWP leadership and foist on the STWC with barely a semblance of democratic consultation, where SWP members appear on platforms as "STWC" spokespersons, though they have no links to any STWC structures, where the priorities of the SWP leadership (at the moment, campaigning for George Galloway), take precedence over the priorities of the wider movement (surely, at the moment, stepping up the pressure on Blair regarding the absent WMD and building a long-term campaign against the occupation of Iraq) - and where anyone who wanted a slightly greater emphasis on direct action, or a broader approach to the choice of speakers on the big demonstrations, or didn't totally buy into the crude construction of "the Muslims" as a homogenous (manipulable) entity was effectively excluded. And in both the SA and the STWC, on the rare occasions when initiatives not under the direct control of the SWP emerged from democratic discussion, they were either ignored or undermined by the SWP.

It's hardly new to note that blind loyalty to an organisation is a dangerous state of mind, and it saddens me that despite all the evidence of the left's past errors, the SWP by and large will not engage in critical examination of their own history or current analysis and practise. When events embarrass them, the error is buried in silence. There is a fear of looking harsh realities or awkward questions in the face and a reluctance to spend time addressing them. There seems to be an imperative to move on to the next campaign or issue or intervention without pausing to assess the success or otherwise of previous efforts. I suspect that some of the leaders fear that if the membership is not kept constantly distracted, they might begin to ask awkward questions.

The competitive dynamic that drives the SWP also leads to an air of unreality in its assessment of events and movements. Instead of sober assessment of our success and failures, strengths and weaknesses, we're offered empty boosterism - the numbers attending meetings or demos are routinely inflated, and the complexity of multi-faceted developments is unacknowledged. This habit was a problem for the SWP in the Socialist Alliance - where election results could not be inflated and the realities of public opinion could not be massaged away. And it is a problem in the STWC - where it is self-evident that, for all our achievements, we did not stop the war, and people are rightly asking now: how we can do better in the future? To which the SWP can answer only: let's do more of the same!

Large-scale demos and rallies top-heavy with speakers are the SWP's preferred type of activity because these activities lend themselves to top-down control and offer the best ponds in which to fish for new members.

Finally, what has disturbed me most in working with the SWP has been their flagrant ethical relativism. This is an ancient foible of the left - a conviction that the class struggle, or the building of the revolutionary party, or the sheer evil of the forces we find ourselves up against justifies any behaviour, no matter how dishonest, duplicitous, or destructive to others. In their competition with the rest of the left, in their drive to maintain control (including control of their own members), anything goes. Meetings can be packed, democratic decisions circumvented, dissenters smeared and threatened, cheques forged and money misappropriated.

Over many years on the left, it's my experience that mutual trust is far more important than detailed political agreement - and in my bitter and abundant experience, it is impossible to trust the SWP. They are too willing to sacrifice our common goals, values and principles for their own short-term advantage.

It's been obvious for years that this kind of practise on the left - from whatever source - puts people off in droves. It hampers honest discussion, distorts debate, obstructs participation, leads to tactical and strategic errors.

However, we should remember that all of this is a part of a much greater problem. We are all the products of the society we aim to challenge and overturn. In their hunger for status, their competitiveness, their reified perception of social realities, and their ethical relativism, the SWP mimic the dominant forces in the society they oppose.

So how can the deformed products of a deformed society overcome this dilemma? Part of the answer is democracy. We're all weak, were all fallible, and it is only when we work together within democratic, transparent, accountable, participatory structures that our weaknesses and fallibilities, our ego-driven errors and arrogant myopia, can be corrected and disciplined. It's argued that the Leninist party provides this correction and discipline but the evidence - quite overwhelming at this juncture in history - is that it actually institutionalises and reifies those weaknesses and fallibilities, cocoons them from the harsh winds of social reality, and insulates them from collective scrutiny.


Most comment on Anthony Glees's book on the operations of the Stasi in the UK, The Stasi Files, has concentrated on his case against John Roper, an obscure former Labour MP who defected to the SDP and is now a Liberal Democrat peer. During the 1980s, Roper was one of the big-wigs at Chatham House, the establishment foreign affairs think-tank. In this role, Glees says, on the basis of archival material from the now-closed Stasi archives, he employed a Stasi agent as a researcher and generally acted in an over-sympathetic way towards Erich Honecker's deeply unpleasant regime. Glees identifies Roper as an "agent of influence"; Roper says Glees is a right-wing axe-grinder; the rest of the world wonders what the fuss is about.

But there is material in Glees's book that is more interesting - at least to me. A substantial chunk of the book is taken up with an account of the Stasi's attempts to infiltrate and influence the British peace movement, in particular European Nuclear Disarmament, the small but influential group set up by Edward Thompson and others that campaigned against both Nato and Warsaw Pact nuclear arms in Europe and made a point of making common cause with Soviet-bloc dissidents.

Here I have to declare an interest. I was the deputy editor of END Journal, the group's magazine, from 1984 to 1987, and the people Glees is writing about were comrades and friends. I also have a walk-on role in the story, in that in early 1985 I went to East Berlin with my colleague Patrick Burke and met the dissident peace and human rights group there that the inaptly named German Democratic Republic was so keen to suppress. My report on that (extremely boozy and fun, but rather inconsequential) meeting was circulated to END in London - and it ended up in the Stasi's files because one of our supposed supporters was in fact a Stasi informant. The Stasi also had an agent at the meeting in East Berlin: he or she filed an account that survives. I remember plenty of black humour at the meeting about who was the stooge.

I've known about the Stasi informant in END for some time: my report was one of several documents the journalist David Rose turned up four years ago when he was trawling the Stasi files, with the help of Glees, for a TV documentary. What's new in Glees's book is that he identifies (it seems) the London ENDer who was passing on the not-very-hot poop to East Berlin - as well as fingering Vic Allen, the hardcore Stalinist CNDer, as a GDR embassy informant. There's also a mass of documentation that shows just how important the Stasi thought it was to target END.

The problem, however, is that Glees has looked only cursorily at the evidence at the Brit peacenik end that shows the Stasi's efforts were laughably ineffective, and he consistently exaggerates their impact. Glees has it that the END GDR working group collapsed after one of its members, Barbara Einhorn, was arrested in East Germany in late 1983. Not so: the working group was not even set up until after she was released, and it beavered away, with a regular newsletter, until 1989. There are also some passages where Glees's interpretations of ENDers' motives are little short of libellous - he comes close to accusing John Sandford, the Reading University academic who was one of the mainstays of the group, of being at least a useful idiot for the GDR regime, which he most certainly was not.

This is an important story. The actions of the Soviet Union and its surrogates against the non-aligned 1980s peace movement in western Europe were not on the level of their assault on the non-Stalinist left in Spain in the 1930s, but they were the some of the last of that vile police-state system's great betrayals of the left. The tale deserves a better chronicler.

10 July 2003


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, July 11 2003

I spent an afternoon this week poring over the report of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee on the decision to go to war with Iraq, and I agree with those commentators who dismissed it as an inconclusive document that does nothing apart from guarantee that the row over government dossiers on weapons of mass destruction will rumble on well into the summer.

There are still four possible scenarios for what will happen next, just as there have been since the row began (which as I remember was pretty much on the day of publication of the first dossier last September, which was widely criticised at the time for being old hat).

The first, which seems to be to remain perfectly plausible even though most people I know greet it with loud guffaws every time it is suggested, is that evidence soon emerges -- in the shape either of the weapons themselves, of production facilities or of a credible witness from the very top of Saddam Hussein's regime -- that Iraq really did have ready-to-use WMD at the time the dossiers were compiled.

In this case, both the government and the intelligence services will be off the hook, though there will doubtless be claims that the evidence is inadequate or even forged, and there will remain the suspicion that the evidence available to the government at the time it decided to go to war was flimsy in the extreme.

(There will also remain the strong argument that a country’s possession of weapons of mass destruction is not in itself an adequate reason for other countries to invade it, but that’s another question.)

The second scenario is that it turns out that the intelligence services told the government they were pretty certain that Saddam Hussein had ready-to-use WMD and the government acted in good faith on that advice - but, er, actually, ahem, whoops, Saddam didn't have WMD or at least didn't have them in a usable condition. In this case, the story is one of intelligence failure, and heads should roll in MI6 and GCHQ, though the chances are they won't.

The third scenario is the real killer for Tony Blair - that it transpires that the intelligence services told the government that they couldn't really be sure about Saddam's WMD capacity but the government decided it needed cover to invade Iraq so sexed up the evidence. In this case, heads not only should but would roll in government, and it’s difficult to see how Blair himself could survive.

The final possibility is that nothing very conclusive emerges from the whole affair, at least in the near future. Nothing much in the way of Iraqi WMD, no credible Deep Throats from Saddam’s inner circle, the funnies or Number Ten, no smoking-gun memos – just an ever-growing pile of circumstantial evidence, single-sourced gossip and inspired conjecture that turns the start of the war against Iraq into one of those stories that never dies, the assassination of JFK de nos jours.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s worth putting a small bet on scenario four. My guess is that the sequence of events in the run-up to war went something like this:

First, the Bush administration made it clear to the Brits by the beginning of 2002 at the latest that it was going to take out Saddam come what may for a whole string of reasons – his connections with terrorists, his military capacity, his continued defiance of the west.

Second, the Blair government, having at first been sceptical about this policy, came round to the idea of removing Saddam – but only if it were not done either unilaterally or without a credible and legal casus belli.

Third, the British and US governments decided on the basis of (largely accurate) intelligence reports that the hardy old issue of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was still the best way to broaden international support for an ultimatum to Saddam.

Fourth, as US rhetoric and military deployments became increasingly bellicose during 2002, Saddam dismantled his WMD factories and stocks, with the result that neither the readmitted UN inspectors nor the spooks managed to find anything.

Fifth, the rest of the world announced it was unconvinced by the argument that WMD provided a good reason for urgent action against Iraq and refused to back a second UN resolution.

Sixth, the US and Britain – faced with the alternative of stepping down and ceding Saddam a major victory -- went ahead regardless and invaded.

Now it could be that I’ve got this completely wrong. The point, though, is that it’s one of several plausible narratives in which (a) every one of the UK players can claim to have acted in good faith throughout; and (b) every one of them can be accused by any other of consistent incompetence and procrastination. Which is a recipe for this one to run and run.