30 April 2004


Kevin Davey, review of Fidel Castro: A Biography by Volker Skierka (Polity, £25), Cuba: a Revolution in Motion by Isaac Saney (Zed, £13.95) and The Cuban Revolution: Past, Present and Future Perspectives by Geraldine Lievesley (Palgrave, £17.99), Tribune April 30 2004

For the last 45 years Fidel Castro has been the Jekyll and Hyde of Caribbean politics. In a weak-minded style inherited from admirers of Soviet Union in the 1930s, supporters of the Cuban revolution have cheered the Commandante’s military and social achievements, while turning a blind eye to his repression of dissent.

Fidelistas praise his brief independence of the Soviet Union, his provision of military aid to democratic Africa, his enduring ability to mobilize the majority of the population, and his regionally inspiring health and education programmes, all delivered from the jaws of an American embargo. They downplay his deference to Moscow after the revolution’s failure to deliver unrealistic targets for sugar harvests, and the consolidation of his own dictatorial power as “the undisputed caudillo of the revolution” – the description of a friend - at the head of a repressive one-party state, phone-tapping, arresting and exiling opponents, airbrushing photographs and crashing the economy in traditional style.

Fidelistas are won over by the first side of his political character, and excuse the rest. In their eyes, American hostility to Havana gives Castro unrestricted license to stifle dissent.

They are wrong. Castro is an old-style Stalinist who uses European anti-Americanism and anxieties about globalisation to distract attention from his contempt for democracy. They are also short sighted. Without reform, the regime will suffer the same fate as its former Soviet sponsor.

In the mid-1990s, after Moscow’s subsidies and markets for sugar disappeared, Cuba underwent a deep economic crisis. Fidel’s initial response was to grandstand, saying “those who do not submit to imperialism . . . they call inflexible. Long live inflexibility.” Soon after he opened Cuba’s borders to tourism and foreign investment, allowing the U.S. dollar to circulate and permitting a limited amount of private enterprise. These reforms have been plagued by reversals and uncertainty, and have exacerbated inequalities on the island. The wage paid by the state is now too little to keep Cubans from poverty and a fledgling movement of dissent has gone from strength to strength.

By 2002, 11,000 Cuban advocates of peaceful reform had signed up to the Varela project, which calls for a referendum on the introduction of freedom of speech and assembly, the release of political prisoners, market reforms and free elections.

Last year Fidel responded by imprisoning 75 of his leading critics– including 40 coordinators of the Varela Project and more than 20 journalists – for sentences varying in length from 6 to 28 years. The EU protested, mildly. Castro’s arrogance and contempt for democratic values were clearly visible in his unmeasured response. “A gang, a mafia, has joined the Yankee imperialists,” he raged, later describing the EU as "the superpower's Trojan Horse".

Castro and his followers find it offensive and incomprehensible that friends of the Cuban people, as well as their foes, want to see more democracy and human rights on the island. The EU trades with Cuba and routinely votes against the embargo at the UN. It is a friend. But Fidelistas are outraged by friends who oppose the embargo but still want political reform in Cuba. Authoritarian to the core, they see the two as incompatible.

It’s probably true that some members of the opposition have taken financial assistance from the US, and that dissident circles have also been penetrated and compromised by the Cuban security services. But Cuban dissent is a brave voice for sanity and democracy that should be welcomed and encouraged by the left. Fourteen thousand people have signed up to the Varela project since last year’s arrests. There is an unprecedented momentum for reform.

Without any sense of shame, the regime’s admirers in Europe continue to issue supportive tracts full of convoluted arguments about social achievements being more important than human rights, and wild claims that the island’s carefully regulated system of popular power – a form of populist browbeating with next to no devolved power and resources - is the most advanced form of democracy on the planet.

Fortunately Volker Skierka’s useful biography is not cast from this mould, and does not flinch from describing Fidel’s weaknesses and failures. Skierka condenses the work of his predecessors, and adds newly accessible material from the archives of the east German state, once Cuba’s closest ally after Moscow. These reports are not particularly illuminating, but some interesting episodes are recorded. In 1964 the GDR’s bewildered bureacrat in Havana noted Fidel’s “personal decision making on all important matters” and “violent reaction to suggested corrections of certain of his ideas and practices.” In 1966 the embassy dismissed out of hand a demand from Fidel that the ‘socialist family’ deploy huge armies in Vietnam, pointing out that the consequence would be global war. But in the late 1980s Erich Hoenecker and Castro stood shoulder to shoulder against Gorbachev, a doomed alliance of inflexibles. Distant from the turbulence, and with an iron grip on a resigned population, only Fidel endured. Skierka concludes that Cubans are happy to have been delivered from colonial dependence by Castro but “discontent continues to result from lack of political and material freedoms, uncertain prospects at work and in private life, uncertain political conditions, and consumer temptations that cannot be satisfied within the system.”

By contrast, Saney’s account is an unconvincing round of fellow-travelling applause. He claims that Castro has created “a unique model of development” which has won grudging praise from the World Bank. Cuba has been misunderstood by the West, he insists. It has a “unique democracy” which cannot be described as totalitarian. He then makes the ludicrous claim that the system of poder popular – people’s power – the Committees to Defend the Revolution, and the trade unions are not managed by the Communist Party. He justifies the recent arrests with an account of how dissent is sponsored by the US and condemns the Varela project as unconstitutional. Why a Fidelista should raise this objection without a blush, when the guerilla leader of the Sierra Maestra has torn up so many constitutions himself, is hard to understand.

In the best of these three studies, Geraldine Lievesley argues that regime has survived 45 years because it is legitimate in the eyes of the Cuban people and because it has developed a strong sense of cubanidad, or nationhood, which is periodically revitalized by genuine mobilizations and engagements with the people and by campaigns of rectification. She accepts the official view that candidates in assembly elections are not manipulated by the party, but she does concede it is “a politically skewed relationship with the party having the potential to assume a paternalistic role.” She also acknowledges that central government – over which Castro himself personally presides - retains control over every major aspect of state policy, leaving the elected assemblies powerless, approving rather than initiating decisions. She regrets “the official equation of criticism of government policy with counter-revolutionary intent” and calls for the deepening of poder popular, so that it engages with, rather than suppresses, the views of women, afrocubans, gay men and the churches, making the legitimacy of the state more authentic.

It may be too late for that. The reality is that Cuba is a bankrupt country, with 12 billion dollars of foreign debt, excluding the even larger contested sums owed to Russia. Economic stagnation, increased repression, and deteriorating relations with the European countries who are its major source of trade and tourism are the order of the day. The enlarged European union – whose new members have no fond memories of Stalinism – is not like likely to indulge Cuba. Nor should they. The Cuban opposition should be given the same international support as political dissidents in the east received when Europe was divided. A Cuban Spring is taking shape and gathering momentum. Fidel should agree to the referendums and step down. History will not absolve him a second time.


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, April 30 2004

OK, I’d heard the rumours that Tony Blair was toying with the idea of doing a U-turn on the European constitution. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have written my incisive column of a month ago (click here), which ran under the headline “We don’t need a referendum” (an accurate summary of its content).

Well, actually, it was so incisive that no one noticed — not even one of Tribune’s gaggle of geriatric Europhobe letter-writers. As for the government, the weekend before last our great leader announced that, contrary to previous declarations, the European constitution would be put to a plebiscite (or perhaps even two if the first one doesn’t turn out right).

As Private Eye’s caricature of Harold Pinter might put it: the bastard! But I’m not taking this personally. Really. Like most pro-European members of the cabinet, I’m angry because Blair’s decision was a shameless sop to the anti-European press, a surrender to the opportunist populism on Europe of Jack Straw and Gordon Brown — and totally unnecessary. It would have been completely legitimate to leave the endorsement (or otherwise) of the constitution entirely to parliament, and to do so would have saved us all from a truly gruesome fate.

Unless some other country rejects the constitution before we’ve voted (which is by no means impossible), we now face the prospect of at least 18 months and perhaps two years in which British politics will be dominated by a tedious debate about a document that will be read by hardly anyone and will make barely any difference to our everyday lives.

The “no” camp will trot out its familiar (and mendacious) claim that the constitution means an end to civilisation as we know it, a Brussels super-state swamping our dearly beloved democracy. The “yes” camp will counter with the equally well-rehearsed line that the constitution is mainly a means of streamlining the European Union as it expands eastwards that will do nothing to undermine national sovereignty. (This point happens to be true — but it is also about as inspiring as the paper clips sitting on my desk as I write this).

It will all be balls-achingly boring, an immense turn-off to an already pretty much turned-off electorate. If and when the vote takes place, plenty of people will vote “no” just to have a go at the government or because they think a “no” vote would be a way of getting rid of Blair. Hardly anyone who votes “yes” will do so out of enthusiasm for the constitution: I have yet to meet anyone who thinks it’s anything but an intergovernmentalist carve-up that does little to give the EU’s institutions the democratic legitimacy they need and is thus at best a stop gap. Rather, the motivation of “yes” voters will be simply that the “no” camp consists of the Tories, the BNP and the most ghastly elements of the brain-dead hard left.

And all for what? Well, if Britain were to vote “yes”, Blair would be able to claim a famous victory against the Europhobic press. That would, I suppose, be a good thing for democracy, though I don’t for a moment believe it would make the Sun or the Mail see the error of their ways and embrace all things European.

On the other hand, if, as is more likely, Britain were to vote “no”, the effect would be to give a massive boost to the xenophobia and parochialism that have blighted Britain’s relationship with Europe since the 1940s, effectively ruling out for the long term the possibility of Britain joining the euro or of otherwise playing a full part in the European project.

No one but the Tories could possibly benefit from such a disastrous outcome, and simply by risking it, Blair has been almost incredibly irresponsible. What on earth was going through his mind when he made his decision?

* * *

Almost as mystifying as Blair’s about-turn on the European constitution is the decision of the British National Party to invite Jean-Marie Le Pen to Britain this week to launch its campaign for June’s European Parliament elections.

Le Pen is undoubtedly the face of the contemporary continental far-Right most familiar in Britain. But that’s precisely the problem with him.

Far from reassuring voters that the BNP is now respectable — which was presumably the point of its parading him at a press conference in Cheshire then taking him to a rally near Welshpool — the appearance of the fat French fascist with Nick Griffin, the BNP leader who looks the epitome of an oily spiv, has served only to show that the BNP keeps some extremely unpleasant company.

29 April 2004


Stranger things have happened than this, but not many. Unless I've become the victim of an internet hox, it appears that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is on the verge of converting to what British leftitists once knew and loved as the Militant Tendency.

Several recent contributions to the Leftist Trainspotters discussion forum (click here) report that Chavez has not only taken a shine to the analysis peddled by Militant's ancient former guru Ted Grant and his faithful sidekick Alan Woods - now trading as Socialist Appeal - but is now recommending their works to members of his beleagured government.

Socialist Appeal was set up by Grant and a tiny bunch of cronies after he fell out with the party he set up, the Revolutionary Socialist League, better known as the Militant Tendency, in the wake of the British Labour Party's unceremonious expulsion of Militant in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Grant wanted to keep going with entrism; his erstwhile underlings said no; and the party-not-quite-within-a-party split. In Scotland the Millies set up the Scottish Socialist Party, which has won seats in the Scottish Parliament. Down south, most of them - while excoriating their Jock comrades for class treason - also left Labour and now call themselves the Socialist Party, which keeps on keeping on but doesn't really seem to have a purpose since it fell out with the Socialist Workers' Party over the Socialist Alliance some time ago.

Through all of this, Grant's tiny sect of true believers seemed irrelevant - but now, thanks to something or other, they're at the nexus of world revolution again. Or not. What's the Venezuelan equivalent of standing up in a Labour Party meeting and shouting in a fake Scouse accent: "We've got to nationalise the top 200 monopolies under workers' control!"?

28 April 2004


Oh well, that last post (click here) was a mistake. It seems from the over-full Gauche email inbox - sorry, I've been away - that most of you anonymous bloggers don't use your real names simply because you don't want your employers to fire you, which I have to say is a perfectly reasonable position (though it also shows your employers are a bunch of illiberal idiots).

Socialism in the Age of Waiting went further, however (click here and go to post seven):
"We'd be more inclined to respond seriously to these inquiries if Anderson hadn't used the portentous phrase 'republic of letters', and hadn't chosen such a poor piece of prose to rest his case on. Nico Macdonald sneers at 'an elitist tendency at the centre of the blogosphere' while waffling, in an absurdly elitist way, about 'intellectual leadership' . . . The last thing any of us needs is yet more self-appointed 'experts' claiming to provide 'intellectual leadership', as if the bulk of humanity are doomed always to be followers . . .

"Presumably Anderson wouldn't argue that anonymity and pseudonymity are always and everywhere indefensible - or does he think that Lenin and Trotsky should have betrayed themselves to the Russian imperial police, or that Mark Twain, George Eliot and Lewis Carroll should have been prosecuted for fraud?

". . . While we can't speak for Harry or British Spin - and we wouldn't want to speak for dsquared, whose real name is easy to find anyway - we prefer anonymity for three reasons.

"(a) One of us certainly, and the other two possibly, would risk serious trouble with employers if we used our real names here. Blogging matters, but does Anderson really think that it matters so much that we should lose our jobs for its sake?

"(b) We use a collective name rather than individual names because we write as a collective, and prefer not to let irrelevant details about our personal lives get in the way of discussing the issues we address.

"(c) It?s fun for us, and (as we know from e-mails) for at least some of our readers too, to create a persona here that, while it is neither fictional nor dishonest, is separable from our individual personalities.

"If we were engaged in 'passing off' as someone else . . . Anderson would have more cause to come the heavy copper. But why do authors? names have to matter at all? We?d be fans of, for instance, Normblog, even if we weren?t already fans of Norman Geras's books and articles . . . After all, we don't know whether 'Paul Anderson' is this blogger's real name or not, and we really don't care. We'll go on keeping Gauche in our sidebar and visiting it regularly, because, regardless of who writes it, it's interesting and thought-provoking. Well, most of the time, anyway."
OK, I'll take some of that - particularly the points on the poor quality of the prose of the piece I linked to, the undesirability of self-appointed "experts" and the supreme importance of content.

But I won't quite concede defeat. The reason I use the phrase "republic of letters", which I think was coined by Thomas Jefferson, isn't just because I'm a pretentious twit. It's useful shorthand for what Jurgen Habermas and others call the "bourgeois public sphere", the largely self-publishing print culture that exploded in 18th-century Europe and north America and was at the core of the Enlightenment and the early development of democratic and working-class politics.

One critically important element of it was the emergence from anonymity of (at least some) writers of tracts and polemics, which was massively important in the struggle against the state and the church for freedom of expression. The bravery of those writers and publishers who stuck their heads above the parapet as themselves, took on reaction and sometimes won remains an inspiration.

All right, the contemporary blogger isn't fighting the same fight as John Wilkes et al, at least in western democracies, because freedom of expression is part of the fabric of our society (albeit with qualifications). But I do think we can do something of the same. Thanks to the web (not just blogging), getting the word out to a significant readership with a minimum of capital is possible in a way it hasn't been for a long, long time. And if the self-managed web (for want of a better term) were better, it could have a tremendous impact on the whole political culture. Getting better means getting more credible, and I still think ditching anonymity, where possible, is a good start.

One other thing. I do exist, and even if the comrades from SIAW don't care whether I'm a chimera, I do.

19 April 2004


Nico Macdonald has a telling post on "The future of weblogging" at The Register (click here), which argues for an end to anonymity on the serious blogosphere:

"The ‘blogerati’ rightly present weblogging as opening up writing and communication to the masses. However, this populist and laudable attack on the mass communication sector disguises an elitist tendency at the centre of the blogosphere. This tendency is most obvious in the habit of using first names only (or even nicknames) when referring to fellow webloggers. For a movement that aspires to (and has achieved some) intellectual leadership, this is inappropriate.

"Public correspondences, such as that which developed around the Royal Society in London in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, tended to be presented as between public equals, not private friends."

Why are you hiding, Harry, dsquared, British Spin and SIAW? Why not enter the republic of letters as yourselves?


Norman Geras writes (on Normblog here):

Scott Lucas offers a clarification of the proposition that there was an attempt to silence the dissent of anti-war critics. Lucas's clarification in a nutshell: it wasn't mainly silencing he meant, though it was that to some extent; it was the fact that Christopher Hitchens and others of similar mind didn't directly or adequately respond to the serious anti-war arguments - as judged, this, by Scott Lucas - they caricatured them, thereby trying to render dissent "unacceptable".

I express my reaction to the clarification with one of the pre-clarification words of Christopher Hitchens: ridiculous. It wasn't silencing, and neither was it rendering dissent unacceptable. It was political argument - political argument about a hotly contested, passionately felt issue. As such, it was bound to produce all the varieties: from heated polemic and even distortion and abuse at one end of this particular spectrum, through vigorous but reasonably civil advocacy down the middle of it, to calm and scrupulously fair-minded debate at the other end - with, of course, further shades between these schematically defined points.

Dissent! Half the world or more lined up behind it.

Start here for discussion on this weblog and here for the Lucas discussion on Harry's Place.


Scott Lucas writes:

The problems with the supposed parallels between interwar European fascism and Saddam, the Taliban and al-Qaida are the gaps in between the broad generalisations. "Belligerent expansionist totalitarian police-state characterised by ultra-nationalism" is so sweeping as to rule all "evil" out (arguably, there is no state where a single individual or group had "total" control) or to rule all "evil" in (your category could also include present-day North Korea, post-1949 China, post-1948 Yugoslavia-Serbia, 1970s/1980s Argentina, Putin's Russia, etc, etc). The parallels also eclipse important distinctions - Ba'athism was originally a socialist movement in the 1950s. How did it move from that to a "fascist" movement?

I'd rather deal with the specific cases. Taliban Afghanistan was the first government to denounce the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks; more importantly, it offered to negotiate Bin Laden's handover to Pakistan (as it had offered to hand him over in 1998 before the bombing of Sudan). The US refused any consideration of this. So the possibility of a handover, with an international trial to follow, was passed up at the cost of many thousands of lives. Perhaps a case can be made for this on the basis of "regime change", but this requires a much more thoughtful elaboration than Bush's "with us or against us".

Saddam's Iraq was expansionist and should have been opposed vigorously by the west in the 1980s rather than being aided by it but, of course, Saddam was waging war on Iran, which western governments had tagged as a "belligerent expansionist totalitarian (religious) police-state characterised by ultra-nationalism". On the grounds of "liberal intervention", there is an argument that the troops should have marched to Baghdad in 1991 but, again, there was a pass on the opportunity. In contrast, in 2003, there was no established threat to the region (I take the position that US and British governments knew they were exaggerating the intelligence) and the deaths from Saddam's reign of terror were fewer than in the 1990s, a point recently made by Human Rights Watch. So why go for "regime change" now?

In short, I agree that Saddam and the Taliban (and, indeed, other regimes that are now allies in the war on terror) should have been opposed and confronted. That, however, cannot escape the problem in your second point. US foreign policy never rested on "establishing a decent, civilised, democratic Iraq" or Afghanistan; if it had been, we would not been in the ongoing (and, in some respects) worsening mess that we are today. That's why I always supported international action to deal with al-Qaida, the Taliban and Saddam as opposed to a US-defined "coalition of the willing" which was pretty much US and UK in military terms, US in "legal" terms (rejecting any approach to international law), and US with support from a few other countries (rather than the UN) in diplomatic terms. I think a great opportunity was missed by not pursuing resolution 1441 through coercive inspections - the catch was that the US would never accept this because that would give the UN in the ongoing negotiation with Saddam and the Bush administration had decided on US-led "regime change" in February 2001.

Finally, I suggest that the framing of the SWP as "leading" the anti-war movement did not come from most of us who opposed the war and who voiced our opposition. (Is anyone really contending that those MPs who voted against intervention were just following the SWP?) Instead, it came from those who favoured the war but did not want to acknowledge the depth of or complexity of our objections. Any "untold damage" was manufactured by those who insisted that "our" leaders were George Galloway, Tariq Ali, the MAB, the SWP etc.

I would never reduce the argument for intervention to following "the prominent role" of the Bush administration in its push for war. So why be so reductionist in tagging those who questioned intervention? To me, the labelling was always a political strategy rather than an honest assessment of the critical issues.


Paul Anderson writes:

(a) I'm no great fan of the notion of "Islamic fascism": like you I think it's a catch-all term to cover disparate contemporary regimes and terrorist groups that all differ in significant respects from interwar European fascism.

There are nevertheless legitimate parallels that can be drawn. Ba'athism was originally inspired at least in part by the example of European fascism, and Saddam's Iraq was a belligerent expansionist totalitarian police-state characterised by ultra-nationalism, the cult of the leader and systematic use of terror against its citizens - not unlike Hitler's Germany or Mussolini's Italy. Taliban Afghanistan was also a totalitarian police-state, and although it was not territorially expansionist and unlike Saddam's Iraq was inspired by Islamism, it did harbour and encourage al-Qaida, which has the goal of establishing a global totalitarian Islamist empire and echoes the Nazis in its irrationalism, its ruthless contempt for human life and its anti-Semitism. Whether or not you call them fascist, the targets of the US "war on terror" were and are enemies of everything liberals and the left should hold dear.

(b) Like you, I don't think the US had the purest of motives in getting rid of Saddam. The war was about US strategic interests first and foremost. The point the pro-war left made, however, is that these strategic interests were at least temporarily compatible with the interests of the Iraqi people in getting rid of Saddam and establishing a decent, civilised, democratic Iraq.

(c) I take your point that everyone on the February 2003 demo didn't support the SWP's defeatist position. But will you take mine that the prominent role the non-defeatist left allowed the SWP and other Leninists - to say nothing of reactionary Islamists - did untold damage to the credibility of the anti-war movement? As for Pilger, I'm sorry, but any nuances in his perspective are meaningless next to his fatuous statements backing the "resistance" in Iraq.


Scott Lucas writes:

With respect, I think the dangers in a general acceptance of intervention, and indeed its specific application in a case like Iraq, emerge in consideration of your second point.

No, I don't think we should construct artificial "parallels" between the movements that you cite. Ba'athist Iraq was a secular regime; al-Qaida came out of Wahhabi Islam; the Taliban included many Wahhabis but developed locally in response to the conditions of 1980s and 1990s Afghanistan rather than as an implementation of Wahhabi doctrine. That's before you try to stretch these to European, largely secular movements in Germany and Italy which had a much different conception of political, social, and economic structures. European fascist movements were expansionist in foreign policy; the Taliban was not. All the movements you cite find a base in the state apart from the important exception of al-Qaida.

Paul Berman threw these movements together because he wanted to find the cause for aggressive action against Islamic movements and regimes that he did not like. I don't like some of these movements either, but the conflation of them has consequences. To give you some obvious examples: link Saddam and al-Qa'eda to get a war on Iraq that is also a war on terror; overthrow Saddam and you actually give a boost to terrorist activity, including that of al-Qaida. Here's another: link the Taliban and al-Qa'eda and you miss the opportunity to get Bin Laden handed over to the west both before and after 9/11.

And, of course, the conflation leaves out a vital element in the consideration of "intervention". Who is to intervene and to what end? There is no attention to this in your second point and, I would argue, in the points often made by supporters of intervention to US strategy. That strategy, proposed in 1992 and developed in the second Bush administration, is based not on an extension of US power against any country or group of countries. The particular foe is defined not on the basis that you set out but on American strategic interests that were defined before any specific consideration of the evil of Saddam/al-Qaida/Taliban. That's why the US was quite happy, up to summer 2001, to talk with the Taliban. That's why other evils like the Uzbek regime are now valued allies in this supposed war on terror.

In no way do I want to present an "anti-American" argument. I think Kosovo was a critical case that took us beyond right and left and I think the case for intervention there was not based primarily on this extension of US power. And I suggest that it is precisely because we need a considered and effective "intervention" that we should, as George Monbiot has recently argued, seek an intervention that is international rather than national in nature.

On your first point. Yes, the writers you've cited have caricatured opposing arguments over intervention and have avoided confronting the core of these arguments. When did any of these writers acknowledge, let alone respond to, Jonathan Freedland's argument that opposition to the war on Iraq carried the burden of defining an acceptable alternative? When did any confront Matthew Parris's February 2003 call to any opponent of war to think carefully how he or she would justify that opposition if WMD were found and if Iraqis welcomed liberation?

On your third point, there were 1.5 million who marched in February 2003. My observation is that few of them were there because they supported the specific position of the SWP or (Nick Cohen's caricature) the Muslim Association of Britain. And few of those who have written of their opposition to the war have presented an SWP "party line". Katha Pollitt took apart Hitchens in October 2002 when he tried to reduce the American anti-war movement to Ramsay Clark and ANSWER; I don't see why the same shouldn't apply here. If proponents of intervention really want a serious debate on complex issues, then acknowledge the complexity of opposition as well.

(A side point on John Pilger - in the writings of those who caricature the Left, opposition seems to be the words of George Galloway, Tariq Ali, Pilger and no one else. That said, to label Pilger's current opposition to intervention/occupation stemming from a "classical Leninist revolutionary defeatist" position is to misrepresent or ignore his presentation of the past/current situation in Iraq. Instead of tagging him with a label which has no meaning other than to rule out consideration of his argument, deal with his specific contentions on the cost of war, while putting in your points on the benefits of war, and on the possible long-term consequences.)


Paul Anderson writes:

Sorry, but I simply don't think it's true that "complex arguments over 'liberal intervention'" have been avoided by Aaronovitch, Cohen et al: they've engaged in precisely those arguments (as indeed have you and I) even if they have not been convincing.

I agree that they have sometimes caricatured anti-interventionists as appeasers of "Islamic fascism". But: (1) caricature is an entirely legitimate rhetorical device; (2) there is a strong case for drawing parallels between the ideology and practices of 1920s and 1930s European fascism and those of al-Qaida, the Taliban and Ba'athist Iraq (although I wouldn't for a moment claim these three are identical); (3) the organisational mainstays of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain have been the Socialist Workers' Party, which takes a classical Leninist revolutionary defeatist position on Iraq - as do John Pilger and several other widely published intellectuals in the anti-interventionist camp - and reactionary Islamists. Of course, this isn't the whole picture, but isn't it at least a significant part of it?

18 April 2004


Scott Lucas writes:

I read your review with much amusement, but I hope, on a re-reading of the book, that you might finally recognise the picture I have painted. I've never argued that the "left" has been silenced; rather, I suggest that Aaronovitch, Cohen, Hari, Hitchens and many other writers and broadcasters in the US and UK have avoided a discussion of the complex arguments over "liberal intervention" and US and British foreign policy by misrepresenting/caricaturing a "left" which is supposedly an appeaser of "Islamic fascism". It is to the credit of many persistent writers, many of whom are not "left", that these arguments continue to be put eloquently and, hopefully, to some effect.

17 April 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, April 23 2004

It's rare that I read a book and find myself in a mounting and increasingly uncontrollable rage. In fact, I can’t remember the last time it happened before last Wednesday.

But last week I was reading Scott Lucas’s new diatribe against George Orwell and the contemporary left-wing writers who supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, The Betrayal of Dissent: Beyond Orwell, Hitchens and the New American Century — and by the time I’d got two chapters into it my blood was boiling.

Lucas is an American academic, the professor of American and Canadian studies at the University of Birmingham, and a contributor to the New Statesman. Last year, he published a slim tome on Orwell, which rehashed the familiar and mendacious old Stalinist line that Orwell was not a real socialist (see Ian Williams's Tribune review here). He spiced up his argument with a denunciation of Orwell for handing over a list of communist fellow-travellers to a Foreign Office propaganda unit — in Lucas’s eyes an unforgivable act of treachery, even though Orwell was doing no more than advising a Labour government not to waste its time commissioning Stalinist apologists to write propaganda pamphlets against communism.

The Betrayal of Dissent picks up where the Orwell book left off. It starts by arguing that Orwell was a “policeman of the left”— mainly because of the list but also because he was rather rude in print about people with whom he disagreed. It then goes on to argue that several polemicists who have argued from a left or liberal position in support of military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq — in particular Christopher Hitchens, but also Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch, Johann Hari and various Americans who are less familiar this side of the pond — have taken the same role in stifling discussion of the rights and wrongs of the “war on terror”.

Now, I don’t agree with everything Hitchens, Cohen, Aaronovitch et al have written since 9/11. I was a reluctant rather than gung-ho supporter of the toppling of the Taliban by force, and I opposed the invasion of Iraq (though once it started I argued that the best thing would be for it to be successful and quick, and I believe that now the priority is to do everything in our power to ensure Iraq becomes a stable, civilised democracy, which means I am against an immediate withdrawal of coalition forces). The tone of the pro-war left — particularly of Hitchens and Aaronovitch — has often been intemperate and hectoring.

But I simply don’t recognise the picture Lucas paints as even a vague approximation of reality. Even if one accepts that Orwell handing over his list to the FO was “policing the left” (and I don’t, because it had absolutely no effect on the ability of the fellow-travellers he named to get their opinions into the public sphere) there is no evidence at all that the writers Lucas identifies as “policemen of the left” today have even gone so far as to advise that their opponents should not be published by government agencies, let alone that they have successfully stifled debate.

Indeed, even the most cursory reading of the left and liberal press in Britain and the US shows that proponents of an anti-interventionist position have at very least had a fair crack of the whip and in some cases — the Guardian and Independent are obvious examples — have dominated not only the comment pages but also reportage. Sure, there have been bloody great rows since 9/11 about just about every aspect of US policy, but knockabout argument is the stuff of democratic politics. Vigorous disagreement with your opponents is not the same thing as suppressing their views.

So what exactly is Lucas’s beef? In the end, I think, it comes down to a visceral antipathy, common to many on the left, to anyone who questions the notion that “the system” — the military-industrial complex, capitalism, imperialism, statism, call it what you will — can do nothing but wrong.

In this worldview, it is axiomatic that US intervention cannot be right, that all opposition to US imperialism is justified, that the mass media are mere propagandist tools of the ruling class — and that anyone who disagrees with these propositions can only be an agent of reaction.

Of course, political life would be much simpler if things were really like this. But they are not, and pretending they are is not only deluded but dangerous for the left. The notion that only unyielding total opposition to “the system” counts for anything is a recipe for an all-or-nothing oppositional left politics that can end only in defeat and disillusion.

The Betrayal of Dissent: Beyond Orwell, Hitchens and the New American Century by Scott Lucas is published by Pluto Press. For more on Lucas, see Norman Geras's blog here and follow the links. And for a brilliant humorous take on the general argument I'm making, see Geras's post here.

8 April 2004


I don't really want to get into this big-time, but a couple of people have reminded me that there is rather a lot of good stuff on the early years of the Russian revolution on the web from libertarian sources, including Emma Goldmann's mid-1920s polemics, My Disillusionment in Russia and My Further Disillusionment in Russia (click here), Alexander Berkman's (much better) The Bolshevik Myth from the same period (click here), Ida Mett’s account of the Kronstadt revolt, first published in France in the late 1940s (click here), Ante Ciliga’s take on the same in a late-1930s polemic against Trotsky (click here) and Maurice Brinton’s (much later) The Bolsheviks and Worker’s Control (click here). But there isn’t a lot from the rest of the democratic left – Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary – in part because many Mensheviks and SRs who could have raised a fuss in the early years of the Bolshevik dictatorship decided not to, in part because what material the reformist democratic socialists did produce has not been republished by enthusiastic anarchists . . .


The classic 1940s left expose of Stalin's labour camps, Forced Labour in Soviet Russia, by the Menshevik intellectuals David Dallin and Boris Nicolaevsky, published in 1948 and relied upon by every writer on Soviet slave labour up to and including Anne Applebaum in her recent (and excellent) account of the gulag, should now be available to download as a PDF from the web – from a US site devoted to the works of the eccentric conservative publisher Henry Regnery – for which click here. The problem is that the download doesn't work although other goodies from the same site – a cornucopia of "god that failed" polemics — work fine. Ho hum.


Michael Walzer has a biting polemic against Howard Zinn and his account of US history on the Dissent website, for which click here. Zinn's simplistic platitudes are not a great issue this side of the pond, but his worldview is pretty much that of the Pilgerism-cretinism we've grown to know and love.

2 April 2004


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, April 2 2004

At first sight, nothing could be more democratic than a referendum. Referendums involve people deciding on things directly by simple majority, without the mediation of politicians or political parties. What could be more democratic?

But it’s not quite as simple as that. When one side in a referendum campaign has a lot more power, money and access to the media than the other, when voters are ignorant or apathetic about the issue being decided and when the vote takes place in an atmosphere of political hysteria, a referendum is anything but an exercise in democracy: it is no more than a means of guaranteeing that the rich and powerful and their hired demagogues and propagandists get their way.

And a referendum on the (still not finalised) European Union constitution, as demanded by Michael Howard and a cabal of Europhobic useful idiots in the Labour Party this week, would be a textbook case of such a travesty.

Just think about it. Hardly anyone in Britain has read even a summary of the draft constitution, let alone the whole document. A massive majority of people is completely clueless about what it contains. And this fog of ignorance would not clear during a referendum campaign. Most people simply couldn’t care enough about the European Union’s institutional arrangements to get clued-up.

And then there’s the press. The majority of the people might not give a damn about the constitution, but the press is overwhelmingly antipathetic to it. Of the national newspapers, the Murdoch, Mail, Express and Telegraph titles are all virulently anti-European and are already campaigning relentlessly for its rejection on crude xenophobic grounds, regardless of the consequences.

Against them would be the government, already unpopular and distrusted, backed up half-heartedly by the Financial Times, the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent titles and the Mirror and its Sunday sister papers (if they could find space among the celebrity tittle-tattle) — none of them able to come up with a better case for the proposed settlement than the truthful but desperately unexciting argument that it’s not as bad as its detractors make out and a lot better than nothing, because nothing would mean the EU grinding to a halt.

In the circumstances, it is perfectly legitimate for the government to resist calls for the constitution to be put to a referendum.

The EU needs a political structure that works after enlargement, and it would be utterly irresponsible to endanger it by putting it at the mercy of a contest that would almost certainly be won by the populist propaganda of the Eurosceptic press. The argument that the government has denied the people a choice is easily answered: if the people care that much, they can always turf Labour out at the next general election.

Referendums are a fine means of deciding things that don’t really matter — whether Hartlepool has an elected mayor or whether smoking is banned in Norwich pubs — but for anything important we should rely on good old-fashioned representative democracy. Plebiscites are the refuge of populist charlatans.

* * *

On a different matter entirely, I’m afraid I can’t resist taking issue with the editor of this great organ, Mark Seddon, who argued in the Guardian on Monday that Tony Blair should come out in favour of John Kerry’s candidacy in this year’s US presidential election.

It’s not that I don’t want Kerry to win — I do, for lots of reasons, although I don’t think he’s any sort of panacea. It’s just that I don’t think it would be wise for Blair to declare a preference in the outcome of the contest.

Blair is going to have to work with the US administration whoever wins, and there is no sense at all in making an enemy of either candidate. The race between Kerry and George W Bush looks likely to be very close. According to the latest polls, Kerry is marginally ahead, but with six months of vitriolic campaigning still to come the result is impossible to predict. To cap it all, an expression of preference by Blair would have no effect at all on American public opinion. Blair is respected in America for his expression of solidarity in the wake of 9/11 and his support for the US over Afghanistan (and to a lesser extent Iraq) but he is not someone Americans look to for guidance in the polling booth.

Of course, Blair’s closeness to Bush in the past three years is a big issue in the UK, particularly among opponents of the Iraq war. But that is not a good reason to insist that he makes a complete chump of himself.