31 August 2004


Socialism in the Age of Waiting responds (here) to my response (here) to its response (here) to my original post (here) on Nick Cohen's piece in the Statesman (here). To cut to the quick, the objection is to my claim that left critics of the Soviet Union played an important role in weaning the left off its delusions about Soviet Union "socialism":

"While we take all this on board . . . we’d still put changing circumstances ahead of any of these arguments as the decisive factors in changing people’s minds. That’s not just a reflex expression of Marxist hostility towards treating politics as a conflict of ideas, rather than (instead of as well as) a conflict of social forces, it’s the result of wondering:

  • whether the phrase 'widely read', which Anderson applies to Goldman and Berkman, applies to any of the people cited

  • whether the specifically 'left' individuals in the list really made more impact on changing attitudes than such figures as Muggeridge, Orwell, Conquest and others who found readers across the political spectrum, and also among the self-consciously non-political

  • whether even they made as much impact as newspapers, television and other mass media . . .

  • and whether the often obscure, jargon-ridden, internecine quarrels of leftists and ex-leftists about the nature of the Soviet Union ever could have mattered – or should have mattered – more than the steady accumulation of knowledge about the brute facts of life under dictatorship, to which all those cited certainly, and admirably, contributed, but which they were in no position to guide or dominate.”

OK, to take these in reverse order.

One, I wasn’t writing about the quarrel among leftists and ex-leftists about whether the Soviet Union was state capitalist or a degenerate workers’ state (or whatever), which I think played very little role in convincing the left that Soviet socialism was a dead-end.

Two, it was precisely through the mass media – in particular newspapers –that left critics of the Soviet Union had their greatest impact.

Three, I agree completely that the likes of Muggeridge, Orwell and Conquest had more influence than sectarian polemicists who directed their writings at a purely left readership (and in the case of Muggeridge and Conquest, I’m pushing it to describe them as “left” critics, though Muggeridge certainly went out to Russia in 1932 as a Fabian and I have in front of me a passage by Conquest written in the late 1950s quoting approvingly from Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Marx . . .) – but so what?

And four – all right, I admit it: I can’t really answer scepticism about how widely read left critics of the Soviet Union really were except with anecdotes and circumstantial evidence: lots of reviews of books and mentions of promotional speaking tours in the contemporary press, name checks in other people’s memoirs, articles by the relevant authors in the national press and opinion weeklies et cetera. Of course, it’s quite possible for a book to be widely reviewed yet remain unread — which happened, for example to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia – or for articles to appear in even large-circulation newspapers yet have a nugatory readership. But until someone does a trawl through publishers’ archives and old library lending records, I’m afraid anecdotes and circumstantial evidence are the best we’ve got.

30 August 2004


Socialism in the Age of Waiting has responded to my last post (click here) with the following (click here for full post):

"We have some doubts about the suggestion that the present malaise afflicting so many leftists will pass, much as previous 'waves of cretinism' passed because . . . 'some part of the left kept its head and argued the case against the prevailing delusions consistently and publicly'.

"This seems more optimistic than the present situation warrants: try arguing with those who are thus deluded and see if they are even capable of conceding that they could possibly have got anything wrong at all. It also seems more rationalistic than the past cases he cites might suggest. It’s at least arguable that 'enthusiasm for the Soviet Union' and 'sucking up to the IRA' succumbed to the attrition of changing circumstances - ranging from very well-known historical events to less well-known but highly effective organisational manoeuvres within labour movements - rather than to rational argument, which largely (though not, of course, entirely) followed on from those circumstances. As for 'anti-Europeanism' and 'uncritical support for any third world populist would-be tyrant claiming to lead a national liberation struggle', both are still going strong in at least some sections of the left, and precisely those that are least amenable to argument. . .

"We remain unconvinced that 'left' in the singular has much use or relevance, and we’d still prefer to see the pluralism that some celebrate, others deplore and we ruefully put up with acknowledged more consistently - notably, and most helpfully, through the making of some necessary and very sharp distinctions, such as between liberal lefts and socialist lefts, and between genuinely democratic lefts and the lefts that are either anti-democratic or (even worse, because even less honest) contemptibly self-deluding about democracy and its enemies."

Well, I agree with some of that – in particular the contention that the notion of a singular "left" has little use or relevance. There are today and have been for 200 years many lefts, some of them little short of despicable. Where I disagree is in my estimation of the power of argument to change minds.

To take the example of the left's enthusiasm for the Soviet Union, because I think it's the most important left delusion of the past 100 years. I don't deny that changing circumstances had a massive effect in opening people's eyes — from Kronstadt, through Spain, the show trials, the Hitler-Stalin pact, Stalin's colonisation of eastern Europe after 1945, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 and the rise and suppression of Solidarnosc, right up to the collapse of "actually existing socialism" in 1989-91.

But the relentless arguments of left critics of the Soviet Union – seizing on these events, to be sure – also had a crucial impact. Bertrand Russell's anti-Bolshevik polemic of 1920, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, which remained in print until very recently; Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman's records of their disillusionment with Russia in the 1920s (published in the UK as well as in the US and widely read); Malcolm Muggeridge, Walter Citrine (TUC general secretary) and William Henry Chamberlin (Manchester Guardian correspondent), who all produced critical accounts of Stalin's Russia in the early to mid 1930s; George Orwell, the Tribune left, the ILP, the anarchists and the Trotskyists in the late 1930s and (particularly) the 1940s, who published a stream of material of their own and from foreign experts; the cold war social democrats from the 1950s (among whom I'd include Robert Conquest and Leonard Schapiro and most of their Menshevik-inspired friends in the US); the democratic socialist, libertarian, Trotskyist and ex-communist defenders of the Hungarian revolution; the defenders of "socialism with a human face" in Czechoslovakia and Solidarnosc in Poland; the Edward Thompson wing of the 1980s peace movement – all of them stuck to their guns, and I think they had a cumulative impact in changing the political atmosphere. Certainly by the 1960s pro-Sovietism was the prerogative of a small minority of British leftists, and by the 1980s the only pro-Soviet diehards on the Brit left were either extraordinarily stupid, on the make or both (let us not forget that the Soviet Union funded the Communist Party of Great Britain almost until its death and that freebies in "socialist" spas were enthusiastically taken up by trade unionist bollock-brains right up to the end of the 1980s).

I think it would be possible to tell a similar story of left sucess against anti-Europeanism or kneejerk third world national liberationism (with some of the same people playing key roles). Whatever, I can't see any reason why opponents of left cretinism today shouldn't prevail again. As Bob Marley put it, don't give up the fight.

27 August 2004


Nick Cohen’s polemic on the collapse of the left in the New Statesman the week before last (click here) has prompted a big response among bloggers (click here for Norman Geras, here for Oliver Kamm, here for Harry’s Place).

I’m late on this (I’ve been away on holiday) but it’s a hoo-hah that is worth noting even a fortnight on. Cohen’s argument is that something very odd has happened to the left in Britain in the recent past: in its enthusiasm for opposition to the war in Iraq, it has embraced clerical reaction for the first time ever. The Stop the War Coalition was the Socialist Workers Party getting into bed with the Muslim Association of Britain. Ken Livingstone endorsed and met the anti-Semitic Islamist cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi. The left and liberal press have been fawning in their treatment of Islamist bigots. No one on the left – or hardly anyone – has taken any notice of Iraqi democrats’ approval of the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Cohen concludes that “there no longer is a left with a coherent message of hope for the human race”.

I almost share his sense of despair. Unlike Cohen, I opposed the war – not because I thought it was wrong to overthrow Saddam Hussein but because I thought the US and its allies hadn’t thought it through and were taking an irresponsible risk – but like him I believe that the left in Britain and elsewhere should now be supporting those in Iraq who are trying to create a tolerant liberal democratic polity, not whining about the process through which the US and Britain went to war. I have been sickened by the way that so many of my fellow opponents of the war have gloried in every setback that the US and the interim Iraqi government have suffered. And I can’t believe the tolerance of idiocy and worse that seems to have become the norm in the liberal and left press. The left in Britain today is in a worse state than at any time in my adult lifetime.

But I’d stop short of writing off the left completely. Waves of cretinism have swept the left in Britain before – enthusiasm for the Soviet Union (most marked in the 1930s but still a factor 50 years later), anti-Europeanism in the 1960s and 1970s, uncritical support for any third world populist would-be tyrant claiming to lead a national liberation struggle from the 1960s onwards, sucking up to the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s – but they have passed, largely because some part of the left kept its head and argued the case against the prevailing delusions consistently and publicly. We need to do the same today.


Here are the letters from this week's Tribune responding to my column of August 6 on tactical voting (click here)

Don't scotch Labour's chances

Paul Anderson struggles to decide which is worse: voting Tory or voting for the Scottish National Party. I'm afraid I can't help him, being of the view that you should always vote Labour. Perhaps though, I can help him with his confusion about the SNP.

If their desire to break up the United Kingdom wasn't bad enough, SNP members are already actively campaigning against the proposed European constitution. Romano Prodi recently made it clear that an independent Scotland would not be part of the European Union.

The soon-to-be SNP leader, Alex Salmond, is an unabashed Reaganite, believing that applying the Laffer curve to business tax is the key to a bright economic future for Scotland. Worse than that, SNP members believe that, while they're slashing taxes for business, the shortfall will be made up by increasing personal taxation.

Worst of all, they will always opportunistically back the Tories in Parliament where they calculate it will do the Labour Party the most damage. They haven't changed since they backed the Tories to bring down James Callaghan and usher in 18 years of Thatcherism.

So, if you get stuck with a Tory MP, you'll be represented by a man (because they almost always are) who is Eurosceptic, would slash public spending and opportunistically oppose everything Labour does. On the other hand, if you get stuck with a SNP MP, you'll he represented by a man (because they almost always are) who is Eurosceptic, would slash public spending and opportunistically oppose everything Labour does.

Colin Edgar
Head of Press, Scottish Labour Party Glasgow

Microscope needed for Lib Dem principles

Michael Foot hails Tribune as a truly great international socialist document. Yet, in the same edition, there is an article by Paul Anderson exhorting Labour supporters to vote for the Liberal Democrats.

I have lived in areas where Labour has not had a chance of winning, yet have always voted Labour to register my support for a socialist democratic party. In such areas, Labour activists work hard supporting the party, standing in unwinnable seats, to ensure that people have a chance to vote Labour as part of the democratic process.

In recent by-elections, the Lib Dems have jumped from third to first place. Does this mean Anderson wants us to abide by rules that they don't? In addition, since they are clearly doing this by attracting an anti-Labour vote from Tories, should committed Labour supporters give the Lib Dems such succour?

Should Labour supporters really help a party which can knock on one door and say they are against hanging and knock on the next one and say the opposite purely to gain votes?

Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten has said that he and others would like to move the Lib Dems to the Right. They could succeed and have a larger parliamentary party, increased by tactical voting.

I suggest that calling on Labour supporters to vote tactically, rather than on principle, does little to help stem the disillusionment of many in the political process.

Rachel Blackmore
London SE8

Treacherous advice is a pernicious vice

Paul Anderson has exploited your pages to try to damage the Labour Party.

He urges people to vote tactically for the Liberal Democrats in seats where Labour starts in third place. Quite apart from the fact that there is no equivalent effort by Lib Dem pundits to get their supporters to vote Labour where we are the main challenge to the Tories, his list is compiled in complete ignorance of the local circumstances in the seats concerned, and in the knowledge that it will be used to squeeze the Labour vote in Lib Dem leaflets.

In some of the seats he mentions. Labour's vote is going up and we may overtake the Lib Dems. In others, the two parties are neck and neck and the main challenger is unclear. In yet more, there is no hope of anyone beating the Tories for the parliamentary seat, but a strong Labour campaign might deliver local Labour councillors on its coal tails.

Anderson's insistence that the differences between Labour and the Lib Dems are nugatory can only have been written by someone who has not encountered the Lib Dems' vile behaviour in local government, the constant anti-Labour sniping of Lib Dem MPs such as Norman Baker and the drive by senior Lib Dems for their party to adopt neo-Thatcherite economic policies.

Even more absurdly, Anderson says Labour supporters should vote Lib Dem in all the seats they already hold - including, presumably, the ones that Labour could actually gain from them such as Chesterfield.

His article is a slap in the face for dedicated Labour activists who are working hard in the seats concerned.His treacherous advice should be treated with the contempt it deserves.

Luke Akehurst
London N16

Anderson confounding

I hate to say I told you so. If you leave Paul Anderson long enough, he will abuse his position as a columnist to try to get Labour voters to vote Liberal Democrat. And that is exactly what he has done.

Anderson is not making some abstract point in favour of anti-Tory tactical voting in his article. It is specifically aimed at getting some Labour voters to vote for the Lib Dems. It will not get any Liberal Democrat supporters to vote Labour in other constituencies. He tells us that he has sent a copy to the Lib Dems, because he knows that it will be of use to them.

What is worse, in his own words, Anderson has "carefully written it so that Liberal Democrats can use it in election material to make it look like Tribune, the Labour weekly, backs their candidate".

Tribune is not saying that Labour voters should back the Lib Dems. And Tribune was not saying that at the last general election either, when Anderson's articles were used by Liberal Democrats to claim that Tribune was supporting them then. Anderson has waited until Tribune was changing its editor before writing his article. Let us hope that the new editor responds decisively to deal with this slur on the good name of the magazine.

John Morgan

7 August 2004


I wasn't going to post on the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising until I read this tendentious defence of Stalin's betrayal of the Poles in the Guardian (click here). But that did it. Read Robert Taylor in Tribune here, get Norman Davies's excellent book, Rising '44, and check out the late Al Richardson's translation of Zygmunt Zaremba's La Commune de Varsovie (orginally put out by Editions Spartacus in 1947 in Paris), published as The Warsaw Commune, Betrayed by Stalin, Massacred by Hitler, as a Socialist Platform pamphlet in 1997 (click here). It's still available for just £3.

There is a simple message to the few veterans still alive from that heroic struggle: comrades, the decent left in Britain salutes your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.

5 August 2004


I hear via the grapevine that Paul Piccone, the editor of the American journal Telos, died last month. I never met him and stopped reading Telos about 10 years ago, shortly after its 100th issue, by which time Piccone had embraced Alain de Benoist and the French new right. The reason I gave it up wasn't that I was disgusted or that I didn’t want to know what happened next in the Telos saga — though of course I was a little appalled, and the journal had lost a lot of its sparkle by then — but because it became impossible to buy it in Britain. It had never been very easy: I think the only place that stocked it was the late and much-lamented Compendium bookshop in Camden. I don’t even know if it’s still being published: I can’t find reference on the web to any issue after 1998.

But when I first came across Telos as a student in the 1970s, I became an instant addict. It was a left-wing academic journal wholly unlike the ones with which I was familiar – New Left Review, Capital and Class, Monthly Review and so on – in its refusal to entertain Leninist or structuralist Marxist bullshit and in its wholehearted commitment to translating contemporary left-wing thinkers from Europe and historical texts from the western Marxist tradition (properly so-called rather than the Leninoid confection put up by Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn at NLR and Verso). OK, it also ran some excruciating stuff (particularly from its US contributors), and some of the translations were shonky. Over the years, Piccone managed to alienate rather a large number of editorial board members and contributors for no good reason. And from the mid-1980s some of its enthusiasms were distinctly weird. But from its foundation in 1968 until 1990, it did a lot more good than harm.

Every issue contained material that was unavailable elsewhere in English: it was through Telos, more than anything else, that I got to know Gyorgy Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Andre Gorz, the post-Socialisme ou Barbarie work of Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort, Jean Baudrillard, Norberto Bobbio, the Italian workerists, Agnes Heller and the Budapest School, Victor Zaslavsky and a whole lot more besides. The journal also introduced me, directly or indirectly, to a whole string of American writers and thinkers – the New York intellectuals, Christopher Lasch, Russell Jacoby – that were off the radar at the time on the parochial British left.

As well as editing the journal, Piccone also wrote the best book on Gramsci in English, Italian Marxism. So, however unattractive his eventual destination, I think he deserves a modicum of respect.


Yes, it’s that time of the electoral cycle again. There’s probably nine months to go until the next general election, so we all need to work out how to vote.

As I’ve argued before in this column (most recently here), for more than a decade the differences between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have been nugatory by comparison with the differences between either of them and the Tories. On some issues, Labour is more egalitarian, more liberal or more democratic than the Lib Dems; on others it’s the other way round. But both are parties of the democratic Centre-Left — and either is infinitely better than the Tories. So the priority at the next election, just as at the last one and the one before that, is to vote tactically for whichever candidate, Labour or Lib Dem, has the best chance of keeping the Tory out.

In most constituencies — those where Labour won at the last election or came second to a Tory — that means voting Labour. But in quite a few constituencies, the Liberal Democrat either won or came second to a Tory in 2001. In those constituencies, the best way to beat the Tory candidate next time round is to vote Lib Dem.

What follows is a list, in alphabetcial order, of: those constituencies in England and Wales where a Lib Dem came second to a Tory in 2001; and those in Scotland — where there have been boundary changes — where the Lib Dem would have won in 2001 if the new constituency boundaries had been in place. I have shamelessly pinched the latter from the excellent website Election Prediction (click here).

But on with the fun. Lib Dem and Labour supporters should vote Lib Dem in England and Wales where a Lib Dem won in 2001 and in:

Aberdeenshire West and Kincardine
Argyll and Bute
Berwickshire, Roxburghshire and Selkirk
Bexhill and Battle
Bournemouth East
Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross
Cambridgeshire South
Cambridgeshire South East
Chesham and Amersham
Devon East
Dorset North
Dorset West
Edinburgh West
Fife North East
Folkestone and Hythe
Haltemprice and Howden
Hampshire East
Hampshire North East
Isle of Wight
Mid Sussex
Mole Valley
New Forest East
New Forest West
Norfolk South
Orkney and Shetland
Penrith and The Border
Ribble Valley
Ross, Skye and Lochaber
Saffron Walden
Skipton and Ripon
Surrey East
Surrey Heath
Surrey South West
Tiverton and Honiton
Tunbridge Wells
Westmorland and Lonsdale
Wiltshire North
Worcestershire West
Worthing West

Everywhere else, Lib Dem and Labour supporters should vote Labour.

Note that, just as when I did a similar column to this before the 2001 general election, I have carefully written it so that the Liberal Democrats can use it in election material to make it look as if Tribune, the Labour weekly, backs their candidate in each individual constituency. I have of course sent a copy to their headquarters in Cowley Street.

More seriously, there are a couple of things to note about my advice. The list doesn’t include Brentwood and Ongar, where Martin Bell stood as an independent against Eric Pickles in 2001 and came second, with the Lib Dem dropping to third from second in 1997: maybe it should. And, more importantly, I’m not sure what to recommend in seats held by Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party. The Tories are rank outsiders in all Plaid’s seats, so anti-Tory tactical voting is irrelevant in them. But in three constituencies the SNP would have won on the 2001 figures with the Tory second — Angus, Banff and Buchan, and Perth and North Perthshire. So maybe Labour and Lib Dem supporters there should vote tactically for the SNP.