27 January 2007


To begin, I’ll declare an interest: the journalist Nick Cohen is a friend, and in his new book, What’s Left? How the Liberals Lost Their Way, he makes several references to this blog and thanks me for helping him. (In fact all I did was drink several pints of beer with him, send him a few documents and read a couple of chapters, but it’s always pleasant to be appreciated.) I’m looking forward eagerly to his launch party the week after next.

So it would be easy to dismiss as mutual backscratching my broad agreement with the argument of his book, that since 9/11 a large section of the British left has been so blinded by its anti-Americanism that it has embraced the worst sort of Islamist reaction. But it isn’t backscratching. I’ve been saying much the same for as long as he has – though with little of his rhetorical force or skill – and I’d recommend his book had I never met him. It’s a brilliant excoriating polemic that should be read by everyone on the left.

Not that I think he’s right about everything. As others have pointed out, he’s got a terminology problem that runs through the book. I don’t think “liberal-left” works as “a cover-all term for every shade of left opinion”, nor is “liberals” synonymous for me with “the middle-class left”. Unlike him, I opposed the war against Saddam in 2003 on the grounds that it was likely to be protracted and bloody and that the US had no credible plans for what happened afterwards. I don’t think Cohen recognises how many people who were against the war in 2003 also found the pro-Saddam posturing of George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party utterly disgusting and distrusted the alliance with reactionary Islamists that Galloway and the SWP created in the Stop the War Coalition.

Still, Cohen’s central thesis is absolutely to the point. Most opponents of the war who did not share the “revolutionary defeatism” of Galloway and the SWP or the reactionary politics of their Islamist allies turned a blind eye to them. They certainly did nothing to distance themselves publicly – let alone anything to seize leadership of the anti-war movement.

And since 2003 the obsession of most people on the non-Leninist left who opposed the war – I know there are honourable exceptions – has simply been to get their own back on George Bush and Tony Blair for starting it. For the parochial self-righteous left, the important thing about the growing sectarian strife in Iraq is not that it threatens to turn into a full-scale civil war that then engulfs the whole Middle East. It is that it shows Bush and Blair were wrong three years ago — just as we said they were. Pinning the blame on Bush and Blair and demonstrating we were right matters more than working out how best to support the Iraqi people against the murderous militias terrorising their country. It's comfortable collective political narcissism, no more.

There are lots of good things in What’s Left? apart from the core argument about the left, 9/11 and Iraq – among them an excursion into the left in the 1930s and the Communist Party’s defeatism during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, a pointed assault on the idiocies of postmodernism and a chilling account of how the Trotskyist Workers Revolutionary Party took money from Saddam (and praised him to the skies) in return for spying on Iraqi dissidents in Britain. I don’t think he captures just how wrong the left consensus was in the 1930s or how the WRP’s relationship with Saddam was only a little more compromised than that of other Leninist sects with other third world dictators, but these are minor points. This is extended pamphleteering at its best.

23 January 2007


My thanks to my comrade on the FT for alerting my to this brilliant spoof on (local newspaper?) journalism.

20 January 2007


Paul Anderson, review of The Lost World of British Communism by Raphael Samuel, Tribune 19 January 2007

This book of three essays recalling the life and culture of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1940s and 1950s is a reminder in more ways than one that time flies. Surely it can’t be ten years since Raphael Samuel died? Surely it can’t be nearly 20 years since the last of these pieces appeared in New Left Review? But it is, and it won’t be very long before the CP described so sympathetically here is beyond living memory.

Samuel was born in 1934 into a middle-class Jewish family, and his mother joined the CP in 1939. But although he was “brought up as a true believer” and joined the party as soon as he could, his membership was brief. He left in 1956, like so many other intellectuals, over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, then played a major part in the first New Left in the late 1950s and early 1960s before going on to found History Workshop, an organisation (if that’s the right word) bringing together academics and amateurs committed to “history from below”.

The Lost World of British Communism is a fitting way to mark the tenth anniversary of Samuel’s death. It shows him at his very best both as a historian and as a writer. The everyday life of a tiny political party that was obsessively deferential to the Soviet Union and had few major internal disputes (at least from 1939 to 1956) might not seem a promising topic – and indeed there are plenty of studies of British communism that are painfully boring. But Samuel makes the CP come alive, mixing his own and other former members’ reminiscences with excerpts from novels, letters and material from the official archives to produce what is still by far the best account of what it was actually like to be a communist 50 to 60 years ago.

But it is more than that. Samuel wrote these essays after the end of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, just as the Communist Party was going through the bitter split that finally destroyed it – and they are also his take on the state of the left at the time. And even though it feels like only yesterday that they appeared, it’s strange to be reminded how much has changed since then.

I have a hunch no one will be writing elegaically in 20 years’ time about the cosy comradeship of Marxism Today or the day-to-day rituals of Straight Left and the Morning Star. The bust-up between the “Eurocommunists”, who felt that the CP should move away from confrontational class politics and pro-Sovietism, and the “tankies”, the traditionalists who preferred business as usual, was a vicious affair that ended with schism and both factions utterly marginalised.

Samuel was writing as someone who believed that a viable socialist left could emerge from the wreckage after the defeat of the miners, the implosion of the CP and the rightward mid-1980s turn of Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party. It never happened. The past 20 years have seen a succession of single-issue campaigns – against the poll tax, against road building, against various wars – but no left revival worthy of the name. Could it have been any different if only we’d taken notice of Samuel 20 years ago and rediscovered the virtues of 1940s communism (while ditching the bad bits)? Perhaps not, but rereading these essays did get me wondering.

18 January 2007


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 19 January 2007

Well, the organ made it to three-score-years-and-ten. Tribune’s 70th birthday came and went the week before last with just a single mention in these pages noting the anniversary.

Not that this is the last you’ll hear of it: the editor and the staff deliberately played down the actual 70th because they’re planning a really big party later in the year after the seasonal affective disorder is out the way. It’s a sensible decision, and I have every confidence they’ll put together a real ball — unlike the real balls-up we managed for the 50th 20 years ago, when the highlight of the partying was one of the most tedious meetings I have ever witnessed, in a freezing Conway Hall.

But landmark birthdays are also times to reflect on what happens next — and here it’s hard to be too optimistic. Tribune certainly deserves not only to survive but to thrive long into the future. But it is going to have to cope with a very hostile climate.

I’m not talking politics here: with Tony Blair giving way to Gordon Brown this year and Labour casting around for ways to renew its programme and electoral appeal after a decade in power, there is a great opportunity for Tribune to play a big part in setting the political agenda. The problem is rather that the economics of small-circulation left-wing print periodical publishing are becoming ever more precarious.

The big distributors and wholesalers have increasingly decided in recent years that they don’t want the bother of handling minnows that make them little or no money — which has had the effect of squeezing Tribune’s newstrade sales and forcing it into ever-greater reliance on subscriptions. But that's old stuff: a far bigger challenge is posed by the internet — which is steadily undermining the habit of paying for news and opinion, particularly among young people, and thereby threatening the very existence of an independent left press.

The economics of running a small-circulation print periodical are simple. You have to get enough revenue from newstrade sales, subscriptions, advertising and fundraising to cover the costs of printing, postage, staff, premises, equipment, promotion campaigns and so forth. Because small circulation means low advertising rates (unless you can persuade would-be advertisers that most of your readers are very rich), most income has to come from newstrade sales, subs and fundraising. OK, it’s hard to get it right, and unless you have a rich benefactor — which Tribune has had at various points in its history but doesn’t have now — it can be a real struggle. With a magazine that’s worth reading and a bit of luck, however, you can muddle through.

The big question is how long this will remain the case. Ten years ago, it was easy enough to dismiss as scare-mongers those pundits who said that the internet would soon render the newspaper and the magazine obsolete. Today, as readers turn from dead trees to online, with nearly every newspaper and many magazines losing circulation — some of them at white-knuckle-ride rates — the scenario looks a lot less implausible. All the major players are investing heavily in websites, nervously hoping that increased online advertising revenue at least makes up for lost income from sales and advertising as a result of declining circulation.

The headache facing all but the publishers of specialised commercial and financial news is that people won’t pay for online subscriptions or even for one-off access: they expect the internet to be free. But at least the big boys will get a piece of the cake as advertising migrates online, as it has begun to do. If you’re almost completely reliant on sales and subs for your income flow, you lose your main sources of income as readers abandon print for online.

This isn’t so much of a problem if your print publication is published as a hobby, relying entirely on voluntary labour, with income from subs and sales going to pay the printer’s bill, postage and a few odds and ends: you can simply drop print publication when it becomes unsustainable and publish solely online. The great thing about the internet for anyone who wants to get the message out is that it slashes production, distribution and promotion costs. Indeed, once you’ve got your website designed and hosted, there’s no cost equivalent to the printer’s or postal bills.

But if you’ve got wages to pay — as you must have if you are publishing with any regularity or making any attempt to break news stories, even if, like Tribune, you never or rarely pay for features — the prospect of losing sales and subs, in the absence of substantial ad revenue, is no fun at all.

Which is not to proclaim that the end is nigh — but it is to make it clear that it’s up to you as readers to ensure that Tribune survives, by continuing to subscribe and getting others to do the same. If you want serious left journalism, it cannot be free at the point of use.

12 January 2007


The 0.25 percentage point increase in the base interest rate was predicted by very few commentators in the press. But all that shows is that they are hopeless: gradual hikes in interest rates, for better or worse, are what every serious economist has been expecting to continue until the housing bubble subsides. Gordon Brown will get it in the neck for it, but that really isn't the story.

7 January 2007


Seymour Martin Lipset, who has just died at 84, was one of the must-read American intellectuals of the past 50 years. He was a Schactmanite neither-Washington-nor-Moscow leftist in the 1950s and after that a maverick voice of the intelligent democratic left. I got into him through Political Man, published in 1960 but still 20 years later at the core of the political sociology course I studied at Oxford under Steven Lukes and Frank Parkin. The idea of the democratic class struggle came from that book, for me at least. I also loved his American Exceptionalism and other work he did on why there is no socialism in the United States. The left consensus has him down as a neocon, but I don't think he ever really became one in the currently accepted sense of the term. And he was one of the good guys in the way he dealt with people. I never met him but I like this from Theda Skocpol: "Of all the professors I had, he was the most humanly decent, a real mensch." RIP.


The BBC News Online obituary of "TV's Magnus Magnusson" – a respected broadcaster, writer and journalist – appears to have been written by Private Eye's spoof teenage poet E. J. Thribb:
Mr Magnusson
Who had a wife
And four children
Was known
For his catchphrase

"I've started
So I'll finish"

See the excellent Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Republic blog for something a bit more serious.

Here is Thribb at the top of his game in the current Eye:
So. Farewell
Then Magnus

Famed inquisitor of

Your catchphrase was
"I've started so I'll

And now
you have.