26 January 2008


Unless Amazon is kidding me, Robert Michels's Political Parties, one of the most important works of 20th-century political sociology, is now out-of-print. So, it appears, is just about all of Max Weber apart from The Protestant Ethic. OK, you can get the books through Abebooks and some of them are online, but I'm disturbed.

25 January 2008


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 25 January 2008

All right, I know this makes me sound like a Guardian leader-writer, but I can see both points of view in the gigantic spat that has erupted of late between Ken Livingstone and his media critics, most recently the makers of Monday's Channel Four Dispatches programme on the London mayor (available through Channel Four's on-demand service here: registration and so on take a couple of minutes).

On one hand, Livingstone is, as the Dispatches programme's presenter, Martin Bright, puts it, an entirely legitimate subject for journalistic investigation – and some of the material Bright and others have dug up on him and his administration does not cast Ken and co in a favourable light.

The Dispatches programme showed conclusively that Livingstone has indulged in serious cronyism, with a coterie of old mates, many of them veterans of the Trotskyist groupuscule Socialist Action, occupying key positions at City Hall and getting very well paid for it. And one of Ken's buddies, Lee Jasper, the mayor's senior policy adviser on race, is alleged (by the Evening Standard rather than Dispatches) to have engaged in serious cronyism himself: projects run by his pals are said to have received a disproportionate share of financial support from City Hall. These are precisely the sorts of things that journalists should probe, and Livingstone's dismissal of the Dispatches programme as a "hatchet job" and his attempt to get the programme pulled at the last minute were way over-the-top.

On the other hand, Livingstone does have a case against the media coverage he has been getting of late, including parts of the Dispatches programme – so what if he drank whisky in the morning at a public meeting and is sometimes rude to people? The Evening Standard has undoubtedly been running a vendetta against him (although it gave him space this week to respond to his critics) and the misdemeanours of which he is accused (although not all the allegations about his advisers) are trifles, particularly when set against the GLA's achievements since he was first elected in 2000: the congestion charge, all the new buses, the Olympics and so on. The fact that Livingstone has a tight-knit group of Trots as his core team is certainly noteworthy and deserves to be in the public sphere – but isn't it weird rather than chilling?

Think about it. Socialist Action – if indeed it still exists as an organisation in any conventional sense – is an ideological blast from the past. Its origins are in the International Marxist Group, the erstwhile political home of Tariq Ali and one of the four biggest Trotskyist groups of the 1970s. Then, its members (mostly students) turned up to every demo and political meeting to harangue the masses about the necessity of making the IMG the leadership of the coming British revolution.

The revolution never came, and during the 1980s the IMG fell apart after a series of arcane disputes. Socialist Action was the tiny bit of it that was (a) keenest to work as "entryists" in the Labour Party and (b) least critical of Soviet-style socialism. Its members spent the second half of the 1980s and the 1990s keeping their heads down and attempting to lever themselves into key positions in Labour left organisations and campaigns – what used to be called in left circles "the long march through the institutions". Socialist Action people were prominent in the Campaign for Labour Democracy, Labour CND, the Labour Committee on Ireland, Campaign Group News and a host of other initiatives, most long-forgotten. They proved themselves hard-working and didn't give up – and that's what attracted Livingstone to them.

He needed a political machine to further his political ambitions – and he found it in the comrades of Socialist Action. Throughout his wilderness years in the late 1980s and 1990s, they supported him – and as London mayor he has rewarded them with jobs. John Ross is his economic adviser, Simon Fletcher his chief-of-staff and Redmond O'Neill his transport chief. (There are others.)

Now, this is a remarkable success for the Socialist Action strategy in one sense: the group's key people are in key positions. But if you judge Socialist Action by its original goals – world socialist revolution – it can only count as failure. In nearly eight years, these one-time revolutionaries have managed to increase the tax on London motorists and modernise London's buses – oh, and cut a rather dubious symbolic oil deal with a third-world populist. Man the barricades, I don't think.

I was never much of a fan of Socialist Action – but I must admit I have a sneaking admiration for the way Livingstone used the comrades. It's difficult to imagine where else he could have acquired a core team so completely loyal, and they have played a useful part in the leftist political gestures (support for the 2004 European Social Forum, the Chavez oil deal, initiatives to counter "Islamophobia") that will probably be enough to ensure that Livingstone does not lose many votes to the Respect or Green candidates in May. Whether you like him or loathe him, he's a wily old fox, that Ken.

24 January 2008


Of course, he had to go – but it's sad. Hain, for all his faults, was the last remaining member of the cabinet who was on the left in the 80s and 90s and who still retained some credibility as a leading soft-left (or democratic-left or whatever you want to call it) figure in Labour politics.

His demise is significant. The extraordinary incompetence of his deputy leadership campaign speaks volumes about the state of the democratic left in the Labour Party: leaving aside the allegations of dodgy donations, it's hard for anyone who was around 15 or 20 years ago not to notice that he took on the most useless people to run his bid for the post. No names, no pack-drill, but ... Jesus!

I guess they were the only comrades from the old days who were still around. The whole democratic left scene has hollowed out. Whatever, the Hainites spent a vast amount of money and failed – not least because they stupidly targeted the trade union and individual membership vote in Labour's electoral college rather than the MPs who have much greater weight inside it. (Hain came fifth out of sixth in the overall result but was a respectable third in terms of the actual number of votes cast: his humiliation came from his fellow MPs.)

Oh, well. Another long march through the institutions that ends in nothing much. Time for sex and drugs and rock'n'roll.

20 January 2008


I’m rather looking forward to tomorrow’s Channel Four Despatches programme on Ken Livingstone and (inter alia) his relationship with the Trots of Socialist Action. I had a couple of pints several months ago with one of the researchers on the programme and tried to make it clear that the London mayor’s relationship with the comrades was a bit one-way – he got a completely loyal mini-political-machine in return for a little bit of leftist posturing on his part – but it doesn’t seem that my analysis convinced her. All the pre-broadcast press (see Nick Cohen here and the Sunday Times here and here) suggests that the programme takes the line that Socialist Action is a dangerous shady conspiracy. Oh, well. What's more amazing is that it has taken so long for this to turn into a story. The Guardian had it (buried in paragraph 98) eight years ago, and even I mentioned it in passing nearly five years back.


What sort of idiot could say of walking in the streets of Hackney after dark:
"Well, I just don't think that's a thing that people do, is it, really?"

Er, we do it all the time.

11 January 2008


Paul Anderson, review of Complications: communism and the dilemmas of democracy by Claude Lefort (Columbia University Press, £22.50), Tribune, 11 January 2008

Claude Lefort is one of the last survivors of the French intellectual left that dazzled even the Anglophone world for 30 years after the end of the second world war – a student of Maurice Merleau-Ponty in the 1940s, co-founder with Cornelius Castoriadis of the libertarian-socialist journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, the subject of one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s most vehement polemics of the 1950s and, since the 1960s, the exponent sans pareil of a radical democratic critique of totalitarianism and bureaucratic liberalism.

This book is his response to a raft of liberal triumphalist accounts of the history of communism published in the late 1990s, in particular those by the great French historian Francois Furet (who died in 1997) and the American Sovietologist Martin Malia (who died in 2004), authors respectively of The Passing of an Illusion and The Soviet Tragedy. Although it is late to arrive in English – it was published in French eight years ago as La Complication – it is a welcome addition to the literature that deserves a wide readership.

Lefort’s disagreement with the liberal triumphalists is emphatically not that of those Stalinist nostalgics who think that the Furets and Malias exaggerate Soviet crimes. Nor has he anything in common with Trotskyists and other Leninists who assert that everything would have been fine had Stalin not won the battle for control of the Soviet party-state in the 1920s. His argument is that the impact of the Bolshevik revolution was disastrous from the start – and that it was much more profound and much more pernicious than even enthusiastic anti-communist liberals admit.

Western communists and fellow-travellers worshipped Lenin’s and Stalin’s Russia not out of ignorance, Lefort argues, but in admiration of the efficacy of its elimination of supposed counter-revolutionaries and deviants. The friends of the Soviet Union in the west were not deluded innocents, as Furet’s book title suggests, but enthusiasts for totalitarianism.

Just as important, says Lefort, we must be wary of history written with the benefit of hindsight. Even in the late 1980s, hardly anyone thought that the Soviet Union was anything but a permanent fixture on the world stage. To write now of the inevitability of the demise of communism is an act of intellectual bad faith.

Complications is hard going at times, mainly because Lefort is expressing complex ideas and makes frequent excursions into his own intellectual and personal history. (One chapter is devoted to Hannah Arendt, another to the history of the French Communist Party after 1945.) There is also a problem, however, with Julian Bourg’s over-literal translation, particularly on tenses. The convention in English is to use the present tense when discussing contemporary work: here everything is in simple past, as in the French original.

All the same, this is a minor gripe – and Bourg’s introductory essay is a model of clarity. Anyone with any interest in understanding the rise and fall of communism in the 20th century will find this book immensely stimulating.

6 January 2008


I didn't realise anyone did crazy shit like this any more.


I'm getting the feeling that blogging is a bit 2005 and am thinking of giving it up completely very soon.

But while I chew over the options, a thought. It's now 40 years since 1968 - which means that the May evenements in Paris are pretty much as long ago as the Spanish revolution of 1936-38 was when I first got into politics in the 1970s. The first wave of CND 50 years ago is more distant than the Russian revolutions of 1917 were to Edward Thompson and others when they left the Communist Party in 1956. Before we know it, the 1945 general election will be as far away as the Paris Commune was to Aneurin Bevan, George Orwell and all the rest who celebrated the victory of Clement Attlee.

Time to sort the oral history.