Above: Benn marching with UCS stewards, Glasgow 1971
A number of readers were upset by the piece including an Open Letter from 2005, that we published on the morning following Tony Benn’s death. I, personally, thought the Open Letter made fair and important criticisms of Benn’s politics, and the opening remarks I wrote were suitably respectful towards this major figure on the British reformist-left. One of the authors of the Open Letter, Sean Matgamna, has now writtten an obituary of Benn. It makes many of the same points, and is generally very critical of Benn’s politics and political methodology. But, once again, I’d argue that the piece is fair and also gives credit where it’s due. Benn was a serious politician and deserves to be assessed seriously. We do not subscribe to the universal, and often hypocritical, adulation of Benn that has been prevailent since his death.
Matgamna worked with Benn and others to set up the Rank and File Mobilising Committee, which for a while united most of the Labour Party left, at the start of the 1980s:
The first thing that should be said and remembered about Tony Benn, who died on Friday 14 March, is that for over four decades he backed, defended, and championed workers in conflict with their bosses or with the “boss of bosses”, the government.
That put him decidedly in our camp. The political ideas which he too often linked with those bedrock working-class battles detract from the great merit of Tony Benn, but do not cancel it out or render it irrelevant.
Politically, Benn’s story was a strange one. An editorial in the Times neatly summed up the shape of Benn’s long career. His was “A Life Lived Backwards”. For the first half of his long life he belonged to the Establishment, socially and in his politics. To the dissenting old radical-Liberal and right-wing Labour part of the Establishment, but the Establishment nevertheless.
Both his parents had MPs for fathers. Four generations of Benns have been MPs. Benn’s son, Hilary, has been the third generation of cabinet-minister Benns. His father was Ramsey MacDonald’s Secretary of State for India in the 1929 government.
Benn went to one of the leading “public” schools and then to Oxford University, where he climbed up onto that milestone in the careers of so many Establishment politicians, the presidency of the Oxford Union debating society. He became a pilot in the hierarchical Royal Air Force, in which pilots came from the upper classes, and in 1950, at 25, a Labour MP in a safe seat. His wife, Caroline, was rich, as was Benn himself. This sincere champion of the working class was a millionaire.
Benn became a minister in Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964-70 and was a minister again in the Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974-9.
Out of office after 1970, he turned left, at the age of 45. Publicly, he shifted during the great occupation and work-in at the Upper Clyde Shipyards (UCS) in 1971. The decision by Edward Heath’s Tory government to end subsidies to ailing industries meant shut-down for UCS.
In office Benn had subsidised UCS, so there was a logic and continuity in this. He marched alongside the Stalinist UCS leaders Jimmy Airlie and Jimmy Reid at giant working-class demonstrations in Glasgow. Read the rest of this entry »
Guest post by George Mellor
Events in Ukraine are shaping up to be a re-run of what happened to Eastern Europe at the end of WW11 - one hopes with a very different conclusion. Then, a struggle took place over whether these countries would be assimilated into the orbit of either Western or Soviet Imperialism. The tragedy was that betrayal by the West (at Teheran, Yalta and the ‘percentages agreement’ between Stalin and Churchill in Moscow in October 1944) allowed the GPU and the `red army’ to place their jackboot on the necks of the workers, and these countries became vassals of Stalinism for nearly 50 years.
Then (as now) the question was (and is) how to build independent working class activity, and here we can see a difference between the imperialisms of East and West: the former crushed and atomised civil society. The norms of bourgeois democracy, the rule of law, pluralism - all the building blocks on which a free and independent labour movement could exist, were extinguished. This repression was met with sporadic revolts, all branded ‘counter-revolutionary acts’ put down by the Russians providing ‘fraternal assistance’ to the local Stalinist ruling classes.
While the Eastern European states, as well as the Ukraine, obtained independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union, all had been shaped by their experience of subjugation by Russia. For over 50 years the national question (once banished as a political question in Europe and raised by Trotsky specifically around the Ukraine in 1939) has shaped the body politic of these countries. Recovering from this subjugation some of these countries have fared well in nation building, others – mainly those infected by the gangster capitalism of Russia (look at the pictures of Yanukovych’s palace – the amassing by an individual of state sanctioned plunder) have not.
Russia is of course still a major power and is intent on rebuilding its empire through the mechanism of the Eurasian Union. For sure outside of a successful workers’ revolution nations will either be drawn into the orbit of either the West or Russia . For the Ukraine – which has the potential of being an important economic power- a precondition for embracing the Eurasian Union was to the need for an autocratic state seen in the centralising of power in the President.
Yanukovych’s support for Ukraine’s integration back into Russia’s orbit triggered the Euromaidan, a response which would not have been out of place in 1848. A movement of over 1m who have shown great fortitude and discipline in the face of continual attacks by the riot police. Far from acting like a mob ‘the people’ have organised the control of public buildings, and refused to be bowed by their so-called leaders or their ‘saviours’ the EU. This incoherent mass from the far right through to the far left linked by the single ill-defined idea of national sovereignty and independence. The idea that this civic protest could have been shaped by anything other than nationalism would be naïve.
Russia is then faced with a mass movement of dissent from the path it has chosen for the Ukraine. So behind the scenes they will be sowing the seeds of dissention playing on the fears of the Russian speaking regions.
In the West most of this propaganda war is being run by the successors to Stalinism, the neo-Stalinists, echoing their predecessors’ propaganda which accompanied the assimilation of Eastern Europe into the Stalinist Empire. Then the Stalinist lie was based on a false premise that Russia was exporting socialism. Today our neo-Stalinists continue to play the role of the border guards to a capitalist Russia.
However the propaganda is the same: all living movements such as we see in Ukriane are branded fascist or reactionary. Unless one wishes to be a functionary in such a Russian dominated regime the socialist who argues such a view will only succeed in cutting themselves off from any influence on the Euromaidan.
I am sure sections - I do not know what proportion - of the Euromaidan are fascists or semi-fascists: how could this be otherwise? The job of socialists is to organise against them at the same time supporting Ukrainian right to self determination including independence from Russia, arguing for maximum democracy including the right of the CP to organise and most importantly organising independent working class action.
Between now and the election in May we can only watch how events unfold; how far Putin will be able to destabilise the situation, how far the Ukrainians are going to find real leaders and weed out the false messiahs (as the election approaches workers will be faced with more false messiahs than the Catholic Church has saints.) will in part be down to how socialists intervene. However I wonder how far workers will be open to socialist ideas when their lived experience has been that of actually existing socialism i.e. Stalinism.
Today’s Graun carries an editorial about a man who wrote some fine music but who was (to be charitable) an idiot when it came to politics. Maybe because his execrable political opinions quite resemble those of many Graun journalists and (no doubt) readers, it’s an almost laughable piece of hagiography:
Benjamin Britten at 100: voice of the century
Above all, he was the writer of music that still thrills because of its toughness, beauty, originality and quality
Imagine an English classical music composer who is so famous in his own lifetime that his name is known throughout the country, who is the first British composer to end his life as a peer of the realm, a composer from whom the BBC uniquely commissions a prime-time new opera for television, and whose every important new premiere is a national event, a recording of one of which – though it is 90 minutes long – sells 200,000 copies almost as soon as it is released, and a musician whose death leads the news bulletins and the front pages.
Next, imagine an English classical composer who is a gay man when homosexuality is still illegal, who lives and writes at an angle to the world, who can compose strikingly subversive music, who is passionately anti-war, so much so that he escapes to America as the second world war threatens, who is in many ways a man of the left, certainly an anti-fascist, certainly a believer in the dignity of labour, as well as a visitor to the Soviet Union and a lifelong supporter of civil liberties causes.
Now, imagine an English composer who in many estimations is simply the most prodigiously talented musician ever born in this country, who wrote some of the deepest and most rewarding scores of the 20th century, who set the English language to music more beautifully than anyone before or since, who almost single-handedly created an English operatic tradition and who, all his life, saw it as his responsibility to write music, not just for the academic priesthood or for the music professionals but for the common people, young and old, of his country.
Benjamin Britten, who was born in Lowestoft 100 years ago, was not just some of those multifarious things. He was all of them. And he was much more besides – including a wonderful pianist, the founder of the Aldeburgh Festival, and arguably the 20th century composer who is best served by his own extensive legacy in the recording studio. He was also, as many have written, a difficult and troubled man – even at times a troubling one.
Above all, he was the writer of music that still thrills because of its toughness, beauty, originality and quality. In his 1964 Aspen lecture, Britten said: “I do not write for posterity.” In fact, he did. In his lecture he said he wanted his music to be useful – a noble aim for an artist. He said he did not write for pressure groups, snobs or critics. He wrote, he said, as a member of society. His job was to write music that would inspire, comfort, touch, entertain and “even educate” his fellows. Britten spoke – and composed – as a serious man of his serious time. Impressively, much of that endures. If we seem today to have let some of Britten’s ideals slip, that may say more about our shortcomings as a culture than about Britten’s greatness and achievement, then and now.
Bearing in mind that “visitor to the Soviet Union” is Grauniad-speak for “willfully blind apologist for mass-murder”, just how many non-sequiturs can you spot in the following:
“…passionately anti-war, so much so that he escapes to America as the second world war threatens, who is in many ways a man of the left, certainly an anti-fascist, certainly a believer in the dignity of labour, as well as a visitor to the Soviet Union and a lifelong supporter of civil liberties causes” ..?
Cartoon from the Guardian
The international ruling classes are clearly in a quandary over Syria. But so is the serious left (the word “serious” meaning discounting Assad-supporters and hypocritical fake-Westphalians who’ve been looking forward to western intervention for the past two years and more, just so’s they can have something to protest about).
Shiraz Socialist does not oppose foreign intervention in principle, especially when a country is descending into sectarian mass-murder. Also, the use of chemical weapons should be recognised as a “red line” and, if possible, the perpetrators punished.
The problem with regard to Syria is not any “principled” objection to “outside” intervention, but the fact that the opposition seems to be a bunch of sectarian Islamists who are already attacking Kurds, Allowites, Christians, Shias and others.
The best result now would be a cease-fire arrived at by a conference brokered and enforced on the ground by the UN, Arab League or, indeed, NATO. Frankly, that’s not very likely.
It looks like Labour are going to opposes unilateral military action http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/08/douglas-alexander-warns-cameron-vote-must-be-held-syria-and-labour-could-oppose-gov
The left in general, perhapd due to the bank holiday, has yet to react. There are a few voices though – Owen jones opposes military action but, against all the evidence, appears to doubt that the Assad regieme launched the chemical attack. He calls on the international court to bring charges and for UN peace talks: “There’s no question that those who use chemical weapons must be arraigned in an international court. But a UN-brokered peace process involving all the local and regional players remains the only solution.” http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/for-the-syrians-sakes-and-for-our-own-we-must-not-intervene-8784220.html
The wretched Lindsey German and ‘Stop the War’ are entirely predictable. They call it a proxy war but conveniently only mention the Western and Saudi arming of the rebels, not Russia or Iran who have been sending arms and troops to aid Assad. They call for peace talks, but really they’re in support of Assad: http://www.stopwar.org.uk/news/attack-in-syria-no-pretext-for-intervention
Others (eg: Galloway) are spreading conspiracy theories about who did the gassing: Mossad, Al Quida, the FSA, Turkish intelligence, Saudi Intelligence- take your pick.
Assad supporter John Wight at the Socialist Unity blog thinks it’s all of them conspiring to take out Assad because he is part of the “Axis of Resistance”:
A few voices of sanity, solidarity and common decency:
From the Workers Liberty archives:
Like a brilliant gleam of light in the gathering darkness of the post-war years, the rising of the German working class has already shattered myths and shamed despair. It has already answered a host of questions that had been passed by those who became panic-stricken before the seemingly invincible strength of Stalinist tyranny.
These June days may well go down in history as the beginning of the workers’ revolt against Stalinism — the beginning, in the historical view, quite apart from any over-optimistic predictions about the immediate aftermath to be expected from this action itself.
Is the Iron Curtain empire monolithic? Have the workers of East Europe been so duped by Stalinism as to become cowed creatures, hypnotised, straightjacketed by the Stalinist ‘mystique’? Has the working class lost its revolutionary dynamism? Is the Russian power so solid, or all-intimidating, within that there is no hope of stopping its menace except by Western military might and the third world war? The German working class has given an answer, and it is the answer we Independent Socialists have looked to.
Beginning as a spontaneous, peaceful mass demonstration against the latest speed-up decree increasing work norms, in 24 hours it necessarily became a battle with the real power in the country, the Russian troops. Beginning as a movement for economic demands, it was at bottom, and quickly became overtly, a political demonstration.
Five hours after it began at 9 am on June 16, the regime had already capitulated on the immediate issue of speed-up, withdrawing its ukase.
On the second day of the action, Russian tanks, armoured cars, artillery and soldiery had taken over from the East German police, who had refrained from blocking the riotous demonstrators.
In the vanguard of the march, and apparently its inspirers, were several hundred construction workers…
(Hal Draper, Labor Action, 22 June 1953)
For the full article by Hal Draper, and more by Max Shachtman and others…
Click here to download as a pdf.
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Adapted by JD from an article on the Workers Liberty website
For the next few days at least, the Russian city called Volgograd since 1961 will revert to its previous name: Stalingrad. Today is the 70th anniversary of the Red Army’s final victory over the German invaders, after a battle that had raged for six cruel winter months at the cost of nearly 2 million lives.
In London, a lavish “Victory at Stalingrad 70th Anniversary Night” is being organised by Philosophy Football (an enterprise run by former Communist Party activist Mark Perryman) and the Hope Not Hate anti-fascist group.
The keynote speaker will be Seumas Milne, associate editor of the Guardian and unreconstructed Stalinist hack (and cheer-leader for Islamist fascism -JD).
Stalingrad, between August 1942 and February 1943, was a turning point of World War Two. So were some British victories in North Africa, and US victories in the Pacific, around the same period.
More than those other victories, Stalingrad is still used to cast credit on the political leaders of the winning side, in particular Joseph Stalin himself and his marshal Georgi Zhukov.
At the time, as Antony Beevor reports in his book Stalingrad (by far the best popular account) : “The triumph of the Red Army boosted the status of the [Communist] Party member and attracted fellow-travellers in droves. Even conservatives could not avoid praising the heroism of the Red Army. In Britain, King George VI commissioned a Sword of Stalingrad to be forged for presentation to the city”.
The Trotskyists of the Workers’ Party USA wrote (Labor Action, 1 February 1943): “Many minds have lost their balance and many eyes have acquired an unusual degree of starriness as a result of the recent Russian military victories. People who had clearly seen, or had begun to see, the tyrannical and anti-labour character of the Stalin regime… are now allowing themselves to be hypnotised into passive acceptance of the Stalinist dictatorship, because the Russian soldiers fight with ability and heroism…
“It is not the Russian soldiers alone who have displayed heroism and enthusiasm. It is a depressing fact, but a fact nevertheless, that on many occasions the German soldiers have displayed the same qualities. And the Greeks, and the British, and the Americans, and many others. Yet who would dare say that the countries for which all those soldiers fight have engaged in just and progressive wars?…
“Because the Russian soldiers fight well, does that in any way change the fact that Stalin is one of the bloodiest dictators of modern history, that he is the grave-digger of the Russian Revolution and the aborter of many other revolutions? Does that change the fact that he is the murderer of the Old Bolsheviks… that he has enslaved the Russian workers, that he has deprived them of every possible liberty and democratic right?”
As Beevor states: “The newspaper reports which claimed that frontoviki (rank and file Russian soldiers) eagerly discussed the heroic leadership of Comrade Stalin in their trenches, and went into the attack with the battle cry ‘Za Stalina!’ (‘For Stalin’) were pure propaganda. Yury Belash, a soldier poet, once wrote a verse:
“To be honest about it —
in the trenches the last thing we thought about
Until later, maybe. The Russian command’s enforcement was brutal — it executed about 13,500 troops during the battle, for indiscipline — but at the height the soldiers’ life expectancy was so low, and their acceptance that they had to fight the anti-Slav racist Nazi-commanded army so full, that many reckoned they had little to lose.
“For a young Soviet citizen [newly conscripted to Stalingrad]. the most shocking experience was… the frank speaking of frontoviki on political subjects. Many expressed themselves in a way that prompted new arrivals to glance over their shoulders in alarm. They declared that life after the war should be different. The terrible existence for those who worked on collective farms and in factories must be improved, and the privileges of the nomenklatura restricted” (Beevor, p.288).
The Stalingrad victory, however, helped Stalin stabilise his regime, and soon to extend its model to the countries of Eastern Europe which came under the control of the Russian army as it pushed the German army into retreat.
The desperate courage and unimaginable sacrifices of Soviet soldiers and civilians in this terrible battle deserve to be remembered and honoured. But it would be an obscenity to use their momory to attempt to rehabilitate the prestige of Stalin – the brutal tyrant whose incompetence, complacency and alliance with Hitler between August 1939 and the invasion itself, came close to handing victory to the Nazis. As Nikolai Levichev of the left-liberal Just Russia party told the Guardian, Russia won the battle “despite rather than thanks to” the leadership of Stalin, whose errors multiplied the Soviet losses.
The present issue of the neo-Con magazine Standpoint carries a fascinating interview with the late Eric Hobsbawm. It was conducted in 1985 by Miriam Gross, a personal friend (though not a political ally) of Hobsbawm’s, for the now-defunct publication Time and Tide. To the best of my knowledge, it’s not been republished before now. It contains some fascinating and highly questionable statements from Hobsbawm, such as his claim that the Nazi-Soviet pact “made no difference at all” (to what? Communist Party membership?) or that he “never believed in this workers’ paradise business” (about the USSR), and his claim that he “did criticise [the Hungarian invasion] in public” – something that there is no record of, as far as I’m aware. Finally, there’s his denial that he advocated Labour making a pact with the (then) SDP-Liberal Alliance: something that he quite clearly argued for in the Euro-Communist Journal Marxism Today at the time. I concluded, having read this interview, that Hobsbawm was a great historian, but a dishonest individual whose political accounting of himself and his own record is simply not to be trusted. Judge for yourself:
When did you first become a Communist, and why?
I became one in 1931 or so, when I was about 14. Being brought up in Central Europe — in Austria until 1931, and then in Berlin — made me a revolutionary. One had to do something fairly dramatic, so I became left-wing (partly because I was Jewish — if I hadn’t been, I might well have became a Nazi under those circumstances), and all the dramatic left-wing organisations in Austria and Germany were Marxist. I didn’t actually know much about Marx until one of my schoolmasters in Berlin said, “You’re a Communist, you don’t know anything, you’d better read this damned stuff,” and pointed me in the direction of the school library.
What about your parents — what sort of attitude did they have?
My mother died quite early, when I was 14 — I think she would have been a liberal of some kind, keen on things like European integration and H.G. Wells and stuff like that. I don’t remember my father having any particular politics — he had died not long before. My Viennese family would, if anything, have been liberals. I also had family in England, who were of course refugees from Russia or Poland by origin; they lived in modest circumstances and some had strong Labour Party sympathies. But I didn’t know them until I came to England permanently in 1933.
What about your schooling when you came to England — did it make any difference that you were already a fully-fledged Communist?
I went to Marylebone Grammar School, which unfortunately no longer exists. As for Communism, in Germany I had belonged to a curious little organisation for schoolchildren called the Sozialistischer Schülerbund, which was a dependency of the German Communist Party. There was nothing like that in London, although I used to go and sell anti-war pamphlets which I picked up at the Communist Party (CP) bookshop in King Street. As far as I could see, Britain was in every respect way behind Germany. The kind of conversations which were familiar to 15-year-old schoolboys in Berlin — about politics, about literature, about sex — didn’t take place in English schools. I was a bit bored and I spent a great deal of my time reading. Then I turned out to be rather good at history, and I got a scholarship to Cambridge, to King’s.
Were you very politically active as an undergraduate?
Yes, in CP politics and socialist clubs, not in the ordinary Cambridge Union politics. I was also active in undergraduate journalism, and eventually ended up editing Granta.
At that time, did you already want to become an academic — and were you particularly drawn to labour history?
I became an academic because I did well enough in my examinations to get a research grant, and by then I had decided that I didn’t have the temperament to be a journalist or a political organiser, which otherwise one would naturally be quite keen to be. I was interested in Third World history, as we would say today — imperialism, as we said in those days — and I had a travel grant to go and do research in French North Africa. But for a variety of reasons, because of the war and because I got married, I wasn’t able to go out there, and I turned to labour history instead.
What did you do in the war? Were you called up?
I was in the army, first in a Royal Engineers unit and then in the Education Corps, but I did nothing of any particular interest.
What was your attitude to the war during the period 1939 to 1941, after the Nazi-Soviet pact?
Oh, like most people I was absolutely loyal to the party line. Recent work has in fact shown that party policy in this period made virtually no difference at all, that if anything party membership increased.
But didn’t you feel any kind of conflict about being an English soldier?
Yes, I did. From the time the war started to hot up, one became rather unhappy about it. It was perfectly clear, for one thing, that the official party line was absolutely useless. Moreover, none of us really quite believed it, you see. We all believed that it was really an anti-fascist war — I mean it could hardly be denied, it was impossible to claim that both sides were equally at fault or equally bad. So far as I am aware none of the Communist parties, certainly not the British party, ever tried to act up to what was the official line, namely that it was an imperialist war, which would have involved a policy of revolutionary defeatism. That doesn’t mean that those of us who were devoted Communists at the time weren’t primarily loyal to the international cause.
Do you still regard yourself as a devoted Communist?
There is no equivalent movement today. In the 1930s and 1940s it was a single homogenous thing: if you were a Marxist you were de facto overwhelmingly likely to belong to a Communist party, and that Communist party was quite certain to be loyal to the Soviet Union, so the whole thing went together. But since 1956 it has been going in different directions. So the situation is no longer the same.
Were you shocked in 1956 when Khrushchev made his speech denouncing Stalin?
Yes, everybody was shocked. As far as I know most Communists in most countries lived for several months in the political equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Because the truth is, even if you were quite sceptical, as I was by that time, I think, about what was going on in the Soviet Union, the sheer amount that came out was something which I think very few people had realised, and it’s no use saying that it had all been available. I’m pretty certain that even a lot of people in the Soviet Union didn’t realise what had been going on. But I was shocked about a lot of other things too. In one way the shock in 1956 was twice as strong because, thanks to the Cold War and McCarthy and the dramatic anti-red atmosphere, a lot of people had for several years as it were put away serious queries about the Soviet Union and had been welded into loyalty towards the old cause simply because it was so clear that the baddies were on the other side, you see. And so it wasn’t until there was a tremendous crack on the Communist side that people were prepared to come out with doubts that they had had for a long time.
Didn’t you feel at any point that you might leave the party or that you had been committed to the wrong ideology?
No, not at all. Think of yourself, if you’d belonged to my age group. What other political choices would you have made during the Thirties and Forties? I don’t think anybody would have made any other choice. If you look back at my contemporaries, say, in Cambridge, if they had any kind of political consciousness the odds were that they were very left-wing. I think one of the things that has always made me suspect Harold Wilson is that he belonged to the same generation and was a Liberal until he kind of vaguely moved into the Labour Party.
But still, one can change one’s mind.
One can change one’s mind, yes, but on the other hand most of us fortunately were not in a position to have anything to reproach ourselves with. What we had done, what we did in our political activity in this country, was not something to be ashamed of. That we happened to be associated with people who had a lot to be ashamed of is another question. In fact we were people who, without any hope of getting any advantages at all, had devoted ourselves to a great cause.
Didn’t you feel, though, that the cause itself wasn’t working when put into practice?
Yes, that became increasingly clear. Actually, you see, I wasn’t particularly surprised since right from the beginning — I may have been too sophisticated a boy at the time — I never believed in this workers’ paradise business, and it seemed quite clear that it was tough luck for Communism that it had first come into power in an extremely backward and difficult country like Russia, in which things were bound to look rather different. If you had read Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry or Ilf and Petrov, for instance, you realised that all the stuff about shining-eyed people on tractors was rather unreal. So it wasn’t a great surprise to find that in some respects these guys were inefficient and barbarian and did all sorts of wrong things. I think the disillusion came when one saw that (a) the other countries which had become socialist weren’t allowed to go their own way, and (b) that the prospect of the global replacement of capitalism seemed to recede. And after 1956 it became perfectly possible to be critical of things.
I remember once having a rather loud evening with Arthur Koestler who, like so many ex-reds, got very hung up on the Communist record. One reason I’m not an ex-red is that I don’t like the way so many ex-reds get hung up on it. And Koestler kept on attacking me — why didn’t you do this or that? Why didn’t you criticise the Hungarian invasion? Well, actually I did criticise it in public, you see. So it was perfectly possible to be a Communist and to criticise things you didn’t like.
What do you think it means to be a Marxist today?
I think Marx was right to see insuperable contradictions in capitalism. But the questions Marx raised about how capitalist society is going to be transformed are now much more open, given the transformations in social structure. Politically I share many beliefs not only with Marxists but with almost everybody who is on the Left. “Marxist” itself doesn’t mean the same thing as it did when I began. It has become a label for being either a revolutionary or a socialist or on the extreme Left. I think one should be against the rich and for the poor because the rich can look after themselves and the poor can’t. To this extent I believe the socially managed society which we call socialism is a society which must, as far as possible, be in the interests of ordinary people.
Yes, but ordinary people in this country, at any rate in the last two elections, rejected it. How are you going to achieve socialism if it is against the wishes of the majority of workers in this country?
It’s going to be very difficult until people are convinced, and it’s up to the Labour Party to put forward a case that persuades them. In 1983, Labour, which had been publicly committing suicide for years, virtually had no programme.
But surely it had a rather distinct programme?
We can disagree about that. But anyway, I don’t actually believe that people vote for programmes. They vote for perspectives, they vote for hopes or against fears. I don’t believe that most of the people who voted overwhelmingly for Labour in 1945 knew exactly what their programme was.
I agree, but don’t you think it was precisely because of fears that people didn’t vote for Labour in 1983 — vague fears about the kind of future which Militant Tendency or Arthur Scargill seemed to represent, fears about intolerance and repression?
Well, it’s a question of what at any given moment you fear most. Right now I particularly fear repression and intolerance and the revival of jingo demagogy and know — nothingism and intellectual barbarism from Thatcher and her followers. Those people are far more dangerous than anything that Militant can produce. Name any revolution which has ever been produced by Trotskyists.
There aren’t any. The point is that they attract a kind of permanent extreme element on the fringe which in certain circumstances is quite a good influence and in others quite the reverse.
But in Communist countries revolutions have led to repression anyway.
Then do you still believe — presumably you once did — in the proletarian revolution?
I certainly did, though since becoming a historian — and a historian who has studied Lenin — I have come to the conclusion that revolution is actually a thing you can’t make. It’s a happening rather than a planned operation, and any attempt to force the pace doesn’t quite work out.
But didn’t Marx more or less predict that capitalism would make the rich richer and the poor poorer, and that this would eventually lead to a spontaneous revolution? This hasn’t actually happened, and on the whole people are better off than they have ever been. Could it not be that a much better society will gradually emerge from capitalism?
That is a possibility. There’s no question that in material terms people are in most cases far better off than they were, say, a century ago. They’re better off because of the enormous increase in the powers of production. About relative inequality I’m by no means certain — there are ups and downs. At the moment the rich are getting notoriously richer; in the United States for instance all groups are losing ground compared to the top 20 per cent, and this is clearly also true in Britain.
But aren’t the poor in Marxist countries even worse off?
Not necessarily. It’s true that most East European states are distinctly worse off than most Western European states, but I would have thought that the Balkans are passing through an all-time golden age in their history. OK, if you compare Hungary and Austria, people in both countries are better off in material terms than they have ever been in their history, and the Austrians are considerably better off than the Hungarians. OK, if you look at certain other aspects, Hungarians today have a much more interesting cultural life.
Maybe, but isn’t a lot of that culture at odds with the prevailing socialist regime?
I’m not against that. On the contrary, you won’t get any culture if you assume that it is all essentially publicity releases for the regime. This applies everywhere, both under capitalism and under socialism. And if we are talking about civilised standards in general, the Soviet Union has in fact immeasurably improved. In the 1930s and ’40s, you could have said that if you wanted barbarism in the most literal sense, that is where you got it. If you look at the present, the regimes which kill and torture are not the Marxist regimes but some of the other ones.
Isn’t there barbarism on both sides?
No. If you actually look at the extent to which, say, the Polish regime has managed to control and solve the Solidarity thing, I doubt whether more than 30 people were actually killed during those two years. I’m the last person to justify this, because I thought Solidarity a great thing — I believe that one of the weaknesses of socialist regimes is precisely that they don’t allow scope for labour movement. But to talk about this in the same terms as about Chile or Argentina is simply not using words in a reasonable way.
It’s not saying much, but the fact is that people in a place like Poland can now criticise the regime, if necessary in public, and what they risk is not a hell of a lot more than what they would in a Western country.
I would have thought they risk a great deal more and Poland, anyway, is rather special. But let’s get back to English politics. Tell me about giving advice to Neil Kinnock and being his guru.
I’ve never advised Kinnock, never been his guru. I’ve only met him twice, once when I did an interview with him for Marxism Today and once when he took the chair at a Fabian Society meeting.
But what about your articles?
Look, it’s nice for a retired professor who writes about politics to find what he writes about being widely discussed, but some of my articles have also been widely criticised.
Do you mind criticism from the Left that you are advocating a broad front with the SDP-Liberal Alliance?
Sure I mind. Naturally I’m on the side of these guys, even though I don’t think their policies are particularly helpful.
But if you’re locked into an electoral arrangement with the Alliance in order to defeat Thatcherism, how will you get back to socialism? Surely David Owen’s views are nearer in certain respects to the Conservatives than they are to the Left of the Labour Party.
I’ve never appealed for a pact with the Alliance. The idea that I did has now been repeated so often in the press that it has come to have an independent existence, just like the stuff about being Kinnock’s guru. I simply said what is obviously true, that as long as the opposition to Thatcher is divided 50-50, it is that much harder to defeat her, and sooner or later we will have to come to terms with this. What interests me much more is how, in a broader sense, we can get back to socialism, which I believe is not by isolating the working class within a small sectional movement, but once again making it the centre of a broad progressive coalition. This does not necessarily have anything to do with whether you are for or against Owen — I’m personally rather against him. Historically speaking, a broad coalition is as likely to strengthen the Left as the Right. There are quite good reasons for believing that it would get socialism out of its isolated corner, as well as keeping it in contact with a lot of people who are not blue-collar workers but who are just as interested in having a different kind of society.
Do you see nothing that can be said in favour of Mrs Thatcher? Not even the fact that she is a woman?
Nothing. I’m actually a believer in sex equality, and consequently I’m prepared to judge a woman prime minister in exactly the same way that I would a man prime minister. The one marginal thing I could say for Mrs Thatcher is that she is so jingoistic and racialist, so much a kind of Kipling imperialist, that she has actually cut the ground from underneath the National Front and the real fascists.
Apart from that, she is waging the class war from above, not merely trying to divide the rich from the poor but trying to break up the solidarity of the working class, which used to be so enormous, and which you could still see during the miners’ strike. It’s the middle class for whom she is waging the class war. For them it’s a matter of fear and resentment against the working class. Aristocrats don’t mind one way or the other. It’s the goddam middle class which is scared of the workers and will try to kick them in the balls.
As a middle-class person, I don’t feel that to be true. Nor do I observe it around me.
Oh yes, who are all these ultra-right ideologists at the moment? They are middle-class boys, they are grammar school boys who have made it, like Norman Tebbit, who regard the fact that they have made it themselves as proof that everything is OK and that therefore guys who haven’t made it are not worth bothering about. You see, to this extent my generation was better. As far as I can see, guys like Roger Scruton have come up the same way as guys like myself — they went to grammar schools, got scholarships, and are quite smart.
One last question. What in your view would be an ideal future for Britain?
I would like in some ways a society which preserves what has been good in the past. Paradoxically I believe that the Left, socialists, are better at preserving this than the centre and the Right, because the one thing which destroys everything is the unrestricted development of capitalism. If you want to find what is traditionally good about Germany, for example, you are much more likely to find it in Jena than in Frankfurt. Being now a great deal older than I was when I started, I have, if you like, less apocalyptic and millennial hopes for the future. I should be happy in a country in which it was impossible to be rich or successful without being ashamed that people who are less well-off than you or stupider than you or didn’t have your chances were being dropped down the drain and forgotten.
But that’s very mild — it sounds like an SDP view of the future. Even Conservatives couldn’t actually disagree with it.
Then the question is: how do you set about achieving it effectively? I believe it is only likely to be achieved through parties and movements which build on the classical socialist and working-class tradition in this country.
“In this way arose feudal Socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core: but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.
“The artistocracy, in order to rally the people to them, waved the proletarian alms-bag in front for a banner. But the people, so often as it joined them, saw on their hindquarters the old feudal coat of arms, and deserted with loud and irreverant laughter” – Marx and Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto.’
I’ve written about the Graun‘s tame public school Stalinist, Seumas “Posh Boy” Milne many times before and was inclined, at first, to ignore his latest pack of lies, half-truths, evasion and privileged westerner’s patronisation of, and generalisation about, people of other cultures, published in that paper yesterday. But it really is a loathsome, poisonous piece of writing, even by Milne’s distasteful ‘standards.’
Milne (ex- Winchester School and Balliol, Oxford) is far from the first scion of the upper class to become a radical and, in a sense, a class traitor. In principle, an admirable stance. George Orwell famously described himself as “lower-upper-middle class” and went to Eton. But Orwell’s socialism was libertarian and democratic to its core. Even in the 1930′s, when the full horrors of Stalinism had yet to be generally acnowledged and the Soviet Union was widely admired amongst British intellectuals, Orwell rejected it and dedicated his life to promoting what he saw as democratic socialism and fighting totalitarianism in both its fascist and Stalinist forms.
Milne could scarcely be further from that tradition. All his adult life has been devoted to glorifying Stalinism and dictatorship. He seems to have a psychological need for a strong leader-figure. He certainly holds democracy in any form, in complete disdain. On leaving Balliol he became business manager of Straight Left (the publication of an ultra-Stalinist faction within the British Communist Party), and since joining the Guardian (via a stint at the Economist) has frequently devoted columns to defending/excusing/downplaying the mass murder that took place under his hero.
But Mine has had a major problem since 1989: the masses of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union rejected totalitarianism, and the working class of the ‘West’ (and, indeed, most of the rest of the world) finally discarded whatever residual illusions they may have had in Stalinism as any kind of progressive force. History’s verdict on the Milnes’ of this world was decisive and damning. Since that blow (shared by his friend and co-thinker George Galloway), he’s had no postive vision of socialism to put forward. Like many other Stalinists, he doesn’t even use the word very often. He prefers to talk about “imperialism,” which for him means little more than “bad” and – especially – American and Israeli “bad.”
Apart from hoping that Chinese capitalism (the rise of which even he has described as “problematic”) will soon eclipse the US version, and that populist demagogues like Hugo Chavez will develop some form of home-grown “socialism” in Latin America, poor Seumas doesn’t really know what he’s actually in favour of. But he knows what he’s against. Hence his support for anyone – but anyone – who’s against the US and/or ‘the West’ as a whole and/or Israel. Hence his support for the Iranian clerical fascists, for the antisemites of Hamas and Hezbullah, the so-called “resistance” that murdered trade unionists and democrats in Iraq and for the so-called “resistance” (aka the Taliban) in Afghanistan (if you don’t believe me on this, take a look at the video below). Naturally, he now rejoices at the reactionary anti-American protests recently stirred up by clerical fascists in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere, which he gloatingly celebrates as “blowback” from “US and western attempts to commandeer the Arab uprisings” (he thought the Libyans should have submitted to the tender mercies of Gaddafi, just as he now supports Assad). Clearly, for Milne (as for Galloway, Pilger, Tariq Ali and people like the degenerate ex-SWP’ers of ‘Counterfire’) Islamism now plays the “progressive” role in the world that Stalinism and various nationalist movements once did. He conveniently ignores the fact that all the evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of Libyans (and no doubt Egyptians and others) rejected the latest manufactured Islamist ‘outrage.’ Here’a telling passage from his latest Graun effort:
“The fact that the attack on the US consulate, along with often violent protests that have spread across 20 countries, was apparently triggered by an obscure online video trailer concocted by US-based Christian fundamentalists and émigré Copts – even one portraying the prophet Muhammad as a fraud and paedophile – seems bafflingly disproportionate to outsiders.
“But in the wake of the Rushdie affair and Danish cartoons controversy, it should be clear that insults to Muhammad are widely seen by Muslims as an attack on their collective identity and, as the Berkeley-based anthropologist Saba Mahmoud argues, a particular form of religiosity that elevates him as an ideal exemplar.
“Those feelings can obviously be exploited, as they have been in recent days in a battle for political influence between fundamentalist Salafists, mainstream Islamists and the Shia Hezbollah. But it would be absurd not to recognise that the scale of the response isn’t just about a repulsive video, or even reverence for the prophet. As is obvious from the slogans and targets, what set these protests alight is the fact that the injury to Muslims is seen once again to come from an arrogant hyperpower that has invaded, subjugated and humiliated the Arab and Muslim world for decades.”
Condensed version: “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
Seumas, like many such self-important political illiterates, is highly sensitive to criticism, and at Comment is Free (where readers are supposed to be able to comment on Graun articles) he is protected by vigilant “moderators” who regularly delete critical comments and put those who dare attack, mock or just disagree with Seumas into a limbo called “pre-moderation.” However, one or two critical voices occasionally get through: someone calling themselves ‘sullenandhostile’ (on page 3, 19 Sept, 1.15 pm below the article) takes poor Seumas apart good and proper. I doubt that s/he’ll be allowed to return.
You might just ask, in view of his hatred of America and his support for all who attack the “West” by whatever means, why he doesn’t go the whole hog and express at least some sympathy with Al-Qaeda ; well, he has done. Here. Note the date.
I’ve just been listening to Jonathan Myerson‘s ‘Payback’ on BBC Radio 4. It has a superb cast (including Henry Goodman as Kissinger, Peter Marinker as Nixon, Sara Kestelman as Golda Meir and Kerry Shale as Al Haig and Simcha Dinitz) and demonstrates considerable historical and psychological insight. It’s about the October 1973 ‘Yom Kippur War’ when Egypt and Syria launched an attack to recover the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, and very nearly succeeded. The play concentrates on the interaction between the war and Richard Nixon’s increasingly desperate efforts to fend off an investigation into Watergate and the release of the tapes. The behind-the-scenes negotiations/shadow-boxing between Kissinger and the USSR (in the form of Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin) is also dealt with very convincingly.
Despite the deadly serious subject matter, there’s some grim humour in Myerson’s script, mainly provided by Nixon’s brilliantly scatalogical and scurrilous use of language, especially when describing enemies and fairweather friends.
The political repercussions of the Yom Kippur War were almost as vast as those of the 1967 War and are necessary for any informed understanding of the Middle East and, indeed, the world, today.
This is radio drama at its best. If you have an hour to spare (and if you haven’t – make one!), listen and learn. Or you can download it from here (Amazon, I’m afraid). Essential listening for anyone interested in recenty history and contemporary politics - or who just enjoys superb radio drama.