Leo Abse: we won’t see his like again

August 22, 2008 at 2:23 pm (Civil liberties, good people, Human rights, Jim D, labour party, libertarianism, politics, socialism, Uncategorized)

RIP: Leo Abse, writer, amateur Freudian and former Labour MP,  April 22 1917-August 19 2008.

He was responsible for more private members’ legislation that any other parliamentarian of the 20th Century. In this age of grovelling nonetities on all sides of Parliament, Leo Abse was a showman and a preening maverick…but also a thoroughly enlightened friend of progress and human decency. He championed the causes of gay rights (or ” homosexual reform” as it was then known), family planning, ‘no-fault divorce’, childrens’ rights with regard to fosterering and adoption, industrial injuries, prison reform and a host of other progressive social causes. Jim Callaghan said to him: ‘You do much more good in terms of human happiness than 90 per cent of the work done in Parliament on political issues.”

He always refused offers of ministerial office, preferring to do his work from the back benches.

Here’s a good obit, plus a nice photo of Abse the dandy in a startling waistcoat.

When he retired from Parliament in 1987, he began a new career as a writer, specialising in outrageous would-be Freudian biographies of such figures as Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Daniel Defoe. A book published in 2000 was entitled Fellatio, Masochism, Politics and Love. His autobiography was called simply…Private Member

I reviewed his biography of Tony Blair, The Man Behind The Smile, in  January 1997 for Workers’ Liberty magazine; you may enjoy it:

“Blair: a suitable case for treatment?

“The bungled attempt to rig Radio 4’s Today Programme ‘Personality of the Year’ poll in favour of Tony Blair was one of the more amusing contributions to the panto season. It also told us a lot about the mentality of a young sycophants who inhabit Millbank Tower, whose sole mission on earth appears to be to build a bizarre personality cult around a grinning nonentity.

“But what of the mentality of the ‘personality’ at the centre of this rather feable cult? Most of the rank and file of the Labour Party appear to regard A. Blair Esq. as a personable opportunist who can get the Tories out and might just prove to be a little more radical in government than he is in opposition. A growing band of us think he is a devious, sanctimonious Christian Democrat who has already succeeeded in destroying much of what made the Labour Party worth supporting and who. in government, would usher in an authoritarian neo-Thatcherite regime.

“Former Labour MP Leo Abseclaerly agrees with the latter thesis in all but one respect: Blair isn’t devious, he’s mad. As an accomplished amateur Freudian, Abse doesn’t put it as bluntly as that. He talks in terms of a ‘fractured psyche’, a desire for ‘permanent adolescent androgyny’ and a ‘yearning to return to the womb’ (Abse’s explanation for Blair’s much-vaunted enthusiam for rock music).

“As with his previous work on Margaret Thatcher, Abse locates the source of his subject’s psychosis in a dysfunctional childhood and an ambivalent relationship with a domineering father. In Thatcher’s case (according to Abse) the resultant psychosis was tempered by marriage to he relatively stable Dennis: in Blair’s, the problem was compounded by marriage to the equally psychotic Cherie.

“Most of this stuff is, of course, no more than highly speculative psycho-babble. But there are moments when Abse hits the nail on the head: the fascistic overtones of the rhetorical obsession with ‘youth’ and ‘rebirth’, for instance. Abse is at his most perceptive in his description of the Blair court, heaving with ‘homoerotic’ rivalries and driven by an Oedipal need to deny and destroy the Old Labour heritage: ‘As they seek to kill off the fathers, the courageous youngsters, manned with piss proud erections, dare to obliterate the reality that the most radical Labour government was led by old men.’

“As you have probably gathered by now, this book is essentially a gutsy, Old Labour diatribe against the Blair entry-job on the party and its accompanying personality-cult. You can take or leave the psycho-babble, but in a political culture that encourages the rigging of radio popularity polls and Labour spokespersons (the egregious Janet Anderson in a Daily Telegraph interview) claiming to be sexually excited by the Great Leader, Abse’s pseudo-psychoanalysis is a timely breath of fresh air.

“And it suggested to this reviewer that in campaigning to destroy Tony Blair the politician we are bringing a  life-affirming  catharsis to Tony Blair the human being.”

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The crushing of the Prague spring: what Harman said at the time

August 21, 2008 at 4:04 pm (history, Jim D, left, Marxism, stalinism, SWP, trotskyism)

Czechoslovakia Invasion 1968 
Exactly forty years after the tanks and troops of the USSR and four other Warsaw Pact countries went into Czechoslovakia, crushing the democratic aspirations of the Czech people it’s worth reminding ourselves of how the non-Stalinist far left reacted at the time. You may recall from an earlier posting here, that Tariq Ali of the IMG led a protest against the Soviet State Symphony Orchestra at the Proms on August 21st 1968.

Here’s what Chris Harman of the International Socialists (forerunners of today’s SWP)  wrote in their magazine shortly afterwards (in June 1969, after Dubcek had been finally removed by the Kremlin) :

The Czech events have now revealed all the features of the classic crisis of bureaucratic state capitalism, as revealed in the events of Poland and Hungary in 1956. There have been differences of emphasis; time and national conditions have produced peculiarities of casting, but the mould has retained the same contours. The forces shaping history have been similar, following the dynamics of the same system…

“…Throughout 1968 the Dubcek group had to fight a battle on two fronts. On the one hand it had to deal definitively with the remnants, at every level of the bureacracy, of the Novotny (Dubcek’s predecessor as CPCz leader -JD) regime; whole hosts of administrators attached to an antiquated organisation of production had to be eleminated. On the other hand it increasingly had to worry about forces it itself had unleashed; in the factories and universities independent and democratic mass organisations were appearing for the first time for twenty years. Trade Unions were being rebuilt on a democratic basis. Journalists and radio and television personnel who had been freed from censorship in order to criticise the Novotnyites were in danger of discussing the policies of the new rulers.

“Even prior to the Russian invasion this flowering of free discussion was of some concern to the Dubcek group. Ministers began to refer to the dangers of ‘anarchy’ and of ‘anti-socialist’ forces…

“… With the sacking of Dubcek, without serious bureaucrat opposition (even Dubcek does not seem to have seriously tried to oppose it) the Czech ruling class has jumped off the fence. It has shown it is prepared to put down the workers and students in the interests of the Russians. From now on the lines of the class struggle inside Czechoslovakia and of the national struggle against the Russians will be more and more identical.

“This will have a two sided consequence. On the one hand an increasing bitterness against the bureaucracy as a whole among the mass of workers, students and other oppressed groups. On the other a continued articulation of this class consciousness in national terms that prevent it becoming fully self-conscious. A soert of ‘Sinn Fein’ stance can be expected which will identify class enemies, but never be fully clear why, nor of long-term alternatives to them.

“Distressing as it may be to western socialists (who still think it is better to be pro-Russian in the West than pro-American in the East) this class consciousness may well be masked by all sorts of pro-western ideologies. But the increased repression and censorship will make organised articulation of genuinely revolutionary alternatives well nigh impossible…”

Note how (in contrast to the SWP’s coverage of recent events in Georgia), Harman does not use the existance of “pro-western ideologies” to excuse or justify the Russian invasion. And note that his criticism of Dubcek and the indigenous Czech bureaucracy was because they were too willing to compromise with the Russians…

Disagreements over matters like the precise class nature of the Soviet Union aside, Harman’s take on matters was fairly typical of the non-Stalinist far left at the time.

NB: What I’ve quoted above are, of course, merely excepts from a much longer article that is not (as far as I know) available on the web. But the excepts are typical of the entire piece and in no way misrepresent Harman’s position.

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I love you all; thanks to Nat and Hoagy…

August 20, 2008 at 12:00 am (beer, jazz, Jim D, music)

I was in the pub this afternoon, brooding and planning revenge upon various enemies…

Then, suddenly, this came on the jukebox:

… and all I could feel was love and goodwill to you all.

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Prague spring: Rostropovich’s tears

August 18, 2008 at 11:45 pm (good people, Human rights, Jim D, music, Russia, stalinism, thuggery)

We’re coming up to the fortieth anniversary of the ‘Prague Spring’, so brutally crushed by Russian tanks. At the time, the “68’ers” (and people like me: a little younger), had no problem speaking out against Russian imperialism and brutality. I make no further comment, or attempt to draw any sort of simplistic analogy. Except to note that Tariq Ali was a leading protester against the Russian invasion; he’s been silent about Russian imperialism this time, to the best of my knowledge.

By pure co-incidence, the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was booked to play Dvorak’s Cello Concerto at the British “Proms” on the 21st August, 1968 – just as the tanks went in.

Get this: a Russian cellist playing a concerto by a Czech composer on the very day of the invasion.

There was a protest outside the hall (led by Tariq Ali), and heckling inside, as well… 

Until Rostropovich started playing…

…and then everyone knew which side he was on. He was crying as he played…


Sadly, there’s no film of Rostropovich’s performance that night, and the recording of it cuts out the initial heckling. But here he is, performing the same piece a few years later:

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Chris Strafford – an apology

August 18, 2008 at 6:03 pm (blogging, Iran, Jim D, left, voltairespriest)

In the course of a previous heated debate around Israel-Iran, Jim called Chris Strafford of the CPGB a “pro-nazi” and an “anti-semite”. These comments were intemperate and unwarranted, and we both apologise for any distress or upset caused. Whilst we have always been (and remain) proud to hold one of the most libertarian posting and comments policies of any blog on the UK left, that does not mean that we are willing simply to descend into ad hominem abuse of political opponents who do not deserve it.

Voltaire’s Priest

(and I agree, and personally apologise to Chris- Jim)

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Georgia on my mind

August 18, 2008 at 5:48 pm (democracy, Jim D, reaction, socialism, stalinism, thuggery, trotskyism, United States, war)

Why, exactly, is it that so many on the left are so sympathetic to Putin and Greater Russian imperialism over the Georgia invasion?

Why have certain commentors here, been so worked up about any suggestion that Russia may be the aggressor (which doesn’t excuse the role of Saakashvili in S. Ossetia – though allegations of “genocide” seem to have been quietly forgotten), and playing a classic imperialist role?

We’ve already dealt with the hooray public school Stalinist Milne a couple of postings ago. But what the bloody hell is Socialist Worker on about with this shite?  And then, there’s the would-be Ba’athist murderer and loathsome, ultra-right scumbag Neil Clark, in today’s Morning Star:

“There are 28 sports in the Beijing Olympics. Hypocisy isn’t one of them, but if it was, the US and Britain would surely be battling it out for the gold medal”…(he’s on about Georgia, by the way: but not even one single, solitary mention of Russian imperialism and brutality)…

I don’t think there’s much doubt that George Bush and Dick Cheney are not the ideal duo to reprimand anyone about international bullying: but just because they’re hypocrites, it doesn’t automatically make what they say untrue (a regular rhetorical device of the “anti-war” movement: because someone’s a hypocrite, that means what they say is automatically untrue)…

But I repeat: why the postive support for Russian imperialism, evinced by much of the “left” and by letter-writers to the Graun ?

At least, before the collapse of the USSR, Stalinists genuinely believed that they were defending “socialism” (however mad that belief was by the 1980’s). And even “orthodox” Trots believed they were defending a “degenetated workers’ state” against capitalism. However wrong (to the degree of insanity) these people were, their stance was based upon an internally rational, subjectively socialist analysis of what was at stake. No longer: who now believes that Putin’s Russia is anything but a brutal, capitalist state, unconstrained by even bourgeois democratic checks and balances?

I can only suggest the following possible explanations:

1/ Hatred of the US and the ‘West’, on the basis of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”;

2/ Nostalgia for the USSR and Stalinism, that has now morphed into apolitical nationalist support for Russia;

3/ A general liking for tyranny over bourgeois democracy, aquired over many years of defending the crimes of Stalinism.

Anyone got any other explanations?

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Welfare: coercing the vulnerable

August 17, 2008 at 10:15 pm (Andrew Coates, Gordon Brown, labour party)


Gordon Brown poses if not as a socialist, at least as a social reformer with a conscience. His claims to be getting people into employment, that benefits, already minimal, are generous enough and access to them is to be made as hard as possible to encourage the work ethic. The recent Green Paper on Welfare Reform calls this “rewarding responsibility” which will help make Britain a world-class economy. Nevertheless, in July the UK claimant level rose for the sixth month in a row by 20,100 to 864,700 (total unemployed 1,677 million, Invalidity benefit claimants 2, 2 million). The economy is slowing down. There is a real possibility of a recession. The out-of-work are competing for an ever-decreasing pool of vacancies. Crisis looms.


Undaunted the government is introducing the first wave of welfare reforms. Disabled claimants face rigorous reviews. Thus this week the BBC’s Look East (12/8.08 ) focused on a man with multiple sclerosis who faces a ‘work focused’ interview – despite the fact that he is confined to an arm-chair watching television all day.  http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/puffbox/hyperpuff/audiovideo/england/7556645.stm


This is exceptionally (for how long?) cruel. It extends existing practice to new territory. Since the Introduction of Job Seeker’s Allowance, those considered hale and hearty are constantly harassed. Gordon Brown and his DWP Ministers assert they assist the unemployed into work, and some indeed do become employable through their programmes But the total of those claiming is made lower by other means A DWP paper released last week shows large numbers of people driven off benefits (with no record of their having found jobs) by tightened conditions and the New Deal system. 1 in 7 over-25s are simply ‘exited’ (cut off). Many more young people on a separate scheme leave as well. Considering that this system reduces the count the DWP says it is “good value for money”. As a result a new study is underway to find further methods to toughen the regime. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/aug/07/welfare.socialexclusion


DWP Minister James Purnell plans (to be piloted first) to put the jobless on Workfare. This will be compulsory, paid at around £60 a week, and with little normal employment protection. This project has barely been challenged in Parliament and the media. For reasons that escape me threats of absolute destitution are described as “nudge economics” and the “hidden art of persuasion.” Alison Benjamin notes “the voluntary sector has been strangely silent over the potentially disastrous consequences of coercing vulnerable people into work. Is this because many charities will be bidding for the contrasts to run the new welfare system of because they fear a Tory government would impose even tougher rules?”  Or because Charities are increasingly willing privatised arms of state policy? http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2008/aug/13/socialexclusion.welfare


The vulnerable already face coercion in New Deal schemes. Many experience poverty if they are partially sanctioned or wholly excluded from benefits. The potential for bullying and exploitation is enormous where claimants have no rights and this menace is held over them. The prospect of the workless cleaning the streets (eerily reminiscent of measures carried out in Vienna in 1938 ) seems to meet general agreement amongst well-paid journalists and many in the social sector.


It is a scandal that there are not people out on the streets screaming opposition to these proposals. Those on Benefits are treated as objects, with no rights, and certainly not the right to be listened to by the writers of Green, or White Papers. This year the Annual Trades Councils’ Conference strongly opposed Workfare, compulsion in the existing New Deal, and questioned its poor quality, and the lack of participants’ rights. The Trades Councils demand, “work or maintenance”. That is, decent work, decent pay, and decent benefits. Until the government drops its strategy of intimidating the weak it will continue following the economy: in a downward spiral, to defeat.


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“Funny kind of independence. Funny kind of anti-imperialism.”

August 17, 2008 at 4:45 pm (Champagne Charlie, Guardian, national liberation, stalinism, thuggery)

 Whose imperialism is worse?

By seeing a narrative of western imperialism in the Caucasus, Seumas Milne tramples on the principle of democratic self-determination

  • David Clark

Anyone familiar with my writings over the last few years will know that I share many of the premises behind the argument set out by Seumas Milne yesterday. America’s conduct of the war on terror, enthusiastically abetted by the United Kingdom, has degraded the moral authority of the west. The Iraq war was a self-interested geopolitical misadventure dishonestly presented as a security or humanitarian imperative. The willingness of Washington and London to tolerate Israel’s disproportionate military action against Lebanon in 2006 has left them wide open to the charge of hypocrisy in their response to the war in Georgia.

This is where agreement ends, for I can’t let Milne’s argument go without pointing out a couple of important errors of fact and one major error of analysis.

His first error of fact is the assertion that Georgia was part of the invasion of Iraq and therefore scarcely in a position to complain about the violation of its own sovereignty. This is plain wrong. Georgia did not deploy troops in Iraq until after the war, in August 2003, and did so under the mandate of UN Security Council Resolution 1483 (pdf), passed in May 2003 by 14 votes to nil. Its troops were also part of a force operating with the agreement of the elected government of Iraq. I opposed the war as much as anyone, but there is no basis for arguing that Georgia’s military presence in Iraq was a violation either of international law or Iraq’s sovereignty.

Milne’s second error was to repeat as fact Russia’s assertion that Georgian troops killed hundreds of civilians in their assault on Tskhinvali. There is no independent support for this claim, or for the bogus claims being made by both sides about genocide. The only authoritative independent assessment so far comes from Human Rights Watch and states the following:

A doctor at Tskhinvali Regional Hospital who was on duty from the afternoon of August 7 told Human Rights Watch that between August 6 to 12 the hospital treated 273 wounded, both military and civilians. She said her hospital was the only clinic treating the wounded in Tskhinvali. The doctor said there were more military personnel than civilians among the wounded and added that all of the wounded were later transferred to the Russian Ministry of Emergencies mobile hospitals in South and North Ossetia. As of August 13, there were no wounded left in the Tskhinvali hospital.

The doctor also said that 44 bodies had been brought to the hospital since the fighting began, of both military and civilians. The figure reflects only those killed in the city of Tskhinvali. But the doctor was adamant that the majority of people killed in the city had been brought to the hospital before being buried, because the city morgue was not functioning due to the lack of electricity in the city.

Everyone who cares about human rights – as opposed to those who use them as partisan debating points – has a responsibility to be objective and consistent in assessing claims of atrocities committed in war. It may transpire that crimes more serious than those so far unearthed by Human Rights Watch have been committed, but our conclusions should follow the evidence, not the dictates of political preference. There now needs to be a full investigation into what has happened in Georgia, and we should therefore welcome the announcement of the prosecutor of International Criminal Court that he is considering an inquiry. Anyone found guilty of violating international humanitarian law should be punished regardless of which side they belong to.

My complaint about Milne’s error of analysis concerns his attempt to make the Georgia conflict fit the anti-imperialist paradigm, which posits Georgia as a “pro-western, anti-Russian forward base” functioning at the behest of a rapacious and domineering America. The reality is that US policy towards Russia and the countries around it has been much more ambivalent and confused than Milne’s picture allows. At their first meeting, President Bush claims to have looked Vladimir Putin in the eye and the seen the soul of a man he could trust. Sources claim Bush swallowed a lot of blather from Putin about his commitment to the Russian Orthodox Church, showing what a canny manipulator of people the ex-KGB colonel is. Between Bush’s gullible religious mysticism and Dick Cheney’s admittedly hawkish instincts, the administration’s policy towards Russia has never really recovered a clear sense of direction.

In each particular detail, Milne misreads or misrepresents the evidence of a grand American plan to undermine Russia. Missile defence is a strategic error for all sorts of reasons, but it is not directed at Russia. It stems, in the short term, from an obsession with the threat of small rogue states and the misguided belief that technology can provide the solution. In the unlikely event that missile defence works, other delivery systems will evolve to counter it. Underlying this is the unipolar imperative that the US should dominate the process of military-technological change across the spectrum. They are doing it because they can – or, at least, think they can – but there is no specifically anti-Russian objective involved.

The role of the US in the so-called “colour revolutions” has been hugely exaggerated. In the case of Ukraine, for example, there was outside “interference” from both east and west. In the case of assistance form America and Europe, this involved training political parties and NGOs in the latest techniques of open and democratic campaigning. In the case of Russia, assistance came in the form of an attempt to rig the ballot, to say nothing of the suspicion that they also tried to murder the opposition candidate. You be the judge of what is legitimate here. The fact is that Saakashvili and Yushchenko came to power because the people of Georgia and Ukraine wanted them.

Finally, on Nato enlargement, the running on this has been made predominantly by countries that want to join, with the US and other Nato members following behind at variable rates of hesitancy. Until last week, many US policy makers were unsure that incorporating Georgia and Ukraine would be worth the bother. The fact that they are both still outside is a consequence of precisely the deference towards Russian concerns Milne says is lacking.

Missing from all of this is any hint that the views of the people of Georgia or other post-Soviet countries, apart from Russia, count for anything. Integration into western institutions is not being foisted on anyone; it is being chosen willingly in almost every country that enjoys the freedom to decide for itself. I understand why many Russians resent that fact, but that cannot be an excuse for imposing their will by force. It must be the apex principle of a democratic Europe that every country has the right to decide its own external relations in accordance with its own interests. Without that, we are back to the Europe of Metternich and Bismarck, if not Ribbentrop and Molotov.

Milne concludes by advancing the bizarre notion that Georgia’s independence can only be guaranteed by accepting a status of neutrality; in other words, by subordinating its own will to that of Russia. Funny kind of independence. Funny kind of anti-imperialism.

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He Ain’t Got Rhythm

August 15, 2008 at 10:38 am (comedy, Jim D, music, strange situations, wild man)

“I never knew there were so many ways to count four.”

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Stalinism’s last hurrah (from its last hooray)

August 14, 2008 at 8:33 am (Champagne Charlie, Guardian, reaction, stalinism, thuggery)

Seumas Milne Seumas Milne

The Graun‘s resident public school Stalinist gloats as he makes his all-too-predictable support for one side’s imperialist aggression and bombing of civilians very clear:

“By any sensible reckoning this is not a story of Russian agression, but of US expansion and even tighter encirclement of Russia by a potentially hostile power. That a stronger Russia has now used the South Ossetian imbroglio to put a check on that expansion should hardly come as a surprise. What is harder to work out is why Saakashvili launched last week’s attack and whether he was given any encouragement by his friends in Washington.” Read the rest (if you’ve a strong stomach) here.

Still: at least he’s stopped pretending to be a pacifist.

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