Orwell, Fake News, Alt-Right, Alt-Left and … Skwawkbox

July 24, 2017 at 7:59 am (Andrew Coates, blogging, conspiracy theories, intellectuals, literature, media, men, Orwell, politics, populism, publications, socialism)

Comrade Coatesy has an important piece over at his blog (posted 22 July) and I know he doesn’t mind his stuff being republished here at Shiraz. We should also acknowledge the fact that we’ve used material from Skwawkbox in the past (having checked its accuracy), but like Coatesy and others, have become increasingly disturbed by its apparent preference for sensationalism over fact-checking.

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Orwell and Fake News, Alt-Right, Alt-Right.

George Orwell never ceases being cited. These days he more often appears for good reasons than for bad ones.

Recently people have had recourse to Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes in Salvador Dali (1944) in order to defend his ability as a “ good draftsman” while being, “a disgusting human being”. That qualified support highlighted, few share the judgement that the Surrealist’s “Mannequin rooting in a taxicab’ as “diseased and disgusting”. The important idea, one, which Orwell repeats about Dickens as Bechhofer Roberts published an early version of what much later developed in the account of the Other Woman, Ellen Ternan, is the distinction between public work and “private life”. In this instance Dali’s alleged infidelity, and the search for his DNA to prove paternity, is irrelevant to the merits or otherwise of his products.

A more weighty issue is taken up in yesterday’s le Monde (Relire « 1984 » à l’ère de la post-vérité). Stéphane Foucart discusses Orwell as a reference in the era of “post-truth” (post-verité). He quotes Looking Back on the Spanish War (1942), “..for the first, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary life.” Life in Republican Spain was portrayed as “one long massacre” by the pro-Franco British press. Orwell went on to imagine a future in which “the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not only he future but the past. If the Leader says of such and such an event “it never happened” – well it never happened. If he says that two and two are five – well, two and two are five.”

English speaking readers are more familiar with this passage, a premonition of the theme of 1984, than French, who, to Foucart, only began to register that dystopia in the 1980s, with intellectuals such as Michael Gauchet dismissing it. More recently there are those who have taken Orwell to their hearts, for his “common decency”. The idea that the over boiled cabbage and Thought Police of Ingsoc, and a planet divided into three rival Party-Oligarchies, has relevance today may seem to stretch a point.

That we know that the past is both so obviously not there, yet is worthy of objective inquiry in ways that other ‘not theres’ are not, is an old metaphysical difficulty. That the standard of objectivity was weakened by what used to be fashionable in the old days of ‘post-modernism’ is well known. But that there are different ‘truths’, a liberal, in the American sense, rather than a conservative principle has become less about controlling history than the present. Was the telly screen a rudimentary form of the Internet asks Foucart? Are Trump’s efforts to purge the Presidential archives of documents challenging his view on climate change? ‘Alternative facts’, reports that bear no relation to truth, have, with the sacking of the White House’s Sean Spicer is now a topic which has made the news.

The Media and State Power.

Orwell was concerned not just with Red Atrocity reports in the Daily Mail. He also wrote of the potential totalitarian effects of government control of the media, in his time the Radio. He defended freedom of expression against all forms of censorship, including the suppression of critical reports about the USSR which he believed was taking place post-war in favour of “uncritical admiration of the Soviet Union” (The freedom of the press – Animal Farm. 1945). As Orwell later wrote, “If you do not like the Communism you are a red-baiter, a believer in Bolshevik atrocities, the nationalism of women, Moscow Gold and so on.” (In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus. 1947. Intended for Tribune, not published…)

The Trump administration has power. But there is nothing resembling an effective state broadcasting monopoly outside of North Korea, despite accusations against the People’s Republic. Trump supporters have their networks, their web sites, the loud media outlets. The British right has the dailies, the internationally influential Mail, the declining Sun, the poor old Telegraph, the ageing Express and the Star, which few get beyond the front page to read. Its media imitations of the American alt-right, languish in obscurity. In Britain if these forces are capable of manufacturing truths, from the endless drip drip against migrant workers and Europe to scare-stories about left-wingers, and have an effect on opinion, they took a jolt at the last election. As the laughable Election Day front page of the Sun demonstrated so well.

The Alt-Left and Alternative Facts. 

Come the arrival of the ‘alt-left’. In Britain this means enthusiastic pro-Jeremy Corbyn people. Sites such as The Canary may not be to everyone’s taste but have a readership. But the debate over alternative facts has spread inside the left. Is it justified for Skwawkbox to engage in its own war of attrition with the arms of sensational, scaremongering, stories. The best known at the moment is their recent ‘scoop’ that claimed that everybody on disability benefit transferred to Universal Credit , who did not find a job in two years would be subject to sanctions? That is that they risk losing a large part (if not all) of their income?

This story has been demolished by Disabled People Against Cuts. (1)

Is their mealy-mouthed justification for running the tale acceptable?

They continue to publish wild stories.

That the Daily Mail has attacked the site with its own falsehoods does not give the author a free-pass when it comes to truth and accuracy. 

The writer of 1984 did not live in the age of click-bait. Nor of self-publishing on an industrial scale. But some things have not changed. It would not be to misuse Orwell to cite this, “the controversy over freedom of speech and of the Press is at bottom the desirability, or otherwise, of telling lies. What is really at issue is the right to report contemporary events truthfully. Or as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers.” (The Prevention of Literature. 1947)

(1) The 2 year job rule for disabled people on Universal Credit is not true!

Disabled People Against Cuts.

Thank you to Gail Ward who put this together.

In the last few days it has been widely reported by various bloggers that those disabled claimants claiming Universal Credit are subjected to finding a job within two years or face a 1 year sanction. This is utter fabrication and feeding many claimants fears which could potentially cause harm. So today I called Welfare Rights, who called DWP while I remained on the phone, they denied that this information was correct and was downright alarmist and dangerous. That doesn’t mean I trust DWP and have submitted a FOI too given 7 years of shenanigans. So you see folks, you can take the fear project and destroy it with Facts!

All Orwell references in Essays. George Orwell. Everyman’s Library. 2002.

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Orwell’s Blitz

December 15, 2015 at 9:17 pm (Orwell, poetry, Rosie B, Uncategorized, war)

There was piece about George Orwell: The Complete Poetry on Front Row this evening from 23:03

Orwell originally wanted to be a poet and did keep writing verse.

A Dressed Man is a neat, sharp piece.

His Memories of the Blitz is new to me. As the editor of his poems, Dione Venables says of his poetry in general, “It has its moments.” The Blitz has not figured much in poetry though it is prevalent in films and novels. I can recall some lines of Louis MacNeice’s:-

As sometimes in the blackout and the raids
One joke composed an island in the night.

World War I, a war fought by most able-bodied men, not just professional soldiers, produced many poets. But as for the civilian experience of the World War II, many writers – like C S Lewis (Home Guard) and T S Eliot (fire watcher) took part without turning their experience into verse.

Memories of the Blitz

Not for pursuit of knowledge
Only the chances of war,
Led me to study the music,
Of the male and female snore

That night in the public shelter
With seats no pillow could soften,
Where I fled, driven out of my bed,
By bombs too near and too often.

And oh, the drone of the planes,
And the answering boom of the gun,
And the cups of tea in the dawn,
When the flames out-did the sun.

That was a long time ago,
Three years ago, or nearly,
And more has perished than gas-masks,
I could not tell you clearly,

What there can be to regret,
In a time of casual slaughter,
When the windows were empty of glass,
And pavements running with water.

But the guns have changed their tune,
And the sandbags are three years older,
Snow has kissed the flesh,
From the bones of the German soldier.

The blimp has a patch on its nose,
The railings have gone to the smelter,
Only the ghost and the cat,
Sleep in the Anderson shelter.

For the song that the sirens sang,
Is sunk to a twice-told story,
And the house where the chartered accountant,
Perished in headland glory,

Is only a clump of willow-herb,
Where I share my sorrow
With the deserted bath-tub
And the bigamous sparrow.

That has some very good lines, especially:-

In a time of casual slaughter,
When the windows were empty of glass,
And pavements running with water.

With the abstract “casual slaughter” against the particularities of the blown out windows and the broken water mains.

Also these relics of an urban war with a high civilian death count:-

The blimp has a patch on its nose,
The railings have gone to the smelter,
Only the ghost and the cat,
Sleep in the Anderson shelter.

Which is evocative, like those grey concrete pillboxes you still find on the coast, sunk into sand. Three years ago “a long time ago” for Orwell who of course did not have much time left himself.

The other day a boy of eleven told me the that his class had been to see an Anderson shelter in someone’s garden. It was very damp and mossy, he said.


George Orwell in the Home Guard

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A message to Lady Jenkin from George Orwell

December 10, 2014 at 1:05 am (food, Jim D, literature, Orwell, Tory scum, truth, welfare)

Above: Orwell enjoying a nice cup of tea

Baroness Anne Jenkin, the Tory peer who has advised the poor to eat porridge instead of “sugary cereals” and to learn to cook, would do well to read some Orwell and learn some humanity – and humility:

“The miner’s family spend only ten pence a week on green vegetables and ten pence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. […] When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll have a nice cup of tea. That is how your mind works when you are at the PAC level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread”  – from The Road To Wigan Pier, 1937

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Flippant Nihilist

August 4, 2014 at 8:40 pm (anti-semitism, fascism, Orwell, Rosie B, Uncategorized)

I only know Alexander Cockburn as an editor of the creepy Counterpunch, and his airy dismissals  of anyone who thought Israel Shamir a dodgy piece of work. 

There’s a fascinating account of him by Paul Berman.

Cockburn is reminiscent of Christopher Hitchens – the English journalist who lives in America and writes stylishly about American and international affairs. The political framework may be leftwards, the cultural references English literature, quoted with ease to point the moral and adorn the tale.

Berman does explain why Cockburn was so indifferent about Israel Shamir’s vile antisemitism:-

How systematically the man had gone after Israel, and how reluctant he was to say a word of criticism about the Soviet Union or the Islamic Republic of Iran or the terrorism of the anti-Zionists. Newfield took note of Cockburn’s hostility to Natan Sharansky, who in those days was a persecuted Jewish dissident in the Soviet Union. 

… In his column he took to sniping in my direction, not always wittily, which other people in the Voice newsroom attributed to his distaste for the Jewish concerns that sometimes cropped up in my writings. He accused me of “pandering” to the Jews by writing about Holocaust denial and Noam Chomsky (a rich theme)

Cockburn shared the Israel (or “Zionism”) obsession of the anti-imperialist Left:-

he does attribute 9/11 to “recent Israeli rampages in the Occupied Territories”

Alexander Cockburn woshipped his father, Claud Cockburn, who had lived an adventurous life where history was happening and who in the Spanish Civil War had the mouths of high-ranking Soviet officials in his ear.

Claud Cockburn was, in spite of appearances, a fine man who would never have turned over names to the Soviet police in Spain. But then, proud of his father, Alexander includes within the Wreck a brief memoir by Claud of his Spanish experiences, which leaves the impression that, in regard to the Soviet police activities, Claud was not a reluctant participant. About his friend Guy Burgess and the other Cambridge spies, Claud remarks that idealistic motives were at work, and these were “sensitive and informed” young men. Claud cites his own “experience in the field of espionage, or rather, counter-espionage.” He was “a section leader of the counter-espionage department of the Spanish Republican government dealing with Anglo-Saxon personalities,” which does sound like a job dedicated to informing the police. “

Berman believes that Claud Cockburn was a dark inspiration for George Orwell:-

I have always supposed that, when Orwell laid out the principles of totalitarianism in Nineteen Eighty-Four, one of his inspirations was Claud Cockburn, British correspondent: a cheerful example of a man willing to say everything and its opposite in the interest of a totalitarian state, committed to the renunciation of truth, to the hatred of free-thinkers, to the cause of persecution, and to the cult of obedience.

In Orwell’s portrait, the totalitarian mentality was never a matter of ideology gone awry, nor a matter of lower-class resentments. The mentality was a contempt for everyday morality and human considerations. It was a flippant nihilism, attached to no cause or principle at all, apart from love of tyranny. And, to be sure, no sooner did the Spanish anti-fascists go down to defeat than Claud Cockburn turned on a dime and set about composing justifications for Stalin’s pact with Hitler.

You could think this was a total damning of Alexander Cockburn. But Berman pays due attention to his elegant style and his love of anecdote, which at the end made me think I’d enjoy at least flicking through words of the co-editor of Counterpunch – though his constant jeering (in which he sounds like Hunter S Thompson), would get tedious after a while.

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Remembering London, Orwell, and the victims of 7/7

July 7, 2014 at 2:41 pm (anti-fascism, crime, history, islamism, James Bloodworth, literature, London, murder, Orwell, posted by JD, poverty, reblogged)


Keeping Your Head Above Water In London

James Bloodworth’s rather moving valediction to the capital, written in 2011, on the sixth anniversary of 7/7. James’s personal circumstances have changed quite considerably (he now has a job back in London) since he wrote this and we first posted it here at Shiraz.

Dedicated to those who lost their lives to religious fascism on this day six (now nine) years ago

Yesterday I moved from London to a place called Burnham-on-sea, a banal coastal town in the South West of England where they still sell Donald  McGill-style postcards in the summertime. I moved because my family live here; and with family comes a degree of financial security. I still intend to spend much of my time in London, but I cannot afford to live there any longer. Not that is, until I find gainful, paid employment. Getting a job is notoriously difficult for the unemployed at present. A man I recently sat next to at a recruitment fair told me and others he had applied for 10,000 jobs in the past two years. He was almost certainly exaggerating – overdoing one’s own misfortune seems to be a particularly British characteristic – or perhaps disastrous at writing job applications, but nonetheless, the fact that many present were prepared to believe him speaks volumes about the state of the job market.

As it happened, I was able to land a job with my previous employer, Royal Mail. Getting the job proved to be the easy part. More difficult was getting sufficient hours to pay the rent as well as buy enough to eat. Being a Postman today is a very different job to what it used to be. Almost all new contracts are temporary and based on 25-30 hour weeks; and the amount of junk a postman is required to carry around on his back in the form of advertising is rising exponentially year-on-year. That was my impression at least. Unable to eke out anything other than an extremely meagre existence in London on £200 a week, I left the position after only two weeks in the job.

The part of London life that is perhaps the biggest burden is the cost of rent. Being shown around dingy, mould-infested bedsits only to be told you must pay £100 a week for the pleasure of living there is soul destroying; especially when it comes with the prospect of giving half your weekly pay to someone whose “portfolio” ensures they will never have to sleep in mould infested dwellings, nor break their back for £200 a week. With very little chance of ever owning a house, those with inadequate living quarters must instead navigate the rental free-market, where at the end of every tenancy getting your deposit back can be like trying to extract teeth from a bad tempered dog. Life in London can be hugely enjoyable, but it can also leave you feeling a little like Gordon Comstock, the character in George Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. The difference in my case is that I am not actively trying to sink to the lowest levels of society.

London famously attracts its fair share of those  attempting to “make it” in one sense or another. As someone who has recently completed a course in journalism at City University, I am fairly sure I fit into this category of person myself. Although fully aware that moving to London would not open some golden path into the journalistic profession, I did view it as the correct place to be, which it undeniably is, most of all perhaps because of the opportunities to meet people you only get in the capital.

One thing you soon start to notice in London is the extraordinary extent to which everything is about “connections”, not least in journalism. The major newspaper titles no longer advertise positions, instead preferring to find employees who are in the loop, so to speak. Most graduates instead pursue internship placements, working anything up to a year for free on a major title, performing menial tasks such as tea-making in the almost millenarian hope that one day they may get the chance to contribute something worthwhile to the paper.

Professional journalism has always been something of a middle and upper class pursuit of course. The term “BBC accent” was coined during the 20th century to describe a recognisable Home Counties diction the corporation now likes to pretend most of its employees do not in fact possess. What certainly has changed is that most of those successfully entering the profession today have postgraduate qualifications and lengthy internships under their belts, affordable only to the relatively affluent; and unlike a Home Counties accent, something which cannot be faked. The resulting journalism that
invades my own cramped bedroom every night via the television could perhaps most aptly be described as the political establishment talking to itself.

If you can handle all of this and come out of it with your sanity you may be rewarded with a job, or you may not be. What will almost certainly be the case is there will be less in the boss’s pot with which to pay you, the worker, whether in the newspaper business or elsewhere. In hard times employee’s wages inevitably take the hit before chief executive final salary pension schemes; and if that means newsrooms becoming increasingly stuffed with wealthy individuals who can partake in journalism as a leisure activity, then so be it.

The days always seemed to go by at a faster pace in London. What I mean to say is that the time actually feels like it is moving faster. I think because so much of each day is spent under the ground scuttling along, I would say at great speed, but often at a crawl, on an overcrowded tube train. The conditions often bring out the worst in people, myself included. Just the other day I got into a quarrel with a man over some trivial thing (he bumped into me as I was walking round a corner), resulting in a situation that could quite easily have resulted in a physical confrontation, foolish on my part though that would have been.

It was of course in Keep the Aspidistra Flying that Gordon Comstock declared his own personal war on affluence. Riding on the Docklands Light Railway first thing in the morning having practically embalmed my liver the night before, sat next to the businessmen with calculators working out their cash flows on the way to Canary Wharf, I have gotten, I like to think, a small insight into Gordon Comstock’s disdain for the capitalist vulgarities he sees around him.

Six years ago today a group of deranged fanatics declared not a war on affluence, but a war on London. Without dragging up tired clichés about “never forgetting” (although you shouldn’t) and lionising the “spirit of the blitz”, remembering that 52 innocent people were murdered for a fascistic ideology puts my own London-induced neuroticism into perspective. Despite his (to me anyway) disagreeable political views, Samuel Johnson was right to say that “by seeing London, [he had] seen as much of life as the world can show”, and it was this that so disgusted the murderers of 7/7 – the sheer diversity of life in the capital, whether represented by “those slags dancing around” (as some other would-be murderers called them), or the insufficiently pious Muslims who practiced at their local Mosques.

Returning to Orwell, Gordon Comstock always had to share his room with aspidistras which continued to thrive despite his mistreatment of them. Despite what happened on that day in July 2005, London continues to thrive, and is a place I will return to live soon, I hope.

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Orwell predicted Grant Shapps!

March 21, 2014 at 11:00 am (Asshole, Beyond parody, Jim D, Orwell, posted by JD, Tory scum)

Compare and contrast:
It comes to something when the Tories cut taxes for business, offer incentives to people with enough cash to save in the thousands, cut taxes on long haul flights as taken by the wealthy and scrupulously do nothing to curb the multi national tax evaders and avoiders but then BOAST about cutting beer duty and taxes on bingo 'for hardworking people'. The phrase 'Let them eat cake' springs to mind...or is it beer and circuses?

Above: Grant Shapps’ poster, after yesterday’s budget (not a spoof)
Below: Orwell’s chilling prophesy:


H/t Carl Hetherington (via Facebook)

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Why certain right-wingers (and certain “leftists”) just lurve Putin

March 7, 2014 at 1:30 am (apologists and collaborators, capitulation, grovelling, Orwell, posted by JD, Republican Party, Russia, stalinism, strange situations, truth, United States)

BY ISAAC CHOTINER @ichotiner  at New Republic (March 4):

The Increasingly Awkward Conservative Crush on Putin: Mad about Vlad

All the way back in 1946, with Nazi Germany defeated and the cold war commencing, George Orwell wrote a brilliant essay on James Burnham. The author of The Managerial Revolution and a leading political philosopher, Burnham was a frequent contributor to the young National Review, and, more broadly, a leading voice of postwar American conservatism.

What Orwell found in his analysis of Burnham was that this ostensible democrat and cold warrior held deep regard for–and even envied–authoritarian or totalitarian powers, including Stalin’s Russia. This is why, Orwell explained, Burnham originally predicted a Nazi victory in World War II. (Britain, typically, was considered “decadent.”) In later years, Orwell continued, Burnham would write about Stalin in “semi-mystical” terms (with a “fascinated admiration”), comparing him to heroes of the past; Burnham didn’t like Stalin’s politics, but he admired his strength. Of Burnham’s odd quasi-regard for Stalinism and its supposedly destined victory over the forces of sickly democratic regimes, Orwell added: “The huge, invincible, everlasting slave empire of which Burnham appears to dream will not be established, or, if established, will not endure, because slavery is no longer a stable basis for human society.”

Orwell, then, was not merely critical of Burnham’s pessimism (Orwell himself could be overly pessimistic.) He also saw this pessimism as reflective of a mindset that prioritized vicious power-wielding and coercion over other things that allowed states to succeed and prosper.

This variety of pessimism did not end with Burnham, unfortunately. During the nearly 50 year Cold War, Americans were informed time and again by rightwingers that the Soviet Union did not allow dissent, and could therefore pursue its desired policies without protest. While the Soviets were single-minded, we were, yes, decadent. Soviet leaders could fight wars as they pleased, but freedom-loving presidents like Ronald Reagan had to put up with what Charles Krauthammer laughably called an “imperial Congress.”  (Some of the same type of commentary shows up about today’s China: look how quickly the Chinese can build bridges! And, as Thomas Friedman proves, it isn’t coming solely from the right.) But more unique among conservatives is the desire for a tough leader who will dispense with niceties and embrace power.

The reason for all this ancient history is the situation today in Ukraine, where an autocratic Russian leader who exudes manly vibes has ordered his armed forces into Crimea. It is unclear whether this move on Russia’s part will prove successful, but, amidst uncertaintly among western leaders over what to do, there has arisen a new strain of the Burnham syndrome. Conservatives don’t just see the west and President Obama as weak; they also seem envious of Putin’s bullying. “There is something odd,” Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote in New York magazine, “about commentators who denounce Putin in the strongest terms and yet pine for a more Putin-like figure in the White House.”

Sarah Palin, for example, said this last night to Sean Hannity:

Well, yes, especially under the commander-in-chief that we have today because Obama’s — the perception of him and his potency across the world is one of such weakness. And you know, look, people are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates. We are not exercising that peace through strength that only can be brought to you courtesy of the red, white and blue, that only a strengthened United States military can do.

Put aside the syntax for a moment and ask: is there not a bit of envy here? Isn’t Palin very clearly desirous of a tough-guy president who wrestles bears and drills for oil? (The swooning over Bush’s landing on that aircraft carrier was a telling sign.) Now read Rush Limbaugh:

In fact, Putin—ready for this?—postponed the Oscar telecast last night.  He didn’t want his own population distracted.  He wanted his own population knowing full well what he was doing, and he wanted them celebrating him.  They weren’t distracted.  We were.

If only America wasn’t distracted by silly things like the Oscars, perhaps we would have the strength to stand up to the tough Russia. (On his web page, Limbaugh has a photo of a shirtless Putin.) In case the point isn’t obvious enough, Limbaugh continues:

Well, did you hear that the White House put out a photo of Obama talking on the phone with Vlad, and Obama’s sleeves were rolled up?  That was done to make it look like Obama was really working hard—I mean, really taking it seriously. His sleeves were rolled up while on the phone with Putin! Putin probably had his shirt off practicing Tai-Chi while he was talking to Obama.

Limbaugh quite clearly wants this kind of leader.

Also on view over the past few days is the idea that Putin must be smarter and cagier and stronger: “Putin is playing chess and I think we’re playing marbles,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The Russians are thus necessarily craftier than our weak and vacillating (key word) democratic leader.

The silliness inherent in all this talk is that when American presidents have generally acted above the law, or engaged in stupid and immoral wars, or bullied neighbors, or cracked down on domestic dissent, it has backfired in the worst ways on them and the country. (The examples are too obvious to list.) Moreover, I notice that conservatives seem to view some of Obama’s domestic actions–appointing czars, for example–as being the result of a vindictive, bloodthirsty, and authoritarian mindset. However absurd the particular claims may be (Cass Sunstein as Stalin), it is proof that the people who seem to secretly pine for an American Putin don’t really want one.

Orwell’s response to this sort of thinking was to write, of Burnham, “He ignores the advantages, military as well as social, enjoyed by a democratic country.” Of course this is not a guarantee that this crisis will play itself out in a way that is beneficial to American or Western (or Ukrainian) interests. But the presumption that Russia has just masterly played the Great Game, and that our weakness will doom us, is nearly automatic among large segments of the American right. (Olga Dukhnich, in The New York Timesmakes the point that this crisis may backfire just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did. Whether correct or not, it is a nice counter to the reigning right-wing ultra-pessimism.)

Orwell closed his essay as follows:

That a man of Burnham’s gifts should have been able for a while to think of Nazism as something rather admirable, something that could and probably would build up a workable and durable social order, shows what damage is done to the sense of reality by the cultivation of what is now called ‘realism’.

It is now Team Obama that styles itself realist, in quite a different way than Orwell was talking about. And large chunks of the American right would now also scorn the term. What they haven’t scorned is the mindset, which is the problem in the first place.

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Posh (pseudo) – trotties of the SWP

February 8, 2014 at 7:22 pm (comedy, ex-SWP, gloating, Jim D, Orwell, satire, sectarianism, SWP, trivia) ()

In an interesting review of Orwell’s public school memoir Such, Such Were the Joys, in today’s Graun, Francis Wheen is quoted on the subject of the disintegration of  the Socialist Workers Party:

“[T]he party’s leader Alex Callinicos, grandson of the 2nd Lord Acton, was educated at a top private school and another senior leader, Charlie Kimber, is the Old Etonian son of a baronet. Also prominent in the brouhaha has been Dave Renton, an Old Etonian barrister related to a former Tory chief whip: ‘It sometimes reads like a conversation between Old Rugbeians and Old Etonians about the main British Trotskyist Party. It’s quite bizarre’.”

This reminded me of the latest cartoon strip from the pen that brought us the fabulous Billy Delta of Red Friars. This follow-up is not, perhaps, quite as hilarious (in part because the main characters are less well-known, and the plot-line more convoluted), but it’s still a good sectarian chuckle…

Above: Class Monitor Tim is showing the new boy Cuthbert Cringe-Renton around the school.

And on a (very) loosely related theme, for anyone with a lot of spare time there are tons of bulletins from the last four conferences of the American ISO (former comrades of the SWP),  on this site:  http://thecharnelhouse.org/2014/02/07/international-socialist-organization-2014-convention-bulletin/

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Orwell on immigration

August 6, 2013 at 10:30 am (Anti-Racism, Europe, history, immigration, Jim D, literature, Orwell, reformism, TUC, workers)

In the course of preparing the last-but-one post, I searched the net for an article on immigration by Orwell, that I had a vague recollection of. The best I could find was a brief extract on Google Books, which wasn’t much help except to remind me that it came from Orwell’s ‘As I Please’ column in Tribune, 15 November 1946. I finally tracked down what seems to be a nearly-complete extract, as published in Penguin’s Orwell and Politics (2001, ed: Peter Davison).

The piece starts and ends with a brief discussion of the post-war Labour government’s problems, which is of historical interest but not of any particular relevance to our present situation. Similarly, the passing mentions of the reactionary roles played by the TUC and the Communist Party. The argument about a labour shortage doesn’t apply in the immediate situation, either (though it ‘s likely to reassert itself in the longer term). But the meat of the article is highly pertinent to the poisonous contemporary ‘debate’ on immigration and, indeed, on Britain’s relationship with Europe. The reference to events immediately prior to the creation of Israel is also of some contemporary interest:

Attitudes to immigrants

As the clouds, most of them much larger and dirtier than a man’s hand, come blowing up over the political horizon, there is one fact that obtrudes itself over and over again. This is that the Government’s troubles, present and future, arise quite largely from its failure to publicise itself properly.

People are not told with sufficient clarity what is happening, and why, and what may be expected to happen in the near future. As a result, every calamity, great or small, takes the mass of the public by surprise, and the Government incurs unpopularity by doing things which any government, of whatever colour, would have to do in the same circumstances.

Take one question which has been much in the news lately but has never been properly thrashed out: the immigration of foreign labour into this country. Recently we have seen a tremendous outcry at the T.U.C. conference against allowing Poles to work in two places where labour is most urgently needed – in the mines and on the land.

It will not do to write this off as something ‘got up’ by Communist sympathisers, nor on the other hand to justify it by saying that the Polish refugees are all Fascists who ‘strut about’ wearing monocles and carrying brief-cases.

The question is, would the attitude of the British trade unions be any friendlier if it were a question, not of alleged Fascists but of the admitted victims of Fascism?

For example, hundreds of thousands of homeless Jews are now trying desperately to get into Palestine. No doubt many of them will ultimately succeed, but others will fail. How about inviting, say, 100,000 Jewish refugees to settle in this country? Or what about the Displaced persons, numbering nearly a million, who are dotted in camps all over Germany, with no future and no place to go, the United States and the British Dominions having already refused to admit them in significant numbers? Why not solve their problems by offering them British citizenship?

It is easy to imagine what the average Briton’s answer would be. Even before the war, with Nazi persecutions in full swing, there was no popular support for the idea of allowing large numbers of Jewish refugees into this country: nor was there any strong move to admit the hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who had fled from Franco to be penned up behind barbed wire in France.

For that matter, there was very little protest against the internment of the wretched German refugees in 1940. The comments I most often overheard at the time were ‘What did they want to come here for?’ and ‘They’re only after our jobs.’

The fact is that there is a strong popular feeling in this country against foreign immigration. It arises partly from simple xenophobia, partly from fear of undercutting in wages, but above all from the out-of-date notion that Britain is overpopulated and that more population means more unemployment.

Actually, so far from having more workers than jobs, we have a serious labour shortage which will be accentuated by the continuance of conscription, and which will grow worse, not better, because of the ageing of the population.

Meanwhile our birth-rate is still frighteningly low, and several hundred thousand women of marriageable age have no chance of getting husbands. But how widely are these facts known or understood?

In the end it is doubtful whether we can solve our problems without encouraging immigration from Europe. In a tentative way the Government has already tried to do this, only to be met by ignorant hostility, because the public has not been told the relevant facts beforehand. So also with countless other unpopular things that will have to be done from time to time.

But the most necessary step is not to prepare public opinion for particular emergencies, but to raise the general level of political understanding: above all, to drive home the fact, which has never been properly grasped, that British prosperity depends largely on factors outside Britain.

The business of publicising and explaining itself is not easy for a Labour Government, faced by a press which at bottom is mostly hostile. Nevertheless, there are other ways of communicating with the public, and Mr Attlee and his colleagues might well pay more attention to the radio, a medium which very few politicians in this country have ever taken seriously.


PS: on Monday’s edition of Radio Four’s ‘With Great Pleasure,’ Barry Cryer selected an excerpt from JB Priestly’s 1934 book English Journey, that makes many of the same points as Orwell in perhaps even more powerful prose. You can hear it (for the next few days) by following the link, and I’ll post it here soon.

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Orwell and today’s left

January 21, 2013 at 11:08 am (apologists and collaborators, AWL, class, communalism, From the archives, Galloway, history, internationalism, Jim D, literature, Orwell, socialism, stalinism, Stop The War, SWP, trotskyism, truth)

Today is ‘Orwell Day’, the 63rd anniversary of the author’s death (additionally, he was born 110 years ago this June 25th) . To mark the occasion (even though ‘Orwell Day’ seems to be largely a stunt by Penguin Books), we publish below a ten year-old article from the AWL’s paper Solidarity. It was written just as the SWP was cosying up to George Galloway (then still – just – a Labour MP), and had discovered the supposedly “progressive” nature of Islamism. The dreadful abomination that would be ‘Respect’ was about to come into being…

Author: Sean Matgamna

“Revolutionary ardour in the struggle for socialism is inseparable from intellectual ardour in the struggle for truth”.
Leon Trotsky, “Trotskyism and the PSOP”

“There is not the slightest doubt, for instance, about the behaviour of the Japanese in China. Nor is there much doubt about the long tale of Fascist outrages during the last ten years in Europe. They happened even though Lord Halifax said they happened. The raping and butchering in Chinese cities, the tortures in the cellars of the Gestapo, the elderly Jewish professors flung into cesspools, the machine-gunning of refugees along the Spanish roads – they all happened, and they did not happen any the less because the Daily Telegraph has suddenly found out about them when it is five years too late”.

George Orwell, Looking Back On The Spanish War, 1942

The centenary of George Orwell’s birth is being widely celebrated in the bourgeois media. To these professional liars, Orwell, the man who told awkward and untimely truths, is a hero!

Apart from a few unteachable pickled-in-the-lies old Stalinists, most people who think of themselves as being of the left, for example the Socialist Workers Party, also see Orwell as a hero.

It wasn’t always so. When he was alive, Orwell, who died in 1950, was regarded by the dominant forces ‘on the left’ of the 1930s and 40s as a “right-winger”, a crank, an “anti-Soviet renegade”, an agent or a “dupe” of fascism, and an all-round enemy.

The only exceptions in Britain then were those whose ideas were informed by Trotsky’s writings on Stalinist Russia, the Stalinist “Communist” International, the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9, and other related questions.

Numerically those were few. The largest group was the declining Independent Labour Party, which Orwell joined in the mid-1930s. Then there were the organised Trotskyists, in the 1930s a handful of them. Their maximum number, in the mid 1940s, was never more than about 400.

The Trotskyists were shunned, hounded, persecuted, and where possible suppressed by the “left” of that time. They were the targets of the approach advocated in, for example, a witch-hunting wartime pamphlet of the Communist Party (the CPGB) entitled “Clear Out Hitler’s Agents”. Its message was: “Treat a Trotskyist as you would a fascist”.

Orwell was regarded as an enemy of “the left” because he shared some of the Trotskyists’ ideas. Orwell, like the Trotskyists, did not believe that an honest and serious person could be guided in politics, or in his attitude to the conventional left, by WB Yeats’ injunction: “Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams”.

Socialists “dream” about a world transformed. We do not spin consoling dreams about the world we live in. If we cannot bear to define that world as it actually is, then we will never manage to transform it. Our “socialism” will for us be only a consoling quasi-religion.

Orwell, like the Trotskyists, trampled with large hobnailed boots on the self-poisoning fantasies, dreams and sacred myths of that left.

On Spain, for example.

In July 1936 the fascist-minded generals revolted against the newly-elected Popular Front government, unleashing a terrible civil war. Spain became the great cause of the “anti-fascist” left, as indeed it should.

But the very “anti-fascist” Stalinist movement was wholly controlled and in part financed from Moscow by people whose main concern was to convince the Paris and London governments that their “communism” posed no threat to capitalism, and that they could control the working class for them, and, “for a consideration,” would. They wanted imperialist allies against Hitler’s Germany. These “anti-fascists” suppressed the workers who had seized power in Catalonia and set up a Stalinist-bourgeois police state in the anti-fascist Republican areas.

They, not the fascist armies which by March 1939 controlled all of Spain, suppressed the revolutionary Spanish labour movement.

Throughout the world, the Stalinist press, and most of the socialist and liberal press, which at that point saw the Stalinists as allies against fascism, suppressed news of what was actually happening in the real Spain.

They substituted heroic half-truths and myths about the “anti-fascist struggle” there. To do anything else, the “knowing” people said, would be to “undermine the anti-fascist fight” and “play into the hands of” the Spanish fascists and, ultimately, of Hitler.

You had to take sides and respect and defend the official truths of your “side”. You had to accept an entirely negative definition of what was “anti-fascist” and therefore “working-class”, “progressive”, “left”. You could not afford to concern yourself much with what the “anti-fascists”, whether bourgeois liberals or totalitarianising Stalinists, positively were, in their own right and what they were actually doing.

This was the time of the Popular Fronts, when the Communist Parties sought allies on the right. The Stalinists set the pace and tone here, and their social-democratic and liberal fellow-travellers acted as outriders and enforcers for them. Trotsky called these Stalinising “Liberals” “the priests of half-truth”.

In Britain, for example, the Liberal News Chronicle (which was twinned with a London evening paper, The Star) had fallen under Stalinist influence – its correspondent in Spain was Arthur Koestler, then a Stalinist – and seconded the lies of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker. So did such Stalinist-influenced labour papers as the then very influential New Statesman, and Tribune, which at its start in 1937, was a Stalinist-Popular Front paper.

When Orwell, who went to Spain politically naive, came back disabused of illusions about the “official” left and tried to break the “left front” of lying in the cause of “anti-fascism”, he found he could not get the truth past the “anti-fascist” and leftist “priests of half-truth”.

These were days of the Left Book Club (LBC). Published by Victor Gollancz – under an editorial committee of Stalinists and pro-Stalinists – the LBC was churning out large editions of its orange-jacketed volumes. One measure of that time was that Fate of a Revolution, an account of the USSR by Victor Serge, the old communist who had been in the USSR until 1936, was published in Britain by a rather feeble competitor of the Left Book Club, the Right Book Club, which also published such honest eye-witness left-wing accounts of the USSR as the American journalist Eugene Lyons’ Assignment In Utopia.

Orwell described the situation like this:

“The Spanish war has probably produced a richer crop of lies than any event since the Great War of 1914-18, but I honestly doubt, in spite of all those hecatombs of nuns who have been raped and crucified before the eyes of Daily Mail reporters, whether it is the pro-Fascist newspapers that have done the most harm. It is the left-wing papers, the News Chronicle and the Daily Worker, with their far subtler methods of distortion, that have prevented the British public from grasping the real nature of the struggle. The fact which these papers have so carefully obscured is that the Spanish government (including the semi-autonomous Catalan government) is far more afraid of the [working-class] revolution than of the fascists…

The New Statesman, having previously refused an article of mine on the suppression of the POUM [quasi-Trotskyists, allied to the ILP] on the ground that it would ’cause trouble’, also refused to print the review as it ‘controverted editorial policy’, or in other words blew the gaff on the Communist Party… Whatever you do don’t believe a word you read in the News Chronicle or Daily Worker. The only daily paper I have seen in which a gleam of truth sometimes gets through is the [Daily] Express…”

It was the same with many things other than the Spanish Civil War. Orwell found himself like the “undersocialised” boy in Hans Andersen’s story who noticed that the Emperor, whose clothes everyone else wholeheartedly admired, was in fact naked.

Today we look back with respect and some gratitude to the Orwells and pioneer Trotskyists, and with contempt and revulsion on the broad “left” of that time. The untimely truths which Orwell and the Trotskyists told about Spain, the USSR, etc., are today commonplaces understood by most people who think of themselves as ‘left’.

In Orwell’s case, the pattern is not too far from what the Irish socialist-republican James Connolly wrote of the pioneer Republican Wolfe Tone on the centenary of the Republican rising of 1798 in which Tone lost his life: “Apostles of freedom are ever crucified when living, and idolised when safely dead”. Their once inconvenient ideas come to be “received” wisdom for the sort of people who most likely would, when they lived, have been among the persecutors of those ideas’ pioneers.

Orwell was made of less malleable stuff. He registered what he saw, thought about it honestly, and reported it accurately, believing with Karl Marx that the truth is a great revolutionary force.

Right now, the ideas of Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty are unpopular with most of the left on many contemporary questions – for example, on the attitude socialists should take to a Labour MP who acted for many years as a political agent (paid or unpaid makes little difference) for the quasi-fascist dictatorship in Iraq – people who for decades did in Iraq what the fascists Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War did when they won that war. We are so much at odds with the conventional left that it is no exaggeration to say: if the SWP and its political satellites like the ISG, the CPGB, WP, etc are left, then we aren’t. And the other way around.

It would be foolish to claim that because our ideas are unpopular with the contemporary mainstream left, therefore they are correct. The opposite claim, however, can safely be made. Today, as in Orwell’s time, we have a mainstream pseudo-left that has lost its way. For most practical purposes, it is not a “left”, still less a Marxist “left”, at all.

It makes no difference that the ABCs of Trotsky’s politics, and not, as in the 1930s and 40s, of Stalin’s, form the received truths of our left. “Tradition” in politics is only as good as those who try to give it current relevance and life. And in fact in today’s “Trotskisant” but eclectic and incoherent left, much of the Stalinist politics against which Orwell and the Trotskyists fought in the 1930s has been revived.

Popular frontism, for example. But, above all, negativism in self-definition.

Not now “anti-fascism”, but “anti-imperialism”. Never mind what a given political current, or a given regime in a given country, is “in itself”. If it is in conflict with “imperialism”, or targeted by imperialism, then nothing else matters. It is in the “camp” of the left. It is in “our” camp; “on our side”. Let it be!

In this way ideas against which the Trotskyists in Trotsky’s time, and Orwell, counterposed independent working-class politics have again become dominant on the left. Today’s left is swamped and waterlogged with the politics and the prejudices that went into the making of 1930s’ Stalinism.

It is shrouded in the vapours given off by various “anti-imperialist” chauvinisms (Catholic-Irish national-chauvinism, anti-Jewish Arab and Muslim chauvinism, etc). Even narrow British nationalism: purely negative opposition to the British ruling class and its governments, saying no when they say yes and yes when they say no, has for 30 years and more made the British left into boneheaded “little Britishers” opposed to the unification of Europe.

Solidarity has devoted much space to the pro-Iraqi politics of many on the anti-war left. It was not enough for them to oppose Britain and the USA, as we did. To feel whole, they needed to embrace the quasi-fascist Iraqi regime and the reactionary Islamic opponents of Bush’s and Blair’s war, notably the Muslim Brotherhood (MAB). Thereby they crossed the line separating working class from populist, cross-class politics. Is there a precedent for this? Yes.

In 1938 Maurice Thorez, the leader of French Stalinism, offered to extend the hand of Popular Front friendship all the way to “patriotic fascists”-to French fascists who were not bought or hypnotised by Nazi Germany and would in the coming war defend France. He did not manage to realise such a Popular Front. During the recent anti-war movement, the major forces on the British left realised something very close to it. They established a Popular Front with the Islamic near-equivalent of Thorez’ “patriotic fascists”, the ultra-reactionary Muslim Brotherhood.

Like Orwell and the Trotskyists of the 1930s, Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty have been howled down and are shunned by ‘the left’ for our opposition to such practices. As well as outright hostility, we have met with incomprehension, from good-willed people who unknowingly let their attitudes and ideas here be shaped by pressure of the “norms” on these matters established by the dominant “left”.

For ourselves, we have great difficulty understanding how people who call themselves socialists can accept as a comrade someone who has, as a government minister put it in the House of Commons recently, acted as a “mouthpiece” for the quasi-fascist Iraqi regime, and who on his own admission was financed by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and a Ba’thist businessman.

Orwell, and the Trotskyists of the 1930s and 40s, are better examples for serious socialists to follow than their equivalent of our conventional ‘left’.

He found the philistines, like the editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin, bowing down to the “left public opinion” created by the Stalinists and their fellow-travellers. He found himself trying to gain foot-room for the truth in the pestilential swamp of lies and corruption created by the Stalinists and those who, for their own reasons, tolerated them.

He was confronted by a world in which the Labour ‘leftists’ who let the Stalinists influence their thinking, like Aneurin Bevan and Stafford Cripps, advocated an alliance of the working class with Liberals and “progressive Tories” in a Popular Front. As Trotsky pointed out, they were in real political terms to the right of Labour right-wingers like Herbert Morrison. The Labour right rejected the Popular Front and wanted a Labour government.

Just so today when the left gives credence to Saddam Hussein, the butcher of Iraqi workers and Kurds, allies with the MAB, the advocates of an authoritarian clerical regime in all Islamic countries, and sees no reason to distance itself politically from Saddam Hussein’s admirer George Galloway. This pseudo-left is in basic class terms to the right of decent-minded reformist. anti-conventional left, workers, including Islamic workers in Britain and elsewhere.

It would, as above, be foolish to claim that because our ideas are unpopular on the “left”, therefore they are right. But those who follow “left-wing” fashion, and don’t dare question the “left consensus” will almost certainly go wrong. That is the point about George Orwell and the Trotskyists of his time.

The root source of the corruption of the “left” in Orwell’s time was the Stalinist ruling class in Russia which presented itself as “communist” and argued that the defence of their interests was the proper first concern of workers all over the world. Siding with the Russian “workers’ state” exerted a malign, corrupting and disorienting influence on the left for many decades, including the Trotskyist left who “critically” “defended the Soviet Union”.

But the USSR is long gone, and those who are the most corrupted now, the SWP, were once distinguished by their refusal to have illusions in the USSR or to see themselves as in the USSR’s “camp”. They were proud to define themselves as “Third Campists”, people working to develop the “camp” of the working class and oppressed peoples against both the US and USSR-led “camps”.

Today we have the SWP purveying the sort of politics which the Stalinists, the quasi-Stalinists, and the worst of the kitsch Trotskyists once purveyed about the USSR “workers’ state”.

As with the “anti-fascist” degenerates of George Orwell’s time who forgot all about class politics and working-class self-interest, defining themselves only negatively by what they were against-fascism, and, fundamentally, German fascism-and could therefore ally even with French anti-German fascists, so with the “anti-imperialism” of today.

There is, however, an important difference, and it is not the 1930s Popular Frontists who come out worse in the comparison. The Stalinists in the 1930s believed that the USSR was evolving towards socialism and that, in the long run, all their dirty dealings, in the interests of the USSR – as defined by its rulers – would serve the cause of progress and socialism. They were defined negatively as “anti-fascists” in practical politics, but not only negatively. By serving the USSR they served socialism. Or so they thought.

The SWP believes no such thing about those in whose camp it has rushed to place itself in the last 15 years-the Islamic fundamentalists in Iran (against Iraq); Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war; Slobodan Milosevic’s genocidal primitive Serbian imperialism in Kosova (1999); the Taliban in Afghanistan; the Muslim fundamentalists and Saddam Hussein in the recent war.

The left today is entirely negative. It has no “historical perspectives”, no idea of and seemingly no concern with historical progress, no belief that those like Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic with whom it allies “against imperialism” can, if they survive, help the cause of humanity, of socialism or of the working class.

For a whole vast range of the world they are – to put it in the basic ideas of the Communist Manifesto – “reactionary socialists”. They recoil against those forces in the world today-the capitalist bourgeois democracies-which are pushing forward the conditions out of struggle against which the working class can advance to socialism. They ally against them with regimes flatly reactionary both for their own peoples and for neighbouring peoples (Kosovars in the case of Milosevic, Kurds in the case of Saddam Hussein).

This is a left that has, in its blinkered negativism, turned the norms of socialist working-class politics inside out, back to front, upside down. No wonder it has stumbled into such long-discredited Stalinist patterns as Popular Frontism.

The example of Orwell, and of Trotsky and the Trotskyists of the 1930s and 40s, is therefore of great importance today to those who want the post-Stalinist left to go forward, not, as most of it has in Britain, to collapse in a heap on the poisoned ground of Stalinism. For ourselves we subscribe to and will continue to try to live up to Trotsky’s guiding principle: “Revolutionary ardour… is inescapable from intellectual ardour in the struggle for truth.”

[This article was an Editorial in Solidarity in July 2003.]

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