|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Tuesday, June 17, 2003
Touched by a Tentacle
This morning I came across via Avedon Carol an intriguing article on the influence of right-wing think tanks, and via that, the even more revelatory Cursor's Media Transparency, which tells you who's paying which pipers (and why they all play the same tune). It's reminded me of the few times when I've felt the clammy suckers of capital's covert-action tentacles on the back of my own neck.
The first time was innocent enough. It was in the early 1970s, when I was a zoology student. One of my tutors casually mentioned that his research on malaria was funded by the US Army. (That particular grant was around the same time listed along with many others in a CND pamphlet about military funding of academic research, 'Study War No More'.) As I say, in itself innocent enough, and perhaps defensible (I have no idea what the conditions of the grant were, and no wish to impugn the recipient). The fact remained that the purpose of the grant - whatever its benevolent effects may have been - was (or seemed to me at the time) quite obviously to help US military interventions in countries where malaria is prevalent. I had the strange sensation that something had reached into the room, and connected us to the jungles of Vietnam.
The second time I felt the tentacle's touch was a bit more personal. I was watching the 10 October 1999 episode of the BBC series 'The Spying Game', which focused on how the peace movement in the West, and the dissident movements in the East, had been influenced by the intelligence and state security agencies of both sides. (I was startled to learn that the lefty peacenik Canon Paul Ostreicher had been reporting back his meetings with GDR dissidents to the British Embassy, though not as startled as he was when told the Stasi had taped him doing so.)
An interview with Walt Raymond (CIA, Eastern Europe, 1970-1982) established that the CIA had been supporting East European dissidents during the 1970s. In 1982, with Ronald Reagan's speech setting out the new ground rules for what the British called 'maximum engagement' i.e. as much official and unofficial contact as possible with the dissidents, this support passed to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) a notorious loose cannon of US subversion nominally independent of the CIA but with the same aims and the same channels.
'One route for NED's money,' the BBC programme explained, 'was Jan Kavan,' the exiled Czech dissident from the 1968 generation. 'He had a special van, built with a secret compartment, in order to smuggle thousands of books and printing machines into Czechoslovakia. [...] Kavan was also given thousands of books by the International Literary Centre in New York, which is now known to have been funded directly by the CIA.'
That made me sit up, because I'd been in that van!
In the autumn of 1977 I travelled from London to Prague in Kavan's van, accompanied by a fellow member of the small Trotskyist group I was in at the time; with, to the best of my knowledge, the approval of its leadership. In the van's secret compartments were 2000 copies of Kavan's emigre journal Listy, many copies of books including a Russian edition of The Gulag Archipelago, and a selection of Western journals, news magazines, etc.
I needn't go into the details of how the operation was carried out. Let's just say that elaborate precautions were taken to conceal the van's identity and owner. We passed successfully through several borders and a (routine) gunpoint search by Czech border guards. The basic tradecraft for making contact was as described on the programme by Kavan (by 1999 the Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic) and his contacts from that time. We had several cover stories to use if we got caught, but our bottom line was that we could admit that we were doing it on behalf of Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, a journal then as now supported by people from a broad range of positions on the anti-Stalinist left.
On the way back I happened to notice a piece of litter in the passenger footwell and picked it up. It was a receipt from a garage in England for work on the van, made out to Jan Kavan. Considering all the precautions we'd taken, this was something of a security lapse.
Afterwards, we were 'debriefed' at our home by a man who, from what I was told at the time, I took to be Jan Kavan. My memory of his appearance is certainly consistent with Kavan's. (After the fall of the Communist regime Kavan, ironically in view of all this, was charged - and acquitted in a Czech court - of having collaborated with the Czechoslovak Communist-era secret police, the STB. Robin Cook, the then British Foreign Secretary, is reported to have vouched for Kavan as 'a friend of Britain'.)
Other members of the group had made the same trip before. My impression is that it was regular and frequent. I don't know how long the group's involvement in this trip continued.
None of this, of course, proves that Kavan was being supported by the CIA in 1977, although substantially the same operation obviously was so supported not long afterwards. Nor does it even suggest that Kavan's later CIA connection was known to the group or to Labour Focus. There are no articles under Kavan's name in Labour Focus after 1978.
However, the expose did give me something to throw in the faces of Trots who called me names for hob-nobbing with libertarians, or for upholding positions unpopular on the present-day left that were considered left-wing back when I originally acquired them. I'd probably have remained a lot closer to the libertarians than to the socialists I now hang out with, if it hadn't been for a third touch of the tentacle.
Early in 2001 I got a phone call from a libertarian acquaintance of long standing. He asked if I was willing to be the contact person and general front-man for an ostensibly left-wing website that would advocate some policies currently out of favour on the left, but with good deep roots in the history of the working-class movement. (Not in substance reactionary policies, I hasten to add.) This site would be maintained and paid for, and I would be paid a retainer by, a lobbying organisation for some of the companies and non-profit bodies involved in the area in question. The source of the funding, and the inspiration for the site, would be covert. Because the idea was to make it look like a left-wing initiative, independent of the existing (and, I again hasten to add, entirely legitimate) commercial interests in this policy area. Astroturf, in short.
I said that I'd always kept all my dealings and associations out in the open, and that I wouldn't do it, thank you. End of conversation. Thinking about it afterwards, I was quite annoyed. I'd just been asked to trade on my left-wing credibility in order to do something that would destroy my left-wing - not to mention personal - credibility if it ever came out. What did he take me for?
And that's one reason why I'll carry the SSP's or even the CP's red flag, even though I don't agree with everything they stand for. It's to keep the clammy suckers off my skin.
Monday, June 16, 2003
Crisis? What crisis? Oh, that crisis.
Marxists of various denominations have been arguing for some time that the recent explosion of US/UK militarism is rooted in the unsustainability of the US economic expansion, which at some time in the not too distant future is likely to hit the buffers and spill everybody's coffee in their lap. Looks like this analysis is going a bit more mainstream. (On the same site check out the fascinating history of the British imperialist carve-up of the Middle East.)
It's interesting, in a Chinese-curse kind of way, to speculate on the effect of another Great Depression on the placidly grazing herd of independent minds who make up the right-libertarian infosphere.
[The links to the two Billmon articles have been corrected - thanks, Patrick.]
Sunday, June 15, 2003
Their snuff-filled rooms, and a' that
I've just finished reading Neil Davidson's Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692-1746, whose launch I refer to and whose thesis I sketched in the last but one post below. Having read it I can heartily recommend it. The writing is excellent: cool, witty, free from rancour. Davidson is sparing in his approbation (for Fletcher of Saltoun) and his condemnation (for the atrocities after Culloden) and partisan only for progress and for its victims among the poor. For the rest, the strongest emotion he permits himself to display is scorn. The narrative grips like a thriller. We are shown the undead ogre that was Scottish feudalism, and the feeble forces of progress arrayed - or disarrayed - against it, and we want to know how it was slain. Even though we know the outcome, the story is a page-turner.
How did Scotland go from being the armpit of the universe to the Athens of the North in a generation? How did a country that burned its last witch when Hume and Smith were boys become one in which these men and others could ignite the Enlightenment? How did a capitalist class whose international debut was the Darien Disaster rise to the top ranks of the industrial and financial masters of the world? How did landowners hitherto notorious for their backwardness become a byword for Improvement?
There are two popular answers. One is the 'Kirk to Enterprise' theory that the Scottish church promoted certain democratic and capitalist virtues. To an extent it did, but not enough to account for the take-off (quite apart from all the burning witches and stuff). Another is the 'Long Live the Glorious Fraternal Assistance of the English Revolution' (or 'Beam me up, Scotty') theory, which attributes the advance to the Treaty of Union. The killer fact for this beautiful theory is that the Treaty of Union quite explicitly left Scottish feudalism intact, just as the revolutionary struggles of the seventeenth century had.
What followed the Union was a protracted struggle, a decades-long situation of dual power that was only finally resolved when the counter-revolution lashed out in 1745. Within months of the military defeat of the rising the hereditary jurisdictions and military tenures that made the Scottish nobility a state within the state were abolished lock, stock and barrel: lords Highland and Lowland, Whig and Jacobite alike were stripped of their private courts and armies. This outcome, Davidson argues, was the climax of the Scottish, and completion of the British, bourgeois revolution.
As he points out, Scotland's revolution is a peculiar one, that does not lend itself to populist, socialist, or nationalist inspiration. There was no Bastille to storm, no tyrant to behead: only 'deals struck in snuff-filled rooms' and thousands of poor peasants butchered on the heather. It was no less real, and no less progressive, for all that.
George Orwell - A Life in Pictures went out on BBC2 last night, and was mostly very good. The idea of presenting Orwell's life and opinions as if he had appeared in documentary films, filmed interviews and home movies was brilliant, and the execution was almost flawless. It says a lot for Orwell's writing that much of it sounded natural as speech.
Why I Write (1946) was presented as an interview. In the essay, Orwell says:
'Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism [and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it].'
This sentence was spoken in the interview, but without the words around which I've put square brackets. A crucial piece of information about Orwell's politics went down the memory hole.
Wednesday, June 11, 2003
The Scottish Revolution
Last Saturday evening I went to the well-attended launch of Neil
Davidson's Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692 - 1746 published by
Pluto Press. Well over a hundred
people were there, including historians, journalists, and political
activists. This is in quantity and quality an impressive audience for a
book written by an active socialist with a full-time job and no full-
time academic position.
A few years ago, when Neil said he was writing a book on the Scottish
bourgeois revolution, my first question was: 'When was it?' It wasn't a
bad question, because it's easy to think of several mistaken answers:
that it happened in one or other bloody episode of the Scottish
Reformation, that it was accomplished as part of or in tandem with the
English Revolution (including the Glorious Revolution), or that it never
happened at all.
I'd more or less taken for granted the fairly common view that the
bourgeois revolution in Lowland Scotland was completed by 1692, and that
its decisive military victory was at Dunkeld. The subsequent Jacobite
risings are on this view the assault of the remaining feudal/tribal
Highlands, supported by foreign feudal/absolutist reaction, against an
already consolidated bourgeois state.
In his talk introducing the book, Neil challenged this view. He argued
that Scotland, still feudal in the 1690s, underwent a bourgeois
revolution from above in the first half of the 18th century, and one
whose results were decisive for the future of the world.
After the Glorious Revolution feudal relations persisted in Lowland
Scotland as well as in the Highlands. Feudal rent, military tenure, and
hereditary jurisdictions thwarted the development of capitalism. (A
feudal lord is A Man You Don't Meet Every Day: 'I have acres of land, I
have men I command, I have always a shilling to spare ...') The Scottish
bourgeoisie, such as it was, gambled its all - up to half the capital of
the kingdom - not on agricultural improvement or manufacturing, but on
the disastrous Darien Scheme. In the absence of agricultural
improvement, food production was insufficient to prevent famine in the
The incorporating Union of 1707, far from extending the gains of the
Revolution to Scotland, extended Scotland's vulnerability to counter-
revolution to Britain as a whole. Any Jacobite restoration had to aim
for the national capital: London. In the context of the world-wide
struggle between the empires of capitalist England and absolutist
France, this was a real threat. A restored Stuart monarchy would have
made Britain a vassal state of France.
Between 1707 and 1745 reforms and improvements were made, but not
enough. Only a few of the greatest lords, notably Argyle, could go over
to capitalist relations on their estates, and even for them it was a
partial and difficult process. Others simply racked-rented their tenants
and/or racked up their debts. It was the most indebted 'lesser lairds',
Highland and Lowland, who threw in their lot with Charles Stuart.
It was only the defeat of the Jacobite rising of 1745, and the
subsequent smashing of Highland society and the abolition throughout
Scotland of the hereditary jurisdictions and feudal or military tenures,
that made capitalist development finally and fully possible in Scotland
and irreversible in Britain as a whole. If the counter-revolution had
succeeded, capitalist development could well have been blocked even in
England, and absolutism strengthened in France, for an indeterminate but
quite possibly historic period: perhaps no American independence, no
French Revolution, no Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century.
The world we know was won at Culloden.
Sunday, June 01, 2003
Take the Red pill.
Philip Hensher has an interesting piece in a
recent Indie about what the
popularity of The Matrix tells us about America - to put it only
slightly more strongly than he does, that a revolution is coming.
Reading it I thought of something I hadn't before - the real reason why
in the film the machines use the humans as a power source, as
'batteries', something I have long derided. On a literal level it is of
course ridiculous. But symbolically it makes literal sense: we are the
source of their power. Surplus value comes only from living labour, not
Look at the title and see whose name is spelled out in it: The MAtRiX.
Comrades, this is no accident!
Tuesday, May 20, 2003
A gold ring and a lock of the hair of Mary
The other day in the local charity shop I came across two volumes of
Lord Macaulay's essays: Literary, and Historical. I bought them at once.
I already have a copy of the Historical essays and have read most of
them, but had long been looking out (idly) for the Literary. I well
remember the delight of discovering the Fontana paperback selection from
both, and I look forward to reading the lot.
Last year, I had the similarly happy experience of coming across the
Penguin condensed edition of Macaulay's History of England. I read it in
one weekend. There were times, I'm not ashamed to admit, when I turned
the page with bated breath. I sought and soon found the three-volume
edition, and read it over the summer. This is a book that gains little
from being cut, and loses a great deal, including (if I'm not mistaken) its stunning and abrupt last line.
Macaulay's essays and history were published in numerous cheap but
durable editions. They can be had in second-hand bookshops for a few
pounds, and in charity shops for pennies. A better bargain would be hard
to find. You may disagree with Macaulay's judgements. You may think his
Whig interpretation of history is out of date. Forget about all that.
Just read them.
Update: Patrick Neilsen Hayden has pointed out to me that Macaulay
is no longer confined to dead trees.
(For some reason the first of these links comes through garbled. It should be:
Sunday, May 18, 2003
2001 and All That
(or, Life before and after the End of History)
'Events, events, events.'
- Ted Grant
'In the early morning in 11 September 2001 four Plaines were
hitchiked from American Airports.'
- a first-year University student essay
This slim volume (well, page, really) has two notable predecessors (or
precedents), 1066 and All That by Sellar and Yeatman, and 1984 and
All That by Paul Manning. The latter brought the story begun by Sellar
and Yeatman up to the eponymous date. Much history, including the End of
it, has happened since. Even after the End of History, many events have
taken place. In the spirit of my distinguished precursors, and at least
one distinguished President, I think it important that they should not
First (and Last) Chapter: HOW HISTORY ENDED AND WHAT HAPPENED AFTERWARDS
Karl Marx said that communist society would bear the birthmarks of the
old, and Mikhail Gorbachev bore one of them on top of his head.
Gorbachev rose to power as a result of the Chernobyl Reaction, which
came about because the Russians discovered that their previous two
leaders - Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko (these are three, but the
third does not count) - were dead but still standing. They had been
propped up every May Day on the Leaning Mausoleum, reviewing the workers
and soldiers who marched past. The workers and soldiers carried large
pictures of the leaders to help them remember who they were, and for
many years, they did. Fortunately for them, President Reagan had by then
forgotten who he was too.
Gorbachev attempted two important things. The first was to abolish the
Leading Roll of the Party. Without its Leading Roll the Party did not
know what to do, and it lost the elections. Afterwards it won elections
again, but without its Leading Roll it could do nothing, except sit in
Parliament, which was soon abolished to save democracy (see under
Yeltsin). Because it was abolished with artillery it became known as an
The second thing Gorbachev did was to introduce Russia to the market.
The problem was that Russia did not have bourgeois civility, so after it
was introduced to the market it did not know what to say to it. Instead
it stood about with its hands in its pockets, until it found that its
pockets were empty. Its pockets had been picked by the Russian Mafia,
which is just like the Sicilian one, except it is not Roman Catholic so
does not have a Godfather at its head. Instead it has Ministers, like
The outcome of this was the Restoration of Capitalism, which was a Good
Thing. Francis Fukayama wrote that it meant the End of History. The
whole world would become like Switzerland, because people no longer had
anything important to fight over. Saddam Hussein read this in April, and
misunderstood it, so he invaded Kuwait, which is like Switzerland,
except that it is flat and sandy and it has votes for women. A great
Collision had to be brought together to drive him out. In the end his
troops surrendered to CNN and were killed by the Collision, on the
Highway of Death.
This was the beginning of the New Word Order. It is what we used to have
instead of History. Many important events happened in it, notably the
Destruction of Yugoslavia and the Death of Diana. Yugoslavia had to be
destroyed because the Serbs lived all over it and practised ethnic
cleansing. This was stopped by another Collision and the Serbs now live
only in Serbia. Serbia has been a democracy ever since its elected
government was overthrown by policemen driving tractors. Diana died
because of yet another Collision. The car she was being driven in was
driven into a Parisian tunnel support pillar, known as a paparazzo.
People still lay flowers at the pillar.
The New Word Order lasted until September 11 2001, when hitchhikers took
over four airliners with box-cutters and flew them into the Twin Towers
and the Pentagram (and Pennsylvania). After that it was generally
understood that the whole world would not ever become like Switzerland,
and Swiss Army knives were banned from airliners. This has prevented any
Afghanistan was bombed to get rid of Osama Bin Laden. He now no longer
lives in Afghanistan but in the hearts of millions of devoted followers.
Iraq was bombed to kill Saddam Hussein and to get rid of his Weapons of
Mass Destruction, which are now in the hands of the people of Iraq.
America is still Top Nation.