Notes on the News
By Gwydion M. Williams
- 1688-1988 – Permanent Revolution in Britain
- The French alternative
- Tanks for the memory
- Other anniversaries
- Spaghetti Borgia
- Flags of convenience
- SoLiD as a rock?
- God and Iran
- The sniggerers on the sidelines
- Kings Cross phoenix
- Afghanistan – return to anarchy
The notion of “permanent revolution” was cooked up in the first decade of the 20th century by Rosa Luxemburg (who was killed after an abortive revolution in Germany) and Parvus (who defected from Socialism and became a millionaire businessman instead). It was popularised by Trotsky, particularly after he had lost power in the Soviet Union.
Trotsky was very good at cooking up notions that sounded good on paper. Very few of them actually worked when they were tried — and Trotsky largely forgot about them during the time when he was a successful practical revolutionary in Russia. In so far as one can make sense of “permanent revolution”, it would involve a revolutionary party creating a series of state structures, and continually organizing their overthrow in favour of something even more revolutionary.
Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution is the nearest anyone came to trying this system in practice – even though Mao would certainly have denied that it owed anything to Trotsky, and few Trotskyists cared to claim it as an example of their master’s thought in action. In effect, the Cultural Revolution was an attempt by Mao to overthrow the state he had helped to found less than two decades before, and replace it with something better.
It was a fine notion, but a disastrous policy. Factions of Red Guards fought each other with great ferocity, each side mouthing exactly the same slogans. Artists and experts were harassed by teenagers who suspected them of ideological deviation. Many of them suffered very badly; some died, or else committed suicide. In the end, reaction against the chaos led to the present swing towards something much more like the Western pattern of government and economy.
Now consider Britain. The state has had direct continuity since 1688. And yet this continuity has not stopped power from being transferred far beyond the governing classes of 1688. It has not prevented social reforms that were hardly even dreamt of in 1688, were viewed as mad and dangerous radicalism in 1788, were still substantially rejected in 1888.
The essential feature of the 1688 settlement was that you could be against the government and the ruling classes, and yet fully accept the existing state. This was possible because the government and the ruling classes did not normally use the power of the state against reformers.
This system did not come out of nothing. Charles II had accepted that he had been restored as a limited monarch, and acted accordingly. This had indeed been the substance of Parliament’s original demand on Charles I. James II partly upset the system. But his overthrow established it on a much firmer basis.
Bloodless revolutions are possible, under the 1688 system. Or rather – because the political structure was flexible, and pressure for reforms did not build up until there had to be a vast and violent revolutionary upheaval. In effect, this was and remains a permanent revolution.
The left in Britain has normally looked back at 1688 as a glorious success. If subsequent politics was highly imperfect, at least the principals of 1688 were sound.
Some, indeed, were tempted by alternatives” In The Rights of Man, Tom Paine polemicized against Edmund Burke, imagining that the French Revolution was a new and better 1688, without any pointless monarchical trimmings. Yet a few months after writing The Rights of Man, Tom Paine was in prison in France, in great danger of perishing during the Terror.
In the short run, Burke was wiser that Paine. He certainly had a better grasp of politics. Yet while France was not to live up to Tom Paine’s hopes for it, most of the things that he demanded in The Rights of Man have in fact been won. And they were won within Britain without any overthrow of the political structures of 1688.
In France, there were a series of dramatic revolutions, reactions, new revolutions, new reactions. The pace of progress was more or less the same; the cost in blood and wrecked lives was much much higher. British radicals generally saw the advantages of playing the political game by the rules of 1688.
But since the 1950s, British radicals and leftists have seen things differently. They have supposed that a game without rules might be better for the left than politics under the rules of 1688. This supposition developed during the 1960s, and has been maintained despite the disasters suffered throughout the world by leftists who managed to polarise their societies and break down their constitutional structures.
In Britain, the main source of such ideas was the New Left. As Hugh Roberts has described (L&TUR 6), they decided that the real truth about politics could be learned from France: Now it was true that political theory was better developed in France than in England. But this was largely because French political practice had been so terrible for so many years, inducing thinkers to try revising things from first principals.
The proper job for the New Left would have been to use French methods of analysis in order to understand what was actually happening in Britain. Instead, they cried to learn political practice from them. It was rather like Frenchmen coming to England to learn how to cook!
A restaurant in France that served authentic English cooking would not win many customers. In the same way, the radical movement of the 1960s ruined itself by trying to make British politics more French, more bitter and polarised. And they did this at the very time when French politics were becoming more like the British pattern.
Up until 1968, revolutionary risings in France had tended to end in mass bloodshed. Either the reactionaries put down the revolution with tens of thousands of deaths. Or else the revolution triumphed and then the revolutionaries began killing each other. But 1968 was dealt with in a fairly mild way. There was no mass slaughter, no mass jailings or deportations — as had happened after the failure of the Paris Commune, for instance.
The true lesson of 1968 is that the pattern of 1688 is getting established on a world-wide basis.
Twenty years is one generation, and the generation of American and West European radicals who were young in 1968 have naturally chosen this year to remember their past. Dozens of programmes have been made about what it was like to be a student radical in Wes tern Europe or the USA.
But other things happened in 1968. It was also the year of the Tet offensive in Vietnam, which persuaded a majority of Americans that the war was unwinnable. And it was the year in which the “Prague Spring” was crushed.
History since 1968 has been dominated by the outcomes of these three events. America’s failure and final defeat in Vietnam, plus the student uprising, forced a big re-think and shift of values in the West. The crushing of the Prague Spring led to a freezing-up in Eastern Europe. What Gorbachev is promising to do in 1988 is far less radical that what Czechoslovakia was actually doing in 1968.
During the 1970s, the left in Western Europe had an immense opportunity – and largely wasted it. Socialism was divided between “idealists” who phrase-mongered about revolution and “pragmatists” who were content to run the existing capitalist system, and in fact ran it rather badly. The middle ground – those who could devise practical reforms, and push them through – was too weak numerically to put its ideas into practice. In Britain, the best opportunity was Workers’
Control, in particular the Bullock proposals. But Workers’ Control was blocked by an alliance of Labour Left and Labour Right. This failure to do anything coherent with the massive trade union power of the 1970s tarnished the image of West European Socialism. Soviet-style Communism had lost the last of its credibility in 1968. Vietnam, dear to our hearts in the 1960s and early 1970s, got involved in an invasion of Kampuchea and a senseless border war with China. Thatcherism triumphed almost by default!
Of course, it’s not only 1968 that we should be remembering. We’ve already had the celebrations of the founding of modem Australia in 1788. Then there was the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. And as I mentioned earlier. There was the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the people and Parliament drove out James II, the legitimate King, and established a constitutional settlement that has lasted ever since.
Surprisingly enough, the British state is determined to play down its own origins. Almost every other state in the world has a “national day” or something of the sort, celebrated each year. Some states have several, reflecting different stages in their development. Yet there seems to be a consensus of the establishment that the 300th anniversary of the founding of the modem British state is a minor matter. The defeat of the Spanish Armada is getting just as much attention, even though it was just one battle in a long and indecisive war. But the great thing about Britain post-1688 is that individuals don’t have to follow the state’s lead. So you’ll be seeing more about 1688 in future issues of L&TUR.
What else? Dublin is celebrating the 1000th anniversary of “Dublin in Ireland”. Dublin is in fact rather older than that, but it began life as a Viking base used for raids on the disunited Irish tribes. Some time around 988, a ruler of Dublin found it convenient to acknowledge an Irish High King as overlord; this is the event that is being celebrated.
Coming to more recent times, there was 1848, of year of revolutions in many European countries. In Britain, the ruling class agreed to give up some of its privileges, a process that had begun with the reform of Parliament in 1832. Elsewhere, the ruling class tried to hold on to everything, succeeded in holding on to everything for some decades, and in the end lost everything,
Coming to the 20th century, there was 1918, the end of the Great War, and the disappearance of much of the old order of Europe. Then there was 1938, when Britain and France tried to preserve peace by giving Czechoslovakia to Hitler, and succeeded only in laying the basis for a longer, bloodier and far more dangerous war. There was 1948, when an alliance of local Communists and the Soviet Union overthrew a democratically-elected left-wing government in Czechoslovakia – an event as upsetting in its day as the crushing of the Prague Spring was in 1968. 1948 was also the year when George Orwell wrote 1984.
One should also not forget 1958, and the founding by Charles de Gaulle of the 5th Republic. The signs are that the Fifth Republic has finally given France a political structure in which Left and Right can contest with each other, and replace each other in government, without the danger of civil war that has dogged France since the Fall of the Bastille.
One last thing, The 5th of May would have been Karl Marx’s 170th birthday, had he still been alive. And his ideas are still very much alive. Despite the mess-ups that various self-styled Marxists have made in the interim, they are still helping to re-shape the world.
Shellfish can occasionally contain lethal toxins; every year there are a few such deaths somewhere in the world. Cigarettes give lung-cancer to those who sit next to smokers, as well as to the smokers themselves. Alcohol, though safe enough in moderation, is lethal in excess – and there are many who drink to excess. And yet none of these things are illegal. The irradiation of food has none of these dangers. Yet it is still illegal to offer the public irradiated food, even clearly labelled as such.
Irradiation is the purification of food by radiation. It does not make food radioactive, any more than exposure to light would make it luminous. What it does do is kill off the bacteria that tend to be present in even the cleanest fresh food. Thus irradiated fruit would last for much longer without going bad.
Irradiated food would prove popular, if people were allowed to buy it. There is no rational reason not to let people decide for themselves. Large-scale tests with irradiated food have been carried out in China, where few people can afford a fridge, and there have been no ill effects. But irradiation is held up because of a spill-over from fears of nuclear war and pollution from power plants, even though it has nothing to do with them. Irradiation remains against the law!
[Irradiation is allowed in some cases, particularly for herbs and spices. It still meets consumer resistance, though ‘genetically modified’ is now a greater topic for fear.]
Last time I looked, the three largest fleets in the world were those of Greece, Panama and Liberia. The first of these is hardly surprising; the Greek connection with the sea is older than recorded history. But the other two are blatantly “flags of convenience”; anyone who likes can register their vessel as Liberian or Panamanian. For ship owners, this brings great benefits in terms of low safety standards and few rules about rates of pay.
But in the Gulf War, such flags are not so convenient. The American and West Europeans have been defending ships that fly their own flags, but not those of other nations. There have been arguments that it should be extended to all shipping – even to ships that are substantially British, French or whatever, but fly a flag of convenience.
Understandably, the navies in the Gulf have refused to do this. They have enough to do defending their own. It’s a selfish attitude – but unless and until something can be done to suppress “flags of convenience”, it makes more sense than the alternatives.
In L&TUR 6, I commented that “the [Liberal] party that ripped itself apart in the Asquith/Lloyd George power-battle is showing itself true to its traditions“. This was not intended as a prophecy. But at the time of writing, it is showing every sign of predicting the future of the Social and Liberal Democrats. (SLD, hence SoLiD)
[Soon to rename themselves Liberal Democrats]
Having angered a great many people, and having got rid of David Owen, David Steel has now stepped down. If he did not want to be leader, then the wise and far-sighted thing would have been to promote Owen as leader of the new merged party. But Steel is neither wise nor far-sighted. He has broken the Alliance, excluding its only really serious and substantial politician. And he has for all practical purposes re-invented the Liberal Party, with all of its eccentricity.
The Liberal Party was a party with ancient corruption in its bones. Lloyd George was one of the leading promotors of corruption — although it is possible that the covert sale of honour was also intended as a long-term ploy to undermine and discredit the whole system. His bust-up with Asquith came because Asquith was not an effective war leader, but would not admit the fact. Lloyd George ousted Asquith, and went on to win the World War for Britain. Thereafter he and Asquith ran rival Liberal parties. Both of them lost power, but the Lloyd George party lost more, and more or less vanished.
Running a nation is a bit like driving a car. It’s nice to have some good destination in mind, but you also have to be competent to manage the vehicle. Rash or inexperienced drivers cannot be trusted with cars regardless of where they hope to end up.
The Iranian Islamic revolutionaries have always been very confident that they had God on their side. For a time, there seemed to be some objective support for this notion. Overthrowing the Shah, who had seemed so powerful, was more or less miraculous. Surviving the Iraqi invasion was also a notable achievement, even though Iran has a larger nation, with a strong well-equipped army that the Shah had built up. But then they tried to push things too far, assuming that God would give them a new string of victories. God is showing no sign of obliging them.
At present, the US has Iran stalemated in the Gulf. The fierce words uttered by the Iranians were not backed up by actions. The few times there has been a clash, the US has shown its great superiority in wars of machines and complex electronics.
Meanwhile, Iraq has pushed Iran back on the key southern sector — the only sector where Iran ever had any chance of a decisive victory. Not only is the Iranian war effort getting nowhere — it is actually going backwards!
We leave it to the Iranian religious leaders to try to explain why God has allowed this to happen.
[With hindsight, they could say that God helped out a few years later. It was certainly astonishing to me that the USA destroyed the pro-Western regime. I never shared their belief that they could replace it with something more peaceful and obedient to Western interests.]
There was a time when serious things were said in Private Eye. There was a time when it was a pioneer of the “permissive society”. But that time is long past, and now drifts on as a slightly more modem alternative to Punch.. A lot of it nowadays is devoted to trivial and predictable faults – greed and vanity among media people, and sharp practice or fraud among money men.
It’s not really unexpected. Private Eye never had any serious purpose, beyond satirising the establishment. And their satire was more or less an end in itself. The main people running Private Eye have never had any particular desire to change the world, nor any notion of what they might like the world to become. When they realised that their criticisms of the world might actually result in changes to the world, they lost their nerve. Thus in the course of time, they were bound to decay into no more than a funny magazine. (And there was even a time, long ago in the early 19th century, when Punch was a radical magazine.)
For a brief period there was an alternative to Private Eye. Called The Digger, it was a similar but rather better alternative. More like Private Eye once was. Alas, it is no more. It was not a really independent publication; it depended on its financial backers, mostly Irish, who grew discontented with it and let it die after it had run for a few months. It’s not exactly a tragedy, but it is rather a pity, since The Digger had a lot going for it. So let us give it this lament:
Satiric London’s dead and gone;
It’s with The Digger in its grave!
[Punch closed in 1992, with a small revival in 1996 failing again in 2002. Private Eye occasionally has interesting news on scandals, but no idea what to do next. They share the establishment of Jeremy Corbyn and the revival of British leftish that he represents.]
Kings Cross in North London is a really dismal area. Dull, dirty and run down, for the most part. But it lies more or less between up-and-coming Islington and expensive areas like Bloomsbury and Oxford Street. It was thus certain to be re-developed one day.
The key to the matter is Kings Cross Station, and a lot of unused or little-used land near to it. A complex deal is being put together by British Rail and a consortium of developers, for a huge scheme worth several billion pounds.
There are objections, naturally enough. The development will no doubt be very Thatcherite, with huge profits for the investors and with poorer people in rented accommodation getting squeezed out. But the alternative is — what?
The world does not stand still. And the chance to establish a socialist pattern of redevelopment was missed and messed up in the 1960s. Local councils and other public bodies have tended to be foolishly wasteful, leaving huge numbers of houses empty for no very clear reason. “Social planning for social needs” is a fine slogan. But there ought to be some substance behind the slogan, and for the most part there was not. Without a serious re-think, things like the proposed Kings Cross redevelopment cannot be effectively opposed.
[It is now much improved from 1988. A complete refit of the station has brought out some excellent architecture.]
When it became clear that the Russians really were pulling out of Afghanistan, a lot of commentators reckoned that the government they had left behind them must be doomed. Just as the Saigon regime was doomed, once the USA pulled out.
The difference is that in Vietnam, all opposition to the Saigon regime was controlled by Hanoi. Whereas in Afghanistan, there is a total muddle, with a great diversity of rival “freedom fighters”, and probable splits between the internal and external leaders of each faction.
Afghanistan is basically the high mountainous land that was left free when the Russian expansion southwards from Central Asia met the British expansion northwards from India. Its ethnic groups do not have a great deal in common with each other. And in fact, the modem borders of Afghanistan cut across most of them. Most notably the Pathans, the largest Afghan group, but half of whose territories are in what is now Pakistan.
The Communist regime that the Russians have left behind is the most coherent thing that can be found in the whole country. The various “resistance groups” will go on fighting it, no doubt. But they will also fight each other. And if one “resistance group” looks like becoming supreme, it is likely that the others will all gang up on it, perhaps in de facto alliance with the Communists. Thus nothing very definite is likely to happen in Afghanistan — not for decades to come!
[I missed the remarkable development of the Taliban. With the benefit of hindsight, the USA should have used it as the basis of a pro-Western government that would have kept the peace, and of course not given shelter to al-Qaeda when they planned the 911 attacks. Similar people in Middle-Europe became some of the most effective imposers of Western values. But the hysteric anti-communism and anti-socialism of the New Right prevented them from seeing it.]
These Newsnotes appeared in July 1988, in Issue 7 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. One of many old articles now on the web.