Newsnotes 024 – July 1991

Notes on the News

by Madawc Williams

Gulf aftermath

During the Gulf crisis, President Bush had two options. He could concentrate on getting Iraq out of Kuwait, or he could concentrate on punishing Saddam Hussein for daring to do something that the US chose to disapprove of after it had happened. Bush chose the latter. Even though it seemed certain that Iraq could be removed by ordinary diplomatic means, he insisted on a full-scale war. Even though the Iraqi invasion was a very normal event in the pattern of global politics, he insisted on treating it as totally abnormal and shocking. To justify this, the phrase “new world order” was dreamt up.

It is now clear that the “new world order” is to be exactly the same as the old world order. The most clear-cut case is East Timor. Not only has it an excellent moral and historical case for being free of Indonesian occupation: it also has an unimpeachable legal case. Its right to be free was even officially recognised by the UN security council, quite as unambiguously as was done in the case of Kuwait. But nothing is being done about it, nor about any of the other cases of nations with a moral and in some cases a legal right to be free.

[Nothing was done for East Timor until 1999, following the fall of Suharto in Indonesia.]

Meanwhile, the Kurds are being abandoned to their fate. The American military, the people who gave Bush his glory by organising the cut-price slaughter of 100,000 or 200,000 Iraqis, are now disgusted by the part they are being forced to play. As in Vietnam, local allies are treated as wholly ‘expendable’ once the particular short-term American purpose has been achieved, or not achieved. In any case, as The Independent reported on June 3rd, the US military find that they are not being allowed to rescue those Iraqi citizens who helped them during their time in Iraq.

And what has been achieved? The Iraqi Ba’athist regime has declined America’s kind offer of forgiveness if they would merely behead themselves. It is far from clear that the Ba’athists could survive without the man who has been their effective leader during the whole period of their rule in Iraq. And – unlike the Kurds – the Ba’athist elite are undoubtedly shrewd enough to work out that Bush’s ambiguous promises of better treatment if Saddam were overthrown are about as valuable as shares in Polly Peck.

Meanwhile, Kuwait is plagued by a shattered economy and an autocratic government that has no better notion of what to do than to persecute the Palestinians and delay democracy for the small minority of fully-fledged Kuwaiti citizens. Kuwait’s constitution is strictly racist, based on descent without regard for work, service or merit. When even South Africa is changing, it is unlikely that this set-up can last for long.

More significantly, a split seems to be opening up between the Saudi dynasty and the conservative religious leaders who up until now have been the most solid basis of support for the dynasty among ordinary Arabians.

Meanwhile, a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians looks increasingly less likely. A majority of Israelis are now definitely unwilling to give up the West Bank. And an increasing number of Palestinians are falling back on Islam, the core of their identity, and are working themselves into a frame of mind where such a solution would be unacceptable even if it were offered.

What was Bush thinking of?  Probably, he was thinking of getting re-elected in 1992. And this means, of course, that having sown the winds he will still be in charge when it is time to reap the whirlwinds. How it will end, I have no idea. Probably not well for anybody, but Saddam’s chances of ending up a long-term winner should not be discounted. Especially if Bush should do something like invading Cuba, a notion that seems to be being floated now, with drug trafficking as the planned pretext.



If America hopes to become world power-broker, it should not lightly renege on its own deals. The US could have stood back and let nature take its course, with the Tigreans throwing out the old and discredited military regime. Instead, America helped negotiate a deal between the two sides, and then instantly reneged on it by “urging” the Tigreans to go on in and take the capital anyway. After the Gulf War, such “urgings” were bound to be decisive.

Quite apart from going back on what they had just agreed, this action was decidedly unwise. Ethiopia is a very diverse country, and the only hope of long-term peace lies in some form of coalition government. But what the US did makes such an outcome very much less likely.

The case of Eritrea is also disturbing.  After the failure of secession on Biafra, it seemed to have been established that existing borders in Africa would be respected. They may be unnatural and arbitrary, but at least everyone can accept them. Say that the map can be redrawn, and there will be ten thousand rival ideas on how to redraw it, and an unending series of ci vii wars in a continent that desperately needs peace and development. Eritrea should have been persuaded to settle for autonomy – independence in all but name, but with the formal principle of fixed borders still maintained. Yet here again, US policy has been in favour of allowing the Eritreans to break away completely – an example that many other minorities are bound to want to follow.

Bush would not be free to make such a mess in the world, if there were large numbers of ordinary American who followed foreign policy and could restrain him. But America’s privatised television services give a silly and shallow view of the rest of the world, even though they are often very good on local and regional matters. Britain has not yet sunk so low – but with our own news services being privatised, and already much less independent than they once were, the outlook is not good.


Blue river blues

Mao Tse-Tung began his career as a schoolteacher, and it was only when he saw that no stable state structure was going to be established in China that he turned to politics and came to look for guidance to the only authority that had any useful ideas for China’s problems. As a Stalinist Communist, he undertook three impossible tasks during his lifetime, and succeeded in two of them.

The first impossible task was to re-establish a unified and independent China. The Chinese Nationalists never managed it, despite their subsequent economic success on the tiny island of Taiwan. It was Mao’s peasant armies that contradicted all conventional opinion and re-established China as a single sovereign state.

The second impossible task was curing China’s endemic poverty and corruption. Many Chinese and almost all outside observers were sure it could not be done. China, once seen as a hopeless “basket case”, with no more prospects than Bangladesh, is now seen as having suddenly begun to sort out its problems. Despite one period of acute crisis and famine, China was permanently changed.

The third impossible task was to try to stop a Leninist communist party degenerating into a corrupt oligarchy. Mao correctly saw that the process started by Khrushchev would lead to collapse and long-run capitulation to the West. The party hierarchy would throw away socialism but would hang on to party power to the bitter end. Something had to be done about this – but what? He might have opted for introducing Western style pluralism and multi-party democracy, an essentially social-democratic solution. But the whole tradition of Leninism was against this. Sun Yat-Sen had had the notion of a long-lasting but limited dictatorship that would gradually introduce full democracy. Mao, however, tried for a more radical solution with the Cultural Revolution. And he failed. Even before his death, he had been blocked and frustrated by the party oligarchy. His Red Guards had in any case mainly created chaos, without bringing into being any viable new system. And he had used up most of the prestige he had accumulated from his earlier successes.

After his death, Mao’s ideas for China’s future were officially repudiated through the trial of the “gang of four”, his wife and three close associates. Formally speaking, it was pretended that this was nothing to do with Mao – just as the announcement of Madame Mao’s recent death omitted the fact that she was his wife. But everyone knew what the real situation had been. As Madam Mao put it, she was Mao’s dog, and bit only when she was told to bite. Jiang Qing – “Blue River” – was important only because her views were assumed to be Mac’s own. During the trial of the “Gang of Four”, it was pretended that Mao had actually wanted something very different. But since the fall of the “Gang of Four was followed by the rapid introducing of elements of capitalism, it has to be assumed that this was a polite fiction. It was actually a “gang of five”, but Mao was left out because he was the founder of the very state of which his rivals had now secured control.

Mao, the frustrated teacher turned politician and general, spent his whole life trying to teach new lessons to his fellow Chinese, changing them a great deal, but not rooting out as much of the past as he would have liked. Tiananmen Square was no aberration, but a logical part of the Khrushchevite development that Mao tried to stop and failed to stop.

Leninism is essentially dead. Its Stalinist branch was the only effective part of it: the Khrushchevites could not keep what they held, and the Trotskyists in Western Europe have presided over a strong decline in the fortunes of the left. Possibly some other form of Leninist development was possible once, but no longer. The Cultural Revolution produced only disorder and disruption.

Socialists in Western Europe have wasted the last 20 or 30 years looking to the rest of the world to show the way to socialism. Plenty of left-wing people have very deliberately blocked possible reforms – most notably industrial democracy – in the expectation that they were preventing a doomed capitalist system from having its life extended. Some of them have learned their lesson even now – while others, like Fred Halliday, have now gone over to the enemy camp, walking away from the mess that they helped to create. But the New Right is also strongly in decline, losing ground to grey pragmatists like John Major. If the left were to stop fighting itself and get down to building socialism in Western Europe, almost anything might be possible.

[This was written before I updated my knowledge of China.  I was still using the old Wade-Giles version of Chinese names.  Much more importantly, I failed to realise that a modified version of Leninism was still flourishing there.]


Leningrad and Stalingrad

Thirty years ago, the famous city of Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd by an arbitrary decision of the Communist Party hierarchy. Now, a popular vote has decided that Leningrad will return to its old name of St Petersburg, and Boris Yeltsin has been elected leader of Russia on the strength mostly of being known to be at odds with the party hierarchy. What some of us were saying back in the 1960s has been amply proved – all attempts to draw a distinction between Lenin and Stalin were unreal, and bound to fail. It was Lenin, not Stalin, who destroyed all legal opposition and decided that the Soviet Union was to be controlled absolutely by a party hierarchy commanded by the Politburo. It was Lenin, not Stalin, who decided that all other forms of socialism were to be considered hostile and treasonable LO the true interests of the working class. Stalin merely followed through the logic of such decisions.

In the new world that had emerged in the 1950s, there was some logic to the USSR shifting away from Leninist lines of development, which would probably have led to a nuclear holocaust and the collapse of civilisation – perhaps the extinction of humanity. But LO do so effectively, the party hierarchy should have frankly accepted the Lenin – Stalin continuity. But they evidently thought that a separation could be made. They were wrong, and in this post-Leninist era, no effective socialism is possible if it tries to repeat their mistake,


Polish Popery

The Catholic Church has always acted as a large self-interested corporate body, whose guiding principle is that God helps those who help themselves. And, like all such self-interested corporate bodies – including the fallen Communist panics of Eastern Europe and the disintegrating hierarchy of the Soviet Union – the Catholic hierarchy also supposes that its own interests are also the true interests of the whole human race. Thus the Pope’s campaign to “re-Christianise” Europe.

Pope John Paul II, the Pope from Poland, is now fighting a battle for the shape of Poland’s future – and there are some pleasant signs that he is losing it. The force that actually overthrew East European Leninism was the visible alternative of a prosperous consumer society in Western Europe. Poles want 10 be free to be as religious or irreligious as they chose, as strict or lax as their own individual consciences dictate. Abortion has been a particular point of conflict – no one likes the idea, but equally most people recognise that women do not seek abortions unless the alternatives arc even worse.

It can not be said that the Pope’s stand against abortion is a truly moral stand. Catholic teachings on the subject are equivocal and open to interpretation. The hierarchy was quite willing to suppress its own traditional Latin Mass during a burst of modernist enthusiasm a few years back – imposing the very thing that people were once burnt at the stake for demanding, and imposing it despite the wishes of most ordinary Catholics. But that change was merely replacing one sort of discipline with another. Accepting a woman’s right to choose would be abdicating the essentials of Church authority, which the hierarchy is never like! y to do.

Several times, the Pope has compared abortion to the Nazi Holocaust – a doubly dishonest argument (as well as an insult 10 the thousands of women who have died as a result of illegal abortions). It is dishonest, first, because the Nazis themselves were strongly opposed to abortion (and also to homosexuality and pornography, despite the various fantasies attached to them by people who know that you’ll never get into trouble for telling lies about what the Nazis were and were not).

The second and much more important point is that the Vatican utterly failed LO take a moral stance when the Nazis were a real power in Europe. Many individual Catholics were pan of the resistance, but the hierarchy as a whole was neutral, leaning somewhat toward the Fascist side. Though in a position to expose Nazi genocide, they never did so. But with Nazism safely defeated and discredited, the Vatican become retrospective anti-Fascists. There has been trouble in Poland about their attempt to annex the death camps by giving prominence to the small number of Jewish converts to Catholicism who died there. This row was defused after vigorous protests by Poland’s small community of Jewish survivors. But now he repeats the same trick on the matter of abortion. Hopefully, he is not going to succeed


These Newsnotes appeared in July 1991, in Issue 24 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at