Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Monday, October 30, 2006

Al Capone on Capitalism

It is well known that legendary American gangster Al Capone once said that 'Capitalism is the legitimate racket of the ruling class', - and I have commented on the links between organised crime and capitalist accumulation before on this blog, but I recently came across the following story from Claud Cockburn's autobiography, and decided to put it up on Histomat for you all.

In 1930, Cockburn, then a correspondent in America for the Times newspaper, interviewed Al Capone at the Lexington Hotel in Chicago, when Capone was at the height of his power. He recalls that except for 'the sub-machine gun...poking through the transom of a door behind the desk, Capone's own room was nearly indistinguishable from that of, say, a "newly arrived" Texan oil millionaire. Apart from the jowly young murderer on the far side of the desk, what took the eye were a number of large, flattish, solid silver bowls upon the desk, each filled with roses. They were nice to look at, and they had another purpose too, for Capone when agitated stood up and dipped the tips of his fingers in the water in which floated the roses.

I had been a little embarrassed as to how the interview was to be launched. Naturally the nub of all such interviews is somehow to get round to the question "What makes you tick?" but in the case of this millionaire killer the approach to this central question seemed mined with dangerous impediments. However, on the way down to the Lexington Hotel I had had the good fortune to see, I think in the Chicago Daily News, some statistics offered by an insurance company which dealt with the average expectation of life of gangsters in Chicago. I forget exactly what the average was, and also what the exact age of Capone at that time - I think he was in his early thirties. The point was, however, that in any case he was four years older than the upper limit considered by the insurance company to be the proper average expectation of life for a Chicago gangster. This seemed to offer a more or less neutral and academic line of approach, and after the ordinary greetings I asked Capone whether he had read this piece of statistics in the paper. He said that he had. I asked him whether he considered the estimate reasonably accurate. He said that he thought that the insurance companies and the newspaper boys probably knew their stuff. "In that case", I asked him, "how does it feel to be, say, four years over the age?"

He took the question quite seriously and spoke of the matter with neither more nor less excitement or agitation than a man would who, let us say, had been asked whether he, as the rear machine-gunner of a bomber, was aware of the average incidence of casualties in that occupation. He apparently assumed that sooner or later he would be shot despite the elaborate precautions which he regularly took. The idea that - as afterwards turned out to be the case - he would be arrested by the Federal authorities for income-tax evasion had not, I think, at that time so much as crossed his mind. And, after all, he said with a little bit of corn-and-ham somewhere at the back of his throat, supposing he had not gone into this racket? What would be have been doing? He would, he said, "have been selling newspapers barefoot on the street in Brooklyn".

He stood as he spoke, cooling his finger-tips in the rose bowl in front of him. He sat down again, brooding and sighing. Despite the ham-and-corn, what he said was probably true and I said so, sympathetically. A little bit too sympathetically, as immediately emerged, for as I spoke I saw him looking at me suspiciously, not to say censoriously. My remarks about the harsh way the world treats barefoot boys in Brooklyn were interrupted by an urgent angry waggle of his podgy hand.

"Listen," he said, "don't get the idea I'm one of those goddam radicals. Don't get the idea I'm knocking the American system. The American system..." As though an invisible chairman had called upon him for a few words, he broke into an oration upon the theme. He praised freedom, enterprise and the pioneers. He spoke of "our heritage". He referred with contempuous disgust to Socialism and Anarchism. "My rackets," he repeated several times, "are run on strictly American lines and they're going to stay that way"...his vision of the American system began to excite him profoundly and now he was on his feet again, leaning across the desk like the chairman of a board meeting, his fingers plunged in the rose bowls.

"This American system of ours," he shouted, "call it Americanism, call it Capitalism, call it what you like, gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it." He held out his hand towards me, the fingers dripping a little, and stared at me sternly for a few seconds before reseating himself.

A month later in New York I was telling this story to Mr John Walter, minority owner of The Times. He asked me why I had not written the Capone interview for the paper. I explained that when I had come to put my notes together I saw that most of what Capone had said was in essence identical with what was being said in the leading articles of The Times itself, and I doubted whether the paper would be best pleased to find itself seeing eye to eye with the most notorious gangster in Chicago. Mr Walter, after a moment's wry reflection, admitted that probably my idea had been correct.'


Quote Me Happy Index

After a kind of false start, this blog has established a tradition of putting up various quotes, and I have decided to collect them together into one post for ease of reference. This will get added to as and when.

Tony Benn on Paul Robeson
Al Capone on Capitalism
Winston Churchill on Gandhi
Winston Churchill on slavery and the slave trade
Winston Churchill on 'the sinews of peace'
Eugene Debs on war
W.E.B. Du Bois on communism
Terry Eagleton on terrorism
Frederick Engels on the 'Iron Chancellor'
William Evans-Gordon MP on migrants
Norman Geras on 'the ex-Marxists conscience'
Duncan Hallas on the Labour Party
Christopher Hitchens on 'imperial beastliness'
Robert Ingersoll on war
Vladmir Lenin on the Channel Tunnel
Karl Marx on the working class
John Stuart Mill on Communism
John Pilger on Empire
Pope Pius XI on colonialism
Paul Robeson on liberty
Maximilien Robespierre on Empire-building
Josef Stalin on Cromwell
EP Thompson on the nuclear nightmare
Leon Trotsky on Ignazio Silone and Jack London
Max Weber on revolution


Sunday, October 29, 2006


Yep, it's that time of year again. Lots of interesting comment on the US mid-term elections by the Unrepentant Marxist.


Remembering 1956 #3: The invasion of Egypt

Fifty years ago today, on 29 October 1956, Israeli forces - backed by Britain and France - crossed into Sinai desert as the first part of a plan for the West to 'topple' Egyptian nationalist leader Colonel Nasser. In July Nasser had nationalised the Suez Canal, which, after all, was in Egypt and had been built by Egyptians. As Egyptian troops rushed to engage the invaders, Britain and France made their demands for a ceasefire. The first British bombs were falling on Cairo by nightfall on 31 October. Six days later British and French paratroopers landed at Port Said at the mouth of the Canal. These events marks the start of what is euphemistically in the West remembered as the 'Suez Crisis', but really should be remembered as a colonial war, the Western invasion of an African state. Yet it was certainly to throw the British Empire into crisis - as historian Anne Alexander notes:

'With the regular [Egyptian] army in disarray as it retreated before the Israeli advance, the city [Port Said] was poorly defended. Here the strategy of popular resistance would be put to the test. According to Fathallah Mahrus:

There was no army to fight in Port Said, just some individuals and a few soldiers and small units. So the popular resistance against the invasion was led by the people of Port Said—women and children as well—armed with cooking pans, kitchen knives, walking sticks and anything they could find...

The ferocity of the resistance in Port Said was a grave setback for British and French plans. British officials had convinced themselves that Nasser was a hated dictator, and that the Egyptian people would welcome his defeat and overthrow. But as Fathallah Mahrus explains:

It wasn’t about Nasser, it was about our homeland. The imperialists wanted to reoccupy our country, and the invasion was over the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company which was an imperialist company. And we forgot about what Nasser did to us, and we forgot our differences with him and the prisons and the camps and the torture because there was a common danger and a single enemy: imperialism which wanted to occupy Egypt.' The resistance won.

The lessons of Suez are then hopefully clear enough:

Fifty years ago Britain, France and Israel launched an invasion of Egypt. Their aim was to seize the recently nationalised Suez Canal. All three feared and hated the forces of Arab nationalism symbolised by Egypt’s President Nasser. As with Iraq the decision to invade split the British ruling class down the middle. There was widespread opposition to the attack. With the US refusing to support the invasion and the pound facing collapse, [Conservative] British prime minister Anthony Eden agreed to withdraw.

Even if the invasion plan had succeeded it is difficult to see how an occupation would have lasted. Britain had been forced out of the canal zone by a guerrilla campaign two years earlier. As with Iraq today, initial military success would have collapsed into ultimate defeat.

There is one huge difference in the parallel between Iraq and Suez. Fifty years ago, after some initial hesitation, Labour organised a massive rally against the war in Trafalgar Square. Eden resigned 18 days after the final British troops evacuated Suez. Tony Blair may have lasted longer than Eden - but he will be identified with catastrophe in Iraq as much as Eden is remembered for leading the British Empire to its final death throes.

Yes, that is right - the Labour Party organised a huge anti-war protest in Trafalgar Square under the banner 'Law not War'. As Stan Newens, then a young revolutionary socialist, remembered:

'With the prospect of armed intervention imminent, the Suez Emergency Committee booked Trafalgar Square for an anti-war rally on Sunday 4 November. I was in touch with Peggy Rushton, the MCF [Movement for Colonial Freedom] general secretary, by phone with the object of helping to mobilise support. On Thursday 1 November, when I phoned, she informed me that the Labour Party had been on the line to take over the booking actually, on behalf of the National Council of Labour, representing the TUC and the co-operative movement as well. I was delighted that she had already agreed and carried on with my plans to rally protesters. In addition, using the Epping CLP duplicator, I copied 6,000 leaflets drafted by myself and my Socialist Review colleagues, calling on workers to strike against the Suez intervention.

The Trafalgar Square rally turned out to be a seminal event in British Labour history. My 6,000 leaflets, which a crowd of dockers helped us to distribute, disappeared in a flash. All afternoon people were pouring into the square until it was impossible to move. At the height of the proceedings, a great chant went up in the north western corner of the square as a massive column of student demonstrators began to come in and went on endlessly.

"One, two, three, four! We won’t fight in Eden’s war", they chanted. The whole square and its environs were engulfed in a vast array of protesters who were jammed in tight. The sense of mass solidarity in a just cause held us spellbound and instilled in us all a common will to carry our protest forward.

At the end of the protest speeches, part of the crowd made for Whitehall, perhaps hoping to besiege Downing Street, and bitter clashes with the police followed in which 27 people were arrested. It was clear that the rally had awakened many thousands from their apathy and fired them as well as the pre-committed with an unbending determination to oppose British intervention in Suez.'

The same day of the protest - Sunday 4th November - saw the news come through of the Stalinist suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. Newens remembers that 'in Trafalgar Square Mike Kidron, a fellow Socialist Review supporter, told me (as he had left home much later) that the Russians were apparently going in to crush the uprising in Hungary...' Michael Rosen also remembers this vividly, as he noted earlier this month:

'I was with my CP [Communist Party] parents in Trafalgar Square to call for Britain out of Suez, when one of their Party comrades appeared and announced 'They've gone in. The tanks have gone in.' I was ten years old and thought that he meant that the tanks had gone into Port Said or Cairo or somewhere. Then he said, 'They're in Budapest' and I had no idea what they were talking about. I could see that it was utterly traumatic for the cluster of CP-ers I was looking up to (hoho) all around me'.

For more on the Communist Party Historians and 1956, see here

From the Suez Crisis to the crisis in Sudan

Yet the main lesson of Suez [invasion + occupation = war crimes + racism + poverty] still seems to miss too many people by today. Even after news that Blair's most trusted military commander thinks that NATO's attempted conquest of Afghanistan is 'cuckoo', and Iraq looks like it may be a worse defeat for the US Empire than even Vietnam was, there is still this notion that armed force by the West or 'international community' can bring liberation. These ideas are usually tied up with the whole notion of reformism - the idea that the capitalist state or capitalist states can be part of the solution, somehow. Hilary Benn enters the race for deputy leader of the Labour Party with a declaration that he wants to 'fight for social justice and peace in the world'. This sounds good, but given Hilary Benn's support for war on Afghanistan and Iraq, such a statement is slightly ominous. Even on the anti-war Labour Left, last month John McDonnell argued for armed UN intervention in Sudan, despite acknowledging that 'the role of the US and Britain in the Middle East has largely destroyed the credibililty of Bush and Blair internationally in being capable of leading a peace initiative'.

There are parallels here - of a sort - with the Labour Left over Suez, which was somewhat weakened by its leader, Shadow Foreign Secretary Nye Bevan, whose line over the whole disastrous war was very soft. As he put it in 1956, Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez canal was not about social justice but theft: 'If the sending of one’s police and soldiers into the darkness of night to seize somebody else’s property is nationalisation, then Ali Baba used the wrong terminology'.

One group of people who should really hold their tongues during the anniversary of the Suez war are the self-styled 'decent Left' who support Bush and Blair's bloody 'war on terror'. Yet, today, Nick Cohen is still calling for a new war to be waged against 'genocidal states'. By genocidal states does he mean the US, the UK, or perhaps Israel? No, their genocidal past and present is not what concerns Cohen. He calls for a new war of the West against the people of Sudan, which as Richard Seymour has noted, would only make a tragic situation even worse. Those wanting to learn the real lessons of Suez should be demanding American and British troops do not get sent to occupy even more countries - but come home immediately. Otherwise, they will all eventually be coming home anyway - only in bodybags.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

Imperialism and women

Several articles of interest in this week's Socialist Worker touch on the question of women and empire. The first by Sadie Robinson is a historical overview of how 'Imperialist powers have repeatedly captured the language of women’s rights and used it to justify imperialism, while simultaneously blocking any reforms that could help liberate women.' In the same issue, Sally Campbell examines why and how women were oppressed in the first place, and finally Michael Rosen invokes a character from Charles Dicken's novel Great Expectations, Miss Havisham, to examine why British politicians are always in the process of constructing a decaying notion of 'Britishness' as a national identity that is rooted in a nostalgia for Empire instead of facing up to the realities of modern British society and its true place in the world.

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Dead King Watch: Athelstan

Today marks the 1067th anniversary of the death Athelstan, who ruled England from 924-939, not that one would know it from reading the bourgeois press of course. What are they trying to hide, (no) one wonders?

Athelstan was born in 895, the son of King Edward the Elder of the Anglo-Saxons, and grandson of Alfred the Great. In 924, Edward died and so Athelstan became King of Mercia and eventually King of Wessex (both in the South of England). Yet rather than rest contented, his desire for more power meant he soon made a move up North, to wage war on the Viking Kingdom of Northumbria - conquering them to become ruler of more territory than any other Anglo-Saxon before him. The other rulers of tribes in Great Britain seem to have now submitted to Athelstan: 'first Hywel, King of the West Welsh {Cornish}, and Constantine II, King of Scots, and Owain, King of the people of Gwent, and Ealdred...of Bamburgh' records the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Athelstan was effectively now the first real King of England worthy of the name, extending his rule to Wales and Cornwell. When he died in 939, he chose to be buried in Malmesbury rather than at Winchester, and apparently in Malmesbury if few other places his name lives on into the 20th and 21st centuries, 'with everything from a bus company and a second-hand shop to several roads and streets named after him'. Such a commemoration seems to me to be more than enough a tribute to this warmongering, power-hungry King.


Dead King Watch: Alfred the Great

It has been a while since I updated Dead King Watch, and so how better to relaunch the thing by remembering the 1107th anniversary of the death yesterday of King Alfred the Great, who apparently died on 26 October 899. He styled himself 'King of the Anglo-Saxons', though because of his defence of his Kingdom of Wessex (in the South of England) against the Vikings he is known as 'Alfred the Great'. It is telling that no other English monarch has been deemed worthy enough to have been called 'the Great', though does Alfred really deserve the accolade?

Alfred was born in Oxfordshire in about 849, a son of King Ethelwulf of Wessex - who has quite a cool name and who made his name conquering Kent. Alfred was sent to Rome age 5 apparently, where he met the Pope of the day, along with other tribal leaders. Yet his father was soon to die and Alfred's elder brothers ruled. When about 18, Alfred began to fight alongside his brother against the invading Danes - who had been invading since about the 790s - and Alfred made his name in a series of intensive battles in Wessex around 870. However, the Vikings by now had seized York, established their own Kingdom in southern Northumberland, and defeated two other Kingdoms (East Anglia and Mercia) leaving only Wessex as the last surviving Anglo-Saxon Kingdom. In 871, his brother King Ethelred died - possibly from wounds recieved in battle - and Alfred became King of Wessex over Ethelred's young sons. For most of the 870s, Alfred fought a kind of guerilla war against the Viking invaders - famously staying undercover in a peasant woman's hut and letting her cakes burn, though whether there is any evidence for this legendary story is debatable. By the end of the decade, he had turned the tide in defeating the Vikings, achieving his greatest victory in May 878, at the battle of Edington.

According to his contemporary biographer Bishop Asser, 'Alfred attacked the whole pagan army fighting ferociously in dense order, and by divine will eventually won the victory, made great slaughter among them, and pursued them to their fortress (Chippenham) ... After fourteen days the pagans were brought to the extreme depths of despair by hunger, cold and fear, and they sought peace'. Good old divine will, eh?

Alfred then set about negotiating for peace while improving Wessex's defences - building a series of fort like garrison 'boroughs' around his base in Winchester and even developing some sort of navy. His rule now extended to West Mercia and Kent - the rest of the country was under 'Danelaw'. Despite several other attempted invasions, by the 1890s the Danes gave up trying to conquer Wessex. Alfred therefore seems to have had more time to translate and write, and so probably died quite happy.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Norman Geras on 'the ex-Marxist's conscience'

Another snippet from the archives presents itself, this time from the New Left Review, series 1, no. 163 (May-June 1987). Entitled
, Norman Geras speculated about the motives for those who renounce Marxism while claiming to have advanced from it:

In the advanced capitalist world from the mid-1960s a generation of intellectuals was radicalized and won for Marxism. Many of them were disappointed in the hopes they formed—some of these wild but let that pass—and for a good while now we have been witnessing a procession of erstwhile Marxists, a sizeable portion of the generational current they shared in creating, in the business of finding their way "out" and away. This exit is always presented, naturally, in the guise of an intellectual advance. Those of us unpersuaded of it cannot but remind its proponents of what they once knew but seem instantly to forget as they make their exit, namely, that the evolution of ideas has a social and material context. We cannot help wondering how far their recent trajectory may have been influenced by a range of factors which they themselves would doubtless prefer to overlook: the pressures upon them of age and professional status; the pressures of the political time and environment we have been passing through, not very congenial, in the West at least, to the sustenance of revolutionary ideas; and then the lure of intellectual fashion, a consideration not to be underrated by any means.

The life of the intellectual of the left is pulled by different forces. There is, on the one hand, a moral commitment of some sort, however formulated: to socialism, the end of exploitation, human liberation, a decent existence at last for everyone. But there is also, on the other hand, a certain self-image, as intellectual, and amongst its constituents, the desire for recognition, and so, perhaps, originality, and the hope or the sense of being in the very van, not just abreast of the latest theoretical development but one of its actual partisans and sponsors. The force of the former, the gravitational pull of moral commitment, is a variable one, as this same intellectual is well enough aware while she or he understands Marx. It is stronger when materially manifested, so to speak, visibly represented in and supported by a social movement—that of the exploited and the otherwise oppressed—particularly on the march, in active struggle. It is much weaker where this is absent; or in defeat or retreat. The bare commitment, and the ultimate historical objectives, can come here to seem rather abstract and remote, so distant from a particular personal destiny as to be hardly related to it at all. In the light of what is intellectually on offer at this moment, the theoretical perspective which has most securely embodied the commitment and the objectives for more than a century—Marxism—may then begin to appear as old hat.

Indeed so. Damn those Marxists who abandon it when they get carried away with their own self-importance and 'the lure of intellectual fashion' and status. Norman Geras concludes the article (on 'post-Marxist' thinkers Laclau and Mouffe), with a discussion of 'the ex-Marxist's conscience':

I shall conclude by simply registering some of the more lamentable themes of this book from professed (and so-recently-Marxist) radicals; themes which give reason to ponder just how far ‘post-’ is from straightforward anti-Marxism. First, there is deployment of a concept of ‘totalitarianism’ in its familiar Cold War sense as denoting something common to both ‘a politics of the “left”’ and fascism. Second, so far as this relates to the left, its source is located not in the—complex (and dire)–social conditions and histories of the anti-capitalist revolutions of this century but—more simply—within Marxist doctrine as such: in the ‘attempt to establish a definitive suture’, ‘a point of departure from which society can be perfectly mastered and known’. [112] Third, the evolution of Leninism into its authoritarian, that is, Stalinist, sequel is likewise put down to a theoretical source. How is that evolution to be accounted for? ‘Quite simply (!), by the fact that the ontological privilege granted to the working class by Marxism was transferred from the social base to the political leadership of the mass movement.’ [113] Old and well-known images of Marxism and Leninism: historical materialism, or just explanation, discarded, then, for what looks uncannily like commonor-garden anti-communism. Fourth, Laclau and Mouffe go so far as to conflate the whole of Marxism with its Stalinist, or authoritarian, forms by writing sometimes as though democracy was just external to it. They say at one point, for example: ‘It is necessary to break with the view that democratic tasks are bonded to a bourgeois stage—only then will the obstacle preventing a permanent articulation between socialism and democracy be eliminated.’ [114] The statement exploits a critical ambiguity in the expression ‘democratic tasks’, but let this pass. As if a whole Marxist tradition itself has not always rejected the view and the bond that the authors now deem it necessary to break with. This is, well and truly, the new-found virtue of the convert.

Fifthly, finally, and by contrast with these prejudicial attitudes to Marxism, Laclau and Mouffe give us the warmest possible view of liberalism. ‘It is not liberalism as such,’ they aver, ‘which should be called into question, for as an ethical principle which defends the liberty of the individual to fulfil his or her human capacities, it is more valid today than ever.’ [115] Let us just accept, as par for the course here, the sudden appearance of ‘human capacities’. I will even affirm a certain, partial agreement with the sentiment expressed, not being one of those Marxists for whom there is a total gulf between Marxism and liberalism, and no continuity of common values at all. But, in its overall context, the above accolade is a disgrace. Liberalism, not the suffering, squalor and misery of actual, liberal, capitalisms, but the fulfilment of human capacities. And one, Karl Marx: did he not also have something to say about the realization of the individual’s human capacities? If this is what the authors have taken with them from the school of Marxism, one can only wonder what the next stop on their itinerary might be.

You tell them, Norm. How right it is for Marxists to avoid jumping on board with any sort of 'anti-totalitarian Left' and praising Liberal warmongers while damning Leninism for appeasing 'Islamo-Fascists'. We need more Marxists who can counter this pro-imperialist torrent of bullshit from the pro-war, so-called 'decent Left'. Where is Norman Geras when we need him?

Oh yeah, I remember where Stormin' Norman is now. He is busy wrestling with his (guilty) 'ex-Marxist conscience'. Best leave him be.

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Christopher Hitchens on 'imperial beastliness'

In a refreshing review of a book on the history of Algeria, Christopher Hitchens makes a stand against what he calls 'imperial beastliness'.

'Quite properly, the book opens with a chapter on the "colonial prehistory" of the country where he describes very simply how the French empire deliberately scoured and devastated the entire region in order to ensure that the social bases of resistance would be eliminated. In itself, this description of imperial beastliness makes the book worth studying; the French occupation reduced the population by over one half between 1830 and 1852.'

A pity that the review in question was written in 1972, and Hitchens has since lined himself alongside the beasts who run empires. How could Hitchens make such a mistake? The answer seems to be prefigured in this early review of 'Workers’ Self Management in Algeria' by Ian Clegg. As Hitchens puts it, 'Generally speaking, Clegg ignores the conception of a mass workers party informed by Marxist theory. Naturally enough, this leads him into confusion.' I guess once Hitchens abandoned Marxist theory, it was only natural he was going to get himself confused about the nature of imperialism...

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Propaganda posters

I hadn't seen these before, but I can wholeheartedly recommend them. Also check out the site of cartoonist Tim Sanders.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

New Labour and the historians

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett was asked yesterday on The World at One on BBC Radio 4 whether historians would come to judge the disastrous US/UK invasion of Iraq as a foreign policy disaster. Her reply? 'Yes, they may. Then again, they may not.' Brilliant.

Yet I guess she is right in a way - it depends on which historian one asks. The New Statesman recently asked several people, including historians, for their view on how Blair would come to be remembered. The Conservative Party's historian Andrew Roberts gave the following answer:

'Tony Blair will go down in history as one of the greatest premiers of the postwar period. His destruction of British socialism and his principled, tough and timely prosecution of the war against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism make him a giant comparable to Churchill, Attlee and Thatcher. Britain will have cause to thank Tony Blair for decades to come.'

Which goes to show that one can always find a historian who is respectful enough of those with great power to say whatever the powerful want him to say. Incidently, when asked what he thought of Blair, the esteemed Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm had this to say:

'Not time yet for a reflection on the Blair years. They are not yet over.'

I look forward to hearing Eric reflect on how History will judge the Blair years. However, when it comes to judging the Iraq war, this is what Hobsbawm wrote in July 2003, in the immediate aftermath of the invasion:

'In military terms, the Iraq war was very successful. But, because it was purely military, it neglected the necessities of what to do if you occupy a country -running it, maintaining it, as the British did in the classic colonial model of India. The model "democracy" that the Americans want to offer to the world in Iraq is a non-model and irrelevant for this purpose. The belief that the US does not need genuine allies among other states, or genuine popular support in the countries its military can now conquer (but not effectively administer) is fantasy.

THE war in Iraq was an example of the frivolity of US decision-making. Iraq was a country that had been defeated by the Americans and refused to lie down: a country so weak it could be easily defeated again. It happened to have assets - oil - but the war was really an exercise in showing international power. The policy that the crazies in Washington are talking about, a complete re-formulation of the entire Middle East, makes no sense...How long the present superiority of the Americans lasts is impossible to say. The only thing of which we are absolutely certain is that historically it will be a temporary phenomenon, as all these other empires have been.'

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Monday, October 23, 2006

Remembering 1956 #2: The Hungarian Revolution

Today's Independent marks the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Hungarian Revolution, which this blog at the start of the year declared the second greatest revolution of all time. This is what the Independent says:

'Fifty years ago today, something extraordinary happened in Hungary. A nation, one of the proudest and most distinctive in Europe, that had endured two catastrophic world wars, the loss of much of its territory and subjugation to the brutal might of the Soviet Union, spontaneously decided that it wasn't going to take it any more.

It wasn't the first time Soviet power had been challenged. In June of that year, workers in Poznan, Poland had risen against the government.

Repression was swift and ferocious, with dozens of rebels killed and wounded by security police. A poor example to follow, you might think, but in October Poland's communist government granted many of the rebels' demands and after tense negotiations the Soviets agreed to reduce their troop levels in Poland.

Posthumously, the slaughtered rebels had won. Following the death of Stalin in 1953, the long, bleak Stalinist winter appeared to be waning. Winds of change were beginning to blow through the eastern bloc.

But that is to view the events of 23 October 1956 with the deceptively calm gaze of hindsight. At the time they were astonishing and unexpected: the Soviet Empire had not received a challenge on this scale since the end of the war. The Hungarian Uprising, or Revolt, or Revolution, flared up out of practically nothing, the disgruntlement of a few thousand students. It swept up in its onward surge millions of ordinary people, overthrew the government and forced the withdrawal of the Soviet forces - then was crushed and pulverised by Soviet military might with the deaths of tens of thousands of ordinary people, all within the space of three tumultuous weeks.

It was the most dramatic eruption that the Soviet empire was to experience before its final eventual disintegration - of which it was the first omen. "The whole thing was so spontaneous, we didn't really think things through," says Gergely Pongratz, a leader of the uprising. "We just took a gun and acted."

The revolution was a textbook demonstration of Alexis de Tocqueville's tenet that "the most dangerous moment for a bad government is that in which it sets about reform." Following Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin in February 1956, Stalin's hardline representative in Hungary, Matyas Rakosi, responsible for thousands of atrocities against political opponents, was elbowed from power and the rehabilitation of more liberal communists began.

Communism itself was not being challenged, only the imposition by the Soviet Union of its own brutal and foreign way of doing things.

The official communist student union, for example, was rejected on 16 October by students in the city of Szeged, who re-established their own democratic student organisation that had been banned under Rakosi. Their example flashed across the country, imitated everywhere. Suddenly freedom seemed possible. The Russians had liberated Hungary at the end of the Second World War, and Stalin's agreement with Churchill guaranteed that the Soviets would have only a 50 per cent share in the rule of the country. That proportion was steadily raised by Rakosi's so-called "salami" tactics, taking more power one slice at a time, and within a few years Stalin's placemen were fully and ruthlessly in charge everywhere. Compulsory nationalisation and collectivisation followed, with the familiar results of collapsing productivity and economic stagnation. But the ubiquity of the much feared state security police, the AVH, and Rakosi's readiness to imprison, torture and execute his enemies, ensured that dissent remained mute.

Now that was suddenly changing. Students and writers, no longer prevented from banding together freely, set up discussion groups to thrash out the nation's dire problems. Thousands joined in. To show solidarity with Polish rebels, students decided to honour a hero of Hungary's War of Independence, General Bem, who was of Polish origin. On 23 October 1956, 20,000 demonstrators duly thronged around the general's statue in Budapest.

Some sang the banned national anthem, with its rousing chorus, "We vow, we vow, we will no longer remain slaves..." Someone cut the hammer and sickle out of the Hungarian flag, leaving a hole in the middle, and suddenly everyone was doing it.

We have seen these intoxicating events in our own age, Prague's Velvet Revolution, the overthrow of Ceausescu, the huge demonstrations that brought down Milosevic in Serbia. This was the grand-daddy of them all.

The demonstrators had started gathering in the afternoon, and by 6pm they numbered 200,000, including tens of thousands of workers. The majority of them had moved to the Parliament Building. Even now there was no sign of trouble. "There are big student demonstrations," a Budapest editor told an English colleague. Any trouble? "A few nationalist slogans, but everything is good-humoured."

Charlie Coutts, Budapest correspondent of Britain's communist Daily Worker, told his office on the phone, "The quiet and orderly behaviour of the marchers is impressive."

At this point the regime decided to come down hard. At 8pm Erno Gero, general secretary of the Communist Party, went on the radio and made a speech rubbishing the demonstrators' demands. They were reactionaries, counter-revolutionaries, he said, "hostile elements" bent on disturbing "the present political order in Hungary." The timing was exquisite: Gero had lavished oil on the flames.

The demonstrators showed no sign of going home - and Gero's attempt to regain the authoritarian upper hand merely made them furious. A large crowd gathered outside the headquarters of Radio Budapest, which was heavily guarded by the AVH. A delegation of some 300 students got inside, bent on broadcasting their demands, but they were detained.

The temperature of the event began to soar. Rumours began swirling through the crowd that the delegation inside the radio station had been shot. AVH men in the building threw tear-gas canisters from upper floors and began firing at the demonstrators. An ambulance bringing more weapons and ammunition to the AVH was intercepted by the crowd. Hungarian Army soldiers arrived to disperse the demonstrators but, harangued by them, they tore the red stars from their caps and sided with the crowd. The revolution with no leaders and no plan was giddily underway.

That night the embattled Hungarian government appealed to the Soviet Union to send troops and tanks "to suppress a demonstration that was reaching an ever greater and unprecedented scale." The next day, Soviet tanks rumbled into place outside parliament building and at major bridges and crossroads. But there was no stopping the revolution. Many of the Soviet soldiers, like the Hungarian ones, fraternised with the revolutionaries and sympathised with their aims. Charlie Coutts reported seeing a peaceful demonstration encountering a Soviet tank. "The tank stopped," Coutts told Peter Fryer, the British journalist who wrote a book, Hungarian Tragedy, about the uprising, "a soldier put his head out, and the people in front of the crowd began to explain they were unarmed and were engaged in a peaceful demonstration. The soldier told them to jump on the tank; a number of them did so, and the tank set off in the demonstration."

When the crowd escorting the tank got to Parliament Square they found three more tanks and two armoured cars, all on the demonstrators' side, all fraternising cheerfully. Then shots rang out from parliament, fired by AVH secret police, leaving 30 demonstrators dead. The tipping pointof the conflict had suddenly arrived: the government collapsed, its leaders fled to Moscow, the revolutionary forces were chaotically in control. By 28 October, after six days of chaos, a ceasefire was agreed, and the Soviet forces returned to barracks. A huge hole had been blown in the iron curtain.'

Peter Fryer's eyewitness account of the Hungarian Revolution is online here, Andy Anderson's Hungary 56 is also online, while Mike Haynes gives a more recent historical overview from a Marxist perspective here.

Edited to add: A shorter article by Mike Haynes on 'Hungary 56: autumn of hope' and a longer one by GM Tamás, a former dissident, a former member of the Hungarian parliament and now a professor of philosophy in Budapest.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

An Open Letter from the Stop the War Coalition

DEMONISING MUSLIMS: AN OPEN LETTER from the Stop the War Coalition (UK)

There is an attempt to plunge this country into a racist hysteria of a kind we have not seen for a generation or more - directed against Muslims.

Recent weeks have seen a series of speeches by leading politicians designed to isolate and demonise British Muslims. These have been reflected in spurious news stories and, still more seriously, violence directed against Muslim people and places of worship.

In particular, we deplore the recent remarks by Jack Straw concerning the veil worn in public by some Muslim women. His intervention undoubtedly created the climate in which the racist attack on a Muslim woman in Liverpool took place. Likewise, the bullying attacks of John Reid have served only to spread fear amongst Muslims.

We further condemn the attempted fire-bombing of a mosque in Windsor - the latest in a number of such episodes nationwide - and note the failure of many commentators and politicians to condemn this outrage.

We express our solidarity with all British people of the Muslim faith and affirm their right to worship and dress as they please and to live their lives in peace and security.

The current wave of Muslim-baiting is rooted above all in the disastrous 'war on terror', of which this government has been such a prominent supporter. This war has made Britain more vulnerable, not less, to terrorist attack -- an uncomfortable fact from which ministers try to distract by attacks on the Muslim community.

If the government is concerned about improving the cohesion of our communities, let it first of all abandon its support for the foreign policy of the US administration, including the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

We call on all people of good-will to reject the anti-Muslim hatred being whipped up and to support the values of tolerance now under attack.

Stop the War Coalition has called a People's Assembly in London on Saturday 18 November to discuss Islamophobia and the 'War on Terror'. The assembly will be open to all and will aim to bring together the broadest possible representation from all sections of society. We will discuss how the attacks on Muslims are intrinsically linked to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and how the anti-war movement can counter those attacks in its continuing campaign to end those wars.

TOPIC: Islamophobia and the 'War on Terror'
DATE: Saturday 18 November
TIME: 10am – 5.30pm
VENUE: Camden Centre, Judd Street, London WC1H 9JE

Also perhaps check out the interview with veteran anti-racist A Sivanandan in this weeks Socialist Worker, and obviously those not already regular readers of Lenin's Tomb should make amends.

Edited to add the heroic action taken by local members of the National Union of Journalists at the Daily Star.

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

'Pirates of the Caribbean'

Whatever else one thinks of veteran Marxist writer Tariq Ali, one cannot deny he has an excellent sense of humour, not least when it comes to designing the covers of his books. Take a look at his forthcoming book, Pirates of the Caribbean:

Marvellous stuff (though I can't for the life of me understand quite why Fidel Castro has a halo above his head - he is not an 'angel', despite the claims of many people including George Galloway). Anyway, clearly Tariq's forthcoming book is not about Johnny Depp or Keira Knightley, far from it:

'A revolution is moving across Latin America. Since 1998, the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela has brought Hugo Chávez to world attention as the foremost challenger of the neoliberal consensus and American foreign policy. Tariq Ali shows how Chávez's views have polarized Latin America and examines the aggression directed against his administration. Pirates of the Caribbean guides us through a world divided between privilege and poverty, a continent that is once again on the march.'

It looks like it will be an interesting book certainly - though I have one initial concern. Portraying Chavez, Morales and Castro as 'pirates' - outlaws fighting the Project for the New American Century - ignores the fact that they are all (well, bar Castro) currently heads of capitalist states. Their progressive nationalist politics of 'socialism from above' are distinctly 'un pirate like' in this sense - real pirates like Blackbeard et al were enemies of all state powers, 'villains of all nations' (as Marcus Rediker puts it). There is therefore a contradiction here in the politics of Chavez et al, one which I hope Tariq Ali does not simply pass over in what I am sure will be a facinating work.

Edited to add: A critical review of the book in SW.

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Gillo Pontecorvo (1919-2006)

The legendary Italian film director Gillo Pontecorvo, responsible for the anti-colonial classic The Battle of Algiers (1965) sadly died this week aged 86. The Guardian noted Edward Said once declared that The Battle of Algiers , which Pontecorvo spoke about here, and Queimada [Burn!] (1969), Pontecorvo's next film which starred Marlon Brando as a leader of a Caribbean slave revolt, were the two greatest political films ever made.

Fausto Bertinotti, of Rifondazione Comunista, sent the Pontecorvo family the following message:

'I mourn the demise of Gillo Pontecorvo, one of the greatest authors and film directors of the cinema world, an appreciated protagonist of Italy's modern culture. Pontecorvo's legacy is a passionate civil commitment and original art, innovation and language styles, and a strong sense of critique to face the contradictions of the 20th century. From the folly of concentration camps to the dramatic epilogue of colonialism, from revolutionary utopias to the tension generated by social unrest, Pontecorvo's views have always accompanied us in modern history. By this stage, we owe him a special thanks, and everyone will look to his work with respect and admiration. On behalf of the Lower House, allow me to offer my condolences'.

Edited to add: SW Obituary


Friday, October 13, 2006

International Socialism 112

The latest issue of International Socialism is online now, which obviously makes for far more interesting reading than this blog at the moment. Also check out the sites resources page...

Edited to add: ISJ Index 1958-1968, 1969-1974, 1975-78, 1993-2005, 2004-2006. Who knows what quite happened during the years 1978-1993...

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Communication breakdown

Good point, well made

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Achilles heel of 'Jackboot' Straw

Many commentators are puzzling over why former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw - after killing tens of thousands of Muslims abroad - has now launched a racist attack on Muslims at home. Hmm, yeah, like that's a hard one.

Too often in this debate Jack Straw is made out to be some kind of liberal or something. I know he looks and sounds a bit like a harmless sheep, but in reality Straw is a bloodthirsty wolf, albeit a wolf in sheep's clothing. Perhaps those who doubt Straw's authoritarian streak ought to recall his time as Home Secretary, where he was responsible for the Asylum and Immigration Bill, the attempted removal of trial by jury and legal aid in many cases, the anti-terrorism bill, the curfew on teenagers, mandatory drug testing for criminal suspects, and a reactionary attitude towards cannabis, among other things. Indeed, one of his early admirers was Margaret Thatcher. She said "I trust Jack Straw. He is a very fair man." No wonder Blair appointed him Foreign Secretary after such high praise.

However, one possible factor in this disgusting affair, which has seen yet another New Labour politician demonise one of the poorest and most powerless sections of British society so that they might climb up the greasy pole of political power, has surely been somewhat overlooked. Might it not be that Jack Straw wants Muslim women who come to see him to take off their veils so that he has something with which to clean his hands with - hands still dripping with the blood of tens of thousands of Iraqis?

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Remembering October 1956 # 1

The Anglo-French invasion of Egypt coupled with the Hungarian Revolution in October 1956 marked a crucial moment politically internationally, but also in Britain - and particularly for the Left. Already papers and journals and books are coming out, (see for example the latest issue of Revolutionary History) and so I thought in this post I would just highlight some of the material that has come out this week.

Among many other articles in the History Workshop Journal (probably subcribers only I'm afraid), Rod Prince describes what it was like to be a member of the Communist Party who was also doing military service during early 1956:

'While the twin military onslaughts in 1956 on Egypt and Hungary both occurred in the week covering the end of October and early November, in each case there had been earlier indications of the subsequent conflicts. The first came from Moscow in February, with the report to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union by Nikita Khrushchev, the party's First Secretary, in which he denounced malpractices by the former leader, Josef Stalin; in the case of Egypt, the event which led to the autumn invasion was the nationalization of the Suez Canal, announced on 26 July.

The Khrushchev speech caused ferment in Communist parties outside the USSR, including the British party. I was at the time in the second year of compulsory military service, stationed in Colchester, and it had not taken long to make friends with members of the party branch there. At a meeting held in Ipswich to discuss the speech the main speaker, Emile Burns, sought to downplay the issue and to justify the traditional Stalinist line; this effort produced an audience outbreak of muttering, quickly rising in volume.

Unable to make himself heard, Burns paused in his address and turned to the chair of the meeting, Michael Barratt-Brown, evidently to ask what was going on. Silence fell in time for us to hear Michael's reply: ‘They say you're talking balls, Emile’.'

Meanwhile, in the New Statesman, Anthony Howard describes how as a 22 year old fresh out of the National Service infantry officer cadet school he was sent to Egypt where he didn't actually do any fighting as such but 'Morale-building sessions, known as "battle-warmers for the troops", took place each morning when middle-aged majors with clipped moustaches and uncomfortable recollections of tours in the pre-1954 Canal Zone waxed eloquent about what "a nasty customer Johnnie Gyppo could be".' Nice to see that a casual racism towards the enemy is a constant factor in colonial wars past and present...

Yet the fact that the Suez War had been such a criminal disaster helped lead to the birth of the peace movement around the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament which took off in mid-1958. Back in the HWJ, Michael Wolfers describes his experience in the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) for an annual camp in the summer of 1956:

'The event that came upon us so mysteriously in the summer of 1956 had a profound influence on my school contemporaries. By virtue of a rather conventional and antiquated educational system we were largely conservatives with a small c. We had a benign trust that government was doing the right thing for our country, although we might disagree on the small print. That trust was broken by the Suez affair. We saw that government had failed to adapt to Britain's changing role in a changing world, where imperialism was no longer meaningful or desirable, where the independence of Ghana in March 1957 was symptomatic and emblematic of the new dispensation...I returned to my home in London at Easter 1959. I was just in time to go on Easter Monday to Trafalgar Square to witness the arrival of the column of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marching from Aldermaston. Ahead of the main banner with its cluster of radical clergy, politicians and activists were four unknowns familiar to me: they were close school friends who had gone on to university ahead of me. They were a clear signal that our generation had found a new and more thoughtful direction.'

Yet perhaps most striking was the crisis that overcame the British Communist Party during 1956 - particularly after Russian tanks were sent in to crush a national upsrising led by Workers Councils in Hungary.

Jean McCrindle describes how she came to join the First New Left:

I joined the Communist Party aged eighteen in the spring of 1955, a few months before I was due to go to the University of St Andrews, and I left a year and a half later, weeks after Soviet tanks had crushed the Hungarian uprising. I was part of the early exodus of 10,000 Communist Party members – not all of them ‘bloody intellectuals’ as King Street, HQ of the British Communist Party, officials often called the non-proletarian members of the Party. Unlike some of my friends I didn't wait to see whether the British Party, at its emergency Congress in 1957, would declare an end to its forty-year dependence on the Soviet Union's ideological carapace. I was so appalled at the sight and sounds of unarmed students and miners being killed and brutally dispersed by the Soviet army – the mighty army, or in this case air force, I had, as a small child, sung praises to at my mother's knee,

Fly higher and higher and higher, our emblem the Soviet star
And every propeller is roaring, defending the USSR

The Daily Worker's correspondent in Budapest, Peter Fryer, initially reported frankly what he saw – workers and students on the streets in revolution calling for an end to Soviet domination and the Hungarian Party's subservience to it. It was thrilling to read his reports which were so obviously truthful to what he was witnessing.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Battle of Cable Street

Today marks the 70th anniversary of The Battle of Cable Street, where Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (BUF) were smashed by united mass militant protest by ordinary people from across the East End of London. There are articles about this historic victory in the Guardian, the Mirror while this article dispels some of the myths about the day. The battle against racism and fascism continues.

Edited to add: this

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Only a poor little budgie

Well, its not quite the race to replace Blair, but Norwich City Football Club are looking for a new manager after recent poor performances mean they have sacked Nigel Worthington. However, while the hapless Worthington is undoubtedly no Jim Magilton (Ipswich's dynamic new manager), it might be noted that a quick glance at the Championship Table reveals that Ipswich are only three points above them (and only just above Colchester) - and yet many Town fans are optimistically hoping for 'automatic promotion' this year...

On the subject of Ipswich, if not quite Ipswich Town Football Club, Paul Anderson has an interesting article on 'George Orwell and Suffolk' which I will republish below:

'The obvious connection between George Orwell and Suffolk is the surname the aspiring author Eric Blair adopted as a pseudonym in 1932: the River Orwell is the tidal estuary that links Ipswich to the sea. But his Suffolk connections go further than that.

As a 17-year-old schoolboy at Eton, he spent much of the Xmas holiday of 1920-21 with cousins of his father in Burstall, a small village just west of Ipswich, where – as we know from a letter written to a friend – he picked up a large cage rat-trap, which several biographers suggest was the prototype for the cage full of rats that finally breaks Winston Smith’s resistance to torture in Orwell’s last novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

A year later, after he left Eton, he and his family – his father Richard, a retired colonial administrator then in his early 60s, his mother Ida, nearly 18 years younger than her husband, and his younger sister Avril – moved from the home counties to the small Suffolk coastal town of Southwold, to a rented house in Stradbroke Road near the lighthouse. (His elder sister Marjorie, five years his senior, had married and left home the previous year.)

The young Eric spent six months at a crammer in the town swotting up for imperial police service exams which he took and passed before going off to Burma as a colonial policeman. Not much is known about this time in Southwold apart from the fact that he got into trouble for sending a dead rat to the borough surveyor as a joke birthday present.

He came back from Burma on leave in 1927 and after a couple of months announced to his parents, who had by this point moved to another rented house, in Queen Street, right in the centre of town and near South Green, that he had decided to quit his job in Burma and become a writer. For the next eight years, Southwold was his main base – though he spent a lot of time away.

In late 1927 he moved to lodgings in London, where he experienced for the first time the poverty of the East End, then the next year went to Paris, where his aunt lived, in an attempt to make it as a freelance. But he ran out of money and turned to working as a washer-up to try to make ends meet – an experience that eventually made its way into Down and Out in Paris and London – before admitting defeat and returning to Southwold just before Xmas 1929. Feeling a failure, he took a job looking after what he called “an imbecile boy” in the nearby village of Walberswick.

The job did not last, but he didn’t leave the town for good until late 1934 – though he often went off in 1930-31, dressed as a tramp, to do the research for what became Down and Out; and in 1932-33 he worked in suburban west London as a teacher, an occupation he was forced to give up by illness. Not only Down and Out (published in 1933) but also the novels Burmese Days (1934) and A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) were written largely in Southwold. A Clergyman’s Daughter starts and ends in a Suffolk town, Knype Hill, at least partially based on Southwold.

His family had been living in genteel poverty until the early 1930s, but an inheritance and Avril’s success at running a tea room made them comfortably off. They bought a house in the High Street and became pillars of respectable society – Orwell’s father a familiar figure in the posher of the local golf clubs and his mother a doyenne of the ladies’ bridge circuit.

Orwell said he didn’t like Southwold, and the best bits of A Clergyman’s Daughter – a novel he later dismissed as “tripe” – are a vicious satire on the parochialism of provincial small-town life, including tea rooms. The chief protagonist of the novel, Dorothy Hare, is the dutiful daughter of a rector, and her reputation is destroyed by a malicious gossip.

But he had lots of friends there, including one woman, Eleanor Jaques, with whom he had an affair, and another, Brenda Salkeld, the gym mistress at St Felix girl’s school, whom he wooed unsuccessfully for several years and on whom Dorothy Hare was loosely based. And his distaste for the place did not prevent him visiting it regularly after he left, the last time in early 1944 after the death of his mother. (His father died in 1939.)

People apart, there was something about the bleakness of “the low, barely undulating East Anglian landscape” that Orwell liked. Although it was “intolerably dull in summer”, it was “redeemed in winter by the recurring patterns of the elms, naked and fanshaped against leaden skies”. Seventy years later, I feel much the same way. It's just a pity all the elms have died.'