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Mandela and the SACP December 19, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in International Politics, The Left.

Many thanks to Garibaldy for pointing to the following from the Telegraph, a report on supposed proof that Nelson Mandela joined the South African Communist Party at some point. It’s all a bit vague and the framing of the story is particularly notable with the headline which very cautiously is structured as follows ‘Nelson Mandela ‘proven’ to be a member of the Communist Party after decades of denial’.

…research by a British historian, Professor Stephen Ellis, has unearthed fresh evidence that during his early years as an activist, Mr Mandela did hold senior rank in the South African Communist Party, or SACP. He says Mr Mandela joined the SACP to enlist the help of the Communist superpowers for the ANC’s campaign of armed resistance to white rule.

The evidence consists of minutes from SACP meetings where Mandela appears to be a member. To be honest I wonder is this much of a surprise to anyone if accurate. The toleration, and more, of the apartheid regime by the West in the post-war period – and the history of sanctions and the resistance to same by the US and UK is telling – deeply constraining the terrain on which the ANC could operate and that the SACP played a far from ignoble role in the resistance to apartheid.

The very, some would say remarkably, close working and political relationship between the SCAP and the ANC which continues to this day (and is – by the way – not beyond criticism in many regards) would naturally generate a context within which it might make sense for Mandela to join, if only in name. And as he famously said “There will always be those who say that the Communists were using us. But who is to say that we were not using them?”.

And there’s links both to Ireland and the Eastern bloc.

His book also provides fresh detail on how the ANC’s military wing had bomb-making lessons from the IRA, and intelligence training from the East German Stasi, which it used to carry out brutal interrogations of suspected “spies” at secret prison camps.

And there’s more on the IRA connection.

In his book, Professor Ellis, who also authored a publication on the Liberian civil war, elaborates on other murky aspects of the ANC’s past. One is that bomb-making experts from the IRA trained the ANC at a secret base in Angola in the late 1970s, a link disclosed last year in the posthumous memoirs of Kader Asmal, a South African politician of Indian extraction who was exiled in Ireland. He was a member of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, which, Prof Mr Ellis says, in turn had close links to the British and South African Communist parties.
The IRA tutoring, which was allegedly brokered partly through Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, led to the ANC fighters improving their bombing skills considerably, thanks to the expertise of what Mr Ellis describes as “the world’s most sophisticated urban guerrilla force”.

All very interesting I think many will agree. That said for an insight into a very particular world view check out the comments under the Telegraph piece. Depressing.

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1. Organized Rage - December 19, 2012

It would have been a surprise if he had not been a party member, given he was put in command of MK (Umkhonto we Sizwe) in its formative years and his reported conversation about soldering with Ronnie K after Mandela was released from jail.

On another subject what a depressing thought that Cyril Ramaphosa was appointed Zuma deputy at the recent ANC meeting.

2. lcox - December 19, 2012

It says a lot about the Telegraph that it thinks revelations of links to communist parties etc. are smears on the ANC rather than as WbS says a reminder of how supportive of apartheid western powers were until the last moment.

On the other hand the ANC’s behaviour towards internal dissidents was as this suggests disgraceful and arguably paved the way towards its actions as party-in-power from that point. There’s a very sobering report, drawn largely from Truth and Reconciliation Commission findings, at http://www.interfacejournal.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Interface-3-2-Good.pdf.

Starkadder - December 19, 2012

“It says a lot about the Telegraph that it thinks revelations of links to communist parties etc. are smears on the ANC rather than as WbS says a reminder of how supportive of apartheid western powers were until the last moment.”

That reminds me of this interesting article from
“The American Prospect” :

What does the record of American conservatives look like in retrospect when it comes to South Africa? An examination of conservative periodicals, including the National Review, Commentary, and the Wall Street Journal, and columns by pundits such as George F. Will and William Safire, suggests that many American conservatives reproduced the official South African political line. Far from subjecting South Africa to critical scrutiny, they became apologists for, if not champions of, apartheid…

The notion of one-man/one-vote was just as absurd to National Review. Perhaps the most sustained exposition of right-wing thought on South Africa came in a March 9, 1965, column by conservative founding father Russell Kirk… Repeating South African propaganda, Kirk maintained that blacks were not fit to govern themselves. Only a minority of the various races in South Africa, Kirk wrote, was “civilized.” The European “element” had rescued South Africa, and “Bantu political domination would be domination by witch doctors (still numerous and powerful) and reckless demagogues.”


3. eamonncork - December 19, 2012

Good point, in that very fine BBC documentary series The World Against Apartheid, the ANC people were explicit about the fact that the lack of support from the Western democracies forced them into the arms of the Soviets.

WorldbyStorm - December 19, 2012

I think there’s a fair bit of evidence that in a number of states which underwent revolutions of a nationalist and socialist character if the ‘western democracies’ had actually lived up to their rhetoric they could well have eschewed Soviet support, but… SA is a perfect exemplar of how business interests overrode that rhetoric (as Starkadder notes above).

eamonncork - December 19, 2012

Affection for white South Africa was pretty much a core value for the Tory Party.

WorldbyStorm - December 19, 2012

Very true.

4. Starkadder - December 19, 2012

Interesting-one of the commentators the Telegraph piece
links to has the Greek Golden Dawn flag as their symbol…

WorldbyStorm - December 19, 2012

Jesus, it’s not even a case of having to dig that deep before their true nature comes out… not all in fairness but far more than is comfortable reading.

5. sonofstan - December 20, 2012

I never even realised there was a question about it. I figured a denial was about at the level of Adams denying he was in the ‘ra. EC spot on about Torygraph support for Apartheid – it’s easy to forget once Mandela went from terrorist to liberal saint, but the establishment in Britain and the US tacitly supported the racists ’til near the end.

6. Organized Rage - December 20, 2012

Just a quick point and it might not be fashionable to say it, but the support the USSR and its block gave to liberation movements, and the role it played in helping to liberate parts of the world from racist and imperialist regimes, demonstrates despite all its imperfections it played a progressive role in the world.

Its why millions of us gave it our support and I think, even with hindsight, at the time we were not wrong to do so.

sonofstan - December 20, 2012

And Cuba in Angola and Namibia.

yourcousin - December 20, 2012

just a shame it could not give any support to the people of Europe who wanted democracy.

WorldbyStorm - December 20, 2012

That’s true, unfortunately. By the time it had developed to a point where that was a feasible prospect it had lost most/much of its credibility with those it purported to represent – through acts across the preceding half century – and was unable to implement it without implosion.

yourcousin - December 20, 2012

well yes after you run people over with tanks it is rather a hard sell to say, “I’m from the government, we’re here to help”. The fact that all this time later there still non-bat shit crazy who are doing somersaults to justify supporting this stuff is just mind boggling.

sonofstan - December 20, 2012

I don’t see what’s ‘bat shit crazy’ about pointing out that the USSR had some good points? US tanks have rolled over people too who weren’t too happy about it either, and pointing out ‘we’re the forces of democracy, we’re here to help’ goes down equally badly in that context, but that wouldn’t blind most of us to the (many) good things about US politics and about its influence in the world.

CMK - December 20, 2012

I think the calculus of respective US and USSR interventions in the Cold War period would reflect very poorly on the former. And, Hungary 1956 aside, Soviet interventions in Eastern Europe were remarkable for their low death toll. Czechoslovakia 1968 was authoritarian, ruthless, undemocratic, completely unjustified and unjustifiable. But it wasn’t a bloodbath. The USSR’s intervention in Afghanistan is, however, evidence for the prosecution that the USSR did intervene at huge human cost. In the years following the Soviet’s Czech intervention the US was gearing up to begin bomding two peasant societies (Cambodia and Laos) into the dirt by dropping more bombs on them than were dropped on Germany in World War Two. Something which cost close to a million lives. And that’s apart from the human cost of the bombing of North Vietnam which, at least, had the capacity to offer meaningful resistance to US air power.

It was operating a military establishment dedicated to equipping the military forces of Latin America (the US’s ‘Eastern Europe) with the ‘skills’ to destroy, through mass, organised torture, murder, rape and terror, any left-wing movements in those states (regardless of whether it was communist, social democrat, left-liberal: there were all targetted).

It’s going to be a tedious argument but the human impact of the Soviet Union’s post WW11 global interventions was minimal when compared to that of the US.

If someone’s coming at you with a tank to run you over you can take some evasive action. Not really possible when the sky is full of B-52s dropping thousands of high explosive bombs on you. The US might be doing the latter for your benefit but that doesn’t excuse it and doesn’t support retrospective attempts to justify the mass murder of civilians by air power.

Loveyou longtime - December 20, 2012

Ah, we have our Yankee friend back – news from the heart of the beast – our crowd are the good guys in the end – the mass education programmes of the USSR in third world countries stand in stark contrast to the pro-religious superstition programmes of the Yanks. Please less of the bat shit etc bomber boy

7. Mick Hall - December 20, 2012

your cousin

Not sure who you are accusing of doing ‘somersaults to justify supporting this stuff ‘I do not see anyone doing that here. The post WW2 world was a tough place with people demanded their freedoms across the world. The fact the USSR existed placed a powerful weapon in their armoury, to ignore that, or kick a gift horse in the face would have been an example of the same type of ultra left politics which has been so distructive in Ireland and the UK in recent times.

Some comrades did not give a flying fuck about dotting every i and crossing every T in an old beards socialist cook book. If the Soviet Union could provide financial assistance and military training in was rightly grabed with both hands.

While some comrades were in their ivory towers debating endlessly whether the USSR was state capitalist, others were fighting on the front line.

The Russian October revolution and the continued existence of the Soviet Union had put the fear of god into the worlds ruling classes, and had undoubtedly played a part in the concesions workers gained from them which helped create Western Europes social democratic states.

None of this means comrades were not aware by the 1970s (and long before)the USSR had become a bureacratic atheroscleretic state. Trotsky assessment of the SU was about right for me, as he understood despite its murderous brutality and imperfections, at that time in history it was worth defending, as to were its Stalinist leaderships victims.

For me the state cap anaysis was a step to far, as it reeked of an attempt to take the SWP out of the cold war firing line. I accept that is unfair, but one only had to see the enormouse advances in education and health care and how argruculture and industry was organised to understand the USSR was not any kind of capitalist state. [unlike China today] A bureacraticly deformed and imature socialist experiment is nearer the mark and like many social experments there is much we can learn from it today.

The theory of State Capitalism also led its main advocates to make some of the more rediculouse decsions about which liberation movements to support and which to give the black spot. If we are talking about ‘somersaults’ from Cuba, Ireland, South Africa, some of these leftist Gymnast were in fine form.

Comradely regards.

ejh - December 20, 2012

I’d really want some convincing that “how agriculture…was organised” was among the successes of the USSR.

8. eamonncork - December 20, 2012

A plague on both their houses. Two rival Imperialisms who excused their own depredations by reference to the misdeeds of their rivals. Minimising the oppression of Eastern Europe by the Soviets on the grounds that not many people were killed is a bit silly, few people on this site would fancy living under that kind of repression (maybe there’s a couple who’d fancy dishing it out). But it’s equally simple-minded to ignore the fact that the USA’s interventions in Vietnam and Central America bordered in the first instance on genocide and in the second instance on support for genocide. I’m sure that the hawks of the Kremlin and the Pentagon would regard this as a watery liberal viewpoint, but there you are.
The best examination of the sixties and seventies political scene is Grin Without A Cat, by the left-wing film-maker Chris Marker, the greatest documentarist ever, who died this year. It sees both the crushing of the Prague Spring and the toppling of Allende as crucial and unforgivable events. The whole lot of it is on Youtube.
And there’s a couple of lads on this thread doing the equivalent of roaring and shouting across a pub at people. Down with that sort of thing, we’re all a bit old for it.

CMK - December 20, 2012

Eamonn are you arguing that the human impact, in terms of the numbers of lives lost or destroyed, is independent from the oppressiveness of a political regime? That’s not far from the US right trope which equates Nazi German and the Soviet Union as exact equivalents, which allows no scope for exploring the differences between the two. And which, incidentally, validates the argument that ALL socialist revolutionary movements will denegrate into Stalinism which is equal to Nazism therefore all present day avowed socialist movements are objectively Nazis.

If that is the case then we lose one metric for determining whether X or Y political development is more or less oppressive. The couple of dozen dissidents in Czechoslovakia (mostly members of the Communist Party who’d fallen foul in internal coups) that lost their lives between 1948 to 1989 are equalvalent to the half a million Cambodians killed by Nixon and Kissinger between 1969-1975.

My point was not to minimise Soviet oppression in post World War Two Eastern Europe, and the barb that some here would like to impose that on others is beneath you, but to point out that it’s human costs in terms of the numbers killed by it was a fraction of the numbers killed either directly by the US or indirectly by US proxies acting under US supervision in the same period.

Chomsky in, I think, ‘Manufacturing Consent’ provides a good example of the dynamic. He discusses how the murder of Father Populeszku in Poland by the Polish intelligence services – one of the few state murders in Poland in the 1980s – dominated US media coverage at the time as a classic example of repressive nature of Soviet dominance over that part of Europe. Simultaneously, four US nuns, US citizens, were murdered in El Salvador in the presence of a US military/CIA officer and this got no coverage in the US media.

I’m not doubting that life in Soviet dominated Eastern Europe was oppressive (there are correctives coming out to the view that this was universally the case), but in places like Poland or Czechoslovaki or Hungary the price of dissident activity was imprisonment, career death, etc. In many places where the US had influence – i.e. Argentina from 1976-1982 – dissidents were murdered in their thousands, as you know.

I’m glad the Soviet Union is gone in the form it took and that’s brand of imperialism can longer be applied. But it’s replacement by an utterly hegemonic US imperialism, which brooks no deviation from its view of the world, is not much of an improvement.

eamonncork - December 20, 2012

CMK, the ‘barb’ was meant as a joke, bearing in mind some of the characters, the Gadaffi lad, the Saor Eire character who’ve popped up here lately.
I’m not making that argument about the human impact being independent from the oppressiveness of the regime. I know it’s not your way to be mischievous so I’ll just say that you’ve misinterpreted what I’m saying. The point I’m making is that the imposition of imprisonment, career death etc. on dissidents is still an odious way to run a system. I don’t see that this equates with anything on the American Right.
And I would agree that the places where the US had influence were far worse, that’s why I used the word ‘genocidal’ when talking about them.

CMK - December 20, 2012

Fair enough – I’d forgotten about them boyos: so, I suppose, you had a point. As I said in my initial contribution, this will probably prove to be a largely futile debate generating much heat and no light; with nobody learning anything they didn’t already know.

eamonncork - December 20, 2012

Don’t forget we also have to judge the Soviet system on how it treated its own people. You don’t have to agree that the Gulags were just as bad as the Nazi concentration camps to see that they were an abomination. I don’t think there’s anything particulaly right wing about that.

ejh - December 20, 2012

I wouldn’t be swift to agree that the US was genocidal and the USSR not. Vietnam, Afghanistan. US support for Ríos Montt, Soviet support for Mengistu.

Whenever great powers go in heavily, the results are – I think – pretty much the same. Where they step lightly, the differences become more obvious. I think any of us would ahve preferred to live in Western Euope rather than Eastern Europe during the Old War. That’s not the sole determining criterion in distinguishing the two, and there are others which might be more in the Soviet Union’s favour. But it might be the biggest to me.

CMK - December 20, 2012

Eamonn. Look I was deliberating restricting my timeframe and context to Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe 1948-1989. Once we turn to the Soviet Union and its treatment of its citizens 1927-1953 we’re talking about something qualitatively different. Any objective assessment of the Soviet Union would have to place Stalin’s regime close to the Nazism in their respective human impact on the constituent nations of the USSR. The Gulag, the Holomodor, the population transfers of entire peoples (Volga Germans, Tatars, Chechens etc) to Khazakstan, the mass murder of Red Army deserters and those termed ‘cowards’ (i.e those with some manifestation of post traumatic shock) etc, etc, are unimpeachable crimes that can be laid at the Soviet system. But yet, there is a paradox. Namely the Soviet Union took a far harsher approach to those living inside its borders proper than those who lived outside its borders but within its sphere of influence. Where the opposite was the case with the US.

ejh - December 20, 2012

this will probably prove to be a largely futile debate generating much heat and no light; with nobody learning anything they didn’t already know.

You might be right though. There’s a lot of sites I won’t go near, because they’re populated by people who want to have the same argument with he same people every single day. And when I say “argument”, I mean “screaming match”.

CMK - December 20, 2012

ejh, I agree most people would have preferred to live in Western Europe between 1945-1989. There’s no doubt it was a better place in which to live a decent life. But I don’t think it’s a simple as that. ‘Western Europe’ – at least up to 1975 – comprised one right wing authoritarian dictatorship (Portugal), one fascist dictatorship (Spain), three imperial powers (Belgium, France and the UK) which had killed millions in the wars to disentangle their respective empires and you had states like Holland who tried, at substantial human cost, to retain its empire. ALL Western European states, without exception, tried, where they could, to leave behind regimes that would look after their interests with and were not too concerned about the methods used to do so. So, while it was undoubtedly the case that life in Western Europe was good for the mass of people in the Cold War, life in countries under the imperial thumb of a Western European state in the same period was considerably less good and, for those who opposed Western interests, the prospect of torture, imprisonment or death was real. In the most recent edition of the New Left Review there is a review of a recently published French book which charts French intervention in Cameroon and the quite substantial human cost (100,000 dead plus) in ensuring French dominance, direct or indirect, in that part of the world. It’s a story that’s completely obscure here but it must be included in any assessment of the nature of ‘Western Europe’ in the Cold War period. The experience of Africa post World War II considerably complicates the notion of Western Europe as some sort of benign entity dedicated to human advancement and human rights; that latter is something that the EU propagates quite uncritically to justify its ever increasing powers.

ejh - December 20, 2012

Sure, but that’s always been true. But I wonder whether we don’t get a reckoning whereby there’s not much to choose between either side in terms of their acts abroad, but a good deal to be said in favour of the Western side domestically, if you were.

CMK - December 20, 2012

Certainly, but apologists for the superiority of ‘Western Europe’ are wont to ignore, downplay or deliberately misrepresent the murderous nature of Western European rule on other continents. The whitewashing, for want of a better word, of the past of the former imperialist states who are now folded into the EU is something to behold.

9. Loveyou longtime - December 20, 2012

“Two rival Imperialisms” – utterly simplistic – would have expected more of you – then again some one who is now shocked that the Provies are not all they cracked themselves up to be is probably not the most nuanced mind – try ‘two rival global systems” – for oppression talk to the struggling single working class mothers of the this country.

eamonncork - December 20, 2012

Put the cans back in the fridge like a good lad and go for a walk.

10. Loveyou longtime - December 20, 2012

“I’m glad the Soviet Union is gone in the form it took and that’s brand of imperialism can longer be applied. But it’s replacement by an utterly hegemonic US imperialism, which brooks no deviation from its view of the world, is not much of an improvement.” – why are you glad the USSR is gone – it gave balance to global affairs – it needed major and far reaching change but to welcome its demise has opened the world to unanswered mass murder and has re-energised dark superstitious thought – the fall of the USSR was a sad, but perhaps inevitable, chapter in the history of humanity

CMK - December 20, 2012

The key words in the point I made, which you’re questioning, is ‘in the form it took’. The USSR was not adding much to the sum total of human development by the late 1970s-1980s and was palpably decaying from the inside. It’s a testament to that decay that the only way that it could fall was to fall to a restoration of capitalism, which much recent research has suggested, was gestating in any event among large numbers of the nomenklatura who ran state enterprises. These boys and girls ending up as todays oligarchs. There were only two directions for the Soviet Union: full capitalist restoration or continued degeneration and collapse leading to capitalist restoration. There was no possibility of a socialist rebirth or transformation of the USSR and THAT, to me, is the tragedy. But Stalinism pre-determined eventual collapse, in my view.

I agree, though, that the lack of a counter balance to US hegemony, which the USSR for all its faults was, has heralded a dark chapter in human history.

11. eamonncork - December 20, 2012

TBH, the tone that this has taken sums up why I post less and less here and give up altogether from time to time. The ranter percentage continues to grow steadily. I’m off for the day,

ejh - December 20, 2012

But only for the day, one hopes. The ranters can’t be entirely disposed of. But they can be outnumbered.

eamonncork - December 20, 2012

I’m doing a Keaveney Flounce.

12. steve white - December 20, 2012

anyone watching oliver stones untold history of the united states (which spends most time talking about russia) its very much making the arguements here

CB - December 23, 2012

It’s very interesting. Just saw episode 4 last night. Another documentary that I would really recommend is Cuba! Africa! Revolution! A BBC 4 Documentary from about three years ago. It covers Cuba’s involvement in Angloa and the Congo and US and British support for the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Very interesting.

WorldbyStorm - December 23, 2012

Thanks CB.

13. Organized Rage - December 20, 2012

“A plague on both their houses.”

It is very easy to say this now, but at the time I believe there was little choice but to choose. I do not buy the argument the Soviet Union was imperialist. Its role in eastern Europe was not imperialist as I understand it.

I think if you fail to appreciate, for all its shortcomings, the USSR did put some manners on the USA, you will fail to understand where the world is heading and the dangers of an unbridled USA at a time when its power is waning.

For example how was the SU support of Cuba imperialistic, it brought them more trouble than it was worth. It is true the Soviet leadership put the SU interest first, but that does not make them imperialists, unless comrades believe Lenin and the rest of the old Bolsheviks were also imperialists?

LeftAtTheCross - December 20, 2012

I guess you could construct an argument that rested on the subordination of the Comecon national economies to the interests of the Soviet Union as being a form of imperialism, but it’s a flaky enough argument. Are there other aspects? Perhaps there’s a bit of Great Russian imperialism in the sense that the Soviet Union maintained and expanded the territory of Imperial Russia in the Baltic states and Central Asia, and Ukraine. But these are only bits and pieces of arguments and don’t really stand up.

ejh - December 20, 2012

I guess you could construct an argument that rested on the subordination of the Comecon national economies to the interests of the Soviet Union as being a form of imperialism, but it’s a flaky enough argument.

Why so? I mean given that it was backed up by military force on more than one occasion. It controlled smaller countries, with the threat of military force, for its own economic and political benefit. If that’s not imperialism then we may be operating on a too narrow definition of imperialism.

eamonncork - December 20, 2012

Plus 1. I’m also not impressed with the implication that the subjugation of the population of Central and Eastern Europe was in some sense a price worth paying for a check being applied to American power on the wider stage. That’s the kind of stuff which totally discredited Western apologists for Soviet Communism in the eyes of people like Havel. And it’s a pretty easy argument to make when looking at the situation from a distance.
I’m reminded for some reason of an old interview in Hot Press with Mick O’Riordan where he said that Sakharov deserved to be persecuted because he had approved of the overthrow of Allende.
I’m also reminded of Susan Sontag’s line that if you wanted to know the truth about the situation in Europe in the seventies you’d be better off reading the Readers Digest than the New York Review of Books. Sontag wasn’t a right winger but the ‘the East Germans are unfree in some ways, but couldn’t you say the same about us,’ argument hasn’t borne up particularly well.
If Soviet policy in Eastern Europe wasn’t Imperalist, then what was it? Comradely?
It strikes me that it’s worth making this argument because I don’t think anyone, anyone regular at least, on CLR is going to make an argument in favour of US policy in Central America or Vietnam.

eamonncork - December 20, 2012

And I often think that many CLR contributors are the kind of intelligent dissident voices who’d have had a terrible time in the Soviet Bloc.
That similar dissidents would have probably ended up being eaten by vultures on a garbage heap in Central America doesn’t mean the plight of the former group trivial.

Michael Carley - December 20, 2012

It’s possibly only around here that you could find people who would think that the “moral equivalence” line could be taken as being a bit to the right.

It’s hard to know why people feel the need to defend the USSR wholesale, rather than say “thanks for defeating Hitler, but could you not close down the gulags?”

ejh - December 20, 2012

Well, it’s always understandable, to a degree, that people overreact to the other side’s imbalances and biases. And, you know, the let is and must be a broad church, and there are always going to be many people who sympathise with things that others don’t. But other than that, yeah, mostly. The USSR wasn’t what any contemporary leftist would want to live in, and that really should be at the forefront of our minds.

LeftAtTheCross - December 20, 2012

“The USSR wasn’t what any contemporary leftist would want to live in”

I think that’s a valid point EJH, and one my other half makes fairly regularly, but at the same time I think the emphasis there should be on the word ‘contemporary’. Personally I wouldn’t like to be transported back in time to the Ireland of previous decades, or the USA of the Cold War either. I’m not suggesting that there’s a direct correspondence between the gulag and the industrial schools and magdalene laundries, or the gaol system of the USA, of course. Whether in terms of intellectual freedom or grimness of existence there were somewhat relative similarities on both sides of the Berlin Wall. Where Ireland refused to provide employment, housing, education and healthcare and instead exported its surplus population, where the USA imprisons a greater proportion of its population today than the USSR did at its height. The past is a different country. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want to live in it, regardless of location relative to the Berlin Wall.

CMK - December 21, 2012

‘The USSR wasn’t what any contemporary leftist would want to live in, and that really should be at the forefront of our minds.’

Is that not a little Eurocentric? Sure, compared to a Western Europe in the grip of breakneck growth and dramatically rising living standards even into the 1980′s the Soviet Union had little to offer and certainly it was no place for an independent minded socialist. But, and I think it’s a significant but, the USSR, when compared with those parts of the world under European and US control, rule or influence, could well have been viewed as a minor paradise?

And I think we’re overlooking the degree to which the impact of World War Two on the USSR fatally undermined that state and was of such a magnitude that the USSR could probably never recover.

Certainly, while many leftists would not like living in the Soviet Union could the same be true of those who are apolitical? If you had no strong beliefs either way would you prefer to live in a society where you were legally guaranteed a job or one where you could well end up unemployed for long periods with (as in Europe) or without (the US) a social safety net. Indeed the Soviet social contract, post Stalin, of ‘you get no democracy, few civil rights and restrictions on your freedoms in exchange for the unalienable right to a job and to some small degree of social provision’ could be viewed as having it’s attractions if you weren’t bothered one way or the other by political ideas: which is a substantial cohort in any society.

I think the further the USSR recedes into history the more nuanced will be the assessments of it’s social achievements. From what I have read the 1960′s and 1970′s were regarded as good times by many former citizens of the USSR. That’s not to defend it, by any means, I’d regard it as failed attempt at socialism which, had it permitted a freer and more open political society could probably have evolved into something more defensible and worthwhile. For instance, if a certain Mr. T’s followers were allowed organise and not exterminated.

ejh - December 21, 2012

Is that not a little Eurocentric?

Well not really, no, given that

(a) much of the USSR was not in Europe ;
(b) the comparison isn’ really between the USSR and “parts of the world under European and US rule” – that’s comparing the internal political life of a great power with the life of countries they control, it’s not like-with-like.

Certainly, while many leftists would not like living in the Soviet Union could the same be true of those who are apolitical?

It could, but the same is said of Franco’s Spain!

LeftAtTheCross - December 20, 2012

“It controlled smaller countries, with the threat of military force, for its own economic and political benefit.”

I won’t dispute the military force aspect but as CMK put it above one has to look at the proportionality of responses by both sides during the Cold War. As for the threat of force, well you can also look at the situation in Italy after WWII and into the 70s where the US also considered overt military intervention as a valid response to possible PCI involvement in government and used covert measures to provide moral and financial support to its stooges in the Christian Democrats and further right groups. So yes, but swings and roundabouts.

As to the economic and political benifit in an imperial sense, this doesn’t stand up because the USSR didn’t
extract imperial rent from the other countries as such. The standard of living was in some cases higher in the satellite countries than in the USSR itself, which is absolutely not the case with US imperialism. The division of economic specialisation amongst the Comecon members did in some cases limit the industrial development of member economies, but only where such development didn’t make sense in terms of scale.

Ok, I guess you can make analogies with colonialism in that sense of absence of economic sovereignty, similar to what has developed in the EU of course. The same arguments can be made on a regional basis within large states also of course, the USA, Germany, Britain, Italy etc. To reduce it to imperialism is I think perhaps stretching it.

14. Branno's ultra-left t-shirt - December 20, 2012

Neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism….either that or fuck off

15. CWIer - December 20, 2012

Back to South Africa: http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/6095 ANC and SACP leaderships were complicit in the massacre of miners.

16. sonofstan - December 21, 2012

I’m also not impressed with the implication that the subjugation of the population of Central and Eastern Europe was in some sense a price worth paying for a check being applied to American power on the wider stage.

Nor am I, just to be clear after a rather hurried comment this morning before going out to work. My point against YC was that simply isolating a worthwhile achievement of the USSR etc. was not invalidated by pointing out something else they did that wasn’t so good. Anymore than all sorts of nefarious shit done by successive US governments abroad invalidates the freedoms and advantages of liberal democracy at home. I was questioning the logic of the argument, not suggesting that any validation of what was a failing ideology by the time we’re talking about. To risk Godwin’s Law here, it’s perfectly valid to point out that Mussolini made the trains run on time: it is invalid to claim that this therefore justifies or excuses everything – or anything – else the fascisti did.

17. Organized Rage - December 21, 2012


You use the language of reaction like “That’s the kind of stuff which totally discredited Western apologists for Soviet Communism in the eyes of people like Havel.’

Why would I as a working class socialist be bothered by what Havel had to say?

What you refuse to respond to is this, in the 1950s and 60s there was a war going on between the USA and USSR, admittedly it was cold in our part of the world but it was bloody hot elsewhere. It is clear from what you say you would have sided with the former, other did not.

Of course many of them would have been regarded as dissidents in the USSR, what is your point, The Left opposition were regarded as dissidents and worst, but that did not stop them defending the soviet union. Even when their comrades were being murdered or being tormented in show trials. You miss the point entirely.


I do not believe anyone is defending the USSR wholesale, I know I am not, But I do know West European workers benefited from it as its very existence made our own ruling class think twice about smashing our heads and refusing our demands. That is what I meant by the USSR put some manners on the USA.


I have no idea what point you are making.

To conclude, what I find a bit sad about some of the comments is there has been no attempt to recognise the historical epoch that began with the first world war and ended with the implosion of the USSR. If you take this into account, the Russian revolution and the Soviet Union was a magnificent socialist experiment. However, as to its failure, in some ways yes, but we should not overlook the social forces set against it. As an old beard once said when asked his thoughts on the French revolution, “Its far to early to say” [or some such;-)

I doubt many comrades would say today the French revolution was a failure, yet it too spilled much blood and saw a dictatorship emerge temporarily. The very thought of it made Kings and bourgeois despots tremble and it acted as a ‘basic’ route map for future generations.
It also emboldened generations of the toiling masses having been inspired by it. I have no doubt given time the Soviet union will come to be regarded in much the same manner.

Not something to be aped, but certainly worthwhile studying and dare I say it, admiring in a cautious way.

Ed - December 21, 2012

“It is clear from what you say you would have sided with the former, other did not.”

It is absolutely not clear from what he has said that he would have done so. This is what he actually said: “A plague on both their houses. Two rival Imperialisms who excused their own depredations by reference to the misdeeds of their rivals.” Don’t be daft, don’t make stuff up.

LeftAtTheCross - December 21, 2012

Apparently that quote about the French Revolution, “Its far to early to say”, attributed to a Chinese visitor to France in the late 60s, and interpreted as words of great wisdom, was a misunderstanding of the question about the effects of which French ‘revolution’. He misunderstood it as referring to the very recent May ’68 disturbances. Shame though, it was a great answer.

On the issue raised somewhere above about career death for dissidents in the Eastern bloc, it should be balanced by a recognition that career death and resultant poverty or emigration was also inflicted on left wing or trade union activists in Ireland in reward for their efforts, not directly by the state of course but outsourced to the elite strata of private-sector employers. Ireland was and is a small place, and the blacklist is an effective weapon in class war.

Final point, before I go shopping for the Christmas presents this morning, is simply to state that defence here of the positive aspects of the Soviet system, and recognition of the historical context in terms of Cold War and WWII before that, need nt be understood as unqualified enthusiasm for the Soviet model as a lock stock and barrel blueprint for a future socialism. All models have failings. Defence of the USSR as far as I am concerned is necessary because to align oneself with the ideological enemies of the USSR is impossible. If those enemies insist on a black or white interpretation of the history and legacy then I come off the fence on the side of the USSR, it’s that simple and no apologies for that. For those who have a more genuine critique I think it’s possible to discuss the failings and the victories of the Soviet model of existing socialism, without that discussion taking on the nature of a battle with a winner and a loser. In that respect I think Organised Rage and CMK above have a similar perspective, and while SoS and EJH may be more sceptical I would never suggest that they are blind to complexity or subtlety, far from it. As discussions of the USSR go, this one has been quite civilised, it must be the season or something.

Joe - December 21, 2012

LATC. On your first paragraph – we’ve been through this before. It was said by Chou En Lai in a conversation with the mass murderer Kissinger. Chou meant the French Revolution of 1789, nothing else. This stuff about it being a misunderstanding and that he was really talking about 1968 is a CIA/Irish Secret Service imperialist propaganda muddying of the waters.
Happy Christmas all. Nollaig shona agus athbhliain fé mhaise dhaoibh uile. 2013 – Bliain na bua!

LeftAtTheCross - December 21, 2012

Joe, like yourself and SoS my memory is not what it should be sometimes! I do recall that discussion now. I’m happy to credit Chou Enlai with having a far longer view of history than the quarterly horizons of the capitalists.

eamonncork - December 21, 2012

Organised Rage? I’d hate to meet Disorganised Rage. How is ‘a plague on both their houses’ taking sides. No, why should you care about what Havel or anyone else who went to jail for their principles thinks. Because it costs you nothing to ‘take sides,’, you just have to type something about it, same as myself. But do me a fucking favour and don’t misrepresent what I said. You’re like some idiotic blinkered straw man invented by Nick Cohen

eamonncork - December 21, 2012

Apologies if I sound somewhat annoyed there. But OR would be annoyed if I wrote, ‘Organised Rage has made it clear he’d have supported the actions of Mengistu and Pol Pot,” even though he hasn’t.
All this you have to be for one side or the other stuff is kind of East Enders theory of history stuff where there are goodies who are always good and baddies who are always bad. It has the advantage of being very simple and of making the proponents feel all macho about taking ‘tough choices,’ but it’s not much a way for an intelligent human being to carry on.
Intelligence surely demands that we examine each issue on its merits rather than follow a party line on all of them. It makes perfect sense to decry Hungary 1956 and the crushing of the Prague Spring as well as the overthrow of Allende and US action in The Vietnam War. An eight year old could see that. The following of party lines in toto leads on the left to the defence of the Stalinist show trials on the grounds that to do otherwise would give a propaganda weapon to the enemies of the Soviet Union. On the right it leads to the support of murderous regimes in Central America on the grounds that they are a ‘bulwark against communism.’ Both of these positions strike me as being extremely odious. I’d take Havel over Stalin or Nixon any day of the week.
I’m also not sure about the post which implies that the success of trade union movements worldwide in achieving better wages and conditions was entirely due to an implied threat from the USSR. It’s a nice one-liner but it sounds like something The Freedom Association might have believed.

Loveyou longtime - December 21, 2012

Complete and utter false dichotomies being presented here that are not worthy of a serious deabte

eamonncork - December 21, 2012

You took your time getting back from the pub.

ejh - December 21, 2012

It’s what pubs are for.

eamonncork - December 21, 2012

And on the subject of the historical epoch OR, to be a bit calmer about this. I think it’s a pity that Luxemburg and Liebknecht didn’t succeed in seizing power in Germany so that the Soviet Union wasn’t embattled and in a state of siege for most of its existence. And that Trotsky or someone had taken over the reins of power after Lenin instead of Stalin. I don’t think the Communist project was fundamentally flawed or headed for inevitable failure.
Just being pedantic here, every time I hear someone bemoaning the arterio-sclerotic nature of the USSA in the seventies, I find myself thinking, ‘Oh, in comparison to the energetic vibrant leadership of the Terror era.’ You
were probably better off living in the arterio-sclerotic version.
We’ll agree to differ, it’s all academic now

18. Michael Carley - December 21, 2012

“I do not believe anyone is defending the USSR wholesale, I know I am not, But I do know West European workers benefited from it as its very existence made our own ruling class think twice about smashing our heads and refusing our demands. That is what I meant by the USSR put some manners on the USA.”

That’s fair enough, and I agree in part, but you might be overstating the case. The USSR kept the PCF in line and held the PCI back (probably trying to murder its General Secretary), when there might have been some chance to make great gains in the 60s and 70s. The existence of the USSR didn’t stop Thatcher and Reagan breaking the unions in the 80s.

On the other hand, I tend to agree with Noam Chomsky’s line that if a Central American peasant had woken up in Poland, he would think he’d died and gone to heaven.

eamonncork - December 21, 2012

And if Noam Chomsky had woken up in Poland?

Michael Carley - December 21, 2012

His line on America is that it’s such a free country there’s no excuse for not protesting. He’d probably have wound up in jail in Poland.

http://www.organizedrage.com/ - December 21, 2012

I agree, the Soviet leadership acted as a brake on both the French and Italian party’s back then, as they wanted to cut a deal with the US, If I remember correctly Détente was the buzz word of the day. At the same time they were supporting the ANC and others.

That State and indeed the ‘official’ communist movement was full of contradictions. Saints and sinners so to speak, I think Palmiro Togliatti had a good take on this when he said about Stalin, when he was alive all the SU achievements were laid at his door, after he died all its failures. Up until now, much the same could be said about the USSR.

Michael Carley - December 21, 2012

The Italian party was a bit more independent, but still mostly under the thumb (Togliatti said that he had to toe the line in the thirties or he would have been shot) until the sixties, although it took the wrong line on Prague, which also helped force the split with the Manifesto group. The real problem was that they were getting close to being the largest party, which neither Washington (obviously), nor Moscow, wanted (because they did not want Western parties reaching power using their own tactics). The attempt on Berlinguer’s life did mark a certain widening of the breach, though.

The details of the Moro kidnapping get confused in part because the PCI wasn’t as subservient as you might expect.

Organized Rage - December 22, 2012

I have either completely forgotten about the attempt on Berlinguer’s life, or it was not public knowledge at the time. (I also may have missed it although given the CPGB main journal and other left publications published a lot of stuff about CPI, I would be surprised) Its interesting the Bulgarians were given the job, what a bunch they were.

For some years I’ve been looking out for an English language book on Togliatti, he certainly led an interesting life, but I cannot find one in English bar an academic tome which is beyond my price range.

The way the US and European governments used their intelligence services to conspire against the Italian CP was

Michael Carley - December 22, 2012

I’m slightly surprised to see there is nothing of Togliatti’s on the Marxists Internet Archive. Wait for The Tailor of Ulm to come out in paperback. Rossana Rossanda’s book on her life on the Italian left is good as well.

The problem, I think, is that a lot of work in English is more interested in the terrorist groups, and their supposed links to the USSR, than in the actually existing Communist Party. Oddly enough, it’s probably worth having a skim through histories of the Mafia (John Dickie’s is good) since, among other things, they were the bulwark against communism, and delivered Sicily to the Christian Democrats for decades.

WorldbyStorm - December 22, 2012

Great stuff Michael. I hadn’t thought about the Manifesto crew in years so your refs sent me back to have a look! One thing that strikes me is how broad the PCI was by the late 1960s. It clearly was a large and effectively mass party even if there was still an intolerance of [certain] dissenting views expressed within it. I’ve got to admit I find the way it went its own way in the 60s and 70s as regards the Soviets very refreshing. It’s as if they had not merely understood the formal aspects of the secret speech but actually engaged with the necessary implications as regards democracy etc. Not perfectly but at least to some degree. And one thing that was great was the shift from the terrible discourse of dishonesty that blighted so much of orthodox CP rhetoric where it was impossible to admit to fault or flaw and at all costs a united front (ahem) had to be presented to the world even when in doing so yet more credibility was lost.

MIchael Carley - December 22, 2012

They always tended to be as independent as it was possible to be under the circumstances, c.f. Gramsci’s letter to Togliatti. They were in the odd position after the war of having liberated quite a bit of Italy on their own (Genoa, especially, has a strong tradition) before the Allies arrived, and without Soviet assistance. There was also a strong tradition in the South, despite ferocious repression (the Sicilian May Day massacre especially) and, like a lot of western communist parties, they had a very lively cultural life. They also tended to have much more respect for democracy than most of the `bourgeois’ parties.

A great film to get if you can find it is La Cosa, which Nanni Moretti made by filming the discussions in CP branches as the party was heading for its dissolution and split in the early 90s. One member in the Mirafiori branch (so a Fiat worker) asks why they should give up on the sacrifices of the past, including when their shop stewards were murdered by the Red Brigades.

One odd comment I came across a few years in an interview with Giorgio Amendola was that Italian communism always had a Trotskyist tinge because Mussolini banned official communist publications, but it suited him to have Trotsky published, since his denunciations of Stalin sowed confusion amongst the Italian left. Amendola’s view was that most Italian communists of that generation got their history from Trotsky’s account of the Russian revolution because it was all they could lay their hands on.

I think the fact that the PCI effectively had to develop under Fascism, rather than being defeated by it (as in Germany), made a big difference internally and to their support.

WorldbyStorm - December 22, 2012

That last point you make seems very convincing to me.

There’s another side as well. To an extent even greater than the Spanish and French parties, though similar to them, it was large enough to generate its own critical mass, something I don’t think is true of the CPGB, or other smaller orthodox CPs which arguably were never big enough (even if they were by contemporary standards of furhter left parties in democracies pretty damn big) to have the sort of tensions and necessity to combine many different interests that made them both cohesive but also attractive to a wider constituency beyond them. And unfortunately the smaller they were the more the adherence to orthodoxy and the inability to develop.

That’s an interesting point about Trotsky. Funnily in the the WP back in the day I knew a couple of people who were more open to him than might be expected given the broader culture of the party.

Michael Carley - December 22, 2012

Although one question might be why a party which had to develop as a semi-clandestine organization (there was also an open leadership based in Moscow) managed to become such an open, fairly transparent group. There was a conspiratorial side, in that very few people knew how much money was coming in from Moscow, and there was supposedly an underground organization ready if needed (shades of Groups A and B), some of which is described in Magri’s book and elsewhere, but mostly it was a fairly open, relatively transparent party.

WorldbyStorm - December 22, 2012

Size perhaps? A bit chicken and egg admittedly but perhaps the simple dynamic of a party which grew bigger required greater and more open accountability eventually?

Michael Carley - December 23, 2012

Could be, although thinking on it, the party came out of the PSI and the labour movement, while the armed wing really only developed during the war. The WP, fado, fado, came out of an insurrectionary movement, and kept the habits of mind, maybe?

WorldbyStorm - December 23, 2012

That’s interesting. Though one would think that the level of repression experienced under fascism, and the length of time of that period, would have in some ways equally deep effects. Though not necessarily similar effects. But I think that the point about links to labour, they must indeed have been crucial.

19. sonofstan - December 21, 2012

Just wondering: was anyone here ever in the Soviet Union or indeed any ‘actually existing’ communist country? Not trying to make a debating point or anything or claim the authority of experience, just interested……

LeftAtTheCross - December 21, 2012

Not personally. The only travelling of any sort I had up to ’89 was an inter-rail, and to be honest it didn’t even register as a consideration at that age to visit the other side of the curtain.

I’ve spoken to a good number of WP people who had been in the existing socialist states through the party, for cultural exchanges, conferences, political education.

Joe - December 21, 2012

I was in Bulgaria on the Connolly Youth Movement summer holiday in 1985 (? the year of Live Aid, I think). It was of course a socialist paradise (joke). Actually my memory is that what we saw of it wasn’t so bad. But not great either. We toured around. At each hotel, we’d get the same feta chesse salad starter and the same fairly crap steak and soggy chips. In each hotel bar there’d be the same four piece band playing middle of the road light jazz stuff.
The youth wing of their CP brought us to one of their clubs once for a talk during the day. It was a nice place but set aside for the CP members.
Also, each time we would arrive in a hotel, the waiter or porter or manager would approach us early on and tell us the rate of exchange they could give us for our dollars – about three times as good as the official rate iirc.
More memories coming as I write this. But I’ll sign off by saying that some of the CYMers at the time and hangers on could drink Lough Erin dry.

eamonncork - December 21, 2012

Be careful with that umbrella they gave you to take home.

ejh - December 21, 2012

At each hotel, we’d get the same feta chesse salad starter and the same fairly crap steak and soggy chips. In each hotel bar there’d be the same four piece band playing middle of the road light jazz stuff.

For what it’s worth, it was roughly the same when I was there in 1991…

EamonnCork - December 21, 2012

It sounds a bit like travelling in Kerry now.

ejh - December 21, 2012

Blueberry Hill was a big favourite with the bands, as I recall.

Michael Carley - December 21, 2012

Moscow and Leningrad just before Christmas 1989.

We were flying from Shannon on a flight that started in Lima and then stopped in Havana and Gander, before Shannon, Luxemburg and Moscow. A bunch of Cubans defected in Gander, the flight was delayed eight hours, and we ended up sleeping on the floor of Sheremetyevo domestic terminal since we had missed the flight to Leningrad and wait for the one the next morning. The train from Leningrad back to Moscow was grand crack.

In the USSR itself, we heard rumours that Hungary was in flames and thought the borders would be closed. When we did get home, we discovered it was Romania had kicked off.

20. Branno's ultra-left t-shirt - December 21, 2012

‘’ve spoken to a good number of WP people who had been in the existing socialist states through the party, for cultural exchanges, conferences, political education.’ Anything else?

21. http://www.organizedrage.com/ - December 21, 2012

“A plague on both their houses”


I did not put words in your mouth, nor as Ed suggested did I make stuff up, I drew a conclusion born of my experiences in the 1960s-70s and from what you wrote in this thread, I regarded the State Capitalist theory as a cop out, coming as it did during the cold war, and still do. As I said, it turned those who advocated it into world class political gymnastics which resulted in a pick and mix type of internationalism.

Normally I would have apologised to you as I am not here to give offence and I do not doubt you sincerity. However in your subsequent comments you lost the run of yourself, and stamped your feet at my expense. As I see it, things have now equalled out. So no there will be no apology.

eamonncork - December 21, 2012

We’ll both survive it, I’m sure .OR. I don’t doubt your sincerity either and often enjoy your contributions Have a good Christmas

http://www.organizedrage.com/ - December 22, 2012


Thanks for this, you have a good Christmas to.

22. redandblackbrannigan - December 21, 2012

Just to say that ‘Brannos Ultra left t-shirt’ is not me. Lookleft’s Branno.

Carry on.

sonofstan - December 21, 2012

We – or I anyway – had figured that out.

Branno's ultra-left t-shirt - December 23, 2012

I want to confirm that I am not Look Left’s Branno. I’m far cooler than him.

23. John Cunningham - December 23, 2012

On a slightly related matter (the British CP), I’m posting a quote from Peter J. Conradi’s biography of Frank Thompson (brother of historian, E.P.)

“… The extent of Communist penetration at Oxford is remarkable. The Labour Party in 1935 had permitted fusion of the Communist and Socialist societies and there were close links between the Oxford University Labour Club and the CP headquarters on Haythe Bridge St. The Labour Club, dominated by Communists had over 1000 members; nearly all its committee members were in the CP. But then all the committees of the League of Nations Union, of the Liberal Club, and of the Student Christian Movement , two of the five Conservative Club committee, and even two of the ten members of the British Union of Fascists committee were in the CP. It helps give the atmosphere of the times to point out that Robert Conquest, while an open Communist, was a member of the university’s Carlton Club … and that the CP included John Biggs-Davison, later Chairman of the right-wing Monday Club…’ (Peter J. Conradi, A very English hero: the making of Frank Thompson, :London: Bloomsbury, 2012, p. 122)

Oh, and Dennis Healey and Michael Foot were knocking around as well, though Foot never actually joined the CP

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