Book review: IF Stone – The Hidden History of the Korean War

Written to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Korean Armistice Agreement, this book review by Carlos Martinez of IF Stone’s recently re-issued The Hidden History of the Korean War seeks to identify the lessons to be learnt from the so-called “forgotten war”, and to draw out parallels between the original Cold War in the Pacific and the New Cold War in the Pacific.

A shorter version of this review was published in the Morning Star.

The 27th of July 2023 marks 70 years since the signing of the armistice agreement at Panmunjom, finally bringing about a cessation of hostilities in a war that was extraordinarily destructive but which has been largely ignored.

As Bruce Cumings writes in his preface to I.F. Stone’s classic The Hidden History of the Korean War – first published in 1952 and recently reissued by Monthly Review Press – the Korean War is a forgotten war, “remembered mainly as an odd conflict sandwiched between the good war (World War 2) and the bad war (Vietnam).”

For those seeking to build a peaceful and prosperous future for humanity, the lessons of the Korean War must not be forgotten. Indeed re-reading The Hidden History it becomes clear that there are several crucial parallels with today’s world.

Stone’s meticulous investigation provides abundant proof that most of the key players in the US government and military actively wanted the Korean War; that it was the right war, in the right place and the right time in terms of US imperialist interests.

Top US generals have since admitted that their “police action” in Korea gave them just the excuse they needed to construct the military infrastructure of Cold War in the Pacific: a vast network of overseas bases; large-scale, long-term deployments of US troops in Korea and Japan; and the permanent stationing of nuclear warheads in the region.

The Korean War set the whole military-industrial complex in motion. It created the national security state. It was the first major test case for the Truman Doctrine of “support for democracies against authoritarian threats” and helped establish the US in its self-assumed role of global policeman. By forcing through a United Nations endorsement of its invasion, the US was able to establish its dominance of the UN-based international system.

Reading Izzy Stone’s reporting today, it’s striking the extent to which these mechanisms of Cold War still exist and are being used to wage a New Cold War. The military bases, the troop deployments, the nuclear threats that aimed to contain socialism and prevent the emergence of a multipolar world in the 1950s continue to serve the same purposes in 2023.

Stone’s book emphasises that peace was very much an option in 1950.

The Soviet Union of course wanted peace; having lost 27 million lives and sustained incredible damage to its infrastructure in the course of saving the world from Nazism, the Soviets needed space to rebuild. The People’s Republic of China also wanted peace; having only been founded in October 1949 after long years of civil war and struggle against Japanese occupation, the last thing the new state needed was to become embroiled in another war. (In the event, nearly 400,000 Chinese volunteers gave their lives fighting in Korea).

The US could have accepted the post-WW2 reality: that some countries had chosen the path of socialism, and that many other countries were throwing off the shackles of colonialism and seeking to explore an independent path to development.

The US could furthermore have accepted an emerging status quo in East Asia. Before the US invasion, the trajectory was for Korea to be united under a popular, communist-led government; for Taiwan to become part of the People’s Republic of China; for China to regain its rightful seat at the UN; and for US troops to be removed from Japan.

Such a configuration would have reflected the will of the peoples of the region, but it wasn’t consistent with Washington’s idiosyncratic vision of a “rules-based world order”. The major western powers, led by the US, rejected peace and chose containment, encirclement, blockade and war.

They chose a strategy of doing everything they could to weaken the socialist countries and the forces of national liberation and sovereign development. They chose the Cold War – which for the people of Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Nicaragua, Chile, and many other countries of the Global South was not cold at all.

Seventy years later, the “End of History” fever dream is over and the West is once again faced with a rising socialism and an irrepressible multipolar trend, at the centre of which is China. Once again there is a choice between peace and conflict.

China has become a major player in global affairs. It’s the largest trading partner of two-thirds of the world’s countries. It’s the second largest economy in the world in dollar terms. It’s taken the lead globally on poverty alleviation and on sustainable development. It’s on the cutting edge of advanced industry, of telecommunications, of artificial intelligence, of renewable energy and more.

Through mechanisms such as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, China is promoting solidarity and shared development of the Global South. China is playing a positive role in promoting sovereign development in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Central Asia, the Caribbean, and Pacific – regions that have been held in underdevelopment for centuries by the colonial and imperial powers.

What’s more, China is recognised globally for its consistent pursuit of peace. Where the West has stoked conflict in Ukraine, China has worked with all parties for a peaceful settlement. Where the US has stoked division in the Middle East, China has facilitated a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, thereby potentially clearing a path for an end to the horrific war in Yemen.

Can the West adapt to this new reality? Can it accept China’s rise? Can it accept that the countries of the world want to determine their own economic policy and their own foreign policy? Can it accept that the era of colonialism and imperialism is over? Can it accept that the idea of any one country being the “world’s policeman” really has no place in the modern world?

Can the West work with China, with Iran, with Russia and other countries to solve the major existential problems that humanity faces? Or will the US and its allies continue on the ruinous path of a New Cold War – and potentially a devastating hot war? Such are the defining geopolitical questions of our era.

The Hidden History of the Korean War is essential reading for those who are educating and organising towards peace; towards building a mass anti-war movement that our governments can’t ignore.

Book review: Rebecca Karl – China’s Revolutions in the Modern World: A Brief Interpretive History

A version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star.

Verso’s latest offering on China is a concise and thought-provoking overview of nearly two centuries of Chinese revolutionary movements, written by respected historian Rebecca Karl.

Starting with the Taiping Rebellion (from 1850), the book goes on to discuss the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the establishment of the Republic of China (1912), the May Fourth Movement (1919 onwards), the rises and falls of the United Front between the Communist Party and the Guomindang, the founding of the People’s Republic (1949), the Cultural Revolution, and the reform period (1978 onwards). Importantly, the author discusses the links between these processes, and explores their connection to contemporaneous events and changes in the rest of the world.

Karl provides a particularly interesting and nuanced analysis of some of the most controversial phases of modern Chinese history: the Hundred Flowers campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. Although she doesn’t shirk from describing the terrible excesses and mistakes associated with those periods, she manages to avoid the childish tropes usually found in Western historical accounts (Mao as crazed and vengeful dictator, etc). Instead, Karl describes the incredibly complex domestic and international political context, the deteriorating relationship between China and the Soviet Union, the resulting apparent need for China to be economically self-reliant; along with the heated ideological debates within the Communist Party about how to build socialism in a vast and underdeveloped country that had still yet to wipe out feudalism and undergo industrial revolution.

The turbulent history of the relationship between the Communist Party and the Guomindang is also told with skill and subtlety.

Turning to the post-1978 ‘reform and opening up’ era, Karl offers a disappointingly one-sided critique that takes its lead from the more extreme elements of the Chinese New Left. Socialism with Chinese Characteristics is portrayed as an unfortunate setback in which socialism has been undone and replaced with vicious neoliberalism and ruthless repression.

Karl’s criticism of the worrying inequality to be found in China today is of course valid and important, but it should be balanced with some discussion of how quality of life has improved for the vast majority of Chinese people. This rising baseline of human development certainly mitigates rising inequality, and helps to explain why the Chinese government retains its popularity and legitimacy.

Deng Xiaoping and his successors are criticised for a strategy in which the ‘ends’ (GDP growth and technical development) justify the ‘means’ (private capital, foreign investment, massive inequality). But this is a misrepresentation. GDP growth and technical development are not ends in themselves; they are a proxy for improving people’s lives and breaking out of backwardness. The reform period has achieved extraordinary successes in poverty alleviation, to a point where extreme poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition and homelessness have been all but wiped out for the first time in China’s history. Is it so difficult to see something socialist in this?

Another complaint about the book its treatment of the Tiananmen Square incident and the situation in Xinjiang. In both cases, the author offers little more than a recapitulation of the standard Western narrative of authoritarian Han Chinese leaders riding roughshod over the will of the masses. Karl certainly doesn’t do her credibility any favours by citing the professional anti-communist and Christian fundamentalist Adrian Zenz in relation to the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Disagreements aside, ‘China’s Revolutions in the Modern World’ provides some valuable insight into modern Chinese history. An excellent book to read alongside this one is Han Suyin’s biography of Zhou Enlai, ‘Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China’, covering similar ground but from a different perspective.

Book review: Ann Pettifor – The Case for the Green New Deal

A version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star on 21 August 2019.

Climate change is the most important political issue of our generation. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, humanity needs to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and hit next zero by 2050. The cost of failure is climate breakdown: vast areas of the planet rendered uninhabitable; hundreds of coastal cities (including New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai and Lagos) permanently submerged; food and water scarcity; vicious climate wars; hundreds of millions of climate refugees.

How to tackle climate change effectively? The answer depends on where you are in the world. The principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities, established at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, states that different countries, at different levels of development, have different roles to play in preventing climate breakdown.

The poorest countries cannot and should not focus on reducing their CO2 emissions, which are already extremely low. Rather than using too much energy, they use too little – three-quarters of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa lacks access to electricity. The great global injustice of climate change is that the peoples who have contributed least to the problem are the most vulnerable to its effects. For low-income countries, development has to be the priority, and this relies on energy. If that energy is to be green, then OECD countries should take responsibility, providing technology and financial support.

Through its vast investment in renewable energy and electric vehicles, and its commitment to energy efficiency and reduced pollution, China is establishing a promising model of clean energy transition for middle-income countries. As things stand, China’s leadership provides the strongest glimmer of hope for preventing environmental catastrophe. However, the world desperately needs the wealthy countries to get on board.

Most environmental experts agree that the OECD countries need to cut emissions by 80 percent over the next decade. We are nowhere near on track to meet that target. The domination of neoliberal economics over the last few decades has reduced governments’ ability to set economic policy in the national interest. Fiscal revenue isn’t sufficient to finance large-scale green development, and shareholder-driven capitalism is incapable of long-term strategic planning on the level that’s needed. Furthermore, the super-rich financial gurus that run our economies aren’t particularly worried about climate breakdown, because if worst comes to worst, they have the resources to save themselves.

The Green New Deal (GND), conceived a decade ago by British economists and environmentalists but recently popularised by progressive US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, provides the first viable, comprehensive and actionable plan for developed countries to decarbonise their economies. At the same time, it proposes the creation of millions of jobs, and highlights a path of ‘green development’ that emphasises equality and social justice. Measures include investment in renewable energy and zero-carbon public transport; upgrading buildings for energy efficiency; building ‘smart’ distributed power grids to provide affordable clean electricity to all; reorganising the food system; ending subsidies to the fossil fuel industry; and prioritising basic needs.

Ann Pettifor’s ’The Case for the Green New Deal’ succinctly explains what the GND is, where the idea came from, why it’s necessary, and how to make it happen. As an economist and an expert in monetary theory, Pettifor is uniquely well placed to describe how the GND can be funded, and the details of this constitute the major theme of the book.

The good news is that, with a tightly regulated financial system based on publicly-controlled and accountable central banks, it’s eminently possible to fund a Green New Deal that can ensure that the developed countries rapidly decarbonise their economies, eliminate waste, transfer green technology to the rest of the world, and build a fairer, more equal society in the process.

The bad news is that a “tightly regulated financial system” isn’t what we have. Pettifor argues that a major overhaul of the financial system is a prerequisite for a programme as ambitious as the GND. It’s imperative to regain public control over the monetary system. Offshore capital must be brought back onshore. Capital flows must be regulated and taxed. Accountable central banks must seize back control from the hedge funds and speculators. This isn’t impossible – Pettifor points out that China deploys capital and exchange control measures very effectively – but achieving it will require broad mobilisation and progressive political representation.

The GND represents a set of economic and political reforms that, in combination, form a platform capable of uniting hundreds of millions. As such, it should be a key plank for left parties in Europe, North America and Australia. If a Corbyn-led Labour government can implement its version of the GND (labelled the Green Industrial Revolution), this will be a huge boost for the global battle to save the planet.

Book review: Two pamphlets from the Spanish Civil War

A version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star on 7 August 2019.

George Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ is, for many, the defining account of the Spanish Civil War. Although it took up the ideological perspective of just one of the many different factions that participated in that war, and although Orwell’s personal experience of the action was limited to a short stint on a quiet front, ‘Homage to Catalonia’ has been reissued dozens of times and is on school and university curricula throughout the western world.

Orwell’s perspective made its way even further into the popular consciousness as a result of socialist film-maker Ken Loach’s 1995 film ‘Land and Freedom’, which unfortunately is based largely on Orwell’s narrative.

‘Homage to Catalonia’ essentially promotes the political positions of a relatively small Trotskyist group called the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM). The POUM had argued that the Popular Front government established in 1936, against which General Franco’s fascist uprising was directed, couldn’t be trusted to pursue the fight against Franco, because it was too afraid of unleashing the forces of socialist revolution. In Orwell’s words, the Republican government was “manifestly more afraid of the revolution than of the fascists.” For Orwell, all the problems and failures of the Republican armies in the Civil War were due to the vacillating nature of the Popular Front and its major supporter on the global stage: the Soviet Union.

Given Orwell’s production of the two most prominent anti-communist novels of the twentieth century – ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ – and his later snitching on communists to the British state, it’s perhaps not surprising that he took positions on the Spanish Civil War that were fundamentally hostile to the Soviet Union and the Spanish Communist Party.

For this British aristocrat – Old Etonian and former colonial policeman in Burma – the Republican government just wasn’t radical enough, because it was attempting to hold together a fragile alliance of class forces against fascism. Given the number of people that denounced the progressive governments in Chile (1970-73) or Brazil (2003-16) from the left – in many cases contributing to their weakening – Orwell’s critique of the Republic is eerily familiar to modern ears.

The two pamphlets published in this small volume from Manifesto Heritage offer another side to the story.

JR Campbell’s ‘Spain’s Left Critics’ was originally published in 1937, just a year into the war, and deals with the POUM’s criticisms as they were being issued. Arguing against the accusation that the Popular Front was the Spanish equivalent of Kerensky’s provisional government in Russia, Campbell defends the Spanish government’s record: “It released the 30,000 working class political prisoners. It restored autonomy to the Catalan people. It restored the rights of the unions and enabled the workers to win improved conditions all round. It legalised the seizure of the land by 87,000 peasants. It broke up the fascist leagues. In the critical moment of the fascist insurrection it armed the workers.”

The Kerensky comparison betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the class forces involved. Kerensky’s provisional government was, in Campbell’s words, “a bourgeois government carrying on an imperialist war”. The Spanish Popular Front, on the hand, was under attack from precisely the armed representatives of the capitalist and landowning classes. Equating the two was indeed “the purest nonsense”.

Bill Alexander’s pamphlet takes issue with Orwell’s characterisation of the Spanish people as being “good at many things but not at making war.” He points out that millions of ordinary Spaniards, with the help of the International Brigades, “despite most of the regular army going over to Franco, deprived of weapons, held back not only the Spanish fascists but large military units of German and Italian forces for 32 months. Far longer than the French and Belgian forces did in 1940!”

Alexander explains that, despite the claims of a few disparate ultra-left fantasists, the circumstances didn’t exist in 1930s Spain for a socialist revolution. As elsewhere, the clear priority was to build the broadest possible alliance against fascism, recognising that fascism represents the most violent, repressive, dangerous and reactionary form of capitalism. “Orwell’s views of the possibility of a revolution in Spain in 1936 and 1937 were naïve in the extreme.”

The reissuing of these two pamphlets provides a valuable contribution to the study of the Spanish Civil War. Paul Preston, a distinguished historian of the war, describes ‘Homage to Catalonia’ as a “moving but ultimately narrow vision … written with a pro-POUM stance which has been taken, erroneously, as an overview of the war, which it is not.” Preston’s book ‘A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War’ is a good starting point for those looking to explore this topic. Bill Alexander’s book ‘British Volunteers For Liberty: Spain, 1936-1939’ is also essential reading.

Book review: Frances Ryan – Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People

A version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star on 19 July 2019.

‘Crippled’ is a well-written, thoroughly-researched and harrowing account of how austerity – and the classist, ableist ideology that accompanies it – has impacted millions of disabled people. It is, in the words of Rob Delaney, “a ferocious, thoroughly substantiated indictment of this government’s maltreatment of its disabled children, women and men.”

Frances Ryan provides comprehensive statistical evidence demonstrating that disabled people have been disastrously and disproportionately affected by the last decade of public spending cuts. This evidence is very effectively combined with interviews and case studies showing just how badly our society is failing. The reader is introduced to people who have seen their benefits and support cut to such an extent that they are routinely having to choose between eating and heating; people forced to sleep in their wheelchairs because they no longer qualify for a carer to help them get to bed; people resorting to online crowdfunding to raise money for wheelchairs and nutritional supplements; people driven into outright destitution and stripped of the right to live in their own homes.

Austerity has brought about a historic step backwards for the disabled. Disability benefits started to be rolled out in the late 1940s, as part of the postwar Labour government’s commitment to a welfare state. This was accompanied by a cultural shift towards appreciating that disabled people were full human beings with rights and something to offer society, as opposed to defective nuisances to be hidden and ignored. Increasingly, disabled people had the right to support, education and work, and to live free from discrimination. There was a growing awareness of the need to make buildings, services and technology accessible to all.

Much of this progress has been reversed as a direct result of the austerity programme introduced in 2010. The British state is now manifestly failing in its duties towards the disabled in terms of housing, employment, education, healthcare and care provision. This is no small problem: there are an estimated 12 million people in Britain living with disabilities, visible and invisible. According to recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, at least 4 million of these are now living below the breadline. The UN has described this situation as a “human catastrophe”.

One of the most grievous measures has been the 2012 introduction of the Bedroom tax, whereby public housing tenants with rooms deemed to be ‘spare’ received reduced housing benefit. This overwhelmingly impacts the disabled: almost half of the people that have had their benefit reduced have a disability. But, in reality, “these are box rooms lined with adult nappies and oxygen cylinders. Many of the ‘spare rooms’ that disabled people had their benefits docked for were in fact being used to store vital medical equipment or for a carer to sleep in.”

Benefits sanctions are another key cost reduction mechanism that has disproportionally affected the disabled, who are routinely sanctioned for failing to attend meetings that they don’t have the means to attend. Ryan notes that, between 2013 and 2014, sanctions against disabled and chronically ill people rose by 580 percent, leading to immense privation. This situation is set to get much worse with the rollout of Universal Credit.

Ryan points out the appalling irony that there are five times more officials paid to investigate benefits fraud than there are to investigate tax evasion, even though the latter costs the state over 20 times as much as the former.

Alongside the direct economic effects of austerity, a shame-and-blame culture is emerging, with the government and media talking incessantly about “benefits cheats” and the “work-shy long-term sick”. “The image of a disabled person in the new age of austerity was not that of a human being who deserved support but of a liar and leach, living on the taxpayer’s expense,” writes Ryan. This narrative reinforces the message that rising poverty and inequality aren’t caused by capitalist crisis or free market fundamentalism, but by a bloated welfare bill. It’s no coincidence that the last few years have seen a marked increase in hate crimes against the disabled.

We must – urgently and immediately – move towards a system that affords disabled people their full human rights. With the appropriate support in place, disabled people can expect to lead dignified and fulfilling lives. Labour has promised to reverse the cuts to disability support, to end the punitive sanctions regime, and to “transform our social security system from one that demonises disabled people to one that is supportive and enabling.” We must fight to turn these promises into reality.

Frances Ryan’s book gives a voice to millions of disabled people suffering under austerity. It is essential reading.

Book review: Samir Amin – The Long Revolution of the Global South

A slightly modified version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star on 25 June 2019.

The first volume of Samir Amin’s memoirs, A Life Looking Forward: Memoirs of an Independent Marxist, was first published over a decade ago, in 2006. It dealt primarily with his early life and the experiences that contributed to his intellectual formation and the major ideas with which he is associated: the critique of Eurocentrism; the notion of the ‘long transition to socialism’; and his insistence on ‘delinking’ from the imperialist triad of the US, Europe and Japan.

This second (and final) instalment, published now a few months after his death, combines a reiteration of Amin’s key political ideas with a whirlwind tour of the dozens of countries he visited – from Algeria to Zambia, and including many places one doesn’t hear about often enough: Mauritania, Benin, Mali, Senegal, Western Sahara, Peru, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Madagascar, Mongolia, Niger, Nepal and East Timor.

Sometimes an advisor to the government, sometimes a guest lecturer, and sometimes just visiting friends, Amin always sought out the local movements working for progressive change, be they part of socialist or radical nationalist states or underground groups fighting for liberation. As such, the reader is introduced to a dizzying array of fascinating people and important ideas from around the world. The book gives a flavour of the state of politics across the continents (with a particular focus on Africa, Asia and Latin America). In particular, the reader gets a feel for the innumerable challenges and contradictions involved in the process of building towards socialism in a hostile world.

A recurring theme in the the book is the idea of responding to capitalist globalisation with a globalisation of struggle. This concept is all the more urgent in a context where long-established networks of solidarity are being (or have been) broken down, the result of fragmentation of production, sustained attacks on unions, casualisation of labour, and the replacement of certain branches of productive labour by automated processes. Amin calls on the global progressive movement to take on board the Occupy movement’s slogan of “We, the 99 percent”, recognising both the diversity and common fundamental interests of “the new generalised proletariat” in order to unite a broad array of forces: workers (including ‘informal’ ones), peasants, critical intelligentsia, and the progressive elements among the middle classes.

Amin notes that Latin America – led by Cuba and Venezuela – has taken the lead in this project. “The movements that have mobilised there are not small, marginal organisations or movements limited to the middle classes. There are large, popular (in the good sense of the term) movements, leading into action masses of people counted in the millions. That is what I call a revolutionary advance.”

Amin also reminds us of the number one priority for progressive forces throughout the world: “defeating the US project for military control of the planet.” This project of US global hegemony specifically aims to divide and rule those countries outside the imperialist triad. All the more important therefore that we promote the closest possible coordination between China, Vietnam, Russia, India, and the progressive states of Africa and Latin America. Writing elsewhere, Amin puts forward a straightforward proposal: “Russia should unite with China, the Central Asian countries, Iran and Syria. This alliance could be also very attractive for Africa and good parts of Latin America. In such a case, imperialism would be isolated.”

Having witnessed the radical nationalist projects in both Egypt (in the Nasser era) and Algeria at close quarters, and seen their successes and weaknesses, Amin proposes ‘democratisation’ as a key measure for sustaining progressive projects and allowing them to develop in a socialist direction. This democratisation means constantly pushing to engage more people in the organisation of society; it means constantly struggling against corruption, alienation and bureaucratisation; it means serving the masses and putting their needs first. Amin distinguishes democratisation, a continuous and complex process, from the simplistic idea of democracy that’s promoted by the major capitalist countries: a plutocratic “low-intensity democracy” where multiple parties represent the same (capitalist) class interests. This all too easily “turns into farce and runs a serious risk that the struggle for democracy will lose legitimacy.”

The Long Revolution of the Global South is a captivating and endearing read that will spark the interest of all those interested in the worldwide struggle for socialism.

Book review: Victor Grossman – A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee

This article first appeared in the Morning Star on 15 April 2019.

In the popular imagination, the German Democratic Republic is indelibly linked with ideas of authoritarianism, poverty, secret police, stuffy bureaucracy and a generalised absence of democracy.

Victor Grossman is uniquely well placed to challenge this McCartheyite narrative. Born in New York in 1928, he joined the Communist Party while studying at Harvard in the late 1940s. He was drafted into the army and, while stationed in Austria, defected to the GDR. Marrying a German woman, studying and working, raising children and grandchildren, he lived in East Germany until its 1990 absorption into the Federal German Republic, and indeed still lives in Germany today.

‘A Socialist Defector’ is thus able to offer a nuanced and realistic account of life in the GDR. Although Grossman doesn’t shy away from criticising the assorted failings, mistakes and excesses of the East German socialist experiment, his account is very different from the standard Cold War nonsense. Comparing his experiences of German socialism with his experiences living in the capitalist world, he finds that the socialist model was superior in several important ways.

Although the GDR was certainly poorer than the US or the FRG, it emphasised social justice and equality. Exotic foodstuffs and nice consumer goods were often difficult to come by, but nobody went hungry. Everybody had a roof over their head, and rent was always at an affordable level (typically between 5 to 10 percent of income). Evictions were prohibited by law. Homelessness was non-existent.

Education was free at every level, from kindergarten to university. Much like in Cuba today, western sanctions meant a shortage of some medicines, but the healthcare system was comprehensive, free, and of excellent quality. A ten percent social insurance contribution bought you access to “a full protective umbrella”. Even in modern Britain, with our magnificent NHS, it’s difficult to imagine the sense of freedom and security that come with a comprehensive welfare state and guaranteed full employment.

There was no organised crime scene, no drug addiction, no prostitution. Women had full economic and legal equality in the GDR long before they did in West Germany. In 1968, the old German law against homosexuals – already ignored – was annulled. It wasn’t until 1994 that West Germany caught up.

While the West German state was packed with former Nazis, the GDR was from the start an unambiguously anti-fascist state. The leading politicians had fought against fascism in Spain and Germany. Former Nazis were removed from positions of influence, and new teachers, lawyers and judges were trained from among the ranks of the working class, with a clear anti-fascist ethic.

This was combined with a profound internationalism. The GDR gave practical, financial and moral support to the freedom fighters of South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Angola and Vietnam; it gave crucial support to Cuba and Nicaragua; it stood in solidarity with the Allende government in Chile. “All this time rulers in Washington and Bonn supported every fascistic dictator from Haiti or Guatemala to Chile!”

Grossman notes the generation gap that developed between the leadership and those that hadn’t directly experienced the war or the anti-fascist struggle, and he criticises the leadership for its excessive caution and secrecy, which led to dissatisfaction and disengagement. As such, the book offers some valuable insights into why the GDR wasn’t in the final analysis able to withstand the extraordinary pressure it faced as a socialist state in an imperialist world.

While mourning the loss of so much of the socialist world, ‘A Socialist Defector’ is ultimately a story of hope, encouraging us to learn from the successes and failures of German socialism in the 20th century, and to take these forward in the struggle for a better world in the 21st century. Grossman takes heart from a renewed radicalism among young people, highlighting the Black Lives Matter movement, Occupy Wall Street, the Oxi fight in Greece, and the resurgent Labour left under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. He ends by urging us to unite our struggles and fight as one against a merciless, militaristic, neoliberal capitalism.

‘A Socialist Defector’ is a hugely interesting, accessible and endearing political memoir that deserves to be widely read. Those looking to explore the GDR’s history further are also recommended to read ‘Stasi State or Socialist Paradise?: The German Democratic Republic and What Became of It’ by Bruni de la Motte and John Green.

Book review: John Lister – Unhealthy Profits: PFI in the NHS, its real costs and consequences

This article first appeared in the Morning Star on 25 March 2019.

John Lister’s well-written and scrupulously researched book is a crucial weapon in the defence of the NHS.

It advances a rigorous explanation of the economic theory behind the private finance initiative (PFI), its putative benefits and the reality of its implementation in the NHS over the last quarter-century, drawing on the specific experience of the Pinderfields and Pontefract hospitals in Yorkshire built as part of a £311 million deal with the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Championed by Tory chancellor Norman Lamont, the concept of PFI originally surfaced in the early 1990s but it wasn’t until the New Labour victory of 1997 that PFI went from being one of many funding models to being the only game in town.

“PFI had an irresistible attraction for New Labour ministers keen to boast of the new hospitals that were being built [and for] NHS trust bosses snatching at the lure of private funding at a time when public provision of capital investment in the NHS had been deliberately reduced,” Lister writes.

Superficially, PFI seemed like a great idea. It meant that new hospitals could be built without the Treasury having to pay for them up front, with private consortiums doing the borrowing, building the hospitals and then making their money back over a 25 to 40-year period through monthly fees paid by the relevant NHS trust.

Thus vast infrastructure spending was kept off the Treasury’s books and private-sector partners could absorb all the risk. It was an idea that fitted perfectly with the prevailing neoliberal economic orthodoxy.

Of course, massive inefficiencies are built into the very fabric of PFI. Private-sector borrowing is much more expensive than its public-sector counterpart and, where new hospitals were needed, the money could’ve been borrowed by the government at a far lower rate of interest than that paid to PFI financiers.

More significantly, PFI consortiums are private companies with a primary responsibility to their shareholders, whose handsome dividends can only be funded by overcharging their customers —the NHS.

Lister shows all too clearly that in practice PFI has been comprehensively disastrous for the NHS. Once hospitals have been built and are being leased back to NHS trusts, the overall cost over the lifetime of a PFI is typically three to four times the capital value — not a good mortgage deal by any standard.

Beyond the cost of the buildings themselves, NHS trusts are also tied into inflated maintenance costs, whereby PFI consortiums enjoy an exclusive contract to provide — invariably bad — food, change lightbulbs and impose penalty charges on people parking in A&E.

The bloated monthly payments have left many NHS trusts on the verge of bankruptcy. Ironically, a number of trusts have had to be bailed out by the Treasury, thereby voiding the one supposed benefit of using a PFI in the first place.

Other trusts have been forced to make shameful decisions on staff and service provision. Bed numbers have gone down in nearly every PFI hospital and there is constant pressure to cut back on staff numbers and conditions. Increasingly, agency staff are preferred so as to avoid paying negotiated rates.

Lister notes that British Medical Association research shows that not only did the PFI process result in an average 32 per cent loss of beds but during the planning process the costs of the PFI schemes escalate by a “staggering average”of 72 per cent.

After cutting staff and beds, the only remaining means to raise the money to pay PFI costs is often to sell NHS land and buildings to the PFI consortiums, thereby continuing the transfer of public assets into public hands. And these are not just any private hands but usually off-shore finance capitalists that go to great lengths to avoid paying tax.

HSBC Infrastructure Company Limited, incorporated in the tax haven of Guernsey, has over 100 investments in health, education and transport valued at more than £1.8 billion.

Lister also offers a neat solution to the PFI rip-off — nationalising the special purpose vehicles that run them. Any compensation and changes to the monthly payments would be determined by an Act of Parliament and not subject to complex and expensive legal wrangling.

“After more than 25 years of PFI schemes in Britain, it’s high time this relatively straightforward, neat, legal and affordable policy was explicitly adopted by the Labour Party as the government in waiting and endorsed by the unions whose members have been exploited by PFI contractors and consortia,” Lister concludes.

Book review: Elaine Mokhtefi – Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers

This article first appeared in the Morning Star on 23 August 2018.

ALGIERS, Third World Capital is a fascinating, vibrant, endearing and engaging memoir, providing fresh insight into some important episodes of the second half of the 20th century.

Elaine Mokhtefi, a white North American woman of Jewish heritage, became involved in politics at university, becoming an activist in the World Assembly of Youth (WAY), an organisation committed to global government and world peace. Moving to Paris in the 1950s, she was introduced to the Algerian liberation struggle via the emigre Algerian population in that city.

An interpreter and organiser for WAY and later the Algerian government in exile, she worked with and befriended some of the giants of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, including Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, Martinique-born Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon, African-American revolutionary Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), ANC president Oliver Tambo and Swapo leader Sam Nujoma.

Deeply involved in the Algerian solidarity movement and committed to the project of building a new, socialist-oriented society on the ashes of the French colonial project, Mokhtefi went to live in Algiers soon after independence in 1962. Algeria in that period was a tremendously exciting place, a new state defined by its heroic and extraordinary struggle against a vicious French occupation.

The countries that had supported the war of resistance — Yugoslavia, Cuba, China, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, the Soviet Union and others — were now Algeria’s main allies and sent advisers and experts to work with the new government. The liberation movements from Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, Vietnam and Palestine were welcomed with open arms. Today, Algeria’s diplomacy is more nuanced, but, in the early years after liberation from French colonialism, it was the centre of gravity of the anti-imperialist world.

One little-known manifestation of Algeria’s status as “Third World capital” is its support for progressive movements within the “First World,” most notably the black liberation struggle in the US.

Mokhtefi writes that “Algeria adopted an open-door policy of aid to the oppressed, an invitation to liberation and opposition movements and personalities from around the world.” Providing resources and recognition to the Black Panther Party, then at the zenith of its fame and activity, “flowed naturally from [Algeria’s] position as a Third World leader.”

Mokhtefi was closely involved in the establishment of the International Section of the Black Panther Party. Assigned to assist and interpret for Eldridge Cleaver from the moment of his arrival, she was for several years in almost daily contact with Cleaver, his then wife Kathleen, Don Cox and other leading activists.

As such, she is uniquely well-positioned to tell the little-known story of the Black Panthers in Algeria — how they operated, interacted with Algerian society and the government and particularly how they were affected by the 1971 split in the Black Panther Party.

The split remains a highly controversial topic. Cleaver’s version of events hasn’t been helped over the years by his fondness for self-serving exaggeration and deception, not to mention his political descent into Republican conservatism, and Mokhtefi isn’t under any illusions about him.

However, she gives a convincing description of what the split looked like from the Algiers Panthers’ point of view.

The story as it is usually told has Eldridge as an ultra-left militant, pushing for an escalation of the underground armed struggle, whereas party leader Huey Newton favoured a programme based on community activism.

In Mokhtefi’s telling, however, the split was based primarily on Newton’s increasingly erratic, violent and obsessive behaviour, with the FBI merrily adding fuel to the fire. Her version of events may anger some Panther veterans, but it’s a valid contribution to the historical record.

Mokhtefi also discusses some of the challenges that faced post-colonial Algeria, a country in which between 300,000 and 500,000, out of a population of nine million, had been killed during the war of liberation and where departing French soldiers and settlers burned villages and books. The adult literacy rate was under 10 per cent and there were not more than 500 university graduates.

The victorious National Liberation Front had to perform miracles in order to reverse the effects of colonialism, war and imposed underdevelopment.

The near-impossible nature of the problems at hand inevitably led to a certain amount of despondency and infighting, the most prominent example of which is the coup that brought Houari Boumediene to power and sent first president Ahmed Ben Bella to prison. Considering the effect on her own life — Mokhtefi ended up being deported as a result of her friendship with Ben Bella’s wife — she discusses the coup in surprisingly balanced and dispassionate terms, contextualising it within the intensely difficult and fraught situation Algeria was subjected to.

This exciting memoir is an important story and it’s told with skill, humour and humility.

Book review: Akala – Natives

This article first appeared in the Morning Star on 24 May 2018.

Kingslee Daley — more often known as Akala — is earning a reputation as one of Britain’s most important voices.

On top of touring the world, releasing hip-hop albums, making documentaries for the BBC, campaigning on a range of issues, appearing on Question Time and running the Hip-hop Shakespeare Company, he has just published his first book.

Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire is at once a memoir, a detailed sociological investigation of racism and a whistle-stop tour of global politics from London to Beijing, with stops at Johannesburg, Kingston, Havana, Glasgow, New York, Hanoi, Bahia and Harare on the way.

We get an engaging and nuanced analysis of several themes, including the state of British culture, the historical function of racial superiority theories, the legacy of colonialism, the pernicious racism that can be found throughout our media and education system and the complex interplay between race and class.

The format is unusual — chapters tend to start with an episode from the author’s life and then go on to explore the sociological, cultural, political and economic relevance of that episode, making reference to a wide range of material, from academic papers to popular music. While this takes some getting used to, it helps to make the book accessible, as intellectual rigour is combined with human interest.

The overall ideological framework of the book is a pragmatic, socialist-oriented Pan-Africanism that seeks the liberation of all humanity from oppression and exploitation. At the same time, it highlights the shared problems faced by African communities worldwide in a global system of imperialism that is so inextricably linked with its origins in “the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins,” as Marx so memorably put it.

Akala demonstrates an impressive level of intellectual courage and doesn’t shy away from challenging deeply entrenched narratives, including the mainstream media’s coverage of China, Zimbabwe and Russia.

One important idea that emerges from Natives is that, in spite of Britain’s record of violence, slavery, genocide and colonialism, there is nonetheless a longstanding progressive trend that is “rooted in ideas of freedom, equality and democracy” and the author points out that while Britain was a leading proponent of war in Iraq, it was also the location of the world’s largest demonstration against that conflict. He also references the Chartists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Suffragettes, along with the more recent examples of oppressed communities standing up for justice.

This broad progressive tradition is something that needs to be reclaimed and built upon. It provides a foundation on which we can build a redefined British culture, one that fights against injustice, that does away with racism, xenophobia and empire nostalgia, that celebrates diversity and that spurns “whiteness” — a solidarity of rich and poor based on the deception of race — in favour of the unity of the oppressed.

The historical moment we are living through demands nothing less. With the world moving in a multipolar direction, and with the rise of China in particular rendering theories of racial supremacy ever more absurd, the West is faced with a critical challenge. Will we cling on to our outmoded and anachronistic colonial-era ideology, fuelling ever-greater conflict and the threat of a re-emergent fascism and white nationalism, or will we embrace the future and seek to participate in the world as equal players on the basis of mutual respect and solidarity?

This question is being played out in an increasingly divergent political scene across Europe and the US. In Britain, while we’re witnessing the emergence of the Labour left, which is starting to establish a hegemonic position for anti-austerity, anti-war and anti-racist ideas, we’re also seeing a Tory government that has moved so far to the right that Ukip has basically lost its raison d’etre.

Natives constitutes a vital contribution to our understanding of modern society and poses a challenge for us all to participate in interpreting the past and moulding the future.

It deserves to be very widely read.