Repeater’s Favourite Reads in 2020

It’s been a wild year, but you know that already. To mark the end of 2020, Team Repeater would like to offer you the gift of book recommendations; from Norwegian satire, to Mexican witchcraft, to Posadism, UFOs and Apocalypse Communism; there’s a little bit of something for everyone here..

All of our lists are available to browse and purchase on our site – available here.



I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalypse Communism by A.M. Gittlitz (Pluto)


Yes, there’s the memes, the UFOs, the communicating with dolphins, and the advocating for nuclear apocalypse, but this book is also a really interesting and intricate history of South American Trotskyism, with J. Posadas as its centre.


Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language by Paul Baker (Reaktion)


A fascinating and touching linguistic radical history about how language can be used to resist oppression and foster solidarity.


Universal Harvester by John Darnielle (Scribe)


This gripping postmodern thriller set amongst the video rental stores and farmlands of rural Iowa shows Darnielle continuing his appreciation of the lost and the ordinary from his songs with the Mountain Goats into his fiction. 


The Romance of American Communism by Vivian Gornick (Verso)


A wonderful book that grapples with the lived experience of “being a communist” like no other I’ve read.


Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon (Vintage)


After years of repeated false starts and broken promises to myself, I finally read the whole thing this year. A mammoth novel that travels across space and time to tell a sort-of historical story with hundreds of characters and multiple plot lines, including striking workers, cowboys, a boy scout troop travelling the world by blimp, magicians, secret societies and conspiracy theorists, etc., etc., etc., etc…



Wretchedness, Andrzej Tichy transl. Nichola Smalley (And Other Stories)

A book so good I wrote 25% of my dissertation about it. This is a displaced and disorienting patchwork of polyphonic narratives, masterfully translated from the Swedish. 


Just Us: An American Conversation, Claudia Rankine (Allen Lane)

An important medley of cultural artefacts which collectively, experimentally explore Blackness and the implications of blonde hair in contemporary America. Urgently and ingeniously composed.


Suppose a Sentence, Brian Dillon (Fitzcarraldo Press)

Written in any other style by anyone other than Brian Dillon, this book’s pitch – a chronological ode to the author’s favourite sentences – would likely fail to pique my interest. Just totally, joyfully brilliant.


Hurricane Season, Fernanda Melchor (Fitzcarraldo Press)

I read this book cover-to-cover on a wooden palate in my garden on a very hot day, which, in retrospect, was conducive to the process and atmosphere of reading. An intense read, best consumed hastily whilst hungrily eyeing up your neighbour’s barbeque. 


Six Poets (Toothgrinder Press)

This anthology was given to me in a brown paper envelope over a distantly-shared bottle of wine outside the Cutty Sark. Dicing up the blank page with eruptions of mysteriously fonted language, I return to this collection when I want to feel better. 


Akikomatic: The Work of Akiko Stehrenberger (Hat & Beard)

I rarely buy Art books, but Akiko Stehrenberger’s riotous fever dream of psychedelic cinematic watercolours is my favourite exception. If I could figure out a way to display each and every image in this book, I totally would. A great Christmas gift for film lovers.



Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, Johny Pitts (Allen Lane)

This account of an interrail trip navigates the complex histories of race and class in Europe, attentively exploring the ambiguities of identity and experience. It’s also a fascinating journey through the streets of Europe with a very likeable companion.


Stalingrad, Vasily Grossman (Vintage)

I finally returned to and finished Grossman’s Stalingrad, translated and published in English for the first time last year. As with his most famous novel Life and Fate, its sensitive, humanistic treatment of a range of characters caught up in war is done incredibly movingly. Even at 1088 pages, I didn’t want it to end!


Long Live the Post Horn!, Vigdis Hjorth (Verso)

One woman’s journey of self-discovery and her mission to save the Norwegian postal service? Long Live the Post Horn! is really a lot more than that, and I was enthralled by this jaunty, delightful book about fighting the privatisation of the post.


Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up in the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics, Theodore Hamm (OR Books)

As well as a lively history of New York municipal politics and socialism in the New Deal era, this small book explores the lives of an ensemble cast of figures, from Arthur Miller to Eleanor Roosevelt to Woody Guthrie, and speculates on the impact of postwar Jewish Brooklyn on the future Vermont senator.


Not a Novel, Jenny Erpenbeck (Granta)

I love Jenny Erpenbeck’s novels so I was overjoyed to finally get to read her essays this year. I’m halfway through at the moment.


Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back, Mark O’Connell (Granta)

Mark O’Connell’s investigation into those making advance preparations for societal and ecological collapse was the book to read in the indefinite lockdown. As well as an engrossing tour through missile silo bunkers, compounds and exclusive camping retreats, Notes is a sharp study of the wealthy individuals keen to put their survival ahead of the rest of us, and a moving reflection on the allure of pessimism and the value of hope.

HALLOWEEN FLASH SALE! 50% off selected titles

To celebrate the haunting season we are offering 50% off our selected titles for the next 48 hours. What a better way to get into the Halloween spirit than reading about pessimism in Western philosophy (Infinite Resignation) or discovering the unknown in the most haunting and anomalous fiction of the 20th century (The Weird and the Eerie)?

Check out the titles below:

Splatter Capital
Mark Steven

“… for the fans of these films who’ve always wondered about the ineluctable appeal of visceral, shocking violence on screen, and perhaps why it all feels so strangely familiar.” – We Are the Mutants





The Living and the Dead
Toby Austin Locke

What can we know about the unknowable? What can we learn about life through studying death?

“… a challenging and intriguing counterpoint to the modern embrace of the static and the tangible.” – Foreword Magazine




The Weird and the Eerie
Mark Fisher

What exactly are the Weird and the Eerie?

“… a fitting tribute to an author who had the rare capacity to write lucidly about dark and difficult things, to find a lexicon for the interstitial, the underground and overlooked.” – Roger LuckhurstLA Review of Books




“… the wholesale and disastrous marketisation of higher education [is] powerfully described by Sinéad Murphy in her book Zombie University, a right horror show.” – openDemocracy





Richard Gilman-Opalsky

If philosophers have failed to understand the revolts of the last twenty years, and political scientists have failed to predict them, then what can these revolts tell us about themselves?






Eugene Thacker

“Scholarly advice for dark times.” – The New Yorker

Destination Docklands: The Story Of Jean-Michel Jarre’s 1988 London Spectacle

On October 10th thirty years ago, London witnessed one of the most remarkable and intriguing cultural events of its modern history. A concert which used massive buildings as a stage-set, relentless fireworks that could be seen across the city, an event which nearly didn’t happen at all due to legal and political fights and which all resulted in huge debt and financial settlements in the courts. Throw into the mix the most 1980s characters possible, from Princess Diana to Jeremy Beadle to Robert Maxwell, torrential rain nearly scuppering the whole thing and a connection to the largest neoliberal construction project the city has ever seen and you have an enticing mix of spectacle, capital, media and drama.

This is an edited extract from Will Jennings Jean Michel Jarman: The Last of Docklands, in Regeneration Songs: Sounds of Investment and Loss from East London.

Millennium Mills, courtesy @ Will Jennings

A great hulk of industry stands proud in the Royal Docks, a solid white monolith which seems to relish looking across at the flimsily engineered frame of ExCel Arena across the water. This is old Docklands staring at the new, an apparent solidity and sheer mass of industry looking down upon the young interloper’s service and entertainments economy.

The 1930s Millennium Mills have hung on, surviving the closure of the Royal Docks in 1981 and grand renovation plans including an early 2000s scheme to fill the building with luxury apartments, with an aquarium and extreme sports centre next-door for what Ken Livingstone said would become “an international visitor attraction worthy of Europe’s world class city”. The 2008 financial crisis killed the plans, with Millennium Mills remaining empty for urban explorers and ruin-lustful photographers.

The Mill building is the sole architectural remnant of the Royal Docks which closed in 1981, during the gradual urban emptying of industry and docklands since the late 1960s, leading to a decade of pickets, inner-city deprivation, and unemployment. While in opposition, the docks became symbolic of Conservative ambitions to change political and social structures; a 1978 speech in the Isle of Dogs by Geoffrey Howe, soon to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, called them an “urban wilderness” indicative of the “developing sickness of our society”. He and Michael Heseltine saw the area as a testing ground for the ideological shift they wished for state, markets, economy, and urban centres to make. Once in power, they formed the London Docklands Development Coorporation [LDDC] and acquired over 1,550 acres of land, often compulsory purchased, with pump priming from central government feeding a fund intended to lead to self-sufficiency from sales of premium-rate land on the open market.

Still from news footage, courtesy @ Thames News (Available at:

In 1986 the London financial markets deregulated, easing stock market transactions, encouraging competition of trading commissions and ending the enforced separation between stock traders and the investor advisors. This created a Big Bang explosion in the industry, requiring larger, open floors and a more global outlook for computerised and automated buying and selling of invisible finance. As John Friedmann pointed out in his 1986 World City Hypothesis, major importance was attached to “corporate headquarters, international finance, global transport and communications, and high-level business services”, and Docklands could offer all three in its new architecture. In 1988 developers Olympia & York [O&Y] broke ground on One Canada Square, a tower to rise high above the flattened docks, acting as a symbol of optimism to the world and centrepiece of a vast Canary Wharf development. At the opening ceremony, architect Cesar Pelli proclaimed, “the reality of a hollow object is in the void and not in the walls that define it”.

Needing to maximise income from land sales in a climate of decreasing property speculation after the Black Monday crash, the LDDC set about projecting a confident, desirable and futuristic image of the area through brand awareness, brochures, and promotional videos, putting Docklands onto a global stage. They had always used image and rebranding as a tool of increasing value, from marketing the docks as a hybrid of Venice and New York to whitewashing existing cultures and place names in preference of a new, on-message “Docklands”. But now new ideas were needed to promote the vast potential of the emptiness in a flailing economy, stating that “cultural regeneration might be a fair description for the process of change for which the LDDC is the chosen instrument”.

The Docklands landscape was a temporal and shifting aesthetic responding to free market economics more than any grand plan. By 1988 some plots had been developed three times, each building sold to a developer who demolished it to make way for a larger, shinier project before selling on. As such, the LDDC’s initial foray into using art to bring attention to the area also looked to pop-up projects, including Peter Avery’s production of Aristophanes’ The Birds and the ICA project Accions and Freeze, a 1988 exhibition of Goldsmiths graduates’ art in a Surrey Quays warehouse organised by Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Michael Landy, and others.

“I think this show here tonight might wake up the city.”

– A spectator at Rendez Vous Houston.

1986 the USA was also struggling with post-industrial reshaping. Houston was in the peak of an oil-slump, unemployment crisis, and real estate collapse. Two months earlier a failed O-ring had caused the space shuttle Challenger to spectacularly break up and explode, killing all seven crew members, live CNN footage providing one of the world’s first live-streamed disasters of the information age. Houston was then a collapsing city where even Texan bravado couldn’t conceal the despair, damage, debt, and mass defaulting of mortgages.

The city needed a kickstart and so the authorities invited French electronic musician Jean-Michel Jarre to use the city as the stage for a pop spectacle on a scale never before witnessed. Vast white sheets were draped over downtown skyscrapers transfiguring them into giant canvases for video projections, a backdrop for 1.5 million Houstonians to stare up at amongst searchlights, lasers, and fireworks set to the electronic music of Jarre.

Jarre was a child of the baby-boomer generation and son of Maurice, globally renowned composer of music for over 170 films and TV shows over five decades, most remembered for scoring David Lean’s epics including A Passage to India. This classical heritage lingered in Jean-Michel, who would later enroll to study piano at the Conservatoire de Paris. By day learning classical skills of the institution, by night playing the guitar for several bands including in a brief party scene on film in Des Garcons et des Filles, a 1967 comedy following communally living students in a soon-to-be-demolished derelict house.

In 1968, amongst the cacophony of student protests (internet fan message boards talk of lost TV footage showing Jarre being handcuffed and thrown into a police van), he abandoned the conservatoire and joined Groupe de Recherches Musicales, an electro-acoustic experimental organisation created by Pierre Schaeffer, creator of experimental musique concrete. Jarre’s music quickly found a fusion between the mechanical rhythms developed under Schaeffer and his classical training, with chart success leading to a free 1979 Bastille Day concert for a million Parisians.

Two years later Deng Xiaoping invited Jarre to become the first Western artist to perform in communist China. The mix of largely lyricless tradition and technology that marked the French Revolution deemed safe enough for a somewhat bemused Chinese audience. Then came Houston and its grand civic boosterism.

Mark Fisher, official concert programme. courtesy @ Concessions Ltd, 1988

“Spectacular, imaginative, amazing: words that can be applied equally well to a Jean-Michel Jarre concert or the development of London Docklands.”
– LDDC advert in the Destination Docklands souvenir brochure.

Just as images of the Challenger exploding in mid-air spread across the world, so too did footage of Jarre’s Rendez-vous Houston. In London, media-savvy employees of the LDDC may have seen MTV clips or read about the urban spectacle because while Jarre discussed repeating the concept across other US cityscapes, with meetings lined up in New York and Los Angeles, London’s Docklands would be the next setting for his architectural take-over. The concert Destination Docklands and partnering album Revolutions hung on a three-act structural device of industrial, 1960s cultural and contemporary technological social shifts. As well as offering a stage for the show, this was an opportunity for the LDDC to project its brand identity and message across the world.

As with the transformation of Houston, Jarre partnered with British architect Mark Fisher to turn buildings into scenography. Also a baby-boomer, Fisher had trained at the Architectural Association during their mid-Sixties exploration of radical new ideas for architecture and society: pop-up, portable, inflatable, walking, DIY, ephemeral, and cybernetic. From 1969 Fisher studied for his diploma under Peter Cook as the Archigram founder pushed the architectural agenda towards pleasure, questioning rules of the elite and pulling inspiration from popular consumerism as much as classical tradition. Jarre partnered with him for his architectural extravaganzas after Fisher had already designed The Wall for Pink Floyd and taken his utopian training firmly down the path of spectacle and sensation.

Jean-Michel Jarre at Newham Council licensing meeting, from The “Making of Destination Docklands”, courtesy @ Mike Mansfield Television (1989).

The concert nearly didn’t happen; two weeks before its intended September date the fire services pulled the plug on safety grounds. A frantic period followed in which Jarre visited other cities — the site of Liverpool’s Garden Festival empty since the 1984 event, Glasgow, Manchester, Thurrock, Newcastle, even Alton Towers. It created a media storm and the kind of neoliberal intercity competition now built into national cultural mechanisms. But it may have all been a ruse to scare Newham and the LDDC, and after an extraordinary council licencing meeting for which Jarre flew in, it returned to its site of inspiration, Docklands, albeit for a delayed October date.

Still image from The “Making of Destination Docklands”, Mike Mansfield Television (1989)

Fisher’s visual design of the project was massive. The façade of Millennium Mills had been painted white to offer a vast surface for projected images, part of an enormous triptych including the Co-operative Wholesale Society Mills, an immense 90×100 metres scaffold structure. The concert programme lists some of the projected imagery, offering a snapshot of the curated narrative:

Part 1: Industrial Revolution

Part 2: Cultural Revolution

Part 3: Electronic Revolution

At other points the words “employment” and “no employment” were cast over the hulk of the mill, visible for miles across the very neighbourhoods suffering since the docks’ closure. Two hundred and fifty thousand pounds’ worth of fireworks, more than ten times that used for the Royal Wedding two years previously, exploded above the docks with World War II searchlights reflecting from clouds. Later, the previous year’s violence caused by social inequality and deprivation was visually represented by fireworks and projections of flames described by Radio 1 DJ Simon Bates as giving “the impression that the warehouse opposite with its windows red and smoke coming out of them is ablaze”.

“This is where Jean takes a musical […] look, at what he believes will happen to the Docklands area in the 1990s. And of course is using this enormous and clumsy, or clumsy-looking, pair of asbestos gloves for his guitar which otherwise would electrocute him.” – Simon Bates’ live commentary.

At one point an image of a modern office building was projected over the top of the Millennium Mills, giving the slightly macabre impression of a shroud, perhaps a marketing gimmick for the LDDC trying to at once acknowledge and disguise the dirty industry of the area. When Jarre puts on a pair of asbestos gloves to break the green divergent beams of his trademark laser harp, it is impossible not to think of the asbestos embedded into the docks which would have led to the premature deaths of countless industrial workers. An industrial material transfigured to function the new service and culture economy.

Still image from The “Making of Destination Docklands”, courtesy @ Mike Mansfield Television (1989).

The stage formed of ten lashed-together barges shipped from the northeast was designed to float from left to right in front of the crowds, but the sheer weight of equipment and performers rendered it motionless. British autumnal weather deluged the site. Improvised tarpaulins were lashed over equipment while rehearsals saw musicians fighting winds to stay on the floating stage. But despite the technical and seasonal issues, the sheer immensity of spectacle dominated the Royal Docks; footage shows searchlights darting across a sea of static faces starring up in awe.

Jarre’s said his concert was “a tribute to the anonymous victims of every revolution”, dedicating the album to “all the children of the revolution” and “the children of immigrants”. In a coincidental mirroring of The Last of England, the concert ended with Jarre’s song L’Emigrant, a choir of local children – wearing lifejackets in case they fell from the floating stage – offering harmonies to a crescendo of classical and electronic instruments wrapped up in the drama of relentless firework explosions.

Photograph from Destination Docklands, courtesy @ Jonno Stringer

“No-one seems to have moved in almost two hours. They’re standing rock still, loving the fireworks and now seeing “Newham” projected in large letters on the two buildings opposite the stage.” – Simon Bates’ live commentary

This was a total spectacle in a Guy Debord sense. The romanticising of empire and industry and the simplification of the area’s history into a neat narrative to further the LDDC agenda, fits his notion that ”spectacular consumption preserves the old culture in congealed form”. Crowds stood on the dockside, once busy with workers, silently facing the Millennium Mills, enacting Debord’s “deceived gaze and […] false consciousness”, their sense of shared experience “nothing but an official language of separation”. In many ways this event was the counter to the rave culture developing over the previous few years which appropriated locations for community-organised parties; this was an on-message, state-sanctified appropriation of place and history to help the wider objectives of the LDDC.

Still image from concert footage, courtesy @ Mark Lorman (available here)

Outside, ticket touts showed the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that would have made Thatcher proud, selling £30 tickets for £50, making £2,000 in an afternoon. While inside, away from the raked seating and vast tract of post-industrial land for the 100,000 punters, sponsors and businessmen enjoyed the corporate entertainment. A video produced by the main sponsor, the Carroll Foundation Trust, intersperses the performance and visuals from the stage with footage from the corporate marquee, businessmen mingling with dignitaries, sponsors, and celebrities. This is where Gerald Carroll worked the room, shaking hands and posing for photos, inviting the key figures of the period to his party. Princess Diana. Robert Maxwell. Jeremy Beadle.

“Our society is built on secrecy, from the “front” organisations which draw an impenetrable screen over the concentrated wealth of their members to the “official secrets” which allow the state a vast field of operation free from any legal constraint, from the often frightening secrets of shoddy production hidden by advertising, to the projections of an extrapolated future.” – Guy Debord

The artist Derek Jarman, who had filmed The Last of England around the site a year before Jarre arrived, said of authority, “all I saw was deceit and bankruptcy”, and in 1992 some of those walls surrounding the hollow voids of finance collapsed. Robert Maxwell, who along with his son Ian received a “special thanks” from Jarre in the liner notes of the live album, drowned after leaving the Mirror Group’s pension scheme drained. Gerald Carroll, who in 1986 put his entire business portfolio, assets, houses, and art into his Foundation Trust, saw his speculative empire collapse in massive debt and allegations of fraud. Hollow objects. The promoters of Destination Docklands ran up spiralling bills from the delay, weather, and sheer scale, leaving countless suppliers and workers unpaid for their work seeking damages in the courts – the projected façade of the spectacle concealed the failures of its production.

Even counter-cultures got absorbed into the late-Eighties neoliberal race for profit. The warehouse rave scene was turning from community-led right-to-the city activation of redundant spaces into an entrepreneur-led business. Saving money earnt from gambling to enter property development, Tony Colston-Hayter turned raves into vast pop-up festivals, inviting media attention and consequential police pressure against the rave scene. His PR manager Paul Staines, then working in a Conservative Party right-wing pressure group and now as blogger Guido Fawkes, considered Colston-Hayter one of “Thatcher’s children” with an entrepreneurial spirit “pushing the boundaries of free enterprise”. This was when the culture industry exploded, and everyone wanted some of it, or to benefit from its glory.

Mark Fisher, official concert programme. courtesy @ Concessions Ltd, 1988.

“We’re live on Radio 1 in stereo, on FM. We’re broadcasting the Destination Docklands concert as it happens from, guess where, from Docklands, with 100,000 people. It’s freezing cold here. On my left-hand side are camera crews from Brazil, the USA, from Canada, from Germany, from all parts of Europe, from Australia, from New Zealand. They are absolutely frozen but hypnotised by what’s happening on stage and in and around the docks.” – Simon Bates’ live commentary

Destination Docklands was one of the first globally mediated cultural events on this scale, incorporating the music, dance, fireworks, architecture, and awed crowds now firmly embedded in contemporary pop culture. Fisher would continue to revolutionise the large-scale pop spectacle, developing the superstructures that U2, the Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga, and Elton John carry around the world – the lo-fi radicalism of 1968 subsumed into the late-twentieth-century capitalist drive for sensation and scale. This sense of event is now rolled up with neoliberal hypergentrification and push for vast capital returns on urban redevelopment. The launch of Canary Wharf’s tower in 1992 and that of the Shard in 2012 were mediated affairs with live music, lasers, and searchlights.

The visuals of industrial workers, Queen Victoria, colonial success, pop revolution, and James Bond that congealed the Millennium Mills in light were witnessed again for the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony up the road in Stratford. Seen by a global audience of a billion, the ceremony was executive produced by Fisher and had similarities to Jarre’s sequenced narrative of eras set to a classically infused pop beat. No modern-day event is as spectacular as the Olympics, loud enough to distract from the compulsory purchasing of land from profitable businesses and rooted communities to make way for the grander and shinier cultural offerings planned to follow the few weeks of sport.

2012 London Olympics Opening Ceremony, courtesy @ Matt Lancashire

Millennium Mills has now been scrubbed clean for the next chapter of its life. The docks it sits within have been undergoing another cleansing since the 1980s to form a “new piece of the city”. There is no space in that new city for the narratives that Jarman explored in The Last of England, or for the complexities which Jarre acknowledged and discussed in interview even if the spectacle of his concert didn’t allow so much space for nuance or subtlety. There is now no room for other narratives to the prescribed, official one. The trajectory of neoliberal urban politics since 1988 has taken us to a place where it has become harder to separate the function of art from the wider capital economy. It is now so deeply enmeshed within the very physical changing face of London, even if it’s only a sacrificial veneer or a popup spectacle moment. The Millennium Mills have not only survived throughout, now a single white tooth standing as the history and architecture has been extracted but have been repeatedly co-opted into the changing representation of the area.

Congealed, a preserved fragment.

Silvertown Quays, CGI rendering of proposed development, 2017, courtesy @ Silvertown Partnership (available here)

Altered Grammar: Re-reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in the Time of Trump

Darren Ambrose, editor of k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), on Orwell, through Pynchon, in the age of Trump.

There is a terrifying moment in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four just after Winston and Julia have spent their final stolen afternoon together in the attic room of the old antique dealer. Believing themselves to be alone they begin discussing their shared hope that the ‘proles’ are ‘storing up in their hearts and their bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.’ (p. 251) They reflect bitterly on the fact that, compared to the surplus of hope the ‘proles’ must have in their heart, it is absolutely hopeless for the two of them, and that they are indeed already dead. It is at this point that they hear a voice coming from behind the picture on the wall:

‘We are the dead,’ Winston said.
‘We are the dead’, echoed Julia dutifully.
‘You are the dead,’ said an iron voice behind them.

Suddenly ‘Big Brother’ is revealed as all they had feared – all knowing, all encompassing, all powerful and total. Everything is lost. In that single moment their paranoiac fears about ‘Big Brother’ and ‘The Party’ are irrevocably confirmed. They are not alone: they have been set up, watched, and followed by the Thought Police from the very beginning. They have been manipulated and finally exposed as ‘thought criminals’. As had always been destined, the last vestige of their humanity will now be crushed in the ‘Ministry of Love’ behind the door of ‘Room 101’.

For me, and many others, the 2016 election of Donald Trump in the USA was an equally revelatory moment, where the true horror of ‘democratic’ tyranny took to the stage, and a new dark age of ignorance, hatred, war and oppression slithered nakedly into view. Trump’s election finally confirmed what many of us already knew had been happening for several years but were either afraid, naive or too optimistic to fully admit. The months since have consisted of a series of seismic shocks that have left many people reeling – feeling disorientated, fearful, uncertain and hopeless. The fragile social consensus that appeared to underpin some of the most basic elements of our shared reality field has been violated and much of it now lies in ruins. In truth, these alliances have been under attack for a very long time, but as in the final dying days of a besieged and defeated city, the last eighteen months has seen the citadel of that reality suddenly stormed and sacked. Living as we are under a new regime of enemy occupation, the fundamental coordinates of language, truth and reality are being reconfigured in the most brutal fashion. Old certainties, axioms and values are being dismantled by the extreme right. Every day it is as if that regime is telling us, over and over again, ‘You are the dead’. Things seem locked into an endless cycle of impotent shock and outrage. As the American political analyst and historian Thomas Frank wrote in a recent Guardian column, the liberal commentariat seem confined to a never-ending ‘parade of the aghast’ ‘with all the skills of the journalist reduced to a performance of perturbation and disgust.’

In the days following Trump’s election I felt a strong need to re-read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It turns out that I was not alone: sales of the book soared in the immediate aftermath. Its speculative and futural symptomatology feels intimately connected to the present ‘post-truth’ era with its terrifying nihilism; and ‘The Party’s’ ultimate denial of rational human agency where 2+2=5 is all too bitterly familiar. As Orwell writes – ‘Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.’ (p. 61) A new American empire, controlled by elites, is fully engaged with the vigorous creation of its own reality through a sustained project of neurolinguistic programming ranging from immigration, health care, social welfare, race, gun control and taxation. By any means necessary. Orwell’s doublethink has become alternative facts. The currents of this right-wing neoliberal construction have been there for all of my life, steadily eroding the previously held consensuses around the social contract, socio-economic objectives, cultural norms, values and beliefs. It is clear that we now stand, nearly two decades into the new Millennium, upon a socio-economic and cultural landscape as dramatically altered by neoliberalism as that of the physical landscape of the Grand Canyon by the Colorado River. We undeniably exist in a very different reality – a ruined, ignorant, greedy, violent, divided, and stupid one. Reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four at this point in history is a very painful experience – it reads like a dire warning that went unheeded, a precise analysis and diagnosis that was ignored, and a final confirmation, if one were needed, of what the future became. Last year I felt such a strong need to immerse myself back in the purity of that experience, to dwell in its confirmatory narrative and dystopian vision, like a person senselessly clutching onto a hospital letter confirming their inoperable cancer.

I found that my old copy of Orwell’s novel had gone missing, probably in one of the many house moves we’ve made in recent years, and I had to buy a new copy. Whilst the latest Penguin edition has an entirely new introduction by the American novelist Thomas Pynchon, the familiarity of Orwell’s novel was somehow reassuring. We embody a history of the things we have read throughout our lives, and we can read the outline of ourselves from the map of our reading. An irreducible aspect of all of this reading, and no less influential upon what we believe we have become, is what might be called ‘history itself’, the times as they exist outside the text, the place ‘in’ which we carried out all of our reading. All the books we read in our youth, throughout our teens, twenties and thirties, were not only seen through our own eyes but were readings inflected with the times in which we undertook them. There is a doubling of our own age and the broader age within which we read, that make the books what they are for us and what we become for them. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a book I first read in 1984 when I was 15 years old, remains one of the key books of my life in this double sense.

When I got hold of the new Penguin edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four I decided to begin by reading Pynchon’s introduction, which is not something I usually bother doing. I’ve always skipped such introductions, sometimes because of the risk that they usually give away too much of the story, but more often than not they are simply unilluminating and dull. But the idea of the arch post-modernist Pynchon providing the introduction to this novel intrigued me, and there was certainly no concerns about plot reveals as I already knew the events of the novel so well. Pynchon’s introduction provided me with a real shock. Looking back I’m not quite sure what I expected him to write about Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, but I was extremely surprised by what he did. In a mere 21 pages Pynchon did that very rare, but all-too-welcome, thing; he suddenly and irretrievably altered the way I thought about both Nineteen Eighty-Four and our present predicament.

Towards the end of his introduction Pynchon turns his attention to the conclusion of Orwell’s novel, i.e. the crushing of Winston and Julia by The Party. He writes of our particular fears for Julia, who believes that she could resist and beat the regime with ‘her good-natured anarchism’:

“They can make you say anything – anything – but they can’t make you believe it.They can’t get inside you.” The poor kid. You want to grab her and shake her. Because that is just what they do – they get inside, they put the whole question of soul, into harsh and terminal doubt. By the time they have left the Ministry of Love, Winston and Julia have entered permanently the condition of doublethink, the anterooms of annihilation, no longer in love but able to hate and love Big Brother at the same time. It is as dark an ending as can be imagined. (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxii)

Indeed it is. I’ve never forgotten the words of O’Brien to Winston in Room 101 – ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.’ (Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 307) He goes on, ’We control life, Winston, at all its levels. You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable.’ (Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, pp. 308-9) When I read this as a 15 year old in 1984 I was appalled, fascinated and terrified by its anti-humanism, nihilistic certitude, stark presentation of state control, and its overall lack of hope. As Irving Howe, writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four, says – ‘Orwell has imagined a world in which the self, whatever subterranean existence it might manage to eke out, is no longer a significant value, not even a value to be violated.’ (Howe, ed. 1984: Texts, Sources, Criticism. New York: Harcourt, 1982. p. 322) It is interesting to note that the ultimate devaluation of the human is reflected in Orwell’s original title for the novel, The Last Man in Europe. Pynchon, however, makes a quite startling suggestion. He notes that Orwell’s bleak and nihilistic ending ‘strangely, is not quite the end’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxii) There is the appendix, ‘The Principles of Newspeak’. Orwell, as Pynchon explains, went to some effort to keep this appendix intact at the end of the novel despite serious misgivings on the part of publishers. He cites Orwell responding to an American publisher’s demand for him to remove it – ‘A book is built up as a balanced structure and one cannot simply remove large chunks here and there unless one is ready to recast the whole thing.’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxiii) The question remains, however, why end such a bleak novel as this with a scholarly appendix? What is the balance in the overall structure being cast by it coming after the end of the novel? Pynchon’s answer to this question is powerful; he suggests that the true answer may well lie in its ‘simple grammar’. The appendix is consistently written in the past tense, which suggests ‘some later piece of history, post Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Newspeak has become literally a thing of the past.’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxiii) It suggests a temporal perspective beyond that of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and more importantly, given that it is written in our own pre-Newspeak English language, it suggests a future where the society of Big Brother and the Party have been defeated. ‘The ancient humanistic ways of thinking inherent in standard English have persisted, survived, and ultimately prevailed, and that perhaps the social and moral order it speaks for has even, somehow, been restored.’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxiii-xxiv) For Pynchon the perspective opened up by the grammar of Orwell’s perspective offers a degree of hope otherwise not contained in the main body of the text. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that it sends ‘us back into the streets of our own dystopia whistling a slightly happier tune than the end of the story would have warranted.’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxiv)

Despite having read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four numerous times since that first time in 1984 I have never personally left the novel whistling a happy tune in the streets of my own dystopia. There never seemed to me to be anything at all suggestive of redemption and restoration in the novel. However, I found Pynchon’s observation undeniably seductive and entirely convincing. It is difficult to make sense of the reflective appendix given the overwhelming inevitability of Big Brother’s absolute power in the novel itself. The more you think about the presentation and form of the appendix (i.e. its grammar) the more it appears as something written from a completely alien vantage point (albeit in familiar English), literally presented by a visitor from another world at some distant point in the future. This stark incommensurability resonates with something pervasive in the ‘streets of our own dystopia’ where the neoliberal socio-economic hegemony has achieved an almost naturalistic state of being, what Mark Fisher called ‘Capitalist Realism’. The ideology of late capitalism seems not only all pervasive and inevitable, but entirely natural, where imagining the end of the world is easier than trying to imagine the end of capitalism. The axiomatic grammar of capitalist realism renders it absolutely inevitable and permanent. There seems so little hope of resistance given the absolute lack of any convincing alternative. Neo-liberal capitalist ontology has spread its tentacles into every fibre of our existence, its body having become so totally swollen as to have taken up all available space and air in the world.

The current state of things seems as bleakly dystopian and final as the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Just as the novel suggests an arrest of history where it will always be 1984, signified by apparent permanence of the proper name Nineteen Eighty-Four, we also seem to have slid into ahistorical inertia where it is permanently the year 2000. And yet…here is Pynchon suggesting that Orwell’s reflective appendix indicates that something different happened, an alternative order prevailed in Nineteen Eighty-Four, human resistance finally overcame the machinic ideology of Big Brother and the Party, where 2+2=4 again. The reflected reportage on the history of the principles of Newspeak in the appendix suggests that the world of Newspeak dies at some unidentified point beyond Winston’s story, and that this world is now nothing more than a relic, a dead subject to be studied. The novel is transformed from being a form of speculative dystopian fiction to a weird form of mythical historicism that acts as warning about a wayward path once taken by human beings. Political sci-fi becomes redemptive sci-fi. I subsequently discovered that Pynchon was not the only person to have commented on the grammar of the appendix and how it signals the possibility of hope and restoration; the author Margaret Atwood made a similar point in a 2003 article for the Guardian:

The essay on Newspeak is written in standard English, in the third person, and in the past tense, which can only mean that the regime has fallen, and that language and individuality have survived. For whoever has written the essay on Newspeak, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is over. Thus, it’s my view that Orwell had much more faith in the resilience of the human spirit than he’s usually been given credit for. (Atwood, ‘Orwell and me’, the Guardian, 2003)

Andrew Milner, author of the book Locating Science Fiction, notes both their observations about the appendix, and argues that ‘they are surely right: the ‘Appendix’ is internal to the novel, neither an author’s nor a scholarly editor’s account of how the fiction works, but rather a part of the fiction, a fictional commentary on fictional events. And, although Atwood fails to remark on this, it is anticipated within the main body of the text, by a footnote in the first chapter, which assures us, again in standard English, in the third person, in the past tense, that ‘Newspeak was the official language of Oceania’ (Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 6).’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. 123)

In a 2003 review article written when Pynchon’s introduction to Nineteen Eighty-Four first appeared, titled ‘Pynchon brings added currency to Nineteen Eighty-Four’, David Kipen notes how

Pynchon’s essay uses Nineteen Eighty- Four’s almost always skipped Appendix, ‘The Principles of Newspeak,’ to reverse-engineer a crack of daylight into Orwell’s hitherto unforgiving midnight of an ending’, and describes Pynchon’s introduction as ‘the finest, deepest, sanest new 20 pages around…[that] wipes the floor with just about anything else published this year.

When I read it last year, the revelation about the appendix completely altered my understanding of Orwell’s novel. Yet Pynchon also goes on to make a further subtle observation about what Orwell was suggesting as being responsible for finally overcoming the nihilism of totalitarian rule. He cites a particular photograph of Orwell taken in 1946 where he is pictured with his two year old adopted son Richard. In the photograph Pynchon cites, the young boy is ‘beaming with unguarded delight’ with Orwell holding him ‘gently with both hands, smiling too, but not smugly so’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxiv). Pynchon reads this photograph as if it is a moment of a discovery on Orwell’s part, a moment of finding ‘something that might be worth even more than anger’. Pynchon notes earlier in the introduction the extent to which such anger was precious to Orwell and how he had ‘invested blood, pain, and hard labour to earn it’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xviii), and that when he came to write Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1947-8 Orwell was ‘imagining a future for his son’s generation, a world he was not so much wishing upon them as warning against.’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxiv) Pynchon reminds us that, politically, Orwell was impatient with dire predictions of inevitable dystopia and remained confident in the capacity for ordinary people to change anything. ‘It is the boy’s smile, in any case, that we return to, direct and radiant, proceeding out of an unhesitating faith that the world, at the end of the day, is good, and that human decency, like parental love, can always be taken for granted – a faith so honourable that we can almost imagine Orwell, and perhaps even ourselves, for a moment anyway, swearing to do whatever must be done to keep it from ever being betrayed.’ (Pynchon, Intro to Nineteen Eighty-Four, p. xxiv-xxv)

If Pynchon’s first observation altered my understanding of Orwell’s novel, his second had a more powerful existential affect. It seemed directed at all of the feelings I was returning to the novel with, right now. In an uncanny way it seemed to be speaking very directly to me. Pynchon’s introduction, written in 2003, does seem oddly attuned to our current times, and if one didn’t know any better one might believe that it was written for all of those who, like myself, would one day soon come running back to Orwell’s novel from the dystopian streets of the present. Pynchon takes the opportunity to remind us that this is not merely a bleak novel of dystopian confirmation, but a dire warning about the road that will take us there, a journey of seemingly inevitable ruin infused with a strange seed of redemption and hope. Orwell’s novel, he argues, is redemptive science fiction. I returned to Nineteen Eighty-Four wanting to immerse myself in a static and fatalistic analysis of totalitarian dystopia; Pynchon prevented me from doing that. It provided me with an abrupt interruption and a shift of perspective where I caught a glimpse of the simple possibility of an alternative future. This is a future rooted in the redemptive humanism of a child’s smile that emanates from an ‘unhesitating faith that the world, at the end of the day, is good, and that human decency, like parental love, can always be taken for granted.’ In fact, it was confirmation of this, something that I know intimately from spending every day with my own young son as he slowly comes to terms with, and navigates his way around, the world, that immediately sprang from my rereading of Nineteen Eighty-Four. That was not quite the confirmation I had expected. The first time I read Pynchon’s thoughts on the photograph it brought to mind something the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze had written in his final published essay ‘Pure Immanence’, which had also made a deep impression upon me when I read it over fifteen years ago. There he writes of small children:

Very small children all resemble one another and have hardly any individuality, but they have singularities: a smile, a gesture, a funny face – not subjective qualities. Small children, through all their suffering and weaknesses, are infused with an immanent life that is pure power and even bliss. (Deleuze, ‘Pure Immanence’, p. 30)

Equally, the smile of Orwell’s son in the photograph is not simply a subjective quality. As Pynchon suggests, it is emblematic of something immanently powerful, something singular ‘worth even more than anger’. It is nothing less than life expressing itself through the indomitable gestures of the child. And it is this indomitability which grounds the sheer nihilistic dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four as a warning rather than an historical inevitability. The smile of life is the unassailable light in the darkness, the intangible, imperishable and enduring substance in the nothing of the now. My own son is the same age as Orwell’s in this photograph, and as I read the introduction, I felt an instinctual truth in Pynchon’s observations. They ignited something new in my mind, not dormant or forgotten, but something else. Something new, unsuspected and alive. Amid the hopelessness and despair I was feeling post-Trump, his words actually confirmed something else, something different, something other than the darkness of the present. And it is simple, like a pure sober note rising out of the cacophonous discordant noise of the present crying “Look for the smile, listen for the laughter”.

It is there. Like in the simple grammar of Orwell’s appendix. The hope is right there because life is right there. A simple shift in grammar allows the light stream in. We need to shift our own grammar of existence, to gravitate towards alternative spaces of imagination outside of the present world. Because this present world is not all there is. It is not inevitable. It is their world, it is a terrible simulacra of a real world, but it is not our world. It holds sway merely by default. We are trapped in their world, and there we are the dead. We have become instrumentalized, commodified, banalised and reduced. The simple fact though is that they are the dead. The imperative, if we are to ever escape, is to try and strip ourselves back to nothing in the terms measured by their impoverished coordinates; we must become progressively less and less in the reality field they have imposed upon us. We must disinvest from the naturalised grammar of the present existence. We must drift away from the consensus fields we have been conditioned by them to believe as being all there is, from the inevitability of greed, selfishness, self-interest, nationalism, consumption, violence, anger and entertainment. We need to disconnect from the dead network of drives and desires we presently think of as the real world by treating it as something definitively of the past, as a dead-end and a distraction. We need to progressively disappear from their world and start appearing in our own. It is our task to develop an altered grammar to challenge this dead present, to develop the ideas, policies and practices of the future, and to try and keep them alive and available until what currently seems to be politically impossible becomes politically inevitable. Part of this altered grammar is to begin to think and to talk about what else is possible as something realisable, as an inevitability to come. Yet, in what looks like a weird and violent form of ascetic futurism, we must continue to survive in the present by always remaining anchored to that simple yet powerful note of faith in the real world, in all of that life that emanates so generously from the child’s smile – we mark it with words like human decency, goodness, kindness and love. All future alternatives worthy of real life will flow from them.

Listen to Daniel Spicer’s Turkish psych compilation!

In anticipation of the release of Daniel Spicer’s new book The Turkish Psychedelic Music Explosion: Anadolu Psych (1965-1980) next week, have a listen to a Turkish psych compilation Dan compiled for The Wire‘s primer series in 2011.

Listen to it here.

The book is released next Thursday (15th March)!

A Splutter of Musketry – Britain and America’s Destruction of Iranian Democracy (Part Two)

In the second part of his essay on the role of MI6 and the CIA in the Iranian coup of 1953, No Less Than Mystic author John Medhurst covers the coup itself and its aftermath.


The response of the AIOC to the Iranian parliament’s agreement to Mossadegh’s nationalisation proposal of February 1951 was to suspend the production and export of oil from Iran. The British government, with the agreement of the powerful “Seven Sisters” oil cartel that controlled the world’s oil market, began to impose an oil embargo on the country. When the City of London also imposed a banking boycott on Iranian credit institutions, the Iranian Treasury was squeezed hard.

Shapoor Reporter, the Shah’s close friend and MI6 asset, was one of Iran’s key business leaders. MI6 money, channelled through the notoriously corrupt Rashidian brothers, bought the allegiance of key figures in Iran’s National Bank, including its Governor Dr Mohammed Nassirir. Using the excuse of attending International Monetary Fund meetings abroad, Dr Nassirir regularly stopped off in London to advise the FCO on the state of Iran’s finances, specifically how long the government could continue to pay its civil service without AIOC revenue (Dorril).

Britain’s anti-Mossadegh operation was multi-stranded and well rooted, but Mossadegh’s counterattack – the closing of the British Embassy in Tehran – dealt the plan a severe blow. Luckily for Churchill the main obstacle to American involvement in regime change in Iran, President Truman, was about to leave office, to be replaced by the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower. As the last of Roosevelt’s New Dealers left the Washington stage, a newer breed of right-wing imperialists took power whose overriding political priority was to protect the wealth and power of American corporations.

The Dulles Brothers

No one exemplified this breed better than Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, Director of the CIA Allen Dulles. Born in to the East Coast WASP elite – their uncle and grandfather had both each served a term as Secretary of State – the Dulles Brothers exhibited all of its arrogance with little of its wit and intelligence. Prior to their appointments by Eisenhower, both brothers had been senior partners at the prestigious Wall Street law firm Sullivan and Cromwell. Sullivan and Cromwell was the legal representative of the AIOC in the US and did handsomely from its business.

When the head of MI6 Sir John Sinclair visited Washington on 18th February  1953, he was cordially received by Allen Dulles. Dulles told Sinclair that the qualms of the previous administration about intervention in Iran no longer applied, and the American government was now fully supportive of plans to remove Mossadegh from office. Given that the British could no longer take the leading role, Dulles proposed that the field operation be led by CIA Head of Near East Operations, Kermit Roosevelt.

Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was cut from the same cloth as the Dulles brothers. Educated at Groton and Harvard, his grandfather had been President Theodore Roosevelt and he was a distant cousin to FDR, whose liberal politics he loathed. He joined the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) during the war, and cultivated many powerful and influential contacts in the Middle East. Roosevelt made a very favourable impression on the British when, after Mossadegh closed down the British Embassy, he flew to Tehran and picked up many of MI6’s contacts and informers and put them on the CIA payroll.

General Faziollah Zahedhi

Roosevelt now had discretion to act as he saw fit. The British had suggested that the ideal puppet Prime Minister, after a coup, would be General Faziollah Zahedhi. The British knew him well, having arrested him during the war as a Nazi sympathiser. An ex-Chief of Police in Tehran, Zahedhi was a brutal anti-Communist who regarded not only the Tudeh but Mossadegh himself as Soviet puppets. Roosevelt brought him in.

The coup now acquired an official name – Operation Ajax (the more prosaic British had labelled their own covert anti-Mossadegh plan Operation Boot). The American Ambassador in Iran, Loy Henderson, had been sceptical of Boot but was enthusiastic about Ajax. He made contact with General Zahedhi and found him ready to help, although Zahedhi warned Henderson that the Iranians could not remove Mossadegh “through their own efforts”, mainly because most of them did not wish to do so.

That calculus could be changed, and the Rashidians were instrumental in doing so. Firstly they unleashed a street mob on to Mossadegh’s home. They then assassinated several of Mossadegh’s allies, including the loyal Chief of Police General Afshartous, who had uncovered and thwarted the AIOC’s own covert plans. As well as Afshartous, Mossadegh lost other key members of the National Front coalition, most importantly the senior Muslim cleric Ayatollah Kashani, who was persuaded that the best way to serve Islam was to start taking the Rashidians’ money.

These set-backs could have been weathered if the Iranian left had given Mossadegh solid support. But the Tudeh failed to appreciate how crucial the battle over the AIOC was to the future of Iran. At the end of 1950 the Tudeh viewed the nationalist movement as

the product of internal contradictions within the ruling classes… they were simply unable to recognise that there could be any other organised popular movement capable of challenging the basic structure of Iran’s power relations (Sepehr Zabih, The Mossadegh Era).

The “radical” wing of the Tudeh, under Abdol Kambakhsh, Ahmed Qasemi and Nur al-Din Kianuri, hewed firmly to the belief that any oppositional movement not led by the Iranian working class could not be serious about challenging neo-colonialism.  The more “moderate” wing, led by Morteza Yazdi, Iraj Eskandari, and Ali Olovvi – originally part of the independent leftist “The Fifty-Three” and thus more flexible in their thinking than their hard-line Stalinist colleagues – began to shift towards support for Mossadegh as the crisis intensified. Unfortunately for Mossadegh, the Stalinists retained control of the party until it was too late.

What had begun as a premiership devoted to “one issue” had escalated to become a wide-ranging geo-political struggle between progressive democrats and an aristocratic-military elite (with fundamentalist Muslim support) whose self-interest overlapped the strategic priorities of the US and British governments. Mossadegh himself was also broadening his political outlook. The reaction of the AIOC and the British government to the nationalisation decree, and his conversations with India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had led Mossadegh to see the struggle over Iran’s oil as the product of the West’s economic colonialism, requiring a more radical response than he had supposed in his youth.

CIA confirmation for the execution of Operation Ajax

The CIA and MI6 now had all elements in place for a coup. They had authorisation from Eisenhower and Churchill. They had established contacts with powerful circles inside Iran who had a vested interest in the existing distribution of profits from the AIOC (General Zahedi had now formed a “Committee to Save the Fatherland”, composed of pro-British senior army officers, run out of the Officer’s Club in Tehran. The Committee was funded by the Rashidians, and established warm relations with Ayatollah Kashani). Thanks to Kim Roosevelt – now operating inside Iran under an alias – they had a steady stream of funds to bribe the bazaar merchants and their army of thugs. With his Chief of Police removed, Mossadegh was unprepared for the coming attack.

On 4th April  $1 million was sent from Washington to the CIA station in Tehran.  The money was to be used to fund the Committee to Save the Fatherland and to print inflammatory leaflets and posters to be disseminated around Tehran by Rashidian boot boys. The leaflets accused Mossadegh of corruption, of being anti-Islam, and of working with the Tudeh to hand Iran over to the Soviet Union. They helped to whip up an atmosphere of crisis, during which Zahedhi’s forces plotted to seize key points in the city such as the telephone exchange, Radio Tehran, the Central Bank, and Mossadegh’s home. It was planned that after Mossadegh was arrested, the Majlis – heavily lubricated by CIA money – would proclaim Zahedhi the legitimate Prime Minister. The Shah would then immediately endorse the new Prime Minister, as would Iran’s chief Imam.

Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt

On 15th June 1953 Kim Roosevelt flew to London to meet MI6 and explain the plan. The meeting in Whitehall was chaired by senior FCO mandarin Patrick Dean, Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee which oversaw all covert operations. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden was in attendance. All approved the plan. On 25th June the plan was put to a high-level meeting in the State Department in Washington chaired by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and attended by his brother Allen, Director of the CIA.  Once again Operation Ajax was given the green light.

The signal to the coup leaders inside Iran was helpfully provided by the BBC, whose senior news managers had acceded to a request from the Foreign Office that they broadcast a coded message that the coup was good to go. Hence on 8th August the BBC’s Persian language news broadcast began not with the usual “It is now midnight in London”, but with “It is now exactly midnight”. This was the coup’s starting gun.

As a first move, the US Military Assistance Advisory Group cut off liaison with those army officers loyal to Mossadegh, whilst assistance to Zahedi’s anti-government officers increased. Despite this, the Shah was nervous. It took Kim Roosevelt’s personal intervention to get him to sign a special firman that dismissed Mossadegh as Prime Minister and replaced him with General Zahedi. Meanwhile the Rashidian brothers organised mobs to pose as Tudeh militants to attack Mosques and Imams. The attacks, combined with propaganda presenting Mossadegh as a Communist sympathiser, turned many Muslim clerics against the government.

Troops outside Mossadegh’s home

Mossadegh fought back. He surrounded his house with loyal troops and when the Shah’s emissary, Colonel Nassiri of the Imperial Guard, arrived to arrest him he was faced by a row of tanks led by the reliable Army Chief of Staff General Riyah. Much to Nassiri’s surprise, Riyah took one look at the arrest warrant from the Shah, declined to recognise it and arrested him instead. Zahedi went into hiding in a CIA safehouse.

Mossadegh temporarily closed down the Majlis, preventing Zahedi’s political cronies from presenting the Shah’s decree removing him from office. The Tudeh, finally waking up to the danger to Mossadegh and to themselves, began to mobilise their trade union supporters on to the streets. In the crucial period between the first attempt at a coup and the second – from 16th to 19th August – Tudeh activists were out on the streets distributing leaflets, attacking statues of the Shah and agitating for the establishment of a democratic republic.

Roosevelt sensed that further delay might give Mossadegh the opportunity to link up with the Tudeh and the unions. Whilst he worked furiously behind the scenes, Mossadegh called Loy Henderson to his residence on 19th August to demand the US government cease efforts to remove him from power. Mossadegh asserted that the Shah, by fleeing the country and deserting his people, had lost his authority. Henderson denied any US involvement in a coup. The meeting descended into a shouting match.

Mossadegh, who had reacted skilfully to the first stages of the coup, now started to make mistakes. Flustered by Henderson’s claims that US nationals were being attacked in the streets by Tudeh thugs, he called for a ban on all political demonstrations on the streets of the capital. Many of his supporters, including some in the Tudeh, heeded his call. But anti-Mossadegh forces did not. To add to the escalation, he placed General Daftary, one of Zahedi’s supporters, in charge of the armed security forces set up to put down the riots. Daftary promptly ordered the security forces to support anti-Mossadegh rioters. At the same time, the CIA delivered $10,000 directly to Ayatollah Kashani, and in return he called on all Muslims to support the rioters.

The unions awaited a signal from the leaders of the Tudeh, whose Executive met in emergency session. Ali Olovvi insisted the party call for a general strike to oppose the coup.  Nur al-Din Kianuri – who some within the party suspected of being a KGB agent – opposed the call, fearful of making any move not sanctioned by Moscow. Unfortunately there was no time to seek and receive instructions from Moscow, which a few months after Stalin’s death was locked in political paralysis. Unable to decide, the Tudeh did nothing.

The Iranian military, meanwhile, began to sense which way the wind was blowing, and hitherto loyal officers started to shift allegiance. General Zahedi finally emerged from hiding and broadcast from Radio Tehran that in line with the Shah’s decree he was taking over as Prime Minister. At the same time military forces led by General Daftary converged on Mossadegh’s house to implement the Shah’s firman.

Elsewhere in the capital the anti-Mossadegh forces were winning. A mixture of disloyal army units and paid thugs attacked government buildings and the offices of newspapers that supported the National Front. Gunfire was exchanged, but the buildings fell quickly to the attackers. At Mossadegh’s house, resistance was more serious. Mossadegh remained in the house for most of the day, but when Zahedi’s tanks arrived his aides persuaded him he should leave. Helped by a small core of loyal soldiers he fled out the back amidst gunfire.

Mossadegh’s military support had collapsed. With Mossadegh’s government now effectively overthrown, Kim Roosevelt accepted the thanks of cheering officers at the Tehran Officer’s Club. A few days later Mossadegh gave himself up to Zahedi, and was temporarily imprisoned in the Officer’s Club. Zahedi himself was inclined to be generous to his defeated opponent, but the Shah was not. Arriving back in Iran after his supporters had done the fighting, he called Mossadegh “an evil man” and called for him to be moved to the city prison.

There was still sporadic resistance from Mossadegh’s supporters, especially from trade union militants at Abadan. But they had no organisation or access to arms. Most of the Tudeh’s Stalinist leaders decided discretion was the better part of valour, and fled to the Soviet Union. Ordinary Tudeh members put up a better performance, but they were outnumbered, outgunned and without leadership. They were quickly suppressed.

It was the close of a great moment in Iranian politics, the deliberate extermination of a pluralist liberal democracy by those who loudly claimed to defend such systems. Though the direct cause was outside intervention, the success of the coup had been eased by the inability of Iranian democrats, socialists and trade unionists to form a popular front to defend their interests. Those who regarded themselves as the political leaders of the Iranian working class were unable to focus on the main threat facing them. For this, the 1950s have been rightly called “the decade of great defeat for Iranian Marxists”, with the sad but accurate observation that

A generation of young, largely well educated activists saw their ideals crushed by a preventable coup which succeeded with minimum effort (Behrooz)

Mossadegh in court

Mossadegh was tried for treason by a military tribunal that was only going to deliver one verdict. Nevertheless the old man still had some fire in him. He bluntly told the tribunal:

My only crime is that I nationalised the Iranian oil industry, and removed from this land the network of colonialism and the political and economic influence of the greatest empire on Earth.

He was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison followed by a life sentence of house arrest.

On 26th August, four days after the coup, Kim Roosevelt flew directly to London where he was taken to see Winston Churchill at 10 Downing St. He reported the complete success of Operation Ajax. After this he flew to Washington to a hero’s welcome at the CIA. President Eisenhower awarded him the National Security Medal for his work in Iran. The British government gifted him £500,000 in shares in the AIOC and the company made him an Executive Director. In 1958 Roosevelt left the CIA to become Vice-President of Gulf Oil, which had secured major contracts to develop Iranian oil after the coup.

Shapoor Reporter, the Shah’s friend and inside source for MI6, was knighted by the British government. Sir Shapor became one of the most powerful arms brokers in the Middle East and remained a close confidante of the Shah until 1979. Always a step ahead, he left Iran shortly before the revolution that deposed the Shah.

The head of MI6, Sir John Sinclair, became Director of the Royal Institute for International Affairs, one of the UK’s leading academic research bodies. In that role he ensured the historical record of the 1953 coup conformed to official spin, as laid out in a June 1951 cable from the FCO’s Eastern Department to the Washington Embassy:

It is essential… that Britain not be seen as a capitalist power attacking a nationalist Persia

For a time the official version – that Mossadegh was an unstable semi-Communist removed by the Shah and the Iranian military alone – was widely accepted. Latterly, popular histories by New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer and the great demythologiser of British foreign policy Mark Curtis (who revealed the FCO cables and other hitherto secret material) have gone some way to put the record straight.

Reflecting the shift in economic power from Britain to the US, it was American oil firms that gained the most from the new regime. Iran’s oil reserves were divided up by a series of new leases and contracts overseen by New York law firm Sullivan and Cromwell, on whose Board sat the CIA Director and the Secretary of State who had orchestrated Operation Ajax. The Iranian concessions were parcelled out to a massive international consortium dominated by American oil companies. The AIOC had only 40% of the consortium. Renaming and rebranding itself, the AIOC became British Petroleum (BP) and began to explore new commercial opportunities in Kuwait, Nigeria and the Gulf of Mexico. By the 1980s it was the fifth largest company in the world.

Within Iran the Shah introduced a ferocious regime of repression, led by his new intelligence agency SAVAK.  The Tudeh bore the brunt.  After the coup four thousand of its members were arrested, including teachers, civil servants, students and industrial workers. Forty were executed, but many more were tortured and imprisoned. Trained in torture techniques by the CIA and MI6, SAVAK kept a stern boot on political opponents. At the time of the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah one of SAVAK’s biggest concentration camp, at Irafshan, held fifty thousand political prisoners.

The 1979 revolution replaced one authoritarian structure with another. Arguably, that structure, after nearly four decades, is finally beginning to exhibit signs of internal reform and modernisation, although the extent to which this may occur without continuous pressure from the populace and support from the international left is in doubt.

One thing remains clear. However and if the process of democratisation develops, Iran still lives with the legacy of 1953 left it by Britain and America.

Say hello to Jon, our new US/Canada publicist

All of us at Repeater Books would like to welcome our new US/Canada publicist, Jon Maunder.

As an introduction to Jon, we’d like to share with you this article he wrote last year for the Chicago Review of Books on Chicago’s literary history.

In the words of Nelson Algren, Chicago “forever keeps two faces” — one of joy, and one of pain. This summer, I wanted to see where Chicago literature has grappled with those faces over the last 100 years. I wanted to explore Chicago’s literary past — on foot. The resulting list below isn’t a guide to Chicago’s “best books,” but an attempt to map the diversity of actual locations which lie behind some of the most powerful and noteworthy writing about the city.

You can read the rest of Jon’s article here.

A Splutter of Musketry – Britain and America’s Destruction of Iranian Democracy (Part One)

How did the CIA and MI6 orchestrate a coup d’etat in Iran in 1953? In this new, two-part essay, No Less Than Mystic author John Medhurst looks at how Britain and the USA destroyed democracy in Iran to protect their own economic and political interests, and how the legacy of this is still being felt today.
Part One coverst the pre-coup history of British and US involvement in Iran, and how this led to the events that would change the political make-up of the region forever.


Since 1979, British and American governments, when confronted with a political crisis within Iran, have invariably spoken of their desire to see more democracy in that country. To say these noises are hypocritical would be an understatement. The last time Iran experienced a multi-party, constitutional democracy was in 1953, when Britain and America planned, funded and implemented a military coup in the country, a coup whose sole aim was the protection of their oil interests. That democracy, however imperfect it may have been, has not returned since.

In 1908 oil was discovered in what was then Persia, one year after an agreement between Britain and Tsarist Russia to partition the country in to two spheres of control, the British holding the south and the Russians the north. The British were quick to appreciate the future use of the oil and organised a group of investors to form the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC, renamed the AIOC in 1936). In 1914, to protect its interest in perpetuity, the British government purchased a 51% controlling share of the company.

In 1919, after a world war that had severely taxed Britain’s economic and military strength, the Anglo-Persian Agreement gave Britain control over Persia’s army, communications, transport and treasury. The British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon insisted that if Britain was to assume “the mandate for Mesopotamia” it could not allow “a hotbed of misrule” to exist in this strategically vital area. In Curzon’s view the oil reserves of southwest Persia were “great assets” to be “worked for the British Navy”, and thus had to be controlled and protected.

No matter what political and dynastic changes occurred within Iran (as the country was renamed in 1935) over the next thirty years, Britain stuck to this goal.

For much of the period this meant accommodation to the rule of the man who started life as Reza Khan but ended it as Reza Shah. In 1921 Reza led a coup against the corrupt and enfeebled Qajar dynasty. With the British promising him military and financial resources, Reza quickly took Tehran, arrested the Shah’s Cabinet, and sent the Shah himself on a long European holiday. Reza then became Prime Minister. His original ambition was to follow the example of Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk and secularise his country, but after opposition from Iran’s powerful Imams these plans were swiftly dropped.

Reza Khan, later Reza Shah

For a while Reza’s rule was uncertain, but the attempted return of the old Shah in 1926 united both the Imams and the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, behind him. In April 1926 they declared the formal end of the Qajar dynasty and the ascension of Reza as Shah. The Pahlavi dynasty thus began its stormy history.

Reza’s immediate clampdown on the press and trade unions, his jailing and killing of political opponents, did not disturb British policy makers, for whom the only consideration was his subservience to British oil interests, in particular the AIOC and the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement. The most radical alternative to Reza, the Iranian Communist Party (ICP), was outlawed in 1930 and most of its leaders imprisoned.

Reza’s fitful attempts to modernise Iranian society were not insignificant, especially in education, but they were driven forward by autocratic fiat and suffered badly from lack of a political base. As a sincere nationalist he made efforts to terminate the AIOC concession negotiated as part of the Anglo-Persian Agreement, and in the late 1920s he tried to re-negotiate the concession on better terms for Iran. The British were adamant that the concessions should remain unaltered. Frustrated at every turn, in November 1932 Reza declared that he was cancelling the concession.

Alarmed, the AIOC’s Chairman Sir John Cadman flew to Tehran to personally negotiate with the Shah. This produced the 1933 Anglo-Iranian Agreement, which in return for relatively minor concessions on the AIOC’s part – increased financial returns to Iran, and a promise that the appalling working conditions at the company’s notorious Abadan plant on the Shatt-al-Arab waterway would be improved – extended the concession for a further thirty-two years. The weakness of the Agreement led to discontent with Reza’s rule across all social classes.

Notwithstanding his unpopularity, with domestic opposition crushed Reza’s rule might have extended for decades if not for the outbreak of the Second World War. During the 1930s Reza had tilted towards open support for Hitler and Mussolini. When war was declared between Germany and Britain he announced Iranian neutrality. This allowed Nazi agents free rein within the country. After the German invasion of Soviet Russia in June 1941 the new allies (Britain and the USSR) feared that Germany might use Iran to launch a further attack on Soviet Russia from the south.

To prevent this possibility British and Soviet troops invaded Iran in August 1941 to secure the border and the country’s oil. The Iranian army, few of whom were willing to fight for Reza, quickly disintegrated. In September 1941 Reza was forced to abdicate and was replaced by his twenty-one-year-old son Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a weak and pampered playboy whom the British believed they could easily control. Yet a much greater threat to the AIOC now emerged, in the form of the nationalist politician Mohammed Mossadegh.

Mohammed Mossadegh

Mossadegh came from Iran’s social and political elite. His grandfather had played a prominent part in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, which had forced the old Shah to create an Iranian parliament, the Majlis, for the first time. Elected to the first Majlis in 1906 at the age of twenty-four, Mossadegh left the country in 1919 in protest against the Anglo-Persian Agreement. But Iranian politics were in his blood and he returned a year later to take up the post of the Shah’s Finance Minister, and later Foreign Minister. His granite integrity made him few political friends. The definitive work on his eventual downfall concluded “many rich and influential Iranians considered him a class traitor because of his insistence on judging them by the letter of the law” (Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah’s Men).

1943 saw the first relatively free elections in Iran. Mossadegh, having spent nearly twenty years in retreat at his country estate, stood for a seat in the Majlis. He returned to parliament as one of the most respected politicians in the country, known for long and principled opposition not only to Reza Shah but also to the AIOC.

The real spark of revolt against the AIOC was lit in 1946 when the workforce at Abadan went on strike. Over a quarter of century earlier, in 1919, what has been called “The first major strike of a colonised working class in the Middle East” (Frederic Clairmont, “BP: The Unfinished Crimes and Plunders of Anglo-American Imperialism”) led to the deaths of over thirty refinery workers when the army and AIOC police gunned down striking workers. This led to the formation of the Iranian Communist Party. Within a few years a national campaign led by the trade unions and the ICP for an eight-hour working day forced the government to concede the demand in the Labour Law of 1923. In 1925 trade unions led May Day celebrations across Iran.

The 1946 strike at Abadan

This working-class spirit was suppressed by Reza Shah, but not destroyed. The 1946 strike demanded not only better working conditions but enforcement of the terms of the 1933 Agreement that had promised Abadan’s workers the same social infrastructure (e.g. schools, hospitals, roads, running water, etc.) that the AIOC’s British staff and their families enjoyed in their gated and well-guarded section of the city.

The newly elected British Labour government sent two warships to Abadan in support of the AIOC, but although their presence was significant they were ordered not to fire on the strikers. Instead the strike was put down by paid strike breakers from ethnic Arab tribes long at odds with the urbanised work force.

But the political climate in post-war Iran was far more sympathetic to the strikers than in 1919. Central to this was the resurrection of the Iranian Communists, now grouped together in a party known as the Tudeh (“Masses”). Although some of its older militants had been members of the ICP, the Tudeh was not simply a recreation of that party. It was initially “a united front for anti-fascist activities and constitutional rule” (Mazia Behrooz, Rebels With a Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran) that emerged from the work of “The Fifty-Three”, a collection of left academics, writers and politicians imprisoned together under Reza Shah when war broke out.

By 1945 key positions within the Iranian trade unions were usually held by Tudeh militants. After the war the party moved on to the national scene. It even had three ministers in the 1946 coalition government, driving forward legislation that for the first time gave Iran a minimum wage and maternity leave. Had the Tudeh focused on these reforming initiatives, it might have become the major social democratic grouping in Iran and the bearer of the country’s post-war aspirations for national renewal.

But the pro-Soviet faction in the party saw Iranian developments through the prism of Soviet foreign policy, and following an ill-advised flirtation with revolutionary violence in Iran’s Azerbaijan province in late 1946, the party was once again banned, losing its foothold in government and increasing its isolation from the nationalists. Because of this the Tudeh underestimated the extent to which popular energies were now focused on the fight for control of the nation’s oil reserves.

Others moved to fill the gap. In 1949 Mossadegh and like-minded colleagues created the National Front, a reformist political party whose main aim was to establish a functioning democracy in Iran and gain control of Iranian oil resources by nationalising the AIOC’s operations in the country. Even the British Ambassador, unflinchingly supportive of the AIOC and dismissive of Iranian politicians, admitted that the National Front was “comparatively free from the taint of having amassed wealth and influence through the improper use of official positions”. The impetus for the formation of the National Front arose from a re-negotiation of the 1933 Agreement, which Majlis deputies had threatened to revoke.

Mossadegh led the Front in the 16th Majlis. But the AIOC’s creatures – the Shah and his new Prime Minister General Ali Razmara – ensured that Mossadegh was kept away from the executive. Razmara restored some of the Shah’s authority, not least by spreading huge amounts of bribe money around the Majlis to support the AIOC’s continued hold on Iranian oil. The cash was supplied by Ian Milne, the MI6 Head of Station in Tehran, who ran agents within the Majlis itself.

In February 1951 Mossadegh formally proposed the complete nationalisation of the AIOC. In March Razmara was assassinated. Without Razmara’s bribes the Majlis looked to other interests. Under great external pressure from an aroused populace, it voted to accept Mossadegh’s resolution and to nationalise the AIOC. After this the Shah had little option but to make Mossadegh Prime Minister in April 1951.

Mass support for Mossadegh was evident from the moment he took office. On 1st May a demonstration of 50,000 workers, peasants and members of the armed forces gathered outside the Majlis to support the nationalisation of the AIOC. Mossadegh sensed the national mood and reflected it.

Mossadegh greeted by protesters on 1st May 1951

Shortly after the decree was ratified, he declared:

We are nationalising the AIOC because it has systematically over several decades refused to engage in a constructive dialogue with us… Working hand in glove with the British government it has trampled on our national rights. Their conduct was one of unspeakable arrogance. Our battle for the end of the company’s domination has finally arrived and we shall triumph.

This was the beginning of an open confrontation between Iranian democratic nationalists and one of the last great remaining colonialist merchant ventures, the British equivalent of the American United Fruit Company in power, wealth, and ruthless determination to protect its profit margins. The previous year, 1950, the AIOC had made £170 million in profit from Iran, with only 12% going to the Iranian government. It had much to protect, and it was not shy in calling on its friends in the British government for assistance.

Although a hard-line anti-Communist, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin was sympathetic to Iran’s desire to control its own oil resources. Unlike his more hysterical advisors he did not consider Mossadegh a Communist or a fellow traveller. However, Bevin’s health was failing and in early 1951 he was replaced by the dull political fixer Herbert Morrison. For Morrison, Iran was still “Persia”, an exotic oriental land which needed a firm guiding hand to ward off anarchy. He immediately created a “Persia Working Group” comprised of officials from MI6, the Treasury, the Foreign Office and the Bank of England, to address the problem.

The Persia Working Group drew up a plan for direct British military intervention, codenamed Operation Buccaneer, to secure the Abadan facility. But plans for invasion could not proceed once US President Harry Truman made it clear that the British did not have American support. Truman, sceptical of the ability of the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to make intelligent distinctions between Communism and radical nationalism, held Bevin’s view that Mossadegh was primarily a nationalist. It was clear to him, as the most revealing account of MI6 published to date concedes, that

despite British propaganda, the Mossadegh government was generally democratic, moderate, and seemed likely to succeed in establishing a middle-class hold over the state. (Stephen Dorril, MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations).

Operation Buccaneer was shelved. For the Persia Working Group this meant that anti-Mossadegh operations had to go underground. This process was driven forward not just by Morrison and MI6 but by an alliance of right-wing “Orientalist” academics and FCO mandarins long accustomed to treating Iran like an imperial satrapy. Prominent amongst these were Professor Ann Lambton, Reader in Persian Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, previously Press Attaché at the Tehran Embassy during the war. Lambton and FCO Assistant Under-Secretary of State for Economic Affairs Eric Berthoud, who had worked for the AIOC for eight years before moving to Whitehall, agreed that the only way to remove the threat posed by Mossadegh was through “covert means”.

Shapoor Reporter

For years the MI6 station in Tehran had cultivated Iranians at all levels within the military and big business. The most useful of these “assets” were Shapoor Reporter, a British-Iranian businessman and close friend of the Shah who fed MI6 gossip from inside the Shah’s palace, and the infamous Rashidian brothers. The Rashidians were plugged into the highest levels of Iranian politics, business and the court. They were violently pro-British, sending their children to English public schools and keeping a permanent suite at the Grosvenor Hotel in London. MI6 paid them £10,000 a month. For this the Rashidians spread disinformation and smears about Mossadegh amongst the bazaar merchants of Tehran, whose leaders had the power to summon violent mobs on to the streets.

The Rashidians worked to the FCO’s Eastern Department and its Permanent Secretary Geoffrey Furlong. The Eastern Department now advanced the coup plan on several fronts – the academics of the Persia Working Group provided the BBC with news stories implying that Iranians were incapable of running the oil industry. The BBC worked closely with the AIOC’s information department, the Central Information Bureau, to disseminate their message within Iran and to suggest that those elements in Iranian society who had profited from the AIOC were about to lose their wealth and power. All strands of the anti-nationalisation operation ran through the AIOC’s Chief Executive in Tehran, Richard Seddon.

In July 1951 Iranian state security raided Seddon’s house and uncovered plans for the destabilisation of Mossadegh and lists of Iranians who were recipients of AIOC and MI6 bribe money. This led to all AIOC executives leaving the country in October 1951. Despite this, Mossadegh still sought a negotiated settlement with the British. But after the Conservatives came to power in October 1951, such a settlement became less and less likely. Faced with mounting evidence of the AIOC’s criminal conspiracy and of official British government collusion in plans for regime change, in October 1952 Mossadegh closed the British Embassy in Tehran.

An informal war against Iran was now declared. The new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had overseen the creation of the AIOC in 1908 and had profited personally from his own shares in the company. His instincts were strongly imperialist. When the Labour government, in its dying days, failed to land British troops at Abadan to disperse striking workers, Churchill had been aghast. In November 1951 he wrote in disgust to the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, that Labour had “scuttled and run from Abadan when a splutter of musketry would have ended the matter”.

Next time, Churchill would not hold back on the musketry.

Read an extract from A Threat of the First Magnitude

You can now read an extract from Aaron J Leonard and Conor A Gallagher’s A Threat of the First Magnitude – FBI Counterintelligence and Infiltration from the Communist Party to the Revolutionary Union 1962-1974 on Truthout!

In their new book, A Threat of the First Magnitude, Aaron J. Leonard and Conor A. Gallagher explore the ways in which the FBI was able to place informants into the top layers of organizations deemed threats to the US internal security. While these efforts — in the example of the Communist Party USA and the Maoist, Revolutionary Union — were successful, another initiative, an attempt to “flip” prominent Black activist James Forman was not. The following excerpt from Chapter 7: “The Never-Ending Campaign Against James Forman” explains.


“A hell of a performance”—Warren Ellis reviews No Less Than Mystic

We were delighted to discover this wonderful review of John Medhurst’s No Less Than Mystic in the newsletter of  Warren Ellis (graphic novelist, writer, author of Normal, Gun Machine, Transmetropolitan, Red and much more). He’s kindly given us permission to reprint the section here. You can sign up to his newsletter, Orbital Operations, hereNo Less Than Mystic is out now. 


I have many fine-looking books by many excellent authors waiting to be read, and I’m desperate to read them, but I have a confession. When NO LESS THAN MYSTIC by John Medhurst arrived, I dropped everything to start it. And it hasn’t let go.

It’s a history of Lenin, the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution.

I feel like I need to yell HEAR ME OUT.

The brilliance of Medhurst’s political histories — and some of you will remember me praising his previous THAT OPTION NO LONGER EXISTS — is his sharp eye for the pivot points and the alternative routes history could have taken. Or, put another way – alternate histories are buried in his actual histories. He will lead you to fly off into fascinating could-have-beens, big ones that start with small corrected missteps or slightly different arrangements of personalities. There are wonders compressed in his books.

The additional pleasure of NO LESS THAN MYSTIC is that he looks back from a 21st Century perspective, with no interest in being chained to the previous moment. From the blurb, in fact, he:

continually examines the Leninist experiment through the lens of a 21st century, de-centralised, ecological, anti-productivist and feminist socialism. Throughout its narrative it interweaves and draws parallels with contemporary anti-capitalist struggles such as those of the Zapatistas, the Kurds, the Argentinean “Recovered Factories”, Occupy, the Arab Spring, the Indignados and Intersectional feminists, attempting to open up the past to the present and points in between.

This fills out the book in remarkable ways, and, frankly, allows Medhurst to put the boot into Lenin from a number of different angles.

(It could be usefully read in tandem with Catherine Merridale’s LENIN ON THE TRAIN, which was not nearly as soft and romantic a book as some idiot reviewers would have you believe.)

This is a big, energetic, ambitious book that deserves every success. A hell of a performance.

NO LESS THAN MYSTIC, John Medhurst (UK) (US)

(Nice to see Repeater Books building out its list so skilfully, too.)

Warren Ellis is the award-winning writer of graphic novels like TRANSMETROPOLITAN, FELL, MINISTRY OF SPACE and PLANETARY, and the author of the NYT-bestselling GUN MACHINE and the “underground classic” novel CROOKED LITTLE VEIN. The movie RED is based on his graphic novel of the same name.

A new novella, NORMAL is released November 29 2016.

Might the “worlds saddest right-wing protest” have a point about Lenin, asks John Medhurst?

If Confederate statues are coming down across the US, should statues of figures like Lenin come down too, as demanded by a small group of Trump supporters this week in Seattle, dubbed the “worlds saddest right-wing protest”? No, says John Medhurst….

In reaction to the events in Charlottesville and across the American South, where statues of Confederate war leaders like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are now being taken down, a small group of right-wing protestors have demonstrated in front of a Soviet-era statue of Lenin in Seattle (purchased and transported to America when the Soviet Union fell, and erected in a bohemian area of the city). Their point was that Lenin was responsible for far more deaths than Lee etc, and also in the name of a defeated, discredited cause. Should not, therefore, this statue also be removed?
As the author of a new history of Lenin and the Russian Revolution that condemns Lenin and the one-party state he introduced (No Less Than Mystic, out now from Repeater), do I sympathise and agree with these protestors? Basically, no. If the statue was of Stalin, sure. One cannot rationalise and defend Stalin’s record. He was literally and directly responsible for programmes of mass murder such as the collectivisation of the Russian peasantry in 1929-33 and the “Holodomor”, the hunger-extermination of 7 million Ukraninan peasant-nationalists in the the 1930s, not to mention the Great Terror of 1936-38, which executed between 600,000 and 1.2 million people.
Why not, then, take down the Lenin statue?  Because there is no equivalence at all to the Confederate statues. Firstly, there is no historical or cultural context to the placement of, and response to, the Lenin statue. Seattle did not go through the Russian Civil War or its aftermath, and does not argue about its symbols to this day. Absent that history, the statue is essentially an ironic cultural artifact, an indulgence in armchair revolutionism by a trendy middle-class. It has no direct relevance to the contemporary American political scene. The statues of Lee etc are a permanant and deliberate reminder and endorsement of a war fought to protect slavery, of the Jim Crow system that survived until the 1960s that was only defeated by a mass black civil rights movement, and of continuing white supremacism. In a country where 27% of African-Americans live in poverty compared to 11% of whites, where black males have six times the incaceration rate of whites, and where black men between 15-35 are nine times more likely to be killed by the police than are other Americans, these staues are not an ahistoric post-modernist statement.
Secondly, Lenin’s record, whilst open to severe censure and criticism, cannot be equated, as one of the protestors’ placards has it, with that of Hitler (or Stalin). He unforgivably destroyed the fragile flowers of Russian democracy in 1917, including those of the grass-roots “soviets” or workers councils, denied politcal opponents including socialist ones the right to free expression, and laid the foundation of a system that would eventually mutate into Stalinism. But his crimes, whilst real, were small in comparison to those of Hitler and Stalin, and arose more from a culpable inability to foresee the consequences of his actions rather than a set intent to establish tyranny.
I hold no brief for Lenin, as my book makes very clear. Leninism was a disaster for the international socialist movement and for the prospects of establishing a durable, democratic socialist society across the world. But the protest in Seattle is disingenous and insincere, designed to give cover to white supremacists now revealed as violent neo-nazis. It should be ignored.
No Less Than Mystic: A History of Lenin and the Russian Revolution for a 21st Century Left, is out now from Repeater. More info/links to buy online here.  

John Medhurst is the author of That Option No Longer Exists: Britain 1974-76. He has written for Novara Media, the Morning Star, Red Pepper, Green Left and the Journal of Contemporary European Research. He is married with two daughters and lives in Brighton, England.

Always the Ramsay MacDonalds: Lessons from 1931 for Labour today

On September 13th 2015 at a packed TUC fringe event at the Brighton Corn Exchange, ex-Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis delivered a stirring speech on how the Syriza government had been undermined by the EU’s financial institutions and what this portended for a future Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. At its close he finished with one last warning to the British left, born from his own experience in office, – “The enemy is always within. The enemy is always the Ramsay MacDonalds”.

Following the election of Jeremy Corbyn no-one would claim Labour is now led by a second Ramsay MacDonald (a role already perfectly filled by Neil Kinnock, who managed to betray his class and his party without even getting elected first). But although Corbyn’s mandate for a real socialist alternative is undeniable and impressive the Labour Party machine and most of its MPs remain unreformed. Too many local Labour parties – like my own in Brighton – are led by midget-Blairs whose response to the election of Corbyn and the subsequent inrush of enthusiastic new members is fear and distrust. Their strategy for the next four years will be to ignore, suppress and defuse their own members who wish to turn the party into a radical anti-austerity opposition. Nor are the unions Corbyn’s automatic allies. One need only see the grotesque Sir Paul Kenny, General Secretary of the GMB, who after accepting his “honour” from the Tories for selling out public sector pensions condemned Corbyn’s stance on Trident as a threat to the “defence of the realm”.

Most Labour MPs are still stunned by the size of Corbyn’s victory, but internal resistance and sabotage of Corbyn’s agenda will inevitably increase the longer he remains leader. The future MacDonalds are plain to see – the likes of Umunna, Hunt, Cooper, Bradshaw, Cruddas, and fair few of his own Shadow Cabinet. These people have no political base inthe sense of mass support, but they do not need one. They have a platform and high profile cheerleaders in the form of Andrew Rawnsley, Jonathan Freedland, Suzanne Moore and the entire Guardian--Observer nexus of corporate liberals. Much of the naivety on the Labour left about this still-powerful strand inside Labour, and the latitude they continue to receive inside the wider party, derives from ignorance about Labour history and the lessons it contains. What, then, are the lessons of 1931, and why are “the Ramsay MacDonalds” still the main enemy?

In 1928 the voting age for women had been reduced from 30 to 21, bringing it in to line with men (a move strongly opposed by Winston Churchill and a host of reactionary Tories). This made the Labour Government elected in May 1929 the first in British history to be elected under equal universal suffrage, and the most legitimate government ever put into power by the British people. This was significant, given that power within British society continued to reside where it always had. A.J.P Taylor, in English History 1914-1945, neatly summarised the social forces aligned against Labour and the organised working class –

Universities, Chambers of Commerce, the civil service, the armed forces, nominally non-party organisations such as the Women’s Institute, and to a great extent the Church of England, were pillars of conservatism in thin disguise. Other things being equal, those who rule go on ruling, and those who are ruled acquiesce.

Once again, as in 1923 when the first minority Labour government was elected, Labour’s pre-election rhetoric outstripped its intentions in government. Its programme, “Labour and the Nation”, written by R.H Tawney, had declared that Labour’s aim was to “use the weapons forged in the victorious struggle for political democracy to end the capitalist dictatorship in which democracy finds everywhere its most insidious and relentless foe”. The biggest challenge facing the new government was the ever rising tide of mass unemployment, created by the great post-war depression of 1921-22. The problem of “the intractable million”, as it came to be known in the 1920s, carved great wounds in British society as unemployment reached and seldom dipped below 10% of the population. In 1922 the total of jobless had been 1.54 million. In 1929 it was still 1.2 million, about to jump up to nearly 2 million in 1930 and then exceed 2.5 million in 1931, as the effects of the Great Crash and a second, still worse economic depression hit Great Britain. In regions dependent on traditional staple industries unemployment rates was far higher than the national average, and poverty endemic.

After the 1929 General Election Labour did not have an absolute parliamentary majority. This would have been a severe impediment to pursuing radical policies, had that been the intention. However, the only genuine radical success of the 1924 government, John Wheatley, was carefully excluded from the new Cabinet. The reasons for this were made clear at the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) after the election, when Wheatley opposed forming a minority government, which he feared would inevitably pursue capitalist policies and end up cutting unemployment benefits to assuage the City. MacDonald ignored him, and said that the greatest danger the government faced was “sniping from within”. The vast majority of Labour MPs applauded him.

The former radical firebrand George Lansbury, Leader of Poplar Council in the 1920s, had been invited into the Cabinet as First Commissioner of Works, but by 1929 he had lost some of his former zeal. With Lansbury muted the government, as in 1924, posed no objective threat to the British ruling class and its interests, no concrete programme to socialise the means of production, no attack of wealth and privilege, and no deviation from a pro-Empire foreign policy. The Fabian intellectual Sidney Webb, now Lord Passfield and the new Colonial and Dominions Secretary, said of the challenge of leading the country towards the socialist commonwealth, “All I know is that I don’t know how to do it”. Faced with this kind of “socialist”, the UK’s powerful vested interests had no need to resort to underhand or unconstitutional methods to subvert the Labour government. The capitalist economy itself, aided by servile newspaper empires run by rich plutocrats, served just as well.

The Federation of British Industries (the FBI, the pre-cursor to today’s CBI) drove the point home. It informed MacDonald that it had strong objections to an interventionist economic policy, and that it expected “a holiday from social legislation”. The FBI offered the government and the trade unions a deal – that in return for “greater flexibility in labour practice” it would deliver “a truce in wage rate reductions for the next eighteen months”. Robert Skidelsky’s comprehensive analysis of the economic policies of the 1929-1931 Labour government describes the City’s deep economic orthodoxy, and its fear that

Any tendency to toy with unsound expedients such as raising a huge loan for development purposes would seriously undermine international confidence. This was especially true, it was held, if the offending government were a Labour one (“Politicians and the Slump: The Labour Government of 1929-1931”, p.77).


The City worried unnecessarily. Labour’s Chancellor, Philip Snowden, could not have been more attentive to their needs had he got down and polished their shoes. He faithfully echoed the Treasury and the Bank of England’s commitment to the Gold Standard and Free Trade. Snowden’s unwillingness to take Sterling off the Gold Standard (to which the previous Tory Chancellor Churchill had returned the UK in 1925, thus stifling the flow of credit and hampering industrial expansion) had crippled from the start proposals to alleviate unemployment through government spending. In complete agreement with Treasury/City doctrine that deficit spending was calamitous and unemployment benefits were excessive, Snowden ensured the Labour manifesto’s “unqualified pledge” to deal “immediately and practically” with mass unemployment was never actioned, although by July 1930 unemployment had topped 2 million, and 2 ½ million by the end of the year.

When not restrained by Snowden’s financial strait-jacket Labour made a few jabs at some of the British economy’s worst injustices. It passed the Coal Mines Act 1930, which revoked the 8 hour day imposed on the miners in 1926 after the General Strike (it legislated for 7 ½ hours) and sought to control coal prices. The new Minister for Health, Arthur Greenwood, also made clear he would continue John Wheatley’s house building subsidies introduced in 1924, which had been under threat from the Tories, and legislated for a programme of slum clearance in the Housing Act 1930. These were resisted by the Conservative opposition under Stanley Baldwin but nevertheless had some residual impact, particularly later in the 1930s when Greenwood’s act led to a massive attack on Victorian slum housing.

These were fleeting moments of radical challenge, overshadowed and virtually extinguished by the economic crisis inaugurated by the Great Crash of October 1929

These were fleeting moments of radical challenge, overshadowed and virtually extinguished by the economic crisis inaugurated by the Great Crash of October 1929, whose ripple effect hit Britain in 1930 and 1931 and accelerated already high unemployment. As the devastating effect of the Great Crash sent shockwaves around the world and impacted on European economies, MacDonald gave voice to Labour’s deep yet incoherent belief that the capitalist system was fundamentally unsound, and it was beyond human ken to address it – “We are not on trial. It is the system under which we live. It has broken down everywhere, as it was bound to break down”. Unfortunately he had no schemes or policies to redress this breakdown, and he was not open to those who had.

The government’s doctrinal incoherence left it vulnerable to whoever talked loudest and wielded financial and institutional power. Sadly, this was not its own activists, or those calling for radical departures in economic policy. On the contrary

the decline in business profits produced a predictable clamour in favour of retrenchment in public expenditure, which was focused in a attack on the “dole”, and its alleged “abuses”, but over which already loomed the spectre of an unbalanced Budget and all its attendant evils. (Skidelsky, p.203).

With some exceptions, Ministers internalised and reflected these voices. Ostensibly socialist politicians elected by a primarily working class electoral base to restructure British capitalism and address the burning issue of unemployment began to see the unemployed themselves as the problem. Hugh Dalton, then a junior member of the government, recorded in his diary that

In niggling discussions about abuses and anomalies in the payment, in a small number of cases, of unemployment benefit, most Ministers and their officials quite lost sight of the major “abuse” and “anomaly” of mass unemployment itself.

There were ideas to tackle the blight of mass unemployment and the threat to social peace it represented, but they were advanced by an odd consortia of Independent Labour Party (ILP)/left Labour MPs, progressive Liberals and economists like J.M Keynes, and championed inside the Labour Government by Minister of Works George Lansbury and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Sir Oswald Mosley. Although these alternative policies were far and away the most creative and energetic proposals put forward at the time, and would eventually find effective expression in the USA as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, they suffered in Britain by association with Mosley. Brilliant but erratic, he eventually left Labour to form the New Party, and all his potential was wasted as he declined into fascism.

In January 1930 Mosley put all his proposals for dealing with unemployment into a document subsequently known as the “Mosley Memorandum” and sent it to the Prime Minister. Amongst other things it called for greater public ownership, control of banking and credit operations to ensure stimulus to the economy, increased pensions and social security payments, and protectionism. It also recommended the creation of a Development Bank that would co-ordinate government credit, rationalisation and regulation of the banks, and planned industrial development. The Memorandum was explicitly critical of the inability of British banks to focus on the long term national interest, considering them “…unfitted by tradition and present practice to play any such part”. Mosley had discussed an earlier draft of the memorandum with Lansbury, and also with J.M Keynes, who considered it “a very able document”.

MacDonald set up a Cabinet sub-committee consisting of himself, J.H Thomas (who had responsibility for tackling unemployment, and whose inactivity had driven Mosley into independent action), Arthur Greenwood, Tom Shaw and Margaret Bondfield. Only Bondfield, Minister of Labour and a former member of the TUC General Council, had any sympathy for the proposals. The Memorandum was also sent to the Treasury for views. After cursory consideration the Cabinet sub-committee rejected the memorandum, partly prompted by a negative assessment from the Treasury, partly by the savaging of Mosley’s proposals from a press that with minor exceptions was extremely conservative. The Daily Mail editorialised (May 22 1930) that

No reasonable person would refuse the Government in general and Mr J.H Thomas in particular commendation for the firm stand they have taken against the crazy proposals put forward by irresponsible members of their party, and against the wild-cat schemes of Sir Oswald Mosley”.

Instead the Mail strongly recommended “…the most drastic economy in expenditure, accompanied by large remissions in taxation.”

The leading members of the government feared and followed the wishes of the press and shaped policy around the headlines of the Mail. In frustration, Mosley resigned his government position and tied to bring the fight for alternative policies to the Parliamentary Party. At a packed and dramatic meeting of Labour MPs Mosley laid out his proposals in what those present reported as a brilliant and passionate speech. Nonetheless he was soundly defeated by 202 votes to 29 after MacDonald demanded loyalty to the leadership, and only a small minority of left-wing MPs (amongst whom was the young Aneurin Bevan, elected in 1929) were prepared to defy the Prime Minister. After this Mosley self-destructed, producing a manifesto supported by only 17 Labour MPs and in early 1931 leaving the Labour Party.

Although Mosley’s proposals were rejected by the Cabinet sub-committee and by most Labour MPs, his stinging criticisms of the lack of focus within Whitehall on the problem of unemployment had enough effect that MacDonald felt compelled to create a new Ministerial “panel” to bring greater coherence to government attempts to tackle the problem. To assist the panel a new Secretariat of senior civil servants was created headed by Sir John Anderson, Permanent Secretary of the Home Office. Yet the force and logic of the Mosley Memorandum had clearly left an imprint on MacDonald, even if one he wished to discard. In July 1930 he sent the memorandum on to Sir John Anderson to “examine the proposals made here and see what is in them”. Whilst Sir John did not specifically reply to the Mosley Memorandum, he did respond on 31st July with a detailed summary of the findings of the Secretariat during its seven weeks of existence. Sir John wrote to MacDonald that the Secretariat considered the scale of the unemployment problem had been exaggerated as “a large number of people really abused the insurance scheme”. Rejecting the possibility of “radical measures” such as government funded schemes to promote employment in the depressed regions, he added that “we are now reaching the limit of works which will conform to any reasonable standard of economic utility or development” and the government must dispense with “illusions that a substantial reduction of unemployment figures is to be sought in the artificial provision of employment”.

In its short existence Anderson’s Secretariat had not examined the provision of the “dole”. More reliable data from the Ministry of Labour disproved Anderson’s assertion that there was wide-spread abuse. In the later opinion of a resolutely non-Marxist commentator, the explanation for Anderson’s complacency lay in the class solidarity of the British ruling elite –

It is perhaps not unfair to speculate that, far from having thoroughly investigated all possibilities, Anderson had met a number of captains of industry and the City, over luncheon or dinner at Brook’s or the Athenaeum, who had warned him that any “radical measures” would undoubtedly so damage confidence as to produce economic collapse (Skidelsky, p.219).

There was in any case virtually no chance that Mosley’s policy prescriptions would get past MacDonald and Snowden. After the fall of the government Mosley’s successor as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, future Labour leader Clement Attlee, confirmed to Hugh Dalton that “Snowden had been blocking every positive proposal for two years”. Now Snowden moved beyond inertia into outright Tory policy. With the threat posed by Mosley eliminated and unemployment now topping 3 million Snowden confirmed in February 1931 that, in line with Treasury orthodoxy, he envisaged a massive attack on social spending.

To provide him with the political cover he needed to force through measures he knew would be unpopular with his own party, Snowden took advantage of a Liberal motion (supported, with astonishing naivety, by most Labour MPs) for an independent committee of “experts” to examine the public accounts and make recommendations for cuts in public expenditure. To chair the committee he appointed the industrialist Sir George May, recently President of the Prudential Assurance Company and a man with no background or expertise in government finance. Four of the committee were likewise leading industrialists, balanced by two senior trade unionists. Snowden was prepared to wait upon their recommendations, and so his April 1931 Budget was comparatively mild. He was planning a much more severe “austerity” Budget in the autumn.

On August 1st the May Committee reported as expected, “a report compounded of prejudice, ignorance and panic” (Taylor, p. 288). It exaggerated the total deficit and strongly recommended that it be dealt with immediately by a £96 million programme of “economies”, most of which would be achieved by a 20% cut in unemployment benefits allied to an increase in contributions. In addition, conditions for receiving benefit would be tightened and receipt would be limited to 26 weeks in any one year. Teachers salaries would be cut by 20% and police officers by 12.5%. Public works programmes would be cut back. Keynes considered the report “”The most foolish document I have ever had the misfortune to read”. The two trade unionists on the committee dissented from its conclusions, suggesting there be fewer economies and increased taxation instead. Snowden ignored their dissent. MacDonald created another Cabinet sub-committee to consider the report, to meet later in August after the summer break.

On August 11th the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Ernest Harvey, laid out for MacDonald and Snowden his view of the seriousness of the economic crisis, now compounded by a run on the pound and contracting government finances. Sir Ernest then met the Conservative and Liberal Treasury spokesmen, and was more forthcoming than to the Prime Minister. According to Shadow Chancellor Neville Chamberlain, Sir Ernest made clear that “The cause of the trouble was not financial but political, and lay in the complete want of confidence in Her Majesty’s Government existing among foreigners”. The Bank of England’s concern was for the views of the big New York banking houses, whom the British government was asking for a short-term loan to tide over its deficit. New York did not believe a Labour Government, allied to the trade unions and the wider labour movement, would institute massive cuts to social spending. It needed reassurance and proof of compliance.

One of Chamberlain’s advisers, J.C.C Davidson, telephoned Tory leader Stanley Baldwin, on holiday in France, and told him to return home immediately. He sensed that the government “was already breaking up”. He may have been assisted in this by secret communications from MacDonald’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, who broke Civil Service rules to pass information to the Opposition Front Bench. Davidson’s diaries record “MacDonald’s Private Secretary, Usher, kept me closely informed of the situation”. Apparently Usher doubted that Labour would survive much longer, as “…only Snowden and Thomas could be relied on to see the situation through, particularly if the correct solution to the crisis was a cut in unemployment insurance.

Finally the TUC woke up to the scale of the crisis that was upon them. On the TUC General Council Ernest Bevin was the leading voice against the cuts programme. On August 17th he told the TGWU National Executive “The crisis has not arisen as result of anything the Labour Government has done, or of its social policy, or the cost of unemployment. It has arisen as result of the manipulation of finance by the City…”, and he was firm that “The City should not be saved at the expense of the working class and the poorest of our people”. Inside Parliament Arthur Henderson, hitherto a MacDonald loyalist but also linked to the trade unions, started to voice discontent with the May Report. Under immense pressure the Economy sub-committee reported back early to the full Cabinet on 19th August with proposals to implement much of the May Report, though trimming some of its severer recommendations. The Cabinet agreed to authorise a lesser programme of £56 million of economies, though there was vocal disagreement as to whether this would include cuts to unemployment benefits. The Opposition parties insisted that the full programme of cuts, including the 20% cut in unemployment benefit, must be made to ensure New York retained confidence in the UK economy.

Impelled by Bevin, the General Council sent a special deputation to meet the Economy sub-committee to convey its “complete opposition” to the proposed cuts. Asked for alternatives to Snowden’s cuts programme, the TUC General Secretary Walter Citrine questioned whether the “crisis” of sterling was really as catastrophic as the City maintained, and he outlined a programme of tariff reform and increased taxation for higher earners (especially those on “fixed yield” interest, i.e. rentiers) that could start to address it. The meeting became rancorous, with Snowden firm on the need for financial discipline as disaster would follow if sterling went off the Gold Standard. When he asked sarcastically why, if the TUC supported increased taxation on rentiers it did not support taxing teachers and policemen as well, Bevin answered that the latter were useful to society whilst the former were not!

A subsequent letter from the General Council to the Cabinet made it clear to those who supported the cuts, and to those who did not, where the organised labour movement stood. Whilst this gave strength to those, like Henderson, who were now disengaging themselves from MacDonald, it infuriated those in the Cabinet (still a majority) who supported him. Snowden, happy to accept direction from Treasury mandarins, snapped that interference by the TUC was an affront to democracy. Sidney Webb, having spent a lifetime lecturing the working class on what they should do and not do, was infuriated that their representatives should disagree with him. “The General Council are pigs” he raged to his wife Beatrice, although he did not exhibit similar hatred for the Opposition parties, the Bank of England, Sir George May or the New York banks.

But the crucial decisions were not to be made by the General Council, or by Labour MPs, or even the Labour Cabinet. MacDonald was subject to a tidal wave of extra-Parliamentary pressures. On August 20th MacDonald and Snowden met Neville Chamberlain and other Tory and Liberal leaders to discuss a common approach to the economic crisis. Chamberlain insisted that nothing less than the full May Report was acceptable to the Opposition. Snowden agreed this was required but was worried he could not carry his colleagues with him, whereupon Chamberlain urged MacDonald to consider the formation of a “national government” to carry forward the full cuts programme. This would be done “in the national interest”.

Many others were making this suggestion, including George V. When MacDonald saw the King on the morning of August 23rd he told him the government could not reach agreement on the cuts and might have to resign. After MacDonald left the Palace the King saw Sir Herbert Samuel, the Liberal leader, and told him what the Prime Minister had said. Samuel was concerned, and told the King that “In view of the fact that the necessary economies would prove most unpalatable to the working classes, it would be in the general interest if they could be imposed by a Labour government”. He explained that if Labour did not stay in power the next best outcome would be a national government composed of representatives of all three parties, with MacDonald as Prime Minister to give the impression of continuity.

Later the same morning, the Editor of the Times, Geoffrey Dawson, fully informed of Whitehall and Palace discussions, called the King’s Private Secretary, Sir Clive Wigram, and suggested that the King needed to impress on MacDonald that it was his responsibility to “get the country out of the mess” and to do so “with any flattery he liked”. By this stage MacDonald did not need flattery to see himself as the national saviour rising above petty party concerns. The King, his Private Secretary, the editor of the Times, the Treasury, the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Parties, and increasingly the Labour Prime Minister himself, were all converging on the belief that democratic party politics should be suspended in favour of a “national” government that would respond swiftly to the dictates of the City and Wall St.

The King, his Private Secretary, the editor of the Times, the Treasury, the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Parties, and increasingly the Labour Prime Minister himself, were all converging on the belief that democratic party politics should be suspended in favour of a “national” government that would respond swiftly to the dictates of the City and Wall St.

That evening MacDonald received a telegram from the American banking plutocrat J.P Morgan, in the name of the New York banking houses from whom the government was seeking credits. He read it out to the Cabinet, emphasising Morgan’s blunt enquiry whether the programme of cuts under consideration “…had the sincere support and approval of the Bank of England and the City generally” since it was necessary that there be “internal confidence” in the government. It was clear that if it did not, and unless the programme included at least a 10% cut in unemployment benefits, the American loan would not be forthcoming. At this the Cabinet broke up in loud shouting. Eight Ministers (including Henderson and Lansbury) were adamant that they would not be dictated to by New York and would not accept the cuts in benefits.

MacDonald had no choice but to go back to the King and offer his resignation, which he did at 10.20 pm on August 23rd. Sir Clive Wigram recorded that the Prime Minister looked “scared and unbalanced”. The King reassured him that he was still needed, and that he if he could not carry his Cabinet he should from a national government. Relieved, MacDonald agreed to meet Baldwin and Samuel to discuss this, which he did in the presence of the King at 10.00 the next morning, August 24th. With the King’s promptings (already discussed and agreed with Baldwin and Samuel in separate meetings) MacDonald agreed to form a national government with himself as Prime Minister. At this point no member of the Cabinet had resigned and none, except Snowden, were even aware of MacDonald’s meetings with Baldwin and Samuel.

The last Labour Cabinet of that government was held that afternoon. In a tense atmosphere MacDonald informed his colleagues that at the request of the King he was to lead a national coalition government to institute “emergency measures”. He asked Snowden and Thomas to join him and they agreed. No other Ministers were even asked. That afternoon the Palace formally announced that MacDonald had resigned. The communiqué went on “The King then invited him to form a national administration. Mr MacDonald accepted the offer, and kissed hands on his appointment as the new Prime Minister”. At the same time it was announced that the new National Government would implement cuts of £70 million which would include a cut of 10% in unemployment benefits. New York was pleased. The loan was assured.

MacDonald, Snowden and Thomas ended their careers as mere figureheads for a “national” government that was essentially a Tory-Liberal coalition. They provided political cover to impose savage spending cuts and immense suffering on Labour’s heartlands, where unemployment was severest. The reasons for Labour’s collapse in 1931, for its inability to resist the austerity that the “national” government would inflict on the country throughout the 1930s, were many and varied, but fundamentally it was an intellectual failure. Macdonald and his closest supporters held to a narrow, anaemic conception of politics, a naive reformism with no understanding of how utterly ruthless the UK’s ruling class are and how far they will go to protect their power and privilege. Whilst the Labour Government was subject to unprecedented political and economic pressures during 1929-31 these could and should have been predicted. Even after the first effects of the Great Crash had reverberated across Europe and hit the British economy, the government could have survived, and protected those who had elected it, through a combination of greater flexibility in economic thinking, a firmer alliance with Labour’s core constituency and the trade unions, and political backbone. Instead, it allowed itself to become the willing victim of “a ministerial revolution engineered in the City, Downing St and Buckingham Palace” (Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan, vol 1, p.118).

Labour’s servility to the institutions it ostensibly set out to control was nowhere better illustrated than by the issue of the Gold Standard. A few days after the formation of the National Government MacDonald was asked why, before he collapsed the Labour government, he had not first summoned Parliament and candidly explained the situation to them. “There was no time” MacDonald replied. “Prompt action had to be taken to prevent the disaster of going off Gold”. A month later, on 21st September 1931, after advice from Treasury officials that despite the £80 million New York loan Britain’s gold reserves were still dangerously low, the National Government took Britain off the Gold Standard. The Treasury mandarins and newspaper editors who had insisted that the only way to prevent this national disaster was to slash unemployment benefits, made no complaint. Sidney Webb, when informed that Britain had, after all, left the Gold Standard, was incredulous, and his reaction summed up the first generation of Labour Ministers and the government of 1929-1931. “Nobody told us we could do that” he said.

If a transformed Corbyn-led Labour Party is elected – and it is a huge if – there will be many inside the Labour and Trade Union movement, and in the “liberal” media, lining up to tell it what it can and, more importantly, what it cannot do. Whether directly or indirectly these people are the compliant, instinctive servants of the 1%. They speak the language of an Oxbridge-BBC-Guardian elite, well schooled in visionless pragmatism and unquestioning acceptance of capitalist realism. Their every action will be devoted to undermining a Corbyn-led opposition and a socialist government. They should be recognised for what they are – our future Ramsay MacDonalds.

What do Lenin & the Russian Revolution mean to the 21st century left?

This is an extract from a work-in-progress – No Less than Mystic: What do Lenin and the Russian Revolution mean to the 21st Century left? by John Medhurst. The book will be published by Repeater in late 2016/early 2017 

The aim of this book is to present a new history of Lenin and the Russian Revolution that has a direct relevance for those today who oppose and resist neo-liberal capitalism. It broadly covers the period 1903 to 1921 in Russia and seeks to explain why the Bolshevik Revolution degenerated so quickly into its apparent opposite. Yet it is not only and exactly a work of history. It examines the issues and events of the Russian Revolution through the lens of a 21st century, non-Marxist libertarian socialism. It suggests that corporate capitalism must be opposed not with a set of “revolutionary” formulations which were questionable one hundred years ago and have even less relevance now, but with popular, pluralistic and democratic movements built on people’s needs and experience. As a result it is kinder to Russia’s non-Leninist socialists than are most histories. Although not blind to the many flaws of the Russian Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and Jewish Bundists I seek to rescue them from a century of misrepresentation. I do not automatically assume the knowledge of the subject that many Russian Revolution hobbyists take for granted, nor show much deference to those icons of Bolshevism, Lenin and Trotsky, still common today on the left. I suggest that socialist thinkers and activists such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert, Owen Jones, Naomi Klein and Arundahti Roy have more constructive and positive options to offer the anti-capitalist left today than do the sages of Bolshevism.

Some will ask why, outside of academic history, this should be of any interest? The contemporary left does not look to the events and lessons of the French Revolution of 1789-93 for guidance and inspiration so why does it still scrutinise and debate the Russian Revolution? Mainly because it is the first “modern” revolution – i.e led by the urban working class and with a socialist objective – in an era dominated by global capitalism. As such it is a key issue and intellectual point of contention on which subsequent argument about capitalism and its alternatives rests. Its centenary will no doubt generate articles in the liberal media and documentaries on BBC2. There will be learned retrospectives seeking to establish a consensus for future generations on the lessons of the Bolshevik experiment. Most of these assessments will fall in to two camps – a complacent condemnation of the revolution, and by extension all revolution, from the perspective of capitalist “liberal democracy”, or a defence of Bolshevism with an admission that because of civil war and the failure of the European proletariat to also rise up it degenerated into bureaucratic tyranny and Stalinism. This book adopts neither of those perspectives. It argues that the real revolution of 1917 took place in February not October, and was led by a wide alliance of socialists, trade unionists, peasants and populists in which the Bolshevik Party played a minor role. Despite the enormous difficulties involved in creating a durable democratic framework after the February revolution, it contained great potential for social and cultural liberation and a far better future for the Russian people than they had suffered under three hundred years of Tsarism or would endure under Leninism and Stalinism.

This revolution and many of its key players, whilst they made serious tactical and strategic errors, had much within it that today’s anti-capitalist campaigners should re-examine and respect. Whilst it is true that some elements of the Bolshevik revolution, most notably its attempts to provide greater freedom for women and a short-lived libertarian attitude to social and educational experimentation, were bold and emancipatory, that revolution soon established a power structure as monumental and oppressive as the Tsarism it replaced. Within a few months (in some cases days and weeks) most of the democratic freedoms offered by the February revolution were swiftly crushed by the Bolsheviks after they assumed power in October. For a variety of reasons, not least the undemocratic and authoritarian nature of Leninist doctrine, the Bolshevik Revolution had little to no chance of achieving a genuine socialist transition in Russia, much less in the rest of Europe.

This argument is not in itself new. It could even be said to fall under the rubric of the “continuity thesis”, i.e that the policies of the Bolshevik government from October 1917 laid the groundwork for the Stalinist dictatorship of the 1930s and were the genesis of the oppressive police states of the Soviet Bloc. But I do not advocate the simplistic version of continuity, which is that the decisions and policies of the Bolsheviks led in clear, linear fashion straight to the Gulag Archipelago. There were many forks in the road where a more democratic socialist alternative could have been taken. Some of these alternatives were argued for by prominent Bolsheviks in both the “moderate” tendency in the party in 1917-18, and the “Workers Opposition” grouped around Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov in 1920-21. Most crucially, the history told here does not absolve capitalist society then or now for its terrible inequalities and oppressions simply because the so-called “alternative”, an inherently authoritarian socialism, would be even worse. It denies that is the alternative

Nevertheless, I hope it gives the Bolsheviks their due. Between February and October 1917, especially after Lenin’s return to Russia in April, the Bolshevik Party became stronger and more significant as it took root in the Soviets (Workers Councils) of the major cities and campaigned for Peace, Bread and Land. In this phase it undoubtedly spoke for many, perhaps the majority, of the workers in the cities, and Lenin produced his supreme example of revolutionary theory, The State and Revolution. However this phase of the party’s work and the principles of State and Revolution were comprehensibly rejected once the Bolsheviks took power in October. The Soviets and other manifestations of grass roots workers’ power such as Factory Committees were swiftly curtailed and real decision making power was removed to the Supreme Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarcom) and the Supreme Economic Council (Vesenka). Political and press freedom went the same way within weeks of October. Whilst the “bourgeois” parties were immediately outlawed even other socialist parties did not last long once Sovnarcom had firmly established its power. The Socialist Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks and the anarchists were tolerated for a while after the insurrection, but for a far shorter time than is commonly supposed. Most of their newspapers were instantly suppressed, for example. They were then persecuted, censored and finally banned as the Bolshevik Party became inextricable from the organs of state.

This is not the romantic mythology of the Russian Revolution. Nor is it the counter-myth of an inherently malevolent socialism imposed on a tragic, noble middle-class. It is a deeper tragedy of political authoritarians whose dogmatic philosophy, built into the DNA of the Bolshevik Party by Lenin from 1903 onward, led them to disastrous decisions whose consequences they could not foresee. One of those consequences was the suppression and destruction of independent bodies such as Factory Committees, trade unions and rural and urban Soviets that offered a path to a different form of socialism. This should not be a contentious thesis. Although the October Revolution was greeted by the international left as a great liberatory event that reaction was based on initial reports and was overwhelmingly emotional. It was not long before reliable reports from left witnesses and participants revealed a truer picture of what was happening inside the “first socialist country in the world”, and how far from any acceptable version of socialism that regime was.

From Marxist revolutionaries like Rosa Luxemburg to democratic socialists like Bertrand Russell many on the political left were critical of the Bolshevik insurrection from the first. Subsequent investigation and the course of the new regime over its first six months reinforced that criticism. In 1918 Rosa Luxemburg, writing of the limits and shortcomings of all institutions including democratic ones, concluded “But the remedy that Lenin and Trotsky have found is worse than the disease it is meant to cure”. Having seen the Bolsheviks’ strangulation of political and press freedom and the suppression of internal democracy in the Soviets, Luxemburg found that “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all.” She concluded that under Bolshevik rule the only “active element” was the bureaucracy and that therefore Bolshevik rule was “at bottom a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the Proletariat however but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians”.

From a different perspective, but equally unafraid to state honestly what he observed even if it shattered the illusions of those who saw in Bolshevik Russia some form of socialism, Bertrand Russell, in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (written in 1920 after a long visit to Russia and interviews with Lenin, Trotsky and Gorky) found that the Soviets had long died out as living democratic institutions because “no conceivable system of free elections would give majorities to the Communists, either in town or country”. This was hardly surprising given that the social and political system created by Lenin and the Bolsheviks was “…a slavery far more complete than that of capitalism. A sweated wage, long hours, industrial conscription, prohibition of strikes, prison for slackers, diminution of already insufficient rations in factories where production falls below what the authorities expect, an army of spies ready to report any tendency to political disaffection and to procure imprisonment for its promoters – this is the reality of a system which still professes to govern in the name of the proletariat”. This centralised state capitalism, presided over by a small political elite that denied political expression to any outside its own ranks, was not created by Stalin in the late 1920s and 1930s – Stalin simply added the physical liquidation of the Old Bolsheviks and a massive increase in the apparatus of state terror. On the contrary, this was the work of the Old Bolsheviks.

Naturally the propaganda organs of western capitalist states violently condemned the Bolsheviks from the very start. This criticism was pure hypocrisy. They did not make similar criticisms of the suppression of democracy in their colonial possessions in Ireland, India, Africa and Asia, or worry about the social and economic hardships suffered by their own working class. Their condemnation was driven not from sincere concern for democracy and civil rights but a desire to safeguard their wealth and privilege and ensure they did not share the fate of the Russian ruling class. It is little wonder many on the left gave no credence to such criticisms even if they were sometimes factually accurate. But it was not particularly difficult to find informed and honest critiques of the Bolshevik state from those across the Marxist and anarcho-syndicalist left who, in different ways, had taken part in or supported the process of revolutionary upheaval began in February 1917 and had seen at first hand its usurpation and corruption by the Bolsheviks.

A week after the Bolshevik insurrections in Petrograd and Moscow, the militant Railwayman’s Trade Union declared that it was strongly opposed to the seizure of power by one party and demanded that a broad based socialist coalition government be formed (it is often forgotten that Lenin’s justification for the Bolshevik coup was not rule by the Bolshevik Party, but to create a government elected by and accountable to the National Congress of Soviets, a promise never kept). Six weeks after October the newspaper Novaya Zhizn, edited by the writer Maxim Gorky, Lenin’s personal friend and a militant socialist, thunderously condemned the new regime. It said that power had not really passed to the Soviets (let alone “All Power”) and that the crucial 2nd Congress of Soviets, which had “ratified” the seizure of power, had in reality been faced with a fait accompli backed by armed soldiers who gave it little choice. The paper said that it was brutally clear that the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” meant in reality “All power to a few Bolsheviks”, and asserted that the new regime was in no sense a Soviet Republic but was actually “an oligarchic republic, a republic of a few People’s Commissars”(note).

But the most fundamental, best informed and ringing critique of Bolshevik authoritarianism came from the Russian socialist and Marxist left itself. Most especially the always present Marxist alternative best represented by the Mensheviks, led by Julius Martov, Lenin’s great opposite and antagonist since 1903 when the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) had split into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. At that crucial juncture Martov had stood for a more inclusive and democratic organisation, one not consisting entirely of full time “professional revolutionaries” divorced from ordinary workers and rigidly controlled from the centre. On this issue, Lenin actually lost to Martov and failed to carry the majority of delegates at the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP (it was on a lesser issue to do with the composition of an editorial board that Lenin secured more votes than Martov, and on the lesser issue that the names “Bolsheviks” (majority) and “Mensheviks” (minority) came to stick to the opposing sides). As early as 1904 Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet called Leninism or Marxism? in which she identified the danger of giving the leadership of a revolutionary socialist party sweeping powers that “…would multiply artificially and in a most dangerous measure the conservatism which is the necessary outgrowth of every such leadership”. She concluded “There is nothing which so easily and so surely hands over a still youthful labour movement to the private ambitions of intellectuals, as forcing the movement into the straight-jacket of a bureaucratic centralism which debases the fighting workers into the pliable tools of the hands of a “committee””. Even Trotsky, at the time, was adamantly opposed to Lenin’s conception of the party, stating plainly his belief that when Lenin spoke of the dictatorship of the Proletariat he really meant “a dictatorship over the proletariat”. Ironically, Trotsky himself would later help Lenin construct it.

Martov remained Lenin’s most articulate and principled Marxist opponent from 1903 until his death in 1923. After October 1917 his critiques of the Bolshevik regime were relentless yet always from a position of support for democratic socialism and working class freedom. In the 1920s his acute and honest accounts of the new regime were available through trade union and socialist publications in Europe, although these were marginalised and forgotten as Stalinist ideological orthodoxy clamped itself on the thinking of the western left. For those with ears to listen, though, Martov had already in 1919 laid out the bare truth of life in Bolshevik Russia and the betrayal of the hopes and promises of October 1917. As he put it, “Reality has cruelly shattered all these illusions. The “Soviet State” has not established in any instance electiveness and recall of public officials. It has not suppressed the professional police. It has not done away with social hierarchy in production…On the contrary, it shows a tendency in the opposite direction. It shows a tendency towards the utmost possible strengthening of the principles of hierarchy and compulsion. It shows a tendency toward the development of a more specialized apparatus of repression than before. It shows a tendency toward the total freedom of the executive organism from the tutelage of the electors”(note). Whilst supporting the Soviet government against the reactionary “Whites” in the Civil War, Martov condemned the restrictions on press and political freedom and the suppression of other political parties (the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were semi-legal for a short while but were banned by 1920, by which time the Bolsheviks had long since turned on the working class and trade union movement itself).

For many of today’s anti-capitalist campaigners the legacy and importance of non-Leninist, libertarian socialism has found its best expression in the positions taken by Noam Chomsky since the 1960s. Chomsky’s forensic and damning indictments of US foreign policy are rooted in his anti-authoritarian politics, which he sometimes identifies as anarchism and sometimes as libertarian socialism (he increasingly ignores academic pigeon holes and simply supports any and all initiatives by trade unions, social activists and indigenous peoples that resist corporate capitalism). Chomsky is also one of the few outstanding left intellectuals to unambiguously reject Leninism and Bolshevism as not just misguided but fundamentally anti-socialist, and “in my view counter-revolutionary”. Chomsky identifies “incipient socialist institutions” such as Soviets, Factory Committees and workers co-operatives that emerged in the period after the February Revolution, and asserts “Lenin and Trotsky pretty much eliminated them as they consolidated power”. He concedes that there are arguments about the pressures and justifications for so doing (i.e the need to win the civil war and the terrible privations it caused) but believes that “The incipient socialist structures in Russia were dismantled before the really dire conditions arose”. More detailed studies, such as Maurice Brinton’s analysis of Workers’ Control in the period 1917-1921, tend to confirm this.

Chomsky’s general critique derived from “left Communists” such as Anton Pannekoek and anarcho-syndicalists such as Berkman and Rudolf Rocker, as well as an underlying and long established anti-statist radicalism best expressed by Michael Bakunin, the great seer and leader of 19th century anarchism. In debate with Karl Marx in the 1870s about the structures and policies of the 1st International, Bakunin predicted that Marx’s approach to revolution and socialism would lead to a “Red Bureaucracy” that would be worse than any form of oppression previously seen. Prescient as this was it is not necessary to be an anarchist to condemn Leninism as a departure from the core tenets of democratic socialism and from Marxism itself. Serious thinkers and leaders in the Marxist tradition such as Pannekoek, Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Mattick, Karl Kautsky and Martov all condemned Leninism before October 1917 as well as after it. Lenin himself added credence to their analyses through his political activities and philosophy – from his clearly stated belief when the Bolshevik Party was formed that the working class was “incapable on its own of developing anything more than a trade union consciousness”, and required political leadership “from without” (i.e. from bourgeois intellectuals such as himself) to his blunt admission shortly after October that “socialism is nothing but state capitalist monopoly made to benefit the whole people”. Diane P. Koenker, in Labour Relations in Socialist Russia: Printers, their union and the origins of Soviet socialism (1991) summed up what this meant for ordinary Russian workers, which was “In the shops where one-man management (Lenin’s own preference) replaced collegial management workers faced the same kinds of authoritarian management they thought existed only under capitalism”.