Archive for the 'Communism' Category


Today, 7 November 2017, is the centenary of the Great October Revolution.

Like Mikhail Gorbachev (in an interview with Clive Anderson on BBC1 on 3 November 1996), I would have preferred the Revolution of February 1917 to have prevailed.

Caning John Pilger

Wilfred Burchett (1911-1983) was a brave and intrepid Australian journalist who mainly reported from the other side in the Cold War. He was the first western reporter to visit Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city, something he did without permission from the US Occupation authorities, and was thus able to counter attempted US military lies and disinformation about what we now know was radiation poisoning; he did this most dramatically at a US military press conference in Japan immediately after his visit to the city.  For many years in the 1950s and 1960s, conservative Australian Governments unjustly refused to renew Burchett’s Australian passport, something only remedied by the incoming Labor administration of Gough Whitlam on 6 December 1972, four days after Labor’s election win. That Burchett may possibly have self-censored his writing for his Socialist Bloc hosts (or worse, been their dupe) does not diminish the wrong he suffered at the hands of petty conservative Australian governments.

Another Australian journo, John Pilger, wrote a preface to a collection on articles about Burchett, edited by Ben Kiernen in 1986. On the second page of his preface, Pilger quotes from Burchett’s autiobiography, and then commits a schoolboy howler. “Soon afterwards [Pilger writes, page x], Wilfred went ‘on the road with a swag’ and in Queensland was adopted by a group of cane-cutters . . . ”

No, Mr Pilger, no! Although Burchett is careful not to name the location of the sugarcane farm he worked on, he says (page 62) it is on an arm of the Clarence River, upstream from a sugar-mill whose chimney effusions he could smell and possibly also see, on a large island bisected by a canal with horse-drawn barges transporting bundles of cut cane. The mill would be the one at Harwood (still in operation today, thanks to former state MP, Don Day), and the island most likely Palmers Island. Other large islands upstream of the Harwood Mill would be Harwood Island itself or Chatsworth Island, but these are not bisected by canals.  But all of these, including the entire mouth of the Clarence River are in New South Wales, Mr Pilger, not Queensland.

Burchett is briefly mentioned as a social acquaintance of Guy Burgess in Moscow in the 1950s in the recent biography of Burgess by Andrew Lownie, reviewed here.



Wilfred Burchett [1969]: Passport: An Autobiography. Melbourne, Australia: Nelson.

Ben Kiernan (Editor) [1986]: Burchett Reporting the Other Side of the World 1939-1983. London, UK: Quartet.

Back in the USSR


How clever of Co-operatives UK, the association of British co-operatives, to design a logo that brings to mind the Cyrillic acronym of the USSR, CCCP.  For leftists of a certain age, this would be a very positive allusion.

Historic compromises


After the coup in Chile in 1973 which overthrew the democratically-elected administration of Salvador Allende (and which killed him and many others), the Eurocommunist left in Western Europe spoke of the need to have a grand “historic compromise” before entering Government: enjoining the centre and centre-right to support a coalition of national unity, so as to preclude, or at least inhibit, the right from undermining an elected government of the left.  One of the ironies of history was that it was the left in government – the communist regimes of Eastern Europe – which were forced to forge such grand compromises, by conducting negotiations and sometimes forming coalitions (albeit, short-lived) with their non-communist opponents in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and even Zimbabwe.

Ends and Means

I have just read the memoir of Michael Hayden, USAF General and former head of both NSA and CIA. The book is interesting and mostly well-written.  It appears, as much as such a memoir could be, honest and truthful.

The torture of detainees undertaken by CIA personnel took place before Hayden was Director, so he could absolve himself of it completely.  But, as he did while Director and subsequently, he defends strongly and bravely his CIA staff, who acted under what they believed were legal orders and within what they believed to be constitutional limits.  This defence is admirable.

How one could imagine that torture would be legal under a constitution which prohibits cruel or unusual punishments remains one of the great mysteries of our age.  Hayden, however, also defends the torture itself.  He does so on grounds of effectiveness, grounds which are demonstrably, and which have repeatedly been demonstrated to be, spurious.  It is no good Hayden, or any other official paid by the public purse, saying “trust me, I know”.  We live in a democracy, and we need, we citizens ourselves, to see the evidence.  It has not ever been provided, at least not definitively and uncontestably.

Such a defence is essentially that the end justifies the means.  As a Roman Catholic, Hayden should appreciate the counter-argument that rebuts this defence: that certain means may vitiate, or irredeemably taint, the ends.   So, even if using torture were to be more effective than not using it, we still should not use it.   We should not because torture is contrary to our values as a humane, civilized, society, respectful of  human dignity, and because using it undermines any claims we may have to moral superiority over our terrorist enemy.

Like players cheating in sports, support for torture shows what sort of person you are, and what values you consider important. Hayden seems like an intelligent, thoughtful, and humane person, so it is a great pity that he, and others in the Bush 43 administration, came to view torture as acceptable. Not everyone in CIA thought so, which was, indeed, how we citizens came to learn about the secret detention camps and the torture in the first place.


Michael V Hayden [2016]: Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror.   New York: Penguin Press.

Metaphorical weathermen

Weather Underground Logo

On 14 January 1965 in New York City, Bob Dylan recorded the song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, and the single was released on 8 March 1965.  The song includes the lines:

You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows.

The metaphor expressed in these lines was very influential.  For instance, the main left-wing armed terrorist movement in the USA, formed in 1969, called itself Weatherman, or The Weathermen, later calling itself The Weather Underground.

Was the metaphor originally due to Dylan?  We can answer NO to that question.   On 18 March 1957, Time magazine reported on political events in Poland, where the ruling Polish United Workers Party had recently seen some liberalization of its earlier Stalinism (and the return to power of reformist communist Wladyslaw Gomulka), followed by something of a reversal back to hard-line policies.  The Time article began:

There is usually one Communist who knows the way the wind is blowing long before the official weather vanes swing into line. In stormy Poland he is a longtime Stalinist timeserver named Jerzy Putrament. When Wladyslaw Gomulka broke with Moscow last October, Comrade Putrament was so enthusiastic in Gomulka’s support that Pravda publicly rebuked him for saying that he preferred “imperialist Coca-Cola to the best home-distilled vodka.” Last month Weatherman Putrament held up a moist forefinger and got the feel of a new breeze blowing through Poland.

Continue reading ‘Metaphorical weathermen’

Transitions 2015

People who have passed on during 2015, whose life or works have influenced me:

  • Yogi Berra (1925-2015), American baseball player
  • Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), American jazz musician
  • Robert Conquest (1917-2015), British kremlinologist
  • Malcolm Fraser (1930-2015), Australian politician
  • Jaako Hintikka (1929-2015), Finnish philosopher and logician
  • Lisa Jardine (1944-2015), British historian
  • Joan Kirner (1938-2015), Australian politician, aka “Mother Russia”
  • Kurt Masur (1927-2015), East German conductor
  • John Forbes Nash (1928-2015), American mathematician
  • Boris Nemtsov (1959-2015), Russian politician
  • Oliver Sacks (1933-2015), British-American neurologist and writer
  • Gunter Schabowski (1929-2015), East German politician
  • Alex Schalck-Golodkowski (1932-2015), East German politician
  • Gunther Schuller (1925-2015), American composer and musician (and French horn player on Miles Davis’ 1959 album, Porgy and Bess).
  • Brian Stewart (1922-2015), British intelligence agent.
  • Ward Swingle (1927-2015), American singer and jazz musician.

Last year’s post is here.

A salute to Bella Subbotovskaya

Bella Subbotovskaya (1938-1982) was a Russian mathematician who founded an underground university in Moscow to teach mathematics to students, particularly but not only Jewish students, excluded from education by the anti-Semitic policies of Moscow State University and other institutions of higher learning. The unpaid lecturers in this underground university were both Jewish and non-Jewish. The activity came to be called the Jewish People’s University and operated, against strong KGB harassment, from 1978 to 1983. Her death was due to a suspicious car accident that may well have been a KGB assassination.

I never cease to be amazed at the stupidity of racism. Even in an allegedly rationalist state such as the late USSR, the authorities deemed it desirable to exclude the best students from university on the basis of their ethnicity or religion.


G. Szpiro [2007]: Bella Abramovna Subbotovskaya and the Jewish People’s University. Notices of the American Mathematics Society (NAMS), 54 (10): 1326-1330.

St Margaret, Liberator of all the Russias

Here is Philip Henscher, writing in The Spectator (in a review of Volume 2 of Charles Moore’s biography of Mrs Thatcher):

“There is no question that Mrs Thatcher, by boldness and conviction, in large part initiated the process that brought freedom to millions in Eastern Europe.”

This is nonsense. The denizens of Eastern Europe were bravely and publicly protesting their confinement from the late 1940s, at a time when Mrs Thatcher was so junior she was still a chemist. The actual liberation of the Comecon countries began in Poland in the 1950s (and again in the 60s and 70s and 80s), in Hungary in the 1950s and 60s, in the CSSR in the mid 1960s, and the USSR in the 1950s under Khrushchev, and the 1980s, under Andropov. Mikhail Gorbachev was a brave member of the verligte wing of the CPSU, but he was not the first to seek to reform communism, not even in the USSR.

Gorbachev was university friends in the 1950s with Zdenek Mlynar, later one of the architects of the Prague Spring, which Gorbachev followed closely. See here. It is ridiculous to imagine that it took a weekend lunch with Mrs Thatcher at Chequers to persuade him to embark on reform. What next? Did she also invent the Internet?

That her supporters should seek to award the odious Mrs Thatcher the credit for the downfall of communism is also hugely insulting to the brave people who did initiate the changes, and who, with their courageous actions, brought them about.

Guy Burgess and Bosie Douglas

I am reading Andrew Lownie’s fascinating new biography of Guy Burgess, member of the Soviet spy circle, the Cambridge Five. Lownie’s book contains something very curious. (I am reading a Kindle edition, so can only give chapter references.)

In Chapter 20, Relationships, we read in paragraph 1:

“In June 1945 [Peter] Pollock returned to Britain.”

Pollock had been away several years, fighting with the British Army in North Africa and in Italy, and having been captured and held as a POW in Italy. In Paragraph 4, we read:

“That summer Pollock and Burgess had seen much of Brian Howard and his boyfriend, Sam, staying with the couple at their home in Tickerage, East Sussex. On one occasion, they had visited the elderly Lord Alfred Douglas in Brighton, as Burgess wanted to show off Pollock and prove he was even more attractive than the famously attractive Douglas in his youth.[Footnote 5]”

The source (footnote 5) is given as: “Pollock taped interview, by kind permission of Miranda Carter.” Pollock died in Tangier on 28 July 2001.

But, according to Wikipedia, Bosie Douglas died on 20 March 1945, so Pollock and Burgess could not have visited him in summer 1945. Was Pollock mis-remembering the year they met, or deliberately lying about meeting Douglas? In either case, the date of Douglas’s death is surely something Lownie could have checked, rather than repeating Pollock’s statement without critical commentary.

Although the content of the book is superb, the book shows the weaknesses of a text written over a long period (30 years), together with some fairly mediocre editing. On several occasions, the author mentions something without explaining it, forgetting that what he knows is different to what the reader knows. Sometimes explanations are given at the second or later mention, instead of at the first. When Lownie mentions “Johnny Philipps, a rich gay bachelor who lived in Albany”, for example, he does not explain what or where is Albany. Only in a later chapter when talking of someone else do we learn that the Albany was “a fashionable set of apartments off Piccadilly.” Likewise, the Venona transcripts are mentioned in Chapter 26, but only explained in Chapter 28. At one point, we learn that Burgess earnt some GBP 800 pa from a Canadian Trust Fund. Nothing is said about this fund, nor how Burgess came to be a trustee of it, although there is an earlier mention of a trip he took in 1930 with his mother and brother to visit Canada, before going up to Cambridge. In Chapter 40, in another example, there is a throwaway reference to a Moscow party given by “the Burchetts”. Australians of a certain age would catch the reference to left-wing journalist Wilfred Burchett, who lived in Moscow in the 1950s, but who else would?

Another instance of poor editing is the description of Novodevichy Cemetery in Chapter 37. Burgess moved to a flat near the cemetery in 1956. Lownie describes the cemetery thus: “where amongst others were the graves of Chekhov, Gogol, Khrushchev, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Stalin’s wife . . . “. That “were” points to the time Burgess moved nearby. But, Khrushchev only died in 1971, and Shostakovich in 1975, both well after 1956; indeed, well after 1963, when Burgess died. I imagine that such poor editing must be an embarrassment to an author whose day job is acting as a literary agent for other authors.  Or is Lownie another author confused about the working of tense in English?

And perhaps taking so long to write a non-fiction book means not enough advantage has been taken of the Web. For instance, is the young German actor named George Mikell mentioned in Chapter 26 the same person as the Lithuanian-Australian actor named George Mikell who has a website? Is the drifter of no fixed abode named James Turck mentioned in Chapter 29 the same James Turck (1924-2011) who acquired an MBA from Columbia and a seat on the American Stock Exchange? I find myself Googling every name mentioned, so I am surprised the author has not done so too.

Overall, the book is fascinating and riveting despite the sloppy writing and apparent lack of editing. Lownie makes a convincing case for the importance of Burgess as a Soviet agent, detailing the documents he was able to provide to his handlers at each stage of his career. Whether Burgess was MORE important than his fellow spies could not be assessed from a life of just one of them. My one major disappointment from the book was the absence of any discussion of the theory that one or more of the Cambridge Five were known to Britain’s senior spy-masters, long before their departures East, to be Soviet agents and were allowed to remain in place. If you want to deceive your enemy you need to communicate through channels your enemy will likely believe, and that may mean using their own loyal agents (or people they believe to be their loyal agents). Such channels are even more necessary if you mostly communicate to deceive but occasionally want, or may need, to send truthful messages.

Indeed, this hall of mirrors might even have further mirrors, if one or more of Burgess, Maclean, or Philby were themselves witting in this deception, and sacrificed their public reputations, their pensions, and their quiet English country-side retirements to serve the land of their birth even beyond their defection. Lots of Britons gave their lives to defend their country in WWII, so the Cambridge spies may have done similarly.  To my mind, such knowing and self-sacrificing deception by these upper-class Englishmen, students of great public schools and habitués of fashionable London clubs, is immensely more plausible than any other explanation I have seen for their treason. Does MI6 hold secret medals for them all in a hidden safe in its Ziggurat-on-Thames?


Andrew Lownie [2015]: Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton.