Archive for the 'Discussion' Category


Seminar: “Loyalties: An Interdisciplinary Seminar on British Communism”

Loyalties: An Interdisciplinary Seminar on British Communism.


The question of dual or contested loyalties has been a constant theme in the history of British communism. Much of existing research has centred on the political allegiances of communists who have occupied positions of influence in the military, or have been involved in espionage. Research in this field has been enriched by the availability of MI5 files, Soviet archives and personal memoir.  However, the question of the loyalties of British communists has a much wider scope and significance, encompassing the dilemmas of intellectuals, changing personal and political identities and the balance between trade union activism and political priorities. In the background have often been tensions between the freedom of the artist and writer and their political commitments, the internationalist and anti-fascist allegiances in the context of war and pacifism, and the effects of the Cold War on work and family life.

Given the breadth of the loyalties question, this one day seminar, funded by The Open University’s Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, was conceived with the idea of pushing out the boundaries of research to bring together historians, political scientists, intelligence experts and those working on biographical studies and life-writing. The seminar is intended to be a starting-point for further research and will focus initially on three main areas:

War, intelligence and espionage

British communists and Spain in the 1930s

Writers, intellectuals, artists.

The emphasis will be on short 10-15 minute contributions to maximise the time available. In addition to these three themes the two plenaries at the beginning and end of the day are intended to discuss further research opportunities.

Date: Friday 18 November. 9.30-16.00

Venue, Kellogg College, 62 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6PN

For further details and to register please contact Dr Geoff Andrews:



Women, War and Resistance in Iraq

Women, War and Resistance in Iraq

Report of SHS public meeting by David Morgan

Iraqi-born Haifa Zangana has long been known as a courageous and independent voice against the foreign occupation of her country. She has used her considerable talents as an activist and as a writer to make people aware of the unendurable suffering inflicted on the Iraqi people over decades of war, oppression, economic sanctions and occupation.

Haifa is justly and widely admired for her tenacity and outspokenness, qualities which were much in evidence when she spoke to the Socialist History Society on 16 September. The SHS organised the meeting at the Bishopsgate Institute in cooperation with Women for an Independent and Unified Iraq with Haifa speaking on the theme of “Iraqi Women’s Role in the Anti-colonial Resistance”. Khatchatur Pilikian, a SHS committee member who was also born in Iraq, chaired the meeting (we have taken the opportunity to include his spirited opening address in this newsletter).

A passionate advocate of the full participation of women in Iraqi and Muslim societies, Haifa chose the occasion to celebrate the role of women in the building of a modern Iraq, whose secular society and social gains for women she described as the most progressive in the Middle East in the sixties and seventies. Latterly, successive wars and the ongoing occupation of the country have proved a disaster for women in particular despite the fact that the American occupiers used the promotion of women’s rights as one of their main justifications for the US-led military intervention in 2003.

While passionate and angry about the terrible treatment of the Iraqi people today, Haifa was careful to situate the current resistance within the history of Iraq since the creation of the modern state in the 1920s. She cited numerous examples of heroic individuals and described the participation of women in progressive organisations such as the once highly influential Communist Party of Iraq. By means of this evidence, too often neglected by commentators on contemporary Iraq, she demonstrated that Iraqi women have had a long history of political activism and social participation throughout the 20th century and even before.

In Haifa’s perspective, the Iraqi women’s movement undeniably played an integral part in the construction of the modern identity of Iraq as a progressive secular state, an identity that she understands must continually be remembered and defended against the negative images of dictatorship and ethnic divisions that too often prevail today. The role of Iraqi intellectuals, many of whom were Marxists, had been crucial to the development of the progressive national movement including the women’s movement, she argued. As regards the Marxist influence in Iraq, Haifa told the meeting that the first Marxist study group was established in 1924, publishing the short-lived journal, As-Sahifa. Meanwhile, the first Iraqi women’s magazine, Layla, appeared in October 1923. A particular important role had been played by poets given that poetry in both its written and oral forms has traditionally had a special public place as a genre in Iraqi society. As an example, the woman poet Um Nazir, was a pioneer in calling for women’s liberation in Iraq as well as in the fight against colonial occupation and injustice.

Women had taken part in the struggle against colonial domination under British rule and were in the forefront of the fight for national unity, social justice and legal equality. The gains made by women’s struggles had eventually led to Iraqi women becoming among the most liberated in the region and their country’s social policies among the most progressive in the world. A key event was the 1958 Revolution, when Iraqi people for the first time won control of their own lives. Haifa saw this moment as one of jubilation for Iraqis, women especially, because the revolution ushered in a new constitution that established important legal rights for women. International Women’s Day on 8 March was celebrated as a public holiday as was International Workers’ Day on 1 May. The great tragedy of modern Iraq is that wars, conflict and outside intervention have led to a situation where the Iraqi people have lost many of the social gains that they once enjoyed. It is vitally important for Iraqis to remember their history in order to show that there is nothing inevitable about their present plight. Haifa Zangana provided an illuminating talk with much food for thought and a lively discussion followed.

For anyone who was unable to attend the meeting, many of the themes that she dealt with are treated in much more detail in her recent book, City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman’s Account of War and Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2007).

Welcome address to Haifa Zangana

by Khatchatur Pilikian

I met Haifa for the first time in November 2006, at a Conference in the Friends House, Euston. In her end-of-Conference talk, she exposed the hypocritical nature of most of the so-named Non Governmental Organisations, NGOs, engaged in occupied Iraq. Her detailed analysis of the NGOs functioning, as she thought, as an “integral part of the US strategy in Iraq,” brought her to conclude that the NGOs “represent US colonial policy rather than the interests of Iraqi men and women.” The two quotations above are from Haifa’s latest book, The City of Widows, which includes her analysis of the mission of NGOs in Iraq.

Jumping the queue, I should mention that Haifa is scheduled to be in New York on Sept 22, to launch a new edition of her first book, Dreaming of Baghdad, for the Feminist Press NY. In the next couple of months, before the end of the year 2009, she will be presenting papers on the evolving role of colonial feminists in occupied Iraq, first on October 4-7, in Beirut, at Arab Feminisms: A Critical Perspective, then on December 9-12, in The Hague, Netherlands, at the Institute of Social Studies.

Haifa’s courage of her convictions reminds me of the phenomenal grandeur of miniature art in general, and in particular of the images of Sumerian, the ancient Iraqi-Mesopotamian art of the cylinder seals. Miniscule images notwithstanding, they essentially have monumental and impressive presence. As you all can witness, Haifa Zangana is a tiny little woman, but she has a monumental personality and an impressive talent to tell what really is happening in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, and particularly what is happening to the Iraqi women. But most fascinatingly, Haifa also tells us what the Iraqi women used to make happen to the Iraqi society and to their feminist, humane aspirations. They  waged, for decades, impressive anticolonial resistance for independence and persistent struggles for genuine democracy, not the latter-day imperialism’s camouflaged, nay deranged version of it that reflects the servile ethics of by-gone colonialism. As John Milton, the revolutionary republican poet, once declared in his Apology of 1648: “they who have put out the peoples eyes, reproach them of their blindness”. And yet, Haifa tells us how good the Iraqi women have seen and continue to see and grasp the reality, both the causes and the effects of their tragedy. Moreover, they continue to act upon it, thus refuting the masquerading of that reality by the occupying powers and their local junta, both still adamant to oblige their Grand Master’s dictating roar.

Once upon a time, well fifteen hundred years before the original Odyssey was written down by Homer, the king of Uruk in Sumeria, named Gilgamesh, “went on a long journey” and “brought us a tale of the days before the flood,” and, finally, he  “engraved on a stone the whole story. ” (N.K.Saunders. The Epic of Gilgamash. Prologue. Penguin Books 1972) That most archaic odyssey also tells us about a haunting predicament worth ‘lending our ears’ to, especially in our own turbulent times. Ishtar, the Queen of Heaven, asks the Heavenly father of Gods, Anu, the following: “Fill Gilgamesh, I say, with arrogance to his destruction.” Ishtar’s plea kindled a paradox, as she herself was arrogance incarnate. Ishtar knew herself well. Unlike Gilgamesh, her safety was secured by her ‘divine immortality’.

How true this quinto-millenial wisdom of Sumeria sounds today. Uttered in the land now an occupied Iraq, the arrogance of the most powerful military power the world has ever witnessed, is doing, it seems, its utmost to destroy itself, after having decimated the heritage of the land and its culture, annihilated over a million of its population and left behind nearly a million displaced children and close to five million Iraqi refugees roaming around both in neighbouring countries and in their own homeland too. And all, because of the occupying power’s “addiction to oil,” as confessed, not long time ago, by the arrogant, supreme commander of its awesome military conglomerate, the pre-Obama US President, now in the dustbin of history, so decreed by US voters. Arrogance is indeed a Hara-kiri power. Ishtar is proving to be right.

The City of Widows of 2009 is the odyssey not only of its author Haifa Zangana, but also and essentially of the Iraqi women and their resistance to the unjust war and occupation, not devoid of a graceful yet taciturn eulogy to their resilience and tenacity for survival. Perhaps tinged with wishful thinking, I could also read in between the lines, a compassionate, warning advice to the occupying powers to stop their indulgence in the brutal Hara-kiri arrogance. Would they ever believe they are not divinely immortal, unlike Ishtar? Inshallah! Otherwise, Bertold Brecht’s theatrical aphorism will continue to pinch our alter ego: “If sharks ruled the world they would teach the little fish that it is a great honour to swim into the mouth of a shark.” Let us welcome Haifa to tell us her tale.


discussion on 1989

A discussion has been underway in the pages of the SHS newsletter about the significance of the fall of the communist governments in the USSR and Eastern Europe 20 years ago. The contributions to which Tom Bailey is responding (see below) can be viewed here.



– Tom Bailey

I disagree with Mike Squires’ claim that the Eastern European states were not Socialist. Yes, there were major faults and shortcomings in these socialist countries, but fundamentally, they were still Socialist. Capitalist restoration in these countries should be seen dialectically, as a process. These countries took many quantitative steps towards capitalism, I believe, after the death of Joseph Stalin. Aside from negating 30 years of Socialism by denouncing Stalin, a number of ‘reforms’ were implemented. Most notable is Khrushchev’s “State of the whole people” and the “Party of the whole people”, replacing the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, effectively ending the class struggle against bourgeois influence and ideas.

Another notable reform was the economic reforms of 1965, or the ‘Kosygin Reform’, making enterprise profit the guiding principle in investment decisions by planners, rather than putting politics into action. However, these were not qualitative changes. As Stalin explained in Historical and Dialectical Materialism: “Contrary to metaphysics, dialectics does not regard the process of development as a simple process of growth, where quantitative changes do not lead to qualitative changes, but as a development which passes from insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes to open’ fundamental changes’ to qualitative changes; a development in which the qualitative changes occur not gradually, but rapidly and abruptly, taking the form of a leap from one state to another; they occur not accidentally but as the natural result of an accumulation of imperceptible and gradual quantitative changes.”

The “insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes” being the post-Stalin reforms, and the “fundamental changes” being the events of 1989-1991. Concerning the class character of 1989-1991, yes the working class was the primary force on the streets demanding change; but what change were they demanding? In 1990, in the referendum asking people whether they wanted to dissolve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the overwhelming majority, 76% said “No”. In May 1991, an American poll found 54% of Russians wished to keep Socialism, 27% wished for a mixed economy and only 20% wanted a free market economy (Monthly Review 12/94). A similar poll, reported in the New York Times (12/1/89) found that 47% of Czechoslovakians wished for their economy to remain state controlled, 43% wanted a mix and 3% wanted majority private ownership.

It would appear, the working class in the socialist countries did not take to the streets demanding an end to Socialism. Rather, the protests, discontent and apathy to capitalist restoration was due to issues such as party corruption, comparatively low living standards and shortages in goods (exacerbated by market reforms in the late 80s). This popular discontent was exploited by a new bourgeois class, arising from within the Party and the explosion of the black market (in the case of the USSR) under Brezhnev. The roots of the black market are a result of policies such as Khrushchev’s mechanical levelling of wages, decreasing motivation (as “bourgeois right” was still existent), creating shortages. This problem was made worse by the large increases in wages, despite nothing to buy with them from the formal economy.

The extent of this problem can be seen in 1969 when Soviet citizens would save 70% of their income (Bahman Azad – Heroic Struggle, Bitter Defeat). A shortage of goods available, combined with large amounts of unspendable income created the conditions for a black market. This black market created a class whose interests lay in private property and free markets. It was this class and their intellectual and political representatives, many of who were in their respective Communist parties, that led the movements of 1989-91 and made the qualitative leap to Capitalism. I was born only one month before the lowering of the Hammer and Sickle in Moscow, so I do not know what affect this must have had on Communists and other progressive people over the world, but I can only imagine it was a disaster.


Why we should remember Winstanley and the Diggers

David Morgan. From the SHS Newsletter, August 2009

This year marks the quatercentenary of the birth of Gerrard Winstanley, who became the main spokesman of the “Diggers” or True Levellers. For just a few months in 1649 groups of people led by Winstanley and other veterans from the Civil War took over common lands to establish self-governing rural co-operatives on St George’s Hill in Surrey, and elsewhere in Buckinghamshire, Kent and Northamptonshire.

Winstanley defended the communes arguing that the land was a “common treasury” gifted by the creator to all. Their ultimately futile action met with fierce resistance from land owners but was later interpreted as a precursor of Communism inspiring many Utopian thinkers and Socialists. Winstanley’s substantial body of writings was rediscovered by a larger audience in the 1970s when Christopher Hill published “The World Turned Upside Down”, which described the various radical groups that emerged amidst the chaos of the 17th Century revolution; Leon Rosselson wrote a popular song with the same title in 1975.

Hill also edited a selection of Winstanley’s pamphlets, “The Law of Freedom and Other Writings”, which has long been out of print. The 70s also saw a powerful film, “Winstanley” by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, with Christopher Hill as adviser, which was recently released on DVD by the British Film Institute.

Our Society is pleased to be organising, in cooperation with the South Place Ethical Society, a seminar on the abiding significance of the life and work of Gerrard Winstanley to be held at the Conway Hall on 19th November 2009. The event will see contributions from Professor Thomas Corns and Professor Ann Hughes, who are two of the editors, along with David Loewenstein, of the first complete and fully annotated edition of Winstanley’s works. The authors regard Gerrard Winstanley as the foremost radical thinker and activist of the English Revolution and maintain that his writings still have strong contemporary relevance. The meeting follows on from a successful Milton anniversary meeting held last year by the SHS at the same venue when Professor Corns spoke about the radicalism of the poet John Milton.


Discussion: twenty years on from 1989

    Mike Squires: Why did what happened, happen?

(from SHS Newsletter, April 2009)

Twenty years ago the world changed. For some, dreams and hopes were shattered, while for others a promising new world had dawned. It was 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, the year when, throughout eastern Europe what were termed as socialist countries collapsed one by one.

The socialist world, or at least its European hard core led by its founder the USSR, fell like so many dominoes. These profound changes heralded a new world order where capitalism was literally the only game in town. The left, certainly throughout Europe, could no longer point to some kind of economic alternative, a different way of doing things to that offered by the proponents of the free market. State planning and controlled production were now passe and it was back to the days of the free for all.

Communists in particular were rudderless. For years they had looked to the socialist countries of Europe as an example of a possible blueprint for a new society. The USSR since 1917 was hailed by communists, not only as the world’s first socialist state, but as the bulwark of the world’s progressive forces, and a beacon in the struggle against war, colonialism, and injustice.

Now all that was gone. Without getting into a protracted debate about the merits or otherwise of those countries that were described by communists as ‘real existing socialism’- one issue that is worth looking at is why did they collapse so quickly, and why was there no organised resistance to this change back to capitalism?

For Marxists, one of the defining features of society is which class owns and controls the means of production. Under capitalism it is the capitalist class, under socialism it is the working class and its allies. Another important tenet of Marxism is that ‘no ruling class gives up power without a struggle’. If any ruling class is threatened it will use whatever means at its disposal to hang on to power. So, what are we to make of what happened twenty years ago and how does it equate with Marxist theory?

If the countries of Eastern Europe, where communists were in power were socialist, then by definition the working class must have owned and controlled the means of production. Why did the working class relinquish this ownership and control so quickly? Why did they hand over their factories, offices, distribution networks, transport, raw materials etc. so readily to the rising class of entrepreneurs?

And why, if the working class was the ruling class, was there no resistance to this wholesale transfer of property from one class to another? Why were there no factory occupations, no armed rebellions, or protests against a return to the old ways? In short, what does it tell us about the Marxist maxim that no ruling class gives up without a fight?

There is only one possible answer to these interlocking questions. It may be heretical to say so, but for this writer, the only solution seems to be that the countries of Eastern Europe, however they started, out could no longer be described as socialist. If they were, then the basic tenets of Marxism would have been undermined.

    Francis King: It depends what you mean by Socialism

(from SHS Newsletter, August 2009)

Mike Squires raised several important questions in his piece on 1989 in the last newsletter, including: “were the East European states socialist?” The simple answer has to be: “it all depends on what you mean by socialism”.

We need to remember that the terms “capitalism” and “socialism” do not have equal scientific validity. Capitalism was developing as an economic order long before anyone named it or attempted to analyse it. Our understanding of capitalism is derived from actual observation of an existing economic system in operation.

Socialism, on the other hand, was at the outset an imagined system – a utopia. It existed as an ideology, an economic critique of capitalism and as a vision of how things could and should be, long before any serious attempt could be made to realise it in practice. Socialists identified certain social ills in capitalism, and imagined an alternative system without those defects. So, for example, instead of crises, there would be planning; instead of competition, there would be co-operation and solidarity; instead of bosses giving orders, the workers would rule; instead of oppression, there would be freedom and democracy; security would replace insecurity; equality would replace inequality, a rational economy and society could eliminate poverty, boost labour productivity, and increase leisure, etc. etc.

But there has never been any unanimity amongst socialists as to which of these features are the most important, and, moreover, the fact that a social order is imaginable does not necessarily make it possible in practice. Some of its components might be quite incompatible with one another. Conversely, parts of the programme may be perfectly feasible on their own. Overall, there is not, and cannot be, one single gold standard of “socialism”, against which all claimants can be assessed. It is a very elastic term.

The communist parties that used to rule the USSR and Eastern Europe all claimed to be building “socialism”, en route to “communism” – the full and final realisation of the maximum socialist programme. Socialist ideas – at least, certain socialist ideas – were clearly very important in shaping those regimes and societies. Capitalist economic relations, along with the capitalist class, were largely suppressed there. Most productive resources were allocated by the state, according to politically-defined criteria that had little to do with profit and loss. The residual private capitalist sector was generally small. Their state-run economies, in theory at least, operated in accordance with a plan, and they all provided a considerable measure of (basic) social welfare. On the other hand, those states’ strictly hierarchical political structure, closed borders, censorship and powerful secret police, together with backward technology and low labour productivity rendered much of the talk of working class power, democracy and economic rationality meaningless.

Was this socio-economic system nonetheless “socialist”? Those of us who were communists use to think so (although many other socialists never accepted that view). But, having decided that these states were “socialist”, we then tended to
ascribe to them – on very slender evidence – all the features of the traditional socialist utopia, such as working-class power, economic rationality and so forth.

Although some of us recognised that there were serious deficiencies in those countries, we almost all believed that their fundamentally healthy, historically progressive, socialist basis would enable all these problems to be overcome in time. Rather than looking dispassionately at those societies and their institutions and then deciding how best to characterise them, we had started with the designation “socialist”, and had then tended to assume that they operated in accordance with our understanding of socialism. The events of 1989-1991 exposed the rather basic error of that approach.

    John Manning: “People in High Places Serving Themselves”

(from SHS Newsletter August 2009)

Mike Squires asks – on the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall – why ‘real existing socialism’ collapsed as it did, undefended by those it claimed to represent. And whether the cause lay in there being in the end no ‘socialism’ left to defend.

While inner-GDR debate accepted the role of the state and nationalisation, it also talked of the market, competition, individual enterprise and ways to mobilise the productivity and innovation needed by socialism. This produced the GDR’s single real economic success phase (early 1960s). Protected by the newly built Wall, it in some ways echoed Lenin’s 1920s NEP. It brought economic dynamism, and with that a cultural upsurge. However, some saw in this a challenge to the ‘leading role of the Party’. So it slowed down, and was over by the ’70s.

Which raises wider questions. If socialism had its source in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, with democracy and the rule of law, why did it end as command/voluntarist economics, part-suspension of the rule of law and centralist control? Francis King’s fine piece on Bazarov (Socialist History 34) quotes him (1928!) criticising the way a too rapid ‘socialisation’ could weaken the ‘growth of productive forces’ (p.31). Is that perhaps also why GDR productivity lagged behind the West?

Another part of the same problem: Why was the Jacobin phase of the French Revolution so idealised by some on the Left, ignoring the damage it did? GDR paranoia was due to West Germany’s place in US hegemonic plans – an implicit threat, which in part explains why the GDR, in its response, became so much associated with dictatorship and repression. But the hyper-control was counter-productive.
In the end many lost faith. The GDR had idealism and a lot going for it. Yet in the end many lost faith. People won’t endlessly accept centralised bureaucracy as a way of life. And closer home, without suggesting direct similarities, are there not at least distant echoes audible in today’s UK? For instance, economics which don’t add up; people in high places serving themselves, not the community; a massive distrust towards the leadership; and to cap it, sundry bits of the ‘secret state’ keeping watch on it all. George Orwell would have smiled!

March 2023