Reds under the bookshelf?

12:11 am - December 16th 2008

by Alan Thomas    

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Scary Commies at the Staggers!This is a strange one. I hadn’t noticed until earlier today, but apparently the Continuity Eustonites have a bee in their collective bonnets… about two book reviews in the New Statesman. Whilst Eustonalia afficionados will be familiar with their having chosen odd demon-figures to rail at in the past (my personal favourite was Amnesty International, that fearsome institution whom the Eustonistas felt the need to target for reasons I never was bothered to fully fathom), even by their standards this is pretty weird.

According to David T’s original post at Harry’s Place about it, there would seem to be two articles that have upset them. One is a review of Richard “Lenny” Seymour’s book “The Liberal Defense (sic) of Murder” by somebody whom I’d never previously come across called Owen Hatherley. The other is Seymour’s own review of Chris Harman’s “A People’s History of the World”. I have not read either book, and I have no immediate intention of doing so; therefore I cannot know whether either Seymour’s or Hatherley’s reviews are fair and accurate, although I would hazard a guess that both are essential at-length regurgitations of the SWP’s line on the topics that they cover. Put them on somebody else’s Christmas list please, I would prefer a decent bottle of wine.

So, what’s the biggie?

Apparently the issue is that Seymour is a member of the SWP, reviewing another SWP member’s book. Similarly Hatherley writes for Socialist Worker, although he maintains that he is not a party member. HP rather ties itself up in knots over this, coming to the eventual conclusion that Hatherley may not be a member of the SWP but must have some agreement with its politics in order to write for SW:

However, ask yourself. How many people do you know who would write for the newspaper of a totalitarian and anti-democratic organisation, without being substantially aligned with its politics?/

As it happens I don’t think this is true, either of the SWP or any other left-wing group. Certainly my old comrades in the AWL regularly print articles by people with whom they disagree on other questions of politics, and whilst the SWP are far from as pluralist I still can’t see why it is impossible to believe that they might print an article by a non-member without exercising some kind of influence over that person.

On Seymour, David T is far more emphatic:

Here’s Richard Seymour reviewing a book by his party boss, Chris Harman. Seymour does not mention the fact that that Harman is a Socialist Workers’ Party activist, and the New Statesman doesn’t disclose Seymour’s membership of the Socialist Workers’ Party.

What contempt for its readership.

It would, of course, be something of a stretch to see the smirking proprietor of Lenin’s Tomb publicly dissing SWP Generalissimo Harman’s work, even if he did disagree with it in whole. However I daresay he doesn’t, and is in no way misrepresenting himself bywriting a positive review. They are both members of the same Marixist organisation, and therefore that they broadly agree about questions of politics is hardly surprising. Whilst that does make conversations with SWP’ers about other SWP’ers rather dull, I fail to see why it provokes such outrage on the part of Mr T et al.

Oliver Kamm appears just as exercised about it:

My point remains, however, that he (Hatherley-VP) is a contributor to the newspaper of a Leninist organisation, which is not a normal democratic party even of the radical Left, and in which he urges “a foundation for genuine class politics”. This is a material point in evaluating his review, and as such I consider he ought to have disclosed it both in his piece and in his comment on this blog.

It may or may not be the case that Seymour and Hatherley are not being totally transparent with regard to their political affiliations. However it seems to me that it is not particularly important either way: we are afterall talking about book reviews in the Staggers, not candidates for Prime Minister. The question then, is why do the Euston people care so much about it?

Seymour himself has written a response, which is also worthy of quotation:

On the one hand, all of this is immensely encouraging. If the deranged political cult of liberal bombers didn’t find the book in some sense threatening, they would not waste so much energy on vain attempts to undermine it. On the other hand, this petty, spiteful attack comprises a maniacal McCarthyite troika. It not only seeks to have a positive review of my book retracted and a ‘correction’ published. It also attempts to hound someone who did absolutely nothing wrong out of a livelihood, and to establish an ominous precedent of surveillance for actual and supposed members of the Socialist Workers’ Party on the basis of ignorant claims about it made by David T and his cohort.

My own blog (Shiraz Socialist) was of those which supported Harry’s Place when it was temporarily shut down as a result of complaints by one Jenna Delich, a UCU activist with whom the authors had taken issue. Regardless of our opinions of Delich and HP (which differ), we felt that this was a question of online freedom of speech. As such we offered our solidarity to them. I believe we were right to do that then, and that we should do so again were a similar situation to arise in future. However I for one find the attacks on Seymour and Hatherley very disturbing, and I can also detect the same whiff of McCarthyite sulphur that Seymour does. Think about it: would the Eustonites have gotten so worked up if the review was of a book by, say, Nigel Farage, and written by another UKIP member who (rightly or wrongly) failed to declare his or her own affiliation? I think not. 

I cannot speak for my fellow bloggers, either here at Liberal Conspiracy or at Shiraz Socialist. Speaking for myself however, I can say that Seymour and Hatherley have my support on this issue. The SWP have never been to my political taste, but neither should they or their writings be hounded out of the mainstream press. Furthermore, if it is the case that the Eustonites really are trying to hound Hatherley out of his job then that is to be deplored. The comparison which David T makes between Hatherley and Dilpazier Aslam (sacked extremist Guardian writer) must presumably be predicated on an equation between the SWP and Hizb-Ut-Tahrir, the theocratic party with which Aslam was associated. That equation alone has the feel of red-baiting about it, and as such I find the Eustonites’ actions in this case unconscionable.

Free speech online and in the political media must apply fairly and evenly, or it is not free speech at all. Seymour and Hatherley deserve theirs, and as such I feel we all owe them our backing.

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About the author
Alan Thomas is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is a blogger, a political activist and a lay member of Unite-TGWU. His main interests outside of UK left politics are in Turkey, Kurdistan and the USA. And is also always delighted to write about wine and fine food when he's in less of an intellectual mood. Also at: Shiraz Socialist
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Reader comments

When a site is so clearly acting thoroughly in bad faith you do far better simply to ignore the deceitful buggers.

Let them wallow in their minuscule trench of leftists who deem no activity more satisfying than assailing other leftists. Or rather, one of the many minuscule trenches…

The way HP yammer on about The Liberal Defense one would think that Lenin had slipped them a few to promote it.

Still, I hadn’t read Owen’s blog before and it’s very interesting. Anyone boasting a Withnail and I tagline is onto a winner.


* Defence (is suitably ashamed).


You’ve spelt it just the same way as Seymour does, if it makes you feel better…

Would this be the same Seymour who wrote “Sunny Hundal is not an Uncle Tom. He is an idiot.”?

The SWP is a “totalitarian and anti-democratic organisation” isn’t it – if a highly disorganised one!

But I agree, neither they nor the BNP should be hounded out of the mainstream press.
(Though I’m not sure this is quite what HP is arguing for.)
Ridicule works best in both cases.

If I was the books editor at the New Statesman I would probably have commissioned someone other than Hatherley to review Seymour’s book and someone other than Seymour to review Harman’s. That’s not to say that their reviews were not honest or in good faith but I think that there should be a certain distance between author and reviewer. However, I don’t see why this should really concern anyone other than readers of the New Statesman or those considering buying Seymour’s book, neither of which apply to me so I’m having trouble working out why I should give a toss.

DavidT has a certain fixation with the SWP and sees them as morally equivalent to the BNP. I think that apart from the objection in terms of the objectivity of the reviews he believes that the Statesman is treating them as if they were part of the political mainstream and providing them with a platform to further their “murderous ideology” in a way which many of us of the left would strongly object to if Seymour, Hatherley and Harman were members of the BNP.

HP has been banging on about Seymour’s book for months – DavidT and certain regular commenters certainly do seem to a fixation with it, and with “Lenin” generally. My favourite moment was when someone pointed out that the bomber depicted in silhouette on the cover of the book was a different type to that actualy deployed in Iraq and declared, to much approval, that this was an obvious attempt to deceive which rendered the actual content of the book unreliable.

Andrew – yes – put it this way – if Nick Griffin had written a book would you get David Irving to review it (or vice-versa)?

“if Nick Griffin had written a book would you get David Irving to review it”

Quite possibly yes; given that Griffin is from the anti-intellectual working-class end of fascism, whereas Irving is from the patrician, aristocratic end, and the two hate each other almost as much as they hate the Muslims, the results would be entertaining.

However, it’s simply ridiculous to compare either Seymour or Hatherley to Griffin or Irving. Griffin is a convicted racist thug, while Irving is a proven liar and slanderer. Seymour and Hatherley merely hold slightly odd political views.

The SWP isn’t short of racist friends itself.

10. Alisdair Cameron

Another perspective is that DavidT has certain bees in his bonnet, about which he is both exceptionally agitated and persistent, taking things further,more personally and down to micro-level (c’mon, getting frothy-mouthed at the lack of clarity over a flipping teeny book review in the New Statesman, and crying “STOP! POLICE! There’s dastardly deception afoot”…) than an awful lot of people (be they liberal-minded, uber-right, uber-left, new-world-orderlies, Euston-mongers whatever) would consider sensible or worthwhile. There’s that whole kerfuffle he made, which ran for q. a while (shifting stories too, but I may be mistaken) over a swimming pool’s sessions too, wasn’t there? In his defence(!),maybe he considers the big fights have already been fought, so he can pursue the small stuff…

Kamm’s point is merely that the political opinions of the reviewer can be germane to the review, and where this is the case, should be stated. The other example he gives is that of Richard Gott, who took money from the KGB, critical review of John Lewis Gaddis’s book on the Cold war. Gott’s Soviet allegiance is an important factor in evaluating the review and should have been mentioned.

That doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t have reviewed it, just that the reader ought to know where the reviewer is coming from.

I’m not sure why you find this piece odd, Alan – after all, wild generalisation, nasty smears by association and the extrapolation of horrible views from practically nothing have been the stock in trade of the Eustonauts since long before they acquired the name. I’m thinking primarily of Prof. Geras and Nick Cohen’s Why did the left march in support of fascism wankathons, but it’s been a steady and observable movement from smearing large groups of anonymous strangers to chucking nasty smears at named individuals ever since, seemingly with very little impulse control.

I mean, really, is this the first time you’ve noticed the commie-bashing and the ridiculous moral panics? Harry’s Place in particular is notorious for red-baiting and witch-hunting, and it’s sites like that that are the primary reasons why I maintained this pseudonym rather than gradually letting on who I am.

A quick Google search for my real name would bring up my job, my work address and email addresses for my boss, his boss and so on right up the ladder. Let’s assume that one day somebody like David T. or Ollie Kamm objected to something I’d written and put up a post saying something like This bloke who blogs as Flying Rodent is a bit of a whiffy character, just look at all these suspicious statements.

I reckon it’d take about three minutes before my real name was out – anybody who’s ever visited HP, for instance, must know you’d then get a comments thread jammed to the hoop with hysterical insinuations that I was, oh, let’s see – an incipient totalitarian apologist for terrorists with racist obsessions, or maybe just a bit like Hitler, or some kind of new left-wing KKK; my employer’s contact details would likely be repeatedly posted and pulled down, and a troupe of wingnut Inspector Clouseau’s would stomp through the internet sniffing for dirt.

No doubt some might protest that, as a reasonable human being with reasonable opinions, I’d be unlikely to wind up on the sharp end of sites like HP’s wrath. To that, I would say that my faith in, say, David T.’s amazing Jihadi-detecting psychic powers – which appear to outstrip the abilities of the British intelligence agencies, since they rarely act on his amazing discoveries – is somewhat weak. Likewise, those old Decent Left staples – the constant Where’s Waldo magnifying glass act for the detection of inkblot anti-semitism or the constant dowsing for Saddam-sympathisers – don’t reassure me much. If you noted that I’m just a blogger and a bit of a nobody, I’d entirely agree but also note that that hasn’t helped other people in the past.

Even when it transpired that I was entirely innocent of all insinuations, who thinks it’s likely I’d wind up with an Mea culpa, but fucka youa retraction like the one David offered to Owen Hatherley? Okay, so the charge I made was bullshit, but isn’t it a bit odd that this bloke is a bit like violent Nazi racists?

David T. has a post up just now explaining why what he does isn’t McCarthyism. Well, perhaps not, but if some internet joker’s bugbears meant that every Google search a relative or future employer/acquaintance would do on my name would return a load of clockwork, goosestepping stormtroopers, I might think twice before speaking my mind.

Seriously, you never noticed any of this until now?

In recent months they have noticably moved from general attacks on Trots/Islamofascists/anti-semites to specific campaigns against named individuals, usually relatively obscure ones. The Jenna Delich business certainly got very unpleasant. It doesn’t help that they attract a certain headbanging tendency in their comments whom they seem reluctant to distance themselves from.

No more unpleasant than, say, the Dr Frank Ellis business got elsewhere.

15. Matthew Cain

Matthew Taylor’s RSA book of the year reviews are altogether less controversial!

16. Col. Richard Hindrance (Mrs)

Sorry to repost someone else’s words from Lenin’s Tomb, but this really does provide some perspective:

The most that can be said is that it may be misleading to readers to have a review of a book published by someone politically friendly to the position taken by said book. We could similarly say the same about reviewers hostile to a book’s politics. This is indeed ‘obvious’.

But it also turns out to be somewhat banal. What would this mean in practice? That the people with the most interesting stuff to say about a book, either for or against, would be disqualified from reviewing it.

This approach to reviewing is also hugely common practice. Take the following corrective provided by someone in the comments on Harry’s Place:

“Examples of reviewers of another book

Christopher Hitchens, Sunday Times
Michael Burleigh, The Evening Standard
Michael Gove, The Spectator
James Delingpole, Mail on Sunday
John Lloyd, Financial Times
David Smith, Observer
Oliver Kamm, Dictatoriya

See a pattern here in this rogues gallery anyone?

The book?

What’s Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way by Nick Cohen”

Harry T and his cronies try and get round this by saying that such things don’t matter because the above don’t belong to the same party. Quite besides the point that Owen isn’t in the SWP, to suggest that Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen have less in common on the Iraq war than do Alex Callinicos and Chris Harman because they’re not in the same ‘party’ is so clearly disingenuous as to be laughable.

Well, it’s only misleading if no mention is made of their stance. There’s no problem with Oliver Kamm reviewing a book by Noam Chomsky, provided it’s made clear that Kamm is a long-standing critic of his.

I think that would be clear pretty quickly!

Would this be the same Seymour who wrote “Sunny Hundal is not an Uncle Tom. He is an idiot.”?

What can I say… Seymour is a poor deluded soul at times.

provided it’s made clear that Kamm is a long-standing critic of his

Oh no, it should say more than that. It should point out that Kamm wrote those criticisms for FrontPage Magazine. FrontPage! Do you know how deranged and those people are? They make Melanie Phillips look like mainstream centre-right.
You have to be on another level to write for Frontpage Mag, even if it is anti-Chomsky diatribes.

20. Alisdair Cameron

Bleeding hell, if you look (promise I won’t tell, and I can sell you some mind bleach if need be…) over at the original HP posting that underpins all of this, there’s one hell of a ding-dong going on, with Michael Rosen getting very stuck in…

HP provides a great service by analysing stuff that most of us are too lazy to follow: the internecine UK far left, Islamist entryism, and the far right. Unfortunately, you have to be an obsessive to do this, which means that HP content can be a bit hit or miss.

Yesterday’s HP post about current BNP connections to neo Nazis is a good one:

However, the author can’t resist indulging in the story about the BNP merchandising outfit being kicked out of their warehouse. Given that the BNP are a legal organisation, the comments come across as childishness at best.

Returning to the original topic… New Statesman was guilty of poor editing by omitting to acknowledge that book authors and reviewers follow the same political party. But that isn’t a big story.

Would this be the same Seymour who wrote “Sunny Hundal is not an Uncle Tom. He is an idiot.”?

I’m not saying that Seymour is a great guy – I’m well aware that he’s capable of personal vitriol. However what he hasn’t done is try to demonise someone because they wrote a fairly unimportant book review of what is ultimately a fairly unimportant book. I mean, did Hatherley bully Kamm and Mr T at school or something?

23. Col. Richard Hindrance (Mrs)

HP provides a great service by creating a space for drivelling racists, McCarthyites and war-groupies to flock, much like those special light bulbs designed for attracting and containing bloodsucking insects.

Reading the comments on its threads is one of the most grubbily depressing experiences possible. It’s not even funny.

Lenin’s Tomb provides a grubbier experience I think – though lots of unintentional hilarity.
Moonbattery I believe is the term.

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