Thursday, 29 October 2020

Interview With Guatemalan Writer David Unger

I have followed the work on David Unger for nearly two decades. His new book is out in early November. Called Sleeping with the Light I will review it at a later date. Carlos Velez Aguilera beautifully illustrates the book. As a prelude to publication, I interviewed David about his work and a bit about the new book.

1.Tell me how you began to write. What drew you to writing?

There is no simple answer to this. When we left Guatemala, I was four, and my parents insisted we speak English, a totally new language to me when we arrived in an Anglo culture that was completely foreign. I learned early to develop counter-narratives to the realities all around me. When I read A.E. Houseman and Dylan Thomas in high school, on my own, I realized I could use language as a vehicle for expressing what I was feeling and visualizing. That is when I gave up wanting to become an engineer. I dedicated 30 years to writing poetry and translating before I published my first novel in 2002.

2 Would it be fair to say that Garcia Marquez influenced your work? What do you make of  “ Magical Realism”? Do you believe Latin American authors are still influenced by it?

I loved reading No One Writes to the Colonel and One Hundred Years of Solitude, two of the most important novels in the contemporary Latin American literary canon. I met Gabo briefly on various occasions and even published a long essay about our strange encounters. When I was in high school, I read almost every novel John Steinbeck ever wrote and soon thereafter, read many Graham Greene and Ian Fleming novels, oddly enough. I loved the Magical Realist moments in Gabo’s work, but I was not so enamoured by the efforts of notable followers like Isabel Allende, Salman Rushdie and even Toni Morrison. There followed many writers who thought that the stranger the imagery, the more imaginative the writing. I guess I prefer novels with strong characters that have the historical grounding to those novels of literary fancy, flight or invention.

3.Marquez would mostly consult with historians when writing do you see this as a good or bad thing? Do you use historians or their work when planning a new project? 

Most of my novels are set in a recognizable social, political and historical context: Life in the Damn Tropics depicts a middle-class Jewish family in Guatemala of the 80s during the darkest period of the armed conflict; The Price of Escape takes place in Puerto Barrios (an awful port city) in the late 30s and confronts the monstrosity of the United Fruit Company and World War II; The Mastermind is my riff on Guatemala City in 2009 when lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg accused President Colum, in a pre-recorded tape, of killing him when, in fact, he orchestrated his own death. I read a lot of history to establish the right context for the stories I tell, but in the end, I am more interested in how my characters mostly muddle their way through challenging times. I am mostly interested in transformation, shitty characters being redeemed.

4 There appears to be a good crop of new writers from Latin America, including some new Guatemalan writers like Eduardo Halfon. I liked his book Mourning which is an attempt by a new generation of young writers to deal with or understand Guatemala’s bloody history. What do you make of them?

You have picked a talented writer in Halfon. His short stories and short novels are intertwined with his own biography and thus his childhood in Guatemala and his Jewish ancestry are constant themes. There are other writers such as Denise Phe-Funchal and Javier Mosquera Saravia, both of whom I have translated, who explore Guatemalan realities in a highly personal, but no less authoritative point of view. And then there are masters like Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Augusto Monterroso who have achieved international acclaim. Most writers, excepting Mosquera and Phe-Finchal, have written their best work outside of Guatemala, which is not a very hospitable country. The daily murders and corruption are huge obstacles for writers seeking tranquillity and distance to write effectively.

5 Tell me a little about your new book. Where did you get the idea from? Tell me a little about the writing process, i.e. how do you work as an author.

Sleeping With the Light On is based on a short story entitled “La Casita,” that appeared in my 2009 book Ni chicha, ni limonada (F y G Editores). I took this sweet autobiographical tale and enlarged it into a chapter book. The major themes of the book deal with family conflicts, war and loss, but since it is for children 6-9, these themes are introduced and dealt with gently. As to your second question: I am not a career writer, so I only write when I have something to say—I published my first novel at age 52. When an idea or a character gets a hold of me that’s when I begin to write. It hasn’t happened in five years because I have nothing to say. This awful covid pandemic, I would say, has almost rendered me mute.

6 Could you tell me any future writing projects? If this is a bit hush-hush ignore this question.

Nothing hush-hush about my new project. I am doing a retranslation of Guatemala Nobelist Miguel Angel Asturias novel El señor presidente. It was written almost one hundred years ago, over a ten-year period when MAA was living in Europe, and is a powerful portrait of a corrupt dictator and how he tramples lives to maintain his power. It gave rise to other dictator novel’s including Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch; Roa Bastos’s I, The Supreme and Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat. It first appeared in 1965 translated by Francis Partridge, full of Anglicism’s and lacking the texture of Guatemala and Guatemalan life and history. Penguin Classics will be publishing my translation, with a preface by Mario Vargas Llosa, in 2022. This translation (I have translated 16 books), I hope, will be the apex of my literary life—I am grateful to be bringing this exceptional novel to new audiences and hopefully, it will spurn a reassessment of the work of Guatemala’s only Nobel Prize in Literature.

About the Author:

David Unger was born in Guatemala City in 1950 and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Price of Escape (Akashic Books, 2011), Para mi, eres divina (Random House Mondadori, Mexico, 2011), Ni chicha, ni limonada (F & G Editores, Guatemala, 2009; Recorded Books, 2010) and Life in the Damn Tropics (Wisconsin University Press, Plaza y Janes (Mexico, 2004), Locus Press (Taiwan, 2007). He has translated sixteen books into English, including works by Nicanor Parra, Silvia Molina, Elena Garro, Barbara Jacobs, Mario Benedetti and Rigoberta Menchu. He is considered one of Guatemala's major living writers even though he writes exclusively in English.


Sunday, 25 October 2020

Obituary: Joaquín Salvador Lavado, Author of “Mafalda”

"Quino died. All good people in the country and the world will mourn him,"  Daniel Divinsky, 

"We came for the vaccination against despotism, please,″  Mafalda

"I draw because I speak badly,"  Joaquín Salvador Lavado,

Joaquín Salvador Lavado, an Argentine cartoonist who was the creator of the socially aware comic strip Mafalda has died aged 88.

Mafalda was read and loved not only throughout Latin America but in Europe and beyond. The Italian writer Umberto Eco introduced Europe to Mafalda.Lavado and his creation Mafalda was one of the most international cartoonists in Spanish. Mafalda was translated into 27 languages a feat that only Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar and Ernesto Sabato all Argentine authors achieved. Mafalda has a loyal following in Finland.

Mafalda″ was first published in 1964. The Argentine had a cult following throughout his career. "Quino" was a thorn in the Argentine ruling elites side, and it was through Mafalda that he attacked them with a large dose of acerbic humour.

In an interview, he said "I do not think my cartoons are the sort that make people laugh their heads off. I tend to use a scalpel rather than tickle the ribs. I don't go out of my way to be humorous; it's just something that comes out of me. I'd like to be funnier, but as you get older, you become less amusing and more incisive."[1]

Mafalda, who was only six years old, but had more political nous and wisdom than most adults. This knowledge led her to ponder the world's problems. Her parents never really understood her. Mafalda, although from a middle-class Buenos Aires family had a keen sense that the world was full of injustice and had an eye for social and political hypocrisies and a mordant sense of humour.

The comic strip has been compared to Peanuts and Blondie, but none of these carried the political or social commentary found in Mafalda.

Through Mafalda Quino "said things that could not be said". Mafalda was published and read during the time Argentina was under a military dictatorship the 1970s and 1980s. Although Mafalda's social analysis was originally directed against the military junta, Mafalda has a pearl of deep wisdom that still resonates today. Lavado said "She is a girl who tries to solve the dilemma of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in this world,"

The comic strip only ran for six years. Lavado said he did not miss the character when it ended saying "Even though the books continue to sell very well and people ask me for more, I think that I made the right decision when I stopped doing Mafalda, and I don't miss her at all,″ he said.

He did relent a few times she was brought back in 1973 to promote as one writer puts it "humanitarian projects (mostly UNICEF), and focused on illustrated albums like Quinoterapia (Quinotherapy), where he broke down in comic book format the structural and personal elements that allowed inequality to persist all over the world, either with ad-absurdum of liberal concepts or by leaning into surrealist imagery -- like the police shooting down protestors with Valium".

As Lavado said in one of Mafalda cartoons shows an adult standing with Mafalda as she points to the rotating globe with a map of the world on a desk. "You're leaving? And this? Who's going to fix this?″. The same could be said of Lavado now that he has gone who is going to fix the world.



Sunday, 18 October 2020

A Reply To Ella Whelan's The 21st century Bolshevik.

The subheading for Ella Whelan's article is "Brexit showed the ruling elite is still terrified by Trotsky's ideas of working-class upheaval". At the same time, Whelan is correct in this assumption but off the mark on the rest of the article.[1]

Calling Trotsky a 21st Century Bolshevik while correct is only done so from the standpoint of negating his revolutionary ideas in order to align him with one or more faction of the British ruling elite. Whelan is not the first writer to link Trotskyism to one or more sections of the ruling elite.[2]

Whelan's article contains a degree of flippancy and cynicism you would expect from a writer who writes for a magazine that makes the Spectator magazine look like the Communist Manifesto. She also seems to have a fixation with Leon Trotsky having written a previous article for the Critic entitled: Trotsky's lesson for dealing with Covid-19.[3]

Whelan is not the only former radical to warn of the dangers to the ruling elite of Trotsky's ideas. Another journalist who now writes for the Daily Telegraph Janet Daly warned a good while back that Trotsky and his ideas should not be allowed to save socialism.

Daly was a radical in the sixties but soon shed that cloak of radicalism and like a number of her generation shifted very far to the right. Daly writes "In the 1970s, as I clung to my Marxist convictions, I heard an interview with Sir Keith Joseph, one of the great architects of the Thatcherite revolution. He described the dangers of what he called "the pocket-money society." If the state provided all of the basic human needs—housing, health care, education, care for the elderly—, it left nothing for people to provide for themselves, other than the more trivial recreational things. Their earnings became like children's pocket money, to be spent on toys or self-indulgence. The state took all of the significant economic choices of adult life out of their hands, diminishing them as responsible, moral beings. Joseph's words did not convert me on the spot, but they shook my beliefs to the roots because they chimed so convincingly with the evidence that I saw around me".[4]This blind political stupidity does not need any comment to suffice to say if Whelan wants to know where she is going to end up politically, she should look no further than to Janet Daly.

Whelan has now assumed Daly's mantle writing "And so it is unsurprising that 80 years after his assassination at the hands of a pick-axe-wielding Stalinist mole, Leon Trotsky (Lev Bronstein). Trotsky was killed by a Stalinist agent, not a mole and why the need to put his former Jewish name in brackets. A name that he has not been associated with for over ninety years.

The article shows the author's laziness and political proclivities in this next quote when she writes that Trotsky "has somewhat fallen out of favour. While his revolutionary career and unwavering polemics against the Stalinist regime won him support among lefties from Birmingham to Bolivia during the twentieth century, the slow (and painful) death of the left has all but killed off Trotskyism".

I am afraid Trotsky ideas and influence are very much alive and kicking in the 21st century. Since its founding in 1940, the Fourth International has defended and then expanded the ideas and program that Trotsky fought for all his life. The modern-day form of this organisation is embodied in the form of the World Socialist Website (

Whelan seems to have been so distracted by her attempt to rubbish Trotsky's legacy and that of his modern-day followers that she has not paid too much attention to the fact that the has just undertaken a massive technological and political transformation of its website. It can safely be said that for the last 19 years this website has not only defended Leon Trotsky's ideas but has expanded them to the degree that perhaps not even the Old Man could have envisaged.[5]

There is a degree of nervousness and silliness in her article that comes from the fact that Whelan who has read some of Trotsky's writings but does not believe what she writes is true. She writes "For many of today's wannabe revolutionaries, ideas such as the dictatorship of the proletariat or even the transformative power of the working class is not as attractive as jam-making socialists and knighted lawyers in the Labour Party or farting about in fancy dress for"the climate".

Her comment is just silly, hardly worth commenting on and is not true. The significant number of new members that are coalescing around the Fourth International are very serious people, and they are looking for answers to extremely pressing pollical and social problems faced by millions of people all over the world.

Whelan's article is not without insight when she writes "Communism has been so warped by historical inaccuracy it is easy for people to project their prejudices onto it. But not so when she writes "But even so, if all hope of revolutionary Communism has been dead in the water for decades, and all that's left is crass characterisations, why should we remember a man like Trotsky?".

Whelan does say some correct things about Trotsky's life such as this "perhaps the most important thing to know about Trotsky is that his real strength lay in his desire to inspire the masses to take control for themselves. In chapter 24 of My Life, he pays tribute to Nikolay Markin — a shy sailor" with the sullenness of a force-driven in dee" who became an important figure in the revolution and a close friend to Trotsky'ss own family. Trotsky describes how Markin quietly took charge of small things at first — such as the hostility Trotsky'ss family was facing in the"big bourgeois" house they were lodging in — and then larger tasks, including establishing printers to publish The Worker and the Soldier. Inspired by the revolutionary politics of the Bolshevik Party, and the rousing speeches given by Trotsky, workers like Markin realised they had the ability and the ambition to seize control of the means of production.

Trotsky describes how Markin became, for a time," an unofficial minister of foreign affair", writing pamphlets that Baron von Kühlmann and Count Czernin" read eagerly" at Brest-Litovsk. Trotsky writes that it did not matter that he"had no academic degree, and his writing was not free from grammatical error" or that"his comments were sometimes quite unexpected" because Markin" drove the diplomatic nails in firmly, and at the very points where they were most need".

She is wrong however when she writes that Trotsky's writing and aspirations were specific to the historical moment and says "some things have not changed so much. Capitalism might have evolved and transformed itself beyond anything Bolsheviks might recognise, but its inherent weaknesses and limits remain the same. What has changed is our unwillingness to mount a challenge to it."

Trotsky's writings are being looked at now because they still have a contemporary feel to them. The problems that Trotsky grappled with in his day are still ones we have to deal with today.

Whelan in her excitement to bury the influence of Leon Trotsky she repeats one of the old Stalinist slanders of Trotsky that has been repeated down the years and are used by modern-day charlatans to besmirch his revolutionary record.

She writes "But if Trotsky'ss strengths lay in his capacity to organise and defend the revolution, his failings in part contributed to its downfall. Unlike Lenin, who was so adept at managing internal party manoeuvring, Trotsky was incapable of working out what to do with the power struggle following Lenin'ss death. His refusal to take the deputy leadership of the party after 1924, and his blindness to the threat that Stalin posed, were disastrous for the Bolsheviks".

On this occasion, Whelan is really out of depth and shows a simplistic understanding of the history of the Bolshevik revolution and Trotsky's battle with Stalin. As an article in the points out  "The conflict that emerged between Stalin and Trotsky was not a subjective fight between two individuals over personal power, but a fundamental battle waged between irreconcilable political programs. The consolidation of power by Stalin, and the bureaucratic dictatorship that he personified, was not the inevitable outcome of the Russian Revolution. It developed out of the conditions of an economically backward workers' state that was surrounded by world imperialism and isolated by the delay of the international and European revolution. A series of revolutionary upheavals were defeated due to the political immaturity of the revolutionary leadership internationally.[6]

Whelan to a limited extent understands that the revolution needed to spread internationally which was at the heart of the battle between Trotsky and Stalin when she writes  "But ultimately it was the failure of the revolution to spread internationally that led to the collapse of the first working-class revolution in history. Where Stalin destroyed the gains of the revolution, enforcing socialism in one country, Trotsky was a firm believer in the need for workers of the world — not just Russia — to unite. So why repeat the slander.

To conclude, Whelan asks Why is Trotsky still relevant today? A question she is politically incapable of answering without slandering Trotsky and his modern-day supporters and attempting to tie him to one wing of the British bourgeoisie. She is correct in saying that Trotsky had an "unshakeable belief in a working-class revolution" and it is this that is inspiring millions today".

It is also true as Whelan writes "Unlike other historical figures who live to regret their intervention in history, Trotsky remained resolute in his belief in working-class independence to the end. That is what made him such a threat". So what better than to leave the final word to Trotsky when he wrote: "I shall die a proletarian revolutionist, a Marxist, a dialectical materialist, and, consequently, an irreconcilable atheist . . . life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full".[7]



[2] See-





[7] The Testaments of Trotsky-(February/March 1940)Fourth International, No. 7, Autumn 1959, p. 30.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Review: The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination, by Richard J Evans, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 288 pages.

The Hitler Conspiracies is a solid, albeit conservative new book by historian Richard Evans. The book is a product of his work with the Conspiracy and Democracy project[1]. For the past five years, Evans has been the principal investigator on the research project. The Leverhulme Trust funds the project. He has two co-investigators, John Naughton and David Runciman. Evans also employed ten postdoctoral researchers.

As Evans points out "conspiracy theory" can be used in a highly selective way. His new book concentrates on five conspiracy theories connected to the Nazi's Third Reich. Evans attempts to demolish once and for all time a series of the myths like Hitler's postwar life in South America, Rudolf Hess's trip to Britain and three other Nazi theories.

In his introduction, Evans states that the purpose of his book is to demolishes not only past false history but to oppose the growth of current conspiracies which predominantly surround the outbreak of COVID 19. There is indeed a serious problem as the growth of paranoia and pseudoscience as dangerous as the virus itself. Also dangerous is the "fake news" surrounding the US presidential campaign. As Evans writes "The puzzling complexities of politics and society are reduced to a simple formula that everyone can understand. In the internet age, "anyone can put out their views into the public sphere, no matter how bizarre they might be".

The fact that the myths and conspiracy theories associated with the Nazi's are still going strong and need a historian of Evans calibre to demolish them after more than 70 years is still a shock to the system. As one writer put it "at times, it is possible to sense the exasperation felt by this eminent historian that he is having to bother devoting energy to dismantling the claims of those whose methods are so much less rigorous than his own".

Did Hitler Escape the Bunker

One myth or lie associated with the Third Reich is the baseless theory that Adolf Hitler did not commit suicide in Berlin in 1945 but somehow made his escape to South America. "Despite all the evidence to the contrary, more book-length arguments for the survival of Hitler in Argentina have appeared in the 21st century than in the whole of the 55 previous years," writes Evans.

Perhaps even more strange is the fact that the Stalinists in the former USSR were the first to promulgate this lie after the Second World War.

As a Wikipedia article points out "The myth that Hitler did not commit suicide, but instead escaped with his wife, was first presented to the public by Marshal Georgy Zhukov at a press conference on 9 June 1945, on orders from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. When asked at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 how Hitler had died, Stalin said he was either living "in Spain or Argentina." In July 1945, British newspapers repeated comments from a Soviet officer that a charred body discovered by the Soviets was "a very poor double." American newspapers also repeated dubious quotes, such as that of the Russian garrison commandant of Berlin, who claimed that Hitler had "gone into hiding somewhere in Europe."This disinformation, propagated by Stalin's government, has been a springboard for various conspiracy theories, despite the official conclusion by Western powers and the consensus of historians that Hitler killed himself on 30 April 1945. It even caused a minor resurgence in Nazism during the Allied occupation of Germany".[2]

It is not just books that lied about Hitler's death. As Evans points out between   2015 to 2018, the History Channel showed a three-season television series, Hunting Hitler.[3]

From a historical standpoint, the programme was a tissue of lies from start to finish. No attempt was made to address the irrefutable evidence of Hitler's death put together by investigators. Their evidence was backed up in a West German court in the 1950s and made available to historians. The series was full of "innuendo, suggestion and invention". Even more staggering is that this piece of television trash had on average 3m viewers.

As Evans states in the book "The tissue of coincidences and connections they spin is no substitute for facts and a was a "conspiracy without conspirators" .

Why Did Rudolf Hess Fly To Britain

The fact that there is still uncertainty surrounding Rudolf Hess's flight to Britain in 1941 is still hard to believe. Hess had a few psychological problems but then what Nazi did not. As David Shariatmadari points out "it quickly became clear that here was no great supply of military intelligence but a man beset by delusions and hypochondria, one whose political significance had, in any case, been on the wane for some time. His falling into Allied hands did offer, at a time when to talk of the "madness" of Nazism had become a cliché, the chance to explore the psychological underpinnings of the movement. Perhaps Hess, rather final, self-destructive step and were next seen in the dock at Nuremburg".[4]

From a political or more precisely geopolitical standpoint, Hess was seeking an alliance with Britain against the threat of Bolshevism. Whether or not he went on his own volition or was sent by Hitler is not important. Hess would have been aware that sections of the British ruling elite had very deep political sympathies with the Hitler regime and shared its deep-seated anti-Semitism and anti-communism.

Protocols of the Elders of Zion

The first conspiracy Evans deals with is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The 'Protocols' were an early-20th-century forgery alleging a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Evans has tremendous knowledge of this particular conspiracy theory. Evans is a former Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge and author of numerous works on Germany, including a three-volume history of the Third Reich.

Evans believes that the Protocols played only a small part in Nazi anti-semitism and states that forgery was "rambling, chaotic and unstructured". Evans is also correct to point out that anti-semitism was not just confined to Germany, other capitalist governments took advantage of the Protocols to espouse antisemitic prejudices.

What Evans fails to mention in the book that there was massive opposition to the rise of anti-Semitism and Fascism in general. It has been down to the Marxist movement to oppose the rise of anti-semitism where ever it has manifested itself. It is not for nothing that the 19th-century German socialist leader August Bebel called anti-semitism "the socialism of fools". Babel believed like all Marxist's that economic and social inequality was the product not of a Jewish conspiracy but the capitalist system.

The principled struggle of the Marxist movement against anti Semitism largely passes Evans by. He is not interested in it. Perhaps, more importantly, is his steadfast refusal to take the field against the modern-day Nazi's in Germany. Seventy-five years after the collapse of the Third Reich, a party led by apologists for Hitler and out-and-out Nazis is accepted by the ruling elite as a legitimate political development. Evans has written next to nothing on the phenomena.

To ignore this development in his latest book is a mistake at best and a crime at worst. As David North and Johannes Stern point out "the use of the word "conspiracy" in explaining the rise of the AfD is entirely appropriate. The major difference between the AfD and the Nazis of the 1920s and 1930s is that this modern-day fascistic organization is not based on a mass movement. Arising out of a split with the CDU and FDP at the beginning of 2013, a large proportion of AfD members have been recruited directly from the state apparatus—above all from the military, judiciary and police. Most of their personnel were previously members of another establishment party".[5]

Who Burned Down the Reichstag

Evans position on the fire is pretty clear. He believes the Nazi's were taken by surprised by the fire and to blame them is a commie plot. He states "For Münzenberg and later Calic and the Luxembourg Committee, conspiracy theories came naturally in a Communist movement that had seen Stalin launch trials of plotters and saboteurs, just as he would soon stage the show trials that portrayed many leading Old Bolsheviks as part of a vast conspiracy to overthrow the Soviet Union. This tradition has long since come to an end, but it has been replaced with a new form of conspiracy theory in the internet age. Hett's book is permeated by it: the Nazis conspired to burn down the Reichstag, Tobias conspired with ex-SS men to deny it, Krausnick and Mommsen conspired to deny the Nazis' involvement".[6]

Evans dismisses the work of Alexander Bahar and Wilfried Kugel who sought to expose the Nazi's complicity in the fire. The Nazi's had been in power for less than a month when the fire conveniently broke out. The Reichstag fire was the excuse for persecution of Communist and Social Democratic workers, intellectuals and party leaders that had no parallel.

Krugel and Bahar's book The Reichstag Fire - How History is Created was the product of meticulous research. Their research had them make the first comprehensive evaluation of the 50,000 pages of the original court, state attorney office and secret police (Gestapo) files that had been locked away in Moscow and East Berlin until 1990. The result is an extraordinary piece of research containing an 800-page document. The authors argue that even the most circumstantial evidence points to the Nazi's guilt in starting the fire.

According to the review of the book carried out by the World Socialist Website, "The authors have thus succeeded in disproving a hypothesis that even today is still fairly widespread: that the Dutchman Marinus van der Lubbe was the sole perpetrator. They "base their evidence largely on original documents that are stored in public archives, but have not been evaluated up to now... The book contradicts in many ways all of the research reports that have been published so far on the Reichstag fire, based on what the authors say is the first thorough evaluation of all presently available relevant sources. In summary, the authors have succeeded after years of work in presenting a comprehensive chain of circumstantial evidence—albeit one that will only have a conclusive character for those readers who are prepared to take on the intellectual challenge presented by the often highly complex and convoluted aspects of this case of political crime."[7]

Bahar and Kugel do not believe that the fire was the result of a deranged loner they write: "As incontestable as it is that the Nazis benefited from the Reichstag fire and made skilful use of it in establishing their dictatorship, opinion remains divided as to who committed the deed. The communists accused by the Nazi authorities at the Reichstag Fire Trial in Leipzig were already ruled out in 1933 for obvious reasons: quite apart from the lack of evidence, the suicidal and thus nonsensical nature of such a deed was self-evident, despite Nazi propaganda to the contrary. So did Marinus van der Lubbe, the 75% vision-impaired Dutch radical left-wing communist arrested in the burning Reichstag set the fire on his own? Or were the culprits to be found among the Nazis?".

As Evans points out, responsibility for the Reichstag Fire is was a constant source of argument between German historians after the Second World War. Evans, in his new book sides with several prominent German historians who deny the guilt of the Nazis.

To conclude, as was said at the beginning of this review, Evans new book is a solid piece of historiography. The lies surrounding the Nazis is a legitimate field of study, and so is for that matter ithe promulgation of fake news and modern-day pseudo myths on social media. It is nonetheless disturbing that Evans has said next to nothing on the rise of modern-day Fascism and its supporters. Maybe the kind people at the World Socialist Website could send him a review copy of Why Are They Back, Historical Falsification, Political Conspiracy, and the Return of Fascism in Germany by Christoph Vandreier. I doubt somehow he will take up the challenge.


[1] See




[5] Sound the alarm! Political conspiracy and the resurgence of fascism in Germany -David North, Johannes Stern-14 February 2020

[6] The Conspiracists-Richard J. Evans-

[7] Alexander Bahar, Wilfried Kugel: Der Reichstagbrand - Wie Geschichte gemacht wird (The Reichstag Fire - How History is Created), edition q, Berlin 2001, ISBN 3-86124-523-2, 864 pages, price: 68.00 DM

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Ann Hughes on ‘Side-Taking in the English Civil War’

I have spent just over half an hour this morning watching a video recording of Professor Ann Hughes talking to an audience at Cheadle and Marple College on 29th September, 2018 on the subject of the choices people made on which side to support in the conflicts of the 1640s in England. England was her main focus although she did have comments to make on the Scottish revolt against Charles I of 1638 and the Irish Rebellion of 1641 later in her remarks.

She had some very sensible remarks to make about the nature of English society in the pre-Civil War period, on the importance of the spread of literacy and of the availability of news in print, on economic and social changes affecting the fortunes of the upper ranks of society, on the prosperity of the ‘middling sort’ and the difficulties of the poor.

There was also guidance on divisions over how far the Church of England had been fully or partially ‘reformed’ and on reactions to Charles I’s ecclesiastical policies that aroused fears of a return to Popery. Ann Hughes made some important comments too on the degrees to which the Long Parliament and the King succeeded in appealing to potential supporters in the country via print and oath-taking.

One or two of her claims did strike me as questionable. It was not just in Holland in the late-sixteenth century that print played a vital role in fuelling conflict: the same was true, for example, in the French Wars of Religion and, indeed, in the Frondes of the period between 1648 and 1653 in the same country. But I do have more fundamental issues to raise which might not, perhaps, have been appropriate for an audience of sixth-formers.

First of all, there is the issue of economic and social change before 1640 or 1642. One of the key features of English society was the strengthening of the position of large landowners from c.1580 first analysed by W.R.Emerson: their dominance had increased, not diminished. This had profound implications because of the links of family and locality, political and religious affiliation upon which she remarked in the case of the 2nd Lord Brooke’s influence in Warwickshire. These linkages lay beyond the reach of the Parliamentary, Commonwealth and Protectorate regimes of the 1640s and 1650s and made ‘revolution’ in the sense in which she and many other historians have used the term impossible. There were ‘grands soulevements’ in this period but, whatever else may be said, no revolutions in the Marxist sense.

The second major point I should like to make is that, in England as in Ireland and Scotland, there was a significant retreat from government by bargaining and consent under Charles I’s rule. There was more emphasis on central direction and less willingness to respond to local objections. The Book of Orders, Forest boundary extensions and Ship Money testify to this in England: the failure to observe the Graces in Ireland and the attempt to recover Church property there; and the Act of Revocation, the Book of Canons and the revised Prayer Book in Scotland testify to these processes. There was more in common between the Stuart kingdoms than could be acknowledged in so brief a compass.

The events of the 1640s and 1650s exacted a terrible price in human and animal lives and the destruction of property. No one denies the legacy of political, philosophical and religious speculation that they left. But, if these conflicts were highly likely by 1640, so, too, was the failure of the protagonists to create a new ‘reformed’ world.

by Chris Thompson

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Review: Leon Trotsky, Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence translated and edited by Alan Woods, London: Wellred Books, 2016

"I can therefore state that I live on this earth not in accordance with the rule, but as an exception to the rule."

Leon Trotsky

"In a reactionary epoch such as ours, a revolutionist is compelled to swim against the stream. I am doing this to the best of my ability. The pressure of world reaction has expressed itself perhaps most implacably in my personal fate and the fate of those close to me. I do not at all see in this any merit of mine: this is the result of the interlacing of historical circumstances".[1]

"Stalin's rise to power was bound up with the crystallisation of the bureaucratic apparatus and its growing awareness of its specific interests. "In this respect, Stalin presents a completely exceptional phenomenon. He is neither a thinker, nor a writer, nor an orator. He assumed power before the masses had learned to discern his figure from others at the celebratory marches on the Red Square. Stalin rose to power not thanks to personal qualities, but to an impersonal apparatus. And it was not he who created the apparatus, but the apparatus that created him."

While Leon Trotsky's place in history endures, his contemporary relevance grows by the day. Not only because he was a superb writer but because the basic currents and features of modern capitalism and imperialism that Trotsky wrote about in his day still need to be grappled with today.

As one writer put it "His writings—indispensable for an understanding of the contemporary world—remain as fresh as the day they were written. Trotsky's life and struggles, his unyielding devotion to the liberation of mankind, will live on in history.[2]

The translator and editor of this new edition of Leon Trotsky, Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence is Alan Woods. Woods is associated with the International Marxist Tendency. Despite having fundamental political differences with this group Woods' efforts in producing this edition of Trotsky's Stalin deserve significant and widespread recognition and commendation.

Woods has done important work to restore Leon Trotsky's biography of Stalin to its rightful place in the pantheon of Marxist literature. The new edition of Leon Trotsky's biography of Joseph Stalin, published in 2016 by Wellred Books, is a significant contribution to our understanding of Trotsky's thinking in the last years before his assassination in August 1940.

In this revised English translation, woods correctly made the decision not to change the content of the first part of the book, Chapters 1 through 7. Trotsky had corrected and approved these chapters during his life.

The majority of new work concentrated on the second half of the book. A radical overhaul of the remaining chapters was needed and undertaken. Chapters 8 through 12 were replaced with new chapters 8 through 14. An extraordinary 86,000 words were added to the 106,000-word length of the original.

As Woods writes "If Trotsky had lived, it is very clear that he would have produced infinitely better work. He would have made a rigorous selection of the raw material. Like an accomplished sculptor, he would have polished it and then polished it again until it reached the dazzling heights of a work of art. We cannot hope to attain such heights. We do not know what material the great man would have selected or rejected. But we feel we are under a historic obligation at least to make available to the world all the material that is available to us."

The well-known problems with this book began when the Russian manuscript was given to Charles Malamuth to translate and edit. Despite having political sympathy with Trotsky Malamuth was "incompetent".

Malamuth not only created a mess of a book but altered and added political formulations that Trotsky did not agree with. Trotsky was unhappy with the choice of Malamuth saying "Malamuth seems to have at least three qualities: he does not know Russian; he does not know English, and he is tremendously pretentious".[3]

Malamuth was exposed to the Trotskyist movement through his experience as a foreign correspondent in 1931, Malamuth considered himself a convinced admirer of Trotsky and his comrades. He was never a member of a Trotskyist party. There were many objections to Malamuth changes two of the most glaring severely contradicted Trotsky's long-held political beliefs. These concepts were: (1) that Stalinism was the inevitable outcome of Bolshevism; and (2) that the Soviet Union under Stalin was no longer a workers' state.

The finished book was due for publication in 1941. Due to the war and the fact that America did not want to disrupt the wartime alliance with Soviet Russia the book was only published after the war in 1946.

It is clear that Malmuth's insertions and "necessary' adjustments' which were politically motivated suited US imperialisms struggle against Bolshevism. Malamuth's commentary and misleading insertions of content, some of which stood in contradiction to Trotsky's views, were severely criticised by Natalia Sedova, Trotsky's widow. Sedova charged that "unheard-of violence" had been "committed by the translator on the author's rights" and declared that "everything written by the pen of Mr Malamuth must be expunged from the book."

While it is hard to place this book amongst Trotsky's other great work, this is no lesser book. For the modern reader, this "new" work shows his unparalleled genius for analysing political phenomena and political developments.

Trotsky's book is a classical example of how to place historical figures in the "grand scheme of things". Unlike Issac Deutscher's biography that tended to give Stalin a lot more credit than he was due to Trotsky's estimation of Stalin is stunning and wholly accurate. As Trotsky explains  "In this respect, Stalin represents a phenomenon utterly exceptional. He is neither a thinker, a writer, nor an orator. He took possession of power before the masses had learned to distinguish his figure from others during the triumphal processions across Red Square. Stalin took possession of power, not with the aid of personal qualities, but with the aid of an impersonal machine. And it was not he who created the machine, but the machine that created him".

He continues "that machine, with its force and its authority, was the product of the prolonged and heroic struggle of the Bolshevik Party, which itself grew out of ideas. The machine was the bearer of the idea before it became an end in itself. Stalin headed the machine from the moment he cut off the umbilical cord that bound it to the idea and it became a thing unto itself. Lenin created the machine through constant association with the masses, if not by oral word, then by the printed word, if not directly, then through the medium of his disciples. Stalin did not create the machine but took possession of it. For this, exceptional and special qualities were necessary. But they were not the qualities of the historic initiator, thinker, writer, or orator. The machine had grown out of ideas. Stalin's first qualification was a contemptuous attitude toward ideas. "[4]

Trotsky's Stalin along with his other major work on Stalinism such as The Revolution Betrayed attack the so-called "myth of Stalin" revealing the socioeconomic and class relations from which it emerged. This myth, Trotsky wrote, "is devoid of any artistic qualities. It is only capable of astonishing the imagination through the grandiose sweep of shamelessness that corresponds completely with the character of the greedy caste of upstarts, which wishes to hasten the day when it has become master in the house." [5]

Trotsky's description of Stalin's relationship to his fellow bureaucrats is damning in the least bringing to mind the satires of Juvenal: Trotsky writes "ligula made his favourite horse a Senator. Stalin has no favourite horse, and so far, there is no equine deputy sitting in the Supreme Soviet. However, the members of the Supreme Soviet have as little influence on the course of affairs in the Soviet Union as did Caligula's horse, or for that matter even the influence his Senators had on the affairs of Rome. The Praetorian Guard stood above the people and in a certain sense even above the state. It had to have an Emperor as final arbiter. The Stalinist bureaucracy is a modern counterpart of the Praetorian Guard with Stalin as its Supreme Leader. Stalin's power is a modern form of Caesarism. It is a monarchy without a crown, and so far, without an heir apparent. [6]

While Trotsky in the realm of politics was "the greatest mind of his age". Stalin suffice to say was no political genius, but he knew that while Trotsky was alive and was exposing his treachery, he was a political threat to his regime. The regime could not allow him to live. Trotsky understood very well the forces aligned against him: "I can therefore state that I live on this earth not in accordance with the rule, but as an exception to the rule." 

Trotsky was alive to the danger posed by Stalin but retained a staggering level of personal objectivity: writing "In a reactionary epoch such as ours, a revolutionist is compelled to swim against the stream. I am doing this to the best of my ability. The pressure of world reaction has expressed itself perhaps most implacably in my personal fate and the fate of those close to me. I do not at all see in this any merit of mine: this is the result of the interlacing of historical circumstances."[7]

Isaac Deutscher

Isaac Deutscher's biography of Stalin leaves a lot to be desired, and that is being very generous. I am afraid I have to disagree with Isaac Deutscher, who wrote "that the biography of Stalin—even if the author had lived to complete it—"would probably have remained his weakest work." He continues that it did not contain the "ripeness and balance of Trotsky's other works" and included "many tentative statements and overstatements."

This criticism was not an aesthetic quibble but arose from Deutscher's political objections to Trotsky's clear assessment of Stalinism as counterrevolutionary.

According to the Marxist writer David North, "Trotsky's Stalin is a masterpiece. Countless biographies of Stalin have been written, including one by Deutscher that presented Stalin as a political giant. None of these works comes close to matching Trotsky's biography in terms of political depth, psychological insight and literary brilliance.[8]

Deutscher in one part of the book repeats a time-honoured attack on Trotsky by the Stalinists that he and other leading "elite" Bolsheviks did not understand the Peasantry and that Stalin who was close to this class was more adept at understanding their political needs.

Boris Souvarine.

To be truthful Boris Souvarine' biography on Stalin is not unlike that of Deutschers. Numerous academic reviewers have placed both versions above that of Trotsky's. Sourvarine who in his early career was relatively close to Trotsky and supported the Bolshevik revolution, unfortunately, ended his days a bitter opponent of both Lenin and Trotsky as this quote shows he repudiated the October revolution as well.

"Such was the actual result of the work of the man who, in The State and Revolution in 1917, had affirmed that the state must begin to wither away on the morrow of the socialist revolution. It had been created in stages to incorporate a refractory population and subject it to the new regime. For even the minority who had voted for the Bolsheviks in the elections to the Constituent Assembly had not voted for the Cheka and the terror, or even for Communism; they thought they were voting for peace, for the distribution of land, and for free soviets. To this monstrous etatist construction corresponded an aberrant ideology, a verbal pseudo-Marxism, simplistic and caricatural, of which Lenin was equally the theoretical and practical creator. Stalin only carried to extremes what Lenin had invented, though the latter was sincere in his socialist intentions, for which his epigones cared nothing.

As for Trotsky, anxious to obliterate his former disagreements with Lenin, recoiling in the face of the treacherous suspicion of "Bonapartism", and haunted by the historical precedent of "Thermidor", he had to rival the so-called "Bolshevik-Leninist" orthodoxy of his opponents, whilst denouncing to the utmost and quite rightly "the apparatus's system of terror", but in circumstances in which this apparatus, of which he was part, was now capable of stifling all dissident voices and mercilessly punishing any inclination towards dissidence. Along with Lenin, Trotsky had contributed to forging the baleful myth of the infallibility of the party, in defiance of the real ideas of Marx, which were invoked indiscriminately. Both of them, intoxicated by their doctrinal certainties, and perched at the top of the bureaucratic-soviet pyramid, were ignorant of what was being elaborated in the levels below, evincing a lack of awareness that handed over all the levers of command to Stalin.

Such are, in a hasty and necessarily bare outline, the why and the how of Stalin's enigmatic career. It is a summary that does not allow us to identify, as all too many are inclined to do, the founder of the so-called soviet state with its inheritor, so different in their characters and motives, without mentioning the rest. When Victor Adler, teasing Plekhanov, said to him "Lenin is your son", he replied tit for tat, "If he is my son, he is an illegitimate one". Lenin could have said the same for Stalin. For the latter was not another Lenin. Those who think so are deceiving themselves. But that is another story.[9]

Jean van Heijenoort

Alan Woods is correct in his assessment of the Jean van Heijenoort's edition of Trotsky's biography of Stalin saying "In 1948 an edition of Stalin was published in French, edited by Jean van Heijenoort, a former secretary of Trotsky's, in conjunction with Trotsky's friend Alfred Rosmer. Although believed by some to be a more authentic rendition of Trotsky's words, a subsequent comparison of the published French edition to Trotsky's original manuscript revealed the deletion of many pages of Trotsky's writing, the addition of little of import, and a blurring of Malamuth's commentary with the words of Trotsky through the editorial removal of square brackets from the English edition".

Throughout his life and after his death, Trotsky was attacked for using the historical materialist method to analysed political phenomena. His biography of Stalin is no different.

Of his method, Trotsky wrote "numerous of my opponents have conceded that the latter book is made up of facts arranged in a scholarly way. True, a reviewer in the New York Times rejected that book as prejudiced. But every line of his essay showed that he was indignant with the Russian Revolution and was transferring his indignation to its historian. This is the usual aberration of all sorts of liberal subjectivists who carry on a perpetual quarrel with the course of the class struggle. Embittered by the results of some historical process, they vent their spleen on the scientific analysis that discloses the inevitability of those results. In the final reckoning, the judgment passed on the author's method is far more pertinent than whether all or only a part of the author's conclusions will be acknowledged to be objective. And on that score, this author has no fear of criticism.

This work is built of facts and is solidly grounded in documents. It stands to reason that here and there partial and minor errors or trivial offences in emphasis and misinterpretation may be found. But what no one will find in this work is an unconscientious attitude toward facts, the deliberate disregard of documentary evidence or arbitrary conclusions based only on personal prejudices. The author did not overlook a single fact, document, or bit of testimony redounding to the benefit of the hero of this book. If a painstaking, thoroughgoing and conscientious gathering of facts, even of minor episodes, the verification of the testimony of witnesses with the aid of the methods of historical and biographical criticism, and finally the inclusion of facts of personal life in their relation to our hero's role in the historical process—if all of this is not objectivity, then, I ask, What is objectivity?

Political power, like morality, by no means, develops uninterruptedly toward a state of perfection, as was thought at the end of the last century and during the first decade of the present century. Politics and morals suffer and have to pass through a highly complex and paradoxical orbit. Politics, like morality, is directly dependent on the class struggle. As a general rule, it may be said that the sharper and more intense the class struggle, the deeper the social crisis, and the more intense the character acquired by politics, the more concentrated and more ruthless becomes the power of the state and the more frankly [does it cast off the garments of morality]".[10]

To conclude, Trotsky' biography of Stalin is a fine example of the historians and biographers craft. Not only was he able to place Stalin's role within a cognisant account of the October Revolution, but he was also able to clarify the social basis of Stalin's power. The book was not finished because Trotsky was assassinated by a Stalinist agent who murdered him with an ice pick to the head. Although his physical life ended as this edition proves not only does his legacy remain his work on Stalin and Stalinism is as relevant today as it was when he wrote this book. Again despite having political differences with the editor of this new edition, I would recommend and hope this book gets a wide readership it deserves and should be on the desk or tablet of every young revolutionary.

[1] Trotsky's Last Year-Part Three-By David North-25 August 2020


[3] wikipedia

[4][4] Stalin-By Leon Trotsky-2019

[5] Stalin-By Leon Trotsky-2019

[6] Stalin-By Leon Trotsky-2019

[7] Stalin Seeks My Death- The Fourth International, Vol. 2 No. 7, August 1941, pages 201-207


[9] Stalin: Why and How-1978-Boris souvarine-

[10] Leon Trotsky-Stalin –An Appraisal of the Man and his Influence-