Posts Tagged ‘Prague Spring’

Private Eye on Sunday Times’ Smear of Michael Foot as KGB Agent

October 3, 2018

The media this week has been full of the news about a book about the KGB defector, Oleg Gordievsky. Gordievsky was a high-ranking KGB officer, whose father was also a KGB officer, and who had been slated to be the next chief of the Soviet spy agency and secret police. When he defected, Gordievsky brought with him whole dossiers of KGB records, which were invaluable for ending the Cold War. However, Gordievsky himself was a self-admitted liar. And one of those lies was that the former leader of the Labour party, Michael Foot, was a KGB agent codenamed ‘Comrade Boot’.

This falsehood was published in 1995 by the Times, and was promptly answered by a libel action by Foot and a cover by Private Eye sending the whole thing up. Foot won the case, and the Eye also published an article taking apart the whole story and exposing the Times’ article for the libel it was.

Now with the publication of the new biography, the Sunday Times has decided to repeat the libel again. And Private Eye has responded again with another article effectively demolishing this sorry piece of gutter journalism. The piece was published in last fortnight’s Eye for the 21 September to 4 October 2018, and entitled ‘Shooting Yourself in the Foot’, and runs

<strong>”MI6 believed Michael Foot was paid Soviet informant,” a Times front-page headline announced last Saturday. “Truth about former Labour leader emerges 23 years after he sued Sunday Times for libel.” The editor of the Times, John Witherow, also published the Sunday Times story about the former Labour leader in 1995 – and is clearly still sore about the embarrassment and ridicule it earned him.

It’s not only the editor, it’s the same story-based entirely on a claim by former double agent Oleg Gordievsky that he once saw a KGB file marked “Agent Boot”, which apparently referred to Michael Foot. The only difference is that the previous version was taken from Gordievsky’s memoirs while the latest one comes from a new biography of the spy.

According to the Times, The book “presents the first corroboration by MI6 officers of the allegations made by the Soviet defector”. No it doesn’t, at least not in the normal meaning of corroboration, ie additional proof or confirmation. In 1995 the Sunday Times reported Gordievsky’s allegation that the KGB regarded Foot as an agent of influence; now the Times says some people in MI6 thought the Russians regarded him as an agent of influence. And why did they think that? Because, er, Gordievsky had told them so. In short, not a smidgin of supporting evidence has “emerged” since Witherow last ran the story.

At the time of the earlier farrago, the Sunday Times claimed that it was “based on interviews with Gordievsky and six other former KGB officers”. But it omitted to add that only Gordievsky believed in “Agent Boot”. Although the paper claimed that the London-based KGB colonel Mikhail Lyubimov had recruited Foot, Lyubimov himself promptly denied it.

So the allegations were not made by “the KGB”, as Witherow told his readers 23 years ago and again last Saturday. They came solely from a single ex-KGB man, Gordievsky – whose unreliability was officially confirmed in May 1995, just three months after the Sunday Times splash, by the then solicitor-general Sir Derek Spencer. Speaking on behalf of the government during an appeal by Michael Smith, who had been convicted of spying for the Russians, Spencer told the Lord Chief Justice that some boasts made by Gordievsky in his memoirs were “not correct”. He described one of Gordievsky’s claims, about identifying undercover KGB agents to his British controllers, as “another exaggeration”. As the judge observed: “He must have lied to everybody at one time or another.”

With just one witness to rely one, it’s no surprise that Witherow and the Sunday Times couldn’t defend a libel action against Foot. More surprising is that the editor is now repeating even the most egregious howlers from his previous debacle. According to the 1995 story, for instance, Foot regarded Moscow as “a beacon of world peace” until 1968, when the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia brought him “down to earth with a bump” and he ceased to be a fellow-traveler. Exactly the same narrative appeared in last Saturday’s Times. From the 1940s to the 1960s, it claimed, Foot was an “agent of influence” who could be “fed pro-Soviet ideas and reproduce them in articles and speeches” – but in 1968 he became “intensely critical of Moscow in the wake of the Prague Spring”. After that, his “enthusiasm for the Soviet Union appears to have waned”.

The claim that Foot was a pro-Soviet mouthpiece until 1968 is easily disproved. As long ago as 1946, a Labour MP wrote to Tribune complaining of the “jaundiced prejudice against Russia” in Foot’s articles. In 1948, soon after becoming Tribune’s editor, he published a leader attacking left-wingers who “are still gulled by the monstrous delusion that the Russians are the friends, not the enemies, of democratic socialism”. During the Soviet blockade of Berlin, he urged the West to “drive a land passage through the Russian zone against Russian resistance and if necessary by force of arms”.

When Ian Mikardo MP resigned from Tribune’s board of directors in protest at the editor’s anti-Soviet stance, Foot was unapologetic. “The Soviet leaders … believe as a matter of theory that the end of establishing Soviet Communism wherever they can justifies any means for its attainment,” he wrote. “They believe also as a matter of theory in secrecy, censorship, dictatorship and the ruthless annihilation of the rights of individuals.” And so it went on. When the Russian tanks crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, Foot was quick to condemn this “hideous outrage”.

Odd behavior for a man who, the Times alleges, wa sbeing paid to publicise “pro-Soviet ideas”. Why didn’t they ask for their money back. (p. 10).

Foot was right: the Soviet Union and the Communists were always hostile to democratic socialism, though Stalin used the existence of democratic socialist parties and other left-wing organisations to provide a spurious democratic justification for his transformation of their countries into Soviet satellites after the end of the Second World War. Stalin would amalgamate the Communist parties of the various countries the USSR had liberated with the largest left-wing party. This was usually the mainstream, democratic socialist under the pretext of reuniting the two forms of Socialism. Before the First World War in Germany and Italy, for example, there was only one socialist party, which included not only democratic socialists – reformists – but also radical Marxist revolutionaries. After the First World War, the radical Marxists split away from the reformist majority parties to form their countries’ Communist parties. In countries where the socialism was weak, Stalin amalgamated the Communists with the largest and most popular left-wing party, such as the various Peasants’ Parties. The new, umbrella Socialist party would then make a statement adopting Marxism-Leninism – the Communism of the Soviet Union – their official ideology, and the democratic socialists would find themselves purged and either executed or sent to the Gulags.

In the West there were some mainstream socialists, who really did believe that Stalin represented Socialism, such as the Fabians. But Foot, to his immense credit, clearly wasn’t one of them.

However, Maggie Thatcher hated socialism, because it came from the same ideological roots as Communism, and the Tory press in the 1980s was very quick to smear any Labour politician or activist as a potential traitor or agent of Moscow. Foot came in for particular abuse because of his support for CND and unilateral nuclear disarmament. It was therefore inevitable that one of the Tory papers would eventually smear him as a KGB agent.

As it stands, the Sunday Times has form on libeling people. As well as smearing Foot, it also libeled Mike as an anti-Semite and Holocaust denier. Since that article came out, the Sunset Times has repeated the smear and tried to back it up, and the Eye has published yet another tearing it to shreds.

The satirical rag has done an excellent job attacking the lies and falsehoods against Foot. Too bad that it also seems to have swallowed the lies and falsehoods about Jeremy Corbyn.

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Czech President Threatens Journalists with Fake Kalashnikov

October 25, 2017

More from Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian of The Young Turks on the rising threat to freedom of the press around the world. In this clip they report on and discuss the behaviour of the Czech President, Milos Zeman, who turned up at a press conference waving around a replica gun which had ‘For Journalists’ written on it. Zeman himself hates the press, and in the past has described them as ‘manure’ and ‘hyenas’. At a meeting with Putin in May, he joked about how some of them deserved to be ‘liquidated’. As Uygur points out, there is very strong evidence that Putin has had journalists murdered, so that joke really isn’t funny. Zeman, you will not be surprised to know, is also a colossal Islamophobe. He has said that Czechs need to arm themselves against a coming ‘superholocaust’ against them, which will be carried out by Muslims. Uygur comments drily, ‘Who knew there were so many Muslims in the Czech Republic, and they were so powerful?’

Zeman’s gun-waving comes after the death of a female journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed by a car bomb in Malta. Galizia was dubbed a ‘one-woman WikiLeaks’ for her dogged pursuit of uncovering stories of corruption. She was killed a week after revealing that Joseph Muscat, the Prime Minister of the island nation, had been involved in offshore companies and the sale of Maltese passports and payments from the Azerbaijani government.

Clearly, Malta isn’t anywhere near the Czech Republic, but her death was reported there. And the president, Zeman, thinks so little of the murder of journalists that he ‘jokes’ about it by waving replica firearms around at the press. Uygur also states that the Czechs have just elected a new prime minister, who is the millionaire head of a populist party. He predicts that this won’t end well.

This is clearly a story from a small nation in the EU, but it shows the way journalistic freedoms are being eroded all over the world. The Young Turks point out that democracy isn’t just about voting – it’s also about the freedom of the press and conscience – and this is what has makes Western democracy so great. The Young Turks have also covered the prosecution of journalists and political opponents of President Erdogan in Turkey, and the persecution of another crusading journo in Azerbaijan itself. As well as the attempted assassination of another Russian journo, who was suspiciously stabbed a madman two weeks after the Putin media declared her and her radio station an agent of America.

About ten years ago, John Kampfner wrote a book, Freedom for Hire, in which he described how countries around the world, from France, Italy, Russia, Singapore and China, were becoming increasingly dictatorial. And we in Britain had no cause for complacency, as he described how Blair had also tried to muzzle the press, especially when it came to the Gulf War. The web of corruption Galizia uncovered was so widespread, and went right to the top, so that Malta was described by the Groaniad yesterday as ‘Mafia Island’.

As for the Czech Republic, after Vaclav Havel its post-Communist presidents have been extremely shady individuals. I can remember reading one travel book on eastern Europe, which discussed how his critics had disappeared or been murdered. And following the Fall of Communism, there has come a series of reports and scandals about rising racial intolerance there. The target of much of this is the Roma. It has been reported that the Czech medical service routinely forcibly sterilised Gypsy women in order to stop them having children, and members of various political parties have called for either their expulsion or their extermination. I am not surprised by the Islamophobia, as a little while ago Counterpunch carried a story about one of their contributor’s meeting with a Czech politician, who had very extreme, right-wing views, including a deep hatred of Muslims. There also appears to be an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the country as well. A few years ago, the BBC’s programme, Who Do You Think You Are, explored Stephen Fry’s ancestry. As Fry himself has said many times on QI, his grandfather was a Jewish Hungarian, who worked for a sugar merchants. It was through his work that he met Fry’s grandmother, who was a member of Fry’s, the Quaker chocolate manufacturer, and settled with her in England. Thus he fortunately survived the Holocaust. Fry travelled to Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic, tracing the movements of his ancestors in the course of their work through the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Fry was, understandably, visibly upset and shaken when he found out just how many of his grandfather’s kith and kind had been murdered at Auschwitz.

He was also very unimpressed by the attitude of some of the Czechs he spoke to in his quest. He quoted them as saying that ‘it is very curious. They knew the Holocaust was coming, but they stayed here anyway.’ He was justifiably outraged at the implication that somehow the millions of innocents butchered by the Nazis wanted to be killed.

It’s possible to suggest a number of causes for the rise in Islamophobia. You could probably trace it back to historic fears about the Ottoman Empire and the conquest of the Balkans by the Muslim Turks in the 15th century. The Ottoman Empire still sought to expand in the 17th century, when its army was just outside the gates of Vienna. It was defeated by Jan Sobieski, the king of Poland, and his troops. The Ottoman Empire persisted until it finally collapsed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, amidst a series of bloody massacres. The majority of these were blamed on the Turks, and specifically the irregular troops, the Bashi-Bazouks. It was their massacres that led to Gladstone calling for Turkey to be thrown ‘bag and baggage out of the Balkans’. But other journalists in the Balkans at the time also noted that the Christian nations, like the Serbs, were also guilty of horrific mass slaughter, but that this went unreported due prevailing Western prejudice.

Part of it might be due to the Czechs being a small nation – there are about four million of them – who have had to struggle to survive against domination by larger neighbours. Their medieval kings had invited ethnic Germans into the country to settle and develop their economy. This led to the creation of what became the Sudetenland, the areas occupied by ethnic Germans, and there was friction between them and the native Czechs. This friction eventually exploded into open conflict in the 15th century in the wars following the attempt of Jan Hus to reform the Roman Catholic church. Czech nationalism was suppressed, and Moravia and Bohemia, the two kingdoms, which became Czechoslovakia, were absorbed into the Austrian Empire. The Czechs and Slovaks achieved their independence after the First world War, but the country was conquered by the Nazis during World War II, and then ‘liberated’ by Stalin. It was then incorporated into the Communist bloc. When Anton Dubcek, the president, attempted to create ‘Communism with a human face’, introducing free elections and a form of market socialism, the-then Soviet president, Anton Dubcek, sent in the tanks to quell the ‘Prague Spring’.

Other factors also include the wave of immigrants from Syria and North Africa, that forced their way through the various international borders to come up through Greece and Serbia in their hope of finding sanctuary and jobs in the West. The Counterpunch article stated that there was a real fear that they would turn east, and swamp the small, former eastern bloc nations like the Czech Republic.

And these racial fears are being stoked throughout the former eastern bloc by the poverty and misery that has come with capitalism. The peoples of the former Communist nations were led to believe that the introduction of capitalism would create employment and prosperity. This has not occurred, and the result has been widespread disillusionment. Counterpunch also ran another article, which quoted the statistic that 51 per cent of the population of the former East Germany had responded positively to the statement that ‘things were better under Communism’ in a poll, and wanted Communism to come back. Similar statistics could be found right across the former Communist nations of eastern Europe.

Now, faced with rising poverty, unemployment and inequality, made worse by neoliberalism, the old fears of racial domination and extermination are rising again, and being exploited by ruthless, right-wing populists. So there are a series of extremely nationalistic, Fascistic governments and parties in Hungary and the Czech Republic. Just like in western Europe there’s Marine Le Pen’s Front National and Germany’s Alternative fuer Deutschland, and Donald Trump and the Alt Right in America.

And across the globe, ruthless, corrupt politicians are trying to curtail freedom of speech and the press, in order to preserve their power. Hence the rising racism, Fascism and violence towards ethnic minorities and the press. These freedoms are at the core of democracy, and have to be defended for democracy to work at all, and governments held accountable by their citizens.

William Blum on Socialism vs. Capitalism

September 19, 2017

William Blum, the long-time fierce critic of American and western imperialism, has come back to writing his Anti-Empire Report after a period of illness. He’s an older man of 84, and due to kidney failure has been placed on dialysis for the rest of his life. This has left him, as it does others with the same condition, drained of energy, and he says he finds writing the report difficult. Nevertheless, his mind and his dissection of the ruthless, amoral and predatory nature of western capitalism and corporate greed is as acute as ever.

There’s a section in the Anti-Empire Report, where he discusses the advantages of socialism versus capitalism. He notes that there were two studies carried out under George Dubya to see if private corporations were better than federal agencies. And the federal agencies won by a huge margin every time. He writes

Twice in recent times the federal government in Washington has undertaken major studies of many thousands of federal jobs to determine whether they could be done more efficiently by private contractors. On one occasion the federal employees won more than 80% of the time; on the other occasion 91%. Both studies took place under the George W. Bush administration, which was hoping for different results. 1 The American people have to be reminded of what they once knew but seem to have forgotten: that they don’t want BIG government, or SMALL government; they don’t want MORE government, or LESS government; they want government ON THEIR SIDE.

He also states that the juries’ still out on whether socialist countries are more successful than capitalist, as no socialist country has fallen through its own failures. Instead they’ve been subverted and overthrown by the US.

I think he’s wrong about this. The Communist bloc couldn’t provide its people with the same standard of living as the capitalist west, and the state ownership of agriculture was a real obstacle to food production. The bulk of the Soviet Union’s food was produced on private plots. Similarly, Anton Dubcek and the leaders of the Prague Spring, who wanted to reform and democratize Communism, not overthrow it, believed that Czechoslovakia’s industrial development was held back through the rigid structure of Soviet-style central planning.

However, he still has a point, in that very many left and left-leaning regimes have been overthrown by America, particularly in South America, but also across much of the rest of the world, as they were perceived to be a threat to American political and corporate interests. And for the peoples of these nations, it’s questionable how successful capitalism is. For example, in the 1950s the Americans overthrew the Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz after he dared to nationalize the banana plantations, many of which were own by the American corporation, United Fruit. Benz was a democratic socialist – not a Communist, as was claimed by the American secret state – who nationalized the plantations in order to give some dignity and a decent standard of living to the agricultural workers on them. The government that overthrew Benz was a brutal Fascist dictatorship, which imposed conditions very close to feudal serfdom on the plantation labourers.

Which leads to a more general point about the emergence of capitalism, imperialism and the exploitation of the developing world. Marxists have argued that capitalism had partly arisen due to western imperialism. It was the riches looted from their conquered overseas territories that allowed western capitalism to emerge and develop. Again this is a matter of considerable debate, as some historians have argued that the slave trade and plantation slavery only added an extra 5 per cent to the British economy during the period these existed in the British empire, from the mid-17th century to 1840. More recently, historians have argued that it was the compensation given to the slaveowners at emancipation, that allowed capitalism to develop. In the case of the large slaveholders, this compensation was the equivalent of tens of millions of pounds today. At the time the plantation system was in crisis, and many of the plantation owners were heavily in debt. The slaveholders used the money given to them by the British government – £20 million, a colossal sum then-to invest in British industry, thus boosting its development.

This system has continued today through what the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal termed ‘neocolonialism’. This is the international trading system which the former imperial masters imposed on their colonies after the end of imperialism proper following the Second World War. High tariffs and other barriers were imposed to stop these countries developing their own manufacturing industries, which could produced finished goods that would compete with those of Europe and the west. Instead, the former subject nations were forced through a series of trade agreements to limit themselves to primary industries – mining and agriculture – which would provide western and European industry with the raw materials it needed. As a global system, it’s therefore highly debatable how successful capitalism is in providing for people’s needs, when the relative success of the capitalist west has depended on the immiseration and exploitation of countless millions in the developed world.

And in the developed west itself, capitalism is failing. In the 19th century Marx pointed to the repeated crises and economic slumps that the system created, and predicted that one of these would be so severe that it would destroy capitalism completely. He was wrong. Capitalism did not collapse, and there was a long period of prosperity and growth from the late 19th century onwards.

But terrible, grinding poverty still existed in Britain and the rest of the developed world, even if conditions were slowly improving. And the long period of prosperity and growth after the Second World War was partly due to the foundation of the welfare state, Keynsian economic policies in which the government invested in the economy in order to stimulate it, and a system of state economic planning copied from the French.

Now that Thatcherite governments have rolled back the frontiers of the state, we’ve seen the re-emergence of extreme poverty in Britain. An increasing number of Brits are now homeless. 700,000 odd are forced to use food banks to keep body and soul together, as they can’t afford food. Millions more are faced with the choice between eating and paying the bills. In the school holiday just passed, three million children went hungry. And some historians are predicting that the refusal of the governments that came after the great crash of 2008 to impose controls on the financial sector means that we are heading for the final collapse of capitalism. They argue that the industrial and financial elite in Europe know it’s coming, are just trying to loot as much money as possible before it finally arrives.

The great, free trade capitalism lauded by Thatcher, Reagan and the neoliberal regimes after them has failed to benefit the majority of people in Britain and the rest of the world. But as the rich 1 per cent have benefited immensely, they are still promoting neoliberal, free trade policies and imposing low wages and exploitative working conditions on the rest of the population, all the while telling us that we’re richer and generally more prosperous than ever before.

Back to Blum’s Anti-Empire Report, he also has a few quotes from the American comedian Dick Gregory, who passed away this year. These include the following acute observations

“The way Americans seem to think today, about the only way to end hunger in America would be for Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird to go on national TV and say we are falling behind the Russians in feeding folks.”

“What we’re doing in Vietnam is using the black man to kill the yellow man so the white man can keep the land he took from the red man.”

For more, see https://williamblum.org/aer/read/150

Dubcek’s Plan for Industrial Democracy during Prague Spring

July 4, 2016

I put up a piece yesterday about how the fake allegations of anti-Semitism against Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party recall the attempts by the Soviet Union under Brezhnev to discredit the Czechoslovak Communist leader, Alexander Dubcek during their invasion in 1968. Dubcek was, like Gorbachev later, a convinced Communist, who wished to maintain his party’s political dominance as the country’s leading political and economic authority. However, he was well aware that the Stalinist command economy and totalitarian political system had no given Czechs and Slovaks either the freedoms that they were formally guaranteed under the constitution, nor the economic and social improvements that they also expected and demanded.

He therefore committed himself to creating ‘socialism with a human face’. This meant allowing some, non-Communist political and voluntary groups to form, and introducing democratic debate and elections, rather than dictatorship and appointment within the Czechoslovak Communist party itself. He was also determined to introduce market reforms into Czechoslovak industry. Instead of rigidly adhering to the economic plan, firms were to be given autonomy, and allowed to respond to market conditions, setting their own targets and so on, in order to provide Czechoslovak consumers with more choice.

He also planned to include with these reforms some measure of industrial democracy, in which the workers would elect their managers. In his Action Programme Dubcek announced

In developing democratic relations in the economy we at present consider the most important task the final formulation of the economic position of enterprises, their authority and responsibility.

The economic reform will increasingly push whole working teams of socialist enterprise into positions in which they will fee directly the consequences of both the good and bad management of enterprises. The Party therefore deems it necessary that the whole working team which bears the consequences should also aim to influence the management of the enterprise. There arises the need of democratic bodies in enterprises with determined rights towards the management of the enterprise. Managers and head executives of the enterprises, which would also appoint them to their functions would be accountable to these bodies for the overall results of their work. These bodies must become a direct part of the managing mechanism of enterprises, and not a social organisation/ they cannot therefore be identified with the trade unions/. These bodies would be formed by elected representatives of the working team and by representatives of certain components outside the enterprise ensuring the influence of the interests of the entire society and an expert and qualified level of decision-making; the representation of these components must also be subordinated to democratic forms of control. At the same time it is necessary to define the degree of responsibility of these bodies for the results of the management of socialist property. In the spirit of these principles it is important to solve many concrete questions: at the same time, it will be necessary to propose a statute of these bodies and to use certain traditions of works councils from the years 1945-48 and experiences in modern enterprising.

Dubcek’s Blueprint for Freedom: His Original Documents Leading to the Invasion of Czechoslovakia, introduction by Hugh Lunghi, Commentary by Paul Ello (London: William Kimber 1968) 50-51.

Unfortunately, Dubcek’s attempt to transform and democratise Czechoslovak Communism was terminated by the Soviet invasion. After the Fall of Communism, the state industries were systematically privatised, just as they were in the USSR and throughout the former Soviet bloc, so that they are now bog-standard capitalist enterprises. An opportunity to create a genuinely democratic Communist society for the benefit of the working people has therefore been lost.

Andrei Sakharov’s Demands for Freedom of Speech and Information

March 22, 2014

Andrei Sakharov pic

Soviet Dissident Andrei Sakharov, ardent campaigner for peace, freedom of speech and information. These are not qualities the present British government likes either.

Andrei Sakharov was one of the most famous and determined dissidents of the former Soviet Union. In his bitter criticism of the Soviet state and especially Stalinism for its horrific abuse of human rights, as well as the other ideologies threatening the survival of the world and its peoples – racism, fascism, Maoism and militaristic demagogy, Sakharov demanded freedom of speech and the freedom to obtain information. In the 1974 book, Sakharov Speaks, he comments on the immense of importance of freedom of speech and information, and the terrible threats posed to them. He stated

Intellectual freedom is essential to human society – freedom to obtain and distribute information, freedom for open-minded and unfearing debate, and freedom from pressure by officialdom and prejudices. Such as trinity of freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into a bloody dictatorship. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee of the feasibility of a scientific democratic approach to politics, economy and culture.

But freedom of thought is under a triple threat in modern society – from the deliberate opium of mass culture, from cowardly, egotistic, and philistine ideologies, and from the ossified dogmatism of a bureaucratic oligarchy and its favourite weapon, ideological censorship. Therefore, freedom of thought requires the defence of all thinking and honest people. This is a mission not only for the intelligentsia but for all strata of society, particularly its most active and organised stratum, the working class. The world-wide dangers of war, famine, cults of personality, and bureaucracy – these are perils for all mankind.

Robert V. Daniels, A Documentary History of Communism: Vol. 1 – Communism in Russia (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd 1985) 372.

Amongst the democratic reforms he demanded, as well as measures to ensure peaceful coexistence and end hunger, was for a Soviet Freedom of Information Act. He said

A law on press and information must be drafted, widely discussed, and adopted, with the aim not only of ending irresponsible and irrational censorship, but also of encouraging self-study in our society, fearless discussion, and the search for truth. The law must provide for the material resources of freedom of thought.

Ibid, p. 373.

Sakharov was writing in the repressive conditions of the former Soviet Union during the reign of Brezhnev, the President, who had ended the Prague Spring of 1968 by sending in the tanks to preserve Communist rule. Yet his comments are also unfortunately still very much applicable in the 21st century, including contemporary Britain.

Mike and a number of other bloggers have had their requests for information from the government under the Freedom of Information Act repeatedly turned down. In Mike’s case, this was for information on the number of people, who had died after being found ‘fit for work’ by Atos. Individual requests for this information had been refused by the Department for Work and Pensions as it was deemed too expensive and difficult to justify retrieving the information for just one person. When others asked for the same information, like Mike over at Vox Political, it was refused as ‘vexatious’.

We do indeed have a Freedom of Information Act, though in this and many other instances it obviously did the opposite of ‘encouraging self-study, fearless discussion and the search for truth’. I’ve commented before, as has the Angry Yorkshireman on the strong similarity between the government’s workfare programme, and the forced labour campaigns under Stalin. Here our government bureaucracy is also showing another, Stalinist trait – it appears to be an ossified bureaucratic hierarchy based on dogmatism and censorship. The government has replaced much of the senior civil service with Special Advisors, drawn from right-wing think tanks and private industry, who tell it exactly what it wants to hear.

Its economic and welfare policies are also pure dogmatism. Despite the considerable evidence that the economy is not improving, that people are becoming much poorer, and that starvation and malnutrition are returning once again to British society – the government is continuing with its policies, and denying that their harmful effects are actually occurring. Maggie’s former Cabinet minister, Norman Tebbit, was in the Daily Fail yesterday repeating the old lie that people were using food banks, not because they were starving, but simply because it was cheap food. It’s a lie of the same type, though hardly on the same scale, as Stalin’s propaganda in the 1930s that the USSR was a land of plenty where food was more than abundant, filled with happy, smiling peasants, while the truth was the absolute reverse: that people were dying in their tens of millions from famine.

The type of regime blocking and censoring inquiries into the political reality are from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Nevertheless, both regimes share a common mindset – the desire to preserve the regime from criticism at all costs. The Department of Work and Pensions stated at one point quite openly that they would not reveal the information about the numbers of people, who had died due to their welfare reforms as this would turn public opinion against them, and so stop them going ahead with the reforms.

Sakharov’s defence of freedom of speech and information against the repression of the Soviet speech was one of the greatest statements of this fundamental human right in the 20th century. Sadly, it is even now needed as much as ever in Conservative and Conservative Democrat Britain in the 20th century. Free speech and information needs the active support by all of us, and particularly by the working class. It is the working and lower middle classes, who are being hit the hardest by the Coalition’s welfare reforms, and they clearly recognise that they have something to fear from a British public armed with the truth.