John Newsinger

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire

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At a time when Gordon Brown is cynically taking up the cause of Darfur in a vain attempt to find some moral high ground for New Labour to occupy, it is worth remembering the British Empire's record in the same region.

According to Piers Brendon in his new history of the empire, "British punitive expeditions in the Sudan were even more brutal than those in Kenya, at times amounting almost to genocide. Certainly, as one district officer acknowledged, they produced a crop of 'regular Congo atrocities'."

A great British tradition

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Government spin on the role of British forces around the world portrays them as gallant beret-wearing chaps just trying to help. Writer and anti-war activist John Newsinger recalls the events of the Great Indian Rebellion 150 years ago this month, which show how far this is from the truth

The British Empire has always responded to any resistance to its rule with ferocious repression. In 1857 the Great Indian Rebellion posed a massive challenge to the British Empire. It was suppressed with unprecedented brutality. The British adopted a policy of "no prisoners", a policy which was enforced by means of massacre and mass executions. One officer, Thomas Lowe, later remembered how on one occasion his unit had taken 76 prisoners (they were just too tired to carry on killing and needed a rest, he recalled).

The Road to the Rising

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Review of 'Radical Politics in Modern Ireland', David Lynch, Irish Academic Press £30

James Connolly is best remembered for his leading role in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin and his subsequent execution, strapped to a chair, by a British firing squad. He had, however, considerable experience of the socialist and trade union movements in Britain, the US and Ireland going back to the previous century. David Lynch's fine book is a detailed study of the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) between 1896 and 1904, which occupied a crucial phase of Connolly's early career.

Drawing Inspiration from History

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Review of 'The Struggle for Dignity', editors John Mcllroy, Alan Campbell and Keith Gildart, University of Wales Press £45

The General Strike of May 1926 occupies a central place in the history of the 20th century labour movement. The rallying of trade unionists throughout the country to the cause of the miners is rightly celebrated as a demonstration of the potential strength of the working class. The fact that support for the strike was growing day by day makes the TUC leadership's sell-out all the more shameful. Their surrender not only left the miners isolated, but also left thousands of their own members victimised by employers, who could hardly believe their luck.

With Friends Like These ...

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Review of 'Stalin's British Victims' by Francis Beckett, Sutton £20

The excuse usually put forward by former Communists for their support of the Great Terror in the 1930s is that they did not know what was really going on in the Soviet Union. The truth was that they did not want to know. Not only that, they were also a party to an international campaign of lies, slander and intimidation that was intended to deny a hearing to those trying to expose Stalin's crimes.

One Day It Will Arrive

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John Newsinger marvels at a revolutionary fantasy.

One review of China Miéville's new novel, while praising it, nevertheless felt obliged to comment on the amount of political baggage that it carried. What the reviewer meant was that he had just read and enjoyed a fantasy novel informed by revolutionary socialist politics and found the experience disconcerting. Of course, all fiction carries political baggage and fantasy more openly than most. Indeed, the politics of most fantasy literature is some variety of royalism. The world is beset by evil and a hereditary monarch appears to put it right.

Covert Powers

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Review of 'Intelligence Wars', Thomas Powers, New York Review of Books £16.99

On the day that President Kennedy was assassinated, his brother Robert, the US attorney general, asked the director of the CIA, John McCone, if the agency was responsible. His brother's death had obviously affected Robert Kennedy's judgement because he apparently believed that McCone would tell him the truth. But while the question of who was responsible for Kennedy's assassination remains open, what is interesting about this incident is that it shows that the US attorney general had absolutely no illusions about what sort of organisation the CIA was or what it was capable of.

Orwell Centenary: The Biographies

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George Orwell was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. On the hundredth anniversary of his birth we examine the controversy around his work and his legacy for today. John Newsinger reviews recent biographies of Orwell.

In 1946 George Orwell was to acknowledge the importance of his Spanish experiences. Spain, he wrote, had 'turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.' What is remarkable, of course, is that an old Etonian, very much a product of the imperial middle class should have ended up fighting in Spain with the POUM militia and then have gone on to become the most important socialist writer and novelist of 20th century Britain.

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