Archive for the ‘communism’ Category

Well, this is interesting, both on the Bo Xilai story and also on the general theme of the state of the art in contemporary authoritarianism. It looks like a major part of the case is about BXL’s electronic surveillance of Chongqing and specifically of top national-level Chinese officials:

One political analyst with senior-level ties, citing information obtained from a colonel he recently dined with, said Mr. Bo had tried to tap the phones of virtually all high-ranking leaders who visited Chongqing in recent years, including Zhou Yongkang, the law-and-order czar who was said to have backed Mr. Bo as his potential successor. “Bo wanted to be extremely clear about what leaders’ attitudes toward him were,” the analyst said.

That’s Zhou Yongkang as in the head of the whole Chinese internal security structure, cops, spooks, and all. Bo’s police chief (and future sort-of defector) Wang Lijun is described as being “a tapping freak”, addicted to the productivity and hence apparent power of electronic intelligence. Not only that, Wang eventually began tapping Bo, who was also tapping the CDIC feds who came down to keep an eye on him.

The practicalities are, as always, interesting.

The architect was Mr. Wang, a nationally decorated crime fighter who had worked under Mr. Bo in the northeast province of Liaoning. Together they installed “a comprehensive package bugging system covering telecommunications to the Internet,” according to the government media official.

One of several noted cybersecurity experts they enlisted was Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, who is often called the father of China’s “Great Firewall,” the nation’s vast Internet censorship system.

It’s worth pointing out that the provincial networks belonging to China Mobile, China Telecom etc. are usually organised as companies in their own right, and they often have their own AS numbers, and indeed they often contract for substantial network development projects with Western vendors (Nokia Siemens recently had a big mobile network contract in Sichuan, notably) on their own right.

Anyway, Fang’s involvement is very interesting indeed. He is responsible for the state-of-the-art authoritarian solution to the Internet. This is not just, or even primarily, a question of blacklisting websites or turning off the Internet. The Great Firewall’s detailed design, as the Cambridge Computer Lab found out a while ago, is specifically intended to be a semi-permeable membrane. Rather like Hadrian’s Wall, it is more about the gates through it than the wall itself, and the defences point in both directions.

When a computer within it tries to initiate a TCP connection to one outside that is classified as dodgy, the Firewall sends an RST message back to kill the connection. This permits much higher performance than the DNS-based blacklisting typical of, say, the UAE.

It also means that it’s possible to ignore the RST and look through the firewall by using your own firewall utility (specifically, set something like iptables to drop any RSTs for connections in states other than ESTABLISHED before a suitable time has elapsed). However, it would be a fair guess that any traffic doing this is logged and analysed more deeply.

Further, there is a substantial human infrastructure linking the media/PR/propaganda system, the police system, and the Ministry of the Information Industry. This uses tools such as moderation on big Web forums, direct recruitment, harassment, or persuasion of important influencers, the development of alternative opposition voices, and the use of regime loyalist trolls (the famous wumaodang).

The firewall, like Hadrian’s Wall or the original Great Wall, also has an economic function. This acts as a protectionist subsidy to Chinese Internet start-ups and a tariff barrier to companies outside it. Hence the appearance of some really big companies that basically provide clones of Twitter et al. Because the clones are inside the firewall, they are amenable to management and moderation.

And none of this detracts from the genuine intention of the people at 31 Jin-rong Street, the China Telecom HQ, to wire up the whole place. Iran’s surprisingly important role providing broadband to Afghanistan and diversionary links to the Gulf reminds us that providing connectivity can be a powerful policy tool and one that you can use at the same time as informational repression.

So, Fang’s achievement is basically a package of technical and human security measures that let whoever is in charge of them command the context Web users experience.

Last autumn, several of the Chinese web startups were subjected to the combined honour and menace of a visit from top securocrats. Tencent, the owner of QQ and the biggest of the lot, got Zhou Yongkang in person. In hindsight, this will have been around the time the CDIC landed in Chongqing.

So, where am I going with this? Clearly, there was serious disquiet that somebody was usurping the right to control the wires. Even more disquieting, the surveillance establishment in Fang’s person seemed to be cooperating with him. And the systems he set up worked just as well for someone increasingly seen as a dangerous rebel as they did for the central government. (In fact, the people who like to complain about Huawei equipment in the West have it the wrong way round. It’s not some sort of secret backdoor they should be worrying about: it’s the official stuff.)

I do wonder, depending on what happens to Fang (he’s still vanished, but his Weibo feed has started updating again), if we might not see a relaxation of the firewall, which the pundits will consider “reform”. In fact it will be no such thing, rather a cranking up of internal chaos to facilitate a crackdown on opposition.

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The Book

Red Plenty is a fictionalised history, or possibly a work of hard historical science fiction, which covers what it describes as the “fifties’ Soviet dream” but which might be better termed the Soviet sixties – the period from Khrushchev’s consolidation of power to the first crackdown on the dissidents and the intervention in Czechoslovakia. This is a big book in a Russian way – it’s always been a science-fiction prerogative to work with the vastness of space, the depth of history, and the wonder and terror of science and technology, but it’s also been fairly common that science-fiction has had a bit of a problem with people. The characters who re-fire the S-IVB main engine for translunar injection, with nothing but a survival pack of big ideas for use on arrival, tend to vanish in the cosmos. At its best, this has given the genre a disturbingly calm new perspective – chuck out your literary chintz, the rocket equation will not be fooled. At worst, well, OH NO JOHN RINGO.

Red Plenty covers a lot of big ideas, some serious hardware and even more serious software, and great swaths of the Soviet Union. But you will also need to be prepared to meet quite a lot of difficult but rewarding people, rather like the geneticist character Zoya Vaynshtayn does at the party Leonid Kantorovich’s students throw in Akademgorodok. In that sense, it has a genuinely Russian scale to it. The characters are a mixture of historical figures (as well as Kantorovich, you will spend some time in Nikita Khrushchev’s interior monologue), pure fictions, and shadow characters for some historical ones. (Emil Shaidullin roughly represents Gorbachev’s adviser Abel Aganbegyan; Vaynshtayn the historical geneticist Raissa Berg.)

So what are they up to?

Rebooting Science

Kantorovich, a central figure of the book, is remembered as the only Soviet citizen to win a Nobel Prize in economics, and the inventor of the mathematical technique of linear programming. As a character, he’s a sort of Soviet Richard Feynman – an egghead and expert dancer and ladies’ man, a collaborator on the nuclear bomb, and a lecturer so cantankerous his students make a myth of him. Politically, it’s never clear if he’s being deliberately provocative or completely naive, or perhaps whether the naivety is protective camouflage.

A major theme of the book is the re-creation of real science in the Soviet Union after the Stalinist era; biology has to start up afresh, economics has to do much the same, and everyone is working in a large degree of ignorance about the history of their fields. Some things simply can’t be restarted – as Spufford points out, despite all the compulsory Marxism-Leninism, even genetics hadn’t been erased as thoroughly as independent Marxist thought, and nobody in charge was willing to even think of opening that particular can of worms. On the other hand, the re-opening of economics as a field of study led to what the biologists would have called an adaptive radiation. Pioneers from engineering, maths, biology and physics began to lay spores in the new territory.

Comrades, let’s optimise!

The new ecosystem was known as cybernetics, which was given a wider meaning than the same word was in the West. Kantorovich’s significance in this is that his work provided both a theoretical framework and a critical technology – if the problem was to allocate the Soviet Union’s economic resources optimally, could it be possible to solve this by considering the economy as a huge system of linear production functions, and then optimising the lot? The idea had been tried before, in the socialist calculation debate of the 1920s, although without the same mathematical tools.

This is one of those events whose significance has changed a great deal over time. The question was whether it was possible for a planned economy to achieve an optimal allocation of resources. The socialists thought so; their critics held that it was impossible, and elaborated a set of criteria for optimal allocation very similar to the ones that are familiar as the standard assumptions in the economic theory of the firm in perfect competition. These days, it’s often presented as if this was a knockout argument. From the firm in perfect competition, we hop to Hayek’s idea that a market economy is better at making use of dispersed, implicit knowledge. Basta. We won.

The socialists weren’t without intellectual originality. In fact, they did actually formulate a mathematical rebuttal to the firm in perfect competition – the Lange model, which demonstrated that optimal allocation was a possibility in theory. The Hayekian critique wasn’t considered that great at the time – it was thought a much better point that the barrier to effective planning was a practical one, not a fundamental one. And even then, it was well known that the standard assumptions don’t, actually, describe any known economy. It would simply be impossible to process all the data with the technology available. Even with the new tools of linear optimisation, who was going to do all those sums, especially as the process is an iterative rather than a formal one? Stalin and Hitler had their own way of solving these arguments – no man, no problem – and the whole thing ended up moot for some time.

Computers: a technical fix

But if it had been impossible to run the numbers with pen and paper in 1920, or with Hollerith machines and input-output tables in 1940, what about computers in 1960? Computers could blast through millions of iterations for hundreds of thousands of production processes in tens of thousands of supply chains; computers were only likely to get better at it, too. Red Plenty is about the moment when it seemed that the new territory of cybernetics was going to give rise to a synthesis between mathematics, market-socialist thinking, and computing that would replace GOSPLAN and deliver Economics II: True Communism.

After all, by the mid-60s it was known that the enormous system of equations could be broken down into its components, providing that the constraints in each sub-system were consistent with the others. If each production unit had its own computer, and the computers in each region or functional organisation were networked, and then the networks were….were internetworked? In fact, the military was already using big computer networks for its command-and-control systems, borrowing a lot of ideas from the US Air Force’s SAGE; by 1964, there were plans for a huge national timesharing computer network, for both military and civilian use, as a horizontal system cutting across all the ministries and organisations. Every town would get a data centre.

The Economics Fairy Strikes Again

But, of course, it didn’t happen. There’s a good paper on the fate of the Soviet internetworkers here; Spufford has a fascinating document on the end of indigenous general-purpose computer development in the USSR here. Eventually, during the 1970s, it became increasingly obvious that the Soviet economy was not going to catch up with and outstrip anyone, let alone the United States, and the Austrian economists were retroactively crowned as having obviously been right all along, and given their own chance to fail. Spufford frames the story as a Russian fairytale; perhaps we can say that in fact, economics is the fairytale, or rather the fairy. Successive groups of intellectuals have fought their way through the stacks of books, past the ideological monsters, and eventually reached the fairy’s grotto, to be granted their greatest wish. And it’s always the same one – a chance to fail.

Why did the Soviet economists fail? Red Plenty gives a spectacular sweep through the Soviet economy as it actually was; from the workings of GOSPLAN, to the management of a viscose factory, to the world of semi-criminal side payments that actually handled the problems of day-to-day survival. In the 1990s, the descendants of one half of the socialist calculation debate swept into Russia as advisers paid by the Thatcher Foundation. Arriving on the fairy’s magic cloud, they knew little of how the Soviet economy worked in practice, and duly got their opportunity to fail. The GOSPLAN officials of the 60s were reliant on data that was both completely unreliable, being the product of political bargaining more than anything else, and typically slightly less than a year out of date. And the market socialists were just as reliant on the management of Soviet industry for the production cost data they needed to make sure all those budget constraints really were consistent.

That’s a technical explanation. But there are others available. Once communism was achieved the state was meant to wither away, and not many of the people in charge of it were at all keen on this as a pension plan. Without the power to intervene in the economy, what was the point of the Party, again? Also, what was that stuff about letting people connect computers to the telephone network and pass messages from factory to factory? Where will it end? The central government, the Politburo, GOSPLAN, STAVKA – they would never accept it.

Another, more radical, is that the eventual promise of Red Plenty was to render not so much the top of the pyramid, but the middle management, redundant. The rapid industrialisation had created a new management class who had every intention of getting rich and staying that way. (This was the Yugoslavs’ take on the Soviet Union – the new class had simply taken over from the capitalists.) What would happen to their bonuses, and their prerogative to control the planners by telling them what they wanted to hear?

And yet another is that the whole project was flawed. Even if it was possible to discern the economy’s underlying cost-structure, write the software, and optimise the whole thing, how would this system deal with dynamic economics? How would it allocate investment? How would it cope with technological change? It’s no help to point out that, in fact, a lot of the questions are nowhere near being solved in any economics.

Soviet History

One view of the USSR’s history is a succession of escape attempts. The NEP of the mid-20s, Nikolai Voznezhensky’s term at GOSPLAN in the 1940s, the Soviet 60s. Each saw a real effort to get away from a political economy which was in many ways a wild caricature of the Industrial Revolution, screwing down the labour share of income in order to boost capital investment and hence industrial output, answering any protest against this with the pistol of the state. As well as trying new economic ideas, they also saw surges of creativity in other fields. They were all crushed.

Arguably, you could say the same thing about perestroika. The people who signed the Alma-Ata protocol to arrange the end of the Soviet Union and the dismissal of Gorbachev were not, in fact, heroic dissidents, but rather career communist bureaucrats, some of whom went on to become their own little Stalins. Spufford says in the endnotes to Red Plenty that part of the book’s aim is a prehistory of perestroika – one view of the characters is that many of them are developing into the people who will eventually transform the country in the 1980s. Green politics was an important strand in the great dissident wave, right across the USSR and Central Europe; Zoya Vaynshteyn’s genetic research, which turns up some very unpleasant facts, is a case in point. Valentin, the programmer and cadre, is going to retain his self-image as a bohemian hacker into the future. Another Party figure in the book is the man who refuses to get used to violence, which will also turn out to be important in 1989.

Anyway, go read the damn book.

I’ve been reading Bruno Latour’s Aramis, or the Love of Technology, a postmodernist account of the failure of a massive French project to develop a Personal Rapid Transit system. Latour’s book contains chunks of fiction, interviews, historical documents, and authorial comment, broken out by the typography – the experience is more like reading a long blog post containing blockquotes from different sources and snarky comments on them than anything else.

It’s a fascinating exploration of the politics of the project, the nature of projects themselves, and the sources of project failure; running from 1969 to 1987, the scheme went from conceptual paper studies to a major prototype by 1973, and eventually built a large-scale test implementation in the mid-80s, before being suddenly cancelled while an intensive test campaign intended to qualify it for deployment was under way. Latour is primarily interested in how the overall concept and much of the technology stayed the same, although its objectives, planned deployment, and resources changed constantly throughout the project.

He argues that, eventually, the crucial issue was that a project is a fundamentally political concept – it has to recruit the support of people and of interest groups in order to progress, and Aramis was a side-project for nearly everyone involved except for two groups – the engineers working on it, and the French Communist Party. Unfortunately for the first group, the contract for large-scale tests was signed as the last act in office of the Communist transport minister before the party pulled out of the Mitterrand government.

This is of course true; a project needs to create its own tribe and its own culture. However, I’m quite ambivalent about the whole concept; not really about its technical or economic aspects, but rather about the idea of urbanness that was built into its core assumptions. PRT emerged in the 1960s as a technological fix to what its American proponents thought was the steady decline of cities – the big idea was a form of high-capacity public transport that would provide point-to-point service without intermediate stops, in a private environment, rather like a car, but without traffic jams or exhaust fumes or road accidents.

The flip side of this comes up again and again in Latour’s interviews with Matra and RATP executives, regarding their assumptions about the passengers and the user-experience studies that were carried out later in the project. Passengers, apparently, wanted more than anything else to be transported from point to point, “without transfers, without thinking“, without other people. Not that any passengers had actually been asked what they thought at this point. Clearly, the political assumptions built into Aramis from the beginning were that moving around a city was basically unpleasant, and specifically because of the presence of other people. Huge amounts of effort were expended on the contradictory task of building a vehicle and a broader networked system that was both user-controlled and designed to keep the user from engaging with it in any way.

Very significantly, when user studies were actually carried out, the public was notably cool on the idea and found the cabins (patterned, on the inside, on the Renault Espace) unnerving and uncanny – rather than being protected from a sinister and menacing urban jungle, they felt isolated in sealed capsules controlled by automated systems, in which they could still be confronted with strangers. The paranoia and declinism that originally motivated the PRT concept was accurately preserved in its architecture and communicated to its potential passengers.

Of course, if you were to ask me about this on the Northern Line or the 271 bus tomorrow evening, I’d probably be significantly more sympathetic to the idea; it’s much easier to enjoy public transport when it isn’t operating at overload-plus. This was also a criticism of Aramis – the RATP managers found it hard to imagine a system working that didn’t use standing passengers as a buffer for peak demand, which is telling in itself. And the PCF’s interest was presumably in the idea of a communal and high-modernist rival to the car that would also be a major technical boost for French industry.

Another interesting but under-discussed angle is that of failed consilience.

While the most active phase of Aramis development was on, other groups of engineers were solving the problems of routing discrete packets around a dense scalefree network, preventing them from colliding, and providing congestion control, load-balancing, and controllable routing metrics. They were, of course, the IEEE-802 and IETF work groups building the Internet. The engineers down the road at Alcatel working on GSM could probably have told them a thing or two, as well. The analogies between the longest prefix match/shortest path wins logic of BGP and the problems of routing Aramis cars are very close, although one problem that doesn’t come up in internetworking is how to return the empties and make sure there is a sufficient free float of vehicles to maintain the service. (You regularly see small vans redistributing the Velib bikes around Paris in order to deal with just this problem.)

Part of the explanation, and another interesting angle, is that there was clearly a massive culture clash between the Matra defence-electronics managers, the RATP railwaymen, and the software developers subcontracted in to eventually write the routing and speed-control systems. Matra representatives repeatedly mention that there was a need for a revolution in microprocessors, although that is precisely what happened every 18 months throughout the project.

Apparently, a related system is under test around Heathrow Terminal 5, due to go live in “spring 2010”. Anyone taking bets?

Resistance – The Essence of the Islamist Revolution is Alistair Crooke’s survey of modern Islamist thought. It would be clearer to say it is a couple of books occupying the same space; one would be a history of Islamist thought since the origins of the Iranian Revolution, with a polemic for greater understanding of such thought, and another would be a slightly eccentric, neo-Platonist rant with overtones of Ian Buruma’s notion of Occidentalism.

Well, that sounds fun, doesn’t it? Then you have to add in Crooke’s career; the book glosses him as an advisor to the European Commission on the Middle East, but makes absolutely no mention of his term as SIS station chief in Tel Aviv, in which role he negotiated a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which lasted until an unfortunate air raid resulted in the deaths of a round dozen civilians and not the Hamas man the Israelis were after. (The story is here.)

The war resumed, and Crooke was recalled; officially this was for “security reasons”, but if anything imperilled his security it was probably that after the event, the Israeli tabloids discovered his job title, identity, and photograph with un-mysterious suddenness. He eventually fetched up in Beirut, running a thinktank called the Conflicts Forum, devoted to contact between Western powers and Islamists. (Time was, it would have been a nightclub, but we live in fallen times.)

So, what upshot? Crooke makes a strong case for modern Islamism as a classical reaction to colonialism and modernisation, or rather an interwar vision of modernity. He relies on an impressive battery of reading ranging into cultural Marxism at one end and into hardcore conservatism at the other. More controversially, he tries to place Islamism since the 1950s in a context of rebellion against free-market economics drawn from Naomi Klein; but the Ba’athist and similar regimes hardly qualify as Friedmanites, with their nationalised oil companies, state military industries, and extensive Soviet influence in administration, secret policing, and military doctrine and structure.

He draws on a battery of confidential interviews, which are some of the most interesting things in the book, to illuminate current ideas and practice, specifically among Hezbollah thinkers. Notably, they argue, the Caliphate should now be seen as a world-wide network of loosely interconnected “communities of resistance”, rather than a state or any other kind of hierarchical organisation. The aim of these is to uphold the practice of an ideal, self-organising community of believers against a total onslaught by the forces of liberalism, which wishes us all to be atomised individuals.

In practice, this demands a sort of liberation theology/community-organising/vaguely anarchist drive to create base groups everywhere, drawn together by the practice of mutual aid and the study of critical texts, and if necessary to form the underground shadow-administration common to all good guerrilla armies.

Crooke is interesting on the military implications of this, but I think what he describes is less original than he suggests. Flat, highly networked command structures, with a high degree of autonomy down to the squad and the individual, are not characteristic of Islamic or Islamist warfare; what he is describing here sounds a lot like Auftragstaktik. Also, he describes the requirements of a Hezbollah leader as integrity, authenticity, reliability, personal charisma, and ability to mobilise others; would anyone at all disagree?

There is an interesting side-trip into Islamist economic ideas. He criticises Westeners who assume that the main aim of these is to find technical workarounds to make the normal course of business sharia-compliant; apparently the real thing is considerably better. However, a lot of it (as described here) consists of accepting a market economy but not letting money be the be-all and end-all of everything, etc, etc; in practice, this seems to mean a welfare state. No surprise, then, that one of the thinkers he quotes had to write an entire book to rebut the charge that his ideas were indistinguishable from European social democracy.

According to Crooke, the main distinction is in the field of monetary economics; but, in so far as his writing is a true misrepresentation of it, it seems to be distinct in a way which isn’t particularly original. Apparently, Islamist economists are very exercised about M3 broad money growth, on the grounds that this represents the growth of credit in a fractional-reserve banking system and that this is the root of the evils of capitalism. Instead, they are keen on…the gold standard, that most free-trade imperialist of economic institutions!

At this point you might want to halt briefly; Islamist Auftragstaktik applied to community organising? The Caliphate in terms suited to Clay Shirky? Dear God, Islamist monetarist gold bugs? Phew! And you could, perhaps, take comfort from the thought that however strange Iranian political thought may be, their economic thought is no stranger than Fraser Nelson’s or Jude Wanniski’s. Placing an upper bound on the strangeness, after all, is probably an important step towards international understanding.

Then we get into the second book. Crooke is always quoting Plato, specifically the apposition between the port and the city; he attacks Karl Popper, and uses a great deal of Horkheimer and John Gray. It is fair to say he accepts entirely the complex of critiques that argue that life is meaningless without a higher purpose usually decided by higher people, that the freedom offered by liberalism is no such thing, that trade (or commerce, or industry) is “mere”; it is harder to say whether he accepts this for the sake of argument, as much of the Islamist thinking he is discussing bases itself on these ideas.

And there is a valid argument that a lot of it claims to represent the up-side of such critiques – the need for a self-empowered, cohesive community, the problems of the free market – but might just as well be the downside. The economy should be directed, at a national level, towards certain “great concepts”; this could be post-war French indicative planning, and might well be, having been written in the 1950s – or it could be a Straussian exercise in National Greatness Conservatism. We should work and care for society; or is it, as one of Crooke’s interviewees says, that “life is not worth living without something worth dying for”?

None of this stuff about “false reconciliation” and “self-pacifying”, materialism, etc, etc, answers E. P. Thompson’s classic attack on “theories that assume that ordinary people are bloody silly“, either. Strangely enough, towards the end of the book, we have a sudden swerve back towards liberalism; freedom is not so bad after all, it turns out, compared with a neoconservatism informed by Leo Strauss.

Curiously, I left the book with a feeling that it had set out to make right-wing Americans feel closer to political Shi’ism.

I liked this comment from Chris “Chris” Williams regarding Arthur C. Clarke:

What future? A better one than we’ve got: a worse on than we’d have had without him. Several million fanboys and girls grew up exposed to clear prose, opposition to nationalism, scepticism about organised religion, faith in technology, faith in humanity, and some great comedy.

“The guest of honour pressed a button (which wasn’t connected to anything). The chief engineer threw a switch (which was).” – or thereabouts. From Travel by Wire. All there at the start.

Which amused me; especially as the same post got linked by the Adam Smith Institute. Ha, I can’t imagine two technologies that got commercially deployed whose development had less to do with Teh Market than satellite communications and GSM. Even though there is fierce competition in both fields, a lot of it is down to the fact that the GSM founding engineers designed it in, working for ASI-tastic organisations like nationalised Nordic telcos and the European Commission.

Satellites, well…you do know Bell Labs (itself hardly the most Thatcherite operation, and one Reaganism killed off pretty sharpish) actually considered launching the first comsat on a Soviet rocket? Beyond mockery, what I’m driving at is that Clarke delivered a solid disrespect for ideology as well as religion and nationalism and Western arrogance – surely, the Indian-engineer archetype must have something to do with all his Dr Chandras, next to the IITs and the unintended consequences of IBM being kicked out of India in the 70s? (And what would the ASI make of *that*?)

The political landscapes he delivered were always nicely sceptical of state bureaucracies (2001: A Space Odyssey can be read as an attack on the security-bureaucratic complex) and also of big business. He missed the revival of small business, but then, who didn’t. And his major political flaw was that he was too optimistic about technocratic cooperation – he seemed to believe that politics stopped in low earth-orbit, and Space Station One is essentially the European Union at L-5. Just as you can’t have non-political bread, you certainly can’t have non-political spaceflight; but of all the political mistakes you could make, it’s a pretty minor one compared with some of the others on offer during his career.

From the 1930s to today, he could have variously believed in die-hard opposition to Indian autonomy, to say nothing of independence, that Stalin was an honourable gentleman, that what we really need is a strong leader to discipline the feminine masses, that white people were smarter than other people, that the US intelligence services were engaged in a conspiracy to downplay Soviet power and that therefore we need many more nuclear weapons, that burning the North Sea oil reserves in order to support sterling at an exchange rate high enough to flatten the export sector was a good idea, that the UN is a secret Zionist conspiracy to take your guns, that what we really need is a restored Caliphate, or that invading Iraq was wise. And this is far from an exhaustive list. Literally no other period of human history has offered a richer cornucopia of delusions; as George Orwell said, no ordinary man could be such a fool.

The Clarkean vision was that perhaps, we might be able to imbue reality with the inspiration and excitement various groups of us applied to the list of ideological manias above. Rather than pluricontinentalism or bimetallism or conservatism, we might consider the renal parasites of cephalopods, the neurological basis or otherwise of psychoanalysis, or viewing the surface of Venus in the infrared. Nothing is mere; so said Richard Feynman. It finally poses the question; is a sceptical utopia possible?

Interesting piece in the Grauniad about the British communists and the Soviet intervention in Hungary. I was especially amused by the Daily Worker doing a version of the jaunt to the Green Zone by Rush Limbaugh to “get the good news from Iraq the MSM is keeping quiet”. Their reporter, Peter Fryer, was briefed that he ought to “contradict that sort of thing”, where the things were reports of tanks machine-gunning crowds of demonstrators. On arriving in Budapest he discovered that they were all true, and said so. His editor, Johnny Campbell, did the obvious thing and spiked the lot. Fryer quit, as did some 19 other journalists. Apparently the readers were forced to read the Daily Telegraph to get their information. Why not the Guardian? Presumably because “social democracy is social fascism.”

Interesting as the story is, though, I find a nasty taste in the way many of the people interviewed experienced the whole thing as a disagreeable but pleasantly exciting social kerfuffle, a leftie/intellectual version of so-and-so’s latest affair in suburbia.

Alison Macleod, the Daily Worker’s TV critic, described how “all around us the marriages of party members were cracking up”. Everywhere friendships were under strain. The Thompsons fell out with the Kettles.

Hey! Janos! Bad news! What, are we running out of RPGs? No, the Thompsons have fallen out with the Kettles. And what the fuck is this about?

Another friend, the philosopher Maurice Cornforth, stayed in the party, but guiltily sent the Thompsons a cheque for £50 when Imre Nagy, the reformist Hungarian Communist leader, was executed in 1958.

What, did they have a bet on?