Book Reviews: ‘Web of Deceit’, ‘Tell Me Lies…’, & ‘Why Read Marx Today?’

Mark Curtis: Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World. Vintage £7.99

Remember New Labour’s “ethical foreign policy”? The term was used by the media rather than by the government, but it was supposed to be one of the things that made Blair and co different from all their predecessors (though its abandonment in 2000 was barely noticed). In fact, as Mark Curtis shows in this devastating and comprehensive survey, the Labour government has consistently supported repressive regimes and massacres, thus continuing the thoroughly unpleasant history of Britain as a capitalist power. Let’s look at some of the examples that he examines.

The US-UK invasion of Iraq of course has everything to do with oil and other strategic concerns, and nothing to do with the freedom of ordinary Iraqis. This is illustrated by the fact that sanctions imposed on Iraq have killed thousands of children every month since 1990 as, for instance, basic medical supplies were withheld. Thousands more people have died in Afghanistan, in the post-9/11 bombing raids, in which Britain has been a “junior partner”; but Afghans are Unpeople, whose deaths are apparently unimportant and go unrecorded in Western media. British arms are sold to Israel, in spite of their use against Palestinian civilians.” In Kosovo in 1999, NATO bombing killed around 8000 and precipitated ‘ethnic cleansing’ (which the bombing supposedly halted, but the chronology shows this to be wrong). Britain also condoned massacres in Chechnya carried out by Russian forces controlled by Vladimir Putin (a close pal of Blair).

This is a pretty devastating exposure of Labour’s record in world affairs: responsible for the deaths of thousands who happened to be in the wrong place, somewhere where natural resources or strategical issues were to be found. The attacks on Kosovo and other parts of ex-Yugoslavia, for instance, were motivated by the desire to expand NATO eastwards and bring more of Eastern Europe under Western influence, as well as to show that any NATO threats of armed intervention were not idle. As Robin Cook said at the time, one of the key tasks in the Balkans was to “open up their markets”.

However, Curtis goes on to note that many British government actions in these cases were in violation of international law, in effect making the UK an “outlaw state”. This is doubtless true, but so what? International law about the use of force and so on is made by the major global players, and is really about how they want other states to behave, as they can in effect do what they want. Bombings and massacres are nasty enough, whether legal or illegal.

There is nothing new in the Labour government’s behaviour, since for decades the British capitalist class has endeavoured to get its way in terms of exploitation and interference in other parts of the world, many examples of which Curtis also chronicles. Thus, in 1953, MI6 and the CIA organised a coup in Iran which installed the Shah in power. This overthrew the government of Mohamed Musaddiq, whose crime it was to threaten to nationalise the Iranian oil industry. Instead, the oil remained under the control of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now known as BP). In the mid-50s, savage repression was visited on the British colony of Kenya, in response to the Mau Mau movement – all to maintain the country in a dependent condition, producing primary products for export. Malaya was a valuable source of raw materials, especially of rubber and tin, hence the war fought there throughout the 50s by the British armed forces. Even after Malaysian “independence” in 1957, British companies continued to control much of the country’s economy. It was in defence of the big sugar estates that Britain overthrew a democratically-elected government in British Guiana in 1953.

And there’s more. Britain was complicit in the slaughter of over a million people in Indonesia in 1965, and supported the horrific Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975. From 1968 on, Britain removed the entire population from the small Indian island of Diego Garcia (a new colony hived off from Mauritius when the latter became independent). This was so that the island could be used as a US air base.

Curtis also looks at the role of the media in propagating the view that Britain’s world role is basically benign, and in presenting an essentially ahistorical view of global events. But these parts of the book are less interesting and less instructive than the case study chapters summarised above. Practically every one of these chapters contains eye-opening material on the reality, not just of Labour’s foreign policy, but of what capitalism is prepared to do to defend and extend the interest of particular ruling classes. Web of Deceit should be read by anyone who wants to learn more about how world capitalism functions.



David Miller ed: Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq. Pluto Press £12.99

This volume contains 32 contributions from a wide variety of writers, which naturally means few arguments are developed at length and there is some overlap. A number of the pieces have appeared before, such as John Pilger’s articles in the New Statesman.

It is probably not a surprise to learn that the physical attack on Iraq was preceded, accompanied and followed by a massive propaganda war. There were the notorious claims about Iraq’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), claims which the mainstream media signally failed to expose as falsehoods. The view that Iraq constituted a threat to the rest of the world, largely by dint of having WMDs, was built up from at least 1997, despite the lack of real evidence for it. Even the CIA was pressured into producing reports that gave more support to the case for war.

Once the invasion had started, the propaganda machine went into overdrive, though under the more acceptable labels of “public diplomacy”’ or “information support”. Both state and private media played their part; the BBC’s Andrew Marr, for instance, reported that Baghdad had been captured “without a bloodbath”, despite the loss of thousands of civilian lives. The invasion force went to great lengths to ensure that only their perspective on the fighting was given proper airtime. Many reporters were stationed at the US Central Command in Qatar, where they could do little but listen to, and pass on, the official line as delivered in press conferences at which hostile or even sceptical questions were firmly discouraged.

A major development in this war was the use of “embedded” reporters, who travelled with invading forces, supposedly sharing the same dangers and so identifying with the soldiers they were accompanying. This inevitably meant that they toed the official line, often presenting a sanitised view of war, in which Iraqi casualties were minimised and all emphasis was put on the prospects for a successful (from the US-UK standpoint) outcome. In contrast were the so-called “unilateral” journalists, who were more independent, in some cases reporting from Baghdad while it was under attack. The US stressed the protection that they could offer to the “embeds”, while the unilaterals could enjoy no such advantages. In fact, two embedded American media workers were killed during the war, as were at least fifteen other journalists. In some cases, media centres and hotels housing reporters were bombed by US forces – probably intentionally, given that their positions and status were too well-known for all these incidents to be accidents.

Of course, there are other forms of government and ruling class influence on the media than naked physical threat. Many media bosses are themselves extremely wealthy capitalists (think of Rupert Murdoch), so their companies naturally present a pro-corporate power position. In the US, owners of radio stations supported the war as a thank you to the government for its deregulation of the radio industry, from which they’d benefited. The US media adopted a jingoistic attitude during the war, but the UK media were not quite that bad (and it is only fair to record that Channel 4 News was the most critical in its reporting).

The Iraq invasion was a media war in that many of the prominent public images of it were mere media stunts. Remembering the toppling of Saddam’s statue? Well, it was American troops who pulled the statue down, and a few handpicked Iraqis were depicted rejoicing. In other cases, the reporting was noticeable for what was not said. Much attention was given to Iraqis looting museums and hospitals after the fall of Baghdad, but there was hardly any reference to the fact that US troops made sure that the Oil Ministry building, with its important records of oil exploration and so on, was made secure.

One good thing which emerges from the book is the way that ordinary people are becoming less and less prepared to swallow the lies emanating from governments and their propaganda machines.



Why Read Marx Today? By Jonathan Wolff, Oxford University Press paperback, 2003

There are many introductory books of this type, although this is much better than most. It accurately summarizes Marx’s thought for university students. But why read Marx today, other than for academic interest? Wolff does a good job of locating Marx’s thought in the context of the nineteenth century, but is less successful when dealing with Marx’s relevance to the twenty-first century. For example, Wolff’s assessment – and dismissal – of Marx’s theory of history relies heavily on GA Cohen’s functionalist interpretation in his book Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (1978). If, instead of Cohen’s determinist interpretation, Wolff had located the class struggle as the motor of history, he might have reached a different assessment.

Was the Russian revolution of November 1917 in any sense Marxist? Wolff doubts it and refers to us: “Certainly this was the view of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, who now boast that they condemned the Russian revolution as ‘non-Marxist’ within its first 24 hours.”

Wolff provides no evidence for this allegation. Perhaps he is thinking of the jibe by the SWPer David Widgery in his 1976 book The Left in Britain 1956-1968 which makes a similarly daft claim about the Socialist Party. For the record, the Socialist Party did not reject the Russian revolution “within its first 24 hours”. Our initial reaction was supportive of the Bolshevik decision to withdraw from the futile carnage of World War One. Our first analysis of the November 1917 revolution appeared in the Socialist Standard in August 1918. Hardly a rush to judgement. Nevertheless, the conclusion was unambiguous: “What justification is there, then, for terming the upheaval in Russia a Socialist Revolution? None whatever beyond the fact that the leaders in the November movement claim to be Marxian Socialists”. (See our archives).

On a more general point, it should be noted that over the past few decades it has become increasingly common to find books on Marx and Marxism which take our side of the argument, unless they have a Leninist axe to grind. Here is the example of another “What Marx really meant” book which discusses Marx’s concept of socialism in ways which could easily have come from the pages of the Socialist Standard, only the author does it purely on the basis of what Marx actually said. Of course time has moved on and the Socialist Party has stated its own differences with Marx and developed his thought further, and made its own contributions to socialist theory. Yet we can agree with Wolff that “we can safely conclude that the world has not (yet?) seen a Marxist revolution.”


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