Bumping up against the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s

There are some offers you can refuse.

By Phil Hall

To me, both the 70s and 80s are as recent as if they were yesterday. Perhaps that’s why I am so horrified by the idea of a perpetual Conservative government in power in the UK. The Conservatives in the 80s were not just privatisers, they didn’t just open the gates of hell when they deregulated the City – attracting all the money into the City that might otherwise have gone into British manufacturing – the Conservatives were supporters of the Apartheid regime. For them, all socialists and communists were the enemy within.

Disgustingly, young Tories in those days made T-Shirts about Nelson Mandela stamped with the phrase: ‘Hang the terrorist’.

This was an age when Britain didn’t just coat tail off the US’s wars in the hope of getting thrown a few scraps and scrag ends (resources and a little strategic advantage) it was a time when when the Conservatives turned Britain into ground zero for a possible WWIII.

The Tories had allowed Reagan’s mob to site more than a 100 military bases on British soil. Some of these bases held first-strike nuclear weapons. The mood created by Thatcher and Reagan’s willingness to countenance a first strike policy is summed up in Raymond Briggs book: ‘Where the Wind Blows’.

Of course, GCHQ was listening in to all ANC communication traffic coming out of Penton Road and then British Intelligence passed most of the recordings on to the Apartheid regime’s Bureau of State Security (BOSS). There were government paid infiltrators in the ANC who passed on information.

While the ANC had two floors of a terraced house as its headquarters in London (located between King’s Cross and Islington) the Apartheid regime boasted one of the most prominent buildings in the whole of London overlooking Trafalgar Square, South Africa House.

I am so horrified by the idea of a perpetual Conservative government in power in the UK.

I didn’t go to the ANC offices and insist on being part of the struggle because I was white and middle class.

In fact, I had no other identity other than that of a South African exile; our feet had barely touched the ground from the moment my parents left South Africa, but it did not seem that I qualified as a revolutionary. I certainly hadn’t sacrificed anything, apart from continuity in my education.

There has been a Christian ethic in the African liberation movements. The strugglers agreed among themselves that they deserved power after having made sacrifices to get it. The high ground in the ANC was occupied by those who had suffered more.

I see the point of this. Corruption in post colonial and post-revolutionary societies like MexicoSouth AfricaMozambique and Angola comes more from the children and relatives of the fighters and leaders than from the people who were actually in the struggle. Many of the corrupt are people in these societies are not directly linked to the struggle, but are related to the strugglers.

The Tories allowed Reagan’s mob to site more than a 100 military bases on British soil, some of which held first-strike nuclear weapons.

I didn’t feel entitled to participate directly in the struggle for South African national liberation because my travels and experiences severed my link with South Africa. I was left to shadow my South African peers.

So I did. At school I studied history and read a lot about colonialism and about every single revolution that happened in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. I got into coruscating debates with my reactionary, Cambridge educated, history teacher. I questioned what he said, but with very little knowledge or understanding and it didn’t end well for me. His could ridicule me in front of the other students because he knew more.

When faced with the question in my final A’ Level exam:

Explain how the revolution in 1917 in Russia could be considered a coup de etat.

I answered:  This question is tendentious and insulting and I refuse to answer it.

When I studied economics they presented us with the Phillips’ Curve which set up a statistical relationship between unemployment and inflation. It seemed to me that the Phillips Curve was an ideological confection designed by Monetarists to help the government beat on the Trade Unions.

I could not take economics seriously. I could not swallow that shit sandwich. Since then the Phillips Curve has been completely debunked; it was a spurious correlation drawn up by neoliberal ideologues, but in 1978 they forced us to learn it as part of the gospel of economics with monetarism in the ascendant.

he stealthily climbed, and climbed and climbed the greasy pole … the hunger of Jack Straw for power was his true driving force all along.

The infantile left was repulsively sectarian in Britain in the 70s and 80s. They were a bunch of poseurs.  The real fighters and socialists were the left wing trade unionists, the hard line communists, the Bennites, Livingstone’s GLC crowd and organisations like Militant.

If you want to know what left opportunists were like back then you only have to look as far as the former New Labour establishment, at people like Harriet Harmon, David Blunkett and Jack Straw.

New Labour is where the faux radicals ended up and many who seemed to be on the left in Britain, one suspects, completely misread their own motives, which were usually vile.

Jack Straw and David Blunkett were archetypes of this sort of slithery politician. As a student Straw and Blunkett mouthed off Socialist politics, playing the game of who can be more socialist than thou. They used ideological puriity to eliminate opponents and excommunicate viable competitors.

Meanwhile, these political Dorian Grays stealthily climbed, and climbed and climbed the greasy pole, until finally they were worth co-opting. Straw, Blunkett and Harmon had reached a position where it was now worth the state’s while to buy them. It was what these unscrupulous creatures were aiming for the whole time. The hunger for power is a cliche, but it is true all the same. It was the true driving force all along.

Like the artist, perhaps the political activist should never be thoroughly psychoanalysed. When he or she finally manages to understand their own true motives, they could lose their political mojo. They might realise, if they are being honest, that they don’t actually give much of a flying frankfurter about the poor or the persecuted after all.

I chose to study for a degree in Russian and Spanish. I wanted to study the Russian Revolutionthe Civil War in Spain, the nature of planned economies, and the Mexican revolution.

This I did. I was the student representative, I sat on the student council, I started the local Anti-Apartheid group, I set up our branch of the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, I argued against the views of all my middle-of-the-road and right wing lecturers.

But who was I arguing with? Gerald Brooks was one of them. He had been jailed in Lublyanka for spreading the Christian gospel. I was also arguing with Soviet dissidents and people who had fled the Soviet Union because they were being persecuted, people who were still nominally under the protection of the security services.

I was dancing where angels feared to tread. What did I really know about the USSR. Nothing, frankly? Once, after I had given my opinions freely, a Russian literary critic in exile, Borovsky, snarled at me:

“Tuneyadstvo” he said. “Bloodsucker”.

I went to the Soviet Union to find out more. I wanted to know close up, just what this country was that had been supporting the liberation movements. I wanted to really understand what the USSR was like and how it worked. In fact, I was shadowing my peers in the ANC who had gone to study at the Patrice Lumumba University.

For a while I was in love with a young Soviet woman, a Moldavian, our student Intourist guide. She was a junior associate of the KGB. I know she was in the KGB because once two aggressive policemen were about to arrest me and take me to the drunk tank for pissing against a wall at night. Olga stepped up. One look at her ID and they practically saluted her when she spoke to them. Instead of arresting me they drove off at high speed.

She set up a meeting for me with her KGB controller who had travelled up from Kiev. The meeting was in a beautiful Leningrad garden near the sea.

By then I thought I had an intuition about what life in the Soviet Union was really like and an idea of the true nature and the role of the Communist Party. It wasn’t a completely positive impression. And, of course, I knew I would make a hopeless spy because I blurt everything out. I would have been worse than useless.

Though I was being interviewed, I turned the question back on my interviewer, whom I had met before and whom I instinctively disliked. He was slippery and entitled in the way members of the Soviet nomenklatura were entitled. In another country he would have been a yuppie. He’s probably very rich now with shares in some Russian oil company.

I looked at him and thought: You are just ambitious young bastard trying to get into power.

My parents had always been free thinkers. This is why, they guessed, they were not accepted into the South African Communist Party when they were younger. They followed their consciences. This is not something a traditional Soviet communist did.

Despite getting the best marks in her course on the history of the Communist Party, my friend Olga knew nothing of global politics. At heart she was just a Russian nationalist.

By then I had understood that the intellectual life of the Soviet Communist Party in the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the search for truth. It was a poor homunculus of how we imagined a real communist party to be, a sad Golem, a strange caricature.

The USSR’s support for the liberation movements meant that the liberation movements turned a blind eye to the failings of the USSR. Any communism there was in the USSR was vestigial.

So I stopped my KGB interviewer in mid-flow, though I thought I could just as easily have decked him at that point for being such a disappointment. I wanted to know if Soviet communists could be free thinkers:

Tell me first, what do you think of Gramsci?’

‘Ah’ he said. ‘You are a Euro-communist?’

That is the last thing I was. The people who had been voting Euro-communist in the 80s were switching over to Le Pen in France, they were voting against immigration and behaving like racists. That’s how progressive and internationalist they were. No, I was not a Euro-communist’.

I lost all respect. The interview was over and my blond-haired, blue eyed Russian girlfriend was disappointed that I had failed to cut KGB mustard.

Later on my wife convinced me to apply to join the foreign service. I didn’t really want to, but I did fill in the forms, anyway. I must have wanted to self sabotage. I chose to put down Norman Levy as my reference; a family friend, a great academic, a sweet man, but a South African Communist and former jailbird. Norman was happy to oblige. I didn’t get entry. Of course not.

Later on, I applied to become a ‘Lector” for the British Council in one of a number of universities in the Soviet Union and I was interviewed by a senior panel. In the middle of the interview one of the women on the panel suddenly turned to the other interviewers and asked,

Why is this man not in the foreign service?

And an older woman on her right with grey hair looked back at her and arching one eyebrow said. There were reasons. This was a kind of mirror to my experience in the USSR. They both thought I’d be a good spy, but certainly not for either of them. So here I am, sharing my thoughts in a magazine article with you instead.

I remember accompanying my friend Alex Reynolds to the Kitson’s family picket outside South Africa House. There was something aristocratic about Norma Kitson and her son, a touch of the Vanessa Redgraves. The Kitsons always knew best. I think they started up their own little splinter group. What was it called again. The Revolutionary Communist Group. Some such squittering.

My friend was inexperienced and in love with one of the other demonstrators. He went along to their meetings and listened to their over-the-top sloganeering. The ANC and AntiApartheid had asked them to go, but they refused. hey squatted outside South Africa House day and night.

The Kitsons and City Group Anti-Apartheid were a constant presence outside the South African embassy and, to say something in their favour, they did raise people’s awareness. How many hundreds and thousands of tourists must have stopped to think when they saw them? The tourists and Londoners passing by soon realise that the twenty people on the pavement were protesting against Apartheid. The South Africans inside could not remain anonymous because City Group was a finger pointing at them.

A lot of students became more politically aware after a stint with the Kitsons. What good it did them I don’t know. I was outside the embassy one day and we were singing Nkosi Sikelele or shouting and next to me was the actress Miriam Margoyles.

The actress shouted: “Kill all the whites, wipe them all out!” 

Here was someone who had never heard of Bram Fisher, who was so ignorant that she didn’t even realise that the main reason why City Group was there was to get Norma Kitson’s husband, the political prisoner David Kitson, released. A white man.

An updated version of an article Published in the original Ars Notoria magazine in 2010

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.