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Catastrophe averted?

The leaders of the rich countries went to Washington to save the world from sliding into deep recess

Vincent Cable

Shadow chancellor, Liberal Democrats

By the low standards of economic summitry, the G20 meeting rated quite high. There was a predictable, no doubt pre-written, communiqué, full of the usual banalities. And the meeting suffered from the absence of the world's most important politician, who hasn't yet taken up office. But, these necessary caveats aside, there were important achievements.

The first is that the meeting took place at all. The ludicrous pretence of the G8 (or G7) that the old western powers should set the global economic agenda has been punctured for good. On a purchasing power parity basis, China has the second-biggest economy in the world and India the fourth. It has been clear for some time that China is lender of last resort to the global system (by, in effect, underwriting US government paper) and the main source of global incremental demand (and commodity price inflation). The Chinese self-parody as the pupil sitting meekly at the feet of a dominant, but erring, master defies belief. It is obviously right that China, India and the other main non-G7 countries should be at the top table.

The second achievement was the clear realisation that unless governments hang together they will hang separately. Enough has been learned from interwar history for us to understand the follies of beggar-my-neighbour economics. Perhaps a warning shock was being sent across the bows of the incoming Obama administration not to reinvent the protectionist tariffs of the 1930s in a new guise, directed at China or Mexico in particular, or aiming to salvage the US auto industry through public subsidy. But this new-found concern for open markets has not yet communicated itself to EU or Indian or Chinese trade negotiators, who show no enthusiasm for lifting the block on trade liberalisation under the Doha round.

While trade policy is on the back burner, macroeconomic policy co-ordination is not. With a few exceptions - Germany notably - there is recognition of the need for aggressive monetary and fiscal policy and for large-scale intervention to recapitalise banks. These interventions can be and are being undertaken nationally. But governments acting in isolation attract critical attention from capital markets and currency speculators, as Gordon Brown is discovering. Structures like the G20 are the best safeguard against chaotic, unilateral action.

Will Hutton

Economic commentator

It was remarkable to gather so much economic and political power in one room to address a common agenda. That was the good news - along with commitments to co-ordinate fiscal expansion, to expand the lending power of the IMF and World Bank (Japan's $100bn loan to the IMF will increase the Fund's lending capacity by 40 per cent), to boost cross-border supervision, to tackle credit rating agencies, to reassess mad accounting rules and require member countries to attack the bonus culture in the financial services industry. A year ago such an agreement would have been inconceivable.

The bad news is that much of this is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Four things have to be recognised: that the world has profound imbalances between high-saving, high-surplus areas in Asia and the Gulf and low-saving, structural deficit countries in the transatlantic economy (Germany excepted); that a system of floating exchange rates and private banks can no longer take the weight of recycling those savings; that unless the system is de-risked and the burden of adjustment is placed on deficit and surplus countries alike, the global system faces breakdown; and finally, that the business model used by the banks to recycle surpluses - securitisation and hedging in the $360trn global derivatives market - is broken.

In plain English, China must accept that its currency must appreciate; Britain and America, that they cannot run their economies on foreign savings; and all players that there has to be a system of semi-fixed exchange rates between the yen, the euro and the dollar.

One tough reality is that, for all their new economic weight, China, Brazil, Russia and India do not have fully convertible currencies - nor do they want to accept the discipline involved in having convertible currencies.

Ann Pettifor

Fellow, New Economics Foundation

Over the past decade, the Group of Eight leaders turned their exclusive annual meetings into jamborees. Rock concerts, protesters and celebrities added populist glitz. However, the real purpose of the meetings - international co-operation and co-ordination - was ducked. At last year's G8 Summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, George W Bush and Gordon Brown vetoed Angela Merkel's agenda item for co-operation over tighter international regulation and financial oversight of capital markets. That task, they argued then, could safely be delegated to "the invisible hand". Now that the fantastic, self-regulating machinery of free markets has proved grossly malfunctional, it is good to hear talk of enhanced co-operation and regulation.

But, in places, the joint statement issued by the 20 world leaders borders on the delusional. The phrase "We must . . . ensure . . . that a global crisis, such as this one, does not happen again" implies that they are avoiding the next war when they are still losing this one.

Even more questionable is the call for continued "economic growth". In a world of finite resources on a planet with limited capacity to absorb toxic emissions, and with bushfires encircling Los Angeles, we would have hoped that world leaders had some awareness of the threat of climate change and of the limits to economic growth. But no. The gravest threat to global security - our rapacious attitude to the earth's resources - is once again whipped up with talk of "market principles, open trade and economic growth".

Jesse Norman

Senior fellow at Policy Exchange

One might have thought the G20 summit a good moment for some straight talk from the Prime Minister. Instead, the political wind machine was cranked up to full blast. The summit would be a second Bretton Woods. Gordon Brown would forge a new global consensus on co-ordinated intervention to stimulate growth (while, of course, leading reforms to prevent the banking crisis from ever recurring). Luckily virtually none of this was true, or the summit would have been a hopeless failure. With fiscal measures already widely adopted, the G20 hardly needed Brown's leadership. No surprise that he returned empty-handed.

Labour has moved from despondency to a manic desperation to remain in office. The result is that the ever-fragile concept of truth in politics has wholly been cast aside. Thus the humiliating bank nationalisation has been dressed up as an act of far-seeing economic statesmanship. And a sensible warning from the shadow chancellor that current economic policy puts sterling at risk has been condemned for breaching an irrelevant semi-convention dating from the time of fixed exchange rates.

Alex Brummer

City editor, Daily Mail

There is a golden rule of international financial meetings. The larger the "G" number, in other words the more countries involved, the less likely it is that any worthwhile or binding decisions will be taken. So while it was wholly encouraging that the G20 summit brought a number of emerging market leaders to the top table of finance, including China, Brazil and Russia, there was never any real prospect of the event becoming the new Bretton Woods.

Furthermore, the summit took place in the final days of the lame duck administration of George Bush. Once it became clear Barack Obama was going nowhere near the confab, the event became even more of an irrelevance.

European leaders may like to blame Wall Street and Anglo-Saxon capitalism for the credit crunch and the recession now spreading through the Group of Seven like wildfire, but there is no hope of concerted international action without the new White House and Federal Reserve on board.

Almost all that was agreed could have been decided before the leaders left home. The commitment to reviving the Doha trade round is pure motherhood and apple pie. The prairie populists on Capitol Hill are unlikely to be enthusiastic.

At the core of the proposals was the commitment to use fiscal measures, tax cuts and public spending to kick-start global economies. But despite Gordon Brown's enthusiastic embrace of a new Keynesian big-spending approach - as advocated by Nobel prize-winner Paul Krugman - he neatly forgot to mention that such big-spending ways were only for those countries with a "policy framework conducive to fiscal sustainability". The UK with its ballooning budget deficit, which could hit £100bn or more next year, is clearly in no such position.

It is hard to fathom in what way the G20 was "historic", as the Prime Minister claimed in the Commons. There is little original in a bunch of old ideas designed to remove risk from the financial system and control executive pay. That is what regulators should have done before the banks ploughed into the iceberg.

James Buchan

Author and financial commentator

What is the Financial Stability Forum? What is "mitigating against pro-cyclicality in regulatory policy"? What, if anything, has the G20 summit in Washington on the weekend of the 15 November achieved?

Nothing very much, is the answer to all three questions. In the twilight of a discredited US administration, and with President-elect Barack Obama absent, the meeting was never likely to achieve a great deal or generate excitement in the US. Yet the final declaration, drafted with suspicious ease by the delegations on Saturday night, has something for everybody but not enough of anything to scare the financial horses.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president whose idea the whole thing was, gained some support for more institutional government of trade and finance, but no super-gendarme international of the type that has been directing financial traffic in the French imagination since the 17th century. As Jean-Pierre Robin wrote in the Figaro: "Those with fantasies of supranational supervision will need to change therapist." The US, jealous of its commercial sovereignty even when it is going about without its shirt, put paid to those Gallic dreams and also gained some platitudes about free trade.

The new commercial powers, not only Brazil, Russia, India and mainland China but also rich oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, received diplomatic recognition of their deep pockets. "The world's geopolitical structure has a new dimension," the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said. "There is no logic to making any political and economic decisions without the G20 members - developing countries must be part of the solution to the global financial crisis."

I suspect the winner is Gordon Brown. The next meeting will be held under his presidency in London in April. The Washington ragbag of proposals to reform or tinker with the current system, such as reminding us about the Financial Stability Form and mitigating against that regrettable pro-cyclicality in regulatory policy, appeals to his technical vanity and plays to his technical strengths.

Paul Mason

Economics editor, Newsnight

There was a sense in Washington, despite the throbbing engines and bulletproof glass, of powerlessness. The communiqué was stronger on the causes of the crisis than on co-ordinated solutions. Policymakers are right to stay focused on the near-term dangers: these are country-level debt default, the rising cost of borrowing for non-financial companies, rapid job losses and - via feedback - further destabilisation of the banking system. We are moving into the phase of fiscal stimulus but there are powerful technical arguments that say without "quantitative easing" - that is, printing money to stimulate demand - it doesn't work. The same people who told me it would come to recapitalisation, that the TARP (troubled assets relief programme) would not work, are now saying: nationalise the banks and print money.

Despite the urgency of the focus on near-term dangers, what was obvious at G20 was the lack of vision as to the future growth model of capitalism. The problem was seen as a failure of regulation; the solution a pretty weak brew of re-regulation that will get diluted even more as the lobbyists begin to have influence. But the problem is more fundamental: the growth model based on high debt instead of high wages has failed and will be hard to revive.

Peter Mandelson

Secretary of State for Business

We have been caught in a global whirlwind of extraordinary force.

It has brought with it a fear that has gripped the world economy and taken hold here at home. We are seeing it every day, with fear among consumers that is depressing demand; fear among banks that is inhibiting them from lending; fear among small- and medium-sized businesses that banks are just about to cut off their credit lines. The choice facing us and governments around the world is this: do we act decisively to counter and overcome this fear, or do we become paralysed by it and fail to act?

The government has already shown its willingness to take the bolder course as the first mover in setting about stabilising the banks. What is needed now is action to stimulate the demand essential for recovery. The UK economy, like economies in the rest of the world, needs a shot of adrenalin.

The Bank of England has already made a significant cut to interest rates. This monetary stimulus now needs to be matched by a fiscal stimulus. And because this is a global crisis this is best done if the benefit of the measures taken nationally is maximised by the same measures being taken around the world. That was the message from the international conference in Washington, as governments recognised the need to take the action necessary to stimulate their economies.

People will say, "But you are resorting to borrowing in order to deliver the stimulus that's needed." My answer to that is, what is the alternative? We certainly haven't heard one from the Conservatives.

David Cameron and George Osborne, trapped by their desire to oppose everything the government does, refuse to accept the scale of the challenge the world's economies now face and the prescribed international action. Their stance appears to be, if the rest of the world disagrees with us, it is because the rest of the world is wrong. The result is incoherence and an Opposition at sixes and sevens. One minute this is "do all it takes" and the next it is - as we heard this week - leave the recession to "take its course".

Sitting on our hands watching houses repossessed and businesses go to the wall is certainly not the approach being urged on me by people I have been speaking to up and down the country. They want their government to act to stimulate demand in the economy here and now. With all due prudence, that is what we are going to do.

Diane Coyle

Author and economist

The G20 meeting confirmed a robust and rapid response (by past standards) to recession, even in the US operating under a rump free-market administration. Policymakers around the world have been shaken to see the financial system at the brink of collapse - on their watch.

Yet it is difficult to predict how severe the recession will be. Bank lending to businesses and individuals is virtually frozen. In many (but not all) areas of the economy, activity has come to a halt. The last financial boom and bust, ending in 2001, had surprisingly little impact on jobs and growth, as the financial bubble had become increasingly untethered from anything real. Today's vicious circle of evaporating liquidity is much more serious, but lower interest rates and bigger government deficits will help. The underlying trends are easier to outline. Some challenges are clearly unaltered, such as climate change and our ageing society.

The technological opportunities are still there, too, in communications, the internet and biotechnology. Globalisation will be less driven by finance in future, but it will not be unwound. It would take a generation to turn back the clock on economic linkages, and the cultural impacts are permanent. In fact, the crisis has underlined our interdependence across national borders.

What has changed is the political economy of globalisation. In the triad of efficiency, fairness and freedom which dominates political choice in democracies, fairness will take priority in the years ahead, and the drive for ever greater productivity gains will retreat. The semi-nationalisation of the banks has started to shift the boundary between public and private domains; we will have to think more carefully about how to govern private choices that have big social spillovers. The G20 did not touch on this profound question of governance.

Iain Macwhirter

Political commentator

The G20 was largely a throat-clearing session and was never going to put in place the foundations of a new international financial system. Progress on the stalled Doha trade talks is encouraging but provides no guarantee that protectionism will not raise its head in the coming economic slump.

It is inevitable that countries faced with financial collapse will try to defend their economies by any means possible. Britain is already far down the road of "beggar my neighbour" economics by the "managed" devaluation of the pound, a crude attempt to boost UK industry by lowering the prices of British exports and creating a de facto tariff wall around imports from abroad. It won't work because Britain does not make much of anything any more except debt, and the world has plenty of that already.

But the collapse of the pound will seriously damage what is left of UK financial services. No one in their right minds would put money into the UK economy now, with the property market collapsing, UK banks insolvent and government borrowing likely to reach £100bn in the next 18 months.

Gordon Brown seems to believe that sterling is like the dollar, and that people will buy our dud pounds whatever the likely losses. However, as we are discovering, sterling is not a reserve currency and unlike the US we cannot force other countries to pay our debts. The future for our battered island is likely to be hyperinflation punctuated by appeals to the International Monetary Fund for emergency aid. Forget about spending our way out of recession - the UK government simply lacks the resources to fund the huge borrowing that would be required. Something will have to give. Brown will have cause to regret being so beastly to the Icelanders.

Richard Reeves

Director of Demos

James Carville, the hardened political aide to Bill Clinton, said that if he was reincarnated he'd want to come back as the bond market: "You can intimidate anybody." Right now it seems odd to think of any financial markets threatening anybody. But it is one of the ironies of the current economic situation that the capital markets still have some serious muscle.

Western governments, faced with recession, need to throw a lot of money at their ailing financial institutions - money that can be raised only by selling Treasury debt, mostly to the capital-rich investors of the Far East. For Gordon Brown, this is likely to become a more difficult sell, as Prudence is given the push and the pound takes a nosedive. Even national exchequers invite sceptical scrutiny in this new, nervous world.

The financial crisis is at heart a loss of faith. The word credit derives from the Latin credo - "I believe". When the Titanic of the financial world - in the shape of Lehman Brothers - was allowed to sink, the bonds of trust stretching around the world were snapped. In an instant, everyone stopped believing in each other.

A number of sensible measures should be on the agenda when the G20 reconvenes next year, including legislation to ensure bonuses in financial services are paid on the basis of five-year performance; new "pro-cyclical" provisioning rules requiring finance houses to increase their store of capital in economic upturns; and tougher, independent regulation of the rating agencies whose doe-eyed assessments of banks built on a mountain of paper helped get us in this mess.

There is, however, no quick technical fix for such a dramatic loss of confidence. Trust can be lost in the blink of a market-trader's eye - but it will take years to rebuild.


  • 1 Created a road map aimed at stabilising the world economy and overhauling the banking system with targets for the end of March 2009
  • 2 Advocated Keynesian big-spending
    “fiscal stimulus”
  • 3 Expanded from a small club making world decisions to recognise the importance of the economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China
  • 4 Agreed to reform international finance institutions, including better transparency and supervision of credit ratings agencies
  • 5 Agreed that the Financial Stability Forum should include emerging economies
  • 6 Banks and hedge funds to hold increased levels of capital and cash
  • 7 Recommended “supervisory colleges” for all major cross-border financial institutions
  • 8 Return to the Doha round – trade ministers to meet in Geneva next month
  • 9 Instructed G20 finance ministers to draw up plans and timeline
  • 10 Agreed to meet again, in London next April


  • 1 Agree a future growth model for capitalism. Instead they reconfirmed their “shared belief in market principles”
  • 2 Agree detailed plans for regulatory reforms of banking
  • 3 Establish a plan of action for achieving the already endangered Millennium Development Goals
  • 4 Set up an international supervisory body with sufficient power to control global markets
  • 5 Halt the run on sterling, which fell sharply against the euro and dollar

Alyssa McDonald

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Leader: The Tories and social mobility

The imminent cuts to tax credits – given to four and a half million Britons to supplement low-paid work – expose the hollowness of Cameron's promise to help.

David Cameron has often expressed a simple creed: “If you want to work hard and get on in life, this government will be on your side.” Yet the imminent cuts to tax credits – given to four and a half million Britons to supplement low-paid work – expose the hollowness of this claim. Introduced in Gordon Brown’s first term as chancellor, they have been credited with helping to reduce the proportion of children living below the poverty line from 35 per cent in 1998-99 to 19 per cent in 2012-13. Now, the cuts to tax credits announced by George Osborne in his first post-election Budget will leave three million households £1,000 a year worse off, according to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). With unfortunate timing, households will be informed just before Christmas of how much they stand to lose from April next year.

These cuts will have bleak consequences for working families on the lowest incomes, the “strivers” whom the Conservatives aspire to support. They are antithetical to social mobility, pulling the ladder into work away from struggling families and ensuring that more children grow up in poverty. The stated reasons for pursuing the policy are to run an annual Budget surplus, to reduce government subsidies for low-paid work and to encourage employers to pay more. Yet the higher minimum wage announced by Mr Osborne (which he calls a “living wage”) will reach only £9 in 2020, long after the tax-credit cuts are scheduled to take effect. In addition, Paul Johnson of the IFS rejects the link that the Chancellor has made between the higher minimum wage and the withdrawal of tax credits. “There’s not actually an enormously close overlap between those on the minimum wage and those on tax credits, so the gainers from the minimum wage are a very different group on average to the people losing from tax credits,” he told the BBC’s World at One on 5 October.

The opposition to cutting tax credits extends far beyond the political left. The Sun has condemned the plans and the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, as well as the former Tory minister and executive chair of the Resolution Foundation, David Willetts, are opposed to them. David Davis, who stood for the leadership against Mr Cameron, voted against them in the House of Commons last month.

Besides the economic effects of tax credits, the whole issue has become politically dangerous for the Chancellor, threatening to crowd out the positive messages he was trying to promote at the Conservative party conference and losing him support on his own benches. His cause was not helped by the declaration to a fringe meeting in Manchester by the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, that the forthcoming cuts to welfare were a “cultural signal” that Britons were prepared to work as hard as Asians or Americans. A positive cultural signal is little comfort to struggling families.

Mr Osborne has been offered a way out of this mess by Frank Field, the chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee and a Labour MP respected by many Tories. He proposes to keep the level at which tax credits are withdrawn at £6,420, rather than reducing it as planned to £3,850. This could be paid for by increasing the withdrawal rate for those higher up the income scale. Mr Osborne, who has spoken of his wish to command and hold the centre ground of British politics, seems disinclined to follow this advice. How can Mr Cameron claim that the Tories are now the “workers’ party” when he has just taken away a significant sum of money from some of the hardest workers in the country?

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis

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A letter to Rosa Luxemburg

The socialist pioneer Rosa Luxemburg was killed in Berlin in 1919. In 2015, John Berger sits down to write a letter to her.

Rosa! I’ve known you since I was a kid. And now I’m twice as old as you were when they battered you to death in January 1919, a few weeks after you and Karl ­Liebknecht had founded the German Communist Party.

You often come out of a page I’m reading – and sometimes out of a page I’m trying to write – come out to join me with a toss of your head and a smile. No single page and none of the prison cells they repeatedly put you in could ever contain you.

I want to send you something. Before it was given to me, this object was in the town of Zamosc in south-east Poland. In the town where you were born and your father was a timber merchant. But the link with you is not as simple as that.

The object belonged to a Polish friend of mine called Janine. She lived alone, not in the elegant main square as you did during the first two years of your life, but in a very small suburban house on the outskirts of the town.

Janine’s house and her tiny garden were full of potted plants. There were even potted plants on the floor of her bedroom. And she liked nothing better when she had a visitor than to point out, with her elderly working woman’s fingers, the special particularity of each one of her plants. Her plants kept her company. She gossiped and joked with them.

Although I don’t speak Polish, the European country I perhaps feel most at home in is Poland. I share with the people something like their order of priorities. Most of them are not intrigued by Power because they have lived through every conceivable kind of power-shit. They are experts at finding a way round obstacles. They continually invent ploys for getting by. They respect secrets. They have long memories. They make sorrel soup from wild sorrel. They want to be cheerful.

You say something similar in one of your angry letters from prison. Self-pity always made you angry and you were replying to a moaning letter from a friend. “To be a human being,” you say, “is the main thing above all else. And that means to be firm and clear and cheerful, yes, cheerful in spite of everything and anything, because howling is the business of the weak. To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life in the giant scales of fate if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud.”

In Poland during recent years a new trade has developed and anyone who practises it is called a stacz, which means “taking the place”. One pays a man or a woman to join a queue and after a very long while (most queues are very long), when the stacz is near to the head of the queue, one takes his or her place. The queues may be for food, a kitchen utensil, some kind of licence, a government stamp on a document, sugar, rubber boots . . .

They invent many ploys for getting by.

Illustration: John Berger

In the early 1970s, my friend Janine decided to take a train to Moscow, as several of her neighbours had done. It was not an easy decision to take. Only a year or two before in 1970 there had been the massacre of Dzank and other seaports, where hundreds of shipbuilding workers on strike had been shot down by Polish soldiers and police under orders from Moscow.

You foresaw it, Rosa, the dangers implicit in the Bolshevik manner of arguing with all reasoning, you already foresaw it in 1918 in your commentary on the Russian Revolution. “Freedom only for the members of the government, only for the members of the Party – though they are quite numerous – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of justice, but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege.”

Janine took the train to Moscow to buy gold. Gold cost there a third of what it did in Poland. Leaving the Belorussky Station behind her, she eventually found the backstreet where the prescribed jewellers had rings to sell. There was already a long queue of other “foreign” women waiting to buy. For the sake of law and order each woman had a number chalked on the palm of her hand which indicated her place in the line. A cop was there to chalk the numbers. When Janine eventually reached the counter with her prepared roubles she bought three gold rings.

On her way back to the station she caught sight of the object I want to send to you, Rosa. It cost only 60 kopeks. She bought it on the spur of the moment. It tickled her fancy. It would chat with her potted plants.

She had to wait a long while in the station for the train back. You knew, Rosa, these Russians stations that become encampments of long-waiting passengers. Janine slipped one of her rings on to the fourth finger of her left hand, and the other two she hid in more intimate places. When the train arrived and she climbed up into it, a soldier offered her a corner seat as she sighed with relief; she would be able to sleep. At the frontier she had no problems.

In Zamosc she sold the rings for twice the sum she had paid for them, and they were still considerably cheaper than any which could be bought in a Polish shop. Janine, after deducting her rail fare, had made a little windfall.

The object I want to send you she placed on her kitchen windowsill.

The goal of an encyclopaedia is to assemble all the knowledge scattered on the surface of the earth, to demonstrate the general system to the people with whom we live, and to transmit it to the people who will come after us, so that the works of centuries past is not useless to the centuries which follow, that our descendants by becoming more learned, may become more virtuous and happier . . .

Diderot is explaining in 1750 the encyclopaedia he has just helped to create.

The object on the windowsill has something encyclopaedic about it. It’s a thin cardboard box, the size of a quarto sheet of paper. Printed on its lid is a coloured engraving of a collared flycatcher, and underneath it two words in Cyrillic Russian: SONG BIRDS.

Open the lid. Inside are three rows of matchboxes, with six boxes to each row. And each box has a label with a coloured engraving of a different songbird. Eighteen different songsters. And below each engraving in very small print the name of the bird in Russian. You who wrote furiously in Russian, Polish and German would have been able to read them. I can’t: I have to guess from my vague memories of sporadic birdwatching.

The satisfaction of identifying a live bird as it flies over, or disappears into a hedgerow, is a strange one, isn’t it? It involves a weird, momentary intimacy, as if at that moment of recognition one addresses the bird – despite the din and confusions of countless other events – one addresses it by its very own particular nickname. Wagtail! Wagtail!

Of the eighteen birds on the labels, I perhaps recognise five.

The boxes are full of matches with green striking heads. Sixty in each box. The same as seconds in a minute and minutes in an hour. Each one a potential flame.

“The modern proletarian class,” you wrote, “doesn’t carry out its struggle according to a plan set out in some book or theory; the modern worker’s struggle is a part of history, a part of social progress, and in the middle of history, in the middle of progress, in the middle of the fight, we learn how we must fight.”

On the lid of the cardboard box there is a short explanatory note addressed to matchbox-label collectors (phillumenists, as they are called) in the USSR of the 1970s.

The note gives the following information: in evolutionary terms birds preceded animals, in the world today there are an estimated 5,000 species of birds, in the Soviet Union there are 400 species of songbirds, in general it is the male birds who sing, songbirds have specially developed vocal chords at the bottom of their throats, they usually nest in bushes or trees or on the ground, they are an aid to cereal agriculture because they eat and thus eliminate hordes of insects, recently in the remotest areas of the Soviet Union three new species of singing sparrows have been identified.

Janine kept the box on her kitchen windowsill. It gave her pleasure and in the winter it reminded her of birds singing.

When you were imprisoned for vehemently opposing the First World War, you listened to a blue titmouse “who always stayed close to my window, came with the others to be fed, and diligently sang its funny little song, tsee-tsee-bay, but it sounded like the mischievous teasing of a child. It always made me laugh and I would answer with the same call. Then the bird vanished with the others at the beginning of this month, no doubt nesting elsewhere. I had seen and heard nothing of it for weeks. Yesterday its well-known notes came suddenly from the other side of the wall which separates our courtyard from another part of the prison; but it was considerably altered, for the bird called three times in brief succession, tsee-tsee-bay, tsee-tsee-bay, tsee-tsee-bay, and then all was still. It went to my heart, for there was so much conveyed by this hasty call from the distance – a whole history of bird life.”

After several weeks Janine decided to put the box in her cupboard under the stairs. She thought of this cupboard as a kind of shelter, the nearest she had to a cellar, and in it she kept what she called her reserve. The reserve consisted of a tin of salt, a tin of cooking sugar, a larger tin of flour, a little sack of kasha and matches. Most Polish housewives kept such a reserve as a means of minimal survival for the day when suddenly the shops, during some national crisis, would have nothing on their shelves.

The next such crisis would be in 1980. Again it began in Dzank, where workers went on strike in protest against the rising food prices and their action gave birth to the national movement of Solidarnosc, which brought down the government.

“The modern proletarian class,” you wrote a lifetime earlier, “doesn’t carry out its struggle according to a plan set out in some book or theory: the modern workers’ struggle is a part of history, a part of social progress, and in the middle of history, in the middle of progress, in the middle of the fight, we learn how we must fight.”

When Janine died in 2010, her son Witek found the box in the cupboard under the stairs and he brought it to Paris, where he was working as a plumber and builder. He brought it to give it to me. We are old friends. Out friendship began by playing cards together evening after evening. We played a Russian and Polish game called Imbecile. In this game the first player to lose all his or her cards is the winner. Witek guessed that the box would set me wondering.

One of the birds in the second row of matchboxes I recognise as a linnet, with his pink breast and his two white streaks on his tail. Tsooeet! Tsooeet! . . . often several of them sing in chorus from the top of a bush.

“The one who has done the most to restore me to reason is a small friend whose image I am sending enclosed. This comrade with the jauntily held beak, steeply rising forehead and eye of a know-it-all is called Hypolais hypolais, or in everyday language the arbour bird or also the garden mocker.” You are imprisoned in Poznan in 1917 and you continue your letter like this:

This bird is quite an oddball. He doesn’t sing just one song or one melody like other birds, but he is a public speaker by the grace of God, he holds forth, making his speeches to the garden, and does so with a very loud voice full of dramatic excitement, leaping transitions, and passages of heightened pathos. He brings up the most impossible questions, then hurries to answer them himself, with nonsense, making the most daring assertions, heatedly refuting views that no one has stated, charges through wide open doors, then suddenly exclaims in triumph: “Didn’t I say so? Didn’t I say so?” Immediately after that he solemnly warns everyone who’s willing or not willing to listen: “You’ll see! You’ll see!” (He has the clever habit of repeating each witty remark twice.)

The linnet’s box, Rosa, is full of matches.

“The masses,” you wrote in 1900, “are in reality their own leader, dialectically creating their own development procedure . . .”

How to send this collection of matchboxes to you? The thugs who killed you, threw your mutilated body into a Berlin
canal. It was found in the stagnant water three months later. Some doubted whether it was your corpse.

I can send it to you by writing, in this dark time, these pages.

“I was, I am, I will be,” you said. You live in your example for us, Rosa. And here it is, I’m sending it to your example.

“Portraits: John Berger on Artists” will be published by Verso on 6 October

John Berger will be in conversation with Ali Smith and Tom Overton at the British Library, London NW1, on 18 September

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War