Show Trial: The Left in the Dock; Members of the New Labour Cabinet Must Answer to the Charge, Laid by Martin Amis, That Too Many British Comrades Were Soft on Stalinism

By Lloyd, John | New Statesman (1996), September 2, 2002 | Go to article overview

Show Trial: The Left in the Dock; Members of the New Labour Cabinet Must Answer to the Charge, Laid by Martin Amis, That Too Many British Comrades Were Soft on Stalinism


Lloyd, John, New Statesman (1996)


The left - all of it, from the inside to the outside - is about to have its conscience pricked. This comes at a convenient time. A large part of the left is working itself into more of a moral lather over American "warmongering" than over the crimes and threats of Saddam Hussein; it needs a little prick to prompt reflection.

Martin Amiss Koba the Dread, already published in the US, will be out in the UK in September. Koba was Stalin's nickname: the book is an account of the millions who died under his rule. The book has already passed through energetically flagellating reviewers in the US. The New York Times's critic Michiko Kakutani described the "narcissistic musings of a spoiled, upper-middle-class litterateur" who knew nothing about (and, by implication, thus could not write about) the suffering of Stalin's victims. In the online journal Slate, the journalist Anne Applebaum (who is writing a book on the Gulag) said that Amis - a "fifty something novelist who has run out of things to write about" had "funnelled his displaced anger into a poorly conceived, improbably hysterical diatribe Stalinism".

But in the Atlantic Monthly, Christopher Hitchens - though he admonishes Amis, his close friend, to be "choosy about what kind of anticommunist you are" - writes ("if it matters") that "I now agree with him that perfectionism and messianism are the most lethal of our foes" and admits (if it matters) that he was "wrong" about the choice he made, earlier in his life, for Marxism.

It does matter, especially for the Amis-Hitchens generation, the last, at least until the ambiguous radicalism of the anti-globalists, in which a large section of western intellectual youth proclaimed themselves revolutionary socialists. That generation is now (or was recently) in power. Massimo D'Alema, Italy's prime minister at the end of the 1990s, had been a communist for most of his adult life. Joschka Fischer and Otto Schily, respectively the foreign and interior ministers of Germany, were revolutionary leftists. Lionel Jospin, prime minister of France for five years until this spring, was a (secret) Trotskyist for two decades.

Communism in the Soviet, or Stalinist, tradition was declining by the late 1960s: most of those radicals attracted by organised Marxism were Trotskyists, as was Hitchens. A few preferred their national communist party because, they thought, it was more rooted in the working class. (Most were, but what did that prove?) I was one such, a largely inactive member of the Communist Party of Great Britain between 1971 and 1973, and then a much more active participant in the tiny British and Irish Communist Organisation until 1977. I denounced my comrades, in a 20-page speech, for their Stalinism; I had just read, sweating with horror, all of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago.

So in my late twenties, I had to admit that my thinking had been in the tradition of a mass murderer, long after his fellow (if penitent) mass murderer Nikita Khrushchev had done it in the Soviet Union. That remains a cause for ineradicable shame. But it is not just my shame; it infects everyone on the left, whether or not they now feel part of it.

In Le passe d'une illusion, his last book, the late historian and former communist Francois Furet wrote that "what makes a comparative analysis [between fascism and communism] inevitable is not just their date of birth... it's also their mutual dependence. Fascism was born as a reaction against communism: communism extended its term thanks to anti-fascism... the greatest secret of complicity between Bolshevism and fascism remains, however, the existence of that common adversary, which the two ideologies belittled or exorcised through the notion that it was in its death agony... quite simply, democracy." Democracy has nothing simple about it; but for we who enjoy it to have regarded it with eyes so slitted in contempt by revolutionary fervour still, in retrospect, brings a flush to the cheeks. …

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