Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 9 September 2002
It is rare for a political book to make quite as big a splash as Martin Amis’s new settling of accounts with Stalin and revolutionary socialism, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. In the US, where it was published a couple of months ago, it has been the most talked-about and reviewed work of non-fiction for a long time. Over here, the Guardian has excerpted it at length and discussion of its merits and demerits has spread from highbrow reviews pages into opinion columns and even leaders.
What makes this particularly surprising is that it is such a poor effort. Amis boasts of having yards of books on the Soviet Union on his shelves, but he hasn’t read them very thoroughly. His account of Stalin’s rule, riddled with factual errors, is based largely on half-a-dozen standard works, most of which have been around for years. Despite this, he gives the impression that he is the first person to discover the truth about Stalinism – “Everybody knows of the six million of the Holocaust,” he declares at one point. “Nobody knows of the six million of the Terror-Famine.”
Worse, his insistence on situating Stalin’s terror in the context of his personal experience – his father Kingsley’s membership of the Communist Party in the 1940s and 1950s, his best friend Christopher Hitchens’s Trotskyism in the 1970s and continued enthusiasm for Lenin, the way his baby daughter crying once made him think of a notorious 1930s Moscow prison – is almost laughably narcissistic. And his Big Idea, that liberal opinion indulged western supporters of the Soviet regime (by which Amis means anyone with the remotest sympathy for the October revolution) because the USSR was funny in a black-farce kind of way, barely deserves to be taken seriously.
Nevertheless, Amis is on to something. His lumping together of Stalinists, Trotskyists and everyone else on the left who ever expressed admiration for Lenin as culpable for Stalin’s crimes is certainly crude, even silly: on these grounds even Ramsay MacDonald and Bertrand Russell stand accused for hailing the Bolsheviks’ peace proposals in 1917-18. But he is right to argue that it’s not just the out-and-out followers of the Moscow line – members of the Communist Party and fellow-travellers – who deserve to be judged harshly by history.
How different the Soviet Union would have been if Stalin had not won control in the 1920s remains one of the great unanswerable questions of 20th-century history. But the idea that there was a golden age of Bolshevik rule before Stalin’s rise to power, a theme common to Trotskyism and every other variety of Leninism, is not borne out by the brutal facts. Embrace Bolshevism, and you embrace terror – however reluctantly or abstractly. As Amis puts it of Lenin and Trotsky: “These two men did not just precede Stalin. They created a fully functioning police state for his later use. And they showed him a remarkable thing: that it was possible to run a country with a formula of dead freedom, lies and violence . . . October 1917 was not a political revolution riding on the back of a popular revolution. It was a counter-revolution.”
Of course, most western democratic socialists never fell for the myth of the Stalinist betrayal of October: their delusions were different. From the very earliest years of the Bolshevik regime, they were prone to hope against the evidence that the Soviet model of socialism was evolving towards democracy. The New Economic Policy, the Popular Front, Stalin’s 1936 constitution, Khruschev’s “secret speech”, Imre Nagy’s liberalisation in Hungary, “socialism with a human face” in Czechoslovakia, Solidarnosc in Poland, Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika – all were heralded by western socialists as steps on the road to utopia or at least signs of democratic change. Even since the collapse of “actually existing socialism” in the Soviet bloc in 1989-91, a large section of the left in the west has remained nostalgic for what might have been, if only. That Soviet-type socialism’s supposed potential for democratic evolution was a chimera is still unthinkable for much of the left.
Does any of this matter any more? I think it does, and not just because history is important in itself. The Soviet Union might be no more, but its association with the left lives on in the popular imagination. Leninists remain the most visible leftists in our political culture, their manipulative practices still too often tolerated by democratic socialists. And the temptation to see faraway brutal police states as progressive is still with us – witness the way that much of the left still fawns before Castro’s Cuba and communist China.
For all its faults, Amis’s book poses awkward questions that the whole of the left needs to address.