Everything the Party did, said and thought

In Issue 15 in March 2003 Kevin Higgins reviewed a bizarre account of Stalinism.

Martin Amis, Koba the Dread (Jonathan Cape)

At the outset I should say that this is one of the most idiosyncratic books I’ve read in a long time. On one level it is simply a continuation of British novelist Martin Amis’s attempt to work out his relationship with his father Kingsley, who died in 1991. Also a prominent literary figure in his time, Kingsley Amis is perhaps best known for his novel Lucky Jim (1954). Its hero Jim Dixon was a lower-middle-class radical whose aggressive anti-establishment, anti-pretension stance led some to associate Kingsley Amis with the group of 1950s British novelists and playwrights usually referred to as the Angry Young Men. And while Amis himself always resisted being associated with that particular grouping, he certainly shared much in common with them.

Like most of the Angries he started out as a left-wing radical (a member of the Communist Party from 1941 to 1956) and ended up somewhere to the right of Margaret Thatcher, whom he adored despite being disappointed that she never actually got around to shooting striking miners or sending the blacks back to Africa. Such minor frustrations aside, Kingsley Amis appar­ently ended his days relatively content with the general direction in which the world was headed. In his last book Experience (published in 2001) Martin Amis investigated his personal relationship with his father. Here he talks about his politics, taking issue, as one would perhaps expect, not with his later lurch to the right, but with his earlier support for Stalin.

On one side we have the rather pampered Martin, utterly incapable of imagining for even five minutes a world fundamentally different from that which he sees around him. In many ways Martin Amis is the prototype post-cold war ‘liberal’. Concerned, but not too concerned. The closest he’s ever come to having a big idea is probably his belief in Tony Blair. Indeed, on page four Amis tells us that he began writing this book “a day or two” after spending the evening of 31 December 1999 at the Millennium Dome in London “along with Tony Blair and the Queen”. He had apparently “recently read yards of books about the Soviet experiment”.

On the other side we have his cranky father, Kingsley, talking about the loss he felt at letting go of his socialist beliefs: “The Ideal of the brotherhood of man, the building of the Just City, is one that cannot be discarded without lifelong feelings of disappointment and loss.” Now, this is a feeling which every disappointed socialist must at some time have felt. Once the possibility of a New Society has raised itself seriously in your head, then there really is no going back. As a friend of mine puts it: “What­ever you do, you can never unlearn all you now know to be wrong with the world. You can never just get on with things in the same way again.” When one thinks of it this way, it suddenly becomes rather less surprising that so many former revolutionaries end their days as monumental cranks, obses­sively spitting poison at anything that even vaguely reminds them of what they themselves once were.

Now, if Martin Amis had restricted himself to writing about the obvious dichotomy between his father’s politics and his own, then it could have made for an interesting, if not exactly earth-shattering little read. Instead, he insists on addressing what the book’s jacket blurb describes as “the central lacuna of twentieth century thought: the indulgence of communism by intellectuals of the West”. If Amis had at his disposal the intellectual equipment to deal properly with the issues involved, that would be one thing. But it so clearly isn’t his area.

In places he ends up sounding like a loudmouthed student berating a Trotskyist newspaper-seller outside Trinity College. We are told that, among other things, “Trotsky was a murdering bastard and a fucking liar… He was a nun-killer—they all were”. Surely, deep down, a writer of Amis’s stature must realise that behind the failure of language explicit in such crude phraseology as “murdering bastard” and “fucking liar” lies a much more important failure of ideas? He can’t quite prove his point, so he resorts instead to shouting abuse and stamping his feet.

Later we are told of Lenin’s reaction to the famine which struck Czarist Russia in 1891:

He [Lenin] ‘had the courage’, as a friend put it, to come out and say openly that famine would have numerous positive results… Famine, he explained, in destroying the outdated peasant economy, would… usher in socialism… Famine would also destroy faith not only in the tsar, but in God too.

Clearly this ‘friend’ of Lenin’s was a nineteenth-century version of the sort of sad anorak who can sometimes still be found wandering around the fringes of the various far left organisations. You know the sort, the one with a slightly mad stare who thinks that what we really need to stir the masses into action is a sudden economic collapse followed immediately by a good long war. The key point here, though, is that the words belong not to Lenin, but to this unnamed ‘friend’. If Amis wanted to convict Lenin of the crime of being indifferent to famine, then he really should have gone to the trouble of finding a quote from the man himself, rather than relying on such dodgy hearsay. It is true that Lenin believed that many of the famine relief schemes of the time were more about appearance than they were about reality: “In the regional capital of Samara only one intellectual, a twenty-two-year-old lawyer, refused to participate in the effort—and, indeed, publicly denounced it. This was Lenin.” However, there’s nothing very surprising about this. For example, there were many—and by no means all of them revolutionary socialists—who thought that the 1985 Live Aid concert was at least as much about ageing rock stars in general (and Bob Geldof in particular) salving their con­sciences and using the issue to get publicity for themselves, as it was about the Ethiopian famine. Surely what Lenin said back in 1891 amounted to nothing more than a nineteenth-century Russian version of the same thing?

Marxists are often accused, sometimes correctly so, of crude reductionist thinking. And yet here it is Amis who is desperate to simplistically collapse complex issues together. Marx is glibly dismissed as “a long dead German economist whose ideas [in the 1970s] were bringing biblical calamity to China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia”. Marxism = Stalinism. End of story. No mention of the fact that nowadays even many Wall Street economists regularly refer to the works of this “long dead German econo­mist”. To admit such an inconvenient fact would be to allow a shade of grey. And in this book Amis works only in black and white.

He makes no real attempt to differentiate between Stalinism and Trotskyism, preferring instead to pretend that they are one and the same thing. He asks his friend, the prominent British poet and onetime Trotskyist James Fenton: “How he… could align himself with a system that saw literature as a servant of the state; and, I thought, [you] must hate the language, the metallic cliches, the formulas and euphemisms”. There is a vast reservoir of non-Stalinist Marxist literary criticism into which Amis could have dipped, if he was even slightly interested in getting a real answer to this question. But why bother with nuance, when caricature will do? Similarly, he tells another friend (and former Trotskyist) the essayist and critic Christopher Hitchens that “An admiration for… Trotsky is meaning­less without an admiration for terror. [He] would not want your admiration without an admiration for terror. Do you admire terror?” It is as if the victims of the show trials of 1936 and 1938, such as Trotsky, Kamenev, Bukharin and Zinoviev, were as guilty as those who tortured and murdered them. Amis again and again accuses Marxists of being glib about human suffering, only to end up being very glib about it himself.

As far as I’m concerned, anyone who supported, or acted as an apologist for, regimes such as those in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China and North Korea certainly has questions to answer. In case anyone out there needs reminding of just how rough it sometimes got in the so-called ‘socialist’ countries, here is a description of life in the Gulag:

A group of prisoners at Kolyma were hungry enough to eat a horse that had been dead for more that a week (despite the stench and the infesta­tion of flies and maggots). Scurvy makes the bones brittle; but then, ‘Every prisoner welcomes a broken arm or leg.’ Extra-large scurvy boils were ‘particularly envied’. Admission to hospital was managed by quota. To get in with diarrhoea, you had to be evacuating (bloodily) every half hour. A man chopped off half his foot to get in there. And prisoners cultivated infections, feeding saliva, pus or kerosene to their wounds.

I personally would find it difficult to take very seriously anyone who ever so much as whispered an excuse for a regime such as this. Yes, we all make mistakes. But there are mistakes. And then again there are mistakes. However, there are, of course, also those on the left who never believed that the Soviet Union was any sort of paradise. The problem now is that we have all, to some extent, been painted with the same brush. To most people Marxism now either means failure or it means North Korea. And as soon as your average Joe and Josephine start thinking about North Korea, you can be sure it won’t be long before they’re also thinking how George W Bush isn’t so bad after all.

Yes, Koba the Dread is in many ways an absurd book; so deficient that had its author not already been very famous, it would probably never have been accepted for publication by a reputable publisher. But in one sense that is neither here nor there. The real issue is what, if anything, the left can do to disentangle itself from Stalin’s legacy? A few glib sentences here and there about North Korea being either ‘state capitalist’ or a ‘deformed workers’ state’ are unlikely to be enough. The thing which above all else fatally undermined the revolutionary left in the twentieth century was the disastrous knack it developed—and I think some of the Trotskyist organisa­tions are probably guilty here as well—of turning generation after genera­tion of wide-eyed young activists into grim apologists for everything the Party did, said and thought. If the word ‘socialism’ is to have any relevance at all in the 21st century, then this is surely the issue which, above all else, must be addressed.