Was my father stupid to 'serve Stalin' for 50 years?
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Wed Sep 4 05:45:39 MDT 2002
Was my father stupid to 'serve Stalin' for 50 years?
Was my father stupider for longer than Martin Amis's father? More morally
flawed? Badder? I don't believe so
David Aaronovitch (The Independent)
04 September 2002
Martin Amis's new book, Koba The Dread, ends with a letter to his dead
father, the novelist Kingsley Amis. The book is about Stalinist Russia, and
Amis senior was, it turns out, himself a Communist Party member in the 1940s
and 50s. His son chides him, by talking of "Stalin, (whom, incredibly, you
served for 12 years, inconspicuously, infinitesimally but still
My father is also dead and he was also a Communist. In Amis's terms, he
"served" for 50 years, from the time that he joined the Young Communist
League in east London, right up until there was no Communist Party to be a
member of any more. In the early 50s the author Doris Lessing, then applying
to join "the Party", was interviewed by him at Party HQ. In her memoirs she
describes him as a "very young man, lean, stern, military in style, with the
grim sardonic humour of the times". I hardly need to say that I do not
remember any of these characteristics.
Kingsley Amis left the Communist Party in 1956 the year of the invasion of
Hungary and of Khrushchev's anti-Stalin speech to the Congress of the Soviet
Communist Party and gradually moved across the spectrum until he was a
Conservative. In 1967, after nearly 30 years of personal sacrifice to the
cause, my father left full-time party work and enrolled to do a D.phil at
Balliol College, Oxford his first academic qualification. One of his
friends there was a much younger man, a stellar young Trotskyist called
Christopher Hitchens. When, in 1998, my father was dying, I met Hitchens in
Hay (he was talking about PG Wodehouse) and he asked after the "old
That's the kind of talk that can get you into trouble. Amis, a close friend
of Hitchens, says that part of the idea for his book on Stalin arose when,
at a meeting in a hall that was for years a place of left-wing rallies and
jumble sales, Hitchens made reference to "old comrades". This struck Amis as
being an indulgence that would not be permitted to former fascists. For him
this parallel was fully justified, for were not millions also killed by the
system Stalin's Russia that was created and supported by the "comrades"?
What kind of joke was this?
My first reaction on reading this, and the many reviews of the book, was
that this was an old conversation. Was Stalin as bad as Hitler? Was his
badness mitigated by the utopianism that lay behind communism? Or was he
worse because, taking the Ukrainian famine into account, he was responsible
for more deaths? Or perhaps we should stick all the casualties of the Second
World War on Hitler's account, and see the swastika side of the scales dip
again. It reminded me of the late-night debates that (nearly three decades
ago) we used to have as, slumped on cushions in the Balliol Junior Common
Room, the Communists, Trotskyists and anarchists apportioned blame for or
defended themselves against various charges of betrayal, defeat and
massacres that had taken place since the glorious days of October 1917. By
now, surely this had been settled. Those who alleged the absolute worst
against Russia and its leaders had turned out to be right, whether they were
Trots (like Hitchens), hostile historians such as Robert Conquest, or George
Orwell. No contest.
That long ago ceased to be the issue.
The issue must be why? Only why. In an implacable review of Koba The Dread,
the author Anne Applebaum (who has herself been working on a history of the
gulags for five years now) writes that "Reading Amis's tale of horrors,
tortures and the human monster at the heart of it all... it is impossible
even to guess at what conceivable appeal the Soviet Union could ever have
had to its many Western sympathisers and fellow-travellers. The only logical
explanation (that Amis leaves the reader with) is extreme stupidity." And
that won't do. Was my father stupider for longer than Amis's? More morally
flawed? Badder? I don't believe so.
This week I got my copy of Interesting Times, the autobiography of the
Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who was a communist in the same period and
for the same length of time as my father. It is a pity, in a way, that this
was not available to Amis before he started on his Stalin book. In it he
would have rediscovered the times into which these men were born and into
which they were thrust. In the early part of Hobsbawm's memoirs people die
nearly everywhere: in Auschwitz, for the Dutch resistance; for the workers
of Indonesia, of poverty, of tuberculosis. In 1935, he recalls, Hobsbawm
himself catalogued the attractions of Communism: the mass ecstasy of
political action, pity for the exploited, "the aesthetic appeal of a perfect
and comprehensive intellectual system," dialectical materialism, the
creation of a new Jerusalem and anti-philistinism.
He adds: "The landscape of those times has been buried under the debris of
world history". But if that sounds too convenient, Hobsbawm confronts the
issue of how Communists dealt with Stalinism. They could not really conceive
of the scale of what Stalin imposed upon the Soviet people, he says at
least partly because they did not believe the sources that told them what
turned out to be the terrible truth. Even so, he adds, "it is anachronistic
to suppose that only genuine or wilful ignorance stood between us and
denouncing the inhumanities perpetrated on our side". The times were hard,
and there was a titanic struggle, and even good people gave up softness.
Here Hobsbawm quotes Bertolt Brecht's poem, To Those Born Later.
We, who wanted to prepare the ground for kindness
Could not be kind ourselves.
This is not enough for us now, of course. But a young man or woman of the
30s, 40s or 50s might have been attracted to Communism for reasons that had
nothing to do with wanting to run slave camps in the Arctic. The vicious
social injustice of the times, the apparent steadfastness and discipline of
the Communists in their opposition to fascism, the bohemianism that attached
itself to Communism in the early years, the internationalism that uniquely
brought colonial and colonising peoples together, the espousal of civil
rights in America, the early support for blacks fighting apartheid. In each
of those struggles, finding themselves under attack from mainstream parties
and newspapers, such a person might identify with the USSR. Hitchens
himself, in a response to Amis, contrasts the two Mitford sisters: Unity who
hobnobbed with Hitler, and Jessica the Communist, who lived out a rather
noble life of service to the poor in the United States.
Were they really worse people than those who tolerated racism or who saw
nothing wrong in mass unemployment and emiseration, because they obstinately
refused to believe what they heard and read about Stalin? And yet there was
a brutishness to Communism, an occasional enjoyment of the toughness of it
all, an embracing of what was thought to be working-class culture, with its
contempt for bourgeois civility. We were careless, we lefties in the West
about how it was for those who actually had to suffer under "real existing
socialism", because we had our own battles to fight.
God alone knows this moral blindness is not restricted to Communists, of
whatever age. It is hard, and has always been hard, to pay proper due,
simultaneously, to intellect and conscience.
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