Judging Josef and the jesters

By Mahir Ali, DAWN (Pakistan), 16 November 2002

Leonid Brezhnev (remember him?) died and went to hell. He was welcomed at the gates by Lieutenant-General Lucifer Satanovich Iblisov, who offered him a guided tour of the facilities, in order to enable him to choose his own punishment.

He saw Chengiz Khan being trampled by horses and averted his gaze. He saw Adolf Hitler thrashing about in a pool of boiling oil and turned away in horror. Then he caught sight of Josef Stalin on a king-size bed, having what could euphemistically be described as a good time with Marilyn Monroe.

“That's the one!” he shouted at Iblisov. “That's the punishment I want.” “It's your wish,” replied Lucifer. “I hope you realize, though, that it's Marilyn who is paying for her sins.”

Among the questions raised by the British writer Martin Amis's recent book, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, is why the horrors of Bolshevism are frequently laughed off, while no such reaction is possible to the horrors of Nazism.

Amis's relatively light-weight contribution to an old debate about western intellectuals' intermittent love affair with the Soviet Union has excited a minor controversy in Anglo-Saxon literary circles, and the 85th anniversary tomorrow of the Bolshevik Revolution offers an appropriate opportunity to contemplate, and perhaps challenge, some of his allegations, insinuations and conclusions.

Most historians are disinclined to take Amis's book-length diatribe too seriously, not least because it's over-personalized. The author's father, Kingsley Amis, was a member of the British Communist Party for 15 years before swinging sharply, and irrevocably, to the right. An early colleague who became one of Martin's best friends was Christopher Hitchens, who saw himself as a Trotskyist in the late 1960s.

Amis can’t understand how his father worshipped at the altar of communism for so long before seeing the light, so to speak. Nor is he able to reconcile himself to the fact that Hitchens, although an anti-Stalinist, remains more or less unrepentant about his admiration for Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin. “These two men did not just precede Stalin,” he writes in an open letter to his friend. “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—and unpunctuated self-righteousness.

“An admiration for Lenin and Trotsky is meaningless without an admiration for terror.”

It is not particularly surprising that Amis regurgitates this rather stale argument, given that his knowledge of Russian and Soviet history appears to be based largely on the works of cold war historian, Robert Conquest, who approaches the discipline via an entrenched ideological bias.

This is not to suggest that the crimes against humanity committed during, as well as before and after, Stalin's reign can be overlooked or excused. But a historical perspective necessitates the recognition that every significant revolution before then—the English, the American, the French—had been attended by varying degrees of violence. The incipient Bolshevik regime had to fight for its survival, and a great deal of cruelty was exhibited by all sides in the civil war that followed the revolution.

It's worth noting, though, that the initial backdrop to events in Russia was provided by a campaign of mass slaughter through much of Europe, otherwise known as the First World War. Besides, the Bolsheviks had seized control in Petrograd not with the idea of establishing a vast fiefdom for personal gain: their intention, broadly, was to transform society through a complete overhaul of the relations of production and the sources of power. It was this social and economic emancipatory project, rather than Stalin's gulags, that attracted millions of adherents to communism.

Many leading Bolsheviks, including Lenin and Trotsky, were convinced that the experiment could only succeed if the revolution was able to spread westwards. But it didn’t. It is intriguing to imagine the course of events in Europe had Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht's succeeded in establishing a German beach-head in 1919. But perhaps—as Hitchens has pointed out in a response to Amis—the German communists weren’t ruthless enough.

Virtually no historian would argue with the proposition that the October Revolution could not have triumphed without a degree of ruthlessness. In retrospect, there appears to have been insufficient justification for the revolutionary terror. But a different verdict is at least conceivable, had the Soviet Union indeed turned out to be a workers' state in any meaningful sense of the term. Amis's indictment of Lenin hinges on the latter's alleged amorality. But, surely, it does not make a great deal of sense to judge on the basis of western bourgeois morality someone who was determined to decisively break with that particular systems of assumptions and beliefs.

The Soviet Union was in several ways a flawed experiment from the outset, which is hardly surprising, given that it wasn’t based on any existing exemplar. It has been argued, with some validity, that the level of Russia's economic and political development in 1917 fell far short of the conditions theoretically required for a relatively smooth transition to socialism.

It nonetheless needs to be clearly understood that the USSR did not acquire the trappings of a grotesque tragedy until Stalin started gravitating towards an absolutism that owed less to the Leninist precept of democratic centralism within a revolutionary vanguard than it did to the feudal tyranny of Russia's tsarist past.

The problem for those who argue (often on the basis of little more than the ancient Latin fallacy post hoc, ergo propter hoc ) that Stalin's reliance on purges and forced labour camps to maintain his rule was the logical next step for Bolshevism is that his techniques proved fatal for many communist ideals.

This wasn’t a coincidence. Within a little more than two decades of the revolution, Stalin was the only surviving member of Lenin's original Central Committee. Most of the others had perished at his behest. The labour camps too were populated to a large extent by dedicated communists. The Red Army initially floundered in the face of Hitler's invasion in 1941, at least partly because its leading tacticians and strategicians had become victims of Stalin's paranoia. Trotsky hit the nail on the head when he described Koba (as the thickly moustachioed monster was nicknamed) as the gravedigger of the revolution. Not long afterwards, a hired killer pierced Trotsky's skull with a pickaxe.

So those determined to establish some sort of moral equivalence between Hitler and Stalin ought not to lose sight of this crucial detail: Hitler's actions were geared towards advancing the perverse Nazi cause; Stalin's doings served to thwart socialist goals. The Soviet Union was never able to fully recover from his legacy.

The fact that millions of people all over the world did not become disenchanted with the USSR during the dark days of Stalinism (the first notable exodus from communist parties in the West occurred following the 1956 invasion of Hungary, three years after Stalin had died) can be put down to two main causes. Many of them simply did not believe what they heard from western sources for the reasonably valid reason that it was difficult to distinguish between facts and propaganda. Others, who knew or accepted that evil was afoot, were nonetheless unwilling to abandon all hope. For them, the concept of a society free from exploitation and discrimination was too precious to be sacrificed on the basis of distortions of the ideal.

In retrospect, the Soviet Union can in some ways be seen as an object lesson in how not to go about the task of building a socialist society. However, that aspect of the past does not interest the likes of Amis and Conquest. After all, their not-so-hidden agenda, as Seumas Milne has pointed out in The Guardian, is to promote the end-of-history thesis: the idea that human civilization has reached its apex with free-market capitalism and economic imperialism. What an awful thought!

“The battle over history,” writes Milne, “is never really about the past—it's about the future. When Amis accuses the Bolsheviks of waging ‘war against human nature’, he is making the classic conservative objection to radical social change.”

Amis is also wrong, incidentally, about the use of laughter as a tool for survival in the face of formidable odds. If there are more quips about Stalin than about Hitler, that has something to do with differences between the German sense of humour and those of the Russians. But Nazism has hardly been spared the barbs of humourists—a tradition bookended, arguably, by Charles Chaplin's ‘The Great Dictator’ and Roberto Benigni's ‘A Beautiful Life.’ (The joke cited at the outset, incidentally, is borrowed not from Amis but from Brezhnevite Moscow.)

A considerably more sensitive summation of communist tribulations than Amis's diatribe can be found, as the following verses bear out, in British singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson's Song of the Old Communist:

“I was only a lad when we read that in Russia/The workers, the soviets had taken all power/And the man they called Lenin, who led them, was our inspiration,/ His triumph was our finest hour./ And I’ll always remember how fear shook the wealthy/Like thieves who have just been caught out in their crime/But we who had known only war and the workhouse/Rejoiced that a new world was born at that time…

“Now when I look back, I see what we fought against:/ Homelessness, hunger, injustice and war./But what did we fight for? What dream did we strive for?/I used to know once, now I’m no longer sure…

“But you who have nothing at all to believe in/You whose motto is ‘money comes first’/Who are you to tell us that our lives have been wasted/And all that we fought for has turned into dust?”