More on Soviet dissidence

Posted 3rd March 2000

Peter McNelly wrote:

>>Many of my professors were quite openly Marxist. Some of
>>them were quite involved in the anti-Vietnam war movement.
>>I remember one particular philosophy professor urging us to
>>study Lenin ASAP because he was the only one who was tough-
>>minded enough to know how to go about winning a revolution
>>and if we were going to bring down American Imperialism,
>>etc. we had better get tough fast, etc. blah, blah, blah.

PM's memories of the intellectual left in the United States during the 1960s mirror mine of the same period on the other side of the Atlantic. I went up to Cambridge in 1968, four months after the "events" of May in Paris and London. Posters of Lenin, Mao, and Guevara were everywhere. In many campus conversations, the word "revolution" seemed to occur in every sentence. While the atmosphere was by no means entirely serious and urgent, this sort of mood, reflecting the far more confrontational ethos of contemporary student life in Europe and North America, was already a consistent undercurrent in British universities, emerging openly in 1969-71. Student life in this period largely consisted of bunking off lectures to attend "demos" or meetings -- and the uncommitted, like myself, often found themselves roped in and dragged along.

Within a few weeks of arriving at Cambridge, I -- then a quasi-hippie political naif -- was informed by a couple of kind and sensible fellow students whom I liked and respected that the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in September had been a necessary measure "to safeguard the revolution". As a "love-and-peace" type, I was taken aback; and more surprised to find this point of view shared by several of the Cambridge alumni I subsequently befriended (though the sort of Leninist professor recalled by Peter McNelly didn't arrive on British campuses till the beginning of the 1970s). I should stress that these were all highly intelligent people, quite unlike the sloganeering Mao/Trot agitators who made up the fighting forefront of the Grosvenor Square demo in March 1968. (My Cambridge radical friends routinely mocked such bellicose Spartacists with their crass march-chants of "We shall fight, we shall win, London, Paris, Rome, Berlin" and so forth.)

Throughout my years in this, then predominant, environment, there was never a mention of the name "Stalin", nor a single reference to the Gulag. I once spied a copy of Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich on somebody's shelf, but I doubt it had been read. The general sentiment seemed to be that such stuff constituted reactionary pessimism; indeed, I often heard otherwise humane people discussing who would be "the first" to be sent to our own British labour camps when "the Revolution" arrived. I must again emphasise that such assumptions were part of mainstream student life at that time -- and, when I moved to London, I found them to be common among the formerly peace-loving counterculture. The driving force of this attitude was an ardent faith in the ideal of revolution, an impulse which then engulfed everything. To people of this mind-set, the Stalin scandal of '56 was merely an embarrassing car-crash on the road to the Revolution, quickly forgotten and detoured around. All that was different about Left revolutionism in the late 1960s and early 1970s was that it was anarchically anti-Party (Maoist) with fringe influences from the Situationists and a hippieish input of post-Freudian "sex politics" (Reich, Marcuse, etc). The USSR was less frequently invoked as a totem than Cuba or China, but it was still, in the main, firmly believed in as the "vanguard of socialism" with -- this was always the defence -- an exemplary health service and education system. In reality, nobody knew the first thing about the Soviet health service or education system; they were merely recycling propaganda and spouting theory. But, of course, theory was all anyone was interested in. Fact and practice were tiresome details -- more minor impediments on the road to Revolution.

My own political engagement was mild. I tagged along on some "peace" marches but steered clear of the incessant "sit-ins" and the violent stuff. Even so, I fell for some of the more emotionally appealing aspects of Revolutionism, sheepishly buying a couple of Red Chinese propaganda posters for my wall (mainly because they were rather beautiful) and dutifully struggling through David Hare's interminable play Fanshen in the interests of "solidarity" with Third World radicalism. It was easy to morally blackmail conscientious young people by appealing to them with images of worthy peasants and grim allusions to the tracts of Frantz Fanon. I duly succumbed. As a young journalist in London during the 1970s, I devoted my "political" energies, such as they were, to documenting the resurgence of Fascism in British fringe politics. As a result of this, I became reasonably learned in the study of Fascism in general, a complicated and slippery subject if ever there was one. My Maoist posters came down around the time of the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976 -- but I remained in the dark about the realities of communism until 1978, when I read one of the few books of the 20th century which can plausibly be described as essential reading: Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago.

It was as if a light, a harshly sarcastic light at that, had been suddenly switched on to illuminate the neglected dark side of modern history. I was absolutely stunned by Gulag. Nothing in my generational milieu had prepared me for this. As a fan of Shostakovich's music since my teens (early '60s), I realised, within a few days of beginning my journey through Solzhenitsyn's enormous chronicle, that "this" -- this world, this experience, this sensibility -- was what lay behind that music. I tried to speak about this with my friends, but none of them, even the rightwingers, was interested. No one wants to hear bad news, it seems. I was, moreover, made well aware that the atmosphere of the time -- the post-punk period of leftist anarchism and the Anti-Nazi League -- had no use for anything that might impede the cause of socialist Revolution. I found myself politically in a minority of one: anti-Fascist but also now anti-Communist -- though not in any ideological sense. Theory did not fascinate me as it did so many of my contemporaries. I was, in effect, in "moral shock". Communism was suddenly vile to me for what it became in practice. (I went on to study not only Soviet history but to read whatever I could on every communist regime in the 20th century world.)

I soon saw that plays like Hare's Fanshen (and the British radical theatre was full of them at this time) were classic examples of Socialist Realism -- which is to say: deliberate lies designed to entice the innocent. Not that David Hare was himself a deliberate liar; he was merely adopting a genre out of aesthetic expedience. His play was, nevertheless, no more than a fantasy of post-revolutionary Chinese rural life as a decent idealistic Western leftwinger would have wanted it to be. Hare knew nothing of the savage genocidal lunacies which Mao had inflicted on his people during the previous twenty years. Until then, almost nothing had been written about the Chinese Revolution by those affected by it. Books like Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai (1986), Zhang Xianling's Half of Man is Woman (1988), Jung Chang's Wild Swans (1991), and Harry Wu's Bitter Winds (1994) were unwritten. Hare, though, might have read several books on the Chinese annexation of Tibet -- except that Tibet was not then the popular cause it has since rightly become. (Back in the '70s, the spurious Maoist claims that Tibet is historically part of China and a repressive theocracy were generally conceded.)

So far as I know, David Hare is no longer an unwitting Maoist stooge. Everyone is entitled to make political mistakes; and -- short of inflicting damage on others as a result -- all that counts is that one acknowledges these mistakes and turns to something a little less dangerously stupid. Of course, the longer one persists in self-deception or lazy ignorance, the less forgivable the crime -- especially if one happens to be a "media person" through whose broadcast misconceptions other people's minds may be warped. (A minor instance of this would be David Pownall's monumentally idiotic play Master Class which presents Shostakovich as a fragile neurotic traumatised by Russia's war dead, his incessant tearful breakdowns being defended, against the gruff impatience of Stalin and Zhdanov, by an uncharacteristically astute and solicitous Prokofiev. This amazing rubbish was transmitted on BBC Radio 3 in 1983 -- and listened to by the present writer with gritted teeth.)

Fanshen, like so much political fantasy emanating from the Western left-liberal milieu, was predicated on a conception of how things should be, rather than on how they are or were. This brings me to Gene Homel's interesting post. Gene wrote:

>>Ian is mistakenly equating the 'left-liberal intelligentsia'
>>with the Stalinist left, which in reality formed only one
>>(minority) section of the left from the 1920s to the 1970s.
>>The reality is that various sections of the left were among
>>the first and the most vehement opponents of Stalinism. This
>>includes non-Stalinist Marxists such as Trotskyists and
>>others, "anarchists" such as Emma Goldman (who wrote a
>>pioneering critique of the USSR), and, most importantly, the
>>predominant democratic left in Western Europe, Canada, the
>>United States and elsewhere, which was not shy about
>>criticizing Stalinist totalitarianism, from Koestler's
>>Darkness at Noon to the American collection The God that Failed.

Gene misconstrues the scope of my argument. I'm not talking solely about the Western anti-Stalinist reaction; nor about the isolated few who grasped the truth of Stalinism prior to Khrushchev's denunciation in 1956 -- especially not about the Trotskyites, whose fealty to Bolshevik principles makes them as reflexively revolutionist and dictatorial as anything they carp at as if from higher moral ground. (Likewise, Goldman's rejection of the USSR was built into her political outlook.) I'm surprised Gene mentions neither Raymond Aron's L'Opium des intellectuels (1955) nor, indeed, George Orwell, whose writings of the 1940s had more influence in terms of forming anti-Stalinist opinion in the West than those of any other writer -- certainly more than Koestler, significant though his contribution was. Orwell, of course, had much trouble finding British and American publishers for Animal Farm owing to the pro-Stalin/fellow-travelling preponderance in contemporary Western left-liberal intellectual circles. (His journalism and essays record his virtually solitary struggle against this preponderance in British intellectual life of the time, while Nineteen Eighty-four is the most informed and detailed attack on Stalinist society prior to the first publications of the "totalitarian" school of historians.)

Of course, it would be easy to juxtapose Gene's few examples of anti-Stalinist leftists with the far more numerous (and considerably more famous) roll-call of Western intellectuals who either openly supported Stalin or attempted to shield the USSR from criticism of its innate illiberality by means of Socialist Realist deception and misdirection in their work. (See, for example, David Caute's The Fellow Travellers [1973/88], Bernard-Henri Lévy's Les Aventures de la liberté [1991], and Stephen Koch's Double Lives [1995].) Martin Anderson has mentioned Shaw and the British doyens of self- deception Sidney and Beatrice Webb; I would add -- just for starters -- the Sidney and Beatrice Webb of France: Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet, whose faith in Soviet Communism survived 1956 and whose response to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia was to leave the Soviet fold whilst retaining their membership of the (Stalinist) French Communist Party. As Gene will know, the list of such celebrity Stalin-groupies is rather long. (I'll trundle it out, if asked.) Furthermore, such celebrities addressed not a local political constituency but their societies at large -- and it was their influence, rather than the specialist analyses of non-Stalinist Western socialist thinkers and party leaders, which did the damage.

Gene mentions Camus, but Sartre was far more important in his popular effect -- and this was a man who, in 1977, striving not to "drive Billancourt [a proletarian suburb of Paris] to despair", objected to publicisation of facts about the Gulag, claiming that those who harped on about such things were in the pay of the CIA. Apart from the characteristic trait of the Western fellow-traveller of trying to steer the layperson away from anything which might prejudice him or her against the ongoing project of bringing about Marxian revolution -- expressed quite honestly, it must be said, in Sartre's case -- what is ironic is that Sartre, with Merleau-Ponty, had been the first leading French intellectual (in 1950) to raise objections to the Soviet labour camp system, albeit that he did so with same reluctance and for the same reasons that characterised his attitude 27 years later. Thereafter, his philosophical peregrinations led him first to a rapprochement with the hardline French CP, a second rejection of it after 1956, a love affair with Castro's Cuban sub-variety, and a final flirtation with the Red Brigades. Sartre could argue himself into and out of almost anything, including the idea that it could possibly be morally right to hush up the Gulag.

The post-war French intellectual scene abounded with such sophistical figures, each bent in some way on obscuring the issues surrounding communism. Gene will be familiar with the notorious court-cases involving David Rousset and Viktor Kravchenko in 1949-50 when French intellectuals, among other Western Soviet stooges, turned out in force to deny that the Gulag existed and that claims to the contrary were forgeries by Western counter-intelligence. (See Conquest, The Great Terror, pp. 472-4; Caute, op. cit., pp. 110-11.) The truth is that the West was fully aware of the scale of the forced labour system in the USSR in the immediate post-war years. What kept this quiet, or tarnished as rightwing propaganda, was left-liberal intellectual denial in the service of the treasured ideal of international revolutionary socialism.

Gene is, of course, correct to list some of those who were "not shy about criticising Stalinist totalitarianism", even if that wasn't a particularly difficult accomplishment after 1956. He's also correct to point out that European Communist parties haemorrhaged members following the Soviet actions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. However, he oversimplifies when he claims that the New Left of the 1960s and early 1970s "had absolutely no use for the Soviet system". On the contrary, while properly deploring Soviet imperialism and neo-Stalinist repression under Brezhnev, the New Left, like all socialists, democratic or otherwise, retained its essential faith in the "Soviet socialist experiment" -- and, more to the point, in Lenin (whose Western esteem accordingly rose as if to balance the damage done to revolutionary socialism by the revelation of Stalin's crimes in 1956). In this fundamental sense, the broad continuum of socialist organisations outside the USSR indeed "retained their idealised vision of the Soviet Union". All they rejected was the alleged "aberration" of Stalinism.

What survived the exposé of 1956 is what Sartre (contrasting this favourably against the dictatorship of the Party) called "revolutionary idealism" -- the paramount impulse to overturn the existing order and replace it with something imposed by those who, blessed with socialist vision, know better. This was what I encountered at Cambridge in 1968. Partly attached to Mao, partly to Guevara, partly to Situationism (less so to the distant yet undoubtedly godlike Lenin), this new impulse represented a seizing of the socialist initiative by youth in the cause of "a break with history": instant revolution. To the extent that it had ever been popularly understood in the West, the question of "Stalinist totalitarianism" was not an issue for this generation, for whom the overthrow of society had a wholly fresh appeal, however bolstered with theoretical references to Marx and Lenin (and, to lesser extents, Gramsci and even Kropotkin). There was among that Western milieu not the slightest grasp of totalitarian reality -- of the fact that, had they been born in any of the "socialist" societies about which they so idiosyncratically theorised, they would themselves have been subjected to repression. As it happened, they found they couldn't knock down their own societies that easily, so turned either to terror -- bombings, kidnappings, assassinations -- or to undermining social cohesion through their education systems (the project, conducted in varying degrees of awareness of its ends, known as deconstruction).

Meanwhile, the process of "virtuous misdirection" continued. Wedded to the theoretical viability of the "Soviet socialist experiment", neo-communist and quasi-communists in the West sought to preserve Lenin as an ideological ikon, to present Solzhenitsyn as a crank, even to exonerate Stalin. As time went by, this became harder, especially after the events of 1989-91, although I can testify from personal experience that the left-liberal intellectuals in my part of the world subtly retarded this process of disillusionment with their almost subconscious reluctance to relinquish the cherished dream of a successful revolutionary socialist state, based on their idealised impression of the USSR. Even during the late 1980s, I met, in conversation with writers, journalists, and editors in London, the same old self-deceiving romanticism about the Soviet system. Friends returning from glasnost-facilitated trips to the USSR enthused about the restaurant they'd been allowed to dine in or the model kolkhoz they'd been taken to, quite prepared to believe that these experiences were typical and that the Soviet people were perfectly happy with their lot. As late as 1989, I found that a short article I wrote about Lenin's appallingly brutal decrees was turned down by several papers on the grounds that it was "unrepresentative". The magazine that eventually accepted it balked at its title ("Lenin as Bastard") but went ahead, despite the popularity on London's trendy streets at the time of Lenin t-shirts. (It appears that Guevara is now back as a student hero figure...)

Trivial as these examples are, they typify a still-surviving, if currently quiescent, mind-set: revolutionary idealism. I gather the most popular "module" in secondary-level history in Britain is the Second World War with an emphasis on Nazism and its origins. All to the good -- except that the latent revolutionism in many young teachers, themselves educated under the bamboozling rule of deconstruction, conspires to render the corresponding course in Leninism-Stalinism and its origins somehow rather less popular. Again, the indication is relatively slight and no doubt contestable. The fact remains that Britain, like most other European countries, now honours Holocaust Day -- yet no one has even suggested that something similar deserves to be considered with regard to the global victims of Communism; indeed, the very idea will come as a shock to the pampered idealism of the left-liberal outlook.

Just how shocking such a suggestion would be was demonstrated by the scandal attending the publication in France in 1997 of Le livre noir du Communisme: Crimes, terreur, répression, a massive compendium of the crimes against humanity wreaked by the various Communist regimes which have installed themselves in our world since 1917. Editor Stéphane Courtois reflects:

How are we to assess Communism's crimes? What lessons are we to learn from them? Why has it been necessary to wait until the end of the twentieth century for this subject to show up on the academic radar screen? It is undoubtedly the case that the study of Stalinist and Communist terror, when compared to the study of Nazi crimes, has a great deal of catching-up to do (although such research is gaining popularity in Eastern Europe).

One cannot help noticing the strong contrast between the study of Nazi and Communist crimes. The victors of 1945 legitimately made Nazi crimes -- and especially the genocide of the Jews -- the central focus of their condemnation of Nazism. A number of researchers around the world have been working on these issues for decades. Thousands of books and dozens of films -- most notably Night and Fog, Shoah, Sophie's Choice, and Schindler's List -- have been devoted to the subject.

Yet scholars have neglected the crimes committed by the Communists. While names such as Himmler and Eichmann are recognised around the world as bywords for twentieth-century barbarism, the names of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, Genrikh Yagoda, and Nikolai Ezhov languish in obscurity. As for Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and even Stalin, they have always enjoyed a surprising reverence. A French government agency, the National Lottery, was crazy enough to use Stalin and Mao in one of its advertising campaigns. Would anyone even dare to come up with the idea of featuring Hitler or Goebbels in commercials?

The extraordinary attention paid to Hitler's crimes is entirely justified. It respects the wishes of the surviving witnesses, it satisfies the needs of researchers trying to understand these events, and it reflects the desire of moral and political authorities to strengthen democratic values. But the revelations concerning Communist crimes cause barely a stir. Why is there such an awkward silence from politicians? Why such a deafening silence from the academic world regarding the Communist catastrophe, which touched the lives of about one-third of humanity on four continents during a period spanning eighty years? Why is there such widespread reluctance to make such a crucial factor as crime -- mass crime, systematic crime, and crime against humanity -- a central factor in the analysis of Communism? Is this really something that is beyond human understanding? Or are we talking about a refusal to scrutinize the subject too closely for fear of learning the truth about it? [op. cit., pp. 17-18.]

Courtois notes the factors inhibiting a systematic disclosure of Communist atrocities comparable with that devoted to the atrocities of the Nazis: the adeptness of Communist tyrants at covering up their crimes (made all the easier by having the leisure to do so); their concerted campaigns to discredit those who try to expose these crimes (Solomon Volkov being just one of many in this regard); the willingness of so many Western intellectuals to aid and abet these crimes by means of hagiographical apologias or gross historical distortions; the incessant gale of Communist propaganda and crosswind of disinformation; the self-delusion of political idealists and fellow-travellers; the moral indifference of a world with too much horror to contemplate (including, of course, the Nazi Holocaust). In the case of the USSR, there is also the issue of what Solzhenitsyn grimly calls "gratitude for Stalingrad" -- the disinclination of many Westerners who fought in the last war to question the government and system of the country which, at calamitous cost to its people, drained the blood of the Nazi monster in the ghastly carnage of the Eastern Front. But Courtois adds a further factor which we do well to note:

...The fascination with the whole notion of revolution itself. In today's world, breast-beating over the idea of "revolution," as dreamed about in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is far from over. The icons of revolution -- the red flag, the International, and the raised fist -- re-emerge with each social movement and on a grand scale. Che Guevara is back in fashion. Openly revolutionary groups are active and enjoy every legal right to state their views, hurling abuse on even the mildest criticisms of crimes committed by their predecessors and only too eager to spout the eternal verities regarding the "achievements" of Lenin, Trotsky, or Mao. This revolutionary fervour is not embraced solely by revolutionaries. Many contributors to this book themselves used to believe in Communist propaganda.

Courtois's analysis is persuasive. However I add would two more categories: (1) the naivety of the noble -- the sort of naivety which causes George Steiner to contemplate the mess left by Communism in Eastern Europe (a mess administered by communists in new democratic clothes) and to wish wistfully that the Soviet system might come back as the lesser, as he imagines, of two evils; and (2) the stubborn self-deceit of the childishly willful. The latter syndrome is all around us. In personal terms, I still have many friends on the Left, including a married couple of Trotskyists whose otherwise cheerful sanity is replaced by sinister delusion as soon as the subject of politics is raised. Without exception, all my leftwing friends still think Lenin a great man and remain impervious to the damning evidence of his ugly intolerance. Nearly all of this is based on wanton ignorance of the facts. I have a (former) friend who maintains his idealistic faith in Communist China by refusing to read any of the history or literature which would disabuse him of that fatuous illusion. He chooses instead to accept Red Chinese propaganda and to indulge to the maximum the characteristic anti-Americanism of the British Left. He is no fool in any other respect of his life. He is a complete baby in respect of Chinese Communism.

In the field of Shostakovich studies, we have the similar cases of Christopher Norris, who thinks it insults the composer to suggest that he was not a believing Communist, and who refers to revisionism as a "Cold War" phenomenon; and Robert Matthew-Walker who, in his various sleevenotes, confidently describes Shostakovich as a convinced Communist whilst knowing so little of Soviet Communist history that he imagines Zhdanov to have been a "a famous war-time soldier [chosen by] Stalin to outline the Party demands".

Courtois and his fellow scholars have an undeniable point. In 2000, we know almost every nook and cranny of the Nazi death camp system -- but we know only the general outlines of the Gulag, something which deserves to be mapped and documented in such detail that the human race will never forget it, as it stands in danger of doing now. Certainly the FSB/KGB have control over many of the necessary resources -- yet there is spy-plane photography and copious eye-witness testimony to rely on. A full atlas of the Soviet Gulag should be available to historians NOW. It is a scandal that no such thing exists. (If the difficulty involved is undeniable, the difficulty in producing a comparable schematic for the Chinese Laogai must be greater, inasmuch as the system is still fully operational -- yet Jean-Luc Domenach's map of the Laogai in his 1992 book Chine: L'archipel oublié is extraordinarily comprehensive at the general level. The task is, in other words, far from impossible -- especially with suicidally brave men like Harry Wu engaged in fetching out the necessary information...)

I thank Gene Homel and Peter McNelly for their posts. I hope Gene sees why I wrote what I did, even if he disagrees with it. For those interested, The Black Book of Communism (edited by Stéphane Courtois and five others) is now available in English from Harvard University Press. On China, I would recommend Kate Saunders' Eighteen Layers of Hell: Stories from the Chinese Gulag, published by Cassell in 1996.

--Ian MacDonald

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