When I first went to university in the London of 1978, we were all pretty left wing. I can recall one meeting of an earnest group of students, aiming to raise consciousness in support of a prominent black opponent of southern African racism, in which the iniquities of a violent and repressive regime were rehearsed with appropriate horror, and stirring pledges of solidarity with those freedom fighters who resisted it rang out loud and clear.
I think you all know of whom I am writing. Well, you’re wrong. The meeting was in opposition to a racist regime in southern Africa, but it was Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and the resistance leader we were lionising was the leader of ZANU, Robert Mugabe.
The left has always loved its heroes, and has always loved its international heroes in particular, Sadly, like the innocent and gullible students I was with that afternoon, there have been plenty of Mugabes on the internationalist wish list.
This summer saw the death of the historian and poet, Robert Conquest. He has long been a hero to many on the right: the conservative historian and journalist Paul Johnson once called him our greatest living historian. That was perhaps an epithet too far. It is my contention that Conquest, in large part thanks to the way in which his masterpiece The Great Terror showed us the real nature of communism, should be a hero of the left as much as of the right. Simply, he is a hero to all those who believe in western democratic values, and freedom.
In 1937, an ardent young communist student visited the Soviet Union. Robert Conquest was hardly unusual in being a young communist then: among Conquest’s fellow Young Communists at Oxford were, for example, the future Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey and the historian Arnold Toynbee (grandfather of Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee).
Just as Fascism and Nazism had their fellow travellers, so did Bolshevism. To understand them, we have look further back. On the British liberal left, there had always been an often-laudable instinct to support what they viewed as the underdog. For example, righteous opposition to the ‘methods of barbarism’ used by the British in the Boer War was led by radical Liberals such as the young Lloyd George. The radical wing of the Liberal party was also vocal in their antipathy to the evils of Belgian Imperialism and Russian absolutism.
Socialism inherited those instincts, and also developed one of its own: internationalism. What is also not well known is that Lenin visited London twice (and Stalin once) for the 1903 and 1907 party congresses. In doing so, he and other leading Russian Marxists socialised with leading leftist intellectuals and politicians, such as Ramsay MacDonald, later to become Labour’s first prime minister.
The February Revolution seemed like a new dawn to many, the one that saw the downfall of the Tsar, seemed to offer hope to many in the Europe in 1917. Socialists of all kinds hoped it signaled the imminent triumph of worldwide socialism. As the Russian Revolution took a more radical turn, the left in the rest of Europe found itself in a quandary: how to deal with Bolshevism? There were several variants of response between the wars.
One was pretty much outright hostile. Domestically, the Labour Party was implacably opposed to communism. When the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed in 1920, Labour refused to allow it to affiliate or have any dealings at all with the wider Labour movement. When the Communist Party pursued a popular front policy in the ‘thirties, Stafford Cripps was one of a number of Labour Party members who were all but expelled for proposing to work with the Communists.
In foreign policy, Labour could sometimes seem sympathetic to communism. In government, Ramsay MacDonald recognised the Soviet Union (a policy that looked plausible in 1924) and negotiated. Dockers refused to load arms for anti-Soviet Poland during the Russo-Polish War. During the war, for pretty obvious reasons, there was a great deal of support for Uncle Joe and the heroic Red Army.
At the local level, hostility did not necessarily apply. The Communist trade unionist was a fixture of British life. Some were Arthur Scargills, devoted to using the trade union movement for political ends, for who workers and their unions were a vehicle for revolution (Scargill, for example, was opposed to Solidarity because they undermined communism in Poland). More commonly, they concentrated on bread and butter trade unionism, maintaining their communism as a kind of article of faith. A friend of mine’s father was a Govan shipyard worker, shop steward and unreformed Stalinist until the very end, but above all else a shop steward and trade unionist.
Most interesting were the fellow travellers who looked to Soviet Communism as both the future and the great bulwark against Fascism and Nazism. One kind were very public figures, often of very great repute: the likes of Paul Robeson, HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw all visited Moscow in the ‘thirties, and spoke admiringly. Shaw visited while Stalin’s ‘war on the peasants’ saw peasants starving to death in Ukraine and Kazakhstan; meanwhile, Shaw spoke in gushing tones of the success of the Soviet system while surrounded by healthy looking little children.
Another kind of fellow traveller was the young, leftist, idealist intellectual, as perhaps best personified by the Cambridge Apostles, the forcing house of the notorious Cambridge spies. That these people would never have been tolerated in the rabidly homophobic communist world adds an irony that would probably never have occurred to them. Anthony Blunt, or Sir Anthony as he was, achieved fame as a distinguished art historian, becoming Keeper of the Queen’s Pictures.
Most young communists did not become traitors. Robert Conquest was cured of his communism by his encounters with it in the later part of the war, just as George Orwell became a passionate anti-communist after his encounters with it in the Spanish Civil War. For all the wartime talk of our Soviet ally and Uncle Joe, the post-war Labour government of saw Attlee and Bevin take a strongly anti-Soviet and pro-American line, culminating in the Berlin Airlift, the formation of NATO and the Korean War.
Some on the left kept to their illusions, at least until the crushing of the Hungarian Rising in 1956. Then, while a few retained their old loyalty, such as the great historian Eric Hobsbawm, the late ‘fifties and after saw a transformation, often known as the new left: from CND, to the anti-war movement, through Trotskyism and even Maoism. By the late ‘seventies and ‘eighties, as I moved through school and to university and beyond, coming from a political family with, on my father’s side, a strongly Labour tradition, I encountered all sorts. There was the Socialist Workers Party, with whom I had a dalliance as a sixth former, though mostly, it must be admitted, in pursuit of a girl: I failed on both fronts, with the girl, and with the revolution. There was the University of East Anglia Maoist society from whom, on a weekend to help us experience university life, I acquired the copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book I still keep in my office: apparently, ‘all imperialists are paper tigers’.
By the time I got to university, left-wing activism was all the rage. Solidarity with every radical cause under the sun was a hallmark of the ‘eighties. Not all were quite as embarrassing as Mugabe. The young lady in whose pursuit I dallied with the Socialist Workers’ Party had an older sister who, along with her husband, went to Nicaragua to work for the revolution. The Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism drew many students, musicians and fans into political activism: it was by his route that I encountered the young radical Labour councillor, Jeremy Corbyn.
Many of us were, I think, well intentioned. Amongst the array of good intentions were those of less attractive hue. Trotskyist entryism was endemic, whether through the almost equally ubiquitous SWP or the Trotskyist Militant Tendency who were the shock troops of the Bennite insurgency threatening to take over the Labour Party.
The left of the ‘eighties varied in their attitudes to the communist world. Labour was divided and had been dragged towards the unilateral nuclear disarmament that saw CND become the other great campaign of the ‘eighties left. Implicit within that were assumptions about the nature of the Soviet Union that were, at best, naive or, just often, rooted in a visceral and instinctive anti-Americanism often portrayed as anti-Imperialism.
On the left that was refashioned some were, simply, pro-Moscow. In my first year at university I shared a flat with someone who believed the Soviet System was better and argued that case with considerable tenacity and, it must be said, even greater tedium. More often, the new left bought the myth of the good Lenin and the bad Stalin who distorted communism. Soviet Communism was not inherently evil. This gave its adherents the advantage of being able to support other Marxists whilst being at least a bit sniffy about the Soviet Union.
This was especially helpful when some of what America and her allies did or supported in the world could be pretty repulsive, from America’s Vietnam, through Pinochet in Chile or Apartheid in South Africa. When the Soviet Union opposed what many in the west saw as evil, it was able to wipe some of the stains of its own.
That is why, if Robert Conquest had not been made, it would have been necessary to invent him. Conquest’s The Great Terror, first published in 1966, has claim to be on of the most important history books of the last century. As Orwell, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn and Mandelstam did in literature, Conquest did with history, exposed the inherent evils of Soviet communism. There were no excuses, it was inherently oppressive and brutal, and Conquest showed this it stark and unrelenting detail.
The book was immediately attacked as western propaganda. Others, simply refused to believe what Conquest revealed. Conquest’s influence over the new cold warriors on the western right in the ‘eighties, especially his closeness to Maragret Thatcher, led left leaning intellectuals have an almost instinctive mistrust. More measured critics worried about the nature of his source base (for obvious reasons he was denied access to the Soviet archive), and questioned his figures (Conquest was to keep revising those in subsequent work, and did acknowledge lower totals than those he gave initially).
When that archive was opened, it showed that Conquest had got far more right than he had got wrong and, crucially, he had got the most important things very right. Stalin had not distorted Leninism, and Lenin was just as brutal, oppressive, violent and indifferent to human suffering. Back in the ‘thirties, many on the left persuaded themselves that the victims of the show trails were real traitors: in reality, as Conquest had shown, they were Stalin’s pursuit of potential rivals and old comrades who could dish the dirt on him. Of course others played their roles in the terror, but arguments that it was not led and controlled by Stalin were off the mark: it was. The mass murder and deportation of peasants happened, as did the starvation of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, and they were Stalin’s deliberate policy: ‘the war on the peasants’.
The illusions the left had carried about the Soviet Union and Soviet communism were blown apart. But it was more than that. Those illusions had not been merely foolish, they had also been dangerous, allowing an expansionist and brutal regime room to grow, and to oppress millions. The refusal of the left to learn has led, as it led us in my youth, into folly, but dangerous folly. CND gave comfort to the Kremlin, Scargill opposed free trade unions in Poland. If brutal regimes were opposed, others were supported: by God, how bloody stupid those UEA Maoists look now.
The habit of fellow travelling has never quite gone away from the left, which now finds itself siding with brutal Islamists, Putin’s Russia or the the happy memory of the Semtex and Armalites of Irish Republicanism. The anti-Americanism inherent in much of the new left that once led it into the arms of communism now leads into the arms of movements pretty close to fascist.
As I said above, if Robert Conquest had not been made it would have been necessary to invent him. The Oxford historian Mark Almond described him as ‘one of the few Western heroes of the collapse of Soviet Communism’. ‘He was Solzhenitsyn before Solzhenitsyn,’ said Timothy Garton Ash. Perhaps the best summary was one suggested by his old friend Kingsley Amis. When the publisher suggested Conquest rewrite his masterpiece in response to the opening of the Soviet archive (which he did, under the title The Great Terror: a Reassessment in 1990), Amis suggested he retitle it, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.
And in truth, many of us on the western left were and are foolish, and needed telling.