The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Open Letter to an Open Enemy

Give me back the Berlin Wall
give me Stalin and St. Paul
I've seen the future, brother:
it is murder.

Leonard Cohen, The Future, 1992

I've written novels which make frequent passing reference to the Soviet Union, Lenin, Trotsky, and communism. These references, however critical, are never wholly condemnatory. I've been a member, albeit a bad one, of Trotskyist sects and of the Communist Party. I'm still a socialist, albeit a bad one. I don't regard this as equivalent to having been a Nazi, or still being a fascist. There are some who say it is. Not even they believe it. They'll say: 'Hitler was a socialist!' and think they've made a point. They don't say: 'Stalin was a socialist!' and think they've made a point.

This was written in anger, in response to a former opponent who has called me the moral equivalent of a Holocaust denier, but I'll let it stand:

My reference to 'the great scandal' of Lenin was not meant as a criticism of Lenin. I do not regard Lenin as a mass murderer, any more than I regard Cromwell, William of Orange, Robespierre, Napoleon, Lincoln, Roosevelt or Churchill as mass murderers.

The word 'kulak' is in no way equivalent to 'untermenshch': 'kulak' means, literally, 'fist', and descriptively 'rich peasant'. 'Untermensch' means 'sub-human'. Even used pejoratively, 'kulak' is a million miles from 'untermensch'. Nevertheless, I'll not defend my indefensibly flippant use of it, albeit in a clearly over-the-top rant.

I find your parallel world argument as ignorant as it is offensive. You have studied the intellectual precursors of fascism, but you show no evidence of having more than glanced at those of communism. The relationship between Marxism and 'actually existing socialism' is not at all like that between the proto-fascists and 'actually existing fascism'. Fascism was not a good idea badly implemented, or implemented in heinously inclement conditions. Fascism was a bad idea well implemented, in (for it) ideal conditions. It made vile promises, most of which it kept. And in the world I live in, 'actually existing fascism' has its respectable dupes and defenders. They are called, and rightly call themselves, conservatives and libertarians.

But that's not the main point. I wholly reject the premises of your argument: that Stalin was comparable to Hitler, that the Ukraine famine (or the many other Stalinist and communist crimes) was a crime comparable to the Holocaust, and that people who misguidedly minimise or defend the terror under Stalin are comparable to Holocaust deniers. In fact, I would claim that this position is itself the subtle and respectable face of Holocaust denial: Holocaust relativisation. 'So Hitler killed six million? Stalin killed sixty (or forty, or twenty) million!' It's the great lie of our time, conclusively refuted by the Soviet archives - though the truth, God knows, is horrifying enough. To tell you the truth, I am personally more anguished by the raw numbers from the archives than by the many speculative and wildly inflated figures I have read over the years. I'm not, however, going to argue over numbers or details.

Here is a statistically insignificant personal detail. Of the five or six Jews I happen to know personally, three or four have huge gaps in their families - blood-lines that ended in German-occupied Poland. I by chance know one Russian personally, a man of my own age. He is a liberal, never a communist, a man who went to the barricades for Yeltsin in 1993. He does not remember the Soviet Union in his own lifetime as a regime of horror. Far from it: 'Brezhnev was - what do you call it? Yes - an enlightened despot. Not totalitarian!'

And before his lifetime?

His wife's mother was deported to Kazakhstan as a kulak. 'They were dumped on the steppe with nothing,' my friend said. 'Nobody cared if you lived or died - better that you died. But they built a place to live from nothing. And you know what she says? She remembers it as a good time, all of us from all over the Soviet Union working together ...'

Show me a Jew who remembers the Holocaust like that. The great Israeli civil libertarian Israel Shahak called Solzhenitsyn practically a Nazi for claiming Stalin's labour camps were like Hitler's death camps. Nicolas Werth, a contributor to The Black Book of Communism, flatly stated: 'Death camps did not exist in the Soviet Union.'

I will admit to one hatred: for the Germans of the wartime generations. For them I have no pity whatsoever. Dresden, Hamburg, the expulsions, the camps emptied of Jews and filled with Germans after the war? Cry me a river. A Jewish pacifist friend of mine remarked recently that she'd heard a radio programme about the sufferings and mass deaths of the millions of ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after the war. She switched it off, she couldn't bear to listen to it - not because she was moved by their suffering, but because she vehemently rejected any appeal for sympathy with them. And I agree with her. Another Jewish friend, twenty-three years ago, so hated and feared 'the Polacks' that she was eager to march against Solidarnosc. And I agreed with her. I still do, [that is, I still restrospectively sympathise with her fears and my own suspicions, wrong though they were] for all that I have sincerely given a warm description of what I saw in post-counter-revolution Poland, and a sympathetic account of conversations with counter-revolutionary Poles ('I had seen a better world'). But still.

I'm shocked and a little ashamed that you've so misunderstood my position. I've never concealed it, and have often enough stated or implied it.

I've often enough pointed out that there were Marxists and other socialists who opposed Lenin, and others who opposed Stalin, and others (including myself, back in the day) who opposed his successors, and that they did so (contrary to your endlessly reiterated - no matter how often corrected - false assertions) at the time and not only after the fact. I've often enough pointed out that, on an arguably Marxian definition of socialism, the Soviet Union and the other Communist-ruled countries weren't socialist. And that even if they were in some sense socialist, the undemocratic means by which they were established had a great deal to do with their subsequent dictatorial character. 'Socialism' with an always-revocable popular mandate in a democratic state and developed society could well be very different from 'socialism' in a one-party state and a backward and shattered society. I've often enough made bitter reference to the bloodier epochs or grubbier features of these societies, in both my fiction and in my writing on the Net. I've often enough criticised and lampooned socialism and communism, real and imagined, as well as imagining other forms of socialism and communism.

But I've never concealed my view, and stated it often but evidently not often enough, that in the Russian Civil War and in the Second World War, I am glad the side that won did win. I am willing to stand by everything that was necessary for these victories. In the Russian Civil War, given the choice between the Reds and the Whites, I take the Red side. And given the situation that the Soviet Union faced from the end of the twenties, I side with the basic choice of industrialization and collectivization. Furthermore, given that treason and capitulation had their partisans, as they did and must have done, I agree that they had to be crushed.

Given that basic choice, blunders and crimes on a horrendous scale were inevitable. That does not mean they were excusable. 'It is written that offences must come, but woe unto him from whom they come.' I've held this view for about thirty years, whatever the shifts in my mere opinions about socialism. I have said that even in an anarcho-capitalist Galaxy, there could be statues of Stalin under other suns. I have a very critical view about socialism, to say nothing of Leninism and Stalinism, but I have a great love for the Soviet Union. This is not revisionism. This is mainstream historical orthodoxy. This not ideology. This is elementary British, Soviet and European patriotism - and American too, did you but know it. My father hated Communism, and was deeply distressed at my identification with even a critical communism, but he remembered with pride hearing a sermon of thanks after Stalingrad, and he counted among his friends a deacon who in my hearing recalled without regret a massacre of German prisoners by the Yugoslav Communist partisans he had parachuted in to help. I am not going to spit on the Red soldiers' and Red partisans' graves for the sake of 'civil discourse' with you or anybody else.

For what was the situation the rulers of the Soviet Union faced at the end of the twenties? The peoples of the Soviet Union were the 'untermenschen' marked for extermination and enslavement. They were for the most part backward and ignorant peasants. In modern warfare they had not a chance in hell. Not only Hitler, but significant and powerful sections of the German ruling class, saw the former Russian empire as Germany's future colonial empire and 'lebensraum'. And the rulers of the other empires, the good liberal democratic colonial empires, were only too keen to point the Germans in that direction, and away from their own. (That's why I hate the Tories, by the way: for most them it was class before country, every time, and for many of them it still is. Well then: 'It will go hard but I will better the instruction.' Class before country.)

The rulers of the Soviet Union, that empire of untermenschen facing extermination or enslavement, knew what was coming. They knew that, in a decade or less, an army from the future would fill their horizon with a storm of steel. There was no way of avoiding it. There was no way of preparing for it without the most horrendous efforts, the most drastic expedients, to drive and dragoon their empire into the twentieth century. As I've said elsewhere, they had to beat their ploughboys into swordsmen. And if they chose that, there would be those who would flinch, those who would panic, those who would revolt and those who would betray. There was no way of knowing in advance who these might be. There was no benefit of the doubt to be given doubters. One slip could be fatal. There was not an inch to be given. The costs would be horrific. The price was madness. The reward was infamy. But it was that - or death.

As Stalin said in 1931:

'We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us.'

Everything that was defensible in Stalinism, and everything I would defend about the Soviet Union, is in these three sentences. Everything else was negotiable, was debatable, could have been done otherwise, can be criticised, denounced, condemned. And I have done so often enough, but not enough to satisfy you and your ilk. Nothing that I say ever would be, and please God it never will.

[Afterword: the above piece shocked me almost as soon as I had posted it, and gave rise to some painful reflections. It is confused and wrong. Please allow me some time to sort this mess out.]


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