My father was a communist. As is often the case, what attracted the father repelled the son. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that my anticommunism was merely the consequence of a conflict of generations: I read a fair bit and went to see for myself. The latter was something my father never did: reality didn’t interest him. Indeed, he resigned as a member of the British Board of Trade’s Anglo-Soviet committee when it became clear that, at some point, he would actually have to go to the Soviet Union, rather than merely pontificate about it. But the generational conflict gave the whole question of communism a personal edge that perhaps it didn’t have for others of my age and situation.
I remember the day my mother threw out the Little Stalin Library (I wish now that she hadn’t). My father was by then, if not less firm in the faith, at least less vociferous in it. The Little Lenin Library went out too, more for reasons of space, I think, than for ideological ones. Nevertheless, quite a lot of literature—communist, Marxist, and merely Progressive (at least, progressive in its day) —was left behind.
Disagreement was enmity, and the death of enemies the only solution to that enmity.
Among it, of course, was the History of the Civil War in the USSR, edited by Gorky, Molotov, Voroshilov, Kirov, Zhdanov, and Stalin (the names of Gorky and Kirov appearing in black boxes to indicate that they were now dead, though naturally with no indication given as to the causes of their deaths). The maroon-brown cover, the front board with a bas-relief of a revolutionary scene, conferred a quasi-religious feel to the book: which was, of course, entirely appropriate. I am not sure whether my father had actually ever read it; I strongly suspect it was for him more an icon than a work of reference.
Then there was G. V. Plekhanov’s Materialist Conception of History, and the first English edition of V. I. Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, published in 1927, which —astonishing as it now seems to me—I once read from cover to cover. (It was, of course, compulsory reading—and regurgitation—for generations of Soviet students, the sine qua non of graduation in anything from Egyptology to entomology.) I had not previously suspected that such bile and rancor could be introduced into books on subject matter so abstruse and recherché. Here was a mind for which no disagreement was possible without the hurling of insults and the expression of murderous hatred: on a single page taken at random, we learn that other writers were “pygmies and miserable scribblers” and Ernst Mach, the great German physicist and philosopher, was responsible for a “pestilence.” On the page opposite is displayed, in all its bilious glory, the theocratic cast of mind that led Lenin to establish the first modern totalitarian state:
A subtle and continual falsification of Marxism, a crafty and constant dissemination of anti-materialist doctrines disguised in a Marxian garb—this is how modern revisionism must be characterized—in the field of political economy, in questions of tactics and in philosophy as a whole, in both its epistemological and sociological aspects.
For Lenin, there were but doctrines, only one of which was true: his. All others were heresy, the work of the devil, and philosophy and philosophers were to be dragooned by the imperative mood followed swiftly by the bullet. Disagreement was enmity, and the death of enemies the only solution to that enmity. If ever a literary style were the man himself, Lenin’s was Lenin: you could deduce his bloodthirstiness from the quality of his prose.
Growing up in a country that appeared—no, was—as peaceful as it was possible for a country with a large population to be, I was surprised by the venom that I found in my father’s books. It seemed to come from another country altogether, like a message in a bottle from over the ocean. For example, there was a memorial volume to a man called John Cornford, the son of the classicist F. M. Cornford, a communist student at Cambridge who was killed on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War after only four months as an international volunteer. The book, part anthology of his writings, part recollections by others of his life, was dedicated, without irony, to “All Advanced and Progressive Mankind”—a category to which I have never really belonged, being myself thoroughly Backward and Retrogressive. Cornford was an aspiring poet, and the poem he wrote at the age of twenty-one in Spain to his girlfriend, very shortly before he was killed, has the power to move because we now know of the futility of his sacrifice:
On the last mile to Huesca,
The last fence for our pride,
Think so kindly, dear, that I
Sense you at my side.
And if bad luck should lay my strength
Into the shallow grave,
Remember all the good you can;
Don’t forget my love.
But it was not for his tenderness that all advanced and progressive mankind memorialized him: on the contrary. It was for his precocious and uncompromising (if still only theoretical) crudity, brutality, and bloodthirstiness in the cause that he was admired. A poem written in Cambridge about literary modernism, “Keep Culture Out of Cambridge,” ends with the lines:
There’s none of these fashions have come to stay,
And there’s nobody here got time to play.
All we’ve brought are our party cards
Which are no bloody good for your bloody charades.
A bit of swearing conferred upon you honorary membership of the proletariat. And his short poem about the assassination of Sergei Kirov in Leningrad in 1934, starts with the stanza:
Nothing is ever certain, nothing is ever safe,
To-day is overturning yesterday’s settled good.
Everything dying keeps a hungry grip on life.
Nothing is ever born without screaming and blood.
The poem ends with the unconsciously humorous (and grimly prophetic):
He will throw a longer shadow as time recedes.
In his recollection of Cornford at Cambridge, Victor Kiernan relates the following about him:
For him … the Revolution was as unquestionable a certainty as the Resurrection to a Christian. He visualised the bourgeoisie … as shaking in their shoes (he used a coarser metaphor). His animal vitality compared with equally real reflectiveness made one take seriously things he said which would have sounded artificial in most other mouths, and one never thought of his age except with incredulity. I recall his telling, with genuine relish, a story of Bela Kun machine-gunning five thousand prisoners in a forced retreat in the Russian Civil War: he told it not in a spirit of sadism, but of appreciation of an act of political necessity firmly carried out.
In other words, you can’t make an omelette without mass murder: a philosophy of real depth and charm. No wonder he was widely admired.
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Then there was Mayakovsky, in translation of course. It came in a dull brown paper cover, in a series entitled Life and Literature in the Soviet Union. Printed and published in Britain in 1940, on the tenth anniversary of his death, at a time when the Soviet Union was still allied to a Nazi Germany that was then at war with Britain, it alluded to his suicide, an archetypical act of “petit bourgeois pessimism” (as a Marxist friend of mine at medical school once characterized Schubert lieder). How did it come about, asked the introductory essay, that “a grown and socially developed personality” should have committed “so indefensible an act”?
The answer was clear: it was the criticisms of the RAPP, the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, that drove him to it. “The dominating clique of RAPP, the most influential literary society (since dissolved), was later revealed as a group of Trotskyites … associated with the counter-revolutionary network… . Mayakovsky was indirectly the victim of the same hands that later directly slew the great Soviet writer of the generation preceding him, Gorky.”
Indeed he was, though perhaps not quite in the sense that the author meant. The reasons for Mayakovsky’s suicide have never been fully elucidated, but the latest theory is that he had been refused a passport to leave the Soviet Union for a visit to Paris, the first time in his career under the Soviets as the golden bard of their Revolution that he had ever been thus refused: and knowing only too well what this refusal presaged (he preferred the companionship of NKVD men to more conventional literary types, and thus appreciated the meaning of slippery slopes and careers in decline), he chose the bullet rather than disgrace or something worse. If this is true, it is certainly ironic, for one of his most famous poems was a hymn of praise to “My Soviet Passport,” written only the year before:
like a wolf
at bureaucracy …
But this …
I pull out
of my wide-trouser pockets
of a priceless cargo.
I’m a citizen
of the Soviet Socialist Union!
A Russian speaker tells me that Mayakovsky’s mastery of Russian rhyme is impressive, but in English translation his work seems hardly poetry at all: rather, it consists of violent declamatory slogans, that belong more to the history of propaganda than of literature. There is a glorification of violence, with fights, guns, conflicts, and hatred appearing in every verse if not in every line. For example, there is a poem called “To Comrade Nette: Man and Ship.” Comrade Nette was a Latvian communist who was a diplomatic courier, killed while defending some papers that counter-revolutionaries were attempting to steal from him. A ship was named after him.
Cutting space in half
as it [the ship] sets
Trailing tracks of heroes
for ever in its wake,
bright and bloody
from corridor combats …
We march on,
through revolver barks,
we shall be embodied
and other long-lived works.
When I was young, I was bemused by this when I read it: it didn’t seem like poetry at all, though it was alleged to be poetry, and it gave me a feeling of deep unease whose precise source, having insufficient historical knowledge, I could not specify. Now the sheer unfeeling brutality of the sentiment appalls me, which no verbal felicity in the original (which in any case I am unqualified to judge) could redeem.
I had a favorite, though, among my father’s progressive books: the Soviet Calendar for 1947, to mark the thirtieth year of the Soviet state, published by the Foreign Languages Publishing House. I spent many happy hours with it, and knew its contents more or less by heart. It was a huge book, cream-covered, with the arms of the Soviet Union embossed on the front cover. Inside, on the half-title page, was a medallion portrait of Lenin and Stalin together, both of them looking with iron determination slightly upwards, their eyes mildly screwed, into the far distance not only spatially but temporally.
The contents of the Calendar were a delight. I learned to recognize from it Soviet-style photography, brown and always slightly fuzzy round the edges, as if to make it easier at some future date to remove a personage or two (it always being so difficult in Soviet circumstances to predict the past). Every Soviet republic had its day, with an accompanying picture of happy smiling young farm workers carrying baskets groaning with peaches or grapes. Celebrated Soviet figures—heroes of aviation or arctic exploration—were extolled; one of my favorite pages was that with a picture of the Victory vase pasted in, a present to the Generalissimo from the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory on the occasion of the first anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War. Nine feet tall, this vase had a huge portrait of Stalin surrounded by gold laurels on it, with medallions of scenes from the battle of Stalingrad underneath, and words from one of Stalin’s speeches on its pediment, engraved in gold. O Victory vase, where art thou now?
Of course, the content of the Calendar was strictly orthodox. This involved the backward projection of proto-Marxist-Leninist ideas on to Russian heroes of the past, political, scientific, and literary—of whom Dostoyevsky was conspicuous by his absence. Chekhov would have been delighted by Stalin’s Russia: for he had never thought that his deep conviction that “the absurd and uncouth country would become a blossoming garden” would be justified so soon. Because of his distance from the revolutionary struggle, he thought it would take 200 to 300 years. He would joyfully have joined in the applause at the end of Stalin’s speech, on February 9, 1946, accepting nomination as a candidate for election to the Supreme Soviet, recorded thus—in italics—in the Calendar:
(All rise. Loud and prolonged applause rising to an ovation. Voices in different parts of the hall “Long live great Stalin, Hurrah!” “Cheers for the great leader of the peoples!” “Glory to great Stalin!” “Long live Comrade Stalin, the candidate of the entire people!” “Glory to the creator of all our victories, Comrade Stalin!”)
It was some years later that I encountered in person the long-term consequences of those victories. I quickly learned a vitally important lesson for guests of Soviet hotels: if you didn’t want to go hungry, you ate food when and wherever you saw it, and argued over whose it was afterwards. As the Yugoslav partisans used to say during the war, once you’ve eaten, they can’t take it away from you.
Of all my experiences in the socialist third of the world, perhaps the most illuminating—in the sense of a flash of lightning on a jet-black night—occurred in North Korea. I was walking across a deserted space in Pyongyang—all spaces in Pyongyang were deserted when they were not full of officially organized parades—when I was approached furtively by a young North Korean, the only one who ever spoke to me spontaneously, in his own words. It was clear from his demeanor that he was doing something very dangerous.
I quickly learned a vitally important lesson for guests of Soviet hotels: if you didn’t want to go hungry, you ate food when and wherever you saw it, and argued over whose it was afterwards.
“Do you speak English?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I replied.
“I am a student at the Institute of Foreign Languages. Reading Shakespeare and Dickens is the greatest, the only, joy of my life.”
We parted soon afterwards: or rather, we glided past each other, having spoken a few words as we went. But what he said resonated in my mind long afterwards.
It was, of course, deeply impressive that someone in so distant and hermetically sealed a kingdom should speak such per- fect English: but the teaching of foreign languages, needless to say always for the worst of purposes, was something that communist states always did very well, at least for the very few selected to benefit from the military methods by which they were inculcated.
Here, however, was an instance in which the medium was most definitely not the message. What this student conveyed, with the most brilliant concision, was the agony of living under totalitarianism, even for those who were not consigned to the camps or made to suffer the grosser material deprivations. For in North Korea—plus staliniste que Staline—no one spoke in his own words. Political speeches were literally inescapable: they were relayed over public address systems night and day, and had been for nearly half a century. Not only was everyone prohibited from uttering anything that he knew to be true, but he was obliged to say, or rather endlessly intone, what he knew not to be true. Moreover, he was not permitted even to lie in his own words, but only in the formulae laid down by the power. Language became not a means of communication, but of subjugation and submission.
No doubt the novels of Dickens were taught at the Institute of Foreign Languages not merely for linguistic instruction, but for their ideologically convenient depiction of poverty in capitalist England. The student, however, drew quite another lesson from the one intended: that a society existed in which language was used, even by the poor, the powerless, and the degraded, to express their own thoughts, opinions, and feelings. This was his joyful discovery after a lifetime of ruthless mental torture: and his words were neither histrionic not hyperbolic. For someone with the most minimal imagination, they were deeply revealing.
When communism collapsed in Europe, I was both pleased and surprised. Where politics are concerned, I have the gift of prophecy in reverse: what I say will happen doesn’t happen, and what I say will not happen does happen. So, like many others, I thought that communism was a kind of diamond, that is to say forever. It didn’t matter that I had read Andrei Amalrik’s Will the Soviet Union Last Until 1984?, published in 1970: I thought the author was mad, in the non-clinical sense.
Hence I never gave much thought to what would happen after communism. I don’t think many people did. When Ceausescu was overthrown and then summarily executed with his wife, I am now ashamed to say that I exulted. A cousin of mine, whose judgment I do not usually respect, and who was always sympathetic towards communism though not to any actual worker who happened to be performing (always inadequately) a task at her command, maintained that so perfunctory an execution was wrong, and now I agree with her. My hatred for what the Ceausescus had done, which I had seen for myself, blinded me; but there were three warnings I failed to heed. The first was a cynical old Romanian proverb: a change of rulers is the joy of fools. The second was what an eminent Romanian historian told me, that the damage done by communism would take at least three generations to undo, because everyone had been so deeply compromised and deformed by it. And lastly were the words of Macbeth, after he has killed the two men sleeping outside Duncan’s bedchamber, pretending to believe that they were Duncan’s murderers. Macbeth explains himself thus:
Who can be wise, amazed, temp’rate, and furious,
Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man.
Th’expedition of my violent love
Outran the pauser, reason.
This passage is so apposite because the overthrow of Ceausescu appears, in retrospect, to have been more coup d’état than popular uprising, which the apparent spontaneity of the execution was designed to hide. And subsequent events in much of the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence came to give a special meaning to Strom Thurmond’s response to being told that Eisenhower was not a communist, but an anti-communist: I don’t care what kind of communist he is. Apparatchiks, ideologues, and members of the nomenklatura became overnight firm believers in the virtues of democracy and free enterprise. I should have suspected that the communists were more flexible (or rather adaptable) than I had previously thought when I was in Lithuania. I happened to be in the Baltic states during their great national re-awakenings, when apparently spontane- ous mass movements suddenly organized themselves and flourished. At a mass meeting of Sajudis, the Lithuanian movement, a speaker called for the restoration of wayside shrines throughout the country, and the tombstone-faced Lithuanian Communist Party secretary-general, who also happened to be present, applauded like everyone else, as if the restoration of wayside shrines had always been a principal plank of the Communist Party’s platform. Perhaps it should have occurred to me that there was more to the implosion of communism than met the eye, and that the path ahead would be crooked rather than straight, but it didn’t.
I visited what used to be called the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic shortly after the changes, and gave an impromptu speech at a dinner, in which I drew attention to the craven attitude of western intellectuals throughout the Soviet era, for example by frequently following the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia (subscribers to which in the good old days were asked by the publishers to tear out pages and paste in new ones, according to the most recent changes in ideological history, and woe betide Soviet subscribers who did not comply!) in maintaining that Moldavian was a different language from Romanian. Everyone was moved by my confession of western turpitude. But how bright the future looked, now that the yoke was lifted!
I returned a few years later. Reformed Moldavia was a disaster. The Russian market was defunct and Europeans refused to allow Moldavian agricultural products in, for fear of upsetting their own producers. Incomes, never high, had declined by 40 percent. Nothing worked, decay was accelerating, there were regular power cuts in winter, tuberculosis was of epidemic proportions. The country’s largest export was of prostitutes to Western Europe (I saw them in Amsterdam) and the Middle East. It was said that a quarter of the population had fled.
Anti-racism, feminism, varieties of sexual ‘liberation,’ ‘green’ activism, and several other ideologies, now shape not only our institutions, but even the way we speak.
In other parts of the former Soviet Union, things were no better. The gray ferro-concrete Soviet mess still ruined millions of square miles of landscape. In Georgia, the much-feted Eduard Shevarnadze ran a thuggish authoritarian state, whose salient characteristics somehow evaded most western commentators. It was as if they had fellow-travelled for so long that they could not give up the habit, even when the nature of the regime changed, and it had dropped its millenarian ideological pretensions to become merely criminal.
Of course, some countries managed the transition better than others. And the one indisputable gain everywhere was the abandonment of an official, universalist ideology, with a consequent increase in freedom of expression. Even in those places where people were still not completely free to say what they believed, nowhere were they required any longer to say what they did not believe. For people who had been afraid to be the first to stop applauding Ceausescu, because it was to risk the charge of disaffection, this represented immediate relief from prolonged mental agony.
Even if old communists often remained in control, therefore, and the nomenklatura corruptly transferred nationalized assets to themselves, and even if the new dispensation was authoritarian in nature, and living standards fell rather than rose, the official lying that continued (as often emanating from the western agencies that supposedly monitored developments in these countries as from native sources) was piecemeal, a part of the repertoire of normal political behavior, rather than derived from one large central ideological lie. The one great freedom achieved everywhere, and it was not a minor one in the circumstances, was freedom from slogans.
One might have hoped that the inglorious demise of a millenarian ideology such as communism would have been accompanied by a reduction in the attractions of all ideological ways of thinking, in the victorious west as in the defeated east. By ideology I mean the single political lens through which the whole of life is obsessionally viewed, judged, and conceived. But the reverse seems to have happened, in the west at least: with the demise of the Soviet Union, the influence of ideology on daily life here seems to have increased rather than diminished. This is not to say that there is one centrally-promoted or monolithic ideology: rather, ideology has been privatized (perhaps balkanized would be a better way of putting it). People now select an ideology according to their taste and personal predicament, often using it as a means of procuring personal advancement. In large part, they succeed. Anti-racism, feminism, varieties of sexual ‘liberation,’ ‘green’ activism, and several other ideologies, now shape not only our institutions, but even the way we speak.
In the days of the Cold War, a large proportion of those who were ideologically inclined—those who wanted a single political explanation of everything, especially of their own dissatisfactions and disappointments—espoused, or expressed sympathy for, a variety of Marxism. A Marxist future still looked possible: even if the ‘deformations’ of the Soviet Union were admitted, at least the Leninist state helped to bring about revolutions in Third World countries upon which the ideologically inclined could then project their fantasies, at least for the time being, until the next, new and improved revolution came along. But since Marxism was the ideology of states self-evidently hostile to the western democracies that still enjoyed the loyalty of the majority of their populations, the practical inroads of Marxism into daily life in the democracies were limited.
It was not, of course, the crimes committed in the names of Marxism that destroyed the credibility of the Marxist ideology: these had been evident from the outset and had been swallowed whole, almost without indigestion, by the ideologically inclined intelligentsia. Indeed, it seems to me likely that the scale of these crimes actually increased the attraction of Marxist regimes; for surely, only people involved in a grand and ultimately humane project would have the confidence to act with such ruthless inhumanity? It was the collapse of the regimes that espoused Marxism, the sheer practical impossibility of their continuing along the same or similar lines, that discredited full-blown Marxist-Leninist prescriptions. These prescriptions, be it remembered, were still popular among intellectuals into the late 1980s: revolutionary movements in the Third World, in areas such as Central America (as I saw for myself), were sure of support, both moral and financial, if only they promised to expropriate landowners and impoverish the national bourgeoisie, as if this pathway to universal bliss had been tried nowhere else before.
The chief attraction of ideology as a way of thinking about the world is that, in the absence of religious belief, it answers man’s need for a purpose that transcends the humdrum tasks and flux of day-to-day existence in a settled democratic society. In doing so, it reassures the individual of his personal significance even as he frets about his insignificance. Of course, in the process it obliterates the distinction between the inherent limitations and travails of human life, for which religion used to provide both an explanation and a consolation, and the genuinely political sphere. On the contrary, it recognizes no inherent limitations to human life at all, which is why it has a tendency, in the words of Alice, to grow furiouser and furiouser, even as some of its ostensible ends are met. As equality of the sexes comes about, therefore, so feminists grow shriller: for the disparity between what is expected of social and political change, and what it actually produces in the way of personal satisfaction, is laid all too bare. The increased shrillness is a sign of existential desperation.
The demise both of the Marxist enemy and the attraction of the Marxist-Leninist panacea did not reduce the attraction and convenience to modern intellectuals of ideological thought as a genre (without ideology, what were the vast number of tertiary educated intellectuals actually to do?), but it did weaken the resistance to it. Anti-communism was not an ideology—it was merely an anti-ideology—but it drew a great deal of strength from the self-evidently formidable nature of the foe, and thus came to appear almost an ideology in itself. But the anti-ideologist now has to fight on a hundred fronts at once; it is more like a guerrilla than a conventional war. And since, almost by definition, the anti-ideologist is not as obsessed with any given subject as his many opponents are, who each derive the meaning of their lives from their ideologised grievances, he is at a permanent disadvantage. In the absence of a strong communist enemy, ideology makes inroads in our society as easily as a hot knife through butter.
Sometimes I even find myself lamenting the lifting of the Iron Curtain, seized by a nostalgia for the days when, for example, in preparation for a trip to Romania, I would memorize the names and addresses of dissidents on the way to the airport in the London underground, or write them down in a hastily devised code. I sometimes long for the yellowing gloom of communist lighting, the abominable food and surly service, the silence at night, the concrete-cold hotels with their prostitutes and leather-coated secret servicemen in the lobbies, the crumbling buildings, the pervasive kerosene and cabbage smell, the absence of anything to buy and complete lack of choice, the museums of the Revolution and of Religion and Atheism, the news bulletins reporting the latest riots in America and the local turnip harvest (always record-breaking), the short but intense friendships and conversations, the feeling that I was being followed and spied upon, of those times: the sense that I came from and was an emissary of a better world. I had to go behind the Iron Curtain to learn gratitude for what I had. Of course, I do not suggest that the thrill and joys of political tourism could or should weigh in the balance against the agonies of living under communism, but I should not be telling the truth if I did not admit that I came to love what I hated.
In the days when communism was still expansionist, I had seen the future and it was evil. I wanted to fight the good fight. Now the future interests me less than the past. Its evils are more diffuse, less tangible, harder to oppose. It is time for me to cultivate my garden, just as—in the end—my father, the communist, did.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 9, on page 28
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