Sunday, February 12

". . . more about oppression than liberation"

This month marks one of the great anniversaries of modern history: 50 years since Krushchev's speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. It hadn't occurred to me how long ago that speech was until I came across this excellent article by Martin Kettle, the son of a former-British Communist Party member leader, in the Guardian.

Perhaps because my political consciousness was still embryonic when the Berlin Wall fell, or perhaps because Marxist ideology still stalked the halls of my English department like an unchallenged bully, the untenability of communist ideology has always seemed a recent revelation to me.

I was certainly not raised on the uncompromising works of Whittaker Chambers, whose Witness cast a baleful eye on his former revolutionary idealism four years before Kruschev's "secret speech." For Chambers and other former-communists, remorse was omnipresent and, in the 1950s and '60s, their new anti-communism had to be lived publicly. More than a prodct of social pressure, this was an internally driven contrition--oblation may not be too strong a word. Having dallied with her enemy, they were America's prodigal sons; bowed and humbled, but eager to demonstrate their loyalty.

The ideologue's loss of faith is often described as a "change of heart," but that is an insipid phrase: it connotes an inconsequential fickleness--a flitting from one paramour to another without a backwards glance. But the disillusionment of the true believer is unforgettable; it is an intellectual wound, whose cicatrized absence persists and provokes. It should not be surprising that after the spell of folly is broken, melancholy lingers, even in the midst of new resolution. In Chambers, this may be what one critic called his sense of "Spenglerian doom." I will defer to those who knew him for such an assessment, but it almost certain that he possesed an itching memory that would not let him leave well enough alone. And for that his country should be grateful.

But this garbled digression aside, Martin Kettle's article shows why there were no excuses, even fifty years ago, for blinding oneself to Soviet repression. Others who lived through this time, like the dean of English historians (and British Communist Party member until 1991) Eric Hobswam, provide useful insights into the subtle and not-so-subtle interplay between Marxist (to say nothing of Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist and Troksyite) and socialist theory and practice at the height of Soviet expansionism into Eastern Europe. Christopher Hill (on whose 17th Century histories I was weaned by my uncle), Hobsbawm, and their fellow travelers were no dummies (I almost typed "were no fools," but I'm not sure I can go that far), so it is easy to forgive their moral and intellectual appeasement. There also may have been better arguments than I am aware of* for not abandoning communism or hard socialism after Kruschev's speech was leaked to the West. But I can't help but think of Muggeridge and Orwell (to name two of the best), who held no illusions about the Soviet Union and were outspoken in their reports of its brutal excesses. And it takes a preternaturally stubborn mind to resist the clear sense of those critical lions.

Some highlights from Kettle's article:

If the great history lesson of the 20th century is that socialism does not work then the watershed event in that tragic enlightenment was the one that took place in Moscow 50 years ago this month - the so-called "secret speech" delivered by Nikita Khrushchev to a closed session of the 20th congress of the Soviet Communist party on February 25 1956, in which he mounted a devastating attack on Joseph Stalin, then not quite three years dead. . . .

Speaking for nearly four hours, he stunned his listeners with a detailed and sweeping account of Stalin's mass arrests, deportations, torture and executions. Though the delegates were sworn to secrecy (and the speech remained unpublished in the USSR until 1988), the details soon leaked out, both in briefings to Soviet and satellite parties and, possibly at Khrushchev's own instigation, to the western media, including via John Rettie of Reuters, later of the Guardian. . . .

The most immediate reason for this, especially outside Russia, was the suppression of the Hungarian democratic revolution in November 1956. From that moment on, communism was irrevocably more about oppression than liberation. After Hungary the excuses would not wash, though many still made them . . .

But the cold-war syllogism lives on today in a new guise. Too many haters of capitalism and the United States still cram everything into the frame of untruth and self-deception that says my enemy's enemy is still my friend because, even if he blows up my family on the tube, murders my colleagues on the bus or threatens to behead me for publishing a drawing, he is still at war with Bush, Blair and Berlusconi. It is 50 years this month since that simplistic view of the world lost whatever moral purchase it may once have had. It is time such thinking was, to choose a sadly appropriate word, purged. Too long, my brothers and my sisters, too long.

* I'm thinking of Hobsbawm's understandably fanatical anti-fascism, though the fervor of fascist-communist antipathy seems almost incomprehensibly naive from the distance of half a century.