Back about 10 years ago, I saw advertised a talk at the Malcolm X Community Centre in St Paul’s, Bristol, an event organised by a group called the Stalin Society. Having studied the history of the Soviet Union at sixth form and university and presuming this was a historical lecture, I decided to go along.
It was in fact a gathering of mostly retired old communists who put up a portrait of Stalin and were saying that the USSR under his rule was the most enlightened society ever in all history. I found this inwardly amusing for about five minutes until it sunk in just how serious they were.
They droned on about dialectics (I thought that was part of a capacitor) and what had been ideologically decided by the Third Communist International. Khrushchev was a bourgeois puppet who had ruined Stalin’s good work. When I raised the matter of the millions of people Stalin had killed, I was informed that that was all ‘bourgeois propaganda’ and shown the official Soviet statistics, which showed no such spike in executions in the 1930s.
I wonder whether the Malcolm X Community Centre would accept a booking on behalf of a group calling itself the Hitler Society, which held National Socialism as the finest social model ever and claimed the holocaust never happened.
We can ridicule the Stalin Society today, but we must remember they represent what was mainstream leftism for decades. The left so wanted to believe the Soviet Union was a beacon for humanity – a true egalitarian workers’ state – that they wilfully dismissed all reports to the contrary, from the contrived famine in the Ukraine, to the fabricated show-trials, to the mass terror and deportations, to gulags, to the suppression of genuine popular uprisings in the Eastern Bloc, such as Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Russia bore the brunt of the Second World War. There it is still called ‘The Great Patriotic War’ – the name coined by Stalin to appeal to Russian patriotism in fear that the population would not rally to the banner of international socialism. As with the West, the war defined the post-war political narrative for the Eastern Bloc Communists regimes, which they spun to justify their existence until their collapse.
Stalin’s tradition of labelling all opponents ‘fascists’ – including democratic Western states – continued. The East German government dubbed the Berlin Wall – built to prevent their own people escaping their grim socialist regime – the “anti-Fascist Protection Barrier”.
The left was slow to admit it was wrong. George Orwell was one of the first dissenters. Following Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin’s crimes in 1956 and the invasion of Hungary, a few more came out. As a result they were expelled from the Communist Party of Great Britain and ostracised by their intellectual former friends. Leftists eventually grudgingly conceded in the face of overwhelming evidence that the Soviet Union was not a workers’ paradise but a brutal tyranny.
By the 1960s, in the depths of the Cold War, communism had an image problem. Few of the young people who had ‘never had it so good’ were attracted to the dreary old guard, who in turn regarded the new-fangled rock ‘n’ roll music as American cultural imperialism.
By the end of the decade leftism had reinvented itself though. Revolution was in the air with student demonstrations and sit-ins, violent extremist groups and a generation rebelling against the values of their parents. All of this was taking place to a musical soundtrack and linked to a fashion subculture in which revolutionary leftist politics was cool, alongside long hair, drug-taking and casual sex.
How did it come to pass that a lively new music, whose main themes had been dancing, meeting girls and being a bit of bad boy, which had become the expression of an upwardly-mobile younger generation, was so spectacularly hijacked by the far left?
Politics came into rock music most influentially by way of Bob Dylan, an alumnus of New York’s Greenwich Village folk scene. Folk music had long been a hotbed of communists, from those who had promoted blues singers in the 1930s as downtrodden sharecroppers (rather than the snappily-dressed upwardly mobile urbanites of the northern US industrial cities many of them were), to the likes of Pete Seeger, long-time Communist Party member and mentor of Dylan.
It was students in particular who became radicalised, encouraged by leftist academics who were already firmly established. Universities had been a communist recruiting ground at least since the days of the Cambridge Five in the 1930s.
Hard leftists now distanced themselves from communism. They described themselves as Trotskyists – Trotsky having split from Stalin because he wouldn’t accept ‘socialism in one country’ and wanted to continue violent revolution around the world. (A nice guy, then!) The Soviet Union wasn’t real socialism. It was ‘state capitalism’, a ‘degenerated worker’s state’, or whatever the particular ideological epithet your splinter group used. Stalin and the repressive USSR “nothing to do with us” then.
There were some though, such as hubristic union leader Arthur Scargill and our friends in the Stalin Society, who still held that the USSR’s brand of repressive communism was the way foward. (Perhaps I should be more muted in my criticism of Scargill in light of his recent stridently supportive comments around Brexit.)
The left never tires of using every opportunity to connect the right with National Socialism and thuggish neo-Nazis, even when there is no connection. We must never let them or anyone else forget the left’s long and continuing tradition of violence, dictatorship and repression. We owe it to all those who suffered and died under such regimes as those of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, the Eastern Bloc, Mao and Pol Pot, along with those who still suffer in North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela. Most of all we owe it to ourselves and our own nation to never forget these historical lessons, to reject the ideology which inflicted them and to call out those today who would lead us down that path.
[Editorial Note: this is the second article in the series ‘Grasping the Nettle’. We published the first article here and the second here. The other articles in that series will be published in the coming days.]