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The Evil of Banality: Martin Amis Discovers Josef Stalin

Paul Flewers

From New Interventions, Vol.11 No.1, 2002

THE LATE comedian Tony Hancock would sometimes ponder on the ways of the cosmos, then ask his pals if it was all a joke. This hackneyed phrase, his biographer tells us, was declared as if ‘the lad himself’ was ‘making a revolutionary suggestion’. Now whilst it seems a long way from 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, all those years ago to the rarefied world of British literature of today which the novelist Martin Amis inhabits, history does have a way of repeating itself.

The problem with artistic johnnies is that rather too many of them have a tendency noisily to vouchsafe something which they believe to be earth-shatteringly original, whereas all they have actually uttered is a commonplace banality. This has recently been proved in an almost chemically pure fashion by Mr Amis in his latest book, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (Jonathan Cape, London, 2002). Amis, so it seems, has just discovered that the Josef Stalin whom his father Kingsley once worshipped was in fact not a nice man at all.

Why has Amis waited until now to unleash his brilliant discovery upon an unsuspecting public? He has had plenty of time to do this before. It’s been nearly 50 years since Amis père mutated from a Stalin-worshipper into a conservative saloon-bar bore — or, in Richard Ingrams’ immortal words, ‘a drink-sodden old bigot’ — who hung around with Sovietologists like Robert Conquest (who, it must be said, does have the distinct advantage of knowing what he is talking about), so one would have expected Amis fils to have grown up with some idea of what Uncle Joe was about. He rabbits on in the book’s conclusion about his dad, and provides a moving account of the death of his sister — this latter bit, by the way, is the only place where the tone of forced indignation that pervades this book is replaced by a sense of genuine human feeling — but these diversions pointedly fail to shed light upon his reasons for lumbering upon us at this particular juncture a long and shop-worn compendium of the sins of Bolshevism.

Perhaps the muse just grabbed our Martin one fine day for no particular purpose. I don’t know, but whatever the reason for his unexpected foray into the field of history, what Amis has produced is an utterly unoriginal work, nothing — absolutely nothing — of which hasn’t been written before. Many of the ideas expressed in it are tired retreads of the hoary old saws of anti-communism that were in common circulation long before his birth. Most of the details are lifted straight from the juiciest bits of the works of Conquest, Solzhenitsyn, Richard Pipes and Dmitri Volkogonov, or paraphrased at the least. He blithely retails Volkogonov’s comments about Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism — that stripped of quotations ‘the book would contain little more than punctuation marks’ (p.118) — without recognising that the same could be said about his own work. We shall see that not a few of Amis’ criticisms, or his citing of other’s criticisms, apply with some accuracy to himself.

Kicking an Open Door
Amis is kicking at an open door; indeed, a door that has long fallen off its hinges and now lies forgotten and decaying in the corner. Who, beyond the tiny gaggle of disturbed individuals of the Stalin Society, holds an unblemished view of the Stalin period? Amis does set his sights wider than Stalin, and he aims a few blows at Bolshevism in general, and at Trotsky in particular, not least in the petulant rant at his pal Christopher Hitchens, a thoroughly peevish piece that descends into billingsgate, which is pretty rich from someone who condemns Lenin for his ‘foul-mouthed tantrums’. But once again, he’s kicking at an open door, as similar condemnations of the Bolsheviks appeared practically before the cannon on the Aurora had the chance to cool down, and have been published on a regular basis ever since. And although Amis’ kick at Hitchens offended the latter’s amour propre, this too is wasted energy, as the latter is hurtling so rapidly from any commitment to socialism — disappointed at the failure of the working class so far to transform society, he now looks to the corrupt war-monger George W Bush to save the world — that his pal’s intended boot in the backside is effectively a back-handed compliment that I imagine Hitchens will be able to appreciate when he finally lines up with his ghastly little brother, Tory Boy Peter.

Exactly who Amis aims to influence is hard to tell, considering that the more literary-minded left-wingers to whom I’ve spoken have long passed considering Amis a writer of any significance and worthy of their attention, and those of us who view Bolshevism as a positive factor in world politics have sparred with far more profound and serious critics than this featherweight, so he’s hardly going to make us think again. We’ve had our run-ins with various organ-grinders, so we’re not going to be scared off by the monkey. If anyone claims to have been converted by Amis’ book to the cause of anti-communism, such a declaration will almost certainly be met with brays of ill-mannered laughter than with solemn words of approbation. I suspect that most of those who buy, or used to buy, his novels are not exactly the sort of folk who would be greatly interested in the subject matter of Koba the Dread, and those who are would know where to go for the serious commentators’ works.

Seeing that Koba the Dread sports a bibliography of sorts, an index and references (well, a scattering of references), and that many quotations in the book are peppered with unnecessary and ugly interpolated letters, words and phrases, it is possible that Amis is aiming at the academic market, or at least trying to produce a work that hopefully could be placed in the history section of bookshops. Nevertheless, despite the declining standards in Britain’s higher education sector, it is most unlikely that this book will get on the reading lists of history courses at the most bedraggled polytechnic, let alone at more prestigious establishments, which, despite all the obstructions placed in their way these days, still expect some intellectual rigour on the part of both staff and students.

Or is it that Amis is trying, consciously or otherwise, to follow his dad? He is now more-or-less the same age as Amis père when the latter renounced his allegiance to Stalinism. Although Amis fils declares that he was always some sort of ‘congenital anti-communist’, and it is true that he only dabbled with left-wing politics, perhaps there is the vague but worrying thought in his head that had he been around during the 1930s he too would have boarded the pro-Soviet bandwagon. He is, after all, very similar in pedigree to the many bright young things of the Red Decade who bowed their head reverently at the mention of Stalin’s name, and then spent much of their later life loudly renouncing and denouncing their youthful follies. To follow suit at this point in time is a bit strange, particularly when you didn’t fall for the original problem in the first place, but writing Koba the Dread could, I guess, act as an insurance against what might have been.

The sheer lack of originality of this book is not its worst aspect, nor is the gross name-dropping — Solzhenitsyn, Conquest, Tibor Szamuely, indeed ‘all four Szamuelys’ just happened to be staying at his dad’s place — the unbelievably self-centred and self-obsessed nature of the author produces passages that are truly grotesque. One evening, our Martin found his little kiddie howling. Instead of stuffing a dummy in its gob like many parents do, he started to cogitate whilst waiting for the nanny to arrive, and said to his wife on her return: ‘The sound she was making would not have been out of place in the deepest cellars of the Butyrki Prison in Moscow during the Great Terror.’ (Do people really speak like this?) And so in chez Amis the poor little dear became known as ‘Butyrki’, ‘along with its diminutives Butyrklet, the Butyrkster, the Butyrkstress, and so on’ (pp.259-60). This really is the chattering classes at close range.

Some of Amis’ attempts at creating a dramatic impact are self-defeating because they are so laughably incorrect:

Everybody knows of Auschwitz and Belsen. Nobody knows of Vorkuta and Solovetsky. Everybody knows of Himmler and Eichmann. Nobody knows of Yezhov and Dzerzhinsky. Everybody knows of the six million of the Holocaust. Nobody knows of the six million of the Terror-Famine. (p.257)

Comment is superfluous.

Amis as Historian
Some of Amis’ comments are puerile, such as his attachment of great significance to the manner in which Bolsheviks often ended salutations in letters with an exclamation mark (p.245), or the fact that Lenin had trouble pronouncing the letter ‘r’ (p.251). Another diversion, his mocking of Lenin’s grim determination to overcome the effects of his strokes (pp.26-7), is just plain unsavoury. His description of the battle of Kursk as ‘meshuggah’ (p.210) — a Yiddish word meaning ‘bonkers’ — is singularly inapt for this truly gargantuan clash that shifted the balance against the Third Reich on the Eastern Front. Amis makes much of Stalin’s fear of flying, having him fume that despite his great powers, he was still ‘subject to the uncontrollable physics of weather and aviation’ (pp.205-6). The fact that many people, even today, share this phobia, and that Stalin’s unease may also have been related to his awareness of the rather parlous state of Soviet aviation, does not seem to have occurred to our author.

For a man who entitled a collection of his essays The War Against Cliché, Amis’ book is particularly noteworthy for its piling up of one moth-eaten cliché after another. So we can read about Lenin’s ‘studied amorality’ and ‘flirtatious nihilism’ (p.33), that he was ‘a double-quick decamper’ when trouble arose (p.204) — not true; when hit by two bullets by a would-be assassin in 1918, he showed great self-possession amidst general panic — that the October Revolution was a ‘coup d’état’ (p.32), that Bolshevism was hypocritical and élitist (pp.237-8), that Marxism denies any importance to ‘personality’ in the historical process (pp.137, 181) and makes ‘wholly unrealistic demands on human nature’ (p.85), that communists are fired by ‘self-hatred and life-hatred’ (p.255), and so on. Do we really have to have all this dragged out one more weary time?

Not surprisingly, Koba the Dread induces a strong sense of déja vu. Amis equates Stalinism with Hitlerism, and produces his conclusions in a 12-point thesis (pp.82ff). How original: such comparisons were made at the time, and usually with considerably more eloquence and imagination, by a wide variety of observers — one need only recall Franz Borkenau’s The Totalitarian Enemy, William Chamberlin’s A False Utopia: Collectivism in Theory and Practice, Max Eastman’s Stalin’s Russia and the Crisis in Socialism, Eugene Lyons’ Stalin: Czar of all the Russians, Frederick Voigt’s Unto Caesar and Leonard Woolf’s Barbarians at the Gate — with Eastman doing better by providing a 22-point checklist to this effect. Needless to say, Amis uses another old trick, most recently employed by the infamous Black Book of Communism, abstracting Hitlerism from capitalism, and thus while Bolshevism and Stalinism are viewed as one indivisible entity, capitalism is carefully absolved from any responsibility for the Nazi horror.

There are plenty of mistakes in this book, some minor, some more significant, but all pointing towards a cavalier attitude towards historical accuracy, and some towards a clear indication of outright political distortion.

It is quite incorrect to declare that there was ‘no suggestion’ in the 1930s ‘that the [Ukrainian] famine was terroristic’ (p.7). The US journalist William Chamberlin visited the stricken areas in the autumn of 1933, and subsequently stated that famine had been ‘deliberately employed as an instrument of national policy, as the last means of breaking the resistance of the peasantry to the new system of collective farming’ (‘Russia Through Coloured Glasses’, Fortnightly Review, October 1934). Chamberlin, it should be noted, was no penny-a-liner or dilettante dabbler like Amis, but was possibly the most seasoned observer of the Soviet scene of the interwar period.

It is quite incorrect to lump HG Wells in with Shaw and the Webbs as ‘extravagant dupes’ (p.21), as, notwithstanding his comments on Stalin cited (without source) by Amis, he never found his brave new world in the Soviet Union. His Russia in the Shadows of 1920 was very critical of the Soviet regime. Twelve years later, he did not think that the West had much to learn from the Soviet leaders with their ‘fundamental blunderings’: ‘They still believe’, he snorted, ‘that they can teach our Western world everything that is necessary for the salvation of mankind.’ (After Democracy: Addresses and Papers on the Present World Situation, London, 1932, p.179) Seven years on from then, he declared that nothing had changed in Russia since the revolution; a lot of people had been liquidated, a lot of others had replaced them, and Russia was returning to its starting point, ‘a patriotic absolutism of doubtful efficiency and vague, incalculable aims’. The population had escaped from the Tsar only to end up two decades later worshipping Stalin and his ‘quasi-divine autocracy’ (‘World Order’, Fortnightly, November 1939). Hardly the words of an ‘extravagant dupe’.

It is quite incorrect to assert that ‘it has always been possible to joke about the Soviet Union, just as it has never been possible to joke about Nazi Germany’ (p.12). Chaplin’s The Great Dictator comes to mind, not to mention Mel Brooks’ The Producers with its ‘Springtime for Hitler’ routine, Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall, and, of course, the hilarious Lambeth Walk that a British government film team put together during the war, cleverly cutting, repeating and reversing footage of Hitler and the Wehrmacht so that they dance to the tune of the Cockney song (and which took the mick so well out of its subject that the British Foreign Office objected to its showing in postwar Germany lest it offend the Bundeswehr). Perhaps these were a little too low-brow for our highly cultured author to have noticed them.

Other assertions are exaggerations to the point of outright inaccuracy. It’s wrong to say that ‘the world, on the whole… accepted indignant Soviet denials of famine, enserfment of the peasantry, and slave labour’ (p.7), just as it is wrong to aver that ‘the overwhelming majority of intellectuals everywhere’ accepted the Stalinist line (p.8). Amis seems to think that the pro-Soviet lobby — the Stalinists and the fellow-travellers — dominated the intellectual scene during the 1930s. This is quite untrue in Britain, and almost certainly the same in other countries as well. Here, there was a strong anti-communist lobby that maintained a hefty verbal barrage against the Soviet Union as a whole, and between them and the pro-Soviet lobby there was a polyglot array of moderate conservatives, liberals and moderate social democrats who looked with varying degrees of curiosity or enthusiasm at certain aspects of the Soviet Union, usually the economic and welfare measures, whilst sharply criticising its repression and political norms.

Without wishing to overlook or downplay the importance of the incessant propaganda during the Stalin era, it is wrong to view Stalin’s popularity as ‘wholly… a matter of manipulation’ (p.213). Like it or not, despite the appalling hardships of the early 1930s and the horrors of collectivisation and the Terror, there was considerable opportunity for social advancement in the Soviet Union during the period of the initial Five Year Plans. Vast numbers of Soviet citizens went through crash education schemes, the illiterate learning to read and write, the literate gaining skills. Peasants became factory workers, factory workers became technicians and managers. Despite the desperately hard times, the regime, personified in Stalin, did gain the legitimacy of many millions of people.

Political purpose rather than ignorance seems to lay behind some inaccuracies. By talking of the Bolsheviks’ ‘annual’ invasions of Ukraine during the Civil War, Amis aims, through the device of overlooking the fact that the Bolsheviks enjoyed considerable support in many Ukrainian urban centres, to present Bolshevism as an alien, Russian imperialist, interloper. Similar intent is clear in Amis’ description of the abortive Hungarian Revolution of 1919 as having been ‘exported’ by the Soviet regime (p.17). Although the Hungarian communists took their inspiration from the example of the October Revolution, and Moscow gave limited assistance to them, the revolution in Hungary was very much a part of the wave of radicalism that swept across Europe in the aftermath of the First World War.

It is incorrect to impute anti-Semitic sentiments behind the attempt in the early 1920s to encourage Soviet Jews to move from the Pale to settlements in the Crimea. It was not an attempt at ‘ghettoisation’, as Amis avers (p.217), but a plan, largely the idea of the Jewish section of the Soviet Communist Party, the Yevsektsia, and supported by the Soviet government, to help Soviet Jews to put behind them the stifling atmosphere of the Pale for a productive and fruitful life in modern agrarian settlements. Contrary to what Amis says, the same feelings inspired the establishment of the Jewish autonomous region of Birozbidzhan. Amis’ conflation of these attempts to overcome the legacy of Tsarist bigotry with the anti-Semitism subsequently espoused by Stalin’s regime is both ignorant and repulsive.

It is plainly untrue that Lenin ‘outlawed’ the trade unions (p.238). Search closely but you’ll not find any statement like ‘unquestioning obedience to the will of a single person, the Soviet leader’ in Lenin’s State and Revolution (p.114). What Amis is citing — almost certainly at second-hand, like so much of his quoting of Soviet leaders — is a mangling of Lenin’s subsequent work The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, which talks of ‘unquestioning subordination to a single will’ — note: no mention of ‘the Soviet leader’ — being ‘absolutely necessary for the success of processes organised on the pattern of large-scale machine industry’. With the lack of originality that marks this wretched work, Amis imitates so many critics of Lenin in dishonestly using this quote to promote the idea of a direct line from Lenin to Stalin and the Gulag, and I say dishonestly because Lenin continues:

"The more resolutely we now have to stand for a ruthlessly firm government, for the dictatorship of individuals in definite processes of work, in definite aspects of purely executive functions, the more varied must be the forms and methods of control from below in order to counteract every shadow of a possibility of distorting the principles of Soviet government, in order repeatedly and tirelessly to weed out bureaucracy."

That, of course, puts the matter in a different light. It would, of course, be pointless to point this out to Amis, as Bolshevism was totalitarian from the start. You see, the dictatorship of the proletariat, or, as he puts it, ‘rule by yobs’ (p.23) — note our sophisticated author’s revolting snobbery — was ‘only academically entertained by the Bolsheviks’. So none of Lenin’s writings of 1917, including State and Revolution — the real text, not Amis’ falsifications — that investigated the phenomenon of workers’ control, the relationship between centralised national leadership and popular control over the work process, and other related matters, meant anything.

It is noteworthy that Amis shows no indication of having read in the ‘many yards’ of books he allegedly consulted on the Soviet Union any of the works by Alexander Rabinowitch, Diane Koenker, Steve Smith, David Mandel and many others that detail the close relationship between the Bolsheviks and the Russian working class during 1917, and which give the totalitarian school’s conspiratorial view of Bolshevism a sound drubbing. Having, as we have seen, written off Marxism as contravening human nature, anything that doesn’t show Bolshevism as dishonest, manipulative and authoritarian, a direct line from What Is To Be Done? to Vorkuta and Magadan, isn’t worth looking at.

Some of the books Amis has plundered are certainly worth reading. Conquest’s The Great Terror and The Harvest of Sorrow are definitely worthwhile, as are Robert Tucker’s two volumes on Stalin, Stalin as Revolutionary and Stalin in Power. However much one may disagree with his general outlook, Solzhenitsyn’s works also deserve perusing. Others, on the other hand, are dire, amongst which are Richard Pipes’ The Russian Revolution 1899-1919 and Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, 1919-1924, and that overrated diatribe by renegade French Maoists, The Black Book of Communism (see my review of it in Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no 1, 2001).

The sheer arrogance of Amis is most sharply exposed when he proudly declares that he has not read Isaac Deutscher’s ‘mythopoeic’ Trotsky trilogy — he just manages to stop short of saying that he will not read it — preferring instead Volkogonov’s account of the man. Volkogonov, as readers of this magazine may know, was a Soviet army political instructor who became a glasnost historian under Gorbachev and a born-again Cold Warrior historian under Yeltsin. As I demonstrated in this magazine (Volume 8, no 1, Summer 1997), his biography of Trotsky, whilst not quite so poisonous as his one of Lenin (which I also reviewed, Volume 7, no 3, Autumn 1996), is basically a Cold War hatchet job, replete with many major distortions and even more minor mistakes. That Amis prefers this lamentable book to Deutscher’s magisterial work says more about him than his convoluted and pretentious prose could ever do.

The Uncommitted Polemicist
What makes Amis run? We have established that he gives no credible reason for writing this book. There is precious little which sheds light upon his actual outlook. Yet Soviet studies is a discipline which almost demands some sort of assertion of political outlook if not actual commitment on the part of the author, maybe not of one involved in investigating some obscure detail of Soviet society, but certainly of one producing a polemic like Koba the Dread. We have seen his snobbish rejection of socialism — the ‘yobs’ in charge — and he also aims a baffled sneer at his father’s sense of sadness at the loss of a positive vision — the brotherhood of man, the ‘just city’ — when he broke from Stalinism (p.273). Like with many of his generation, it seems that Amis père’s adherence to Stalinism was based upon honourable intentions. It also seems that such worthy sentiments, however much they were distorted by Stalinism, never entered Amis fils’ head; the idea of ‘just city’ is a silly fabrication, not worthy of serious thought. Certainly, our Martin gives it no serious thought, and what he actually stands for and believes in remain a mystery.

For socialists today, the ‘just city’ is as worthy a vision as it has ever been. Contrary to what Martin Amis and his mentors claim, the Bolsheviks were honest in their intention to create a new world. For Lenin, Trotsky and the others — yes, even Stalin — the October Revolution was just the start of a process of world revolution that would usher in not merely the ‘just city’ but the ‘just world’, a world free of exploitation and war, a world in which human potential could be realised to the full. Bolshevism in power was — as Lenin made clear on many occasions — a holding operation, gripping onto power in enormously difficult conditions, pending the workers’ seizures of power in more advanced countries. Isolated in a backward country, there was no way that the forces of communism could survive in the Soviet Union. In his rise to supreme power, Stalin personified the defeat of Bolshevism, the strangling of communism, the counter-revolution. The negation of Bolshevism in the name of Bolshevism: this has not been understood by many people of considerable erudition. We should not be surprised that the likes of Amis, with his collection of tired clichés and his repetition of threadbare received wisdom, is quite unable to grasp this basic historical truth.

Tragedy and Farce
Whilst the development of the division of labour has been a necessary part of humanity’s rise into modern civilisation, there’s nothing wrong with people trying to do something new, to embark upon some exciting project that will hopefully stimulate the mind, bring pleasure to the participant, and add to the totality of human knowledge. However, the attempt to go beyond one’s customary activities does not necessarily lead to success. It’s good to know one’s limitations. I am not a literary critic, and so I will not deign to comment upon Mr Amis’ literary product. It may be brilliant, it may be utter rubbish, it may be something in between. I do not know, so I will not offer an opinion. But although I am only a very minor historian, I know enough to recognise that in the field of historical studies he is utterly bankrupt. The only reason this atrocious book was published was because of his reputation as a littératteur. Fame has its rewards, I guess. There is nothing wrong with experimentation, but one should keep the results carefully under wraps until one can get an idea of their validity.

To return to Tony Hancock, the poor bloke continually tried to find out what made things tick, and his continual attempts to investigate his own character led him to cast aside most of that which made his classic wireless and television shows so brilliantly funny, leaving him as an empty husk increasingly dependent upon large quantities of hard liquor and various other dangerous consumables. Ultimately, as we know, he ended up in a pit of despair, dying by his own hand. His terrible end was very much the result of his quest to go beyond his skills. Now, I very much doubt that our Mart’s probing of Uncle Joe will lead to a similar fate, and I would not wish that upon him. Nonetheless, this book is proof that he too is a victim of the quest that destroyed Hancock. Yes, history does repeat itself in the time-honoured manner. Hancock’s final act was a tragedy, Amis’ latest escapade is a farce.