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August 13, 2002

Struggling to awaken I’m going to have to look at Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread, since it keeps inspiring rather interesting reviews. Somewhat late in life, Amis has discovered that Joseph Stalin (the “Koba” of the title) was a tyrant and a butcher, and that many people on the Left were wilfully blind about it.

Among the oddities of Amis’s book is that parts of it are addressed directly to his old friend Christopher Hitchens, who is called to account for his own Trotskyist past. (Yes, I’m confused about that too.) In a long and measured response in the form of a review in the Atlantic, Hitchens makes some points about history you probably won’t hear from those on the Right for whom the entire history of the Left is awash in the blood of Stalin’s twenty million. (Analogous, of course, to left-wing rhetoricians for whom every small-town Republican businessman is the moral equivalent of Francisco Franco.) Here’s a sample:

[H]as he made up his mind about the moral equivalence between Stalin and Hitler? Or has he reserved the right to use the cudgel according to need? When he speaks of Ivan the Terrible and Joseph Stalin, does he mean to say that there was something comparable in their “Great Russian” ancestry? When he dilates upon torture and forced confessions, or upon the practice of eliminating even the families of opponents, is he suggesting that such terror was unknown to humanity before 1917? He states at one point, “Until I read Man Is Wolf to Man: Surviving Stalin’s Gulag I had never heard of a prisoner, en route, lying crushed and ground on a section of rough wood and receiving a succession of monstrous splinters up and down his back.” One would not need to refer him to the Nazi transports from Salonika or Vichy. An allusion to the Middle Passage, or to the hell ships that populated Australia’s “Fatal Shore,” would be enough. Moral equivalence is not intended here. But moral uniqueness requires a bit more justification.

I do not mean these to sound like commissar questions, or wife-beating questions either. On the first and perhaps most important one posed by Amis, for example, I find that I never quite know what I think myself about this moral equivalence. Nor did I quite know when I was still a member of a Marxist/post-Trotskyist group, when such matters were debated from dawn until dusk, often with furious or thuggish Communists. However, I do know from that experience, which was both liberating and confining, that the crucial questions about the gulag were being asked by left oppositionists, from Boris Souvarine to Victor Serge to C.L.R. James, in real time and at great peril. Those courageous and prescient heretics have been somewhat written out of history (they expected far worse than that, and often received it), but I can’t bring myself to write as if they never existed, or to forgive anyone who slights them. If they seem too Marxist in tendency, one might also mention the more heterodox work of John Dewey, Sidney Hook, David Rousset, or Max Shachtman in exposing “Koba’s” hideous visage. The “Nobody” at the beginning of Amis’s sentences above is an insult, pure and simple, and an insult to history, too. […]

Koestler exposed the ghastliness of Stalinism by means of a sophisticated deployment of historical irony, whereas Amis—and again I startle myself by saying this—has decided to dispense with irony altogether. (He mentions, with all the gravity of one returning from a voyage of discovery, that the sailors of Kronstadt fought against the Bolsheviks under red flags and with revolutionary slogans. He even italicizes the word “revolutionaries,” as if this point were at the expense of the left opposition. As Daniel Bell pointed out decades ago, the only real argument among members of the old left was about the point at which their own personal “Kronstadt” had occurred. Bell was proud to say that Kronstadt itself had been his “Kronstadt.”)

Says Hitchens: “History is more of a tragedy than it is a morality tale.” Which shouldn’t be taken as a charter for ceasing to try to draw long-range conclusions about the human prospect. We’re probably hard-wired to keep trying. But it definitely suggests the need—odd though the call may seem coming from a figure as self-lionizing as Christopher Hitchens—for an old copybook virtue: humility. [05:54 PM]
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Comments on Struggling to awaken:

alkali ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2002, 10:26 AM:

Anne Appelbaum's piece in Slate on Hitchens' review of Amis' book is must reading. (How many levels of meta-criticism is that?) Appelbaum points out that Hitchens, who may rightly be said to have a gift for savagery, pulls his punch in a big way. Among other things, she points out that to the extent Hitchens was a Trotskyite, it's ridiculous to accuse him of being an apologist for Stalin: after all, Trotsky was Stalin's rival, and was killed at Stalin's order.

That Hitchens would respond so tepidly to a public attack by his best friend is a bit surprising. Hitchens, you may recall, picked a public fight during the Lewinsky ordeal with his friend Sidney Blumenthal, who was a Clinton advisor at the time. (The subject, I believe, was whether Blumenthal had disparaged Lewinsky at a lunch where Hitchens was present. I don't mean to say that Hitchens was wrong, but another person might have reasonably decided not to start a public quarrel on the basis of his differing recollection.)

Phil ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2002, 02:02 PM:

I think its not surprising. Hitchens has a more fundamental disagreement with Blumenthal than he does with Amis. Hitchens is merely counseling a friend: "don't blame me or the left because you didn't do enough history reading." But Blumenthal is a big Clinton supporter. Hitchens, well, Hitchen's "gift for savagery" you have you believe he thinks Bill is down there with Stalin

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2002, 02:27 PM:

I myself am a fan of Hitchens and have been meaning to read Amis for some time. I'm not sure, however, that this is the book I want to start with. If anyone has an Amis book they recommend, I'd appreciate hearing about it. His dad, of course, wrote a great overview of the Science Fiction field (New Maps of Hell) as well as a decent SF novel of his own (The Alteration).

alkali ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2002, 04:30 PM:

Re: Hitchens has a more fundamental disagreement with Blumenthal than he does with Amis.

Don't know that that's true, but given the Blumenthal situation one would have expected a somewhat less mild response to a direct attack. To be clear, I'm not alleging that Hitchens is incoherent or bipolar or anything; rather, I'm just saying that Hitchens' review of the Amis book strongly suggests the deliberate exercise of restraint.

Re: If anyone has an Amis book they recommend, I'd appreciate hearing about it.

Amis' first novel The Rachel Papers is very good though like most first novels every other word is "I." Money is probably his best mature novel. His memoir of his father, Experience, may be his best book to date. His short non-fiction is also good and has been collected on a couple occasions, most recently in The War Against Cliche.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2002, 05:33 PM:

Experience is a very strange memoir and a fine and gripping book. I recommend it.

Time's Arrow is Amis's most science-fictional novel, if that's a recommendation for you; I preferred Money.

Based on reviews to date, it seems that Koba is probably best read by people who already know all about Stalin but are more interested in reading a book that tells more about the author than the ostensible subject.

It's true that Hitchens, as a Trotskyite, is no apologist for Stalin. Still, Trotskyism is a branch of Bolshevistic Communism, and insofar as western Communists are complicit in the inherent failings of Communists regimes in general, and the crimes of the Soviets in particular, Trotskyites are right up there with the rest of them. Insofar.

Steve ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2002, 06:25 PM:

Time's Arrow is very much a conceit that walks like a novel, but I enjoyed it. London Fields was also quite good. The next Amis book I picked up, though (The Information, I believe) was so bad that I was scared away from the rest of his work, quite possibly for good.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2002, 01:24 PM:

Insofar as western Communists are complicit in the inherent failings of Communists regimes in general, and the crimes of the Soviets in particular, Trotskyites are right up there with the rest of them. Insofar.

And how far is that, Simon? Is it really far enough to be worth talking about?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2002, 01:59 PM:

I suspect he means that Trotskyites (or Trotskyists -- I can never remember which one means "Trekker" and which one means "Trekkie") were fine with Lenin's brutal methods; it's only Stalin's brutal methods they dissented from. I offer this interpretative guess as a service, without commenting on its merits as history.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2002, 06:16 PM:

David, I don't know how far. I only know that it's an argument often made (that western Communists are complicit in the Soviet regime). I don't wish to get into those murky waters: I wished only to make the side point that, if the charge is to be made, that factor is there.

Discussing conditionals is usually considered permissible, so long as the conditional is clearly stated.

John ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2002, 12:55 AM:

I don't know about "Trotskyists", Trotsky himself was pretty fine with Lenin's brutality, and only started developing a conscious after Stalin shunted him aside in the leadership. Even in exile, he didn't criticize even such things as Lenin's persecution of the SRs and Mensheviks.

David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2002, 12:27 PM:

Fair enough, Simon.