The excuse usually put forward by former Communists for their support
of the Great Terror in the 1930s is that they did not know what was really
going on in the Soviet Union. The truth was that they did not want to know.
Not only that, they were also a party to an international campaign of lies,
slander and intimidation that was intended to deny a hearing to those trying
to expose Stalin's crimes.
Unfortunately for the place in history of the British Communist Party (CPGB), things were even worse than we already knew. As Francis Beckett shows in his immensely readable new book, the party leadership stood by silently while their own friends and relations fell victim to Stalin's terror.
The best known case is that of Rose Cohen. She was a founder member of the CPGB, close to the party leadership - indeed Harry Pollitt proposed marriage to her a number of times - and a trusted Comintern agent. Instead of Pollitt, she married Max Petrovsky, the Comintern representative in Britain, and in 1927 returned to Moscow with him. In the Soviet Union she and Petrovsky were part of the party elite, leading privileged lives. She lived through the great famine of the early 1930s without apparently noticing that millions were starving to death while the 'socialist fatherland' exported food. And then, on 11 March 1937, Petrovsky was arrested.
Stalin's purge had swept Petrovsky up and threatened everyone connected with him. In 1937 it was Rose Cohen's turn. She was arrested and ostensibly sentenced to ten years in a labour camp, but in fact she was shot in November 1938. She was completely innocent of all the charges against her and had been a loyal Stalinist up to her arrest.
Privately, Harry Pollitt made representations to the Soviet authorities first on Petrovsky's behalf and then on Rose Cohen's, but the only effect was to increase Comintern doubts regarding his own reliability. What Pollitt did not know was that the Hungarian Communist leader, Bela Kun, had, under torture, named him as a British agent. Serious consideration was given in Moscow to removing Pollitt, but unlike Cohen and Petrovsky, he survived.
In public, as Beckett observes, 'Britain's Communist leaders threw their old friends to the wolves'. The Daily Worker's only comment on Rose Cohen's predicament was to protest against half-hearted attempts by the British government to discover her fate. 'The individual concerned', the paper editorialised, 'will be tried according to the forms of Soviet justice.' The British party leadership knew Petrovsky and Cohen were innocent, but to have publicly protested would have meant their removal. To avoid this, they condoned and covered up the murder of their friends. It cannot be put any less strongly than that.
Bill Rust, the editor of the Daily Worker and one of the most hardline British Stalinists, was to go one better than this. He abandoned Rosa, his daughter from his first marriage in Russia. When the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941, 16 year old Rosa found herself deported to Kazakhstan and put to work as a slave labourer in the mines. As Beckett writes, 'While Bill Rust wrote pro-Soviet editorials in London, his young daughter was worked almost to death mining copper.' She was saved by Georgi Dimitrov, the Comintern secretary, who arranged her return to Moscow and on to Britain in 1944. Here she was a great embarrassment both to Rust and the CPGB. If anyone had told Rosa's story, Rust would have denounced it as 'anti-Soviet lies and slanders'.
In many ways the most interesting of Stalin's victims whom Beckett has recovered is Freda Utley. At the end of the 1920s she emigrated to the Soviet Union with her Russian husband, Arcadi Berdichevsky. By the time he was arrested on 10 April 1936, Utley was already disillusioned with Stalinism, which she increasingly felt had nothing to do with socialism. She returned to Britain where, much to the embarrassment of the CPGB, she campaigned for her husband's release (unbeknown to her he died in a labour camp in March 1938). The party's refusal to give her any support was to turn her into a determined enemy.
Utley emigrated to the US where in 1940 she published her remarkable study of the Soviet Union, The Dream We Lost. In an unusual lapse, Beckett has her portraying Russia as 'a savage and barbarous Asiatic despotism'. This is somewhat misleading. The book is certainly a devastating account of the Soviet Union as a class society characterised by the most extreme exploitation and oppression. Particularly affecting is her account of the round-up of the homeless in Moscow in November 1933 so that their presence would not spoil the celebrations of the revolution for foreign visitors. They were deported from the city and abandoned 50 miles away, left to freeze and starve. 'It would', she wrote, 'have been more merciful to shoot them outright.' More to the point, she characterised the Soviet regime not as an 'Asiatic despotism', but as 'the most perfect example of state capitalism in existence', a position that is argued with considerable sophistication.
Hatred of Stalinism was to take Utley to the far right of the American political scene. The beginnings of this trajectory can already be seen in the last section of The Dream We Lost. It was to end with her enthusiastic support for McCarthyism. By now she had, of course, embraced capitalism, so that the Soviet Union had to become an example of the horrors of socialism.
What Beckett chronicles in his remarkable book is a small part of the tragedy of Stalinism and of the damage it did to the left. Not only were millions to perish at the hands of the Stalinists, but throughout the world millions of others were to become apologists for this monstrous tyranny. Stalinism was to corrupt many of the best on the left. Beckett shows just how deep this corruption went.
John Newsinger, "Socialist review", October 2004