Wednesday 25 April 2007

'Flawed but noble'? British Communism revisited

'A doomed, flawed but noble faith'. That's Communism, according to the late Raphael Samuel, whose posthumously published book The Lost World of British Communism is reviewed by Eric Hobsbawm in the current issue of the London Review of Books (subscription required). Hobsbawm's long review article, in which he characterises Samuel's book as 'full of melancholy empathy for an irrecoverable past', provides a critical overview of the story of the CPGB and contains some useful insights into its strengths, weaknesses and eventual decline.

Was Communism 'flawed but noble' and should we look back on it with 'melancholy empathy'? Not according to Oliver Kamm, who recently satirically rejigged Jeremy Paxman's sympathetic description of his partner's 94-year-old Communist aunt, substituting fascist for communist references, and wondering whether we'd be as affectionately indulgent with an ageing member of the British Union of Fascists.

I'm an admirer of Kamm's work, and these days as anti-totalitarian as the next Eustonian blogger, but this kind of equivalence still makes me uneasy. It may be because some of the writers and artists I've most admired, from Antonio Gramsci to Victor Jara and Jose Saramago, have been paid-up members of their national communist parties. Or it may be recently reading Primo Levi's claim, that the defeat of fascism was due at least in part to the dedication of the European communist parties. Or perhaps it's nostalgia for my time as an adult education worker in the 1980s, working alongside some good people who just happened to be CP members, at a time when Marxism Today was the must-read fortnightly fix for anyone on the Left.

But I also wonder if it's right to compare people whose 'good' motives (to help the poor, fight injustice and create a more equal society) led them to support a movement that went 'bad' - with those whose motives (to create a master race, annhilate the weak and inaugurate an authoritarian social order) were rotten from the outset? And isn't the blindness of some communists to the evils of Soviet totalitarianism actually more comparable to the dogged loyalty of many 'good' (charitable, saintly) Catholics to the Church, in spite of the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc. - than it is to fascism? I have to admit, I'm not sure.

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