Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 12 November 1999
To cheer myself up over the past week, I’ve been reading The Black Book of Communism, a collection of essays, translated from French, cataloguing the crimes of communist states since the October revolution in Russia.
The book caused a furore when it was first published in France a couple of years back, and it’s easy to see why. Its editor, Stephane Courtois, believes that the scale and nature of the crimes of communism – 100 million civilian deaths in total – warrants trials modelled on the Nuremburg tribunal. And he is not one to pull rhetorical punches.
For him, communism is as bad as Nazism, full stop. Anyone who thinks that the guilty men and women should not be brought to justice is, well, at best a dupe.
Unsurprisingly, this line of argument did not go down very well with the French Communist Party, which although a shadow of its former self remains a power in the land, not least as a junior partner in the Lionel Jospin’s centre-left government coaltion. Courtois was pilloried for playing down the Holocaust, and two of his own contributors dissented publicly with what they described as his “bolder” conclusions.
I’m with the contributors on this one. I have never been able to see the point of getting into an argument about the relative merits of mass murderers: the Nazis would not have been significantly “better” if they had wiped out “only” two million Jews. And I don’t think Nuremburg-style tribunals are the best way to hold the perpetrators of communist crimes to account.
But this is not to say that The Black Book should be ignored. Apart from Courtois’s somewhat obsessive introduction and an even more contentious foreword by the American academic Martin Malia, which blames the whole disaster of communism on egalitarianism, it is a sober and balanced piece of work. It is particularly good on the origins of the Soviet police state under Lenin and on Stalin’s Great Terror.
It should be read by anyone who still has illusions that the Bolshevik revolution was a good thing – and anyone who believes that something worthwhile was lost when Berliners destroyed the Wall ten years ago. I hope that doesn’t include too many readers of Tribune these days, but I’ve a horrible suspicion it does.
The other thing I have been doing in my spare time recently is arguing with friends who think that Ken Livingstone would be a disastrous choice as Labour’s candidate in next year’s London mayoral election.
I’m quite surprised by the vehemence with which quite a few of them express their views. I wasn’t a great fan of the Greater London Council when Livingstone ran it in the early 1980s, and over the years there is plenty I have disagreed with him about politically. I thought his ideas about Irish republicanism were nonsense – and he once denounced me as the most right-wing editor Tribune had ever had after I refused to back some “left unity” initiative he was sponsoring.
But I cannot for the life of me understand why so many people – by no means all of them New Labour types – see him as the devil incarnate. The worst that can justifiably be said of the GLC under Livingstone is that it bit off rather more than it could chew. And the worst that can justifiably be said about Livingstone as an MP is that he is something of a loose cannon.
Of course, the mayorship would give him another platform from which he could attack the government – but he would be foolish to use it as such. Londoners will judge the mayor on his or her success in dealing with the capital’s problems, particularly transport, not on what he or she thinks about Gordon Brown’s economic policies or Jack Straw’s line on asylum-seekers. If the New Labourites are keen to shut Livingstone up, surely the best thing they can do is give him a shot at a job that will keep him too busy to write his Independent and Tribune columns?
- The Black Book of Communism by Stephane Courtois and others is published by Harvard University Press at £23.50