Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 December 2007
James Lamond, the former Labour MP who died last month at the age of 78, was not someone I knew well. I interviewed him for news stories in the late 1980s and early 1990s and met him several times, mostly at meetings. He was, in my limited experience, a polite, witty and friendly man – and by all accounts he was an excellent constituency MP, first of all for Oldham East and then for Oldham Central and Royton, and an assiduous parliamentarian.
But in one crucial respect his politics reeked. He might not have made headlines in the London papers, but to the rest of the world he was the most prominent Soviet fellow-traveller in Labour’s parliamentary ranks during the 1970s and 1980s, serving for several years as vice-president of the World Peace Council, the Moscow-funded front organisation created early in the cold war to campaign for Soviet and against American foreign policy.
The reason I interviewed him was precisely to get the residual pro-Soviet Labour left line on events as the cold war first froze and then melted in the course of the 1980s. And he never failed to oblige. He echoed the official Soviet position on every issue, defending the invasion of Afghanistan, the suppression of Solidarity in Poland, the stationing of SS-20 missiles in eastern Europe and all the rest. The last time I saw him, I think in 1990, he admitted to being depressed by the fall of the Berlin wall.
Lamond was not a mainstream figure. His extraordinarily uncritical brand of pro-Sovietism was always at odds with official Labour policy, and by the early-to-mid 1980s was freakish even among the most hard-left Labour MPs, shared by a handful of veteran Stalinists whose careers were coming to an end (Frank Allaun, Joan Maynard) and a smattering of younger dupes (Ron Brown, George Galloway).
But Lamond’s politics had a colourful history. As Patrick Wright shows in his brilliant new book, Iron Curtain, the British left’s fascination with and delusions about Soviet Russia started as soon as the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. Through the 1920s and 1930s, a string of British left-wing tourists — most famously George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, but they were not alone — declared that they had seen the future and that it worked. Much of the Labour Party leadership agreed.
Stalin’s betrayal of Spain, the show trials and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact immunised a generation of Labourites and left-wingers to the charms of the Soviet Union; the onset of the cold war did the same for another tranche. But in the 1950s, as the historian John Callaghan has related convincingly, the Labour left for the most part reverted to wishful thinking about the possibilities for democratic reform of what became known as “actually existing socialism”.
All that was distant by the 1980s — Czechoslovakia 1968 and Poland 1981 had intervened, along with an increasingly apparent crisis in the Soviet economy. But pro-Sovietism retained a significant foothold in the left outside the parliamentary Labour Party. In the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament there was a strong pro-Soviet minority. The World Peace Council and its British affiliate, the British Peace Assembly, had sufficient support to be taken seriously by their opponents, and many people who should have known better accepted their bona fides. In several trade unions, particularly in Scotland, there was a well-organised pro-Soviet lobby, based on the Communist Party’s industrial organisation, which was efficient at getting resolutions passed by Labour Party and union branches and union conferences.
Even those parts of the British left least prone to pro-Sovietism got caught up in the show after Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985 and initiated a reform programme that fleetingly promised a democratic socialist transformation of the Soviet police state. “Gorbymania” was an idiocy, but it was heartily embraced by Tribune, every Trot in town and the whole of the Labour leadership.
But back to James Lamond. I have no doubt that he was sincere in his belief that the Soviet Union wanted nothing other than peace. He told me once that he had been convinced of the pacific intentions of the Soviet people by a tour of Russia in the 1960s, when he met a veteran of Stalingrad. (He told the same story to the historian Darren Lilleker, whose book on the pro-Soviet left in the Labour Party, Against the Cold War, was published three years ago.)
But his sincerity is neither here nor there. At best, Lamond’s naivety was astounding. His and his comrades’ idiotic identification of the Soviet Union as the grand hope of the socialist movement, 60-plus years after Kronstadt, 40-plus after the Stalin show trials and 20-plus after the Hungarian revolution, did nothing but harm to the cause of democratic socialism in Britain.