Paul Abbott is Chief Executive of Conservative Way Forward and an Associate Director at Portland Communications.
A caveat: I have not met Seumas Milne, Labour’s new media maestro. He is technically still employed by the Guardian, but has taken a leave of absence to head up Jeremy Corbyn’s spin machine. He will almost certainly be a dominant Labour character in the years ahead, and a powerful force in British politics. So, it is worth us asking: what kind of man is he? What are his instincts? What does he care about? What kind of story will he weave about the Labour Party? How should we respond?
It is worth resisting ad hominem, and acknowledging the facts. Milne is a published author, and he has managed to persuade people to buy his books. He has served for a decade on executive committee of the National Union of Journalists. He is a family man, with two adult children.
And yet. And yet. The other side of his ledger is puzzling. After graduating from Oxford, Milne worked at Straight Left: a trade publication of the Communist Party of Great Britain. According to Michael Mosbacher, its goal was to keep leftwing politics “on a solidly Stalinist path”. More recently, in 2006, Milne wrote himself:
“For all its brutalities and failures, Communism in the Soviet Union delivered huge advances in social and gender equality. It encompassed genuine idealism and commitment… Its existence helped to drive up welfare standards.”
[Note: the hyperlink goes to the cached version, because the original article seems to have been purged from the Guardian’s website.]
Milne’s vision of the USSR does acknowledge the political purges, to be fair to him, and the voracious brutality of Stalin. But at the same time, it does also feel like a somewhat gentle sandpapering of one of the most murderous, crapulent, rancid ideologies ever dreamed up by mankind.
For Milne, the interest in Communism is not a radically new departure. As far back as 1990, we can find a similar column by him, which has since been exhumed by a blog. It is worth reading – if only to appreciate what revolutionary blood it is that now flows through the veins of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
A young Milne sets out to argue that Stalin’s regime murdered fewer people than previously alleged, and therefore that we should not damn him – and his Communist system of government – in the same breath as Hitler. For example: Milne sets out to quarrel with the death statistics used by some historians, on the grounds that they may “add credence to the Stalin-Hitler comparison”.
First things first. It is worth acknowledging that the Guardianistas he worked with weren’t always his biggest fans; but equally, that some of the anonymous briefings against him might just be office politics. Newspapers have knife-fights. Que sera sera.
But what are we to make of this Stalin guff? Is it apologetics for Stalin? It seems pretty close to the line, doesn’t it? And: whether or not Stalin was more or less evil than Hitler is an absurdly moot point. It is a pointless debate. It is a distinction without a difference. They were both genocidal killers. They both set out in cold blood to butcher other human beings en masse, and they differed mostly in their opportunities to do so. Stalin had more time, more space, more people to kill, and more soldiers to kill them with. Why split hairs?
Sitting here in the luxurious safety of the United Kingdom, in 2015, it may seem difficult to judge the morality of a professional politician called Joseph Stalin, who died six decades ago. So what can we know about the intentions of that large-moustached, Georgian-born bureaucrat, whose Bolshevik nickname was “Man of Steel”? Well, the good news is we don’t have to guess his intentions. We can judge by his his record.
And what a corpse-filled record it is. Not to mention the torture prisons, the secret police, the massacres of the civil war, the enforced famine of 1922, the confiscation of private property and the “war” against small-holding farmers, which ended in the Terror Famine of 1933, the blood-thirsty purges of 1937-38, the show trials, the systematic degradation of humanity in the gulags and concentration camps in Siberia and – ultimately – the hateful death-rattle of Stalin in those final years, as he prepared to launch his own exterminatory genocide against the Jews.
Not to mention all that. Because as I wrote Milne has assured us that: “Communism in the Soviet Union delivered huge advances in social and gender equality. It encompassed genuine idealism and commitment…Its existence helped to drive up welfare standards.”
What are we to make of all this? You cannot have too much context. Stalin married his first wife in 1906. They had a son together, named Yakov. Yakov shot himself because of Stalin’s cruelty. Stalin’s second wife died in 1932. The official Pravda story was “illness”: and you can see why it had to say that. But her daughter says that she killed herself, out of desperation.
Here is Alan Bullock’s summary of what happened to Stalin’s relatives, under his rule:
“On the side of his first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze, her brother Alexander, once one of Stalin’s closest friends, was shot as a spy; at the same time his wife was arrested and died in a camp, while their son was exiled to Siberia as ‘a son of an enemy of the people’. Ekaterina’s sister, Maria, was also arrested and died in prison. On the side of his second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, her sister Anna was arrested in 1948 and sentenced to 10 years for espionage; Anna’s husband, Stanislav Redens, had already been arrested in 1938 as ‘an enemy of the people’ and was later shot…”
This is just the family stuff.
Then you get into his public policy. Look at Stalin’s Terror Famine in 1933, for example. It was an enforced famine. The small-holders and peasants were stripped of their food methodically by the Red Army, and forbidden to eat their own crops, on Stalin’s orders. Cannabilism took hold. There was a black market in human flesh. Five million people died in the Ukraine alone, according to Robert Conquest’s study, The Harvest of Sorrow. Hundreds of cannibals were languishing in jails later that decade, for the crime of eating each other. Stalin’s reaction to the bad news was characteristically simple. Discussion of “famine” was made a capital crime in the USSR. Later on, the colleges that had given manpower to the collectivisation were purged too.
While all this was going on, his propaganda machine devalued truth to the point of irrelevance. Even the names of places were destroyed. As Conquest writes:
“Meanwhile over the years, the country had to endure not only Stalingrad and Stalino (eventually six Stalinos in all), but also Stalinabad, Stalinsk, Stalinogorsk, Stalinskoye, Stalinski, Staliniri, Mount Stalin (the highest peak in the USSR – later to be joined by the highest peaks in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria), Stalin Bay, the Stalin Range, and various villages simply ‘name of Stalin’…”
Stalin’s reality became all-powerful. It crowded out competition. In Yugoslavia, the Red Army was raping women. But if the woman was a German, she was likely to be raped first, and then shot. Someone protested to Stalin about this, and Stalin replied: “What is so awful in a man having his fun with a woman?”
Being “pro-Stalin” or “anti-Stalin” should not be a dividing line in British politics – this is the point I am getting to. The facts are too appalling. The horrors are too well known. We should not be having this debate. I accept that voters may not be interested in this pedantic detail. The history of communism in the USSR may seem remote to many, complex, and lost in books. You can’t exactly whack it on a pledge card.
But Government is not a game. The weakness in the senior ranks of the Labour Party was traditionally confined to muddled thinking on the economy. Well, no longer. Something much worse is going on – and I fear that Milne may be part of it.
If he does nothing else, he should reread Kolyma Tales – a book by the gulag-survivor Varlam Shalamov, a law student who was imprisoned in Stalin’s concentration camps in 1929. He was not released until 1951. This book is a biography of Stalin’s psychopathic “levelling down” of civil society: an omnibus of hunger, dementia and hatred.
Prisoners rob frozen corpses of their underwear, to trade for scraps of tobacco; another prisoner hangs himself in a tree fork “without even using a rope”. Prisoners forget the names of their wives, their children. They forget everything. Gold-mining breaks a man’s health permanently in just three weeks. Assignment to the logging gangs is a “dry execution”. Men weep at the slightest provocation. The hospitals are deathtraps, but prisoners still cultivate rotten wounds and infections, feeding kerosene into their sceptic blisters, to try to escape the cold. One prisoner finds that his fingers have been permanently frostbitten into the shape of a pick-axe handle (he “never expected to be able to straighten out his hands again”). Another’s galoshes are “so full of pus and blood that his feet sloshed at every step, as if through a puddle”. Inside the prison hut itself, men are crammed in so tightly that they cannot move their arms. They are fed shards of dirty ice, stood upright for several days. And they are waiting to be shot. It was forbidden to build fires. Death is rationed, like everything else. Men are killed by quota. Everybody dies. Everybody.
Shalamov tells how one young man was shot by Stalin’s thugs, when he failed to deliver his mandatory quota of 16 hours slave-labour per day:
“The next day Dugaev was working again in the work gang, and the following night soldiers took him behind the horse barns along a path that led into the woods. They came to a tall fence topped with barbed wire. The fence nearly blocked off a small ravine, and in the night the prisoners could hear tractors backfiring in the distance. When he realized what was about to happen, Dugaev regretted that he had worked for nothing. There had been no reason for him to exhaust himself on this, his last day.”
You can feel the futility of it. The awful routine. There should not be apologists for this kind of society in Britain.
The question is: how should we reply to Seumus Milne?