It might be a pretty grim choice for holiday reading but Giles Udy’s Labour and the Gulag offers a fascinating account of how the Soviet Union enjoyed the backing of the British Labour Party between the Russian Revolution and the Second World War. He details how this was not just a rebellious fringe of the Party but the view of its leadership. Udy uncovers considerable evidence that these politicians were privately aware that atrocities were taking place but issued emphatic denials in public. Nor was it the case that the massacres only became known about under Stalin. They were already well under way during the Lenin era and were extensively documented.
Even today some of those complicit in this most vile deception are honoured figures on the Left.
How were they allowed to get away with it?
Compare and contrast the experience of George Bernard Shaw and PG Wodehouse. Udy says:
“Between 1930 and 1933 he [ Bernard Shaw] made numerous and influential public statements refuting the British protesters’ claims about executions, labour camps and widespread repression in Russia – while simultaneously writing about the need to execute social parasites, praising the Soviet secret police for its ‘weeding of the garden’ and having, ten years earlier, set out a programme which included ‘compulsory social service’ ‘on pain of death’ in order to render ‘resistance injurious’ – in other words, labour camps. If he was not deceiving himself about the goings-on in Russia (which he may well have been), the only other option is that he was brazenly lying.
“P. G. Wodehouse’s unwise agreement to broadcast a mildly comic reflection on life in an internment camp on German radio while being held by the Germans during the Second World War resulted in his being shunned for years afterwards. Shaw openly advocated policies of mass extermination that were very close to those embraced by the Nazi regime – and yet his reputation seems unassailable.”
Udy offers as another comparison the response of the New Statesman and the Daily Mail. Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, wrote in 1937:
“All governments tend to justify the suppression of their opponents; dictatorial governments grow more ruthless and more unjust because they are not subject to criticism. It is not the part of the friends of the USSR to refrain from asking awkward questions about the methods it uses for the suppression (necessary or not in itself) of those it regards as dangerous. One is glad in a world which is so busy denying the rights of man to find the Soviet Union committing itself so definitely to their extension (in the introduction of the 1936 Soviet Constitution).
“The only honest attitude for a Socialist is to give general, but critical, support to the one country in the world which has adopted a planned socialist economy.”
“Approximately 2.8 million prisoners died in gulag camps. More than 800,000 more were shot before they got there, many of them in 1937, the year in which Martin wrote these words (unlike the Germans, who used their camps for extermination, the Soviets usually shot those they intended to kill before they got to the camps). The reputation of any editor of a political journal who apologised for and excused the Nazis in the 1930s, or the journal they were written in, would still be tarnished today. The Daily Mail is regularly scorned for its initial support in 1934 for Mosley’s Blackshirts, which it disavowed a year later. Kingsley Martin and the New Statesman, which defended Stalin for many years longer than that, have suffered no such stain on their reputation.”
Jeremy Corbyn is very much in this tradition. He has quietly deleted articles on his website in praise of the Venezuelan regime. But he has not withdrawn his comments – nor can we expect people like Jon Snow to put him under much pressure to do so.
Thanks Hugo Chavez for showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared. He made massive contributions to Venezuela & a very wide world
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) 5 March 2013
It’s not just Corbyn, of course. Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, praised Venezuela as a “social development model” to others.
John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, was among the MPs who signed a House of Commons motion paying tribute to Venezuela’s dictator, Hugo Chavez, after his death. The motion lamented the loss of “a supporter of the poor and oppressed everywhere.”
Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, says that “Venezuela has shown us that another way is possible.”
The reality is that socialism has impoverished the people – with child malnutrition being increasingly widespread. Amnesty International reports a “mass of human rights violations”. Even according to official figures 100 protesters have been killed since April.
Another 400 have been imprisoned – including judges and opposition politicians. There is an expanded role for the army with 2,000 generals – there used to be 200 – notably in taking charge of food distribution. A new puppet assembly is being established to further the slide into dictatorship. Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president, is guarded by several thousand Cuban security personnel.
The Economist this week says:
“Following the lead of his late mentor, Hugo Chávez, Mr Maduro spends public money lavishly, especially on his supporters. Weak oil prices and inept management mean he cannot pay his bills. So he prints money and blames speculators for the resulting inflation, which is expected to exceed 1,000% this year. The black-market price for US dollars is now about 900 times the official rate. Price controls and the expropriation of private firms have led to shortages of food and medicine. With hospitals bare of supplies, the maternal mortality rate jumped by 66% last year. Officials flagrantly profiteer from their access to hard currency and basic goods. Venezuela has become a favoured route for drug-trafficking and is awash with arms.
“Some left-wingers, such as Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn, imagine that Venezuela’s “Bolivarian revolution” is a promising experiment in social justice. Tell that to the tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have fled to neighbouring countries. As the crisis worsens, their number will rise. That makes Venezuela’s government a threat to the region as well as its own people.”
So does the leadership of the Labour Party still regard Venezuela as a model that we should follow?
Will another generation of Labour leaders be allowed to get away with defending a brutal dictatorship?