BOOK REVIEW: Martin Amis Rewrites the Russian Revolution


British writer Martin Amis, best known as a novelist, has just published a short, nonfiction book about communism, the Russian Revolution, Stalin, and the blindness of British intellectuals (especially his father) to the Gulag. The book is titled “Koba the Dread,” and it is absolutely dreadful.

We’ll get soon enough to the whys and wherefores, but let’s assert from the first that this book is shallow, stupefying, and just plain bad. It is an intellectually useless work whose ideas are little more than recycled dreck. The book did not deserve publication but presumably found its way into print because its author is a successful novelist promoting a reactionary agenda so dear to the ruling elites.

Let’s also say that my opinion hardly represents a consensus among commentators. The New York Times Book Review, last July 28, featured “Koba the Dread” on its cover and ran a critical but friendly review by ex-leftist Paul Berman. The September 2002 issue of The Atlantic Monthly includes a meandering review of some 10 pages, also critical but friendly, by former socialist Christopher Hitchens. These articles, especially the latter, are part of the story, too, as we shall see later.

But first the book itself. Amis recently read “several yards of books about the Soviet experiment” and came to the conclusion that communism was a disaster because Stalin murdered millions of people and that Stalin himself was only the logical consequence of Bolshevik doctrine in general and the policies of Lenin and Trotsky in particular.

In other words, Amis has discovered the central idea of the West regarding Marxism and the Soviet Union, the dominant theory of Cold War ideology that lasted from the end of the Second World War to the end of the Soviet bloc.

Given Amis’s choice of a reading list-all the familiar names of the academic right-wing: Richard Pipes, Robert Conquest, and, on the Russian side, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Dmitri Volkogonov -the conclusion was only all too obvious.

Let’s look more closely at “Koba the Dread,” at Amis’s language and argument. He tends to write in this way: “Trotsky was a murdering bastard and a fucking liar. And he did it with gusto. He was a nun-killer-they all were” (p. 252).

A section of Amis’s book attempts to analyze Stalin’s rise to power following Lenin’s incapacitation due to a set of strokes. His death in 1924 gave Stalin much greater opportunity to maneuver to his maximum advantage.

Here is how Amis addresses the issue: “No one can reckon on dying at the age of fifty-three; but the matter of the succession was one of the great integral carelessnesses of Leninism. The chain of command, according to ‘State and Revolution’ (written in haste between the two revolutions of 1917), depended on ‘unquestioning obedience’ to the will of a single person, the Soviet leader. And when that Soviet leader died-then what?” (pp. 113-114).

Other than Lenin’s age and the date of the writing of “State and Revolution,” everything else here is wrong and is typical of the quality of Amis’s arguments.

First, let’s look to the language. “Succession” is a word suitable for monarchs or dictators-Lenin was neither. Nor was he careless about the fate of the Soviet Union following his death; he sent letters to the party leadership on several topics and expressly called for Stalin’s removal as general secretary. Stalin could not be removed at Lenin’s command.

More important is the ostensible quote from “State and Revolution.” The words “according to” suggest that the quote about the “unquestioning obedience to the will of the Soviet leader” is drawn from Lenin’s pamphlet. But it is not so. For one thing, when “State and Revolution” was written the Bolsheviks had not yet won a majority in the Soviets. Lenin would hardly have demanded “unquestioning obedience” to a party or person he politically opposed.

But a larger objection must be made about this quote. Neither those words nor that idea can be found in “State and Revolution” or in Lenin’s subsequent writings. Here is an example of what Lenin actually did say: “We set ourselves the ultimate aim of actually abolishing the state, i.e., all organized and systematic violence, all use of violence against people in general … the need for violence against people in general, for the subordination of one man to another, and of one section of the population to another, will vanish altogether since people will become accustomed to observing the elementary conditions of social life without violence and without subordination.”

If Amis is quoting from a work of Lenin, he ought first to have read it. If, instead, the quote is someone else’s commentary on Lenin, it ought to be presented that way, and the source should be cited. To do less is to deceive the reader.

A war against human nature?

Amis is not an accurate guide to the history of the Bolshevik revolution and its aftermath. Amis writes about the Civil War as if only the Bolsheviks took up arms. The Red Terror seems to spring from nowhere. Violence erupts simply because Lenin and Trotsky were violent and the Revolution requires blood.

“…[T]he Bolsheviks were conducting a war against human nature,” Amis claims. He omits any mention of counter-revolutionary violence; he omits the White armies, the White Terror, imperialist intervention, and the hostile capitalist encirclement of the fledgling Soviet republic. In Amis’s retelling of history, history disappears.

The Bolsheviks did not at first seek repression and violence, despite what Amis claims (“Lenin wanted executions; he had his heart set on executions”). Instead, the Bolsheviks accepted terror as the price of the people’s revolution, a price they did not set but were willing to pay. To do otherwise would be to abandon the struggle for socialism and the hopes for freedom because its enemies threatened bloodshed.

In 1918 Trotsky described how the Bolsheviks put down counter-revolutionary raids in Petrograd. The Red Guards, he said, “undoubtedly committed cruelties on individual cadets. The bourgeois press afterwards accused the sailors and the Soviet government of inhumanity and savagery. But it was silent on one point: that the Revolution of November 7th-8th had been accomplished without a single shot and without a single victim, and that it was only the counter-revolutionary plot which had been organized by the bourgeoisie and which threw its young men into the cauldron of a civil war against the workers, soldiers, and sailors that led to inevitable atrocities and victims” (“The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk,” in “The Essential Trotsky,” Barnes & Noble/Unwin Books, 1963, p. 79).

In 1935 Trotsky wrote an introduction to the second English edition of his 1920 work, “Terrorism and Communism.” There he says, “The present work, therefore, is far away from any thought of defending terrorism in general. It champions the historical justification of the proletarian revolution. The root idea of the book is this: that history down to now has not thought out any other way of carrying mankind forward than that of setting up always the revolutionary violence of the progressive class against the conservative violence of the outworn classes” (p. xxxix).

A rejection of revolutionary violence means an acceptance of the everyday violence of capitalist oppression. “The jury of moralists who condemn ‘terrorism’ of whatever kind have their gaze fixed really on the revolutionary deeds of the persecuted who are seeking to set themselves free” (p. xxxviii).

Unfortunately, Amis is so horrified by the murderous policies of Stalin, so repulsed at the thought of the millions of Soviet dead, that he will accept nothing of what Trotsky says.

To cite only one instance from “Koba the Dread”: “Trotsky’s ‘History’ [‘of the Russian Revolution’] is a valuable historical document, but it is worthless as history, as historiography, as ‘writing’ … After a while the reader is physically oppressed by the dishonesty of his prose” (p.35). Frankly, those words are more applicable to Amis himself.

How is it that such an amateurish and shoddy book has been so well received? Is it the radical youth of today, anti-corporate protesters, who need to be inoculated against the virus of Marxism and revolution? InThe New York Times Book Review (July 28, 2002), ex-socialist Paul Berman happily notes that “Koba the Dread” makes the essential anti-socialist argument.

“[Amis] explains, patiently and correctly,” writes Berman, “that Lenin and Trotsky founded the Communist police state, and Stalin merely perfected it. Lenin and Trotsky, not Stalin, created the Soviet contempt for human life and the principles of truth.”

So, take that, you anti-globalization activists. Protest all you want against capitalism and the market, but just remember not to go too far. Look where revolution against class oppression will lead you: “contempt for human life and the principles of truth.”

Why, if capitalism is overthrown you’ll end up living on Animal Farm, where everyone is equal but some are more equal than others. (Wait-isn’t that exactly what life is like under capitalism?)

A pompous response from Hitchens

One section of “Koba the Dread” is written as an open letter to Amis’s friend, Christopher Hitchens, former columnist for The Nation as well as Vanity Fair. Amis wonders why Hitchens looks so favorably upon the Marxist heritage, Lenin and Trotsky, in particular.

Amis’s timing here is embarrassingly off. Hitchens these days is hardly an exemplar of socialism-quite the contrary. It’s the heritage he has renounced.

In “Letters to a Young Contrarian” (Basic Books, 2001), Hitchens comments of socialism, “I’ve been compelled to recognize that its day is quite possibly done” (p. 97). In the closing letter of the book he notes apologetically, “If you define me as an authority on the radical you may be under an illusion….” (p. 139). Fair warning.

Hitchens’s “contrarian” outlook is largely an ungrounded abstraction, more of an attitude than a well-reasoned philosophy. Shouting a defiant “no!” brings the echo of a conformist “yes.”

Hitchens believes he has battled the prevailing orthodoxy after Sept. 11, 2001, by courageously opposing the left. It leads him, willy-nilly, to support the right: “We should be building such internationalism [ousting the Taliban] whether it serves the short-term needs of the current Administration or not.” (His articles for The Nation are included in the recently published collection, “A Just Response,” edited by Katrina vanden Heuvel.)

Writing in The Atlantic Monthly (September 2002), Hitchens has some rather flattering and not so surprising things to say about Amis’s book, commending the author for his literary style and careful attention to the nuance of language: “Amis understands that cliché and banality constitute a menace to even the most apparently self-evident truths” (a remarkable statement about a writer who serves up little else than cliché and banality).

Hitchens continues, “Thus Amis’s achievement in these pages is to make us wince again at things we already ‘knew’ while barely wasting a word or missing the implications of a phrase.”

“Koba the Dread” is actually a shoddy book, but given his current stance, Hitchens is unable to refute it effectively, nor is he really inclined to, despite some harrumphing about the legacy of socialist heretics.

Hitchens’s review is a windy, flaccid, and pompous response that is largely concerned to criticize the parts of “Koba the Dread” that criticize Hitchens himself.

Even then, Hitchens concedes most of the major points and dithers about the rest: “At several points [Amis] states with near perfect simplicity that ideology is hostile to human nature, and implies that teleological socialism was uniquely or particularly so. I would no longer disagree with him about this. Corruptio optimi pessima: no greater cruelty will be devised than by those who are sure, or are assured, that they are doing good.”

And, for good measure, Hitchens later adds, “I now agree with him that perfectionism and messianism are the chief and most lethal of our foes.” Is that what Stalinism was-a misguided effort to do good and achieve the impossible, human perfectibility?

And does Hitchens now believe that Stalinism is what revolutionary socialism must inevitably become? If so, if the overthrow of capitalism means the gulag, then no wonder Hitchens speaks approvingly of dalliances with the Bush administration and shouts encouragement for “our” war against the Taliban.

Hitchens concurs with Amis’s hostility to socialism, but habit or instinct or vestigial integrity compels him to raise the opposing argument (“Does anybody believe that had the 1905 Russian Revolution succeeded, it would have led straight to the gulag, and to forced collectivization? Obviously not. … Yet that revolution’s moving spirits were Lenin and Trotsky….”), an argument which, finally, he no longer supports.

In responding to Amis, Hitchens is, at best, contradictory because his ideas are in flux between opposing viewpoints. As he wrote last year in “Letters to a Young Contrarian,” “But many is the honorable radical and revolutionary who may be found in the camp of the apparent counterrevolution. And the radical conservative is not a contradiction in terms” (p. 100). This is the rationalization of a believer losing his belief.

Hitchens faults Amis for a lack of irony and as an antidote summons the spirit of Arthur Koestler and his novel of the Moscow Trials, “Darkness at Noon.” But for instruction in irony Amis would have done better to recall another writer, the 18th century satirist, Alexander Pope, who, in “An Essay on Criticism,” cautioned the “half-learn’d witlings” of his day: “Be sure yourself and your own reach to know/ How far your genius, taste, and learning go/ Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet/ And mark that point where sense and dullness meet.”

“Koba the Dread” shows little regard for discretion or good sense, is too dull to discern dullness, and thereby justifies again the best known lines from Pope’s poem: “A little learning is a dangerous thing/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”

Alexander Pope, if he were living at this hour, might well have enjoyed ridiculing the half-baked pretensions of a scribbler that Pope would surely have dubbed “Martinus Ignoramis.”

Related Articles

A Tale of Two Summits

Last week (June 8-10) there were two summits in Los Angeles, California: the Summit of the Americas hosted by the US State Department and the Peoples Summit hosted by US and international activist organizations. The two summits were held in the same city at the same time but could not be otherwise more different.