Show trial: the left in the dock

Members of the new Labour cabinet must answer to the charge, laid by Martin Amis, that too many Brit

The left - all of it, from the inside to the outside - is about to have its conscience pricked. This comes at a convenient time. A large part of the left is working itself into more of a moral lather over American "warmongering" than over the crimes and threats of Saddam Hussein; it needs a little prick to prompt reflection.

Martin Amis's Koba the Dread, already published in the US, will be out in the UK in September. Koba was Stalin's nickname: the book is an account of the millions who died under his rule. The book has already passed through energetically flagellating reviewers in the US. The New York Times's critic Michiko Kakutani described the "narcissistic musings of a spoiled, upper-middle-class litterateur" who knew nothing about (and, by implication, thus could not write about) the suffering of Stalin's victims. In the online journal Slate, the journalist Anne Applebaum (who is writing a book on the Gulag) said that Amis - a "fiftysomething novelist who has run out of things to write about" had "funnelled his displaced anger into a poorly conceived, improbably hysterical diatribe against Stalinism".

But in the Atlantic Monthly, Christopher Hitchens - though he admonishes Amis, his close friend, to be "choosy about what kind of anti-communist you are" - writes ("if it matters") that "I now agree with him that perfectionism and messianism are the most lethal of our foes" and admits (if it matters) that he was "wrong" about the choice he made, earlier in his life, for Marxism.

It does matter, especially for the Amis-Hitchens generation, the last, at least until the ambiguous radicalism of the anti-globalists, in which a large section of western intellectual youth proclaimed themselves revolutionary socialists. That generation is now (or was recently) in power. Massimo D'Alema, Italy's prime minister at the end of the 1990s, had been a communist for most of his adult life. Joschka Fischer and Otto Schily, respectively the foreign and interior ministers of Germany, were revolutionary leftists. Lionel Jospin, prime minister of France for five years until this spring, was a (secret) Trotskyist for two decades.

Communism in the Soviet, or Stalinist, tradition was declining by the late 1960s: most of those radicals attracted by organised Marxism were Trotskyists, as was Hitchens. A few preferred their national communist party because, they thought, it was more rooted in the working class. (Most were, but what did that prove?) I was one such, a largely inactive member of the Communist Party of Great Britain between 1971 and 1973, and then a much more active participant in the tiny British and Irish Communist Organisation until 1977. I denounced my comrades, in a 20-page speech, for their Stalinism; I had just read, sweating with horror, all of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago.

So in my late twenties, I had to admit that my thinking had been in the tradition of a mass murderer, long after his fellow (if penitent) mass murderer Nikita Khrushchev had done it in the Soviet Union. That remains a cause for ineradicable shame. But it is not just my shame; it infects everyone on the left, whether or not they now feel part of it.

In Le passe d'une illusion, his last book, the late historian and former communist Francois Furet wrote that "what makes a comparative analysis [between fascism and communism] inevitable is not just their date of birth . . . it's also their mutual dependence. Fascism was born as a reaction against communism: communism extended its term thanks to anti-fascism . . . the greatest secret of complicity between Bolshevism and fascism remains, however, the existence of that common adversary, which the two ideologies belittled or exorcised through the notion that it was in its death agony . . . quite simply, democracy." Democracy has nothing simple about it; but for we who enjoy it to have regarded it with eyes so slitted in contempt by revolutionary fervour still, in retrospect, brings a flush to the cheeks.

At the end of Le livre noir du communisme, one of the most comprehensive destructions of the left-totalitarian idea, Stephane Courtois, the editor, asks why communism in all its national forms - Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, above all Cambodian - felt it essential to kill its enemies. He quotes Trotsky, incomparably the best writer among the Bolshevik leaders. The bourgeoisie, according to Trotsky, was a doomed class, clinging to power and pulling the world down with it. "We are forced to seize it and cut off its hands. The red terror is the weapon used against a class doomed to perish, but which has not resigned itself to its fate . . . the immediate needs of history cannot be satisfied by the mechanism of parliamentary democracy." Courtois comments: "We find here again the deification of history, to which everything must be sacrificed, and the incurable naivety of the revolutionary who imagines himself able, thanks to his dialectic, to assist the emergence of a more just and humane society through criminal methods."

Amis bases his own denunciations on the Anglo-American writer Robert Conquest, a close friend of his father's and now of his own. His The Great Terror came out in the 1960s, when evidence of the scale of Stalin's repression was still fragmentary. Conquest is a tormentor of those who have still to acknowledge the depths of horror at the heart of the communist dark. In an essay in Reflections on a Ravaged Century, published in 1999, Conquest writes that "motives for self-deception were often a matter of good intentions - a proverbially inadequate guide. Its bearers had turned to socialism as a means of creating a better, more humane society . . . the ethical argument, if such it can be called, seems to run: 1) there is much injustice under capitalism 2) socialism will end this injustice 3) therefore anything that furthers socialism is to be supported 4) including any amount of injustice."

It is the basic, almost comic, syllogism that all western socialist radicals have to confront - not least the anti-globalists, who will get a sense, from Amis's book, of the dead end to which they are inchoately and ignorantly appealing when they call for an end to free markets. Old wars? One of the most insistent critiques of Koba the Dread is that it is out of time. Who, apart from some demented old men and women in malignant groupuscules, can still believe in all that - ten years after Mikhail Gorbachev demolished the whole edifice?

But that is to miss the point of the book, which is that the left has been missing the point by blunting it for decades. The British government has nobody in it of the prominence in the far left of D'Alema, Jospin, Schily or Fischer; but it has its own figures with a reckoning still to make. Alistair Darling in the transport department and Alan Milburn at health (and, late of the cabinet, Stephen Byers) had all been in or near far-left groups: John Reid at the Northern Ireland Office and (very briefly) Peter Mandelson had been members of the CP. Many others, including Gordon Brown, Jack Straw, Robin Cook, Clare Short, John Prescott, Margaret Beckett, Patricia Hewitt, Harriet Harman and Charles Clarke, have spent at least some time on the left of the Labour Party, where the line between revolutionary leftism and revisionism was often never drawn, except in competition for office. Robin Cook in CND, John Prescott in the National Union of Seamen, Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman at the National Council for Civil Liberties were all working within environments very substantially created by communists. Margaret Beckett threw silver coins at Neil Kinnock when he refused to vote for Tony Benn - who was backed by both communists and Trotskyists - as deputy leader of the Labour Party.

All of these cabinet figures gave the lie to the concept of original (or at least ineradicable) ideological sin - much loved by sections of the US right - by becoming exceptional democratic politicians. But they have not - and, given the state of the media, it was probably impossible for them to do so while remaining politically useful - come to terms publicly with their own past.

That is not, in most cases, shameful; but it is worth an explanation, beyond a chuckling self-exculpation made around the dinner table with "old comrades". Amis recalls how Hitchens, at a debate in London, referred, with irony, to "old comrades" in the audience. Amis laughed, and so did most of the audience, including Conquest, who was also there. Why, in the face of the mountains of dead? "It is, of course, the laughter of the universal fondness for the old, old idea about the perfect society."

These old comrades perpetrated nothing like a great terror: operating within British democracy meant such a thing was fanciful. But they were in great error, or worked with those who were; and they have let fall a great silence.

Prompted partly by former communists such as Peter Mandelson, the British left has shifted to the right. But the past has deposited a film of inhibition on most of the Labour cabinet. It is perhaps the most important reason why Tony Blair became leader and Prime Minister. Although he once falsely claimed to be a socialist, and joined CND and the Tribune group, these were political manoeuvres of an easily understandable kind, given that he wanted to achieve something. He remains untouched by the slime of which Amis reminds us. It did not interest him; worrying about its effects interests him even less. He is free, in a way in which most of his old comrades are not.

A tolerant, even lazy, political culture like the British will not hang a notice saying "former Trot" round anyone's neck. Rightly: but only rightly if an account is made, at some point, of what went before, how it changed, and into what it changed. The question "why" is still, on the British left, sitting up and begging. Amis gives it a poke, and tells it to chew our ankles, again.

Koba the Dread: laughter and the twenty million by Martin Amis is published by Jonathan Cape (£16.99)