There has always been something faintly ridiculous about the contorted quarrels of British and American intellectuals over Stalinism. Who was a fellow-traveller, and for how long? Who knew what and when? Who failed to denounce strongly enough, early enough? No wars were fought or revolutions achieved on their soil; they may have faced reduced promotion prospects or difficulties in finding publishers, but not torture or hard labour; they did not have to choose between collaboration on the one hand and the deaths of their parents and children on the other, only between 15 minutes on the BBC Third Programme and banishment to dark and draughty meeting rooms in Clerkenwell. They inevitably played on the margins; they can be credited or debited, therefore, with neither heroism nor shame.
Martin Amis's new book fires more shots in this ancient contest - very late in the "goddamned day", to echo Samson Young, the narrator of his own London Fields. Its middle section recapitulates the horrors of Stalinism. The first and final sections repeat the questions that were insistently asked after Khrushchev had admitted Stalin's crimes in 1956. How could anyone have closed their eyes and ears to the dreadful outcome of the Soviet experiment? And why, even now, are so many on the left reluctant to acknowledge how flawed and monstrous it was? These questions are addressed to two people in particular. One is Martin's late father, Kingsley, who was a communist as a young man but, like many contemporaries (Arthur Koestler once suggested that the next war would be fought between the communists and the ex-communists), ended up on what Martin satirically calls the "fascist" side. The other (who, some suspect, has now taken the first steps on a political journey similar to Kingsley's) is Amis's old friend Christopher Hitchens, a Trotskyist rather than a Soviet sympathiser but nevertheless a writer who calls Lenin "a great man" and who, until recently, turned his formidable scorn more on capitalist America than on Bolshevik Russia.
Amis's questions look like important ones. To this day, it is perfectly acceptable, in a jokey sort of way, to call somebody "an old Stalinist"; to call anybody "an old Nazi" would be the most terrible insult. Men can admit, albeit with embarrassment, to helping out the KGB; if they admitted to helping the Nazi equivalent, they would be hounded out of the chattering classes.
Why? Amis points out that Bolshevism, however horribly it turned out, stood in the western Enlightenment tradition. The application of rational and scientific principles to social problems, the aspiration to a perfect society, the belief that history had some purpose and direction - to all this, western intellectuals had, and still have, instinctive sympathy. Communism, as practised by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, may have been a perversion of progressive thought, but the intention was progressive all the same. (Indeed, it is that incongruity between high-minded intentions and the actual practice, caused by incompetence as well as by wickedness, that, pace Amis's subtitle, makes us laugh at the Bolsheviks, just as we laugh at a well-dressed man slipping on a banana skin.) Nazism, by contrast, was an anti-Enlightenment philosophy, which appealed not to intellect, but to blood, soil and nation.
But Amis, I think, misses the main point, which is simply that the Nazis lost, and history is written by the victors. To many Europeans, the Soviets arrived as liberators in 1945; no matter how awful the regime they imposed, it could not be as bad as what went before. The Soviets, though often cruel (as documented in Antony Beevor's Berlin) were capricious in their cruelty, and not always obedient to orders from above, while the Nazis were consistent, disciplined and relentless. Moreover, the Soviet Union, in the end, at least partially redeemed itself. It was, after all, communists who ultimately denounced Stalin, communists who eventually allowed more liberal regimes to develop across eastern Europe (which, in the view of some diehards, would have produced the long-awaited perfect societies if left alone long enough), communists who finally relinquished power almost without bloodshed. Nazism had no such opportunities to retreat from its excesses, and it is hard to imagine that it would have taken them if it had.
History is full of half-forgotten holocausts: the near extermination of the native populations in the Americas; the huge death rates in the slave trade; the slaughter of minorities in Indonesia by President Suharto. What set Stalinism apart was that it killed not out of indifference, fear or even racial hatred, but for explicit political and ideological purposes. Amis's 20 million died not only before firing squads or in the Gulags, but in their own homes, of starvation, as a direct result of the regime's economic policies. These were not just policies that went disastrously wrong; they were policies deliberately designed to starve peasants into joining the collective farms. They died to assist the forward march of history; their deaths, the interrogator Gletkin argued in Koestler's Darkness at Noon, had a higher purpose, unlike the millions of deaths down the centuries in famines, earthquakes and so on.
Read Koestler's novel, and you will know whether or not you could ever have been a Soviet communist sympathiser. Koestler put such eloquent words into Gletkin's mouth that some readers, contrary to the author's intention, converted to communism.
I find them abhorrent. Yet every single day now some 3,000 children perish from diarrhoea because they lack clean drinking water. Multiply that over a single year, and you are already past a million. Over 30 years - Stalin's period in power - you are well past 30 million. Who is to blame for that? Fate? The market? President Bush? The IMF? Third world rulers? You? Me? Do we lump these children in with the victims of natural catastrophes? Or do we, as some would, see them as sacrifices to our own beliefs in the sanctity of liberal capitalism? When our governments and our banks demand debt repayments from third world countries - and thus force them to cut projects to improve education, health and sanitation - are we and our governments as culpable as those who supported Stalin?
Martin Amis has given us impressive works on the three great monstrosities of the 20th century - Stalin's terror, the Holocaust and Hiroshima. Yet, like so many of his generation, on the monstrosities of our own age, and our own moral and political challenges, he remains silent.