In September last year, critics greeted the publication of Martin Amis's Koba the Dread: laughter and the twenty million with reviews varying from the lukewarm to the atrocious. Amis was criticised for his style and for his decision to make his point with gossipy stories about his father, a former communist, and his best friend, a former Trotskyist. Above all he was taken to task for asking why Hitler remained a symbol of evil while the 20 million killed by Lenin and Stalin were forgotten or laughed off. The question was widely deemed to be silly and 30 years out of date.
I slagged the book off with the best of them. But Amis touched a nerve. I wondered why I found the story of my great-uncle who was such a convinced Marxist-Leninist that he moved from Manchester to Moscow at the high point of Stalin's purges faintly funny. (He survived, by the way; God only knows how many people he had to denounce before he died in his bed.) There were other niggles. When a distinguished Marxist academic told me at a party that he was proud to have supported Mao's cultural revolution, why did I nod politely? Why couldn't I point out that he was a moral accomplice to the mass murder of millions of innocents? If he'd said he was proud to have supported the Nazi extermination camps, I'd have walked out of the drawing room.
For the past few weeks, the right-wing press has been telling its readers about the backgrounds of the leaders of the Stop the War Coalition. For instance, Andrew Murray, the coalition's chairman, wrote an article in the Morning Star to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Stalin's birth. He acknowledged that the tyrant had used "harsh measures" but asked why "hack propagandists abominate the name of Stalin beyond all others". That there were 20 million reasons didn't seem to occur to him. Murray is on the politburo of the Communist Party of Britain (which must never be confused with the Communist Party of Great Britain). In a report to his comrades in March, he said the coalition should have two slogans: "Stop the war" and "Blair must go". "We need urgently to raise the level of our Leninist education," he continued. "Everything we are talking about, the imperialist crisis, inter-imperialist conflict, war, political strategy and tactics, are Leninist issues. We need to do far more to study Marxism-Leninism." The anti-war protest had led to "the rate of inquiries about party membership rising rapidly and that is welcome, but we need to ensure they are educated as communists and learn to work as communists".
Thus, a living fossil from the age of European dictators was heading the biggest protest of the new century. Even Julian Lewis, the Tory MP who spent the 1980s accusing the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament of having been infiltrated by supporters of the Soviet Union, was taken aback. "I had thought that my days of unearthing totalitarians at the heart of 'peace movements' had ended in 1991," he wrote in the Telegraph. "Yet here is a case of a former worker for the Soviet Novosti Press Agency in precisely such a key position, being solemnly quoted by the anti-war press as if he were a representative of democratic politics."
There are ironies aplenty, and not only in the sight of the same old scowling faces from the fragments of splinter groups reappearing after all the talk of the Seattle generation creating a new politics. Mass opposition to a war against a dictator who models himself on Stalin is being led by a man who is nostalgic for Stalin. British opponents of the war have condemned the "undemocratic" government for not listening to majority opinion. Yet the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Workers Party and the other Marxist-Leninist groups that run the Stop the War Coalition are not interested in democracy. They want to abolish it and replace it with a dictatorship of the proletariat in which the proletariat in question turns out to be made up of the bosses of the Communist Party of Britain, or the Socialist Workers Party, or whatever other faction storms Westminster.
As if to confirm Amis's thesis, the right feels the need to be more careful about the company it keeps. Before the Countryside Alliance march, the British National Party urged neo-Nazi activists to "help us put our patriotic, pro-countryside message to the huge contingent of radicalised Middle Britain who will flood central London on 22 September".
The Countryside Alliance responded with vigour. It wasn't run by extremists and wanted nothing to do with extremists. "We repudiate all that the BNP stands for," said Tim Bonner, the Alliance's spokesman.
There is an argument that there's no need for a similar fastidiousness on the left. Ninety-nine per cent of people who protest against the war don't support Marxist-Leninism. If Murray recruits a thousand new members to his party, it will be an unprecedented achievement, and if he keeps them in his party it will be a miracle. The far left organises protests because the independent, democratic left is so weak in England. Tribune can stage rallies at Labour Party conferences, but most of its energies are spent producing and distributing the newspaper. The Campaign Group of Labour MPs is a parliamentary caucus. Neither has a network of activists. There is no leader of the Labour left for supporters to rally around, and the trade unions don't organise protests against foreign policy. Which leaves the Labour Party, and it isn't going to run a campaign against its own government.
Far-left parties fill the vacuum. Their membership is small, but their members give their spare time and money to the cause. Going on a march they organise doesn't mean you support the atrocities of the Russian revolution any more than taking a Virgin train means that you support rail privatisation. Both are just vehicles you board for your own purposes. It's a reasonable case as far as it goes, although, obviously, the intellectually consistent would have to give similar indulgence to the supporters of fox-hunting, even if the BNP took over the Countryside Alliance. (In the circumstances, it would be as McCarthyite for the New Statesman to accuse demonstrators marching for rural post offices of being the dupes of fascists, as it would be for the Telegraph to accuse demonstrators marching to uphold the authority of the United Nations of being the dupes of communists.)
The difficulties come when a one-off protest has to become a sustained campaign. Then the screamingly intolerant sectarianism of the far left can tear a movement apart. In A Tale of Two Utopias, the American historian Paul Berman told the sad history of Students for a Democratic Society, which organised middle-class protests against the Vietnam war and segregation in the American South in the 1960s. It was destroyed by Marxist-Leninism at the height of its popularity.
The group had a clause in its constitution that banned from membership anyone who advocated racism, dictatorship or totalitarianism, "which shut the door mostly on communists and Trotskyists - given that fascists and racists were not likely to throng into a student socialist movement. The logic of that clause was not closed-mindedness; it was self-preservation."
The clause was dropped in 1965 and the Communists of Progressive Labor (a Maoist splinter group) launched a campaign to infiltrate the society. They were well organised and disciplined. Their "machine-gun" rhetoric pushed the unconverted away and they soon had control of the organisation. There were splits, denunciations and forays into terrorism. "The effect of those many guerrilla mini-organisations was devastating . . . on the left," Berman concluded. The story of how Militant tore apart the Liverpool Labour Party in the 1980s is not so different.
It is not surprising that the most successful sustained campaigns of the past decade have come from outside the traditional left. The demands for gay rights, animal rights, third world debt relief, the minimum wage and the Human Rights Act have one thing in common: there are no Andrew Murrays to be seen near them. In other words, if you want to win a quick battle, it doesn't matter who organises your protest. But if you want to win a war?