At the end of last year I got an angry letter from an old comrade of my late father's whom I will call "S". They had both been very active in the British Communist Party for most of their lives, and had both been employed by the party. S wanted me to know that he disagreed profoundly with me about Iraq, and added: "Your father would never have tolerated such posturing."
I don't like the invocation of allies from beyond the grave, and this particular political seance struck me as impertinent; I had seen a lot more of my father in his last years than S had. This may be why the name "Stalin" immediately jumped into my mind. British communists like S and my dad fought for civil rights in America, working-class advancement in Britain, and against colonialism, racism and fascism. They also acted as apologists and cheerleaders for one of the most murderous regimes in world history. The unpalatable truth is that - from their teens until their thirties - my father and S both tolerated and supported not posturing, but mass murder. So I was disinclined to be lectured.
But I was still willing to be educated, because, for 20 years, this question has come to bother me more and more. Why did so many on the British left do it? Was it the case that they somehow didn't know that the trials were rigged, the executed comrades were innocent, that the whole thing was a vast, foul set-up, until Nikita Khrushchev gave them permission to know in 1956? Could they really have believed, until the reports of the XX Party Congress came out, that most of the old Bolsheviks and hundreds of thousands of others who had died were British, Japanese or German spies, or else Trotskyist agents bent on sabotage and assassination? And what now should we make of their credulity? Could such wilful blindness be repeated?
No one has done more to answer this question than Francis Beckett, first in Enemy Within, his history of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), and then - more obliquely - in his biography of his father, the fascist leader John Beckett. In his new book, Stalin's British Victims, Beckett researches the stories of four women who suffered under Stalinism. He shows just how far the leadership of the British party was aware of what was going on, and demonstrates the almost indestructible ideological commitment that led communists to deflect, ignore, explain or deny the evidence of their own eyes.
The most poignant story that Beckett tells is of Rose Cohen, co-founder of the CPGB and admired by the party leader, Harry Pollitt, who went to live in Moscow with her Russian husband in the late 1920s. In 1937, first her husband and then Rose herself were arrested. Pollitt, Beckett establishes, interceded for her with the authorities, but to no avail. She was tried, sentenced and quickly executed for being a British spy. Years later her niece Joyce Rathbone set out in search of her lost cousin, born in the same year as herself and brought up in Stalinist orphanages, forbidden to talk about his parents.
Beckett followed Rose's trail through Russian and British archives. He also discovered the stories of Rosa Rust, daughter of the editor of the Daily Worker, who found herself exiled with the Volga Germans to Kazakhstan, and of Pearl Rimel and Freda Utley, whose husbands - one Russian, one Belgian - disappeared into the Gulags, never to return.
So Pollitt and his fellow party leaders knew that old comrades were being despatched by Stalin, and thought some of them innocent enough to want to try and save them. They also experienced the brutal snubs delivered to those foreigners who poked their noses into Stalin's purges. However, as Beckett shows, this did not prevent Pollitt's strenuous public defence of the Moscow trials. In March 1938, three months after Rose received a bullet in the base of her skull, Pollitt declared in the Daily Worker that these trials of "political and moral degenerates" were a "mighty demonstration to the world of the power and strength of the Soviet Union". Did he think Rose had become a "degenerate" and that her dawn extinction in the Lubyanka was a salutary lesson to the world about the revolutionary resolve of the first workers' state?
That was the leader; then there were the followers. When I was a child, I regularly used to go round the corner from our house to see Joyce's mother, old Nellie Rathbone, a comrade and once secretary to Sylvia Pankhurst. It was only when discussing the Cohen case with my mother last year that I found out that Nellie had been Rose's sister. Yes, they knew that Rose had died during the Terror, said my mother (who is much younger), but they thought it was pneumonia.
These were people who were communists in 1937, communists in 1956, communists in 1968. The murder of a close relative at the hands of the world's leading exponent of the faith was insufficient even to cause that system to be questioned. It was probably rarely mentioned, something of a tragic embarrassment, like the relative in the asylum or the long-lost adopted child. It is interesting that Joyce's search for her cousin began only after her mother and stepfather had died.
What Beckett suggests is that - back then - communists, including the family, probably accepted that Rose and the others had somehow brought it upon themselves. It was sad, but these were hard times, full of treachery, and Stalin, heir to the great Lenin, surely knew what he was doing. Rose herself, in the period before her own arrest and that of her husband, was heard to say that the Stalinist leadership conducting the Terror "knew what they were doing".
So thought Pearl Rimel's Lear-like communist sisters, Hetty and Anita, about her innocent husband, George Fles, who became one of 100,000 victims of the Georgian NKVD, and who died in a prison near Smolensk in 1939. As the British communist spouse of one of the sisters asked, hadn't George's movements been "exactly what someone who wanted to spy would do"? That kind of talk was enough to get someone shot in Moscow or Tbilisi. Even years later, following George's "rehabilitation", when Hetty wanted to place an obituary notice in the Morning Star describing George as a "victim of the Stalin Terror", Anita apparently said: "You mustn't do that. It would be wrong for you to put that in the Morning Star." The words were excised.
Why? Partly the masochism of the cadre mentality. In 1956, after her experiences in Kazakhstan, after Hungary and the revelations of the XX Party Congress, Rosa Rust wrote to John Gollan - the new party leader - to "reaffirm [her] belief and loyalty to the cause of communism. What kind of communists," she asked, "are they who fall before the first major onslaught?" Wise ones, it turns out.
What is revealed brilliantly through Beckett's compassionate and well-researched account is this strange state of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. The communists looked at the beast, saw its claws and fangs, and loved it still, as people are required to love their own youth. They excused, explained, justified, denied, ignored, defended and forgot what everyone else knew. They did so on the basis of anti-fascism, the sacrifices of class struggle, the beleaguered position of the first revolutionary state, the lies of the bourgeois press, the need for iron self-discipline, all melded together into an ideological armour that became impenetrable by fact and sentiment.
It is Beckett's one great mistake that he seeks to reassure the reader of Stalin's British Victims that this terrible lack of humanity and its surrounding corruption was the work of Stalin only, and in no way the legacy of his predecessor, Lenin. But this idea of the epistemological break does not survive the files released in Russia since 1991. Those who believe it ought to read Alexander Yakovlev's A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia, to see how the characterisation of any disagreement as sabotage, as "anti-Soviet", and its consequent savage and arbitrary repression, was there right from the beginning. Never mind the "bourgeois parties": from early on all dissent was suppressed, including that from anarchists, socialist revolutionaries, Mensheviks and social democrats.
Lenin was no respecter of even the most rudimentary of human rights. Though he and his comrades had been spared by the tsarist autocracy, he spared no one. Here is just one small taste, in a message sent to local Bolsheviks in Penza in August 1918.
1. Hang (by all means hang, so that people will see) no fewer than 100 known kulaks, fat cats, bloodsuckers. 2. Publish their names. 3. Take all their grain. 4. Select hostages. Do it so that for hundreds of miles around people will see and tremble. Confirm telegram received and acted on.
PS: Find tougher people.
Just take "no fewer than" 100 people and hang them. And what should you do if you found you had got only 95 fat cats and bloodsuckers? Hang a few more, presumably. This was the road to Terror, and there is nothing to be salvaged here for the modern left - though S may not thank me for saying so. We must start with democracy and human rights, or we must give up.
Maybe, had my father been alive today, he, too, would have seen that.
Francis Beckett's Stalin's British Victims is published by Sutton (£20)