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10 June 2002

Comrades up in arms

Stalin still exerts a strange hold over some, not least Arthur Scargill. Johann Hari attends a Stali

By Johann Hari

Comrade Chairman is very angry. His body is old, but hatred smoulders in his eyes. He bangs his fist on the table and begins: “We must put our own house in order! To read lies about Comrade Stalin in the capitalist bourgeois press is to be expected – but to read them in our own papers? It misleads good comrades and damages the socialist cause! It cannot be accepted! The Trotskyites are doing massive damage!”

The scene seems strangely familiar. But it isn’t from some old newsreel, or a documentary recreation of a distant tyranny: it’s a meeting of the British Stalin Society on a sunny Sunday morning.

Some might see Stalinism’s journey in just half a century, from the ruling ideology of a world superpower to barely filling a grotty community centre in King’s Cross, as a humbling one. Not the Stalin Society. Founded in the 1930s, it ain’t dead yet. One pale old man tells me he remains confident because “we still have Cuba and [North] Korea”. Nobody in a two-hour meeting utters a word of regret about Stalin’s time in power.

We are assembled to discuss “misrepresentations of the Soviet and Maoist periods in the media”, and the first speaker, Harry Powell, a former college lecturer, talks confidently of the Soviet Union as simply “the first wave of socialism in the world”.

Nobody blinks at this. Powell takes particular exception to Jung Chang’s bestselling autobiography, Wild Swans, which he condemns as “a pernicious and dishonest book” that “does nothing but paint a negative picture of the socialist period in China . . . How are people meant to know about all the great achievements of Chairman Mao if they only hear this kind of grumbling?” he asks.

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But that is not his only gripe. “Every time a Russian composer from the socialist period is played on Radio 3, some smug presenter refers to the supposed ‘tyranny’ or ‘totalitarianism’ of that time.” Powell says that, “in fact, the arts flourished under Stalin”. George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm is, he believes, “crude anti-Stalinist propaganda, written by a man who worked in a propaganda unit”. And when he refers derisively to a scene in Enemy at the Gates, the recent Hollywood movie about Stalingrad, which suggests that Stalin persecuted the Jews, the audience joins him in sniggering.

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The gathering of around 30 people is primarily – as you might expect – elderly to the point of decrepitude. A bevy of old women occupies the front row, nodding sagely whenever the “lies” about Stalin are “exposed”. For these people, Stalinism has become a habit they can’t shake off. Now in their seventies, they are not inclined to review their beliefs.

More interesting are the young people in the room. In the group discussion, a young Asian lad in his mid-twenties explains his attraction to the cause: “It’s taken me a long time to find out the truth. I’ve always wanted to know what happened in the Soviet Union. The good thing about the Stalin Society is that it gives you the truth, without any messing about.” Another man nods vehemently. They seem to relish the moral certainty of Stalinism: “We can be made into better human beings,” he says. “You need to believe that, or there’s no point. And Stalin did.”

All this may seem as irrelevant as the beliefs of, say, the Flat Earth Society, or Elvis fans who insist that the King is still alive. Why should we care about these rather sad, isolated figures?

Yet a man who was very famous not so long ago is a very close ally of the society. In an address to the members in 2000, and to an enthusiastic reception, Arthur Scargill celebrated the October revolution: “I am sick and tired of listening to the so-called ‘experts’ today who still criticise the Soviet Union and, in particular, Stalin.” There is a huge overlap between the membership of Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party and the Stalin Society, evident in its campaign for the SLP.

All those who argued for decades that Scargill represented a legitimate part of the left may be expected to recant. Yet the signs were always there: Scargill met Khrushchev in 1956 and scolded him for trying to move away from Stalinism, telling him that “you can’t get rid of him by removing his body from the mausoleum”. Now that Scargill no longer has to be politic about his beliefs, he has outed himself as an admirer of the worst totalitarian dictator of the 20th century (Stalin, after all, murdered even more people than did Hitler).

Perhaps Tony Benn might pause in his next eloquent speech about democracy to explain his unflinching support for Scargill.