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Book review, 'Labour and the Gulag: Russia and the Seduction of the British Left'

Labour and the Gulag: Russia and the Seduction of the British Left. Giles Udy.
London: Biteback Publishing, 2017. 688 pages.

When was the date of guilty knowledge for defenders of Soviet communism? At what point did Western supporters of the regime cease to be merely naive and became knowingly complicit? Commenting on the "pyramid of corpses" that the Bolsheviks had built, George Orwell remarked in 1941 that "[a]ll people who are morally sound have known since about 1931 that the Russian regime stinks." Reading Giles Udy’s excellent new book Labour and the Gulag, it is difficult to put the date of guilty knowledge any later than that.

Cover, "Labour and the Gulag" by Giles Udy.In January 1930, the New Statesman reported that dekulakisation was a "cruel experiment" involving "imprisonment and execution." Over the next two years, 1.8 million kulaks were arrested and deported to the North. Some 240,000 died. By 1931, 60,000 Russians had been arrested on religious grounds and 5,000 shot. The exact numbers may not have been known in the West, but the basic facts of Soviet mass murder, disenfranchisement, and slave labour were available to any literate Briton by the end of the 1920s.

More than a million people in Europe took part in "Prayers for the Persecuted" in 1930, effectively a mass protest again Russian barbarism towards the clergy. The Soviets’ use of unpaid prison labour to produce timber in the unbearable conditions of northern Russia was well documented and led many countries to boycott Russian timber in the 1920s. British sailors travelling to northern Russia saw the conditions with their own eyes, and numerous stowaways and escapees were able to provide the grim details. The evidence was there for those who had eyes to see.

Not everybody did. Timber made in gulags was illegal under the Foreign Prison-Made Goods Act of 1897 and the Labour Party had taken a strong stand against "sweated goods" when they were in opposition in the mid-1920s. And yet the Labour Party did not ban it once they were in power (the Conservatives finally did so in 1933), and many on the British Left refused to accept the evidence of brutality, starvation, and mass shootings long after the evidence was overwhelming.

Desperate to believe in the success of what Labour leader George Lansbury called the "wonderful experiment," large numbers of British socialists were suckers for Soviet propaganda. After one stage-managed visit to the USSR, MP George Strauss declared that conditions for prisoners in the gulags were "very much more favourable than in our English prisons." MP Ben Tillett described Russian prisons as being "more like a hospital than a place of detention." Another sympathetic observer concluded that prisoners’ living standards were "as good as those of first-class misdemeanants in England." His only complaint was that Muscovite inmates could only get "bourgeois" foreign newspapers rather than good international Labour ones. The Soviet regime agreed to rectify the situation.

Those who were prepared to admit that the USSR was not quite – or not yet – a fully fledged workers’ paradise consoled themselves with the knowledge that omelettes couldn’t be made without breaking eggs. "Freedom is, in reality, rigidly subordinated to the State purpose," admitted the Guardian in 1931, before adding: "So long as the people submit to be disciplined and regimented in the name of Socialism, or any other name, it is not for us to interfere, only to watch this amazing triumph of human endurance." In fact, it is doubtful whether the Guardian would have been so sanguine if freedom had been curtailed in "any other name" than socialism. British socialists would not have lived under such conditions themselves, nor would they have tolerated the British working class being so "disciplined and regimented" in the name of capitalism.

Fellow travellers’ great mistake was to assume that the Soviet leadership shared their respect for justice and the sanctity of life. Bolshevik morality could not be more different from the Judeo-Christian values that were taken for granted in Britain.

Faced with mounting evidence of oppression, the regime’s admirers resorted to logically fallacious tu quoque ("you too") and ad hominem ("to the man") attacks. The alleged crimes of the Bolsheviks (the Guardian invariably used the word "alleged" when talking about religious persecution under Stalin) were often compared to the worst historical examples of religious violence in a shameless attempt to downplay them. "Pope reminded of Catholic torture and burnings," reported the Guardian as the Communists starved and shot the priesthood. The New Leader told its readers that "if what is written about persecution in Russia is true, it would pale into insignificance before the record of Rome itself." Many of these transparent attempts to change the subject were risible. Of the slave-made timber, one Labour MP snarked in 1931: "Is the Right Honourable Gentleman aware that the Russian Government are gravely concerned about conditions in the Lancashire cotton industry?"

It was undoubtedly true that many of the "allegations" against the Soviet regime were repeated by socialism’s enemies. In leftist circles, their association with "die-hard Tories" and "Tory plotters" was enough for them to be ignored. As late as April 1931, the Independent Labour Party dismissed "the cry of slave labour" as "preliminary propaganda designed to prepare the way for a vast militarist attack on the workers of Russia." This was four months after the U.S. Congress had officially acknowledged that Russian timber was produced by "convict labour" under "brutal conditions," and two months after it had been noted in Cabinet minutes that there was "little doubt that an investigation would show that Russian timber was handled by forced labour."

It would not be surprising if the crimes of the Bolsheviks were exploited and amplified by conservatives for political reasons, but this was no more justification for turning a blind eye to human rights abuses than the "record of Rome" justified turning a blind eye to the persecution of Russian churchgoers. It certainly did not justify absurd statements such as that of the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, who insisted that "Christianity is no more persecuted in Russia today than was atheism in England 80 years ago."

Mere statistics cannot do justice to the suffering under Lenin and Stalin. It is estimated that 2.8 million people died in the gulags. More than 800,000 were shot before they got there; 370,000 kulaks were shot in the purges of 1937-38; and 100,000 Russians had been killed for the crime of practising religion by 1940. Udy argues persuasively that the fellow travellers’ great mistake was to assume that the Soviet leadership shared their respect for justice and the sanctity of life. Bolshevik morality could not be more different from the Judeo-Christian values that were taken for granted in Britain. The Soviet leadership was violent, cynical, and opportunistic, as could be seen by reading the works of Lenin and Trotsky at the time. They felt no sense of kinship with the Western leftists who considered them friends.

It is easy to fool somebody who wants to be fooled. It was only when Stalin started killing other leading Communists that the regime’s more deluded apologists woke up and smelt the coffee. Even that was not enough for some. While the Independent Labour Party called on Stalin to "end this regime of blood" in 1938, the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb went to their graves (in 1950 and 1943, respectively) convinced that the Stalinist regime was essentially decent. Even after the purges of the 1930s, which the Soviets’ own archives show killed hundreds of thousands, Webb described the USSR as "the most inclusive and equalised democracy in the world."

In his later life, Tony Benn claimed that the "excesses during the Stalinist period" were "not widely known" until after the dictator’s death in 1953. Similarly, the communist historian Eric Hobsbawm pleaded ignorance when questioned about his unwavering support of the regime in the 1990s. But, as Udy writes, this revisionism is "completely untrue. The excesses were widely known; they were simply not accepted by many on the Left."

This is a timely book, not only because it is the centenary of Russian Revolution, but because the hard-Left is back in fashion. The shadow home secretary openly believes that Chairman Mao "did more good than harm." Jeremy Corbyn’s communications director is nostalgic for East Germany. Mention the USSR or Venezuela to a certain type of socialist today, and you will see the same tactics of denial, deflection, and false equivalences being deployed. What about Pinochet? What about food banks? What about the capitalist saboteurs? What about the Bengal famine? What about the slaughter of Native Americans? (For some unfathomable reason, Tankies regard the last two events as being quintessentially capitalist.)

In 1937, as the Stalinist terror reached its peak, Patricia Russell (wife of the philosopher Bertrand) wrote to George Bernard Shaw to tell him that she had always thought him "frivolous" and "cruel" but that "if you really believe what you say about Soviet justice, you must also be rather stupid." Shaw was not a stupid man, and yet the promise of true socialism affected him and so many others with a sort of motivated ignorance. Giles Udy’s book is a reminder to the British Left of a chapter in its history that it would sooner forget. We must hope that its belief in utopia does not blind it to reality again.

This article was originally published on the blog of the Institute of Economic Affairs and is reprinted with permission.

(Photo credit: Spiridon Ion Cepleanu. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Christopher Snowdon is the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). He is the author of The Art of Suppression, The Spirit Level Delusion, and Velvet Glove; Iron Fist. His work focuses on pleasure, prohibition and dodgy statistics. He has authored a number of publications including Sock Puppets, Euro Puppets, The Proof of the Pudding, The Crack Cocaine of Gambling and Free Market Solutions in Health.