Review: Martin Amis: Koba the Dread, Laughter and the twenty millions

A NEW book by the novelist Martin Amis entitled Koba the Dread: Laughter and the twenty million has created a stir in the world of politics as well as literature.

This book’s title relates to a nickname of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and an estimate of the number of people that died because of his rule.

The book is largely a description of the horrors which occurred in the Soviet Union under Stalin, but includes an open letter from Amis to his father, the writer Kingsley Amis (who died in 1995 and was once a member of the Communist Party), and one written to journalist Christopher Hitchens, a close friend and one-time supporter of Trotskyist ideas.

One of Amis’ underlying arguments is the familiar one that Stalin’s crimes were just a continuation and logical successor of the Russian Revolution of 1917 led by Lenin and Trotsky.

That’s an important view to debate, but unfortunately the book contains no serious analysis and is written almost as if its subjects were characters from one of Amis’ novels – amoral individuals living illogical lives. If Amis hadn’t been the well-known novelist he is, his book probably wouldn’t have merited much attention.

However, given Amis’ fame, what better way for the capitalist press to push this attack on the leaders of the Russian Revolution than by publicising Amis’ book. A number of newspapers have in fact featured extracts from it recently.

The supposedly left-wing Guardian newspaper stated their intentions without even a hint of embarrassment in a leader article. "If Mr Amis manages to ensure that revolutionary socialism rests in an unquiet grave, then he will have achieved a necessary purpose, irrespective of whether his is a particularly good book or not".

So there you have it. Any old rubbish is all right as long as it attacks socialism!

Total fabrication

AMIS’ REASONING is hardly profound. "The Revolution was a lie… An admiration for Lenin and Trotsky is meaningless without an admiration for terror… Trotsky was a murdering bastard"… etc.etc.

However, given the attention Amis’ book is receiving it is worth looking at his basic arguments from a socialist viewpoint. One simple fact immediately strikes you.

If Lenin and Trotsky were merely the forerunners of Stalin, why did Lenin, who died in 1924, spend the last period of his life and Trotsky most of the last two decades of his life waging a bitter struggle against him and his policies?

Presumably they were not just evil, but incredibly devious as well! Amis apparently didn’t think it worthwhile reading anything Trotsky wrote. However he does quote one of Lenin’s works. This is State and Revolution from which Amis quotes the passage that what the Communist Party wanted was "unquestioning obedience to the will of a single person, the Soviet leader".

Pretty damning stuff, except for one small problem. This is a complete fabrication and nothing remotely like this appears in the work.

If Amis had actually bothered to read State and Revolution he would have found that this work lays out the principles that Lenin saw as the foundations of a democratic socialist state.

These were that (i) All officials and managers should be elected and subject to recall, (ii) No official would receive more than the wage of an ordinary worker, (iii) Popular participation in management and the rotation of duties ("all will govern in turn and will soon become accustomed to no-one governing"), and (iv) No standing army but defence organised democratically by the people.

It was these principles that Lenin and Trotsky put forward and fought to defend all their lives.


WHO WAS Stalin and what did he represent? Again Amis doesn’t attempt any analysis, other than stating the fact that he was a murderer and megalomaniac. These he undoubtedly was, but we need to ask how he came to be in the position of power that he occupied, given that he only played a comparatively minor part in the 1917 Revolution.

Lenin and Trotsky did not believe socialism was possible in the backward conditions of Russia on its own – 80% of Russia’s population were peasants and 70% were illiterate. This was doubly the case in the years after the Revolution when the economy was largely destroyed by the civil war against the former landlords and capitalists and invading foreign armies.

Socialism, they argued, required the highest development and organisation of production, with a working class that could have the time and resources to run society. That’s why they looked to developments in the West to provide the support to maintain the Revolution at home.

Despite mass revolutionary movements in countries like Germany these did not lead to the hoped-for revolution and the Soviet state was isolated.

It was in these conditions, with what Lenin called "the same old Tsarist state machine today, with a thin veneer of socialism spread on top", that Stalin began his ascendancy.

Stalin ideally represented and fostered the layer of bureaucrats and functionaries against the "thin veneer of socialism" represented by Lenin and Trotsky.

Although often made up of the same individuals and using the same methods that had run the former Tsarist apparatus, the key difference was that this new bureaucracy relied for its increasing privileges not on the old landlord and capitalist economy, but on the nationalised state-run economy.

The role of this Stalinist bureaucratic clique was first reflected in mistakes in domestic and foreign policy. Particularly tragically its incorrect policies and bureaucratic methods contributed to the failure of foreign revolutions which could have ended the isolation of the Soviet Union and regenerated the revolution if they had been successful.

Gradually, however, the Stalinist bureaucracy became an open anti-revolutionary force both within the Soviet Union and elsewhere, undermining and eventually reversing the principles of democratic socialism that Lenin had outlined.

Amis documents the outcome of one of the bureaucratic manoeuvrings of Stalinism, one of the most tragic in human terms, its policy on collectivisation of the peasantry.

Trotsky had argued for a gradual collectivisation based on industrial development that could provide the tractors and other resources necessary, together with a voluntary programme that could attract peasants by example.

The Stalinist bureaucracy’s policy veered wildly. At first they effectively ignored the need for collectivisation then later implemented an insane policy of forced collectivisation.

This led to millions of deaths, some directly through its attempt to destroy better-off peasants as a class, and indirectly through the famines that ensued.

Purge trials

MUCH OF Amis’ book describes the terrible events of the mid-1930’s, the purge trials and the labour camps. Although the book’s descriptions are shocking and moving, yet again Amis doesn’t show the slightest scrap of understanding of what took place.

Despite the enormous human and economic cost of forced collectivisation and bureaucratically implemented industrialisation, the Soviet economy by the mid-1930s had advanced enormously, creating a powerful urban and rural working class.

The movement of this class in the direction of recreating democratic socialism posed the greatest threat to the Stalinist bureaucracy and its privileges.

Internationally (despite the terrible defeat by fascism in Germany, itself indirectly a result of the errors of Stalinism) mass socialist working-class movements, especially in Spain, presented a powerful example to the Soviet workers.

In one of the most tragic episodes for the working class internationally, Stalinism strangled the incipient revolution in Spain, leading eventually to the victory of fascism under Franco.

Within the Soviet Union, Stalin saw the old Communists who had led the Revolution in 1917 and who still retained the memory of what democratic socialism had been like, as a particular threat to him and the rule of the bureaucracy.

In a series of staged show trials, effectively this entire group were tortured into confessing that they had been agents of imperialism all their lives, then they were summarily executed.

As part of this horrific process of eliminating any potential opposition, millions of people were murdered particularly in the slave labour camps in Siberia and elsewhere.

Although Amis’ father didn’t join the Communist Party until 1941, Amis’ criticism of him – and through him of Communist Party members and supporters at the time – has an element that can be sympathised with.

Many of these individuals were influenced by the crisis of capitalism after the Wall Street crash and the growth of fascism, which Amis doesn’t acknowledge. However, they adopted an uncritical attitude towards the Soviet Union and refused to see the terrible events taking place.

Heroic opposition

THE MOST shameful aspect of Amis’ book, however, is that having castigated all those who ignored what was going on, he fails to even mention those that fought the bureaucracy at the time.

He does that with good reason, of course, as the focus of this resistance was Trotsky and his supporters and he intends to slander and discredit them.

Trotsky himself paid a terrible personal price for his unbending opposition. Virtually every member of his family was systematically exterminated by Stalin’s terror apparatus, culminating in his own assassination in Mexico in 1940.

Within the Soviet Union, his supporters formed the core of a truly heroic opposition to the regime. Although they realised what they faced, they remained true to their beliefs – the ideals of the 1917 Revolution.

An example was the revolutionary Guvorkian, imprisoned in one of the worst labour camps of all, the Vorkuta camp inside the Arctic circle in Siberia.

An account smuggled out from the camp relates how he explained to his fellow prisoners: "No compromise is possible with the Stalinist traitors and hangmen of the Revolution. Remain-ing proletarian revolutionaries to the very end, we should not entertain any illusion about the fate awaiting us".

Guvorkian with other Trotskyists incredibly organised a successful hunger strike at the camp. The account describes what happened eventually to those like him. "One time, a group of nearly a hundred, composed mainly of Trotskyists, was led away to be shot. As they marched away, the condemned sang the Internationale, joined by the voices of hundreds of prisoners remaining in camp".

Perhaps the best tribute to these heroes – and the best refutation of the views of Amis and those like him – was provided by the Soviet master-spy, Leopold Trepper.

Trepper was a supporter of Stalin, but apart from being a man of outstanding courage and resourcefulness who organised the Soviet espionage network inside Nazi occupied Europe, he was also willing to criticise his past mistakes honestly.

Trepper wrote: "But who did protest at the time? Who rose up to voice his outrage? The Trotskyites can lay claim to this honour. Following the example of their leader, who was rewarded for his obstinacy with the end of an ice-axe, they fought Stalinism to the death, and they were the only ones who did.

"By the time of the great Purges, they could only shout their rebellion in the freezing wastelands where they had been dragged in order to be exterminated".

It is from this tradition that the Socialist Party today proudly claims its heritage, and we certainly don’t need to apologise to Martin Amis and his co-thinkers.

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October 2002