31 August 2004


Socialism in the Age of Waiting responds (here) to my response (here) to its response (here) to my original post (here) on Nick Cohen's piece in the Statesman (here). To cut to the quick, the objection is to my claim that left critics of the Soviet Union played an important role in weaning the left off its delusions about Soviet Union "socialism":

"While we take all this on board . . . we’d still put changing circumstances ahead of any of these arguments as the decisive factors in changing people’s minds. That’s not just a reflex expression of Marxist hostility towards treating politics as a conflict of ideas, rather than (instead of as well as) a conflict of social forces, it’s the result of wondering:

  • whether the phrase 'widely read', which Anderson applies to Goldman and Berkman, applies to any of the people cited

  • whether the specifically 'left' individuals in the list really made more impact on changing attitudes than such figures as Muggeridge, Orwell, Conquest and others who found readers across the political spectrum, and also among the self-consciously non-political

  • whether even they made as much impact as newspapers, television and other mass media . . .

  • and whether the often obscure, jargon-ridden, internecine quarrels of leftists and ex-leftists about the nature of the Soviet Union ever could have mattered – or should have mattered – more than the steady accumulation of knowledge about the brute facts of life under dictatorship, to which all those cited certainly, and admirably, contributed, but which they were in no position to guide or dominate.”

OK, to take these in reverse order.

One, I wasn’t writing about the quarrel among leftists and ex-leftists about whether the Soviet Union was state capitalist or a degenerate workers’ state (or whatever), which I think played very little role in convincing the left that Soviet socialism was a dead-end.

Two, it was precisely through the mass media – in particular newspapers –that left critics of the Soviet Union had their greatest impact.

Three, I agree completely that the likes of Muggeridge, Orwell and Conquest had more influence than sectarian polemicists who directed their writings at a purely left readership (and in the case of Muggeridge and Conquest, I’m pushing it to describe them as “left” critics, though Muggeridge certainly went out to Russia in 1932 as a Fabian and I have in front of me a passage by Conquest written in the late 1950s quoting approvingly from Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Marx . . .) – but so what?

And four – all right, I admit it: I can’t really answer scepticism about how widely read left critics of the Soviet Union really were except with anecdotes and circumstantial evidence: lots of reviews of books and mentions of promotional speaking tours in the contemporary press, name checks in other people’s memoirs, articles by the relevant authors in the national press and opinion weeklies et cetera. Of course, it’s quite possible for a book to be widely reviewed yet remain unread — which happened, for example to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia – or for articles to appear in even large-circulation newspapers yet have a nugatory readership. But until someone does a trawl through publishers’ archives and old library lending records, I’m afraid anecdotes and circumstantial evidence are the best we’ve got.

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