I like to think that this blog is a market leader in attacking recently-deceased veterans of the Communist Party of Great Britain and their octogenarian and nonagenarian comrades. I'm unable to understand why people of deep totalitarian conviction should be treated with indulgence merely owing to their longevity. For some reason, much such mush appears in that most venerable of liberal institutions, The Guardian.
Last week the newspaper carried an obituary of Communist theoretician Monty Johnstone, written by his longstanding party colleague the historian Eric Hobsbawm (of whom I wrote here). According to Hobsbawm:
Monty Johnstone, who has died from complications following treatment for a burst ulcer, aged 78, was an admired, but for the most part lonely, presence in communist and socialist politics for half a century….
Monty was to remain a loyal but critical communist all his life, hostile to the dilution of socialist ideals but equally critical of the destruction of democracy in post-1917 Russia and the blind loyalty of communist parties to Moscow.
Though he stayed in the party after 1956, he was viewed with suspicion, and the party press was closed to him until after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, during which, in Prague, he tried to dissuade embarrassed Russian tank crews in fluent Russian. Meanwhile in the CP, his anti-Stalinism pioneered what later became known as Eurocommunism. He also established a reputation among the 1960s New Left, and became associated with Ralph Miliband (obituary, May 23 1994) and Isaac Deutscher.
Note carefully what Hobsbawm is saying and implicitly approving. Johnstone was critical of “the destruction of democracy” – which is an unspecific way of describing the Red Terror, the purges and the Moscow Show Trials – and equally he was opposed to the “dilution of socialist ideals”. The notion that constitutional procedures and the rule of law are not equal to, but take precedence over, the attainment of ideological goals is alien to this way of thinking. Eurocommunism took shape in the 1970s under the auspices particularly of the Italian and Spanish Communist parties. It marked in this crucial respect no radical break with orthodox Communism, and was therefore irrevocably an enemy of parties of the democratic Left. Try imagining a figure such as Clement Attlee or Willy Brandt declaring, “I wish for the election of a social democratic government and equally I am opposed to the public hanging of agricultural workers who own livestock.” The absurdity of the example gives a mere pointer to the gulf between social democracy and Communism: one defends parliamentary democracy while the other can conceive of it only as a short-term tactic and more usually a long-run enemy.
So far as “blind loyalty of communist parties to Moscow” went, Johnstone was no less adept than his more orthodox party comrades. As his obituary notes, he never wrote a book; he did, however, write various pamphlets and articles, as this faintly comic panegyric recalls. One revealing indication of his thinking is published in a volume called 1939: The Communist Party of Great Britain and the War, eds. John Attfield and Stephen Williams, 1984. The book comprises the proceedings of a conference held in 1979 by the Communist Party History Group. Johnstone is so freethinking by comparison with his comrades that he concludes that the CPGB's opposition to war between 1939 and 1941 was wrong. No, seriously. Yet he determinedly defends the Nazi-Soviet pact. This (p. 41) is what he has to say (emphasis added): "The justified support on the diplomatic plane for the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact had led to unwarranted conclusions on the plane of the political tasks of the Communist Parties." According to Monty Johnstone, then, the problem was not with the Soviet Union's serving as accessory to Nazi barbarism. It was with Western Communists' not having a correct interpretation of the tasks that this worthy pact required of them.
On that note, I feel I owe my readers an apology. Monty Johnstone's obituary appeared in The Guardian over a week ago. The man has thus turned cold in his grave before I have got round to declaring publicly that his death in no wise diminishes me, or you. I regret that oversight.