There was a lively comments thread under my post last week about the late Ralph Miliband, Marxist theorist and minimiser of the crimes of Pol Pot. One comment came from a regular correspondent, David Boothroyd (author of the invaluable Politico's History of UK Political Parties, 2001):
'De mortuis nil nisi bonum' has always been voluntary, not compulsory. In 1971, when the reactionary former Lord Chief Justice Lord Goddard was given a good kicking in Bernard Levin's Times column, there was a loud protest by Goddard's friends over the unfairness of attacking a man who could not answer back, and the poor taste of doing so just after Goddard's death. Levin responded that he had said everything in his column, and more, while Goddard was alive.
In reply, I recalled also a column that Bernard Levin wrote shortly after the death of the literary critic and Communist Party intellectual Arnold Kettle. (Kettle was Professor of Literature at the Open University, and father of the Guardian journalist Martin Kettle.) I said that this article didn't appear to have been published in Levin's collected columns, but in fact I was mistaken. The column, which was published in The Times on 5 January 1987, appears in Levin's All Things Considered, 1988, pp. 195-200. This article, which I recall drew the anger of Eric Hobsbawm, noted the euphemisms of the character testimonials in Kettle's obituaries, and concluded:
I shall now be accused of a cowardly attack on a dead man, and of spitting in his grave. Allow me to reply, in advance of the accusations. It would have taken no courage for Arnold Kettle, in free Britain, to tell the truth about Communism. By his lifelong refusal to do so he spat in the grave of Communism's millions of victims.
I am with Levin on this. I consequently took particular exception to the Guardian obituary last year, written by Hobsbawm, for the CPGB theoretician Monty Johnstone. So I wrote my own version, filling in certain points that Hobsbawm had left out - notably Johnstone's unwavering belief that British Communists had been right to support the Nazi-Soviet pact.
Not for the first time after writing about deceased British Communists, I received a stern message of protest from the blogger Chris Bertram, a former member of the editorial board of New Left Review. As I recounted last week, Bertram copied his email to Norman Geras, with the instruction that Norman explain to me the shamefulness of my remarks. My practice when Bertram writes to me along these lines is to answer his questions and charges as fully as I can, and give him permission to publish my replies on his blog. He then doesn't publish them, so I assume that I've answered his objections satisfactorily, till the next time. Accordingly, as an indication of my policy with regard to those of disreputable opinions, I reproduce below my responses to Bertram's complaints. Here is the first.
Dear Chris, I accept I'm slightly hampered in assessing Johnstone's politics by the paucity of his output. He wrote one long pamphlet in the Eurocommunist debates (so would have been late 70s) in which he advanced his position by reference to a highly idiosyncratic reading of Lenin, who he argued was a democrat. You can, of course, advance such a case by highly literalist readings of The State & Revolution, just as some people used to argue that the Soviet Constitution of 1936 proved Stalin's democratic credentials. I don't need to say what's wrong with that argument, or with propounding the progressive character of a tyrant who stressed the "mass character of the terror" and urged his associates to implement it (e.g. 500 hostages shot after the assassination of Uritsky, head of the Petrograd Cheka). Unfortunately my copy of Johnstone's pamphlet has parted company with me over the years, and I refrained from mentioning this casuistical masterpiece only because I try not to recount arguments from distant memory.
The piece I did cite, however, is sufficient for the inference I drew. There is a great deal more that I might have said about it, especially Johnstone's defence of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. I came across this volume (which is in the London Library, though not on open shelves) a few years ago when I was tracking Hobsbawm's political tergiversations. I did this independently, but found shortly afterwards that Martin Shaw had referenced the same piece by Johnstone in an essay about Marxism and the Peace Movement, included in a volume called Campaigns for Peace: British Peace Movements in the 20th Century, eds. Richard Taylor & Nigel Young, 1988. I don't have the book in front of me, but Shaw referred to Johnstone's comments on Poland as either disgraceful or scandalous (or some close equivalent). "Despicable" would be my adjective of choice.
I'm willing to believe that Johnstone was a man of amiable character. Why his personal characteristics should have weight in my judgement of his politics is entirely obscure to me. If, however, Norman were to explain the shameful character of my remarks, then I would listen attentively and respectfully. But I believe it would exceed even his powers of exposition to mount a convincing defence of the politics of a man who commended Soviet imperialism in formal alliance with Nazi barbarism - even a defence that it was an honourable error. Johnstone's wasn't an honourable error: it was a bloody disgrace.
I wouldn't have doubted, by the way, that like Norman and me (and unlike a perplexingly large number of bloggers) you treat private emails in confidence rather than as material for your blog. But if you do wish to write a blog post on this subject, you're welcome to reproduce these comments.
And here is the second, after Bertram had replied.
Dear Chris, Now you've confused me. I had thought you were taking issue with my judgements about Monty Johnstone, just as you queried on erroneous grounds my depiction of the crooked money-launderer Reuben Falber on his death last year. Yet it turns out you agree with me. The only part of my post with which you indicate dissent is my final sentence, and then on the grounds that you are personally offended by it. I'm afraid you probably will need to prevail upon Norman to explain what's shameful about that, as it is not self-evident and you appear unwilling to accomplish the task yourself.
It is true that in a normal case a person's life is not encapsulated in his episodic political judgements. We are not dealing here with a normal case. Johnstone was not a social democrat, a Green, a Bevanite, or a radical anti-war socialist of the type symbolised by Norman Thomas in the US and the ILP in Britain. All of those are affiliations within the spectrum of democratic politics, and are compatible with leading an exemplary life (Thomas being a case in point). Johnstone, however, was a Communist. His party advanced a totalitarian ideology and certain of its leading figures were covert agents of the Soviet Union (e.g. James Klugmann). His life's work - for he had no other profession for 50 years after taking up a party post - was to advance the political cause of Lenin, who is exceeded only by Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao as the worst tyrant of the 20th century. He defended the Soviet Union's pact with Nazi Germany and imperialism in central Europe. As I wrote in The Times recently, in connection with Christopher Hitchens's comments on the Revd Jerry Falwell: "Is there merit in the mild hypocrisy of not speaking ill of the recently deceased? Not in the case of public figures who influence policy or exercise office.... A toxic figure in life is not less so in posthumous influence."
Johnstone fortunately held no public office. But his life was a public one, geared to exhortation on political matters. That comprised not sound judgements on some things and ill judgement on others - as one might say of Willy Brandt, to name one of my counterexamples - but consistent and overriding adherence to totalitarianism. In short, his life was one of discredit and disrepute. As The Guardian omitted to note this, I have taken upon myself the obligation of the public commentator to fill in the missing information.
As before, you're welcome to publish this if you wish.
I'm uncomprehending why it should be considered "nasty" and "vicious" - which, to my complacence, are sometimes adjectives applied to me - to make factual observations about the considered opinions of public figures. As far as I know, no one else in print has picked up the fact that Eric Hobsbawm implicitly believes the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 was "a limited, even nominal, use of armed coercion". When the nonagenarian historian dies, I shall be as unconstrained in recalling Hobsbawm's position as I am in pointing it out now. There may be a statute of limitations in common law; it would be an odd sentimentality if there were one also for perverse historical judgements, and I certainly don't observe it.