This, I fear, is a a long but not a weighty post. It expounds a matter of policy to do with this blog.
If there is one thing that my readers are entitled to, and I believe have come to expect, it is coverage, conducted with a due sense of decorum and respect, of aged or deceased personalities of the far Left. My subjects have included the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who believes "only a limited, even nominal, use of armed coercion was necessary to maintain [the communist systems] from 1957 until 1989" - which makes you wonder what a really violent crushing of the Prague Spring would have looked like.
I have also written of the late Reuben Falber, who as Assistant General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain secretly took delivery of large wads of cash from the Soviet Embassy and laundered it through the party's pension fund. More recently, I noted the death of Monty Johnstone, defender of British Communists' "justified support on the diplomatic plane for the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact" (i.e. cheering the Nazi-Soviet pact).
You get the idea. There are stories here worth the telling - and for some reason, the obituaries carried by The Guardian whenever one of these scoundrels shuffles off this mortal coil invariably either scurry past or miss out altogether the interesting bits. I don't wish to exaggerate the public service I provide in this respect, as it's a personal recreation as well - but there genuinely is a gap in the market for political commentary here.
In the past, when endeavouring to fill that gap, I have reliably received copious angry messages at my business email address from a blogger called Chris Bertram. I believe that Bertram, who teaches philosophy at Bristol University, was once part of the editorial board of New Left Review. Despite his long service in that political milieu, he is never clear - or at least not to me - what his objections to my treatment of it consist in. Our correspondence thus takes an unvarying form. I respond to his questions and charges as fully as I am able, and press him on what he has found exceptionable in my comments; but the best I can get out of him is that he is offended. As my regular readers will know, I find this always a feeble argument for anything, and as Bertram has never advanced beyond that critique I'm unable to meet or even understand his objections.
The last time he did this, in response to my post about the CPGB theoretician Monty Johnstone, Bertram puzzlingly copied his missive to Norman Geras with the instruction that Norman explain to me how shameful were my remarks. Norman prudently refrained from entering into the correspondence, though I should have been glad to hear an argument (as could safely have been relied upon) more cogent than the state of Bertram's sensibilities. In any event, my approach is explained in a Times column last year. Referring to comments by Christopher Hitchens concerning the Revd Jerry Falwell, I wrote: "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."
Those elderly or deceased figures I have mentioned have fortunately not held public office. They have, though - like Jerry Falwell - led public lives geared to exhortation and influence. I should be glad if any reader were to take up the task that Bertram has eschewed, and explain what is objectionable - not "offensive" or "nasty", because those aesthetic considerations don't concern me - about critical scrutiny of such lives once they've ended. I suspect that the explanation is either sentimentality of a type that adults ought not to indulge in, or a desire to prettify political lives that are far from reputable.
I'm confirmed in this inference by the finding that Bertram's solicitude extends to those who've been dead a long time as well. You can read here a post by him referring to my remarks on the late Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband, father of the Foreign Secretary. I don't wish my readers to think me sensitive, but I take issue with Bertram's description of me as "a vicious little merchant banker". It is not technically true that I am a merchant banker, though I grant that I work in a related field.
Unfair though it would be to pin these on Bertram, his post carries a grandiloquently demented thread of 275 reader comments devoted to expounding the achievements of Soviet Communism. ("'Eliminating the kulaks as a class' clearly is not the same as 'eliminating the kulaks'," insists one defender of the heroic legacy of Josef Stalin.) Fortunately, Bertram's own indignation on Miliband's behalf is scarcely more sophisticated or reputable. He defends Miliband on the grounds that the man "didn’t appreciate how horrific the Pol Pot regime had been, or didn’t believe all the reports". Yes, that's the defence; and Bertram concludes, with reference to the paper that I linked to:
Miliband argues, correctly, that all that resulted from [Soviet] interventions was alienation from the socialist cause, and the installation of weak puppet regimes without popular legitimacy. You’d never gather that from reading Kamm’s blog, though. He presents Miliband’s attack on Soviet tankism as an apologia for massacre. That wasn’t how it would have been read at the time. In fact, it isn’t how a fair-minded person would read it now.
No careful writer makes confident assertions about how something "would have been read", without first investigating how it was in fact read. The tortuousness of Bertram's tense demonstrates that he is no careful writer, because he hasn't done this. Indeed, I don't know why I'm being so polite about a man who can regard so frivolously Miliband's dismissal of the refugee accounts from Cambodia. You don't need to take my word on this; consider instead the account of Miliband's highly sympathetic biographer, Michael Newman, in the book I cited in my post (Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left, 2002). Newman is desperate to think the best of his subject, and his understatement is blackly comic in its equivocation. But he doesn't shirk the painful facts (in a footnote, p. 318):
Miliband's immediate reaction to the intervention [in Cambodia] had been to condemn the Vietnamese action and to argue that, however awful the Cambodian regime had been, there was no justification for external intervention unless it had been called for by "an authentic liberation movement". In the light of subsequent knowledge about the Pol Pot regime, this would seem an inadequate discussion of the issues but even at the time it was rather surprising. There had been reports of atrocities immediately after the seizure of power by the Khmer Rouge at the begininng of January 1975 and it was curious that Miliband treated the intervention as if "normal" rules applied. Soon after their invasion in 1979 the Vietnamese produced evidence of mass graves on a horrendous scale and in July claimed that the Pol Pot regime had murdered three million people. This was no doubt an exaggeration but authoritative sources still claim that approximately 1.7 million were killed. However, Miliband appears to have been influenced by the views of [Noam] Chomsky who published a two volume work co-authored with E.S Herman in 1979, entitled The Political Economy of Human Rights....
For many of my readers, all will now fit into place. Newman gives the briefest of expositions of Chomsky and Herman's thesis, and specifically these authors' claim that Khmer Rouge atrocities were predominantly the work of local officials rather than part of a plan by the regime. (This notorious article by Chomsky and Herman, in The Nation, 6 June 1977, speaks pointedly of "alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities" and "the extreme unreliability of refugee reports".) Newman delicately concludes: "This appeared difficult to reconcile with the evidence that emerged after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979."
Of course it was "difficult to reconcile" with evidence from long before that date too. My friend William Shawcross wrote in March 1976 of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, in "Cambodia Under Its New Rulers", New York Review of Books. (Those who imagine John Pilger to have a record of pioneering journalistic achievement on this subject might consider how much later he was in covering it than William - not until Vietnam had ceased treating Pol Pot as an ally, in fact.) But Newman has it right, nonetheless. Newman then refers to the contemporary readership of the malevolent stupidity that so impressed Miliband - or rather to one especially acute reader, the political theorist and sociologist Steven Lukes.
Lukes wrote to Miliband on 23 October 1980 pointing out that Chomsky and Herman's treatment of Cambodia was "little short of disgraceful". He then published an article to that effect in The Times Higher Education Supplement, 7 October 1980. Newman takes up the story:
On 5 December 1980 Miliband told Lukes that he was extremely unhappy about his article and he came close to endorsing Chomsky's position. Chomsky also reasserted his views in a bitter letter to Lukes on 7 December 1980 (sending a copy to Miliband), after which Miliband wrote to Lukes again insisting that Chomsky's letter had made "a case for you to answer, given the gravity of your charges".... Lukes reasserted his position in a column in the THES on 27 March 1981 entitled "Suspending Chomsky's Disbeliefs". Making no concessions to Chomsky, he again dismissed the view that the terror was not centrally planned, argued that many of those upon whom Chomsky had relied had now changed their views, and suggested that it was up to Chomsky to do the same.
Well might Newman conclude, with that peculiar talent for genteel circumlocution:
Few would now contradict Lukes's view and Miliband's judgment in aligning his position so closely to that of Chomsky appears questionable. Without any real expertise on the area, he had understated the enormity of the crimes and endorsed a particular interpretation which appeared to minimise the responsibility of the Pol Pot regime itself.
It would be cruel to belabour the point, so I'll get it over with quickly. Recall Bertram's insistence that those reading Miliband's views at the time would have regarded them as an unexceptionable statement of opposition to Soviet tanks in Eastern Europe. If I were being generous, I'd refer to the prerogative of the blogger to make arbitrary, ahistorical and fatuous pronouncements on the basis of zero research. In the further case of my indefatigable correspondent Bertram, I'm already familiar with the inverse relationship between the passionate intensity of his convictions and the amount of knowledge invested in their formulation. But in the specific case of Bertram's presenting a disgraceful argument as something percipient and principled, I'd add a rider: the man's a fool.
A word, incidentally, on Marxist theorists, about whom one comment on my earlier post was dismissive. That isn't a view I share, even where Ralph Miliband is concerned. I have referred in print to Miliband once, in an article for The Jewish Chronicle last year. If you read it, I believe you'll find it quite generous to him. I have a certain respect for his intellectual legacy. One of his books in particular, Marxism and Politics, 1977, strikes me as valuable and lucid - even if a shade pointless in its attempt to invoke Marxist categories against insurrectionary strategies.
There are other Marxist theorists, moreover, for whom I have nothing but respect. The late pragmatist philosopher Sidney Hook, whom I quoted in this post, is the single most important intellectual influence on my politics. He lived just long enough to see the collapse of regimes in Eastern Europe whose political legitimacy he had worked tirelessly to undermine. I wish I had written to Hook while he was alive. I have exchanged views about him at length with the writer Paul Berman, who did know him and admires his work as I do. I have benefited from the friendship, scholarship and conversation of two noted Marxist thinkers of a more recent generation than Hook, Norman Geras and the late Paul Hirst. (I regret that I met Norman for the first time only after Paul had died prematurely in 2003, and I was thus not able to introduce them. There was a wonderful obituary published in The Guardian by the labour historian Ben Pimlott, who was Paul's colleague at Birkbeck College, where I had the good fortune to study under them. Ben himself died tragically young, in 2004, of leukaemia.)
But a Marxist thinker who associates with the cause of Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman in foreign affairs deserves censure. The late Ralph Miliband receives mine.