Once it was British socialists who ignored Russian atrocities; now it’s the City that turns a blind eye
Sunday October 14, 2007
Bibliophiles value first editions, not second. The only exception to the rule I know is Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? by Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The founders of the London School of Economics first published it in 1935 as Stalin’s terror was building, the labour camps were filling and a manmade famine had killed millions in Ukraine. They justified them all.
The Webbs did note the incessant propaganda, but dismissed it by wondering whether the ‘million-fold listeners-in’ to the BBC weren’t also the victims of a brainwashing that was just as sinister. They were, they concluded. There was no moral difference between Josef Stalin and Lord Reith. ‘For the individual citizen, propaganda is inescapable. His mind is bludgeoned to compel him to admit a whole series of ideas. Where systems differ is in who wields the bludgeon.’ As for the murders, they were regrettable but essential means of meeting the people’s needs. ‘It must be recognised,’ the Webbs continued, ‘that this liquidation of the individual capitalists in agriculture had necessarily to be faced if the required increase of output was to be obtained.’
By 1937, Stalin’s terror had engulfed the Soviet empire. Whole races were being transported, the Communist party was being massacred, every petrified citizen knew they must denounce or be denounced. The Webbs responded to the catastrophe by amending the second edition. I don’t know if you spotted it but the title of the first – Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? – ended with a question mark that delicately suggested it was possible to doubt that the Soviet Union was a workers’ paradise. All hesitation was abandoned for the second. The Webbs responded to the creation of a slave economy by dropping the question mark and publishing the unambiguously titled Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation
Seventy years on, I sat in a lecture theatre at the Webbs’ LSE for a debate on whether freedom of speech in Russia could survive the murders of journalists and sweeping censorship that have accompanied Vladimir Putin’s push to a one-party state.
It was easy to think nothing had changed. On the stage were sleek representatives of Putin’s new civilisation. Like the Webbs before her, Dariya Pushkova, the London correspondent of Russia Today, a state-controlled TV channel, dealt with the difficult question of Kremlin repression by changing the subject. The British media were just as bad, she said. They reported unverifiable facts as truth and came out with half-baked accusations that Alexander Litvinenko had been poisoned with polonium 210 on the orders of Putin’s henchmen. What was the difference between her propaganda and ours? Who were we to throw stones?
Pavel Andreev from Novosti, the state-controlled Russian news agency, took the stage to argue for the censorship of investigative reporting. Eighty per cent of Russians approved of what Putin was doing and tough tactics were needed to give the people what they wanted. ‘Russia has always been best under strong leaders,’ he added with a nod towards the legacy of the Webbs’ Stalin.
I expected the audience to go along with him. Just as urban legend has it that you are never more than six feet away from a rat on the streets of London, so dismal experience has taught me that you are never more than six feet away from an apologist for tyranny at a meeting of London liberals. (A good example of this came a few days later when Martin Amis, a serious novelist, was confronted by Chris Morris, a light entertainer, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Amis was so exasperated by the betrayals of principle that he asked members of the audience to raise their hand if they considered themselves morally superior to the sexist, racist, homophobic and psychopathic Taliban. Fewer than a third did.)
The scene at the LSE was more comforting. Although the LSE academic who wrote up the debate afterwards sympathised with Putin’s journalists – ‘Are we in the West really in a position to judge?’ he asked – his students went wild and stood up for the rights of Russians.
It was good to watch and if you had been there, you might have thought that liberal Russians fleeing autocracy would find a welcome in England (one denied to the enemies of the Taliban). That would be to ignore a new pro-Kremlin lobby no one in the 20th century imagined. Politics has been stood on its head. In his forthcoming The New Cold War and How to Win It, Edward Lucas of the Economist will point out that in the past, communists and their fellow travellers made excuses for Russian despotism. The right opposed it on the understandable grounds that the despots were communists. Now, bankers, manufacturers and Tories explain away the rigged elections and the muzzled press because they want a slice of a crony capitalist state that is awash with petrodollars.
Just before Tony Blair resigned, a telling scene illuminated the new world. At the June G8 summit, Blair warned Putin that unless Russia shared Western democratic values and tolerated dissent, there would be a business backlash. No, there won’t, replied appalled business leaders. Hans-Jorg Rudloff, the chairman of Barclays Capital, said Blair’s approach was ‘unbalanced’. Peter Hambro, executive chairman of Peter Hambro Mining, an Aim-listed company with extensive interests in Russia, said that Blair’s comments ‘ran the risk of being damaging’ for British business interests in Russia. The outgoing PM’s position was ‘very different to that business’.
And so it went on and few noticed that a regime filled with ex-KGB men was now being defended by the beneficiaries of global capitalism.
There will always be people on the left who fellow-travel with dictatorship or, more usually, ignore it. But now, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Webbs, are the louder, more powerful voices from the City that say we have no right to criticise because criticism is bad for business.