Martin Amis's new book Koba the Dread is a personal meditation on Soviet totalitarianism and its Western intellectual apologists. The central figure is Joseph Stalin - "the steel one," Koba the Dread, Iosif the Terrible. While the book focuses on past crimes and past complicity, it can also be read as an explosive commentary on the present when so many Western intellectuals, especially in Europe, provide excuses and even moral support for the forces of international terrorism. Whether he means to or not, Amis exposes a permanent flaw in the progressive worldview itself.
The bulk of the book consists of a "short course" on Stalin. Amis uses his masterful skills as a novelist to describe Stalin's rise to power and his unprecedented crimes against Soviet citizenry. His prose is unflinching and devastating. When the peasants resisted forced Collectivization Stalin unleashed "a crescendo of force" and amassed an "Andes of dead bodies." Stalin, Amis tells us:
believed that Collectivization would work. Collectivization would astonish the world. This was a Stalinist rush of blood. And that is how Stalinism is perhaps best represented: as a series of rushes of blood. Why, he asks, were "the overwhelming majority of intellectuals everywhere" seduced by the communist fantasy? How could so many defend even Stalin himself and deny his crimes or explain them away? Amis has more questions than answers. But he provides part of the answer at the very beginning. "Perhaps there is a reasonable excuse for believing the Stalinist story. The real story - the truth - was entirely unbelievable."
That much is true, and is a good explanation as far as it goes. But why? Some knew the truth from the very beginning. The leftist reaction to the war against terrorism provides a bit more of the answer.
I am a life-long progressive who has voted for Green Party candidates more often than for Republicans (twice and once, respectively). The Democratic Party is often ridiculous, especially when it wallows in political correctness, but in the end it is the party I identify with most.
But it is increasingly apparent that there is something wrong with the left, especially the radical left. After the apocalyptic terrorism on September 11 left-wing "peace activists" provided Al Queda one excuse after another for massacring thousands of their fellow citizens. It is because we are allies with Israel, they said, or because American corporations own sweatshops in Mexico. Some said Osama bin Laden is our "chicken" who came "home" to New York to "roost." That kind of talk makes the euphemism "collateral damage" sound unflinching and honest.
At a panel discussion called "Making Movies that Matter" in New York City shortly after September 11, Oliver Stone happily declared the Trade Center and Pentagon attacks a "revolt." Co-panelist Christopher Hitchens upbraided Stone and demanded an explanation, but Stone went on and ignored him. Stone then suggested this "revolt" would find the Seattle anti-globalization protesters joining ranks with Al Queda. He wasn't accusing the anarchists and anti-globalizers of harboring terrorist sympathies. He clearly approved of the hypothetical alliance.
While Stone's imbecility permits him to fantasize about an anarchist alliance with bin Laden, I imagine the Seattle protesters, especially the labor union lunchbucket types, were less than pleased with the suggestion. The vilifiers of Starbucks are not known to slash the faces of unveiled women. Nor does their blood warm with the imposition of Sharia Law.
It is with the terrorist dictator Yasser Arafat and his international herd of enablers that the world finds its closest modern parallel to the cult of Joseph Stalin. Arafat is not a Stalinist and his Greater Gaza is ten time zones shy of the Evil Empire. Arafat is a fascist, but his fascism is well-informed by Stalin's genius for duplicity and public relations.
The "democratically elected leader of the Palestinian people" knows better than to dispatch terrorist operations in his bumbling English. Arabic is widely spoken in the Middle East and he is wise to limit his incitements to that language.
Arafat clearly explains that he proposes different "solutions" to the conflict in different languages. Here is Arafat at a public event last year, speaking in Arabic:
Kill a settler [Jew] every day. Shoot at settlers everywhere. Do not pay attention to what I say to the media, the television or [in] public appearances. Pay attention only to the written instructions that you receive from me. In an interview with the world-wide Arabic-language news channel Al Jazeera, Arafat called for "a million" suicide bombers to march on Jerusalem. Annihilation of Jews is not enough for Arafat; he is willing to "martyr" more than a million of his own people as well. A million Palestinians is forty percent of the Palestinian population, the same percentage in Kazahkstan murdered by Stalin.
In Koba the Dread Martin Amis dredges up the nastiest quotes he could find to expose Lenin's wicked depravity and malevolent ideology. Here is Lenin speaking to the "soft" Bolshevik leaders in Georgia, quoted by Amis:
You must draw a white-hot iron over this Georgian land! … It seems to me you have already forgotten the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat. You will have to break the wings of this Georgia! Let the blood of the petit bourgeois flow until they give up all their resistance! Impale them! Tear them apart! Compare this with an incitement from a Gaza mosque on October 13 2000, broadcast live on Arafat's official television station:
Have no mercy on the Jews, no matter where they are, in any country. Fight them, wherever you are. Wherever you meet them, kill them. Wherever you are, kill those Jews and those Americans who are like them - and those who stand by them - they are all in one trench, against the Arabs and the Muslims because they established Israel here, in the beating heart of the Arab world, in Palestine. It is surely a matter of opinion which of these incitements to mass-murder is the more vicious and extreme - Amis's revealing Lenin quote or this outburst from the Palestinian Authority. But to my mind the Palestinian quote is the more sinister of the two. It is, as David Horowitz put it, the Nazi virus revived. Martin Amis says he feels a sense of "physical infestation" and "species shame" when he reads about the Holocaust. I feel the same and have a visceral reaction to much of the Palestinian propaganda in Arabic.
In the dusty refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas operates schools and relief centers where children are indoctrinated with eliminationist ideology. When the children are older they are sent into Israel strapped with explosives belts and nail bombs laced with rat poison. Teenage Israeli girls are torn to pieces by teenage Palestinian girls. This is, as Martin Amis said of Stalinism, self-hatred and life-hatred.
While Arafat plays a misunderstood peacemaker in English, Hamas issues press releases clearly stating their goal is the destruction of Israel and its replacement with a Taliban state. Yet the Western media, the European Union, the US State Department, and at least half the American left routinely ignore this objective and insist the terrorists simply want a state in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel agreed in 2000 to recognize a sovereign Palestinian state and only afterward was the current Jihad launched against them. This often repeated fact is ignored, explained away, or denied by nearly every supporter of the Palestinian cause in the world. A June 2002 poll by the Palestinian Jerusalem Media and Communication Center showed that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians approve of suicide-bombing against Israeli civilians, and a smaller majority supports the destruction of Israel as a state. This is a campaign of genocide and it is financially and militarily backed by 20 of 22 Arab states that persist in their view that the Jewish state has no right to exist in the first place. Yet Israel is smeared as the belligerent party and the Palestinian Authority is lavished with excuses, aid money, and the moral support of nearly the entire world.
The international solidarity with Arafat reached its excruciating apogee when Israeli tanks surrounded his compound and a claque of Western "peace activists" volunteered as human shields and protected known terrorists with their bodies. The grizzled old dictator met the naïfs with kisses while his dumbfounded goons watched with undisguised wariness and confusion.
This is cognitive dissonance on a planetary scale, unseen since the romance with Communism. How can Stalin run a terroristic prison-state? He created the Worker's Paradise! How can Arafat be a dictator and terrorist? He's the leader of a national liberation movement!
Most of the intellectuals Martin Amis broadly censures in Koba the Dread were blissfully unaware of the Soviet reality. But naturally there were some who knew of Lenin's and Stalin's crimes and willingly supported those, too. Similarly, while the vast majority of PLO apologists are simply up to their eyeballs in denial, a startling number of "leftists" are looking a lot like fascists. There are those who know very well the objective of Palestinian terrorism and they support it without reservation.
Richard Just at the American Prospect describes a pro-Palestinian rally in Washington D.C. and writes "Poster after poster and T-shirt after T-shirt depicted Palestine as the entire land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea." The open-access activist Web site www.indymedia.org has degenerated into a veritable hate site studded with lies, anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, and references to Palestinian "resistance" and "martyrdom." The New Black Panther Party's web site curses "the Illegal, Bastard, Oppressive, Zionist, Racist, Cracker, NAZI state of Israel." At a pro-Palestinian rally members of the party brandished signs that read "Death to Israel," "Death to Jews," and "Kill All Zionists in Palestine."
These incidents and attitudes are not isolated. The extreme left has brought the rage of kristallnacht to American universities. Laurie Zoloth, the director of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University, wrote the following words about the climate of hate on campus:
I cannot fully express what it feels like to have to walk across campus daily, past maps of the Middle East that do not include Israel, past posters of cans of soup with labels on them of drops of blood and dead babies, labeled "canned Palestinian children meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites under American license," past poster after poster calling out "Zionism=Racism" and "Jews=Nazis"…This is the Weimar Republic with brown shirts it cannot control. This is the casual introduction of the medieval blood libel and virulent hatred smeared around our campus in a manner so ordinary that it hardly excites concern… These new fascists are would-be Stalinists in a world without communism. They have turned in their Che shirts for the blackshirt. They plainly thirst for tyranny. They are not liberals. They are not progressives. But they are shamefully tolerated by those who still can't recognize true malevolence when they hear it.
People the world over hate oppression. But Westerners in particular despise it, liberals and conservatives alike. Our very civilization is premised on the eradication of injustice of every conceivable variety. What respectable person argues for oppression? What reasonable person argues against the liberation of its victims? People, animals, even plants have rights and protections. Two of our most revered heroes are Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. Heroes in the Middle East are often terrorists, dictators, and mass-murderers.
Grievance appeals carry great moral weight in the West, as they should. We rightly admire even foreigners who bravely fight for justice and freedom. Mahatma Ghandi, Vaclav Havel, Andre Sakharov, and the Chinese students of Tiananmen Square are deeply admired by nearly every Westerner who knows about them. When Lenin and Trotsky revolted to free workers and peasants from Tsarist autocracy, we were pre-programmed to admire and defend them. When Yasser Arafat leads a struggle for independence from Israeli occupation, we sympathize and are morally compelled to support him. He achieves the stature of Nelson Mandela by default.
The peculiar refusal of Arafat's apologists to settle up with reality is strikingly similar to the views of so many about the Russian revolution and its aftermath. In the final portion of Koba the Dread Martin Amis writes letters to his dead father Kingsley and his dear friend and former socialist Christopher Hitchens. Amis says to Hitchens:
An admiration for Lenin and Trotsky is meaningless without an admiration for terror. They would not want your admiration if it failed to include an admiration for terror. Do you admire terror? I know you admire freedom. The Palestinians have legitimate grievances that someday must be redressed. Israelis will never be at home or at peace until the Palestinians are recognized as sovereign. But the intifada is fascism in liberal drag. This is a contradiction the liberal Western mind can barely resolve. Sometimes our decency, our fairness, our belief in the fundamental goodness of human beings can preclude us from recognizing and naming an enemy when we see one. Hitler was an obvious monster because he talked like one and acted like one. Stalin and Arafat, not to mention Lenin and Mao, Ho and Fidel, cynically appeal to our hard-wired sympathies for victims and the downtrodden.
September 11 was a hinge date and the world really has changed. War is a deadly serious business, and so is this era in history. Every American, and that includes you, is a target. There is no neutrality. You cannot be a Switzerland unto yourself. Even Switzerland could not escape World War II in the end. Neutral though the Swiss purported to be, they buried the Nazi gold in the vaults and History took them to the cleaners.
Liberalism has a proud history that pre-dates Marxism. But the indulgence of communism will besmirch its record forever. I have always hated communism, and am embarrassed by its tragic acceptance by my predecessors. Maybe this is a new twist on liberal guilt. But maybe it's more than that, too. A shrinking but considerable number still proffer excuses for the most illiberal crowd in the world. And the extreme left creeps toward fascism.
We are all anti-communists now, in various degrees and in different ways. But in his Atlantic Monthly review of Koba the Dread, Christopher Hitchens cautions to "be very choosy about what kind of anti-communist you are." Hitchens' former Trotskyism pitted him against Stalinism. In more ways than one, he knows the consequences of choosing. I'll add to Hitchens' words. And I want to say this slowly. If you find yourself alienated by Israel and America's war against terrorism, be very careful about what kind of opponent you are.
There are many lessons in Koba the Dread. One is that choosing sides matters. Another is that history does not forget.