Giles Udy did not start out with the intention of writing this book. He was in Russia about 15 years ago and happened to hear about Norilsk, a remote, frozen part of Siberia where the Soviet Union had established forced labour camps. Udy managed to get permission to visit the place.
The temperature there could fall to as low as 50C and many thousands died due to this, low rations and barbaric treatment. The inmates were too weak to dig deep graves in the ice-hardened ground for the ones who died, so sometimes the slow movement of the Earth still brings bones to the surface. Udy’s original idea was to write about the 300,000 people who passed through Norilsk over the years. But, during his research, he found that some of them came from other gulags, far away in the north west of Russia by the White Sea.
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In those camps, the prisoners had been forced to take part in cutting and shipping timber. Udy discovered that this timber had been exported to Britain in great quantities and, in 1930, the British public came to know about the horrific way in which the timber was supplied. A campaign arose to persuade the Labour government to stop importing it.
Udy was astonished to discover that the government repeatedly rejected such pleas. It even refused to launch an inquiry into conditions in the camps. It seemed as though the Labour cabinet simply did not care that political prisoners were being cruelly treated, starved and killed for the production of goods that Britain was buying. What’s more, nobody had written about this.
Appalled, Udy changed the subject of his book to a study of the way that prominent members of the Labour party and famous left-wing activists persistently turned a blind eye to all the terror, famines and mass murders perpetrated by the Soviet Union — one of the greatest of crimes against humanity.
The influential legends of the left he indicts include Sidney and Beatrice Webb. They were leading members of the Fabian Society and founders of the London School of Economics. They are normally referred to in reverential tones as representatives of civilised left-wing history. What has been forgotten is that they were passionate advocates of Stalin’s regime. In 1935, they wrote Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation?, a glowing portrait of Stalin which whitewashed the kulak deportations and denied the existence of the mass famine that took place in the Ukraine — commonly known as Holodomor — in which millions died.
The Webbs continued to support Stalin and deny the horror of his rule right up until Beatrice’s death in 1943, by which time there was plentiful evidence of his mass murders. To put it bluntly, the Webbs were no better than those who have denied or downplayed the Holocaust.
The reputation of Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour prime minister, is also tarnished as an apologist for the Soviet terror. But the legendary left-winger revealed to have the most repulsive, Stalinist views is George Bernard Shaw. Udy shows that Shaw persistently advocated killing those who were not useful to society. Who would decide whether or not a person was ‘useful’? In one essay, in 1933, Shaw wrote: ‘The power to exterminate is too grave to be left in any hands but those of a thoroughly Communist government.’ Between 1930 and 1933, he dismissed numerous reports of executions, forced labour camps and terror in the Soviet Union.
Among more recent figures who come out badly are Harold Laski and G.D.H. Cole — both prominent and influential academics. Cole was recently mentioned by John McDonnell, the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, as a respectable figure. In fact, Cole was an ardent Stalinist who, among other things, wrote in 1942: ‘Much better to be ruled by Stalin than by a pack of half-hearted and half-witted Social Democrats.’
The fair question is: ‘Were these prominent left-wingers in a position to know that Stalin’s rule was horrific?’ The short answer is ‘yes’. There were reports of the Red Terror from soon after the 1917 revolution. One of the most authoritative descriptions of the reality was provided by Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the House of Lords in 1930.
Some prominent left-wingers, to their credit, accepted the truth. George Orwell wrote: ‘All people who are morally sound have known since about 1931 that the Russian regime stinks.’ Another, Malcolm Muggeridge, was initially supportive of the Soviet regime. But then he went to Moscow as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian and learned about the Ukrainian famine. The Guardian censored his reports. The left was divided by the atrocities of the Soviet Union into honest, moral people and those who turned a blind eye.
Udy tries to stay dispassionate but the record of the Labour party, the Fabian Society and many senior left-wing figures was abhorrent. The lack of any acknowledgement of this or any apology makes it worse.