I remember the autumn day in 1990 when they came to cart away the large hammer and sickle outside my Moscow block of flats. It was about the size of a cow and made out of a gritty grey metal alloy which had, like almost everything in the USSR, never looked new or clean. Once, these objects had been all over the city. Now they were vanishing. Nobody else seemed especially interested in its departure, probably because there were — more excitingly — eggs on sale down the street. A few weeks later, I would watch the Soviet Army’s last Revolution Day parade trundle through Red Square. A few months after that I would see the litter bins of Moscow fill with burning Communist party membership cards, and the tearing down of many of the great idols of Marxism-Leninism from their plinths.
It was a time full of images, which produced many lovely symbolic photographs and films of the end of an entire historical period. But we were beguiled by these pictures into thinking something that was not true. Russian communism, as we thought we knew it, had already died long before then. The Soviet Union was, in John le Carré’s perfect metaphor in The Russia House, a knight dying inside its armour for many years before it finally toppled from its saddle. But Russian communism was not communism as a whole. That lived on, dissolving itself into a great pink political blancmange of Europhilia, political correctness, multi-culturalism and the sexual revolution.
As a 1960s Bolshevik, I am better placed than most people to know about this. I have other advantages too. After I defected, I had two very interesting first-hand experiences of communism. The first was when I was a Fleet Street industrial correspondent in the Callaghan and early Thatcher years.
The second was when I reported on the progressive collapse of the Soviet empire, from Gdansk to Tbilisi. On one extraordinary occasion the two intersected, when I went to Gdansk in 1980 to visit Lech Walesa, the lonely courageous leader of Polish Solidarity, using the strike weapon against his country’s communist leadership. I was there because the British trade union movement, long penetrated by communists, had been deeply, shiftily reluctant to support him, and he was very angry.
British official communism did not then seem important at first sight. Yet it was quite generously subsidised by the Kremlin, with carrier bags stuffed with tenners left for collection by KGB men on Barons Court tube station, and stored in the roof of a bungalow in Golders Green (I am not making this up). It was also a microcosm of the new morality, a fact beautifully described by David Aaronovitch in his memoir of communist life, Party Animals. One ancient comrade told the young Aaronovitch that his years in the party had been ‘a feast of sex. You’ve no idea! We were hippies before it was even thought of. I never screwed around so much in my life.’
I’ll come back in a moment to that bohemian aspect of the left. But at the time the more important part was quietly installed in the trade union machine, Britain’s parallel to the vast grey and red marching legions of continental militancy in France and Italy. It existed inside the Labour party and the unions and also in many important parts of the civil service, the law, the academy and who now knows where else. In Britain, the Kremlin had always preferred to work by inserting itself into existing structures.
It used a similar approach to the British state. In the 1940s, shortly before the end of the war, the communist party leader, Harry Pollitt, told a gathering of left-wing undergraduates at Cambridge to get the sort of degrees that would allow them to rise far in the British establishment. But he urged them not waste their time as public communists, selling the Daily Worker on King’s Parade. No doubt he made a similar speech at Oxford, but it is not recorded. Who knows how many followed his advice, and what happened to them? The whole idea was that they would act in secret. Did they? It is amusing to wonder if the general mess we have since made of the country might plausibly be explained by the existence of a secret network of communist sympathisers working their red socks off to mess up everything they touched. It is hard to think of any other way of explaining the mad abolition of grammar schools. But we must never forget the awesome power of stupidity.
But we do know for certain that the communist infiltration of British trade unions —and through them, the Labour party — was thorough and directed by a full-time paid organiser. I watched it happening. In some cases it was fairly open. Mostly it was thinly camouflaged by front organisations. But it kept up a constant leftward pressure on home and foreign policy.
And this was why the Trades Union Congress was alarmed rather than pleased by free trade unionism in communist Poland, and why the Labour party swung repeatedly in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament when the USSR still had a vast army in East Germany, and that policy would have been national folly. Paradoxically, New Labour came to love the bomb once it didn’t matter any more. And this empty conversion to apparent responsibility is one of the reasons why so many people think that communism and its influence have evaporated. But the Blairite revolution was in fact a very clever political knot, which made everything look more or less like the opposite of what it was. It reminds me of the similar knot in Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor, in which a traitor was made to look like a brilliant agent, and his KGB handler was made to look like a precious source. All the clever people were the most thoroughly fooled.
New Labour was a triumph of the reborn left, made to seem like a take-over by the right. Its victims happily served and defended it, and still do. How was it done? Clever Marxists had begun to see Soviet communism as an albatross in the 1920s. They knew it would never work in advanced western countries.
Out of this understanding came Eurocommunism, through which the continent’s communists sidled back into the democratic and anti-Stalinist left, just as Soviet power vanished from the earth. It was and remains amazing just how little this new trend cares about once huge issues such as nationalisation and state control. It is, as David Aaronovitch’s old comrade pointed out all those years ago, much more interested in sex, in more ways than one. It will cheerfully see the railways privatised, as long as childhood is nationalised, lifelong marriage is made obsolete, Christianity and patriotism are disempowered and defeated, borders are flung wide, and education becomes a mechanism for enforcing egalitarianism.
People in the West seldom knew just how interested the old Eastern bloc communist regimes also were in these cultural and moral objectives. The communists loathed lasting Christian marriage and mistrusted all private life. They vigorously promoted abortion and easy divorce. I will always recall, one dark Moscow afternoon, finding a statue to the frightful Pavlik Morozov, whom Soviet children were taught to worship because he had betrayed his parents to the party. If you knew what it represented, it was a bit like stumbling across a graven image of Moloch.
The fall of the Berlin Wall worked in two ways. For it freed Europe’s left-wing revolutionaries from several great burdens. No longer were they agents of a menacing foreign power, or apologists for the Gulag, the Red Army and the Kremlin. They were back to the bright, dangerous enthusiasms of the Young Marx, utopian social radicals anxious to begin the world over again, Jacobins much more than they were Leninists. Yet somehow they managed to portray themselves to naive, politically illiterate media folk as a sexier, better-looking version of the Tories.
Well, they were not Tories. I know of at least six members of the Blair cabinet who to this day would prefer not to talk much, if at all, about their days in the ranks of hardline Marxist organisations. People who now go into frenzies about the leftist past of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have always ignored this aspect of New Labour and refuse to see any importance in it.
They should know better. It is not just me saying it, but the Blairites themselves. One New Labour apparatchik, Andrew Neather, has blurted out that his party had ‘a driving political purpose: that mass immigration was the way that the government was going to make the UK truly multicultural… to rub the right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date’. And another, Peter Hyman, quite recently averred that the Blairite project was ‘infinitely more revolutionary than anything proposed by Jeremy Corbyn’.
But that’s nothing. Tony Blair himself recently revealed on BBC Radio 4 that he had been a Trotskyist at Oxford. What would once have been a six-cylinder front-page revelation passed almost unremarked. Like the dim MI6 operatives in Tinker Tailor, we’ve been elaborately fooled into believing the opposite of the truth, that Marxism has disappeared and offers no threat to our happiness and liberty, even as we moan about the strange and humourless restrictions on free speech and thought that grow in our midst like knotweed. How did that happen? Think of me as George Smiley, trying to tell you what’s really going on.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.