Charlie Benningfield taught my mother Russian. That didn't mean there was any reason why I should have met him, or his wife whose name, I think, was Dolly, but I did meet them several times. They both loved children and were very kind and attentive, with the knack of making a child feel his or her words mattered. They listened, and when they talked to a child it was without any trace of condescension.
It must have been some time in the early 1970s. I'm vague about the name of his wife because she kept very much in the background, wearing her old-fashioned house coat, bringing in tea and biscuits on a tray. I misplaced, years ago, the book Charlie gave me, of adventure stories for boys, by authors like Jack London, and it's one of the lost books I really miss, because of where it came from.
They were elderly then, older than the century. Dolly died a couple of years later, followed after a short time by her husband. If they were old fashioned, that didn't mean they weren't obviously devoted to each other in a way even a young boy could see and feel touched by, so it wasn't a surprise that Charlie didn't survive her by long. They were lovely, gentle people. And they were lifelong, committed communists.
That's why Charlie knew Russian. He visited the Soviet Union often. He must have known, first hand, something of its horrors, and he wanted to replicate them here. How could that have been?
Several years ago, the BBC ran a radio programme in which they asked people who had been members of the Communist Party (perhaps, given the tendency to split into rival groups, that should read "a Communist Party") how they reconciled these things. People like Bea Campbell and Alexei Sayle, along with assorted Trades Unionists and Labour politicians, tended to give similar answers. Ah, they said, but when we joined, all young and idealistic, it wasn't like that. The horrors came later.
No, they didn't. Not for them. But maybe it was a case Charlie could have made. He must have been able to remember the Russian revolution and maybe, just maybe, this provides the excuse I so very much want him to have had. It certainly isn't available to those of later generations. For people of my generation or thereabouts to have supported the Soviet Union, in full knowledge of its nature, required and requires flat-out, unadorned malevolence.
The sort of malevolence that George Galloway manifests in almost every action and word. That he has allied himself with people who wish to bring an even greater tyranny than that of the Soviet Union can be no surprise.
There's a great start to this post by Freemania:
David Edgar has written a piece apparently about “defectors” from the “left” – although, given that he appears to count Hizb ut-Tahrir as part of the left, I may have misread the article completely. Perhaps it’s actually about Bolivian transport policy, or Renaissance dentistry, or fairies.Hizb ut-Tahrir are a perfect fit with this left, but there are other lefts. And, just as the free-market, personal freedom right has almost no connection with the protectionist, censorious right, so these lefts are almost entirely unrelated to one another. All may have read Marx. But, then, Desmond Tutu, Jerry Falwell, Jeremiah Wright, Ian Paisley and the Pope have all read the Bible. It's fair to say it led them to different conclusions and in different directions. So it is with Marx and the left.
Perhaps the misleading thing is the fondness the left has for the word "solidarity". All these lefts might have joined in (misguided) solidarity to support the kleptocratic print unions in the 1980s. Ian Paisley and the Pope both oppose abortion. That doesn't make them alike.
There hasn't been a split in the left. It's just that the malevolent fellow-travellers of a broader-based democratic socialist movement have lost their grip of the coat tails of people like Marko Hoare, Nick Cohen, Norman Geras, the Harry's Place people, and Christopher Hitchens.
I'm not a socialist at all. I don't agree with these people about economics. But I don't confuse them with the grotesque, parasitic malice of their former hangers-on. In an earlier post I described Cohen et al as "neo-conservatives", and Cohen complained in the comments. He was right, it was the wrong language to use. They are, of course, socialists.
It's just that their detractors, the fellow travellers, entryists, now allies of clerical fascism, are not socialists at all. They represent some, as yet unnamed political tradition, together with the BNP, white nationalists and Neo-Nazis. Left and right don't meet at the extremes; these people come from some special, foetid pit of their very own.
I'd just like to think Charlie Benningfield didn't.
UPDATE: Also see Bob from Brockley on obscure historical figures from the "decent", anti-Stalinist left, like, um... George Orwell.