I joined quite late in the day: December 1986. For Martin Amis — whose new memoir on Stalinism, Koba the Dread, has been making waves in Britain — this sentence should be followed by reams of penance. After all, by then I could hardly claim ignorance about the Red Terror, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Poland and Afghanistan. Yet I was proud to be recruited and remained a party member for four years.
The party I joined was the South African Communist Party — slavishly pro-Soviet, certainly; in hock with the KGB, probably; intellectually retarded, no doubt. But then this was the party of Chris Hani, Joe Slovo and, yes, once Nelson Mandela too (he joined shortly before his arrest in 1962, I learned). In fact, just about everybody who was anybody in the African National Congress leadership was a party member — Thabo Mbeki served on its Politburo.
But my pride came not just as a puffed-up symbol of recognition. It was also the sense of being part of a group that proved its mettle in fighting tyranny — a point Amis misses in his one-size-fits-all castigation of former communists. The party was banned in 1950 — 10 years before the ANC — and its members did much of the graft in forming Umkhonto weSizwe, building the underground and launching armed struggle, and they pulled most of the strings that enabled the ANC to survive in exile.
Amis’s latest offering is strangely flat when it comes to history — lacking the confidence to explore the grey areas his novels thrive on. Quite often, he misses the point: it seems rough to brand Trotskyists with the same iron as former apologists like myself when it comes to being soft on Soviet-style communism.
But his prime error is his inability to understand political complexity; in this case within the now-imploded world of communist parties and “actually existing socialism”.
When I joined the party I was thinking of the best of our own struggle — not of Stalin, Khrushchev or Brezhnev. But even in the geopolitical context, I see more argument than Amis allows. After all, the Soviets defeated Hitler and were on the side of the gods in Havana and Hanoi. They armed, funded and trained the ANC while Cuba led the fight against the United States/South African-backed terror of Unita. Against this, well, the CIA worked with the apartheid intelligence services, the Reagan government blocked Namibia’s independence and Margaret Thatcher called Mandela a terrorist.
Still, I won’t protest too loudly here because I can’t claim to have been beyond the temptation of a see-no-evil approach. In 1986 it was explained to me why it had taken six years of ANC membership before the party invitation was issued.
“There was some concern when you expressed reservations about the Soviet role in Poland and Afghanistan,” said a veteran, “but we assured them you’ve come around a mature understanding of these questions.”
Ah, the brain-numbing advantages of maturity. It allowed us to understand “past excesses” and even present “bureaucratic stultification”, and once Gorbachev arrived we could claim the Soviets were getting the point and rectifying past “mistakes”.
But by 1989 I was moving beyond this kind of apologia and seeing the joke (a response that exasperates Amis who says we shouldn’t chuckle at Stalinism because we don’t laugh at Nazism — forgetting a comic vein stretching from Charlie Chaplin through Spike Milligan and Mel Brooks to Roberto Benigni).
The 19th-century fallacy of viewing history as a linear progression began to seem absurd, as did the notion of a single cylinder historical engine driving us forward — whether “class struggle” or the “profit motive”. So I laughed (quietly) when the Wall came down and smiled (behind my hand) with the fall of the Eastern Bloc dominoes.
Yet I remained a member for another year. I was then serving on an underground leadership committee and involved in recruitment, education, counter-surveillance and handling money for the party. Although I asked for a demotion, I felt it would be unconscionable to cut and run. It was only after the party was publicly launched and after the release from detention of the last of my comrades (another word that drives Amis mad), that I felt ready to bow out.
That was in September 1990 — 12 years ago: long enough to gain some added perspective. But, as yet, no major regrets because, if I had to choose again between apartheid and a Soviet-backed party or movement — and in the realm of power politics, that’s what it boiled down to — I’d still make the same choice.
Gavin Evans’s memoir, Dancing Shoes is Dead, will be republished by Random House Black Swan next month