It is an interesting, though perhaps unanswerable, question as to how much untruth you can squeeze into a single word of one syllable, either explicitly or by implication. However, I came across a very fine example of such compression in the British liberal newspaper, The Guardian, the other day.
I have reached the age at which I turn first to the obituary pages, as I once (how long ago it seems, and how incomprehensible to me now!) would have turned to the sports results. I cannot quite put my finger on why obituaries fascinate me, or seem important; it is certainly not personal connection with the departed, for I have never consorted with the famous, nor have they consorted with me.
The obituary page of The Guardian had recently adopted a feature called Other Lives, that is to say short obituaries of people whom its readership believes are worthy of public memorialisation but who are not otherwise well-known. And so, on 17 April, it carried an obituary of a man called Ron Bellamy, written by his wife.
The obituary begins:
My husband Ron Bellamy, who has died at the age of 92, was a dedicated teacher, a Marxist economist and a lifelong communist.
It continues shortly afterwards:
Like so many of his generation, he was deeply affected by mass unemployment, poverty, and the threat of fascism and war, so he joined the Communist party.
It is the second â€˜soâ€™ of this sentence that is fascinating. So short a word, so many ambiguities; so much suggestio falsi, so much suppressio veri. Truly, human language is a subtle instrument.
Suppose the late Ron had been a fascist instead of a communist, and â€“ as is not very likely - The Guardian had accorded him space for an obituary, would it not have been possible to write the following?
Like so many of his generation, he was deeply affected by mass unemployment, poverty, and the threat of communism and war, so he joined the British Union of Fascists.
At the time he joined the Communist Party, the second sentence would have made much more sense than the first (though still not a lot). The obituary does not give the date that Ron joined the Communist Party, but since he was born in 1916 or 1917 (the precise date of his birth is also not given), it seems likely that he joined at some time between 1936 and 1938. By then, communism in Russia had brought two massive famines causing the deaths of millions, routinely more executions in a day than Tsarism performed in a century (and this from the very first moment of Bolshevik power), the establishment of vast forced labour camps in which hundreds of thousands had already died, and the utter decimation of intellectual life. It is a myth that none of this was known or knowable at the time: on the contrary, it was all perfectly well known, if widely ignored.
By contrast, Nazism had â€˜onlyâ€™ passed its persecutory Nuremberg race laws, while its death toll â€“ when the late Ron joined the party â€“ was numbered in the hundreds, rather than the millions. Most of its evil was in the future. Of course, it had suppressed intellectual freedom too, and established concentration camps for â€˜enemies,â€™ but the late Ron obviously didnâ€™t mind that, if it was all in a good cause. Nazism had done a good job in reducing unemployment, without first having caused two vast famines, and the standard of living in Nazi Germany was incomparably higher than that in Soviet Russia, including for the workers.
So it would at the time have made more sense at the time for Ron to become a fascist than a communist; the â€˜soâ€™ would have been slightly more compelling, though the explanation of his decision would still have been far from complete. It is intrinsically unlikely that a man espouses a totalitarian doctrine of proved and indisputable viciousness and violence from a love of peace and a dislike of poverty.
Although the author of the obituary was herself a communist, and indeed met her husband through the Communist Party (in 1953), the â€˜soâ€™ to which I have drawn attention has a slight exculpatory connotation, as if it is there to head off criticism from anti-communists. Yes, it seems to say, you may criticise Ron for being a communist; but what you have to remember is the economic and political context in which he joined. In that context, any generous-minded and hearted man concerned about the fate of the world might have made the same decision.
But this, if it was meant, is untruthful. The late Ron was a member of the Communist Party for forty years. In 1961, he actually spent a year in the Soviet Union, conducting â€˜research.â€™ That meant he swallowed many things without any of them impinging on him in the slightest: not only the famines, but the show trials, the Gulag, the Great Terror, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the ludicrous cult of Stalinâ€™s personality, the removal of entire populations, the Doctorâ€™s Plot, the show trials in Czechoslovakia, Romania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the Berlin and Hungarian uprisings, to name but a few.
So â€“ if I may still use that tainted word â€“ it is simply not true that the conjunction of circumstances was what determined the late Ronâ€™s political choice for communism, neither at the beginning nor at the end of his life. If it had been true, the late Ron would not have remained in the Communist Party for forty years. It is more probable, indeed, that he was attracted by precisely those aspects of communism that would repel most decent people: its violence and ruthlessness; its suppression of all views inimical to it; its cruel wholesale restructuring of society according to the crude and gimcrack ideas of arrogant, ambitious but profoundly mediocre intellectuals. The late Ronâ€™s personal modesty notwithstanding â€“ I see no reason to disbelieve his wifeâ€™s assertion that he was friendly and unassuming, as indeed Stalin, Uncle Joe, was often described as being â€“ what he dreamed of was mass murder, deportations, suppression of people who differed from him, and complete control over the lives of everyone. Many people do dream of these things: most utopians, in fact.
At the very least, the late Ron was, in political matters, a moral idiot. The â€˜soâ€™ is subtly designed to disguise the fact.