BOOK REVIEW / A man who defended monsters to his last breath: 'Rajani Palme-Dutt' - John Callaghan: Lawrence & Wishart, 19.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
'COMMUNISM is remembered for its monsters, rather than the monsters it set out to slay.' This is the central thesis of a remarkable political biography of one of those monsters. Rajani Palme-Dutt was, as Professor Callaghan describes him, 'Moscow's most trusted lieutenant in Britain' and 'arguably the most important figure in the Communist Party of Great Britain'. The qualifying adverb 'arguably' is unnecessary. The arrogant, amoral ideologue whose task it was to manipulate the Communist Party of Great Britain on behalf of his intimates - Lenin and Stalin - had no equal. This impressive study has been made possible by the opening of Palme-Dutt's voluminous personal files. Professor Callaghan has also been given access to British Communist Party records.

Palme-Dutt was born in Cambridge in 1896, the prodigiously bright third son of an Indian doctor and a Swedish poetess. He died in his suburban London home in 1974, defiantly defending the Soviet Union and Stalin to his last breath. His final written work was a defence of detente for Labour Monthly, the ideological organ of the British Communist Party, which he founded and controlled. He argued that the new relationship between Russia and the US reflected 'the accelerating advance in the relative strength and constructive role of the Soviet Union . . . immune from the crisis of the capitalist world'. In plain English, he believed to the end that Communism was inexorably advancing and capitalism retreating.

Palme-Dutt went up to Oxford in 1914, one of the few socialists convinced that the First World War was a disaster and courageous enough to say so. He belonged to an impotent, despised minority and felt betrayed by the great mass of fellow socialists who had endorsed the conflict and split the Second International.

His undergraduate years were dramatic. In 1916 he refused to be drafted for military service. It then turned out that as an 'Anglo-Indian' he was ineligible to serve. He appealed against this racist regulation - and insisted on being sentenced to six months imprisonment as a draft dodger. While in prison he campaigned against conditions in the prison hospital. On release, he was allowed to return to Oxford, only to be sent down in 1917 at 24 hours' notice for organising a meeting calling for a second revolution in Russia. He was allowed back briefly to sit his Finals - and gained 14 alphas.

Then came the October Revolution. After being a flag-carrier for the most obscure, unpopular and apparently unsuccessful form of socialism - Marxism - Dutt became the prophet vindicated. From then on he dedicated himself to the defence of the Bolshevik Revolution, and, personally, to Lenin and then to Stalin. He believed that the British Communist Party should be subordinate to Russia's dictates, transmitted through the Communist International - of which he was the offical representative.

He married a mysterious Finnish Bolshevik, a close friend of Lenin's, and in 1926 they moved to Brussels from where he delivered Soviet directives via a string of secret agents. The dictatorial tone of letters in which he instructed Harry Pollitt, the general secretary of the British Communist Party, to accept whatever monstrous lies Stalin dictated, demonstrates the power he wielded.

To the end Palme-Dutt was a true believer - but in what, it became increasingly difficult to say. He rejected denunciations of Stalin as a 'turgid torrent of filth and lies, compounded in equal parts of barbaric ignorance and malice'. When the evidence of Stalin's atrocities mounted from official Soviet sources he dismissed them as 'spots on the face of the sun'.

Dutt looked increasingly foolish as he was torn between two contradictory imperatives: to defend the Soviet Union and to defend Stalin's memory. Thus he vilified China for its criticism of the Soviet Union, although in practice he shared the views of Chairman Mao, who deified Stalin, and not those of Khrushchev, who denounced the monstrous dictator. Eventually the contradictions of Communism proved too much even for a Palme-Dutt to explain away.