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Ian Birchall

King of the wild frontier

(November 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 92, November 1986, pp. 31–32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Artful Albanian: The Memoirs of Enver Hoxha
Edited by Jon Halliday
Chatto & Windus, £5.95

I FEEL about Enver Hoxha, the late Albanian leader, much as I do about Frank Sinatra: I deplore what he stood for, but it is impossible to deny that the man had style.

Hoxha was not the sort of mealy-mouthed Stalinist who dressed up his crimes as ‘tragic necessities’; he was a thug and made no attempt to hide it.

His comment on the Hungarian revolution was simple: “Have some of the leaders of these counter-revolutionaries shot to teach them what the dictatorship of the proletariat is.”

When Hoxha’s delegation in Moscow found their rooms were bugged, they recorded a message calling their hosts ‘traitors’.

So when Hoxha came to write his memoirs (from which Jon Halliday has edited a selection) he gave us lies on a grand scale. Thus the first edition of Hoxha’s volume With Stalin contains fulsome praise of Mehmet Shehu, his prime minister from 1954 to 1981.

But in 1981 Shehu was killed and it was claimed he had been an American agent since the 1930s. A new version of With Stalin was rushed through the presses.

For Hoxha the only function of the past is to justify the present. So we learn with some surprise in his account of Albania’s relations with China that Mao Zedong was “never a Marxist”.

For those of us who remember the years in the sixties and seventies when China and Albania swore undying friendship, this is a bit like Morecambe and Wise claiming they never did a double act.

Even in his own terms, Hoxha’s account is riddled with contradictions. He complains bitterly that the Russians tried to suppress his viewpoint – but opponents within the Albanian CP got little right of free speech; in the words of Mehmet Shehu at the Fourth Party Congress:

“For those who stand in the way of party unity: a spit in the face, a sock in the jaw, and, if necessary, a bullet in the head ...”

And Hoxha’s professions of internationalism look pretty thin when he himself tells how, at the end of the Greek civil war, Greek Communist refugees were deported from Albania and their arms confiscated.

As a result the documentary value of these memoirs is negligible. Thus Hoxha presents the Russian leaders (after Stalin) whom he had dealings with as being not only bullies, but degenerates preoccupied with food and drink. This may well be true, but since it is what we expect Hoxha to say, his evidence is worthless.

Often, indeed, the memoirs seem to be pure Women’s Own material; thus Hoxha tells us that:

“Stalin has taken me by the arm and walked with me in his garden, tired himself on my behalf many times, taking the greatest care of me, even over the hat I should wear to avoid getting a cold, and going so far as ... to show me where the toilets were if I needed them.”

What are a few million purge victims beside this avuncular solicitude for Enver’s bladder?

Jon Halliday’s commentary and notes are scrupulous and helpful; he never hesitates to point out Hoxha’s dishonesties. Yet he clearly retains a liking for Hoxha, paying tribute to his “vigilant Balkan wiliness and his hard schooling in post-Leninist methodology and ritual.” Why this admiration for a man who would be more at home in the Mafia than in a Marxist organisation? To understand that we have to look at Halliday’s own political evolution.

For Halliday is a former editorial board member of New Left Review, and was concerned to present the intellectually respectable face of British Maoism.

The bright-eyed young Maoists of 1968 wanted a superman, a Chairman Mao of Marxist infallibility.

Now, middle-aged and cynical, they prefer those who are corruptible and corrupted, a consoling reminder that revolutionary change is impossible.

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