Liam O’Flaherty’s ‘disillusionment’ with the Soviet Union?

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2019), Letters, Volume 27

Sir,—In an otherwise interesting article about the Radical Club, Brian Trench feels the need to exploit Liam O’Flaherty in making an anti-Soviet political point—citing O’Flaherty’s 1931 text I went to Russia to prove that the author was ‘disillusioned’ with the Soviet Union.

This assertion misses the point of O’Flaherty’s satire completely, taking a text that mentions on every other page that the author is writing ‘a book of lies’ as a factual travelogue. Such reading is on a par with taking Gulliver’s travels as gospel truth.

O’Flaherty uses an unreliable narrator in I went to Russia, writing in the opening sentence that he ‘set out to join the great horde of … liars who have been flooding the book markets of the world … with books about the Bolsheviks’. O’Flaherty’s narrator is ‘here in Russia, where the greatest experiment in social equality ever made by man is in full force’ (I went to Russia, Bloomsbury Reader [2013], p. 134). The narrator lampoons the Russians’ enthusiasm for their revolution and yet expresses appreciation of social progress, whilst O’Flaherty satirically undermines the narrator. He presents him as torn between enthusiasm and bewilderment faced with the realities of Soviet socialism. One example of this ambiguity is the portrayal of women. While the narrator frequently expresses male chauvinist views, he also acknowledges the emergence of a new kind of woman:

‘Dunya was the first real Russian peasant I had ever seen … I saw a difference between her and our own peasants which made me see the real basis of Bolshevik power. The woman’s brow bore no trace of the fear that is constant in the faces of our peasants. Fear of God, fear of the lord, fear of the government, fear of the earth? She had somehow become free and she was aware of the fact’ (ibid., p. 16).

Ever since this book was first published in 1931, anti-Soviet Western readers have gloated over O’Flaherty’s apparent disillusionment with the USSR, supposing to find their own thinking confirmed in the text. It was for this reason, perhaps, that O’Flaherty stated in Shame the Devil:

‘I understood that probably the greatest folly of my life was … the criminal mockery of the book which I wrote on my return about my experiences and impressions in that work-shop, where the civilization of the future is being hammered out … I had crossed the Soviet frontier into Poland in a state of exalted enthusiasm for all I had seen and determined that I would do everything in my power to excite all whom I could reach by word of mouth or by writing to help in the task of winning over humanity to the Soviet cause’ (Shame the Devil, Grayson & Grayson [1934], p. 135).

It is furthermore noteworthy that four years later, in his 1935 novel Hollywood Cemetery (republished by Nuascéalta, 2019), O’Flaherty continues to support not only the Soviet Union but also the Communist Party of the USA.—Yours etc.,

Secretary, Liam & Tom O’Flaherty Society


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