Date registered: Sep 2004
Vehicle: 95 E300
Location: Inside my head
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New cuss-word for leftists
Published 07 June 2007
Communism destroyed millions of lives, but its critics are now branded "neocons". Why has the left's poisoned love affair with it endured?
Communism, like nuclear fuel, has a long afterlife. In country after country across Europe - from Russia to Albania - it has been discredited for its record in power. No government in Africa or the Americas subscribes to it except the Castro regime in Cuba. In Asia, the communist flag is waved in Vietnam and China without anyone denying that the economic future lies with capitalism; only North Korea stands by the basic precepts of Marxism-Leninism.
What happened in the October 1917 revolution in Russia was an ideological bank robbery. Its leaders were nothing if not daring. Lenin and his party took over a state and then declared that no other kind of socialism was worthy of the name. They instituted a red terror. They seized hold of an entire economy, persecuted all religious faith, imposed a one-ideology media and treated society as a resource to be mobilised on their whim. These are historical facts that no communist in the 1920s sought to deny. Quite the opposite: the facts were advertised by the Communist International as the only way to do away with "bourgeois rule" and induce the birth of true socialism.
A minority of socialists around the world accepted this case, formed communist parties and joined the Communist International. None of these parties, except for the Mongolian one, stood a serious chance of coming to power until after the Second World War. Geopolitics changed after 1945. The Yugoslav communists had won supremacy in wartime. The Soviet army, being the occupying force elsewhere in eastern Europe, imposed a communist state order east of the river Elbe. In 1949, China experienced a communist military and political take-over. Ten years later, Cuba went the same way.
In doing the research for my book Comrades: A World History of Communism, I tried to find whether there was a basic pattern to the regimes that resulted. The conclusion was a stark one. In all cases of durable state communism, there was some approximation to the Soviet "model". A single party kept itself in power without concern for electoral mandate. A nomenklatura system of personnel appointment was introduced. Religion was harassed. National traditions were emasculated. The rule of law was flouted. The political police was ubiquitous and ruthless; labour camps were established. Foreign travel permits were made hard to come by. Radio and TV broadcasts from abroad were banned. A prim public culture was installed.
This was the pattern despite the many national differences. Popular music in Cuba remained lively and beautiful even though its exponents could not take themselves and their instruments to other countries. In Poland, the Catholic Church was allowed to function in the open. In China, there was some pride - except during the cultural revolution of the late 1960s - in those emperors who had governed a unified nation.
The new communist states, like the Soviet Union before them, undoubtedly engineered rapid industrial growth. The exception was Cambodia under Pol Pot, who emptied the towns of their entire populations. The same states fostered programmes of mass education. They also facilitated the promotion of people who had previously suffered from negative social discrimination. Reading and numeracy flourished. While capitalist economies failed to solve the problems of unemployment, everyone could find work under communism and had access to free health care and cheap housing.
All this I mentioned repeatedly in my book, but it was not quite what one reviewer, the Guardian's Seumas Milne, wanted. He denied that I stated that communist leaders unleashed a drive towards industrial and cultural modernisation. Next, he alleged that I followed a "neoconservative" agenda. He also maintained that the so-called "revisionist" school of Soviet history was not getting a fair wind in the western media.
His Stalinoid form and content of argument involved deliberate misrepresentation. It would seem that Milne and his like consider it fair game to denounce anybody who comes to a considered anti-communist standpoint as a neocon. This is a shoddy way to handle a serious political discussion. If this farrago had not come from the editor of the comment pages of one of our national newspapers, it would not be worth bothering about. What is more, Milne is typical of a more general trend that retains a nostalgia for communism, and it is a trend that ought to be repudiated.