Conservatives shouldn't be allowed to forget the crimes of the anti-communist right

Millions of dead in Indochina, the funding and arming of Apartheid South Africa, and Pinochet's coup make a nonsense of lazy distinctions between the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys'.

It is almost 25 years since the Berlin Wall was pulled down and eastern Europe toppled its Stalinist tyrants. You don’t get that impression, however, from reading the papers. For almost a week now the national debate has been framed in terms of 'socialism' versus 'capitalism', Marxists who 'hated Britain' versus patriots who 'loved it', and 'free market capitalism', or the 'road to tyranny'.

I’m sorry to have to break the news, but it’s over. The Soviet Union is gone and, like it or not, Ed Miliband has absolutely no plans to bring back state socialism. Miliband’s reluctance to renationalise even popular institutions like the Royal Mail is testament to the low esteem public ownership is now held in by our political establishment – including the Labour Party.

It is worth repeating, as some people still seem unwilling to accept it, but socialism as it was envisaged during the 20th century is dead. That doesn’t mean the ideas which motivated the movement are redundant – why, after all, should democracy be confined within the confines of 19th century liberalism? - but it does mean that the state should be viewed with as much suspicion as the market. Calls for 'nationalisation' no longer suffice. The recent shortage of toilet paper in Venezuela, the most oil-rich country in the world, once again proves that 'public' ownership can be just as corrupt and inefficient (and as comical) as ownership for profit. The free market, as Karl Marx recognised, is incomparably better at creating wealth than any other system thus far conceived – the problems arise when it comes to distributing that wealth in an equitable manner.

That said, the failure of state socialism is not an excuse for a wholesale re-writing of Cold War history. Nor should it be used for the purpose of erasing from the historical record those individuals who played a significant part in the struggle against Stalinism - however 'Marxist' in tendency they appear to be.

Benedict Brogan wrote in the Telegraph this week that "Before 1989 the divide between the good guys and bad guys was clear, because the bad guys were out to do us in." This, he posited, was why Ralph Miliband was "one of the bad guys". This is only half correct. There were indeed communist movements that wished to "do us in" prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the divide between the 'good guys' and 'bad guys' was nowhere near as clear cut as Brogan and others like today to make out.

There was indeed no shortage of 'red tyranny' in the Soviet Union, where millions languished in the Gulag often for no other reason than the holding of an 'incorrect' opinion. But while those in the east suffered under the jackboot of Stalinism (communism in practice being "fascism with a human face", in Susan Sontag’s arresting phrase), in other parts of the world the west propped up its own share of tyrants and 'bad guys' in the name of an equally strident ideology: that of anti-communism. As the late Irish politician Conor Cruise O’Brien pointed out, during the Cold War, anti-communism was often grubbier and a great deal less principled than the stoic 'anti-totalitarianism' it is nowadays portrayed as:

"The 'anti-Communist' doctrine [was] designed to blur the vitally important distinction between telling the Russians that you will fight if they attack your allies – a valid and clear-cut non-ideological position – and telling the Vietnamese and others that you will fight to stop them from 'going communist' – an outwardly ideological commitment of uncontrollable scope."

Millions of dead in Indochina, the funding and arming of Apartheid South Africa (which Ronald Reagan nauseatingly proclaimed had "stood beside the United States in every war we've ever fought", as well as the coup which brought Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile, were testament to that 'uncontrollable scope'. As was western policy toward Iran, Guatemala, Lebanon and Cuba. Oh, and remember what US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said? Ok, you don’t. Well, it was that it would "not be an American concern" if the Soviet Union "sent the Jews to the gas chambers".

And these were the Cold War’s 'good guys'.

More importantly, portraying the Cold War as a titanic black and white battle between left and right wipes the most consistent opponents of both fascism and Stalinism from the record entirely. It was, after all, the Marxist revolutionary Victor Serge who first coined the word 'totalitarianism' to describe the illusionary opposites of Soviet Communism and Hitlerian fascism. It was also the democratic socialist George Orwell who was the first to use the term 'Cold War'. While men like George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells have been rightly panned as 'useful idiots' for their indulgence of Stalinism, it was another socialist, Bertrand Russell, who wrote one of the best early critiques of Bolshevism.

Be very careful, as the late Christopher Hitchens phrased it, about what kind of anti-communist you are. Don’t try to re-write history either, if you can help it.

Candles at the gates of the National Stadium, on September 11, 2013 in Santiago, Chile, during the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.