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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.