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

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.