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 Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.