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.