‘Communism bad, capitalism good’ is an old joke. Here’s another:
“What’s the difference between capitalism and communism?”
“I don’t know, what is the difference between capitalism and communism?”
“Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man. Communism is the reverse.”
As if to demonstrate this point, Seamus Milne has recently published an article in The Guardian defending Communism, a task he’s completed once before (also in The Guardian, oddly enough). Writing in the September 12, 2002 issue, Milne takes the same line he does in February 2006, and in remarkably similar language:
…the rewriting of history that began in the dying days of the Soviet Union… has intensified since its collapse. It has become almost received wisdom to bracket Stalin and Hitler as twin monsters of the past century – Mao and Pol Pot are sometimes thrown in as an afterthought – and commonplace to equate communism and fascism as the two greatest evils of an unprecedentedly sanguinary era. In some versions, communism is even held to be the more vile and bloodier wickedness. The impact of this cold war victors’ version of the past has been to relativise the unique crimes of Nazism, bury those of colonialism and feed the idea that any attempt at radical social change will always lead to suffering, killing and failure.
Three-and-a-half years later, in his most recent article, according to Milne, the song remains the same, only in 2006 the chorus is being led by the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly (rather than, in 2002, Kingsley Amis). Thus “Fifteen years after communism was officially pronounced dead, its spectre seems once again to be haunting Europe” as “The battle over history reflects a determination to prove that no political alternative can challenge the new global capitalism”. (Actually, I would argue that anarchism is the spectre that has once again been haunting Europe. But be that as it may…)
“No form of anti-communism should be legitimised in the consciousness of the people”, states the Communist Party of Greece. Milne appears to agree. His latest article, like the first, represents an attempt to salvage something positive from the wreckage of Communism or, more accurately, Marxism-Leninism. In essence, then, Milne’s task is to try and save Bolshevism/Communism from its own disrepute. As such, his article comes dangerously close to being properly considered the work of an apologist for totalitarianism. Below I give ten reasons why.
1) “Last month, the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly voted to condemn the “crimes of totalitarian communist regimes”, linking them with Nazism and complaining that communist parties are still “legal and active in some countries”.”
If the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly want to pass a motion ‘condemning the crimes of totalitarian communist regimes’… so what? They could hardly be expected to pass a motion approving such crimes now could they? So why not condemn them? Well, according to local Communists, “The resolution, titled “Need for International Condemnation of Crimes of Totalitarian Communist Regimes”, equated communism with Nazism/fascism, claiming that “communist ideology, wherever and whenever implemented, has always resulted in massive terror, crimes and large-scale violation of human rights” and that this is “a direct result of the class struggle theory”. It called on communist parties to renounce their views.”
This is bullshit.
Relevant points of the Draft Resolution read:
I. Draft resolution
2. The totalitarian communist regimes which ruled in Central and Eastern Europe in the last century, and which are still in power in several countries in the world, have been, without exception, characterised by massive violations of human rights. The violations have differed depending on the culture, country and the historical period and have included individual and collective assassinations and executions, death in concentration camps, starvation, deportations, torture, slave labour and other forms of mass physical terror.
3. The crimes were justified in the name of the class struggle theory and the principle of dictatorship of the proletariat. The interpretation of both principles legitimised the “elimination” of people who were considered harmful to the construction of a new society and, as such, enemies of the totalitarian communist regimes. A vast number of victims in every country concerned were its own nationals. It was the case particularly of peoples of the former USSR who by far outnumbered other peoples in terms of the number of victims.
The Resolution therefore calls on Communist parties not to ‘renounce their views’ but to renounce the crimes committed in their name. It does not state that such crimes are the direct result of the ‘class struggle theory’ (whatever that is) but that “The crimes were justified in the name of the class struggle theory and the principle of dictatorship of the proletariat”; a simple matter of record.
(NB. The CPA has actually merely reproduced an article by a Greek Communist first published in the People’s Weekly World, the newspaper of the CPUSA.)
2) “Now Göran Lindblad, the conservative Swedish MP behind the resolution, wants to go further. Demands that European ministers launch a continent-wide anti-communist campaign – including school textbook revisions, official memorial days and museums – only narrowly missed the necessary two-thirds majority.”
File under: Don’t mention the war.
Interestingly, Milne collapses the distinction between espousing ‘anti-communism’, on the one hand, and supporting a public education campaign regarding the crimes of totalitarian communist regimes, on the other. A moment’s thought demonstrates that the two are not synonymous.
3) “The ground has been well laid by a determined rewriting of history since the collapse of the Soviet Union that has sought to portray 20th century communist leaders as monsters equal to or surpassing Hitler in their depravity – and communism and fascism as the two greatest evils of history’s bloodiest era.”
Yes, well, that’s “A Big Question” isn’t it? Who’s the “Bigger Monster”? Hitler or Stalin? Let’s assume that the comparison is erroneous, that Hitler and fascist totalitarianism — whether Italian, Spanish, or German — is unquestionably ‘worse’ than Stalin and Communist totalitarianism.
Does this therefore mean that resolutions condemning “massive violations of human rights [by]… the totalitarian communist regimes which ruled in Central and Eastern Europe in the last century” are invalid? Of course not. Especially when the Resolution in question recognises that “The violations have differed depending on the culture, country and the historical period…”
In summary, people are free to engage in speculation as to which system of tyranny was worse, but there’s no good reason that I can see which mandates that others join in.
4) “A clue as to why [attacks on Communism have become more extreme recently] might be… found in the rambling report by Lindblad that led to the Council of Europe declaration. Blaming class struggle and public ownership, he explained that “different elements of communist ideology such as equality or social justice still seduce many” and “a sort of nostalgia for communism is still alive”.”
This appears to be a deliberate distortion of paragraph 5 of Lindblad’s ‘Explanatory Memorandum’ which accompanied the Resolution. In attempting to explain an alleged “absence of international condemnation” for such crimes, Lindblad writes:
The wish to maintain good relations with some [‘communist’ countries] may prevent certain politicians from dealing with this difficult subject. Furthermore, many politicians still active today have supported in one way or another former communist regimes. For obvious reasons they would prefer not to deal with the question of responsibility. In many European countries there are communist parties which have not formally condemned the crimes of communism. Last but not least, different elements of communist ideology such as equality or social justice still seduce many politicians who fear that condemnation of communist crimes would be identified with the condemnation of communist ideology.
5) “The fashionable attempt to equate communism and Nazism is in reality a moral and historical nonsense.”
Fashionable or not, attempts to understand the relationship between communism and fascism/Nazism are a historical reality; so too, the fact that some — even ‘self-described’ communists such as Otto Ruhle — have compared, if not equated, the two ideologies. And it was through such a comparison that the Marxist Ruhle even concluded in 1939 that The Struggle Against Fascism Begins with the Struggle Against Bolshevism:
Russia must be placed first among the new totalitarian states. It was the first to adopt the new state principle. It went furthest in its application. It was the first to establish a constitutional dictatorship, together with the political and administrative terror system which goes with it. Adopting all the features of the total state, it thus became the model for those other countries which were forced to do away with the democratic state system and to change to dictatorial rule. Russia was the example for fascism.
In short, the idea that a revolutionary critique of Bolshevism (‘Communism’) is ‘new’ is false, and the failure to acknowledge its existence is revisionism at its most basic.
6) “For all its brutalities and failures, communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality. It encompassed genuine idealism and commitment, captured even by critical films and books of the post-Stalin era such as Wajda’s Man of Marble and Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat. Its existence helped to drive up welfare standards in the west, boosted the anticolonial movement and provided a powerful counterweight to western global domination.”
Of course, a capitalist apologist might argue that, for all its brutalities and failures, capitalism in North America, western Europe and elsewhere delivers high technology, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality. It encompasses genuine idealism and commitment, captured even by critical films and books of the post-Fordist era such as Moore’s Roger & Me and Klein’s No Logo. Its existence provides welfare to millions in the West, boosts nationalist independence movements and provides an effective counterweight to Islamic fundamentalism.
And they, like Milne, would be engaging in apologetics.
7) “It would be easier to take the Council of Europe’s condemnation of communist state crimes seriously if it had also seen fit to denounce the far bloodier record of European colonialism – which only finally came to an end in the 1970s.”
Of course. But this is ‘politics’, after all, and it’s business-as-usual for one side to accuse the other of crimes — and for both to be right. So, could the passing of this Resolution be considered a cynical exercise? Yes.
EIGHT) “Comparable atrocities were carried out by all European colonialists, but not a word of condemnation from the Council of Europe – nor over the impact of European intervention in the third world since decolonisation. Presumably, European lives count for more… And while there is precious little connection between the ideas of fascism and communism [see 5], there is an intimate link between colonialism and Nazism. The terms lebensraum and konzentrationslager were both first used by the German colonial regime in south-west Africa (now Namibia), which committed genocide against the Herero and Nama peoples and bequeathed its ideas and personnel directly to the Nazi party.”
Actually, the British are more often credited with inventing and being the first to implement the modern ‘concentration camp’ (konzentrationslager) in South Africa in 1900, while the genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples took place between 1904 and 1907. Further, the genocide in the Belgian Congo — conducted by the Belgian, not German, colonial regime under King Leopold II — is estimated to have involved the deaths of between 7 and 10 million Congolese between the years 1880 and 1920. The fact that the Council has yet to condemn comparable atrocities committed by capitalist powers in the process of their own empire-building is probably hypocritical, but in no way invalidates condemnation of the crimes of totalitarian Communist regimes in Eurasia. Instead, perhaps it merely confirms Orwell’s observation that “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them”.
9) “No major 20th-century political tradition is without blood on its hands, but battles over history are more about the future than the past. Part of the current enthusiasm in official western circles for dancing on the grave of communism is no doubt about relations with today’s Russia and China. But it also reflects a determination to prove there is no alternative to the new global capitalist order – and that any attempt to find one is bound to lead to suffering and bloodshed.”
I’ve little doubt that “Part of the current enthusiasm in official western circles for dancing on the grave of communism is… about relations with today’s Russia and China”; nor do I doubt that this current enthusiasm, such as it is, has much to do with an attempt to (further) establish capitalist hegemony over political discourse. That said, a major 20th-century political tradition with very little blood on its hands, and one which also provides an anti-capitalist, anti-statist alternative to ‘the new global capitalist order’, is anarchism. And both capitalist and nominally ‘communist’ regimes are united in their opposition to this, the libertarian alternative to ‘Communism’. Unfortunately, serious discussion of the anarchist movement — like its repression by totalitarian regimes of both the Left (Bolshevism) and the Right (fascism) — appears to be verboten in this debate.
10) In 2006 Milne concludes that “The particular form of society created by 20th-century communist parties will never be replicated. But there are lessons to be learned from its successes as well as its failures.” In 2002 he concluded that “The problem for the left now is not so much that it has failed to face up to its own history, but that it has become paralysed by the burden of it.” I say: let the dead bury the dead:
We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accommodate ourselves for a time. For, you must not forget, that we can also build palaces and cities, here in Spain and in America and everywhere. We, the workers. We can build others to take their place. And better ones. We are not in the least bit afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth. There is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world, here, in our hearts. That world is growing this minute.