Wednesday, February 27, 2008

From Ideology to Practice (JM)

Why does the Left still worship Fidel Castro and all his appalling fellow communists?

Daniel Finkelstein

A brief warning, unlike my usually mockery-laden Lord Finkelton posts, this is going to be more sober, because I think this is quite a legitimately interesting and important issue.

I had a strange idea yesterday. I had the idea of inviting Harriet Harman home for dinner. This isn't a thought that occurs to me often, but I suddenly felt it might be fun.

I'd invite my Dad too. And then, when we'd given Harriet a nice meal (what do you think she likes to eat?), my father could tell her his story.

Harriet Harman is the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, who recently exclaimed that Fidel Castro is a hero of the Left. Daniel Finkelstein’s dad is the man responsible for much joy and happiness in my life.

He could tell her how the Soviets and the Nazis closed in on his home town of Lvov in September 1939 and how the town council chose the Soviets to surrender to. Then he might tell her how the fathers of his friends were taken to the woods at Katyn and shot by the communists.

He might recount the story of his father's arrest as an antisocial element, of Adolf Finkelstein's repeated interrogations leading to a trial in his absence and a jail sentence of 15 years' hard labour. Then Dad could tell the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party about his own experience as a child, exiled to a remote Siberian village. And how he and his mother and his father never saw their home again.

This is truly and terribly awful. The Soviet treatment of Eastern Europeans, particularly those from Poland was criminal. This is particularly true for Jewish occupants of these lands of whom it can only be said they did not suffer in comparison to the treatment they faced at the hands of the Nazis.

And, when he'd finished, he could let Harriet speak. And she could explain to Dad why she thinks that Fidel Castro is a hero.

This is where I begin to take serious objection with Finkelstein’s position. Fidel Castro, while being aligned with Soviet Russia and being of a similar ideology, did not commit nearly such horrible war crimes in coming to power. It’s a disturbing and bizarre conflation of ideology and political coherency. In other words, despite Communism’s claim to be a totalizing ideology and a universal movement it was actually (perhaps to its long-term detriment) comprised of several distinct political actors. Castro had his faults, however he was not the Stalinist USSR.

Its been almost 60 years since my grandfather's arrest and 50 years since the Soviets invaded Hungary. The Prague Spring has come and gone, the Gdansk shipyard strike is history, the Berlin Wall has fallen. We've read Robert Conquest tell of Stalin's murderous deeds and Jung Chang tell of Mao's.

We've watched films about the Stasi and recoiled in disgust at the opulent lives of the Ceausescus. We know that Alger Hiss was guilty and that there was, after all, a communist conspiracy in America. We've read Solzhenitsyn and Sharansky. We know.

It’s true, there are countless crimes that have been perpetrated by the corruption of the Communist ideology. It is always a necessary fear in a political system that institutionally gives broadstrokes power to particular individuals. However, every single piece of evidence given here is about abuses in other countries. In order to build a compelling argument for why it is disturbing to call Castro a “hero of the Left” you either have to provide evidence as to Cuba in particular or argue that the Communist political ideology will always be practiced in such a way that it will necessarily lead to long-term, systematic human rights abuses.

Yet still the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, the Leader of the House of Commons, a member of the Cabinet, is in love with Fidel. When asked, earlier this week, in an interview: “Fidel Castro - authoritarian dictator or hero of the Left?” she answered unhesitatingly - “hero of the Left”.

Which brings me to this question - Why? Why does she think that? Why would she say that?

Let's eliminate from our inquiries the idea that Fidel was somehow better than the rest of them, better than Honecker and so forth. Those cigars, those battle fatigues, that beard. Kinda cool, no? No. Death sentences for those who want to flee, prison sentences for dissidents, gags for the press, jail for homosexuals, ruinous central planning for the economy, his support for a nuclear first strike against America, his opposition to any kind of reform, his four-hour long speeches, his personality cult. Fidel Castro was just like the rest of them.

This paragraph is certainly less specific than the detailed charges being leveled above. I agree, I don’t love Castro, he was not really all that great, but as bad as Honecker? It’s not even close. (On an almost completely tangential point, if you haven’t seen The Lives of Others you really ought to do so). In fact, for the most part I find it hard to distinguish between Castro and that other “hero of the Left”: Hugo Chavez. He has been quickly and assuredly consolidating power through non-democratic mechanisms and has a complete lack of transparency. However, because he does espouse the big C, but rather the small s, he gets quite the pass. My point is that there are orders of magnitude, and Castro is not exactly history’s greatest monster (we all know that title belongs to Jimmy Carter).

So if we want to understand Ms Harman's response, it is not enough just to think about Cuba. We have to understand why parts of the Left, people who think of themselves as impeccably liberal, still think of communism as an heroic doctrine and communists as basically well meaning and a bit “alternative”. It's a pervasive attitude that goes well beyond politicians. Go to Tate Modern and you will find an exhibition of Soviet art - workers joyfully producing tractors or some such. In the bookshop you can buy a book of posters from the cultural revolution. Hitler memorabilia is not on sale. They wouldn't dream of having a room full of artfully designed Juden Raus! posters.

This is truly worthy discussion, and one worth having. However, Finkelstein is conflating two issues here. The first issue is the merit of communism as an ideology. The second is the symbolic art and propaganda of the Soviet Union and its appropriate role as art. Let me address each of these in turn.

I must admit, the empirical evidence for the success of the Communist project is bleak. Most of the countries that espouse a Communist ideology have, in fact, also practiced devastating totalitarianism. However, history often provides us with a very small sample size for major historical movements. We cannot truly compare East Germany, China, the Soviet Union, et al. and conclude that Communism is likely to result in terrible, oppressive governments. These states all developed in the context and model of each other and thus, faced considerable influence in terms of the structuring and nature of their governance from the primary model: the Soviet Union. At best, it could be said that there were two models, the Soviet Union and China, and even if they had no influence on one another (a dubious claim), it is a sample size of two loaded to the bare with historical contingency. In other words, history proves very little other than Communist has been practiced badly, not that Communism is, per se, bad.

This is not to say that Communism may not have its flaws. There obviously have been entire academic fields devoted to the debate about the Communist worldview and its effect on governance. But these are really three separate issues. The first is the Communist worldview, in so far as it is believed to simply be the empirically reality of the world, the nature of existence simply cannot have a moral context; it either is or it is not. The second is the Communist ideology, for the most part it is hard to dispute the moral nature of collective governance. But here there certainly can be some dispute as to the nature of individual freedom and dignity, but that doesn’t seem to be Finkelstein’s man concern here. Finally, there is practice, which I have already addressed, and is simply not enough to taint the first two components unless I can be compelled that its practice will always and necessarily be devastating.

As for the art, I agree that Nazi symbols would not be widely popularized, not nearly in the way Soviet propaganda would be. I think you are right here to argue that perhaps most people give the Soviet Union a pass when it comes to their atrocious crimes and perhaps we ought to be a little bit more careful about what symbols we glorify. That said, certainly there is a place even for Nazi art and propaganda in our cultural discourse. We should just strive to give everything a clearer context. I would imagine on this point we would agree.

I struggle a little to understand the distinction being made here, but I think it is this. It's not that the liberals are unaware that millions died under Mao and under Stalin. It's just that they think it was different. Hitler had a killing machine; under Mao (“the greatest man of the 20th century”, according to Tony Benn) and Stalin many people just up and died.

I've heard this argument made before. When I wrote that my mother had seen Anne Frank arrive in Belsen, I had an e-mail from a Nazi claiming that I was wrong to describe the little girl as having been killed by the Nazis. She had, he said, died of typhoid. I responded that if you imprison an innocent person in terrible conditions or starve them, or both, and they die, you have murdered them. The same goes for the communists.

I agree, the action/inaction distinction is irrelevant. Both crimes were awful.

There is another reason why people prefer communists to fascists. It is that the latter believe we are entirely the product of our genes, while the former regard us as entirely the product of our environment. Somehow genetic determinism is regarded with greater distaste than environmental determinism. I am not entirely sure why. In any case, scientific evidence now shows that both views are wrong. Even if they weren't, neither justifies the killings carried out in their name.

This, again, is absolutely true. I personally believe that ideology and politics is less a matter of choice than environment. There is very little that people do that isn’t determined somewhat randomly. However, I will one up you on this point just to say that I think the free-will distinction is irrelevant. I fail to see why it is more acceptable to attack those who have chosen a particular viewpoint than those who have it socially inscribed or are killed because of their particular genetic background. Mass homicide is mass homicide, no matter how you slice it.

Which leaves me with one final reason for the Left's attitude to communism - that anyone who defies the United States is somehow seen as a valiant progressive, whatever their crimes. I am sure that Castro's resistance to the US is a major reason for Harriet Harman's admiration.

I agree with this. It is much like the love that Hugo Chavez bizarrely receives throughout the world (and certain intellectual circles within the United States).

From time to time, Left thinkers make an effort to reconcile liberals and America. From Tony Crosland in the Fifties to Jonathan Freedland's admirable and convincing book Bring Home the Revolution, the efforts have failed. Almost anyone - a homophobic, misogynist Islamist cleric for example - is given some credit if the US is their punchbag.

A few months ago the Tory candidate Nigel Hastilow had to resign for saying that Enoch Powell may have had a point. And it was right that he went.

Calling Fidel Castro a hero is worse.

Enoch Powell was a former British MP that staunchly opposed the liberalization of race laws and immigration regulations. His positions on these issues were quite extreme by what we would consider contemporary standards. I am not sure that Fidel Castro is worse by any substantive measure. However, there is a more important distinction: Castro is a foreign leader. When Nigel Hastilow gave a head nod towards Enoch Powell he gave a head nod to policies that could have been in place for several years in Britain. It was a way of expressing a wish to have a certain policy evoked within British politics from a British politician. Endorsing Castro is a completely different beast, he’s a man of a different culture and place and cannot be construed as an endorsement of his policies for the here and now, just his position in the world.

Do I think this was a smart remark? Clearly, no. Do I think it is immoral? Not really. However, I do think it’s important to avoid conflating ideology with practice, because in the end we lose an awful many good ideas because of bad or corrupt practitioners. This doesn’t mean I think Communism, in particular, is a right or wrong idea, but that we need to separate it from its practice in order to have a fair and legitimate discussion.

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