fallibilist

"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Guardian on Communism: Why not be so fair-minded to your own side?

"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."

Seamus Milne, editor of The Guardian, defends Soviet Communism against what he describes as a "determined rewriting of history since the collapse of the Soviet Union that has sought to portray 20thcentury 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". He seems sceptical of a Swedish MEP's description of Communism as an "evil ideology". He writes that: "The fashionable attempt to equate communism and Nazism is in reality a moral and historical nonsense. Despite the cruelties of the Stalin terror, there was no Soviet Treblinka or Sobibor, no extermination camps built to murder millions." Milne demonstrations no equivocation in condemning European colonialism, to which he attributes a "far bloodier record" and describes as a "system of racist despotism, which dominated the globe in Stalin's time." He then proceeds to say that European colonialism had much more in common with Nazism than Soviet Communism did. He also, for some reason, casts aspersions on a recent biography of the Chinese dictator Mao, whose regime killed more people than either Hitler or Stalin, including three million of his own people in the crazy collectivisation known eerily as the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961.

The Left really needs to move on. No one who talks such nonsense about Communist tyranny can have any credibility. This piece is moral relativisim at its most base: "No major 20th-century political tradition is without blood on its hands." Yes, the parliamentary democracies of the West, got "blood on their hands" in the 20th century, and not always for the right reasons. But they also fought and won two world wars against totalitarianism. Then, for 40 years, the United States and its allies stood up to the Soviet Union. America put its own civilians in danger of nuclear retaliation in order to help reassure those same allies. Milne's attempt to demonstrate moral equivalence between such diametrically opposed "political traditions" as the free West and the totalitarian Soviet Union is disgraceful.

It is difficult to contemplate why an educated Englishman, nearly two decades after the collapse of Soviet tyranny, should write such unutterable stupidity. There are important new policy battles to be fought; the 21st century has presented serious policy challenges for Western democracies, at home and abroad. In the important debates of our time, an intelligent, thoughtful Left is as necessary as ever. The Guardian, it seems, is being run by a man more committed to the lunatic fringe.

P.S. See the post on the same topic, with more detail, at Atlantic Blog.

Update 1: (2.55pm) See this discussion of seven letters written to the Guardian, four of which supported Milne. The letter due most attention is that by Krzysztof Mularczyk of Warsaw.

Update 2: (3.10pm) While comfortable throwing a protective arm around various Communist tyrants, Milne clearly exercises little comparable restraint or equivocation when discussing Britain's past: "Britain's empire was in reality built on genocide, vast ethnic cleansing, slavery, rigorously enforced racial hierarchy and merciless exploitation. As the Cambridge historian Richard Drayton put(s) it (in June 2004): 'We hear a lot about the rule of law, incorruptible government and economic progress -the reality was tyranny, oppression, poverty and the unnecessary deaths of countless millions of human beings.'" Nothing there about "idealism" - contrast the quote at the top about Soviet "idealism". Nothing about the colonial empires bringing some of the benefits of western development to some very undeveloped parts of the world. I'm not suggesting colonialism didn't have its brutal side; I am merely pointing out Milne's inconsistency.

Update 3: (3.20pm) Unconnected I know, but remember this piece when discussing Seamus Milne. Within 48 hours of the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, he had published an article condemning U.S. "popular ignorance [and] self-referential rhetoric". He also insinuates "racism and hypocrisy" and takes America to task for its "record of unabashed national egotism and arrogance that drives anti-Americanism among swaths of the world's population, for whom there is little democracy in the current distribution of global wealth and power". He smirked that if it turned out bin Laden was behind 9/11 "the sense that the Americans are once again reaping a dragons' teeth harvest they themselves sowed will be overwhelming." He criticised the Bush administration for "assembling an international coalition for an Israeli-style war against terrorism, as if such counter-productive acts of outrage had an existence separate from the social conditions out of which they arise." He concluded, pathetically, that "for every "terror network" that is rooted out, another will emerge - until the injustices and inequalities that produce them are addressed." One need only ask what poverty or inequality "drove" a rich Saudi playboy like bin Laden to assault America. But such obvious points were not presented by Milne. Meanwhile in New York the search for survivors continued in the rubble of the World Trade Centre. Whereas his recent article on Soviet Communism might be dismissed as a misguided or ignorant political and historical view, his article of September 13th 2001, one suspects, has an altogether different basis.

Update 4: (3.30pm) Read this powerful counter-relativist response from blogger Norman Geras.

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