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In an article supporting recent government moves to remove “anti-capitalist” literature from the school curriculum, The Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein pointed to the universal disaster which befell the dozens of countries burdened by state socialism in the 20th century. From Vietnam and Cuba through to Algeria, Angola and Yugoslavia, Finkelstein reprimands us for our failure to learn from these grim examples. However, Finkelstein attributes to state socialism disasters largely inflicted by the retrenchment of neoliberal capitalism that has taken place after the fall of Soviet communism, when the extensive industrial capacity and welfare states of “actually existing socialism” were cannibalised by those in the right place at the right time.
The capitalism inflicted on the former Second and Third Worlds brought about the rule of corrupt oligarchs almost everywhere it was imposed, regimes which increasingly relied on a combination of extreme nationalism and religious fundamentalism to justify themselves. Since the financial crash of 2008 a second wave of cannibalisation of the social state has taken place, as well as the entrenchment of the position of Eastern Europe on the capitalist periphery. Many post-socialist politicians have therefore made a familiar turn to racism and virulent anti-communism in order to bolster their political position. This process has required the mass falsification of history, and it is a process in which Western liberals have too often been fully complicit.
In June 2008 a group of conservative Eastern European politicians signed up to the Prague Declaration, a document drafted in the Czech parliament which demanded equal historical treatment be given to the Nazi genocide and to the crimes of communism. Keen to appease the new Eastern European entrants to the EU, and fundamentally sympathetic to their horseshoe view of history, the European Parliament obliged by initiating a joint “Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Nazism and Stalinism”. This was followed by a spate of laws throughout the former socialist countries obliging official discourses to emphasise the equivalence of the two historical experiences. This process culminated in situations, such as in Lithuania, where the sites of Nazi atrocities were bestowed with extravagant memorials to the victims of communism. Never mind that in former Nazi collaborationist states like Lithuania these “victims” were often the very same fascists who had committed the atrocities being erased from the historical record.
As ethnographer Kristin Ghodsee has shown in The Left Side of History, the false equivalence between the violent measures undertaken by communist governments and the deliberate and systematic extermination of entire races has opened the floodgates for the rehabilitation of fascism across Europe. If the demise of several thousand members of the genocidal Ustaši, executed en masse by Yugoslav Partisans immediately after the war is morally equivalent to the extermination perpetrated by the Ustaši in the Jasenovac concentration camp, why should the Ustaši not also have their places of remembrance? Why should the defilement of Ukrainian SS graves not be considered a hate crime equivalent to the anti-Semitic defilement of Jewish graves?
As early as 1986 conservative German historian Ernst Nolte went so far as to argue that Hitler’s embrace of National Socialism was an understandable reaction to Russian Bolshevism. The resultant controversy was widely refuted in German academic circles, but nonetheless gave rise to a school of pseudo-fascist revisionism which is alive and well today. If the barbaric Gulag forced labour system, from which millions of prisoners were released by Khrushchev in the early 1950s, was in fact a deliberate attempt at genocide then, in the words of political philosopher Jürgen Habermas, “Auschwitz shrinks to the dimensions of a technical innovation”.
None of this is to refute the historical reality of the Stalinist terror, or the repressive nature of post-war European socialism. But it is not the victims of the murderous show trials which modern right wing politicians wish to commemorate, it is the hardline nationalists and fascist collaborators that they seek to rehabilitate – in order that they may be repurposed as heroic, anti-communist national symbols. For example, decades after the fall of the Hungarian socialist regime, the figure of dissident communist Imre Nagy remained a figure of national pride and independence. Regardless, the Nagy statue in Budapest was recently removed and replaced with a memorial to the alleged victims of the short lived 1919 Hungarian workers republic. Nevermind that the 1919 republic was itself the victim of violent repression by the Hungarian aristocracy; what is taking place is an ultra-nationalist rewriting of history by a fiercely reactionary government.
The relationship between neoliberalism and the far right is rooted far deeper than the crisis in 2008. Friedrich Von Hayek’s belief that freedom and capitalism were indistinguishable led his followers, notably the economist Milton Friedman, to explicitly posit that democracy was located away from the political arena and in the market itself. This allowed Friedman to celebrate the brutal assassination of Chile’s Salvador Allende in 1973 and the subsequent instalment of the fascist Pinochet regime as a triumph for democracy. Friedman rationalised that a political dictatorship which maintained a market economy was more truly democratic than an elected socialist government.
The toppling of Allende, and the mass disappearance of thousands of socialists and trade unionists thereafter, followed the pattern of the “Jakarta Method”, pioneered by the Western backed military junta in Indonesia. Following their 1965 seizure of power, the Indonesian junta initiated the systematic murder of between one and two million“communist” civilians, remembrance of which is still forbidden to this day. The trauma which this atrocity – and subsequent falsification of events – had on its perpetrators, not to mention its victims, was recently explored in the film The Act of Killing.
The falsification of history in the former socialist world serves a secondary purpose beyond shoring up kleptocrats and ethno-nationalists. It allows western conservatives to wage a war of erasure on the domestic social democratic achievements in their own countries. The campaign of historical revision waged by anti-communists in Europe bears many similarities to the ideological battle waged by Thatcher in Britain. While highly innovative and profitable public concerns like Rolls Royce and British Gas were being parcelled up and sold off, shibboleths like the crisis-ridden British Leyland Motor Corporation were held up as proof of the ultimate unviability of any and all public enterprise. The mighty trade unions, who had played a fundamental role in the reconstruction of Britain after WWII, were recast as the major impediments to the country’s democracy and prosperity. The working class leaders who had so briefly risen to the top of the nation’s political life were cast back down into the pit, as thuggish “union barons” intent on “holding the country to ransom” for their own sinister ends. Not before or since has the working class achieved the collective elevation of status it briefly enjoyed in the years between the defeat of Hitler and the triumph of Thatcher.
Today, the Labour Party still lays claim to the National Health Service as its surpassing achievement. But it has been made to renounce many other arguably comparable triumphs. The nationalisation and modernisation of the coal mining, transport, power and aerospace industries represented enormously important steps forward for the productive capacity of this country and the living standards of its people. These achievements have been stolen from us both physically and historically. In fact, some of the parallels between former socialist countries like the German Democratic Republic and the former Labour heartlands are striking. Both areas were afflicted by drastic deindustrialisation at the same time as undergoing a dramatic crisis of historical identity. Both regions are now characterised by similar depressed living standards, a similar sense of being “left behind” and a similar turn to the political right.
When all politics that challenge the fundamental structure of social ownership are labeled as communism, and communism is labeled as equivalent to Nazism, we must not kid ourselves into thinking the Labour Party will ever be allowed the ideological space to promote and implement a genuinely transformative programme. Further, if socialists and fascists are nothing more than fellow extremists, where is the moral hazard for the elites in supporting the far right when it suits them to do so? If it had been the Golden Dawn taking Syriza to court this year, would Western progressives have had the courage to speak out? Our impotence as both the Brazilian and Turkish Governments persecute and imprison our sister social democrats shames us, as did widespread failure to condemn a right wing coup against Bolivia’s elected socialist government.
State socialism, in both the Second and Third Worlds, was born in the fires of revolution, financial crisis, fascism, colonialism and war. When the Soviet system collapsed under the weight of both external pressures and its own contradictions, it was taken as proof of the superiority of neoliberal capitalism. Those Third World countries which refused to see the light were forced into submission through debt servitude, political intervention and, if all else failed, war. This was not victory enough for the lovers of freedom and democracy: the past had to be reconquered, lest the achievements of the socialist states stand in silent condemnation of the failures in the neoliberal present.
As democratic socialists we must not run from the ghosts of state socialism. We must look with open eyes at the terrible things that were done in its name and admit that they nonetheless form a part of our own history. But, we must not let those who hate us write our history for us. We must learn our own history and draw the lessons from not only the terrible failures, but also from the staggering achievements which socialist systems made against tremendous odds. The moment we accept a falsification of history which turns our predecessors into the fascists they defeated, we lose our claim on the future as well as the past.