Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The killing joke

The story may be apocryphal, but is nevertheless revealing. After the Soviet archives, recently opened to the west, confirmed without a doubt the deliberate and calculated nature of Josef Stalin's punitive famine in the Ukraine, the British Sovietologist Robert Conquest was asked by his publisher if he would like to add a subtitle to the newest edition of his book about the famine, Harvest of Sorrow. Conquest, never at a loss for a memorable quote, is said to have quipped, "how about: I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?"

There was certainly no doubt about the brutal nature of communist rule during the existence of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Lenin and his politburo made almost no effort to hide the extent of their Red Terror campaigns from the rest of the world, reasoning somewhat sensibly that the world would only respect their reign only if they sensed they were operating without mercy or scruples. The question is, why would anyone lend their support, tacit or explicit, to a political system whose primary political concerns often seemed to boil down to the elimination of its enemies, real or imagined? The answer, of course, is that the Soviet system talked a progressive game while playing a more brutal one. Yes, the free health care and housing for all angle appealed to the progressive political left, but even when it came at the price of genocide, the complete elimination of freedom of expression, and the institution of a paranoid police state? Today, we consider ourselves politically and historically sophisticated enough to laugh at any defense of Benito Mussolini's fascist state by arguing that he made the trains run on time. Yet we don't have to look far to find tenacious defenders of Soviet brutality operating out in the open.

The defense of the indefensible was put on display yesterday in a book review of Oxford University historian Robert Service's "Comrades!: A World History of Communism" for the left-leaning Guardian newspaper. Guardian editor Seumas Milne denounced Service for being so damned negative about the history of communism. Milne blasted Service for downplaying the way the Soviet Union delivered, "rapid industrialization, mass education, full employment and unprecedented advances in social and gender equality", and scolded Service for downplaying the Soviet role in defeating Nazi Germany. In other words, Milne wants us to know that the trains ran on time!

We can give Milne the benefit of the doubt by presuming his ignorance about the cost to benefit ratio of Soviet achievements to Soviet horrors is based on a misty nostalgia about a Communism that never was - a communism that could deliver egalitarianism coupled with the universal material comfort that Marxism promised. Unfortunately for Milne, even the Soviets knew better than to believe in political fairy tales. Which isn't to say they didn't try, of course. The "rapid industrialization" of the Soviet Union that Milne would like us to remember as such a towering accomplishment could only take place after the deliberate annhiliation of the Soviet agrarian class. Mass education? Of course, but only after the Soviet Union had attacked the intellectual class, created the world's largest bureaucracy dedicated to censorship and eliminated freedom of speech. And so it goes. Each advance brought by Communism was paid for in blood, death and terror. So why would anyone in their right mind continue to shill for the world's deadliest political system?

Robert Service promptly a fantastic rebuttal to Milne's loathsome nostalgia for tyranny, and set about dismantling Milne's Soviet eulogies piece by piece. Service correctly maintains that the primary lesson to be learned about the history of communist governance is that "repression was not some aberrant phenomenon under communist rule around the world. It was condoned in advance." Indeed, as Service also notes, when the Soviet Union finally collapsed and people could choose communist parties as just one of many other options, they rejected communism resoundingly.

Finally, Service took aim at Milne's sloppy tarring of hostility to communism with the world's trendiest catch-all epithet neoconservative with the following:

It would seem that Milne and his like consider it fair game to denounce anybody who comes to an anti-communist standpoint as a neocon. This is a shoddy way to handle a serious political discussion. If this farrago had not come from the editor of the comment pages of one of our national newspapers it would not be worth bothering about. What is more, Milne is typical of a more general trend that retains a nostalgia for communism, and is a trend that ought to be repudiated.

Could you imagine, for a moment, the scandal Milne's naked defense of communist totalitarianism would cause if applied to the benefit of German Nazism or Spanish fascism? I can't, and it's heartening to see that Service is in no mood to apologize for totalitarianism simply because its ideological pretenses made a stab at his own left-of-center political erogenous zones. If only Seumas Milne, and so many others like him, would stop providing the laugh track for history's killing joke.

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