Leave the left's tyrants in their graves

Che Guevara was sexy and idealistic. He was also a defender of Joseph Stalin and mass murder
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The Independent Online

I was 10 years old when the Berlin Wall fell. For a leftie, becoming politically aware in the 1990s - after the fall of communism - was a strange experience. It felt like being born into a family where somebody very important had just died, taking a thousand secrets with him. I didn't know this lost relative, and in everything I read he seemed like a monster; but few people wanted to talk about it. How could people on the left - who today seem worried about all the issues I care about: climate change, global poverty, tyranny and gay rights - have once been cheerleaders for this?

I was 10 years old when the Berlin Wall fell. For a leftie, becoming politically aware in the 1990s - after the fall of communism - was a strange experience. It felt like being born into a family where somebody very important had just died, taking a thousand secrets with him. I didn't know this lost relative, and in everything I read he seemed like a monster; but few people wanted to talk about it. How could people on the left - who today seem worried about all the issues I care about: climate change, global poverty, tyranny and gay rights - have once been cheerleaders for this?

The Black Book of Communism - a sober academic analysis edited by Professor Mark Kramer - documents more than 100 million innocent people slaughtered by communism in the 20th century - more even than fascism. The more I read about the left's complicity in this, the less I understood. Almost everything one of my heroes, George Bernard Shaw, wrote about domestic issues - from homelessness to the arms trade - seemed to me inspirational. Yet almost everything he wrote about Stalin's Soviet Union takes the form of adulatory, gushing hymns to Stalin. Ditto HG Wells, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Bertolt Brecht ... the list of brilliant, inspirational left-wingers who - apparently seamlessly - became apologists for the most murderous tyrannies of the 20th century is long. How?

Nobody seems to have the answers. The right claim, of course, that this history reveals the true, tyrannical face of the left. That seems to me simply daft; the workers of Oxfam and the staff at the New Statesman are not tyrants-in-waiting. But the left doesn't have answers either. We have not truly come to terms with the history of communism. If we had, we would not treat blatant apologists for the Soviet Union with fond indulgence and even respect.

Look, for example, at the historian Eric Hobsbawm. He is still the equivalent of an intellectual rock star on the left. His books are lapped up; his lectures are packed out with idealistic young people with all the right beliefs. Yet Hobsbawm remains an unapologetic defender of Stalinism. He would gladly have spied for Stalin, he explained recently and without regret, if only he had been asked. In his autobiography, he explains that he "treats the memory and tradition of the USSR with an indulgence and tenderness". In his 600-page account of a lifetime of supporting the Soviet Union, there are three regrets or caveats I could count. The last is typical. He notes briefly: "I am prepared to concede, with regret, that Lenin's Comintern was not such a good idea." That will be a comfort to the tens of millions Lenin and his acolytes slaughtered.

He is the David Irvine of the left. Why do so many decent people associate themselves with him? I can only conclude that we have not seriously thought about the victims of the tyranny he defends.

I have been fretting about this recently because the new movie The Motorcycle Diaries is reviving another Stalinist icon. Che Guevara was sexy and, in some ways, idealistic; he was also a defender of Joseph Stalin and mass murder. On several occasions, he actually prostrated himself before portraits of Stalin while making political pledges. He advocated "relentless hatred of the enemy that [should] impel us over and beyond the natural limitations of man and transform us into effective, violent, selective, and cold killing machines".

Is this a man to celebrate? Did Andy Gilchrist - the smart, decent leader of the Fire Brigades Union who I've picked as a random example - think about all those innocent people as he hung a picture of Che in his office? Yes, Che was fighting against heinous right-wing forces, not least in Guatemala, where the US was backing a far-right coup on behalf of a big corporation, the United Fruit Company. But those forces had to be resisted with left-wing democracy - not a twin totalitarianism of the left.

Left-wingers my age are the first generation on our side of the political fence in nearly a century to be totally untainted by association with communism. The worst thing we could possibly do is squander this opportunity and rehabilitate the heroes of that terrible, bloodstained period.

Yes, right-wing denial of atrocities is everywhere: look at the mainstream right's lauding of General Pinochet, the House of Saud and the undemocratic and disastrous "structural adjustment" programmes of the IMF. That's no excuse; we have to set a higher standard for ourselves.

There are 20th-century left-wing democrats - from Michael Foot to Leon Blum - who never apologised for the Soviet Union, and offer an honourable tradition upon which to draw. One of the crucial lessons for the left from the 20th century is that democracy must be at the core of our agenda. Yes, it must be a far more meaningful democracy than the corporate-dominated, hollowed- out democracy of George Bush - a model that is spreading to Britain. But we can only criticise the undemocratic hyper-capitalism of the right if we have a genuinely democratic alternative - and we won't find that by digging up Che Guevara.

It's tempting to think the left's tendency to turn a blind eye to atrocities died with the Soviets. It did not. Let me give two examples. In Oliver Stone's recent documentary Commandante, he accompanies Che's old friend Fidel Castro - a dictator who jails democrats, does not permit "his" people to travel abroad, and has driven a fifth of Cuba's population into exile - to a gulag. Castro talks to a handful of clearly terrified political prisoners, who have obviously been "coached" for the interview.

Talking about this little scene later, Stone said: "Yeah. I thought that was funny, I did... There was that paternalism. I mean it was 'father knows best', as opposed to totalitarianism. It's paternalism, that's what I mean. It's a Latin thing." As one journalist noted: "Stone was laughing - laughing - at a gulag." And claiming - on explicitly racist grounds - that "Latin" people like it. Many defenders of Castro routinely echo these sentiments.

And in Michael Moore's blockbuster movie Farenheit 9/11, he depicts Iraq in the era of Saddam Hussein. He describes it as a sovereign country, where small children fly kites and old women laugh merrily. That's it. That's his account of Iraq under Saddam. Most of the left opposed the recent war for decent reasons. Most of us did not deny Saddam's crimes. But can't we all recognise that the impulse that led Moore to gloss over Saddam's programme of genocide is the same impulse that led so much of the 20th- century left to gloss over the crimes of communism?

Couldn't Moore have opposed the war while honestly acknowledging the terrible downside of that choice? If we do not check ourselves against this tendency, aren't we doomed to repeat the worst parts of the left's history?

If we have learned anything from the 20th century, it must be that the disgusting nature of our opponents does not give us a licence to become as disgusting. We cannot allow ourselves to indulge "our bastards"; we cannot set aside democratic norms in order to beat people we judge to be even worse. As the globe warms and over a billion people live on less than one dollar a day, a global left is needed more than ever. But it must be a democratic left. It's time - at last - to let Che Guevara and his comrades die.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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