Alex Deane is David Cameron’s former Chief of Staff.
How many people have you seen wearing Che Guevara t-shirts? How many
do you know that have a poster of him blu-tacked to a wall?
As is immediately apparent to any who look into it, as Andrew Sinclair
has illustrated and Daniel Wolf has made absolutely plain, Ernesto
‘Che’ Guevara was a vile man. He urged his followers to become
‘effective and selective violent cold killing machines.’ He founded a
system of concentration camps in Cuba in which dissidents, aids victims
and homosexuals were imprisoned until death. He frequently personally
carried out executions of those that denounced the Communist cause.
His fanaticism as ‘prosecutor’ of those involved in the old regime
after the Cuban revolution saw him order the killing of hundred upon
hundred. Che railed against Kruschev’s reluctance to launch nuclear
holocaust on the Americans during the Cuban missile crisis.
I’m sure that the popularity of this image doesn’t mean that its
wearers support what Che (Che means ‘pal’ in Argentine slang) stood
for. I imagine they wear a picture of this unpleasant man merely
because they are ignorant, and are attracted by the commercialised
appeal of an apparently dashing rebel whose image has been used to sell
a hundred products and whose early life has been glamorised in an
absurdly romanticised revisionist movie (an accurate review of which
was written by Paul Berman). Perhaps they don’t even know that this
famous picture is of a real person, and not an image conjured up by an
But the fact that this ignorance can exist is revealing. One can’t
imagine Nazi memorabilia being mass marketed with such equanimity, or
the swastika being such trendy t-shirt fodder as is the hammer and
sickle. It’s impossible to imagine clothes depicting fascist leaders or
symbols being popular as the Che t-shirt, or the flag of Communist
Vietnam (a gold star on a red background) which appears on backpackers
by the thousand.
This fondness for the giants of the Communist era is quite common. It
extends even to Mao, and to Stalin. It is descended from the follies
of those such as Edgar Snow (author of Red Star Over China, a hagiographic work on Mao). It ascribes to these men motives of fundamental decency.
This is very wrong. These men were evil. They were every bit as evil
as Hitler and everyone should know about it. The extremes of the
political spectrum are equally abhorrent. It is absurd and unhealthy
that whilst one is rightly acknowledged as such, the other is viewed in
many quarters with such affection.
The myths of Mao are many. On the supposedly heroic ‘Long March,’ during which 70,000 of Mao’s followers died, Mao himself was carried on a litter. Far from engaging the Communists in the fierce battles of the Maoist narrative, in fact Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces preferred to avoid the marchers (the marchers were dropping like flies without their intervention, and Chiang’s son was being held hostage in Moscow). The uber-anticapitalist Mao ran a profitable opium business from his guerrilla headquarters.
Stalin killed something upwards of 20 million Russians. It’s hard to establish exact figures, as unlike the Nazis he didn’t keep records, but reputable sources like the Encyclopaedia Britannica plump for 20, despite the fact that many historians put the number far higher (the low-ball 20 million figure means Stalin killed more than the number of people that died during the whole of the First World War). He also indirectly caused the deaths of millions of citizens of other countries (it was at his urging, and on his promise of support, that Kim Il Sung’s forces invaded South Korea).
The fact that these men aren’t condemned as universally as they should be is due in part to the standing of these men in their home countries. In China, Mao is still revered, if not read. In Russia, Stalin is commemorated in museums in both Georgia and Moscow, both dedicated to his life and ‘achievements’ (to the eternal credit of the German people, it is impossible to imagine a Berlin museum dedicated to Hitler).
But it is not the fault of Russia or China that absurdly positive views of the tyrants continue here in the West. The perpetuation of fallacious views of the far left is also due in part to the attitudes of geopolitical pragmatists in the West who were willing to reach an accord with Communist dictators during the Cold War. The Nixonian and Kissingerian worldview was that it was impossible to win against such adversaries, particularly in the nuclear age when weaponry had become so advanced that it seemed to preclude war without mutually assured destruction. Rather, they believed that rapprochement should be initiated, and truces made. They demonstrated and advocated a willingness to live with the existence of these regimes and even profit from trade with them. This trade offered Communist countries succour and support which prolonged their ability to perpetuate ultimately unsound economic systems and, by extension, their ability to persecute their own citizens and those of their ‘satellite’ states.
Western statesmen would surely never have reached this cosy compromise with the Nazis. By their actions, by their willingness to do business with such regimes, the ‘pragmatists’ implicitly stated that Mao and Stalin were not beyond the pale, and that their sins were less grievous than those of Hitler’s Germany.
Recent works by Natan Sharansky (on Soviet Russia) and Jung Chang and John Halliday (on Maoist China) should change the minds of those that continue to advocate this attitude – either in their historical analysis or in their interpretation of the political world today – despite all that Reagan and his administration taught us about the failures of this attitude, and the ultimate success that can result from standing up to bullies, no matter how well armed.
Victims themselves of the regimes on which they write, Sharansky and Chang offer searing accounts of life under the two most repressive systems mankind has ever devised. Their granite conviction that Western concepts of liberty must prevail should convince anyone of the foolishness of soft focus perspectives on the evil of Communist repression.
The other factor that has led to this situation is more important. Since the end of the Second World War, there has been a concerted effort by the British left to trivialise the sins of the world’s far left regimes. This has distorted, and continues to distort, our political life.
This trivialisation has its roots in the behaviour of many British socialists of the 1960s and 1970s, who portrayed life in Soviet Russia as a Utopia to the British public. They denied all reports of suffering there as ‘capitalist propaganda.’ When the boat people of Vietnam fled the hand of Hanoi, or Russia’s dissidents escaped to speak of the unutterable wrongs of existence under the Soviets, the stories of these victims were discredited and mocked as the reports of stool pigeons for capitalism by the Western left, who were wilfully blind to the faults of those regimes that had embraced their ideology.
When the Wall fell, when the persecuted masses of Russia, China and Eastern Europe could at last speak out, when the terrible heinous wrongs of Asia’s tyrants and dictators was finally exposed, we on the right thought that the argument was over, and that we had won it. Given the incontrovertible proof that stood before us, we felt sure that nobody would act as apologists for the extremist left anymore.
But we were wrong.
For evidence is not as important as we would like to think. It remains fashionable to be of the left. In many ways, fashion is stronger than history. Image is stronger than truth. The facade of the left as caring and loving because it ostensibly stands for the needs of the common man is a powerful one. The emblems of this fallacy, romanticised images of its warriors and champions, continue to be successfully peddled – as those thousands of Ches staring from teenage bedroom walls display.
Beyond its significance as evidence of the (perhaps deliberate) mishandling of the teaching of history, the presentation of Communist dictators and thugs as anything other than abhorrent is important because its effects are felt beyond our impression of the politics of the past – it permeates our thinking about mainstream politics today. There is a perceivable continuum between contemporary attitudes about these historical figures of the far left, and contemporary perceptions of modern mainstream leftwing thought. It is represented in an unthinking predisposition towards the left generally. It affects the way that people think about our political parties, and it means that parties of the right are at a fundamental and unjust disadvantage.
The left – even in its most extreme forms – is seen as cuddly and sweet, whilst the right – in every guise – is thought to be fundamentally cold and unkind.
‘Nazi’ and ‘Fascist’ are terms of abuse often aimed at people on the right in arguments in JCRs and debating halls throughout the land. Like all ad hominems, there’s no real reply – such insults take a moment to say but the harm they cause is all but impossible to undo.
Those amongst today’s politicians and activists who continue to hold views on the extreme left – the advocates of collectivism and the like, the old Clause IV warriors and the Socialist Workers – are seen as harmless old coots. The Che Guevara portraits that hang on the walls of union leaders such as Bob Crow and Andy Gilchrist are apparently forgivable, perhaps even rather sweet. The views of such men are perceived to be endearing, romantic misconceptions – and not the equivalent of the dark far right they truly are.
Whilst their ideological extremism no longer openly extends to leading figures in mainstream leftist parties (though it did, until very recently), it remains the case, even amongst the very elite of British political life, that having had a far leftist youth is viewed as a badge of honour – as being ‘alright,’ of one’s heart being in the right place.
Past membership of the CND is de rigeur in many leftist circles. Whilst having been a member of hardline left wing organisations (Militant, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party) or having held far-left beliefs (Chancellor Gordon ‘prudent’ Brown used to advocate the nationalisation of supermarkets) seem to be perfectly acceptable in today’s political climate; past membership of comparable organisations on the right (The Monday club) is not (unless, like John Bercow, one performs acts of public contrition and goes on to take a position all but indistinguishable from that of the Labour Party).
The right is often called ‘nasty’ – even, sometimes, by our own (such people seem not to know Churchill’s dictum about the futility of asking the crocodile to eat you last – they don’t realise that they’re buying themselves but a little moment in the glow of the left-friendly media, before they too are attacked – and they won’t have many friends left when it happens). The term ‘right wing’ is often used as a derogatory term or insult in itself.
This way of thinking permeates through to our children via their parents and teachers to the extent that by the time a child’s political consciousness is formed, there is a presumption that being on the right is bad.
We have to combat this in a positive way. We on the right must set out our stall – get into the habit of talking about public philosophy, demonstrate that there is a viable alternative to the social-democratic-leftist consensus. We need to explicitly contest the left’s narrative of mankind’s future, and their dominant philosophy of human progress. At present, the left’s flabby consensus mindset goes unchallenged – that the left is innately progressive and progressive is about progress and therefore is innately good. In Britain, much that is being abandoned is good and much being taken up bad – we must show that there is a coherent school of thought that protests about that, and not just spasmodic individual reactions to change. We need to show that the broad church of Conservatism is the most interesting intellectual place to be – that there’s room both for the moderates, and for muscular conservatism.
But alongside this positive task, we also have to get down in the dirt and get to grips with the negative one. We have show that the mantra of ‘caring’ and ‘being progressive’ are not ideas in themselves, but rather are powerful, manipulative, cleverly crafted labels that have the presumptive idea that they are right contained within them, pre-emptively making whomsoever opposes them ‘bad.’ These labels are often used to cover systems that leave people worse off. We have to join the dots between the extreme left and the ‘centre left’ – we can’t use buzz words and labels, we have to do the hard work ourselves.
In short, we have to let people know that the left has pulled a political fast one. Because right now, the left is automatically accepted and the right automatically dismissed – which has to be foolish as a matter of logic, since no matter what your political perspective, you’ve got to admit that each side is going to be wrong at least some of the time.
This bias is making politics a less thoughtful pursuit. As far as a large part of the electorate is concerned, the policies of one side aren’t really questioned and those of the other are unthinkingly damned. Soggy, sentimental soft-socialism has an easy run-in in today’s Britain because of it. It’s not right and it’s not fair – but it’s how politics is at the moment and nobody else is going to fix it for us.