William Walter explores why left-wing extremists escape much of the vitriol and criticism their right-wing counterparts are subjected to.
In January 1992 Robert S. McNamara, who served as US Defence Secretary during the Cuban Missile crisis, attended a meeting chaired by Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba. It was only at this meeting, 30 years after the event, that McNamara learned 162 nuclear warheads, including 90 tactical warheads, had already been deployed on the island at the time of the missile crisis. McNamara was dumfounded. He asked for the translation to be repeated. He then gathered his thoughts and said: “Mr President, I have three questions for you: number one, did you know the nuclear warheads were there? Number two, if you did, would you have recommended to [Nikita] Khruschev in the face of a US attack that he use them? Number three, if he had used them, what do you think would have happened?”. Castro, seemingly irritated by the naivety of McNamara’s questioning, triumphantly replied: “Number one, I knew they were there. Number two, I would not have recommended to Khruschev, I did recommend to Khruschev that they be used. Number three, what would have happened to Cuba? It would have been totally destroyed.” McNamara was astonished. He was sat before a man who was prepared to foment nuclear war between the world’s superpowers, and in doing so sacrifice the lives, not just of his own citizens, but those of untold millions elsewhere. And all in the name of what? The preservation of a misguided ideology that time and again history has shown to only deliver economic misery and hardship to those living within its clutches.
Besides ushering the world to within a hair’s breadth of nuclear apocalypse, Castro also committed a multitude of other sins, ranging from sponsoring terrorism to ordering the torture and extra-judicial killing of countless political dissidents.
The long list of crimes makes the collective outpouring of grief by many on the left even more repugnant. When asked to comment on the Cuban leader’s death, Jeremy Corbyn heralded Castro as “a huge figure in all our lives”. And when pressed on his human rights abuses, Corbyn was quick to white wash the darker chapters of the Cuban leader’s life, explaining: “There are problems of excesses by all regimes”. Corbyn’s sentiments were echoed by a chorus of other left-wing champions, including: Vladimir Putin, Aytollah Khameni, Gerry Adams and George Galloway.
But the left’s blind adoration extends beyond Fidel Castro to other left-wing luminaries. In 2008, while appearing on the BBC’s This Week, Dianne Abbott argued Chairman Mao “on balance did more good than harm”. No, you’re not mistaken – she’s talking about the same Chairman Mao whose ‘Great Leap Forward’ resulted in the deaths of some 45 million people. Abbott’s remarks were jokingly dismissed by Andrew Neill and Michael Portillo.
The left’s treatment of the likes of Mao and Castro are in sharp contrast to those of their right-wing counterparts. Take as an example former Chilean President, Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet was a dictator, who presided over numerous crimes, including the deaths and forced disappearances of some 3,095 of his own people. But, equally, the structural reforms and economic reorientation introduced by the Chilean dictator led to the sustained period of economic growth, dubbed the ‘Miracle of Chile’ by Milton Friedman, and ultimately helped transform Chile into one of South America’s most successful economies. To be clear, no amount of economic prosperity could ever justify the unlawful killing of a country’s citizens. But while Pinochet’s actions were unconscionable, they are undoubtedly less than the crimes of, say, Mao Tse-Tung. And yet, were someone to dress up as Pinochet they would be widely condemned, whereas if they were to dress up as Chairman Mao nobody would bat an eyelid.
Francisco Franco is another, who, like Pinochet, elicits strong negative emotions, particularly from the left. While this anger and bitterness is unquestionably justified, it fails to explain the collective denial many on the left have towards equivalent communist or socialist dictators.
But the precise explanation for this contrast in attitudes is not immediately obvious. One plausible explanation is that because of the Second World War, fascism has had a more pronounced impact on the national psyche than communism. In post-war Europe, men, women and children were all too aware of the horror and devastation fascist Nazi Germany had visited on the continent. To this day, school children learn how the West, together with communist Russia, were heroically able to fight off the Nazi menace, put an end to the holocaust and return peace and democracy to the streets of Europe.
The Warsaw Pact, together with finer details, such as the pogroms and gulags of Stalinist Russia, form an inconvenient distraction from a broader narrative of the West allying itself with Russia to defeat their mutual German adversaries. Put simply, Pol-Pot’s Killing Fields have less resonance with the West because they had less of a direct impact.
Perhaps our education system needs to do more to remind people that the horrors of communism are no less brutal than those of fascism, and in many cases more so. Maybe then people like Jeremy Corbyn will consider his words more carefully before praising the likes of the Cuban dictator.