In my desperate attempt to avoid the cliché that is “person-sitting-in-coffeehouse-working-on-laptop”, I opted for a slightly different food and drink outlet to write in: a bar. Not very imaginative or dissimilar to a coffee shop, you may think. And you’d be right. But this bar caught my attention for a very specific reason: it was a celebration of all things communism.
Its walls were adorned with communist iconography; posters of Lenin and Mao, images of Fidel Castro draped in Cuban flags. Even Stalin’s picture made an appearance on the front of the bar. The décor was also rather peculiar, with the bar itself made entirely out of wooden pallets, and camouflage netting suspended from the ceiling acting as a room divider. Sandbags and oil drums were also placed at varying spots on the floor to finish off the pseudo-revolutionary feel.
As I ordered my drink and took a seat, I became increasingly uncomfortable with the fact that there in front of me were pictures of the most vile human rights abusers, collectively responsible for the suffering, misery and death of many millions (granted, Stalin and Mao are in a league of their own in this regard). And yet, the members of staff and fellow patrons never batted an eye. The food menu, too, read like a list of crass jokes: “The Mad Mao” and “The Totalitarian”. What next? Goulag Goulash? Pol Hot Pot?
This whole experience provoked a serious question: given the great suffering communism has inflicted, why does admiration for this totalitarian ideology frequently go unchallenged?
These attitudes are in no way restricted to South London taverns, either. Communists and their apologists are found throughout society. Only recently, and to many people’s bemusement, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell read from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book in parliament in an effort to goad the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and Conservative MP George Osborne. To be clear, that’s a British MP, belonging to a major British political party, deeming it acceptable to read from a book authored by a man responsible for the deaths of at least 40 million people. Despite McDonnell receiving criticism for his actions, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington Diane Abbott sprang to his defence, stating: “I suppose, on balance, Mao did more good than harm.” McDonnell responded to his critics, claiming it was ‘just a joke’ – a rather unsatisfactory retort.
Other political areas such as the May Day trade union parades have also come under fire in their failings to deal with the Stalinist and Maoist banners that still feature in the march. One must wonder as to how onlookers would have reacted if Nazi or fascist emblems had instead been flown. I suspect passing liberal-leftists would have, quite correctly, openly expressed their disgust and contempt at the rally’s participants, with arrests being made shortly after. But this didn’t happen, so why the double standard?
These same hypocrisies seep into other spheres too, with music and the arts being particularly blind to the ideology’s ills. LA rock band Rage Against The Machine, who performed at many anti-Nazi and anti-fascist events, frequently sported the red star, hammer and sickle, and other symbols synonymous with communism. Speaking as a huge fan of the band, I was always mildly confused as to how a music group could directly quote George Orwell’s 1984, a polemic against Stalinist totalitarianism, all the while decorating their equipment and clothes with Soviet iconography. Cognitive dissonance at its very finest.
Communism, like other totalitarian ideologies, is troublesome because it treats people as infinitely malleable lumps of putty. But, as any cognitive scientist will tell you, this isn’t how the mind works. As the great Steven Pinker puts it, we aren’t ‘blank slates’ that can be forever shaped and moulded. And it is for this reason that so many perished at the hands of these dogmatic ideologues.
So why, then, is communism let off the hook? Why in contemporary culture are communist leaders not despised in the way fascist or Nazi leaders rightfully are? There doesn’t appear to be a simple answer. Clearly the overall death count of these regimes isn’t a deciding factor in peoples’ minds, particularly as the communist dictators’ body count is far larger than any Nazi or fascist government. The great WWII historian Roger Moorhouse suspects Nazi Germany is thought of in a more negative light due to the putrid, pseudoscientific side to the killings carried out by the Nazis. Furthermore, even in its Nazi guise, Germany was a fundamentally civilized and educated society, adding to the shock when such an advanced country slid into dictatorship and genocide. Others, such as renowned entomologist E. O. Wilson, said of Marxism: “Wonderful theory. Wrong species.” My guess is no one would ever say this about the repulsive ideological underpinnings of Nazism.
Personally, I suspect that to many people communism represents an anti-establishment and rebellious ideal. Can you imagine Rik Mayall portraying a comedic Nazi version of his poetry-writing, anarchic character in The Young Ones? Me neither. But while to some communism remains a symbol of rebellion or nonconformity, this doesn’t make up for the masses of bodies it has left in its wake. It’s time to cease the flirtations with this totalitarian ideology. The double standard must end.