The continued reverence for certain authoritarian regimes on the fringes of the left is probably a testament to the scale of socialism’s defeat at the close of the 20th century. Since then the left, in both its social democratic and socialist guises, has adopted a broadly defensive stance.
Social democrats spend most of their time recapitulating earlier defences of the welfare state against assault by the right. Socialists, however, have responded rather differently.
During the 20th century, socialist economics as practiced by actually existing socialist governments resulted in centralised control of systematically induced shortages. In countries such as Cuba and North Korea, where market reforms have been enacted only very partially or not at all, the problems that have historically characterised socialist economies persist to this day. “Sometimes even when you have money you cannot find things to buy,” a Cuban friend recently told me about life in Havana – and this was before the pandemic kicked in.
Yet for all those manifest failures, many socialists refuse to let go of the romantic dream. Economic failure in countries such as Cuba or Venezuela is usually blamed on the trade embargo and America sanctions, respectively. In both cases, repressive measures are justified by admiring onlookers as either a necessary countermeasure against capitalist opposition, or recast as a virtue of a superior political system. In a perversion of logic, the defenders of dictatorship and economic failure preen and posture as the pious defenders of democratic norms and human rights.
To be sure, none of the claims about decrepit dictatorships such as that in Cuba stand up to even the remotest scrutiny. And yet, left-wing politicians and activists still flock to anything emitting a whiff of revolution “like bluebottles to a dead cat”, as George Orwell once put it.
The much-vaunted Cuban healthcare system is a case in point. Throughout the six months of the Covid pandemic, we’ve seen various stories emerge that have highlighted Cuba’s so-called medical diplomacy. Jeremy Corbyn himself has praised the “inspirational” efforts of Cuban doctors who have been sent by their government to help other countries treat coronavirus patients.
And yet this week it was reported that 622 doctors have joined a case against the Cuban government at the International Criminal Court, accusing their overseas medical program of being a form of slavery. Hundreds of Cuban doctors have testified that the dictatorship has forced them to live abroad without knowing where they are going, has confiscated their passports, controlled their movements and expropriated most of their wages. Yet none of this widely available information seems to have filtered through to left-wing politicians and activists who continue to bovinely sing the praises of Cuba’s “health internationalism”.
It’s been a difficult few weeks for what remains of the socialist camp. A UN fact-finding mission last week accused Nicolas Maduro’s government in Venezuela of “egregious violations” of human rights (including the widespread use of torture and rape) amounting to “crimes against humanity”. It was only a few years ago that prominent British leftists were showering praise on the authoritarian regime in Caracas – praise that has never since been retracted. Indeed, much of the violence that has been meted out to the Venezuelan opposition over the past two decades was taking place in the years when pampered Western journalists were writing sickly tributes to the country’s authoritarian rulers.
This makes left-wing posturing over the Overseas Operations Bill currently going through the Commons even more nauseating. The left claims that the legislation ‘decriminalises torture’. It’s an accusation that has some merit – the bill would mean soldiers cannot be prosecuted for war crimes if five years have passed since the date of the alleged incident. And the fact some critics of the bill are hypocrites does not mean the criticism is automatically wrong.
But one is not really against torture unless one is against it everywhere. And those sections of the left which are presently decrying the British government for a dubious bill have shown little interest in defending the victims of torture at the hands of favoured socialist governments.
The makes moral posturing by Labour’s Socialist Campaign Group MPs about the Overseas Operations Bill sound more than a little hollow. For as Leszek Kołakowski put it in his famous demolition of the pompous leftist historian E.P. Thomson:
“I simply refuse to join people who show how their hearts are bleeding to death when they hear about any, big or minor (and rightly condemn- able) injustice in the US and suddenly become wise historiosophists or cool rationalists when told about worse horrors of the new alternative society”.
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