By the time I get around to uploading this blog post, Jeremy Corbyn may have both roundly condemned the government of Venezuela and abjured his former support for the Bolívarian Revolution in sackcloth and ashes. But somehow, I doubt it.
I’ve been thinking about my old teacher, Ms Winkler, a lot lately.
I am old enough to remember Europe before the Berlin Wall fell, and as a schoolboy I visited the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Communist Poland. Just before going to the Soviet Union, my French teacher, Ms Winkler, told me what a treat awaited me. I would witness first hand a different sort of country; one in which there was no unemployment or homelessness, and in which teachers received the same salary as doctors (perhaps this latter fact was the clincher, in her view). Her enthusiasm failed to move me. I may have been 15 years old, but I had a Solidarność poster on my bedroom wall. She was, I knew, a “useful idiot” for the Soviet regime, someone who had been on countless Soviet-funded boondoggling visits to the Communist paradise in her role as a local Labour councillor. I knew that Intourist would have made sure she saw only the jewels in the crown, exposed only to the happy, productive proletariat; a far cry from the unemployment and industrial strikes of the evil Thatcher’s Britain of the 1980s.
I, too, expected to see only ‘success stories’ in Moscow and Leningrad, and while aspects of both were impressive, I still saw much that was dreary and miserable. The ‘tourist’ hotel, built for the Moscow Olympics of 1980, was less than a decade old but audibly creaking. The cockroaches were larger and more numerous than I have ever seen, outside the tropics, to this day. The food, though no doubt infinitely better than whatever a working-class Muscovite had to live on, was vile and grey. The meat was mainly cheval, which is fair enough, but one evening I realised that the meat on my plate had already been partially chewed. Peering beyond the conveyer-belt of dirty dishes the mystery was solved — in the kitchen, half a dozen matronly babushkas picked over the left-overs, salvaging whatever was edible for the next serving. As for escaping the blight of homelessness, one could only assume that the men shivering on the benches in Gorky Park at night were there simply there because they enjoyed sleeping al fresco, rather than in their well-appointed, government allocated apartments.
When I reported back to Ms Winkler, she simply shook her head sadly. What little I understood! The Soviet Union had been a shining light and beacon of progress, but only until 1953. Since then, Stalin’s heirs had lost sight of the purity of the socialist revolution and it had all culminated in the current madness of Perestroika and Glasnost in which the dangerous capitalist Gorbachev was unpicking all the advances of the past. She was probably, therefore, the first person I ever heard assert that a socialist failure was due to a lack of “real socialism”.
My visit to the GDR was illicit and undertaken on the return journey from a school history trip to Berlin. Once again, I saw the reality of Soviet communism. After the stately beauty of East Berlin came the run-down reality of Jena and Magdeburg. We had no permission to visit either city, and were to say that we had got lost on Bundesautobahn 2 if stopped by the police. In Magdeburg, we stopped to buy food and drink. For teenage boys, buying a drink pronounced “shaft” was almost as amusing as buying the same thing in Russia, where the cyrillic script made it look like “cok”; but alas, the only Saft available in the drab corner shop was Pflaumensaft. The only fruit on sale were bruised and shrivelled apples and what turned out, on close inspection, to be mottled, unwaxed oranges. Chocolate and crisps, which is what we wanted, were out of the question, and a packet of biscuits tasted of sawdust and lard (which may have been what they were made of). Our history teacher, as we climbed back into the minibus, took us to task for complaining. The meagre pickings that we were making fun of, he reminded us, would be unaffordable luxuries for most Magdeburgers. This, he said, was the grim reality of Communism.
The fellow-travelling Ms Winkler was having none of it, however. The paucity of victuals in the shops of Jena and Magdeburg was evidence of the determination of NATO and “The West” to punish Eastern Bloc countries for the Berlin Blockade of 1948-49. Capitalist powers had never forgiven East Berlin its obvious success and, by some leverage which she didn’t fully explain, they would ensure that East Germany suffered. The shops we visited, she claimed, were probably ‘just for tourists’ — residents would be provided with what they needed by the government (shops and retail being decadent capitalist notions). And what if the goods looked a bit mouldy? The important thing was that in Socialist countries, everyone was equal.
I realised, at that point, that there was nothing I could say, no evidence that I could provide, that would ever shift Ms Winkler from her unshakable faith that, not only Socialism, but Stalinism, was the herald of a better future. If it seemed to have failed, then that was because it was not ‘real socialism’, or it had been strangled by hostile interests.
Motes and Beams
Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?
Are we not all guilty of casuistry when it comes to our deeply held beliefs? Does Theresa May have to apologise for Saudi Arabia? Do supporters of the Free Market have to apologise for the bail-out of the Banks? Do conservatives need to publicly condemn Pinochet? Must Muslims apologise for and continually condemn Islamist violence? Must Christians apologise for the excesses of the Church over the centuries?
The answer to some of those questions is undoubtedly ‘yes’, but we are not comparing like with like.
I do not know what Theresa May thinks of Saudi Arabia. As a western woman living in (leading, even) a democracy, I imagine she finds little to admire in the House of Saud. Boris Johnson spoke his mind in December 2016 and was rapped over the knuckles for breaking diplomatic protocol:
Personally, I wish Conservative politicians were more critical of Saudi Arabia, a country which has done more than any other to fuel the rise of hardline Islamism in the Muslim world, but I can also understand that as a country, we have to maintain a working relationship with even those regimes we regard as distasteful (including a USA that has Donald Trump as President). Likewise, the regrettable ‘support’ shown to the nasty dictator Augusto Pinochet had more to do with Chilean support for the UK during the war with Argentina than it did with any desire to emulate the Chile of Pinochet at home. Corbyn and his Chavista fellow-travellers, let us remember, have said that the best way to show solidarity with Venezuela is to learn from it and that Venezuela shows us in the UK a better way.
This is not to say that those of us on the right do not hold up aspects of the governance of other nations as examples to be emulated. In fact, we do it a lot, and it’s a good thing. Where other countries are successful, we ought to look carefully at what they have done (or are doing) and ask wether we might learn from them.
I am an admirer of the United States of America in many ways. Despite the fact that Donald Trump was elected, I think that as electoral systems go, the US system has much to commend it. I admire the US commitment to free speech. I believe in the ‘American dream’ which is open and welcoming to hard-working immigrants. I think we have much to learn from their pioneering of Community Land Trusts for affordable housing, the welfare reforms of Bill Clinton and the governance of visionary ‘New Democrat’ mayors like John Norquist of Milwaukee. But do I want the UK to ‘become like the USA’? Certainly not; not least because their system of healthcare is far worse (even) than the NHS model we already have.
Plenty of free-marketeers are currently making approving noises about non-EU Norway as a potential model for the UK post-Brexit (at least in the short to medium term). Others, like Daniel Hannan, are more taken with Switzerland, but we are all willing to look around for possibilities which are known to work. I’m keen on Switzerland’s highly democratic localism and EFTA membership, but not (at this stage) its time-consuming bilateral relationship with the EU. I’m attracted by Norway’s EFTA/EEA relationship with the EU and by its commitment to Free Trade, but not by its tax regime. I think also that we would do well to look at the way Singapore provides and funds universal healthcare, but certainly NOT ape its authoritarianism.
In each case, for ‘right-wingers’, an aspect or detail of a political system is held up as worthy of consideration (or even emulation), rather than the political system and its foundational ideology in toto. Venezuela is different. Corbyn and his fellow fellow-travellers did not praise a mere feature of Chavista Venezuela, but the whole package. Had Corbyn publicly admired a particular policy of the Venezuelan government — say, the investment of oil revenue in a social welfare fund — then it would have been much easier for him to now row back from any supposed uncritical adulation and condemn the inhuman situation there (the Norwegian government, after all, has invested oil revenues in what has become the largest pension fund in the world). Instead, Corbyn chose one of only two truly revolutionary socialist regimes in the world (the other being North Korea) and held it up as a model; an example of the future he sees for his own country.
Socialism as Religion
The intellectual (sic) position closest to that of the socialist ideologue would seem to be that of a religious fundamentalist or flat-earther. I’m talking not about the vast majority of religious people worldwide, but those who believe, rather, that the world was created in six days of 24 hours by the direct action of God — those who cling to irrational religious beliefs in the face of all the logical and empirical evidence.
Like Socialism, both Creationism and Flat-Earthism trace their (ahem…) intellectual roots to the 19th century. It comes as a surprise to many that as far back as the fifth century, no lesser theologian than St Augstine (in De Genesi ad litteram) dismissed those who believed in a six-day creation as ‘laughing stocks among men’ who were liable to ‘bring their religion into disrepute’. In the 13th century, when the theologian and philosopher (and friar) St Thomas Aquinas wanted an example of a scientific fact which was beyond doubt, he would often use that of a spherical earth. The great irony is that both ‘creationism’ and ‘flat-earthism’ came long after the ‘Enlightenment’ (sic) of the 18th century, just as Socialism reared its head after the beginnings, and palpable successes, of genuinely international free trade in the 19th century.
Neither St Augustine nor St Thomas Aquinas had access to the ‘fossil record’ nor the ability to understand it if they had, yet neither believed the world was made in six days. Both lived long before the Magellan-Elcano circumnavigation of the globe of 1519-1522, yet both knew that the world is a sphere. On the other hand, those who even nowadays dismiss evolution as a lie have compete access to a wealth of historical evidence, and some even go so far as to suggest that dinosaurs only died out when the sparse vegetation following the flood of Noah failed to provide them enough sustenance. Flat-Earthers are even more bonkers. At least the fossils are millions of years old. Round-the-world sailings and flights, to say nothing of satellite photos, are all happening now. Thirteenth century schoolboys knew that the earth is (roughly) a sphere. The students of Aristotle in the 4th century BC knew it too. And yet there are modern people, some of whom claim to be ‘scientists’, who deny it.
Other quaint misunderstandings of religious people have fallen away as evidence has come along over the years. The anthropocentric view that the universe revolves around the earth was abandoned not long after Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium of 1543. Some wealthy early Christians kept slaves. Saint Augustine, in the fifth century, was describing the practice as “sinful”. By the early 16th century, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas was railing against the practice of slavery in one of the first anti-imperial works ever published (Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias, 1542).
Like the Creationists and Flat-Earthers, Revolutionary Socialists remain unrepentant and unchanging. Orthodox religion may entail beliefs which are non-rational; for example, the belief in a supernatural cause of the universe or the belief that a dead man rose from the dead. What cannot be sustained are irrational views; that is, those that are contrary to indisputable empirical evidence or logical argument (such as, for example, evidence that the world is considerably older than 6,000 years).
Like the Creationists and Flat-Earthers, Jeremy Corbyn’s faith in Revolutionary Socialism is based on something far more compelling than evidence, or even reason. It is based on an ideology which is essentially a rejection of something else (in this case, capitalism or free markets). Creationists and Flat-Earthers reject science (and, indeed, most theology and astronomy before the Reformation). I am not sure why. Flat-Earthers I cannot begin to understand, but I suppose that Creationists might feel that to embrace contemporary palæontology somehow weakens their faith. I would remind them that the Catholic Church has never taught a six-day creation, nor a flat earth, and has never denied evolution, but they would probably take this to be an example of the rightness of their cause… not sufficiently sola scriptura.
Corbyn the Religious Fundamentalist
Corbyn may be an atheist, but his belief system is closest to that of religious fundamentalists. Nothing will shift him from his ideological position: not logical argument, not evidence, not even the suffering of millions of Venezuelans. If you are waiting for him to condemn the government of Venezuela then you will be waiting a long time. If he does issue a condemnation, I suggest it will entail some sort of recategorisation — it will not be the Socialist, Chavista government that he condemns, but one newly infected by neo-liberalism or ‘State Capitalism’. The ideology must remain pure.
It is fundamental. And fundamentalist.