30 thoughts on “Monday Message Board

  1. An article in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald by Louise Nowra (www.smh.com.au/news/Opinion/The-moral-blind-spot-that-has-allowed-killers-to-become-kitsch/2005/01/09/1105205978449.html) complains that communists are not unequivocally condemned for their crimes in the same way that fascists (deservedly) are, and that this reflects a moral blind spot on the part of thoughtless people who fail to recognise the essential similarities between the two main types of totalitarianism and between their adherents.

    This is a reprise of what might be called the Doogue-Henderson debate. In a late 1989/early 1990 documentary on the Communist Party of Australia (which had just decided to begin dissolving itself), Geraldine Doogue commented on the paradox that the communists she had interviewed (who she regarded as some of the most impressive people she had ever met) could have nonetheless created such a totalitarian regime as the CPA was in its Stalinist days, and condoned Communist totalitarianism in other countries.

    This comment drew a scathing response from Gerard Henderson, who insisted that Australian communists were not “impressive people” at all, and that they created and supported evil totalitarian systems basically because they were evil and stupid themselves. Subsequently Henderson has oft repeated the mantra (a la Nowra) that communists deserve the same opprobrium as fascists.

    I could be considered to have a vested interest in this debate as I was a member of the CPA between 1984 and 1991, and a fairly vocal member of the faction which advocated dissolution of the party in favour of a new (non-communist) left party. Be that as it may, I believe (and my experiences in the CPA support this belief) that the paradox Doogue identifies is real, and not (as Henderson or Nowra might think) the product of fashionable left-liberal soft-headedness.

    I would also argue (and in the near future will argue in detail) that the question of why, and how, impressive, talented and well-meaning people could call into being, and support, one of the most extensive systems of injustice in history is the key to understanding how totalitarian political movements and regimes can arise, attract support from important elements of the popular masses and the elites (as they have undoubtedly done in several places), take power and get away with monstrous crimes. I will also argue that it is only by coming up with clear answers to this question, and as a result developing a capacity to recognise and respond to the early symptoms of incipient totalitarianism, that we can avoid repeating some very tragic history. Central to this task will be honing our ability as democrats to discern and discursively disarticulate what is genuinely virtuous and appealing in the programs of proto-totalitarian movements from what is foul, foolish or dangerous.

    This debate is not a million light-years removed from the debate in science fiction circles about whether Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader really are a continuous character and/or the same person, and the moral objection of some commentators to Darth Vader’s apotheosis in Return Of The Jedi whereby he passes back to the light side of the Force after killing the evil emperor to save his son. Such commentators are clearly super-glued to the idea that the world is neatly divided into Good People and Bad People, and have a rooted objection to any theory (whether of the individual character or of political behaviour) which complicates matters, for example by suggesting that good people could do bad things (and become corrupted) for what they regard as good reasons, or by denying that people who have done bad things are simply irredeemably bad. The great Christian conservative writers Tolkien and Dostoyevsky had some very important things to say on these issues.

  2. I suspect that one of the reasons that Henderson, Nowra et al. are so obsessed with the ‘evilness’ of communists in Australia is that, for them to recognize the ‘impressive’ qualities of Oz communists would mean acknowledging the less than impressive past of Australia’s own history.
    Specifically, the only party to support indigneous human rights in Australia in the first half of the 20th century was the Communist party. It was the Communists who acted as advocates at Wave Hill, who supported the 1938 Day of Mourning demonstration and so on.
    The difficulty that confronts Henderson and Nowra is that Australia in the 1930’s operated a regime that was as racist and facist as any Nazi state when it came to indigneous people.
    This history is unpalatable to these upholders of British idealism.

  3. "Drug use before crime"

    The murdoch press cries:

    The research found 35 per cent of women used illegal drugs before offending

    The study found most offenders started with cannabis, but where serious drugs such as heroin and amphetamines were concerned, in most cases a criminal career began before drug taking.

    Of course they started with “Cannabis”, not alchohol or tobacco.

    Then hidden at the end of the article is this little gem:

    The study found 87 per cent of women in jail were victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse – two-thirds of them suffering the abuse during childhood.

    Ummm. that one statistic is far more important then the entire premise of the article, and you only devoted one sentence to it?

    Why? I noticed the 11am news on triple J read the “Drugs before Crime” line, then by 12 had changed to “Abuse before Crime”.

    Can i expect the same from the murdoch press?

  4. Catallaxy is having an interesting discussion on the communism/Nowra thread, initiated by another Norton.

  5. Then, does early support for indigenous rights in Australia cancels out support for mass murdering regimes overseas? In many (most?) countries, communist parties started supporting the rights of minorities and working class people. Once in power they turned out to be mass murdering dictatorships, eliminating any opposition. I would question that the CPA would have turned out in a different way if given the chance.

  6. “avoid repeating some very tragic history” – is why I would love to read Paul’s extended analysis. There are some future scenarios for our society which we dread, like climate catastrophe or a New Argentina rising from an extended depression. With millions of people hurting badly, and a highly self-centred notion of community, we can imagine blame based and authoritarian political movements. They may look new, but the fundamentals will be pretty familiar… and of course I am putting an extreme thesis. Hanson shows us the tendendies are already here.

  7. David, you’re onto the very thing which is exercising my mind, and has done for some time.

    In reply to doctor k, the CPA was never remotely likely to have taken power in Australia, for reasons I hardly need to state.

  8. Paul, my question was completely hypothetical. If you examine a list of some long-ish ruling (Albania, Bulgaria, China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Democratic Kampuchea -Cambodia-, East Germany, Hungary, Laos, North Korea, Poland, People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, Romania, Vietnam and Yugoslavia) and short-ish ruling (Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique) Communist Parties you start seeing a common thread. Probably the only non-mass murdering Communist governments have the Communist party as a member of a much wider coalition. What I find incredible is the ability to live in denial, attempting to justify crimes at a mass scale with ‘but we also care for the poor and the blacks’.

  9. “Australia in the 1930’s operated a regime that was as racist and facist as any Nazi state when it came to indigneous people.” Cobblers it did. You are trivialising the injustice and suffering of all those caught up in your absurd generalisation – those in Europe and Aborigines.

  10. doctor k, I’m presuming that you listed the various communist regimes and reminded us of their repressive practices for the benefit of other readers who are unaware of, or wish to defend, those practices.

    If you re-read my first post you’ll see that the very thing I’m interested in exploring is the ability of people to hold a sincere concern about the poor and blacks (and other oppressed) in their own society side by side in their minds for many years with a disregard or minimisation of the human costs of “revolutionary” regimes in other societies. And, following on from this, I wish to explore the immensely important questions of (a) how people who become politically involved out of a concern for justice can come to defend or perpetrate radical injustice in the name of justice and (b) how people and political movements can be prevented from falling into this error.

    This doesn’t just apply to old-fashioned communists or fascists. I have never doubted that many good people who supported the invasion of Iraq despite the risks involved, and in some cases continue to support it despite its consequences being clear, did so out of what began as a totally sincere concern for the freedom and the welfare of the Iraqi people. In making this point I am not equating the war in Iraq with the crimes of Stalin or Mao, or the liberal polities which waged that war with totalitarian states of a communist or fascist variety. I am suggesting that there is a kind of intellectual and moral error underpinning the pro-war position which is akin to that which led many good people in past decades to embrace communism.

  11. I won’t be posting for the next 18 hours because I’m off home on the bike. I’m not cutting and running!

  12. Ooops! I forgot to fill the name and lost a lengthy post. I’ll start again quoting George Orwell “There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them”. Paul, I would say that there are people so much in love with their ideas that they forget to contrast them with reality, so they do not realise that they simply do not yield the expected results.

    If we review the way that many totalitarian governments get into a position of power, we will see that normally it is a small group behind the revolution. This enlightened group thinks that it has the right and obligation to save the oppressed by its choice of means. It just happens that ‘the workers do not understand us, but we are working to achieve the best for them’ (sorry, but this reminds me of some psephological excuses last year).

    From Stalin to Hitler, Castro to Pinochet, Mao to Peron, we have people that -at least claim to- believe that they were doing the best for ‘their people’. They were not idiots (well, Castro and Pinochet are still alive) but they headed criminal regimes and in some cases they still believe they did the right thing.

    doctor k, I’m presuming that you listed the various communist regimes and reminded us of their repressive practices for the benefit of other readers who are unaware of, or wish to defend, those practices.
    Yes, I understand that you do not support totalitarian regimes.

    Concerning the war in Iraq, I did not support the invasion. However, now that there is no Saddam Hussein, I think it is our obligation to stay there and ensure that there is no vacuum of power that could be even more damaging than Saddam’s regime.

  13. This is not completely tangential to conversation above, although a different topic. I have been trying to think of examples of societies that undergone the traumas and disruptions, in terms of duration, relative scale, and intensity, to those now experienced by Iraq, who have held elections that lead to self-sustaining democracies. I cannot. The likely trajectory, I suspect, to revert to some form of authoritarianism.

  14. Paul Norton thinks that Fascists are “unequivocally condemned for their crimes”.

    Want to bet? My mother was stationed in Italy just after the war, and she told me an Italian joke of the day:-

    There was an old Fascist who didn’t dare venture out of doors for fear of the partisans. At the same time, he had nothing to fall back on and so was slowly starving to death. He resolved to commit suicide, but as a good Catholic this was forbidden him.

    So he determined on an expedient. He dressed up in his old Fascist uniform and went out in the street, walking slowly along. He figured it would be quicker and easier that way than to wait to be found by partisans.

    As he walked slowly along voices fell quiet and people stared. A hand fell on his shoulder and he braced himself.

    A voice behind him said, “Ah! Those were the good old days!”

    Now tell me that communists in former Warsaw Pact countries founds it as easy after 1989 – if they were sincere and didn’t do the usual trick of switching horses quickly enough, that is.

  15. Nicholas Gruen pulled me up for suggesting that Australia in the 1930’s was as racist and facist as any regime when it came to the treatment of indigenous people.
    I’ll admit that I’m generalizing from a West Australian perspective and that conditions here were perhaps different from those in the eastern states, but I would contend that it would be a matter of degree rather than quality. Given that the stated position of the Protector of Natives was to “breed out the black”(I paraphrase but see, “For their own Good” by Anna Haebich for many similar examples.) The only difference between Australian policy towards our own indigineous people and Germany’s towards the Jews was that we believed that the race was naturally doomed and that their was no need for a ‘final solution’. Nevertheless we rounded up most of the Noongar inhabitants of the south west and confined them to Carrolup and Moore River Reserve, we made them wards of the state and unable to be employed without the specific permit of the ‘protector’ of aborigines. There were undoubtedly voices of dissent from the more extreme implications of this view, in bourgeois circles this was a sympathy more concerned “with smoothing the dying pillow” to use Daisy Bates phrase.
    Communists and their fellow travellers did not see it this way and provided the kernel of a more strident political opposition to the colonial mentality, that had been reinforced by the rise of social darwinism.
    Yes, Australia did not end up a facist state and did not end up actively exterminating particular groups of people. But it was the power, the presence and numbers of people who rallied under the communist banner that prevented this happenning here.
    Many of the above comments seem to be based upon the rather dubious proposition that people should not act from good intentions because evil will inevitably result.

  16. I have been trying to think of examples of societies that undergone the traumas and disruptions, in terms of duration, relative scale, and intensity, to those now experienced by Iraq, who have held elections that lead to self-sustaining democracies. I cannot. The likely trajectory, I suspect, to revert to some form of authoritarianism.
    Japan comes to mind. Many countries have suffered a large degree of oppression, including communist and right wing dictatorships (Eastern European and South American countries), and have established themselves as democracies.
    I would say that it normally takes a generation to feel a sense of normality. Open discussion and free historical analysis often requires that all participants in political life die (around 50 years).

  17. Paul Norton wishes to explore: “(a) how people who become politically involved out of a concern for justice can come to defend or perpetrate radical injustice in the name of justice and (b) how people and political movements can be prevented from falling into this error.”

    If you will excuse the abstraction, I wonder whether the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas provides an interesting, if challenging, response?

    It is my understanding that one of his main lines of thought is to question the Western tradition of the relation between knowledge/reason and ethics. In particular, the assumption (of this and most dialogue) that if we can agree on the ‘facts’ of the debate then the correct action will be clear – i.e. that knowledge/reason precedes ethics (an assumption which Dostoevsky also appears to question and looks to reject in most of his works).

    Levinas’ thesis would seem to suggest that any adherence to an ideology (communist or otherwise) will lead to a ‘violence’ against the other. The problem is not with the adherence to any particular ideology but the assumption that any ideology/knowledge/reason can ever trump the primacy of our responsibility to other individuals.

    Perhaps this is an obvious thing to say, but it certainly appears to raise many more questions and problems.

  18. What astounds me is Henderson’s et al denials that the West has also been involved in wholesale murder and repression al la “communist regimes.” They are part of a group which wants to constantly harp on the crimes of others while any atrocities we happen to commit never leave the realm of “mistake.” For gods sake the capitalists killed three million Vietnamese in the late 60’s early 70’s. Henderson and his ilk believe that “western governments have never turned the guns on their own.” Thats funny, I can remember in the late 60’s many news reports of left wing repression in Central America (all corporate backed and committed by US Proxies cf. El Salvador, Guatamala, Argentina) and that Ronald Reagan turned guns on student protestors in Berkeley resulting in a few deaths.

  19. I think that there is no point on denying that non-communist regimes have been involved in repression of supporters of left wing parties (e.g. in Central America and South America, where Argentina is actually located). There is no point on denying that the US has supported totalitarian regimes (like Pinochet’s or Somoza’s) when it was considered ‘convenient’. However, I would point out that there are ideologies that are intrinsically totalitarian (‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’) while others are not. I believe that right wing and left wing totalitarianisms are basically the same, and that is is possible to find apologists for both of them that will deny/ignore any wrong doing.

  20. there was a joke going round at the time I lived in Spain when Franco was still in power. the Caudillo was going on an official inspection visit to the infamous Carabanchel prison, and all the warders were cleaning and painting. one of the older prisoners asked what all the activity was for. a warder told him “don’t you know? Generalissimo Franco is coming here tomorrow”. to which the prisoner replied with the hearfelt “great, so they’ve finally caught the bastard”.

    In response to PM Lawrence, I cannot assess the level, but can indicate from personal knowledge that there is some sympathy for at least some communist officials or policies in former Warsaw Pact countries. I have family in the Czech Republic (admittedly where the communist regime was one of the better examples…but don’t get me started on the anti-Russian jokes!). from talking with friends and relatives there I’d say there is little desire to return to the communist days but some aspects of the previous regime are still regarded with something like positive nostalgia (eg the rule that businesses had to provide lunches for not only all their staff but for former employees as well, which acted as both food and social welfare for the elderly). I find it very difficult in the absence of reliable opinion polls to say that there was/is more sympathy for ex communists or for ex fascists in ex communist or fascist countries respectively. there is IMHO simply no way to tell. what surprises me is that commenters can come to such firm opinions on the basis of evidence as flimsy as a joke or anecdote. what is wrong with the Henderson et al polemics is that their views are similarly unsupported by evidence, and put things in stark black and white contrasts where the real story is much more complicated. If we examine the historical record we can find official pronouncements from not only Australian communists but liberals and ALP members supporting various unsavoury regimes. the important question is why, and I’m very much looking forward to Paul Norton’s promised thoughts in more depth on this question.

  21. Doctor k (comment 17) quotes Japan as a country which adopted democracy after a period of oppression and trauma.

    But Japan was occupied by US forces for 7 years after WW II, an occupation regime that forcibly and undemocratically re-wrote the Japanese constitution, imposed US laws and economic models, and even unilaterally over-rode Japanese culture. (For example, the US occupation regime forced the Japanese to outlaw prostitution, which had been legal in Japan for centuries.)

    And, despite adopting the forms of democracy, the post-war Japanese state was arguably still quite authoritarian, although not as brutal as the pre-war military regime. It took the Japanese people more than four decades to get a left-of-centre Government, because of the jerrymandering and corruption of Japanese politics. As in Germany and Italy, many of the people active in right-of-centre parties after the war had been involved in the fascist government before the war. And, as in fascist Europe, large companies which had prospered under fascism mostly remained in business and prospered under the post-war dispensation.

    It is no surprise that the three countries to have suffered the worst from left-wing terrorism in the 1970s were Japan (the Red Army Faction), Italy (the Red Brigades) and Germany (the Baader-Meinhof Group). In all three countries, the substance of democracy was subverted by the pre-war fascists and their sympathisers, leaving intelligent and concerned people to consider terrorism as the only way to effect political change. The members of the Baader-Meinhof Group, for example, could not have remained underground for so long without some public sympathy.

  22. It seems surprising that no-one in this debate has analysed this history in the terms used by the ideologies themselves. Communist theory had it that what appears on the surface to be a benign democracy is in fact characterised by theft (the exploitation of labour for profit) and violence (primarily imperialist violence but also the direct violence of the state to keep workers in line, and the ever-present threat of the sack). Because theft and violence were held to be inherent in the evil capitalist system, violence in overthrowing capitalism was held to be legitimate, if unfortunate.

    Fascism, however, proceeds from the notion that liberal democracy is soft, effeminate and sick, and that only the forcible imposition of leadership and order (and the violent suppression of opponents) can rescue society from the abyss – although exactly what lies in said abyss is generally left unstated.

    Fascism therefore sees violence as healthy and central to its utopian vision, while communism sees it as an unfortunate if necessary means to an end.

    While it is clear that each ideology has been as bad as the other in terms of the crimes committed and the barbarism its adherent regimes have unleashed, it does not strike me as surprising that people of genuine goodwill and intelligence should have become communists, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. The impressive intellectual foundations of communism in the writings of Marx and Engels and its basis in a critique of the injustice and distributional inefficiency of capitalism was obviously attractive in the context of global economic failure and political bankruptcy.

    A further element helping to retain members in the ranks must surely have been the sense of shared siege they would have experienced from being spied on by the security organs of the state, and the difficulties many undoubtedly experienced obtaining and keeping jobs. This feeling of being under seige would also have helped them perform the intellectual gymnastics required to dismiss the many stories of repression emerging from communist regimes as merely propaganda.

    Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia were the two events that challenged the habitual denial practised by Australian communists, since they were unavoidably real.

    But back to Henderson/Nowra… Facsist kitsch has always been a big seller – perhaps because the fascists always went for snappy uniforms! The overwrought images, hagiographical presentation of leaders and extraordinary sentimentality of communist kitsch tends to be more mirth-inducing, but it is hardly surprising there is a market for these increasingly rare ephemera.

    I recently heard Henderson defending Bob Santamaria as a great Australian. Santamaria was a notorious defender of the Franco regime in Spain. Under Henderson’s own logic Santamaria must also have been evil and stupid. But I wouldn’t waste too much effort upbraiding Henderson for logical inconsistency.

  23. Australian communists were mostly left wing versions of the traditional cultural cringe, always mythologising the way of life in progressive Europe. Except it was Moscow & the socialist sixth of the world, rather than cosmopolitan London, Paris and Rome et al., that was the obscure object of their bohemian-proletarian desire.
    Australia was never a serious target for Soviet subversion. There was no serious fifth columnist movement and the trade unions, apart from the wharfies, were mostly economistic & reformist rather than politicistic & revolutionary. The cheap price of land was always a pressure valve for the oppressed worker (ie working mans paradise).
    Australian nationalism & British affiliations were always going to put a crimp on any movement of proleterian internationalism.
    Moreover Australian communists, apart from the brief period during the Korean war, were never a party of to a nation at war with Australia. Mostly Australian communists were just dreamers whose chief moral failing was a failure of political intelligence.

  24. “Mostly Australian communists were just dreamers whose chief moral failing was a failure of political intelligence.”


  25. I don’t know, wbb, they were ruthlessly effective in trade union politics and their lamentable contribution to the downfall of the Chifley government displayed a lot of political intelligence. On the plus side, the Carmichaels of the world contributed to the Accord process and the cultural transformation this brought, though with consequences they didn’t intend. I think it’s a mistake to over-sentimentalise the CPA. On the other hand, I think a lot of members were genuinely motivated by idealism. But I don’t see them as having been a positive force in Australian political life.

  26. Steven, nobody in their right mind would form a solid opinion on the basis of a single joke or anecdote. However, that is not what I did.

    What I did was provide a single counterexample to the assertion that Fascists are “unequivocally condemned for their crimes”. Look at that word “unequivocally”. That makes it such an absolute statement that even a single counterexample is sufficient to refute it, that is, to justify its author being asked at the very least to do more work on it. Because as it stands it is plain wrong.

  27. PM L. – point taken; heretofore it wasn’t entirely clear that the purpose of your post was to take issue with the use of “unequivocal”, but now it is. but did you like the Franco joke?

  28. “their lamentable contribution to the downfall of the Chifley government displayed a lot of political intelligence.”

    I have yet to come across a single CPA member or ex-member who was around in the late 1940s who doesn’t admit that the CPA line in that period (especially in the coal strike and more generally in attempting to take on the ALP head to head) was disastrous stupidity.

    I remember listening in on a discussion between some older Brisbane commos about the fact that one of their daughters had joined the Socialist Labour League (a particular loony and nasty Trotskyist sect). One of the old commos said “Now what does this Socialist Labour League stand for?” A couple of others tried to offer a description, but a third jumped in and said “Basically, they’re like we were in the late forties!”

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