Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Come Clean First, Then Move On

Johnann Hari is a young editorial writer with deep roots in the left. And he's capable of casting a cold eye on them, and judging even his idols by a higher standard. If the left is ever again to be more than a loose collection of personality cults and "anti-" mentalities, it will need more Johann Haris.

Almost everything one of my heroes, George Bernard Shaw, wrote about domestic issues -- from homelessness to the arms trade -- seemed to me inspirational. Yet almost everything he wrote about Stalin's Soviet Union takes the form of adulatory, gushing hymns to Stalin. Ditto HG Wells, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Bertolt Brecht ... the list of brilliant, inspirational left-wingers who -- apparently seamlessly -- became apologists for the most murderous tyrannies of the 20th century is long. How?

His exploration of that question is enlightening. So is his conclusion about the current state of the left, and what it ought to be learning, but in too many cases isn't.

And in Michael Moore's blockbuster movie Farenheit 9/11, he depicts Iraq in the era of Saddam Hussein. He describes it as a sovereign country, where small children fly kites and old women laugh merrily. That's it. That's his account of Iraq under Saddam. Most of the left opposed the recent war for decent reasons. Most of us did not deny Saddam's crimes. But can't we all recognise that the impulse that led Moore to gloss over Saddam's programme of genocide is the same impulse that led so much of the 20th-century left to gloss over the crimes of communism?

Couldn't Moore have opposed the war while honestly acknowledging the terrible downside of that choice? If we do not check ourselves against this tendency, aren't we doomed to repeat the worst parts of the left's history?

If we have learned anything from the 20th century, it must be that the disgusting nature of our opponents does not give us a licence to become as disgusting. We cannot allow ourselves to indulge "our bastards"; we cannot set aside democratic norms in order to beat people we judge to be even worse. As the globe warms and over a billion people live on less than one dollar a day, a global left is needed more than ever. But it must be a democratic left. It's time -- at last -- to let Che Guevara and his comrades die.