August 22nd 2011
"You can say what you want about Gaddafi," remarked a work colleague a few days ago, "but at least he was able to give his people free medical care and free education. America can't do that." My fellow worker, who we shall for the sake of argument call 'Michael', had surprised me. He had surprised me not because he had made a clever observation about Gaddafi's regime that I had somehow failed to take into account, but rather the surprise lay in the fact that he was someone who I thought would have known better. Clearly not.
But with the comment from 'Michael' came a strange sense of déjà vu. This was not the first time I had heard this little line about health and education used in relation to totalitarianism. Yes, I had heard it said about the Gaddafi regime in the Morning Star a few months previously but it goes back way before that. In his amusing autobiography Reasons to be Cheerful, Mark Steel tells an anecdote from the eighties about how a Communist Party member in Britain once told him of how Russian hospitals had performed a new pioneering operation to remove cataracts. All well and good said Steel, but it didn't exactly make up for the slaughter of Hungarians in 1956, did it?
My first recollection of this defence of ugliness came when a secondary school teacher was speaking about the USSR (yeah, fair enough, the Soviet system was a nasty piece of work but the sick weren't charged and the kiddies were educated... or something like that). It came up again during the NATO campaign in Kosovo in 1999 when a crusty old Stalinist remarked to me that for all Milosevic's failings he did at least operate Europe's only "anti-market economy" (really?) as well as provide his people with, you guessed it, free health and education.
When Iraq's Ba'athist dictatorship was toppled four years later the free-health-and-education guff seemed to go into overdrive. Even though I was an opponent of the campaign to oust Saddam and his family back in 2003, I did cringe when fellow anti-war comrades would seem to have to go one step further and highlight the benefits of the Ba'athist regime, like the nice if naive Canadian lady who pointed out to me that the country prior to the invasion had some wonderful museums and art galleries which were open free to the people. The citizens of Halabja were just so ungrateful, weren't they?
There is a far right equivalent to all of this. You will be familiar I'm sure with the man who claims that 'Hitler had some good ideas' and that the Führer did well to create full employment in Germany prior to the war, or perhaps you will be acquainted with the individual who notes how Mussolini made the Italian trains run on time. But on the left the obsession does seem to be with the free health and education that despots sometimes operate alongside concentration camps and mass graves. It can in an odd way be darkly funny, though the humour wears off slightly when you hear a member of the crackpot CPGB (M-L) praise the social services currently offered in North Korea.
I wonder do these people actually check to see if the dictatorships they so happily rush to holler the benefits of even possess these things. Did Saddam really allow free entry to art galleries in Baghdad? Does Harpal Brar have an in-depth knowledge of Pyongyang's school system? Do such people even care? Of course not. The point of these protestations is less a defence of sickening totalitarian governments and more a bizarre unwillingness to accept that the United States and it's allies in the democratic world are, finally, in the right. When all situations are analysed from the point of what you are against rather than what you stand for, you will inevitably find yourself in bed with all sorts of strange creatures.
Nevertheless, it is still encouraging to see at least one organisation on the Marxist left in Britain still prepared to offer no defence of the Gaddafi era whatsoever and welcome it's total destruction. As the tiny AWL put it in their newspaper:
If working-class organisation is our starting point, then the fundamental question must be whether that organisation is more or less possible, easier or harder, without the crushing, murderous Qaddafi regime. The answer is that it is infinitely more possible. And that alone is cause for celebration and hope.
Celebration and hope. I don't normally do positive endings, but I'll make an exception this one time.