These days only Lunar Right ideological extremists and/or the genuinely deranged identify with fascism and Nazism along with Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, the respective leaders of these movements. But there are plenty in our midst who are still attracted to communism.

The Australian Labor Party in Tasmania was in enough trouble at the start of this week, having failed to win the May Day election. What has been traditionally a Labor state saw the Liberal Party obtain an absolute majority of seats in the House of Assembly for the third occasion in a row. And then it got worse.

In its wisdom, the Tasmanian ALP decided to choose its new leader from the party’s left faction – and David O’Byrne got the job. On Tuesday, The Australian revealed that Grahame McCulloch, O’Byrne’s chief-of-staff, was a member of the Communist Party of Australia in the 1980s.

Then, the following day, a photo emerged of O’Byrne posing in a T-shirt which read: “You don’t become a good communist by going to meetings or memorising the (communist) manifesto. You do it with your fists.” To make his point, O’Byrne posed for the photo with a clenched left fist.

Soon after, he stepped aside as Opposition leader pending an investigation by the Tasmanian ALP’s secretary, following an allegation of sexual harassment made by a woman who worked with O’Byrne when he was head of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union a decade or so ago.

But it would seem that O’Byrne’s political career was in deep trouble before the harassment allegation emerged.

One of the problems with the contemporary left is that it is insular in that many left-of-centre types only mix and talk with each other. Within the left intelligentsia there still remains a fondness for communism – despite the performance of the totalitarian regimes which embraced com-munism in the Soviet Union (including today’s Russia) and Eastern Europe (before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and with it European communism circa 1990).

Such comrades as O’Byrne and McCulloch like to believe that there is some kind of utopian communism which differs from the real Vladimir Lenin/Josef Stalin thing. But there isn’t. No utopian communist state has ever existed. And the self-identifying communist regimes which remain today – China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba – practise traditional communist repression to a greater or lesser extent.

If politicians like O’Byrne want to understand what communism is really like, they would be well advised to speak to Australians who have lived under communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Asia or Latin America and found refuge here. The softness of the Labor left towards communism does a disservice to those members of Labor’s right-wing in Australia who were and remain active anti-communists.

It so happens that O’Byrne’s give-communism-a-chance moment has coincided with a number of communist-related anniversaries. June 22 was the 80th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa – the first day of Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union which resulted in a devastating defeat of Hitler’s forces on the Eastern Front four years later. This was welcomed, including by some conservatives. Fair enough.

It’s true that the Soviet Union’s defeat of Germany on the Eastern Front played a decisive role in the death of Nazism as a political force. But it is also true that June 22 marks the 80th anniversary of Hitler’s pre-emptive decision to end the Nazi Soviet Pact, which had come into force on August 23, 1939.

This made it possible for Hitler and Stalin to carve up Poland between them and for Moscow to conquer the Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania while Berlin launched war on Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Britain. It’s appropriate to remember Operation Barbarossa, provided the Nazi Soviet Pact that preceded it is not forgotten.

Last Thursday marked the centenary of the formation of the Communist Party of China (CCP) in Shanghai. And next Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Australia’s then Opposition leader, Labor’s Gough Whitlam, with China’s premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. Whitlam visited China again in 1973, as prime minister, where he met with China’s ailing leader Mao Zedong.

Whitlam’s visit to China in 1971 was a huge political risk, in view of the Labor left’s historical closeness to communism. But it worked. Primarily because almost as soon as the Labor leader departed Beijing, Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state, arrived for the commencement of the US China rapprochement. President Nixon met shortly after with Mao in Beijing.

The Kissinger/Nixon and, to a lesser extent, Whitlam visits to China have been celebrated for half a century. Certainly it was important to get the two nations on talking terms again for the first time since the CCP’s victory in the civil war over the Nationalist forces in December 1949.

However, it’s possible that the Kissinger/Nixon embrace of China did much to prop up a dying regimen. In 1971 China was in the grip of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which saw about two million Chinese killed and around 100 million purged. It followed Mao’s so-called Great Leap Forward of 1958-62. This was presented as agricultural reform but became a regimen-initiated forced famine in which up to 45 million Chinese died.

Before the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, Mao had initiated purges going back to at least 1951 when communists had been in power for less than two years. After some relaxation during the time of such leaders as Hu Yaobang, Deng Xiaoping and Hu Jintao, repression has resumed under President Xi Jinping.

Certainly China’s economic recovery which commenced in the 1980s and has continued apace is to be welcomed.

But it’s reasonable to suggest that China would be a more formidable, and freer, nation today but for the totalitarian excesses of Mao and his communist henchmen between 1949 and his death in September 1976. But you will not find this message on a T-shirt chosen by O’Byrne.