Perhaps it’s the advent of social media with the abundance of emojis and the like. Or maybe we live at a time so contemporary that there is scant historical awareness.
Whatever the reason, communism and its past and present followers receive a relatively good media, with the exception of today’s Chinese Communist Party. And fascism is increasingly used as a derogatory term to condemn modern democracies rather than to describe past regimes.
Last week, ABC Online ran a soft piece by Markus Mannheim on Maddy Northam, Labor candidate for the seat of Kurrajong in the forthcoming ACT election. It so happened that Northam has placed a drawing of a hammer and sickle on the wall of her campaign office.
The symbol was adopted by the Bolsheviks at the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution, led by Vladimir Lenin and his followers. It was supposed to represent the common interests of the industrial working class and the peasants. In fact, both groups — especially the latter — suffered under the communist regime that was called the Soviet Union, headed by Lenin and his heirs.
In time, the hammer and sickle was implanted on the top left corner of the flag of the Soviet Union that flew over communist totalitarian dictators such as Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev.
Apparently Northam, who is president of Unions ACT, regards the controversy as of no moment.
She told the ABC that the criticism of her use of the symbol by Liberal Party politician Vicki Dunne and others was “a distraction and desperate attempt by them at a smear campaign”.
“I’ve spent my life standing up for people; I reject any assertion that I glorify suffering,” she said.
Mannheim also reported criticism of the use of hammer and sickle by a self-proclaimed Marxist, Rick Kuhn, who distanced Karl Marx from Stalin. But Mannheim did tell readers of the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster’s online newspaper that “four years ago, American celebrity Kim Kardashian was seen wearing a red hammer-and-sickle hoodie which retailed for about $1000”.
Fancy that. The Kardashians are not expected to be the repository of knowledge about communist totalitarian regimes. But trade union officials and aspiring Labor Party politicians should know better. They should be aware that the hammer and sickle was the symbol of choice for some of the most vicious and murderous regimes the world has known.
In 1999, Harvard University Press published The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, which contains chapters on communist regimes. In his introduction, co-author Stephane Courtois provides what he calls the “rough approximation” of deaths in the 20th century by execution, starvation and forced labour brought about by communist regimes — an estimated 100 million.
Top of the list is China with 65 million dead — mostly because of the forced famine in the late 1950s and early 60s — followed by the Soviet Union, which existed between 1922 and 1991, at around 20 million. They were followed by North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia plus various regimes in eastern Europe and Latin America and more.
Now imagine what your average reporter would have said if an ACT Liberal candidate had adorned their office with a bundle of sticks featuring an axe, or fasces, the symbol of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime that ruled over Italy from 1922 to 1943.
All (political) hell would have broken loose. And for good reason.
Mussolini was not a mass murderer on a scale to match Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler or the Soviet Union’s Stalin. But no self-respecting politician in Australia today would identify with the symbol of Italian fascism or attempt to pass off criticism of any such identification with an assertion that it was all smear.
These days the surviving communist regimes in China and North Korea are not well regarded in the West. But the evils of the 20th-century communist regimes in Europe and Asia have been downplayed. Partly this is due to the tendency of supporters and opponents of communism to equate this ideology with socialism.
Sure, socialist governments in the West and elsewhere sought to dominate the economy and drive out the private sector. But this was done without establishing an official ideology and without the use of terror. Britain had a socialist government after World War II when it was led by Clement Attlee. It effectively continued under various conservative and Labour administrations until Margaret Thatcher came to office in 1979.
In Australia there was a socialist government after the war led by Labor prime minister Ben Chifley. But he went too far with his attempt to nationalise the private banks and lost the December 1949 election to the Liberal-Country Party Coalition led by Robert Menzies.
But even if the likes of Attlee and Chifley had stayed in office throughout the 1950s, neither nation would have experienced communism. To equate the likes of Attlee and Chifley with communism is to downplay the likes of Stalin and Mao Zedong.
Writing in Crikey on March 31 this year, Michael Bradley of Marque Lawyers referred to Australia’s (alleged) “sudden lurch to authoritarian rule” during the COVID-19 pandemic. He summarised Scott Morrison’s plan to deal with the virus as follows: “(i) Parliament no longer functions, so no democracy, (ii) government outsourced to business leaders, so no accountability, and (iii) daily press conferences with no agenda or purpose, so no clarity”.
Bradley concluded his little list with this comment that (i) to (iii) above “by hilarious coincidence, are also the central features of fascism”. You get an idea about how silly this is when you realise that Bradley believes that Mussolini held daily press conferences.
But there is a serious side to all this. To diminish the evils of communism or fascism by regarding the hammer and sickle as a mere artefact or by regarding the Primer Minister as a current-day Mussolini is to replace history with social media-style chatter.