Commentary: The Left Resumes Its War on History
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Commentary: The Left Resumes Its War on History

Did you know Che Guevara was at heart an Irish freedom fighter? In this week’s Acton Commentary (published April 11), Samuel Gregg looks at how the left “has been remarkably successful in distorting people’s knowledge of Communism’s track-record.” The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

The Left Resumes Its War on History

by Samuel Gregg

What does an Argentine-born Cuban Communist revolutionary executed in the Bolivian jungle 45 years ago have in common with a small town on Ireland’s west coast? Apart from tenuous ancestral connections, the answer is nothing. Recent attempts, however, to manufacture such an association have provided yet another illustration of the left’s on-going determination to whitewash history.

In February this year, Galway City Council announced plans to build a statute of Che Guevara to “honor one of its own” (one of Che ‘s grandmothers was born in Galway). It wasn’t long, however, before several Irish business leadersjournalists, and eventually the Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committeevented their outrage about the council’s decision. Why, they asked, would Galway erect a monument to someone who had personally killed several people without even the pretense of trials? Why would they honor a man who oversaw one of the Castro regime’s most brutal periods of oppression — including arbitrary imprisonments and summary executions?

The Irish left’s initial reaction was to deny these facts and launch ad hominem attacks. When that failed, they produced extraordinary rationalizations which bordered on the absurd. One columnist, for example, wrote: “Yes, Che was ruthless and fanatical and sometimes murderous. But was he a murderer? No, not in the sense of a serial killer or gangland assassin. He was one of those rare people who are prepared to push past ethical constraints, even their own conscience, and bring about a greater good by doing terrible things.”

Apparently murder isn’t really murder if it’s justified by “a greater good.”

We shouldn’t, however, be surprised by such responses. They reflect a pattern. Getting contemporary French left-wing intellectuals, for example, to acknowledge the ideological genocide unleashed in the Vendée by the French Revolution in the 1790s is almost impossible. In present-day America, any mention of Planned Parenthood’s early association with the eugenics movement invariably results in stone-walling and, eventually, lame explanations that its founder Margaret Sanger was a “child of her time.” The same approach shows up in most American liberals’ studied refusal to discuss slurs employed by the likes of Bill Maher to describe conservative women.

But it’s when the left is confronted with the history of Communism that the denials, ad hominem vitriol, sullen silences, and feeble excuses really get going. Back in 1997, several French intellectuals, many with left-wing backgrounds, published The Black Book of Communism. This text exhaustively detailed how Communist movements and regimes had imprisoned, tortured, starved, experimented upon, enslaved, and exterminated millions across the globe throughout the 20th century.

Though a few brave lefty souls conceded the book’s damning evidence, the left’s general response followed the usual playbook: attacks on the authors’ credibility; arcane disputation of precise numbers killed (as if a million-less here-or-there made any meaningful difference to the overall thesis); claims that Stalin represented a “distortion” of Marxism; and even bizarre suggestions that such crimes shouldn’t distract us from Communism’s “genuine achievements.”

Overall, the left has been remarkably successful in distorting people’s knowledge of Communism’s track-record. Everyone today knows about the Nazis’ unspeakable crimes. Yet does anyone doubt that far fewer know much about the atrocities ordered by the likes of Lenin, Castro, Mao, and Pol Pot? Do those Occupy Wall Street protesters waving red hammer-and-sickle flags actually understand what such symbols mean for those who endured Communism?

But while the left’s response to such awkward queries won’t likely change, the unanswered question is whyso many left-inclined politicians and intellectuals play these games.

Part of the answer is the very human reluctance of anyone to acknowledge the dark side of movements with which they have some empathy. Even today, for example, there are Latin Americans inclined to make excuses for the right-wing death-squads — the infamous Escuadrón de la Muerte — that wrought havoc in Central America throughout the 1970s and ’80s.

The sheer scale of denial among progressivists, however, suggests something else is going on. I think it owes much to the left’s claim to a monopoly of moral high-mindedness.

Anyone who reads progressivists’ writings soon discovers they usually assert to be working to liberate the rest of us from all sorts of oppression. Normally, the end-goal is to usher some secular utopia. Karl Marx, for instance, described his particular end of history as a world in which it would be possible for everyone “to do one thing today and another tomorrow; to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, breed cattle in the evening and criticize after dinner, just as I please.”

Claiming the moral high-ground, of course, allows the left to dismiss its critics as unethical, disingenuous, or dangerous. In many instances, the same self-righteousness has been invoked to justify the left’s use of ferocious measures against its opponents, real and imaginary.

Seeking, for example, to legitimize the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, its architect Maximilian Robespierre claimed: “The spring of… government during a revolution is virtue combined with terror.… Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue.”

Unfortunately for progressivists, the lengths to which some leftists have gone to realize their objectives cast into extreme doubt their claims to moral authority. After all, who in their right mind would associate virtue with the guillotine in the Place de la Révolution? Isn’t it supposed to be reactionaries who do such appalling things? Could it really be that Saint Che himself once actually said: “To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail.… a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.”

As a rule, conservatives generally aren’t into utopias. Since Edmund Burke’s time, they’ve underscored human fallibility and the folly — not to mention hubris — of trying to create heaven-on-earth.

For the left, however, any recognition of such hum-drum truths about the human condition severely compromises their raison d’être. That same self-understanding also means they must wage a war of rejection and rationalization against whatever contradicts their mythologies, such as some very unromantic facts about not-so-angelic figures like Che .

Ultimately, historical truth usually triumphs over mere ideology. Lies have a way of disintegrating from within. But as Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote, “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness.” Conservatives forget that advice at their peril.


Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).