For much of the 20th century, a section of the western intelligentsia deluded itself that something worthwhile was taking place in the Soviet Union. There were of course those well-known, even notorious intellectuals such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Bernard Shaw and HG Wells, who travelled east to pay obsequious tribute to the “new civilisation” (the Webbs’s words). However, there was a wider array of apologists who filtered through into the Labour Party, the trade unions and academia.
The romantic penumbra that surrounds the dictatorship in Cuba to this day is a good example of the moral leeway still granted to projects that are nominally socialist, or which seek to transform humanity in some way. As Leszek Kołakowski put it, progressive hearts which are “bleeding to death when they hear about any, big or minor (and rightly condemnable) injustice in the US… suddenly become wise historiosophists or cool rationalists when told about worse horrors of the new alternative society”.
But the Soviet Union has been gone for almost 30 years, and today’s Cuba is mainly of kitsch value, its youthful revolutionary heroes preserved as a piece of sixties nostalgie; its diminishing achievements — education (Fidelista indoctrination) and internationalist healthcare (Cuban doctors sent overseas have been likened to indentured labour) — implausibly trotted out to justify over half a century of dictatorship.
And so a new generation of political “seekers” have turned to China for their ideological sustenance.
Beyond the mere worship of money and power, there is not much to like about the government in Beijing. The programme of socialist modernisation launched four decades ago by Deng Xiaoping has produced an authoritarian state capitalism overseen by a dictatorship which censors the internet, bans independent trade unions and pursues an aggressively imperialist policy in the South China Sea.
What the Chinese regime shares with the Stalinist USSR is contempt for ethnic minorities and civil society. Over recent years China has arrested a million Uyghurs and Kazakhs and placed them in forced labour camps. As Nick Cohen writes for The Observer, evidence of their criminality includes “wearing a veil or headscarf” and the “avoidance of alcohol”.
The esteemed British historian Eric Hobsbawm was asked in an interview for Desert Island Discs in 1995 if communist utopia would have been worth the sacrifice of millions of lives. Yes, the historian replied. The most charitable interpretation of Hobsbawm’s remarks was that it was at least plausible in the 1930s to believe that Stalin’s USSR was the only alternative to a western capitalism which looked increasingly like the handmaiden of fascism. Of course even that is a stretch: there were plenty of individuals at the time who eschewed fascism without embracing Stalinist mass murder.
But does anyone truly believe that contemporary China is forging an egalitarian new civilisation? Income inequality in China exceeds that of the United States. Moreover, when it is not herding Uighurs into the Gulag, the Chinese Communist Party is busy suppressing young Chinese Marxists who have noticed the gap between official rhetoric and the corrupt and unequal reality.
Yet much like during the Cold War, a roll-call of useful idiots have faithfully stepped forward from deep within the cosseted bosom of western liberal democracy to defend China from criticism. Some, undoubtedly chasing clout on social media, have decided that “Muslims are treated better in Russia/China than in the United States”. This is concerning — the “journalist” in question has sixty six thousand followers — but easy to dismiss as inane online prattle. Still, behind the hot air merchants stand “progressive” organisations that have taken the decision to align themselves with the Chinese state while one of the biggest crimes of the 21st century unfolds.
The Morning Star, long an uncritical mouthpiece for authoritarian communism, describes evidence of Chinese persecution of the Uighurs as “laughably weak”, despite mountains of material from independent human rights organisations demonstrating the veracity of the claims. (The paper has history here: The Morning Star’s predecessor The Daily Worker faithfully toed the Soviet line, defending the pact with Hitler and the murderous show trials in Eastern Europe, while of course never mentioning the millions of people being worked to death in the Gulag). It is shameful that the British Left treat The Morning Star with reverence as an alternative to the capitalist press.
But The Morning Star is not the only culprit; new organisations are springing up to do Beijing’s dirty work. Today we have the “Progressive International”, launched in 2020 by prominent leftist luminaries including the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, as well as Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein (among others). The Progressive International says it wants to “defeat a rising authoritarian nationalism”, yet it has aligned itself uncritically with the Qiao Collective, a vehicle for the promotion of Chinese imperialism combined with the sort of authoritarian nationalist groups that the Progressive International were ostensibly founded to oppose. The Qiao Collective brooks no criticism of the CCP and either denies the persecution of Uighur Muslims, or portrays their oppression as a function of legitimate “anti-terrorism” policy by Beijing.
Together with denial and obfuscation when it comes to the projection of Chinese power, the Qiao Collective pushes Chinese state media which depicts western nations as in the grip of strife and malfeasance. The Russian television station RT has long deployed a similar tactic. Western audiences are urged to scrutinise their own governments and to “Question More” — until RT turns its attention to Russia, when this critical approach is replaced by the party line from the Kremlin.
This glaring double standard is evident to anyone who isn’t trying to make a name for themselves as an anti-American talking head. Just as the Soviet Union accused the West of “warmongering” (sometimes justifiably, as in Vietnam) while it sent armies to Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa to prop up bloody dictators, the Chinese State and its obsequious mouthpieces extol the virtues of racial justice in the US, while incarcerating a million Muslims in concentration camps.
It is perhaps understandable, although no less egregious for it, that the Chinese state should seek to downplay its misdeeds and calumnies. Stranger is the spectacle of progressive-minded commentators credulously lining up to offer the Chinese state their support.
Depressingly, a permanent feature of politics seems to be a stubborn rump of ideologues whose criticism of their own government co-exists with a need to develop a corresponding loyalty to another unit. Orwell called this phenomenon “transferred nationalism”. For Orwell, transference has an important political function: “It makes it possible for [the transferer] to be much more nationalistic — more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest — than he could ever be on behalf of his native country, or any unit of which he had real knowledge.”
Authoritarian, rapaciously capitalist China is merely the latest “camp” that stands ready to be embraced by those who are temperamentally inclined to transference. “We examined the source data on the claims of millions of Uyghurs in so-called concentration camps,” said Max Blumenthal, the American left-winger and son of a former aide to Bill Clinton, on RT earlier this year. “We haven’t seen the evidence for these massive claims,” he added.
Blumenthal is the founder and editor of the far-Left news site The Grayzone. In the past, The Grayzone has supported grisly dictatorships in Syria and Venezuela for no reason other than the latter’s opposition to western liberal democracy. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespeople Hua Chunying and Lijian Zhao have both approvingly tweeted a Grayzone article which sought to rubbish claims that China is persecuting its Uighur population.
The Max Blumenthals of the world may be base and cynical (Blumenthal’s politics took a 180 turn following a 2015 trip to the Kremlin), but in this postmodern age, it’s apparent that people still yearn to be part of something bigger than the self. Materialism and solipsistic self-betterment are not enough though. They have limited appeal next to the desire — felt in the days when Wells visited the USSR, and even more strongly felt today — to be part of a world historical struggle between good and evil. Whether or not this quasi-religious impulse is transposed onto an atheistic communist tyranny is largely beside the point. The search for a tyrannical fatherland, a steady ideological pole to cling onto in tumultuous times, continues unabated.
With the emergence of the contemporary pro-China useful idiot in mind, it is worth paraphrasing the dissident Russian revolutionary Victor Serge, himself a believer at one time in the big idea of communism, who noticed: “when there are no more worthwhile banners, people start to march behind worthless ones”.