The owl: Why do 'progressives' adore mass murders?

By
October 19, 2017 13:06

Many progressives around the world admire or at least sympathize with people they share nothing with, except the notion of “resistance.”




Images of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara at a ceremony commemorating the Argentinean revolutionary’s death in

Images of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara at a ceremony commemorating the Argentinean revolutionary’s death in Bolivia.. (photo credit:DAVID MERCADO/REUTERS)

A long time ago, when I was still an undergraduate at Tel Aviv University, I used to go to leftwing demonstrations. I still do, once in a while, to protest against the policy of the current government and the military occupation of the West Bank.

And yet, even in mainstream rallies of the peace camp in Israel, including the annual memorial rallies for the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, there are slogans and pictures I find unpalatable. A recurring one is a ubiquitous portrait of a handsome young man wearing a headband, easily recognized by almost all regulars at such events as the Argentinean revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

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Indeed, in our post-communist era, this leader of the Cuban Revolution is one of the few communist heroes who somehow kept his image clean. The statues and portraits of Joseph Stalin are long lying in garbage heaps and museums (though in Russia he recently became a subject of nostalgia). In the West, even images of Lenin and Fidel Castro are usually displayed only by a handful of diehard communists.

Yet “Che” is a different story. His head-banded image is seen at leftist rallies, demonstrations, and on numerous T-shirts worn by adults and youngsters alike. The catchy song “Hasta Siempre, Commandante” can be heard even on the dance floors of bourgeois weddings.

Apparently most of the people who dance to “Hasta” or wear Che Guevara T-shirts hardly know anything about the history of the man, perhaps except as a vague symbol of resistance to authority. Perhaps we should expect more from the students of the prestigious Alliance High School in Tel Aviv, who displayed a Che picture as a recruitment poster for the local Scouts.

This poster, displayed publicly in Tel Aviv, was removed only following protests by local residents, who did not want to see the face of a war criminal in their neighborhood. Contrary to other communist revolutionaries, Guevara – a physician by training – was not responsible for massacres, but he did command one of the most notorious political prisons in Cuba, where hundreds of defendants were executed after mock trials.

Some of them were indeed criminals from the previous regime’s army and police, but others were probably innocent. As a military commander, he was a ruthless disciplinarian who shot defectors without remorse, often doing the deed himself. “A revolutionary,” Che said, “must become a cold killing machine.”

Another one of his contributions to humanity was a forced labor camp for political dissidents. Trying his hand as an economic administrator, his ignorant policies devastated the Cuban economy.

Guevara’s greatest crime was probably his advocacy of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. Afterwards, he deeply regretted that such a war was averted. He missed the sight of the mushroom cloud, longing to see mass death and destruction. The “path of liberation,” he mused, was well worth “millions of atomic war victims.”

Some people, however, should know better. One of them is Nitzan Horowitz, a retired journalist and analyst of international news, former MK from the progressive Meretz Party and a conspicuous representative of the LGBT community in Israel. Recently, Horowitz tweeted on the 50th anniversary of Guevara’s death that the revolutionary perhaps “did not bring democracy to Cuba, but in the final account of his short life, Che brought more good than evil to the world.”

This is the same Nitzan Horowitz who regularly chastises the government for having dialogues with right-wing European parties. Such parties, Horowitz argues, should be boycotted due to their fascist past, intolerance to immigrants and racist views. Bad indeed.

But Austria’s Freedom Party and the AfD in Germany have so far not killed people. Guevara’s hands, by contrast, were dripping with blood, and if he had had his way in foreign policy, many more would have been killed.

This is the person that Horowitz heroizes. That turns our attention to pathologies prevalent in the progressive camp in both Israel and worldwide.

In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, communism was long out of vogue with most Western progressives. And yet, many of them still had a vague respect for the Soviet Union, or at least for Marxist revolutionary ideology.

In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, communism was long out of vogue with most Western progressives. And yet, many of them still had a vague respect for the Soviet Union, or at least for Marxist revolutionary ideology.

In the late 1990s, when I was a member of the youth wing of Meretz (Horowitz’s party), I still remember fierce debates on “what went wrong” in Soviet history. The practice was to blame, not theorize. The experiment was good in a certain sense, but derailed somewhere along the way by leaders such as Stalin.

Few on the Left, except diehard communists, would justify leaders who killed millions. Admired instead were revolutionaries whose early deaths or distance from power kept them from complicity in such crimes. Thus, progressive and leftist political parties in the West could abhor Lenin or Stalin, and yet name a foundation after Rosa Luxemburg, a supposedly pure and idealist German revolutionary who was murdered before she ever took power.

Unlike her, Guevara was involved in mass crimes, but his good looks, constant guerrilla warfare and early death made his crimes all but forgotten. Romantics on either the Left or Right always revere heroes who died young.

The collapse of the Soviet Union had an additional effect on the progressive camp in the West: It generated an ongoing ideological crisis. After the final failure of the Soviet experiment, even people who had believed it to be distorted found it difficult to accept a viable social-democratic alternative. Indeed, social-democratic parties throughout Europe (and in Israel) became increasingly market-oriented, all but indistinguishable from their rivals on the conservative Right.

The lack of positive ideological alternatives to the market economy and neo-liberalism created a deep sense of dissatisfaction, and a romantic tendency to venerate the concept of “resistance” to the current social order: resistance as an end in itself, without a clear vision for the future.

Thus, many progressives around the world admire or at least sympathize with people they share nothing with, except the notion of “resistance.” When Jeremy Corbin, the leader of the British Left, calls Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists “comrades,” when Amnesty International, a human rights organization, cooperates with an activist who is a member of the Taliban, “resistance” is the only unifying thread.

Arundhati Roy, a noted Indian author and an icon on the contemporary progressive Left, once said that “if, at the end of so many battles, we shall win, the persons whom we are defending… will be the ones to hang us first on a tree. I’m talking about Maoists and Islamists of Kashmir: at times we take sides of persons who do not have place for us in their imaginations.”

For the same reason, Horowitz, usually a fierce defender of human rights, can sympathize with Guevara, a revolutionary butcher who took pride in becoming “a killing machine” and believed that killing millions in a nuclear war was a fair price to pay for world revolution.

Indeed, there is something alluring about this romanticization of “resistance.” It binds people together, it gives them hope for a better future and fuels protests against injustice.

But even if we ignore the distortion of history, the fixation on “resistance” keeps the progressive Left away from ever being an alternative to the conservative Right.

This is a pity, because Western democracy needs a strong progressive voice, a practical alternative to the current order.

In order to do that, however, the Left has to get rid of outdated notions of “resistance” and “revolution” and draft an updated political program. It has to reattach itself to reality.

To stop lionizing people such as Che Guevara is a good place to start.

The writer is a military historian and senior lecturer in the History and Asian Studies Departments, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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