I've mentioned this week my reader David Irving, the Holocaust denier. This post is not about him. It is about other schools of tendentious interpretation that I believe ought to be mentioned in the same breath as Mr Irving's baseless work.
The far-left Monthly Review, a staple of American Marxism for nearly 60 years, devotes all its current issue to a couple of cranks. The issue is subscription-only, but here's the editors' introduction:
It is almost unheard of for a whole issue of MR (other than occasionally one of our special July-August issues) to be devoted to a single contribution. The typical MR issue consists of a lot of short articles. We have no intention of changing that. Nevertheless, we are making a rare exception in the case of Edward S. Herman and David Peterson’s “The Dismantling of Yugoslavia,” which we regard as the definitive critique at this stage both of the U.S./NATO role in the exploitation and exacerbation of the Yugoslavian tragedy and of the “Western Liberal-Left Intellectual and Moral Collapse” that made this possible. So effective has been the media propaganda system at presenting the imperialist wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s as “humanitarian interventions” that this not only bolstered support for the invasions and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq (in defiance of international law), but is now being offered as a justification for further possible “humanitarian interventions” elsewhere, such as Iran, the Sudan (Darfur), Nigeria, and even Venezuela.
If you're susceptible to this sort of thing - and I trust none of my readers is - then bear in mind that a mainstay of Herman and Peterson's case against humanitarian intervention is that the victims of Serb aggression have been systematically overstated. That type of propaganda, which denies the magnitude and the implications of the genocidal Serb campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo, has clear counterparts in Holocaust denial. David Aaronovitch of The Times, Francis Wheen of Private Eye and I wrote last year, in another context, about one such writer, Diana Johnstone:
Examine her arguments. The numbers of deaths are exaggerated, though she doesn’t know what they are; many possible victims were in fact exchanged, deported or arrived home safely and the international agencies are wrong to think they were killed; the enclave was left deliberately undefended by perfidious Bosnian leaders, possibly in the hope that there would be an atrocity; the enclave wasn’t a safe haven anyway, but a base for Muslim decapitators; such killing as there was is therefore best seen as revenge and not anything genocidal; the US was hoping for an atrocity so that the UN could be pushed aside; Milosevic was in no way responsible. At every possible point and in every conceivable way Johnstone seeks to minimise the scale and implications of what was done at Srebrenica.
There is at this point a legitimate parallel to be drawn with what has come to be known as "Holocaust Denial". Most of those who may justly described as "deniers" are, of course, happy to acknowledge that crimes were committed against the Jews. Terrible crimes, even. What they deny, however, is that these were crimes that were out of the ordinary for what was a total war. The numbers were fewer than claimed, the physical evidence is deficient, the photographic evidence is unreliable, the deliberation less overt, the action more of a reaction to wartime exigencies, the comparisons with Allied "atrocities" (e.g. the bombing of Dresden or the attack on Hiroshima) legitimate, the Jews somehow complicit.
(I should add that the context of our remarks was to criticise an apology that The Guardian had issued to Noam Chomsky for supposedly misrepresenting his attitude to the Srebrenica massacre. In our opinion, the Guardian interviewer of Professor Chomsky, Emma Brockes, had characterised his position fairly. We were delighted every time David Peterson issued a salvo against The Guardian and us, because he is unambiguously a Srebrenica denier himself. Being preternaturally thick, he didn't realise that his support was the last thing Chomsky needed in the circumstances.)
In truth, you don't really need to plough through these works to get a sense of the lengths to which these sections of the far Left will go in advancing their cause by denying its crimes. Last year, Monthly Review published an article by someone calling himself Joseph Ball entitled "Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?"; and you know what the answer's going to be:
The approach of modern writers to the Great Leap Forward is absurdly one-sided. They are unable to grasp the relationship between its failures and successes. They can only grasp that serious problems occurred during the years 1959-1961. They cannot grasp that the work that was done in these years also laid the groundwork for the continuing overall success of Chinese socialism in improving the lives of its people. They fail to seriously consider evidence that indicates that most of the deaths that occurred in the Great Leap Forward were due to natural disasters not policy errors. Besides, the deaths that occurred in the Great Leap Forward have to be set against the Chinese people’s success in preventing many other deaths throughout the Maoist period. Improvements in life expectancy saved the lives of many millions.
We must also consider what would have happened if there had been no Leap and no adoption of the policies of self-reliance once the breach with the Soviet Union occurred. China was too poor to allow its agricultural and industrial development to stagnate simply because the Soviets were refusing to help. This is not an argument that things might not have been done better. Perhaps with better planning, less over-optimism and more care some deaths might have been avoided. This is a difficult question. It is hard to pass judgement what others did in difficult circumstances many years ago.
Of course it is also important that we do learn from the mistakes of the past to avoid them in the future. We should note that Mao to [sic] criticized himself for errors made during this period. But this self-criticism should in no way be allowed to give ammunition to those who insist on the truth of ridiculous figures for the numbers that died in this time. Hopefully, there will come a time when a sensible debate about the issues will take place.
Joseph Ball (plainly yet another nom de keyboard) helpfully provides a more rounded geographical and ideological perspective on his website:
Opponents of communism often try to discredit Mao by drawing attention to his mainly positive view of Stalin. Why should this view discredit Mao? Stalin is routinely alleged to have killed as many people as Hitler during his collectivization drive and the purges of the 1930s. A simple examination of population figures accepted by western commentators shows that this is not the case. Stalin's regime created the world's first socialist economic system and defeated fascism. Like Mao, the negative features of his rule have been greatly exaggerated. The successes have been ignored.
It is not an error to treat the far Right and the far Left as comparable forces in malignity. I will go so far as the historian Robert Conquest in feeling that Nazism is a greater historical evil than Communism. Yet the disrepute and the mode of argument of the political fringes are parallel and not divergent.