Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC's Power and Politics.
When I was 18 going on 19 I became a passionate democratic socialist. In the next two years I also became a fierce anti-Communist. I still embrace both these positions.
What influenced my abhorrence for communism me is clear: two events and three books. First were the shocking revelations about Stalin's long tyrannical rule by his own successor. Second was the brutal crushing of the 1956 Hungarian revolution by the Soviets. Third were the books I still vividly recalll: The God That Failed, Darkness at Noon, and Homage to Catalonia.
The God That Failed was Communism itself, as exposed by distinguished left-wingers in Europe and the U.S. who had fled the Communist Party in shattered disillusion. Darkness at Noon was Arthur Koestler's terrifying novel about Stalin's show trials, where loyal henchmen were executed after "confessing" they were actually counter-revolutionaries. Homage to Catalonia was George Orwell's report from the Spanish Civil War showing that Communist fighters, under direct orders from the Kremlin, were targeting non-Stalinist left-wing militias instead of Franco's fascists.
Everything I've learned in subsequent decades has added to the evidence of the crimes committed in the name of socialism or communism. Communists often used the term interchangeably; so do red-baiters. Socialists never do. It is a terrible truth of the past 100 years that except for Hitler, the greatest mass murderers in modern history have been self-proclaimed communists – Stalin and Mao above all, but also the likes of Pol Pot in Cambodia, Mengistu in Ethiopia and the rulers of North Korea. To achieve their ideal communist utopia, where all were equal, they murdered tens of millions of their own people.
Despite florid communist rhetoric about "the glorious masses," not a single communist government anywhere (with the ambiguous exception of Tito's Yugoslavia) has ever allowed anything remotely like democracy or human rights, nor delivered anything like material comfort for those revered masses. In no country has opposition ever been allowed, and in every one imprisonment, torture and even execution of non-violent dissenters was commonplace. Every aspect of life, from thinking to shopping, was dictated from above. This was true totalitarianism.
Socialism without democracy is a contradiction in terms. Today's Cuba remains the prime example of this truth, and there has been no greater betrayer of socialism than Fidel Castro. China represents a different kind of travesty – a self-styled Communist dictatorship directing a free market economy. North Korea communism is the inmates running the prison asylum.
Communism collapsed of its own failings in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe a quarter of a century ago. Some Canadians who once had the misfortune to live under communism in eastern Europe, and some of their descendants, now want to erect a monument in Ottawa to memorialize the victims of communism. The Harper government agrees; there are votes to be had here. But there are also issues.
This memorial has little to do with Canada beyond these voters. As squalid as the record of communism has been, Canadians have fled all kinds of ugly regimes over the decades. Do we memorialize every one of them? And do Canadians with no links whatever to eastern Europe even care about an increasingly distant past? After all, 1.2 million of us contentedly holidayed in Cuba last year. For most Canadians, communism is history, not a living issue.
There's a second issue that has received much attention. The proposed memorial would be in the heart of downtown political Ottawa. Except for those who chose this site and the Harper government, just about everyone else believes it to be inappropriate. But it's axiomatic: whenever the vast majority of authoritative opinion challenges this government, the government wins.
I find myself torn. On the one hand, communism's calamitous record should not be forgotten. It teaches a crucial lesson: that true believers, those who believe any means however extreme justifies their end, are a danger to the world. On the other hand, there are far more pressing causes that deserve to be prominently memorialized by Canada.
My genocide scholar colleagues, for example, believe overwhelmingly that the treatment of aboriginal peoples here (and the U.S.) constitutes genocide under the United Nations Convention on genocide. This is not just history. It roils Canada still. Yet there is no memorial to this shameful aspect of our own evolving story.
Nor must we ignore the appalling toll that capitalism has taken over the centuries, from the slave trade to war, colonialism, neo-colonialism, depressions, recessions, sweat shops, child labour, starvation wages, and so much more. Countless hundreds of millions of people have suffered from the exploitative dynamic of capitalism and continue to do so. This is not just history. Victims of the system, past and present, surely deserve to be remembered and memorialized. And in many ways, aboriginal peoples are victims not only of racism but of capitalist greed for their land.
The perfect place for such a memorial exists in Ottawa right now. The symbolism is made to order. It's right in the political heart of the city, kiddy-corner to the Supreme Court. It's where the government seems determined to situate the memorial to the victims of communism. But it's far more appropriate for remembering the victims of capitalism, including Canada's First People. These injustices continue to this day.