Submitting to Moral Blackmail? Kristen Ghodsee’s “The Left Side of History”
July 19, 2015
By Stephen Gowans
Kristen Ghodsee’s “The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe,” is a variegated reflection on socialism as practiced in Eastern Europe, and especially Bulgaria, in the four and half decades following WWII. It is, at one and the same time, a meditation on the purpose of official anti-communism; a near hagiography of the British communist Frank Thompson, the elder brother of the famed historian E.P. Thompson, who died fighting with Bulgarian partisans in WWII; a history of the Lagadinovas, three brothers and a sister (the latter of whom would become famous throughout the socialist bloc as the “Amazon”), who joined the ranks of communist partisans struggling against Bulgaria’s Nazi-allied government; a Philippic against the contemporary political left for being comfortable only with opposition, and lacking any clear sense of what it’s for; and paradoxically, given the foregoing, an execration of communism, filled with the crude anti-communist diatribes one would expect from The Black Book of Communism, and not from one who sets out to explore the heroism of communist partisans and a British communist who fought with them.
Ghodsee is an ethnographer whose prior works include “three books on how non-elite Bulgarian men and women experienced the economic transition from communism.” (Ghodsee, 2012)
Function of official anti-communism
In writing The Left Side of History, Ghodsee set out to show there was much good about communism in Bulgaria. She felt that the achievements of communist Bulgaria were hidden beneath an avalanche of official anti-communist demonization. In this, she has responded to a danger foretold by the great historian of the Russian Revolution, E.H. Carr. Referring specifically to the Bolshevik revolution, Carr warned in 1978 that there was little danger that a veil would be drawn “over the enormous blots on the record of the Revolution, over its costs in human suffering, over the crimes committed in its name.”
Indeed, every effort has been made by those who would discredit the Bolsheviks and all they stood for to bring these to the fore. The greater danger, warned Carr, was that
“we shall be tempted to forget altogether, and to pass over in silence, (the Revolution’s) immense achievements…I am thinking of the transformation since 1917 in the lives of ordinary people: the transformation of Russia from a country more than eighty per cent of whose population consisted of illiterate or semi-literate peasants into a country with a population more than sixty per cent urban, which is totally literate and is rapidly acquiring the elements of urban culture…and these things have been brought about by rejecting the main criteria of capitalist production—profits and the laws of the market—and substituting a comprehensive economic plan aimed at promoting the common welfare.” (Carr, 1978)
For her part, Ghodsee celebrates the achievements of Bulgarian communism. It “provided support for working mothers and promoted programs to ensure the de jure and de facto equality of men and women. Communism promoted literacy and education and health care and guaranteed full employment for anyone able to work. Communism gave people jobs, homes, and daily routines that were predictable and stable…” (Ghodsee, 2015: 192)
Nowadays, communism is presented, not as a type of society that stressed the common welfare and the end of exploitation of man by man, but as an abomination equal to Nazism. In 2009, the European Union created a new holiday, the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. Ghodsee condemns this as an attempt to discredit communism at a time the global financial crisis is inspiring austerity-weary populations to seek political alternatives. She cites also as further evidence of the efforts to blot out the rich contribution communists have made to the progress of humanity, a June 2013 decision by a Madrid court ordering the dismantling of a monument that commemorated the sacrifices of the mainly communist International Brigades, volunteers burning with passion for a new, more humane and democratic world, who fought against Franco’s fascists.
In my country, Canada, plans are afoot to erect a monument to the “victims” of communism, leaving ordinary Canadians puzzled as to why. Canada has never been Communist.
But there is a chance that Canadians, and others in the world, bedevilled by unemployment, economic insecurity, diminished economic opportunity and growing material deprivation, will increasingly look to the model provided by the really-existing socialism of the Soviet bloc as an alternative. “Communism may be making a bit of a comeback in Europe,” Ghodsee writes, “but it is also the case that some political elites are working harder than ever to stop it by blackwashing its history.” (Ghodsee, 2015: viii-xix) She adds, “At the exact moment when ordinary people are searching for political alternatives, many official historical institutes are supported (often with funds from the West) to discredit communism.”
Victims of communism, promoters of fascism
Ghodsee effectively punctures the growing movement to commemorate the ‘victims’ of communism by showing that the ‘victims’ were hardly innocents, but in many cases, were xenophobes, Judeophobes, and fascists responsible for the deaths, oppression and exploitation of numberless people.
Every year some Bulgarians lay wreaths at a wall inscribed with the names of many who died at the hands of communists. “The victims memorialized on the wall include many political opponents of communism executed after September 1944, when Bulgaria’s communists seized power in this tiny Balkan country,” reported the Associated Press. (Ghodsee, 2015: 192) Ghodsee points out that ‘Nowhere was it mentioned, even in passing, that Bulgaria’s ‘political and military elite’ were allied with Nazi Germany.” (Ghodsee, 2015: 192)
The ‘victims’ of communism memorialized in Bulgaria include:
o Bogdan Filov, a passionate and committed ally of Hitler, who as Bulgarian prime minister from 1940 to 1943, deported 11,000 Jews to their deaths at Treblinka;
o Petar Gabrovski, minister of the interior under Filov, and briefly prime minister; a vicious Judeophobe who started his political career as a Nazi;
o Nikola Zhekov, head of the Bulgarian far-right legionnaires and a personal friend of Hitler;
o General Hristo Lukov, the Bulgarian minister of war, who has become an inspiration for today’s neo-Nazis. (Ghodsee, 2015:194-196)
What are we fighting for?
Ghodsee writes of an encounter with students at an Occupy-like encampment.
“I spoke to some students sitting on the ground in front of one of the tents. There was a sign in Bulgarian. It read ‘This is not a protest. This is a process. Revolution for a New Bulgaria.’
“I asked the students why they were protesting. One young woman said, ‘I love my country, but I have no future here. While the Mafia governments stay in power, Bulgaria will never develop, I don’t want to leave. I want to stay and fight and make my country a better place.’
“’Do you have any concrete proposals?” I said. The protestors I had spoken to thus far all had very different ideas about what needed to be done.
“’Free university education,’ she said. The other students nodded. ‘And practical training placements for three years after you graduate.’
“’You mean like it was before?’ I said. Before 1989, the state paid for all university education, and all students completed three years of national service upon graduation. The state guaranteed a job in the student’s area of speciality…
“’Yes,’ the woman said…
“A second woman in the group waited until there was a lull in the conversation before she spoke. ‘There should be more kindergartens,’ she said. ‘Every mother should have a safe place for her child when she works.’
“’You mean like they had under communism?’ I said.
“At the word ‘communism,’ the students tensed.
“’We don’t want communism back,” the first young woman said. ‘We just want a normal country.” (Ghodsee, 2015:166-168)
In a similar vein, Ghodsee recounts a conversation between two elderly Bulgarian women, Elena Lagadinova, who joined the Bulgarian partisans at age 14 and later became a member of the Bulgarian Communist Party Central Committee, and Maria Zneopolska, author of a book on Frank Thompson.
“’Look at these protestors,’ Elena said, ‘They are against the monopolies and the corruption and the foreign capitalists. These are the same things (the communist partisans) were against.’
‘It’s the same fight,” Maria agreed. She looked to Elena and then back at me. ‘But it’s not enough to protest against. Nothing ever changes until the people have something to fight for.’” (Ghodsee, 2015: 175)
While Ghodsee laments that “strident anticommunist rhetoric demonizes anyone who once called himself or herself a ‘communist’ or who believed in the communist ideal” (Ghodsee, 2015: xvi) and regrets the hegemony of an anti-communist ideology that makes it “easier to assert that the moon landing was staged than it would be to argue that there was anything good about the communist past,” (Ghodsee, 2015: 133) she, herself, reinforces the anti-communism she deplores.
This, she does, subtly, in earlier publications, through the use of language that implicitly accepts communism as a danger implanted from without. For example, in Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism, Ghodsee writes that “the revolution in Cuba (just 90 miles from Florida) brought the communist threat closer than it had ever been to the United States” (emphasis added; Ghodsee, 2011: xi) rather than writing “the Cuban revolution brought communism (sans threat) closer than it had ever been to the United States”, or that it “brought the communist threat closer than it had ever been to the capitalist elite of the United States.” She wrote too of how “Many countries in Latin America and Africa were constantly fighting communist insurgencies” (Ghodsee, 2011: xi) as if the insurgencies were separate from the countries that battled them. Here she equates country with the state. It would have been more apt for Ghodsee to have written that many states in Latin America and Africa, backed by Western economic and political elites, fought to suppress rebellions from their populations against their oppression and exploitation. Of the other September 11, September 11, 1973, Ghodsee writes “Chile would elect a socialist leader, leaving the United States no choice but to support a coup d’état” (Ghodsee, 2011: xi), leaving one to muse over why she felt the United States government had no choice. Indeed, formally, it did have a choice, though it might be argued that the imperatives of the US economic system created a compulsion for Washington to intervene.
In The Left Side of History Ghodsee abandons subtle anti-communist language for crude, and shockingly puerile, anti-communist rhetoric. After touting the achievements of Bulgaria’s communism, she brands communist Bulgaria “a brutal dystopia ruled by paranoid dictators.” (Ghodsee, 2015: 129) Rather than examining the history of Stalin’s Soviet Union from the perspective of the multiple and almost insuperable challenges the country’s leadership faced, she offers a sophomoric psychological reductionism, transforming Stalin into a kind of cartoon character Dr. Evil, who she depicts as a “megalomaniac” who “hijacked the communist cause” (Ghodsee, 2015: 129) to pursue his “dreams of world domination.” (Ghodsee, 2015; 128) It appears that it is not only the European Union that has drawn an equal sign between Hitler and Stalin.
Against the Stalinist Beelzebub Ghodsee juxtaposes the pure and angelic heroes of her book, Frank Thompson and the Lagadinovas, the ‘good’ communists betrayed by their iniquitous leaders. “I needed to remind myself,” she writes, “that not all who fought or found themselves on the left side of history were radical Marxist zealots bent on world domination.” (Ghodsee, 2015: 199) Ghodsee wants us to believe that everything good about communism in Bulgaria is traceable to Thompson, the Lagadinovas, and the good communists, and all the bad is due to “Stalinists.”
This, however, is completely indefensible. The Bulgarian partisans and Frank Thompson had very little to do with the gains communism implanted in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian partisans were, by Ghodsee’s own admission, largely ineffective. They spent most of their time eking out a bare existence, frequently betrayed by peasants who didn’t support them. Unlike in neighboring Greece and Yugoslavia, where foreign occupations galvanized people to support the communist-led guerrilla resistance, Bulgaria was allied with Nazi Germany and endured no foreign occupation. The lives of most Bulgarians during the war were quiet, and they did not support the communist guerrillas. It was the Red Army, under Stalin’s leadership, that ultimately toppled Hitler’s allies in Sofia, and brought communism to Bulgaria. Stalin, far more than the Lagadinovas, and especially the hapless (though admirable) Frank Thompson, is responsible for the immense social gains Bulgaria enjoyed during the communist period.
Ghodsee’s political ideal, revealed in her various other writings, is “a more socially oriented state akin to the Scandinavian welfare state—states that combine democracy with social security.” (Ghodsee, 2004) She doesn’t say what she means by ‘democracy,” though it appears that she means a multiparty state, or at least, not the socialist states of central and eastern Europe in which one party, that of the Communists, was hegemonic. What she’s against is “the overly-individualistic, savage capitalism of the United States and the United Kingdom,” (Ghodsee, 2004) but is also against “one-party rule and leaders who remained unchallenged for thirty-five years” (Ghodsee, 2015: 191). She favors a combining of the full-employment, social welfare, egalitarian politics of the communist states (democracy as a type of society) with the procedural democracies of North America and Western Europe (democracy as a set of rules for electing representatives.) In this she is guilty of what she faults the contemporary left for: being clear on what she’s against (‘savage’ capitalism* and the one-party state), but having no concrete proposal for how to bring about the implied alternative, namely, socialism within a multi-party state—nor any sense, one suspects, of whether a socialist state with a Western-style parliamentary democracy is at all possible in a world profoundly dominated politically, economically, militarily and ideologically by a capitalist elite, who will no more accept a “democratic” socialism than an “undemocratic” one. The only difference between the socialism Ghodsee lionizes and the socialism she deplores is that the first has never existed. It’s as if, like the supporters of Syriza, Ghodsee believes that all one has to do is vote against capitalism (or austerity) and the capitalist elite, its institutions, and imperatives will meekly step aside. Jean Bricmont offers a refreshing corrective to Ghodsee’s naiveté. “If it is true, as often said, that most socialist regimes turn out to be dictatorships that is largely because a dictatorship is much harder to overthrow or subvert than a democracy.” (Bricmont, 2006)
The Left Side of History is not without its charms. Ghodsee does stress the importance for the left of having a clear idea of what it’s for and concrete proposals for how to get there. She makes the case, cogently I think, that the upsurge in official anticommunism is linked to the financial crisis and austerity and the need of ruling elites to eclipse, what from their point of view, is a danger that in a searching for political alternatives, people will turn to the really-existing socialism of the Soviet bloc for inspiration. She has shown that many of the so-called victims of communism were hardly innocent, but instead were victimizers—often fascists, racists and xenophobes, responsible for the persecution, oppression and deaths of numberless people. And in exploring the lives of Frank Thomson and the Lagadinovas, she challenges official anti-communism by pointing to communists who were not the “red scum” of official anticommunist demonology but selfless heroes with a burning passion for a more humane, democratic world.
The weakness of The Left Side of History lies in Ghodsee’s occasional substitution of anti-communist slogans for critical analysis, as in her portrayal of Stalin as a paranoid bent on world domination who hijacked a good cause and turned it to evil ends. In this she concedes to the official demonology. To be sure, in her view, Thompson and the Lagadinovas were communist heroes but Stalin and Stalinists were red scum. What Ghodsee loses sight of was that Thompson and the Lagadinovas were members of a movement in which Stalin played a central role, and could therefore, themselves, be called “Stalinists.” What’s more, Stalin, to far greater degree than Ghodsee’s chosen heroes, brought the achievements of communism to Eastern Europe.
Another weakness is Ghodsee’s depiction of communist Eastern Europe as a brutal dystopia. Indeed, this borders on bizarre, considering that she attributes the rise in official anticommunism to a need on the part of ruling elites to discredit communism as a model. Why would anyone feel compelled to discredit a brutal dystopia?
One could speculate that in writing The Left Side of History, Ghodsee was filled with a dread that her favorable assessments of communism would inevitably mean she would be denounced as a Stalinist. Could it be that as a prophylaxis, she armored herself with anti-Stalinist rhetoric? Her rhetoric is fevered, of a more rabid variety than even conservatives are capable of. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone seriously accuse Stalin—the champion of socialism in one country, the man who dismantled the Comintern and pursued what his leftist critics called an overly cautious foreign policy–of having had an agenda of world domination.
If indeed fear of being denounced as a Stalinist led Ghodsee to the missteps that have almost fatally weakened The Left Side of History, she might have looked to E.H. Carr for inspiration. After publicly declaring his concern that the achievements of communism would be expunged from history, Carr acknowledged that, “Of course, I know that anyone who speaks of the achievements of the Revolution will at once be branded as a Stalinist. But I am not prepared to submit to this kind of moral blackmail.” (Carr, 1978)
*Savage capitalism implies there’s some other kind of capitalism, perhaps a gentle one. But this is tantamount to distinguishing a gentle slavery from a savage slavery, as if indeed, a gentle slavery (or a gentle capitalism) is anything but an oxymoron.
Jean Bricmont. Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War. 2006
Kristen Ghodsee, “The Specter Still Haunts: Revisiting 1989,” Dissent, Spring 2012
E.H. Carr, “The Russian Revolution and the West,” New Left Review 1/111/ September-October 1978.
Kristen Ghodsee, “Red Nostalgia? Communism, Women’s Emancipation, and Economic Transformation in Bulgaria,” L,Homme Z. F. G. 15, 1 (2004)
Kristen Ghodsee, Lost in Transition: Ethnographies of Everyday Life after Communism. Duke University Press Books, 2011.
Kristen Ghodsee. The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe. Duke University Press. 2015.