The film Good Bye Lenin is a sweet tale of a son determined to protect his fragile socialist mother from the news that, as we are celebrating today, the GDR is no more. The emotional core of the film is the mother-son relationship, but we are led to a little sympathy for the mother who never lost her belief in a delusional socialist idea.
But what are we to make of people who late in life start making excuses for the dismally failed socialist experiment in central and eastern Europe?
In a bizarre letter published in Australian Book Review last May, Norman Abjorensen, once a Liberal staffer, blamed the collapse of the socialist experiment not on its dysfunctional economic system and cruel treatment of its captive peoples, but on a propaganda campaign and ‘permanent war footing’ by the ‘capitalist ruling class’ determined to ‘discredit and rid itself of a potential alternative’.
How anyone can talk about the ‘promising post-Stalin era’, as Abjorensen does, is beyond me. I very much doubt the Hungarians in 1956 or the Czechs in 1968 thought a brutal Soviet crushing of their attempts at creating a better society was ‘promising’. True, the end of mass extermination by the Soviet Union of its own citizens was an improvement, but the post-Stalin regimes were not ‘promising’ by any normal standard.
Anyone hoping that ABR readers would object to this nonsense would have been disappointed. Instead, former Meanjin editor Ian Britain was inspired to write in support of Abjorensen. In lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union, he says:
Its effect on the rest of us, in removing such a formibable counter-model of collective behaviour and belief, has amounted to something of a moral tragedy. However deficient that model was in daily life, however murderous were some of its leading practitioners, it embodied a way of organising the world that was not relentlessly tied to materialist acquisition.
But how deficient in daily life and how murderous would a system’s ‘leading practitioners’ have to be before Britain would regard its demise not as a ‘moral tragedy’? Surely the moral tragedy here is not the demise of these regimes, but the millions of people killed before communism crumbled and the hundreds of millions stunted lives spent under tyranny.
Maybe Britain has always held views like this. They were, unfortunately, common enough in the cold war era. But what on earth can be going on with Abjorensen to became an apologist for departed brutal dictatorships? What was his Hello Lenin moment? Perhaps whatever triggered it is deserving of some Good Bye Lenin type sympathy. But the views themselves are intellectually and morally bankrupt.