A former Socialist Party member (S. Coleman) used to bemoan the documentaries about socialism/communism in his monthly Socialist Standard TV column "Between the Lines." The June 1989 issue is a typical example:
Somewhere int the basement of Channel Four there is an office in which is to be found a team of timewasters whose lifelong project is to make lengthy documentaries about "socialism" or "Marxism". Over the years the C4 audience has been subjected to numerous programmes of this kind. We wait excitedly, expecting a serious analysis of the subjects so seductively advertised in the titles - and with regularity we are left feeling frustrated, cheated and wondering when the case for socialism would at least be mentioned in passing.
"Utopias" [(C4, 10.45 pm, 1 May) was the broadcast time, funnily enough on the Workers' International Day of Struggle - gray] was a classical production of the basement timewasters. The programme lasted for over an hour. It was clearly produced with enormous technical care, using props and recordings of speakers which looked like they were going to serve as a backdrop for something more than superficial. The title was intriguing. Socialists are often called utopians....Within the first few minutes that sinking feeling began.
I understand Coleman's frustration. Recently, Danish TV (DR 2 precisely) had an evening of programmes and discussion under the umbrella title of "Utopia." (20 January.)
I didn't understand why three quarters' of the programmes were shown as they were manifestly out of place in relation to the subject under discussion; e.g. the tediously boring documentary about some New Agers who have built a temple in a mountain.
The best part of the entire evening was the (all too brief) studio discussion related to Thomas Moore, his book and the other utopias of his age. (Utopia derives from Greek and has the meanings: 1)"no place" or "a place that does not exist" ; 2) or "the Good Place." Different from the usage common today, whereby utopia is envisaged as an impossible, unrealistic society.)
People write utopias because of injustices they see around them and from a fundamental belief in the equality of all members of humanity. Quite common for the Utopias and their writers was the abolition of private property and money, and the establishment of common ownership of societal wealth. The argument was very straight forward - where there was property, there could exist a minority exercising control over others simply due to that ownership. The Utopians argued that a society of common ownership, where all the wealth of society is owned by the members of society or, put in a different way, where no-one owns property, would provide the basis on which to build a fair, egalitarian society that would meet the needs of its populace.
This lovely bit of honest tele was then utterly ruined by the studio "expert",a Philosopher, going on to tell the host Utopia is impossible because human nature militates against it - we want to accrue property for our own, individual ends - and that the utopias have been banished now anyway because everyone is rich (sic) and that we live in the best of all worlds. (Whether e.g. the 39 million people living in official poverty in the USA, or the parents who helplessly see their children die of starvation each year, would agree with that was not touched upon.)
Predictably, the absolute worst contribution of the evening was about Soviet Russia, Lenin and the Bolsheviks. (Speaking of bad contributions, the DR 2 studio presenter claimed Marx and Lenin were comrades!) It was a French documentary, well an episode at least, from 1999 called La Foi du Siecle. Literally "The Mistake of the Century."
The writers proposed to understand the attraction of "communism". What that meant was they were prepared to call anybody and any society "communist" without needing to indulge in such trivial academic procedures such as definition and rigorous, logical analysis. The long standing socialist analysis of these lands and leaders being state capitalist dictatorships and non-socialists wasn't mentioned.
So it was the programme opened with footage of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, etc and a voiceover asking how people could be attracted by the ideals of "communism" despite the brutalities it perpetrated. The narrator asked how it could be that the "communist" lie could continue, despite the fact that the ideals of communism were betrayed and that this had been pointed out quite early on.
Why left-wingers support the myth of Bolshevism is an interesting question for sure. The SWP et al continue to attract youngsters who hate capitalism yet abandon verifiable history and facts for the make belief of the discredited, anti-socialism of Leninism. (A partial explanation is that Trotskyism allows the Left to support the Leninist theory of party and revolution whilst distancing themselves from the Stalinist legacy which clearly developed from it.)
The documentary made some points, not followed up in depth if at all, which I must paraphrase from the scribbles I made as I watched (going from French to Danish to English obviously means things would get lost in translation!):
- the Bolshevik takeover was like a beacon to the workers after the brutalities of the War
- the storming of the Winter Palace as portrayed by e.g. film maker Eisenstein was far from historical reality, yet that sort of disparity between fact and mythology appeared often and impacted on unquestioning Western Parties, who went on to push the mythology to workers
- a fiction was that the Soviets held power, and people believed it, when in reality power was held by Lenin and the Bolsheviks; revolutionary institutions were emptied of influence
- whilst the workers of the world dreamt of a classless society, the party eliminated opposition, held power alone and created a secret police
- visitors to Russia from the Western left-wing intelligentsia developed an almost myopic love affair with the Bolsheviks and what they were allowed to see
- Comintern established 21 points for inclusion, one basic point being those prospective parties had to be Bolshevik in outlook and practice
- Bolshevism was declared to be not only correct but also of universal application
- Stalin deified Lenin and created the religion of "Leninism" with the latter's passing in 1924
- "Communism" and the Party become a religion where all doubt is extinguished, for the good cannot do any wrong
- "The revolutionaries without a revolution mimic the Soviet model"
At one point in the documentary, we are treated to the spectacle of a small group of men dancing on the head of a Czar statue on the roof of a Moscow building. These men, at the 1920 meeting of Comintern, had declared themselves the leaders of the working class. The authoritarian and leadership based nature of the Leninist Party is not compared to that quintessential Marxian idea of the working class acting consciously, politically and through democratic self-organisation for the abolition of capitalism.
As a documentary about the supposed failure of communism "La Foi du Siecle" is miserably dishonest TV. The points it raises about Leninist political psychology are pertinent and depressingly familiar to this writer who has met, talked with and debated numerous Lefties down the years.
Coleman remarked in his article: "We can only hope that the men in the basement (or wherever they are) take a long time before they produce their next intellectual tease."