What's Behind Right Wingers' Weird Obsession with a Communist Museum?

With nothing positive to offer, the right has to resort to scare tactics against change.

by Tom Whyman
29 November 2018, 9:30am

Karl Marx (Photo by Simon Childs)

Do you hate communism? Do you love museums? Well, Tim Montgomerie could have just the project for you.

Writing in The Times last week, Montgomerie – a former Tory speech writer who now founded "The UnHerd" website – expressed his concern that young people in Britain don't quite realise that communism was responsible for some of the worst horrors of the 20th century. "While young people identify Hitler as evil," he writes, "many born in recent decades can't even recognise Stalin or Mao, let alone their crimes."

With its "seductive promises of a more equal world", communism is undergoing a "fashionable resurgence" in the West. This is despite the fact that, according to Montgomerie, the bloodshed associated with communism in the 20th century is "a feature, not a bug".

And so, Montgomerie believes, we need to do more work to educate young people about the evils of communism. "Much of [Marx's] works were, of course, written in London and it would be fitting if history’s judgement on him were properly acknowledged within a museum in our capital. The party once led by that Cold War warrior, Margaret Thatcher, should get it built."

Montgomerie's arguments are nothing new. In fact, he's been on this tip for a while now. And he’s not the only one. James Bartholomew is the founder of a private company, based in Bath, which aims to turn anti-communist museum dreams into reality. Writing in the Spectator, he says "the biggest man-made disaster of the 20th century was the terror and death inflicted by communist regimes. But is this widely recognised? No. Is it taught in our schools? No. Are there museums to remind us about it? No." Bartholomew's endeavour has found support from a network of right-wing libertarians and Hard Brexiteers, including Tory MEP Dan Hannan.

Tim Montgomerie (Photo via Policy Exchange)

Montgomerie's inspiration comes from the "House of Terror" in Budapest. The museum commemorates the victims of both fascism and communism in the 20th century – the Nazi puppet regime which ruled the country in the 1940s, as well as the Soviet-aligned one established after World War II.

This might sound worthwhile, but there are reasons to be suspicious. The museum, whose flashy curation has been likened to "a movie set" and "a haunted house", has been criticised for conflating fascism with communism, dedicating far more space to crimes committed by the Soviets relative to those of the Nazis and downplaying the complicity of the Hungarian people in these crimes.

The House of Terror was founded during the first government of Viktor Orbán – the Hungarian president famous for dismantling liberal freedoms and using anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros to inform government policy. It has been described as a "visual blueprint" for how Orban's Fidesz party are "busy rewriting the country's history". The museum's director, Maria Schmidt, shares Orban's illiberal politics, including his hostility to refugees (she has been described as Orban's "intellectual-in-chief"). So, rather than an even-handed attempt to set the record straight, the museum can be contextualised as part of the political project of a far-right government.

Montgomerie also cites as inspiration the International Museum on Communism, a proposed museum for Washington, DC. Behind this project is the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which last week received a $10 million donation from the Polish government. Montgomerie's Times column mentions this, but doesn’t mention that Poland is led by the far-right Law and Justice party, whose illiberal politics are very similar to those of Fidesz. As it happens, in 2002, the Victims of Communism Foundation honoured Orbán with its Medal of Freedom.

Maybe Stalin and Mao are less widely recognised than Hitler – but Montgomerie is wrong to suggest that young people are attracted to communism because they don't recognise its dangers. In fact, it's pretty much impossible to mention the word "communism" in mainstream media debates without immediately being sucked into a discussion of the gulags – even sympathetic commentators seem obliged to cover that ground.

Montgomerie and his ilk need to ask themselves why young people, even if they know about what happened in the 20th century, find communism so seductive. The truth is that capitalism has long been unable to offer young people anything much beyond a life of crippling anxiety and endless toil. Crucially, capitalism also now offers the prospect of horrible, looming disaster. Thanks to things like the recent UN report on Climate Change, it is now common knowledge that unless we start organising the economy differently, the whole human species could be destroyed.

The idea for a Communist museum seems to be the latest articulation of what Mark Fisher called "capitalist realism". For those who aren't familiar, this is basically when capitalism fans give up on trying to persuade people that capitalism is likely to deliver widespread prosperity and instead posit it as simply the least bad of all possible systems, the rest of which will result in disaster. Don't question the established order of things, or no one will be able to afford any food; there will be secret police, gulags, taps on your shoulder late at night. Death.

Against that is the obvious and urgent fact that capitalism is, at present, leading inexorably to climate destruction. In the face of this, surely, capitalist realism can't be maintained. A different world is not only possible; it's necessary. And no second-rate anti-communist museum will change that.

Incidentally, if we're in the business of founding museums about atrocities, shouldn't we be looking at founding museums about atrocities that people in this country were actually complicit in? Maybe we should found a museum about the victims of the British Empire?