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Time to reconsider

REWRITING HISTORY is usually thought of as the prerogative of the victors, of those who have risen to the top, and stayed there.

Last week’s TV gave us a remarkable chance to view recent history through the eyes of the losers. In the first instance, Big Ideas That Changed The World — Communism (Channel 5, Tuesday), we saw a fall from power; for the Russian legacy of Karl Marx was analysed by no less a player in the drama than Mikhail Gorbachev.

It was significant how much of this story was told in religious terms: it was his personal testimony, his personal account of how his own faith in the creed had been gradually destroyed by his realisation of the ruthless corruption of Stalin and his successors.

Mr Gorbachev then told us how his childish and blind belief was modified by contact with the West; how he tried to lead the Communist block into reform and freedom with perestroika and free elections; and about his refusal to send in tanks from Russia to prop up its ailing puppet states in the face of popular agitation.

He survived a coup by the hardline old guard, only to be rejected by the people because he still clung to a reformed version of Communism. For the past ten years, he has watched his country descend into economic chaos, as capitalism demonstrates it own ability to corrupt and to crush.

This was, of course, a highly partial account, no doubt skating over anything too awkward — it was extrordinarily moving to see once more the astonishing speed with which Communism collapsed, all the more powerful by being recounted by the ex-president.

Maoist Communism was even more decisively condemned in the clunkingly titled Jung Chang Turns On Mao (Channel 4, Saturday). The author of Wild Swans spoke of a similar loss of faith, of how her childhood fascination for Mao has turned into contempt. The programme, as plodding and uninspired as its title, was prompted by her new book on the Great Helmsman, which some think will force a total rethink of modern Chinese history.

Surprisingly, her research uncovered eyewitnesses and documents that prove that many of the carefully nurtured stories about Mao are simply propaganda lies. He didn’t lead the Long March: he was carried in a litter that he designed personally to make it more comfortable. Key battles never took place. Once in power, he quite consciously allowed millions of peasants to starve to death while massive exports of food paid for spectacular armaments.

The Cultural Revolution, with its humiliations and executions, was his revenge on former comrades who dared to question his policies. Jung Chang painted a picture of a despicable, power-hungry tyrant, responsible for even more misery and death than Hitler and Stalin.

Both programmes raised the question why sacrificial and idealistic masses can so easily be manipulated and perverted by ruthless monsters. Perhaps, though, the very making of these two programmes suggests that, in the end, after all the suffering and carnage, it is humane values that will prevail. But I wonder when they’ll be broadcast on Russian and Chinese TV.

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