PHOTOS: The Famine Memorial in Dublin. The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s and ’50s is ignored in current Canadian political discourse while the Ukrainian Famine of the 1930s is frequently evoked. Both are real historical events with ideological roots. One fits the narrative of the political right. The other does not. Below: Mike Davis, author of Late Victorian Holocausts, a chronicle of the 30 to 60 million people killed by famine in the colonial world during the late 19th Century in the service of laissez-faire economic ideology; the Ukrainian famine memorial near Edmonton’s City Hall; Wildrose MLA Rick Strankman.

I imagine the nine Wildrose MLAs who published a blog post absurdly suggesting having a carbon tax in Alberta is sort of like murdering several million people were gobsmacked when they were slapped down for it.

Preposterous false equivalencies of this sort have been stock in trade for the respectable Canadian right at least since the Harper era began in Ottawa, and the perpetrators rarely get called out. Political extremists of all stripes have always indulged in this kind of intellectual excess.

What’s more, there was a day the political right in Alberta didn’t have to pay much attention to criticism of this sort from the NDP. But that was before New Democrats formed a majority government, back when Economic Development Minister Deron Bilous was just a powerless quarter of a four-member, fourth-party caucus.

But since Mr. Bilous, who led the charge on this issue, is not only a powerful minister of the Crown but a member of the large and influential Ukrainian diaspora in Alberta, his attack carried weight – and attracted serious news coverage. From the Wildrose perspective, the criticism was on the unnerving grounds that the comparison in the Wildrose blog insulted the victims of a horrendous historical crime, not merely that it was insultingly illogical.

Fingers burned, the Wildrose MLAs – Rick Strankman, David Hanson, Grant Hunter, David Schneider, Wes Taylor, Ron Orr, Mark Smith, Don MacIntyre, and Drew Barnes – hastily apologized and made the post disappear. Mr. Strankman had to do it all again a few days later, when the story reappeared in a couple of weeklies in his Drumheller-Stettler riding well after his original apology.

As ever with the right, though, the apology was carefully parsed – the MLAs were sorry that “any interpretation” of their comments upset anyone. Tacitly, they stood by their point.

And that point was that the policies inspired by “the socialist collectivist mentality,” such as “the Alberta government’s movement to remove incentives through taxation in the name of ‘progressive policies,’” always leads to catastrophe.

This, of course, is market fundamentalist dogma repeated so often many otherwise sensible people have started to believe it – never mind that it is based on two demonstrably false premises, first, that taxation eliminates all incentive and, second, that tax increases are therefore the top of a slippery slope to totalitarian collectivization.

This is why the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s is a powerful political symbol for the Canadian right, as is the Chinese famine of 1959 to 1961. The first is commonly said to have resulted in the deaths of six to 10 million people, the second 15 to 20 million. But it also explains why other murderous catastrophes, similarly motivated by ideology, but by ideologies that don’t fit the prevailing right-wing narrative, are ignored and washed down the Memory Hole.

How useful a symbol is the Ukrainian famine in particular? Well, consider the Harper Government’s determination to build a brutally ugly “Victims of Communism” memorial on the front lawn of the Supreme Court of Canada, and the Trudeau Government’s cautious efforts to slide the project to a back burner without quite turning off the heat.

As the Conservatives exploited and the Liberals warily understand, the memorial is popular with certain voter blocks. But the purpose of the memorial at a moment in history when the NDP formed the Opposition was the same as that of the nine MLAs’ blog post: to entrench the false narrative that social democracy inevitably leads to collectivist totalitarianism. In other words, to connect dots that aren’t connected.

The Ukrainian famine of the 1930s – an undeniable historical reality – is a particular issue in Alberta because of the large population descended from Ukrainian immigrants in this province, which has kept the memory of these tragic events alive.

But it is also an issue here because, in a jurisdiction recently dominated by highly ideological right-wingers, it conveniently reinforced the nonsensical market fundamentalist narrative of the Harper Conservatives and Wildrose Party (who are usually the same people) that modest redistributive measures reduce our “freedom” and thus lead to catastrophe, when in reality they do the opposite.

We have come to think of the Holocaust, the genocide perpetrated by Hitler’s German government between 1941 and 1945, as sui generis, the product of a perverse racial ideology which we no longer examine in the context of our usual notions of right and left.

Other similar historical events are ignored, denied or minimized because they don’t fit the right-wing frame.

Consider the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Turks between 1915 and 1917, another historically undeniable event.

Like the Holocaust in World War II, the mass murder of 1.5 million Armenians used active means, rather than starvation. But because our contemporary NATO allies the Turks continue to aggressively deny that the Armenian Genocide even took place, and support for NATO as a mechanism to encircle Russia remains strong among conservatives, this catastrophe is unlikely ever to engage the Canadian ideological Right.

Moreover, the Turkish government of the time, while revolutionary, doesn’t today have the reputation of having been particularly socialistic, so the utility of this tragic episode is limited to the political right.

The same, and more, can be said of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852. It was also caused by circumstances that today would certainly be perceived as political and ideological.

Potato blight may have been what killed the principal crop grown by poor Catholic Irish, but land ownership laws, absentee landlords, religious bigotry and English imperialism were the ideological and economic cause of the famine that killed a million people and forced another million to emigrate out of a population of only eight million.

But in English Canada, the right will never acknowledge this genocide in the British Isles because the perpetrators were capitalists and imperialists, and English-speakers like us.

For the same reason, there will be no mention of the staggering 30 to 60 million  people killed by famine throughout the colonial world during the late 19th Century. The direct cause: the laissez-faire economic ideology of various European colonial powers. The era, wrote Mike Davis in his seminal Late Victorian Holocausts, was “a new dark age of colonial war, indentured labour, concentration camps, genocide, forced migration, famine and disease.”

But this genocide as well is barely on our radar because of both cultural myopia and obeisance to market-fundamentalist ideology. In the frankly imperialist education system to which my generation was subjected, the legacy of colonialism was blithely ignored, or, when occasionally confronted, openly denied in a way that would do the government of Turkey proud.

By now we have been thoroughly programmed to think of the murderous depredations of 19th Century imperial capitalism as the nobly intended results of the “the White Man’s Burden,” rather than the strange fruit of an unrestricted capitalism not dissimilar to the economic system advocated by the Wildrose Party and the Conservative Party of Canada today.

This is as true in our instinctive interpretation of the appalling treatment of Canada’s First Nations people in the 20th Century as of the mass starvation of Asians in their own homelands in the 19th.

So while the embarrassment of the Wildrose MLAs at this latest unexpected setback is unsurprisingly the focus of journalistic coverage, it is helpful to remember why only certain tragic catastrophes make the grade for public discourse in our society, and those are the ones that can be interpreted as “proof” socialism is evil.

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  1. Today the people of Venezuala are standing in line at government run grocery stores that are empty. It wasn’t that long ago Venezuala was held up as a socialist success. So you can rail against free market economics all you want but Venezuala shows the cold reality of what socialism can or cannot provide.

    1. wasn’t so long ago Alberta was a ‘free market’ success until the oil price crashed showing how pathetic Con management really is. Neither of the ‘pure’ capitalist or socialist systems really works. Norway does it a lot better as do the other mixed economies.

    2. Today we have in Canada, a food-bank industry, started in Edmonton, that provides food and household sundries to thousands of families that would otherwise starve.
      Today we have a recent memory of the hundreds of thousands of families who were thrown out into the street when their homes were foreclosed on by a criminal banking industry that saw not one, mind you, that is NOT a single ONE, banker called to account for their anti-social behavior.
      We can play dueling catastrophes all day long Farmer.
      Anyone who still thinks that unfettered control of any population anywhere is a vastly superior system to one governed by popularly elected representatives and controlled by thoughtful, well-argued and transparent regulations is ignorant, evil or just been out in the sun too long.

    3. Yes, Venezuela is suffering.
      Yes, they are well known for being socialist.

      However, it is an oversimplification to say that because they are suffering and socialist, that socialism leads to suffering. Correlation is not causation.

      Here are some factors that also are at play:

      -global oil prices. Half of Venezuela’s GDP is from petroleum exports
      -the war on drugs and the united states insatiable desire for cocaine

      Also, socialism is often seen as the same as communism in the West. The West’s biggest trade partner is China, who have been ruled by the Communist party for decades.

      Why has communism not destroyed China’s economy?

    4. I’m tired of the blatant stupidity that that is imbedded in the hillbilly theory that capitalism can only be good and any other system can only be bad. The current state of Venezuela’s economy is the result of corruption and outright theft. Hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars and if you want to discuss corruption more let’s start with the global financial crisis. This outright criminal fiasco emanating out of Wall Street was one of the largest “socialist” bailouts in financial history. Yes, when the purpotrators and politicians walked away with personal financial gains in the billions, the American taxpayer was left with the burden of refinancing the banks to the tune of $22 trillion. Yet the illiterate hillbillies point the finger at Obama for the debt load on the books and the deficits caused by servicing it. Venezuela doesn’t have the resources to bail out this mess like the Republicans and elite Democrats did in the USA but caused disastrous problems globaly. Theft is theft matter what political veil you want to cover it with.

  2. Great post as per usual Dave, but let’s not forget Stephane Courtois’s 1997 tome ‘Black Book of Communism’ that blames Communism for the deaths of between 85 million and 100 million people worldwide in the the last century alone. I could go into the details but we get the picture.

  3. An excellent survey of capitalism’s reach and influence over the last couple centuries.
    Today we stand on the precipice overlooking the very worst practices, in danger of being toppled into that dark, dark pool by the inertia of ignorance and apathy in the face of an irresponsible gluttonous and globalized mercantilism.

  4. Yes, a genocide is a genocide. It is not about communism or capitalism per se, but more about imperialism. In the Ukrainian case, Russian and in the Irish case, British.

    We probably hear more about the Ukrainian famine, because of the large number of Ukrainian immigrants to Alberta and this event was within living memory of some people. The Irish famine was further in the past and I suspect the British people who initially set up our school system in much of Canada were more inclined to gloss over it. Also, British imperialism seems to be mainly an issue of the past now, Russian imperialism perhaps still somewhat of concern in some parts of the world.

  5. The Chinese famine was created by a US led trade embargo which included food. It was the farmers of Alberta who actually broke that immoral food embargo with the support of the Diefenbaker government.

    Read a brief summary here:

    and how it was brought to mind here:

    We had also been selling wheat and feed grains to Russia since 1954. Because of the US embargo both countries paid in gold bullion which the Mulroney government liquidated to provide the illusion Con policies were creating wealth.

  6. Mr. Strankman was elected by 7,500 voters. I wonder how the 8,300 voters who did not vote for him feel about his comments; or the 40.7% of people who did not vote at all. So much for 1st past the post. Perhaps the folks in his riding will wake up to his abysmal behavior before the next election; perhaps Jason Kenny will straighten him out.

  7. Interesting how the extreme right seem to have completely missed the most recent example of socialism – as a practice rather than an ideology – that ensued in Alberta after the wildfires in Fort McMurray. Money, stuff, accommodation, help for evacuees from everywhere in the country. They would argue that it was neighbour helping neighbour, that it’s what “we” do, and on and on. Sorry, guys, but that’s socialism is until it gets into the hands of a megalomaniac on an ignoramus.

    But why let facts get in the way of a good story?

    1. You raise an interesting point. It reminds me of the anthropologist David Graeber’s notion of “everyday communism”, where he points that in our real, day-to-day interactions with people, we can only operate in a way that is fundamentally socialist. He uses the example of two neighbours doing home repairs: one asks the other for a wrench and the other, rather than saying “how much is it worth to you?”, happily passes it over. I would go a step further and say that families are, in a real sense, pure communist institutions, where (a) property is held in common (sure, Mom and Dad’s name are on the deed to the house, but they can easily face legal sanction if they do not provide food and shelter for their children, who usually inherit the property in the will) and (b) it is the most pure example of Marx’ aphorism “from each according to his ability to each according to his need”.

    2. Lol, Filostrato! “…that’s socialism is until it gets into the hands of a megalomaniac on an ignoramus” which in the case of most “revolutions” (Mao, Pol Pot, Jong-Il, Lenin, Stalin) doent take too long either, does it.

      1. Agreed, but you can say that about any economic or political system. Indeed, the historical record bares this out; there have been dangerous, megalomaniac leaders that have done tremendous harm long before communism came on the scene. World War I, arguably a pure capitalist war, killed tens of millions in just four years.

  8. There is the thing with communism and the right wing neo-conservative/neo-liberal capitalism of the day, both, being extremes at each end of the political spectrum. Perhaps, again, we need to look to some of the Scandinavian countries to be reminded of how they, wisely, use their capitalist wealth to do equal wealth distribution in the forms of infrastructure, health care, education, good universal day care, etc…..for the good… of all. These countries have good social democrat values, are financially successful and many have been rated as the ‘happiest’ countries in the world. Certainly, I do not see either the Canadian Conservative Party of Canada nor the Liberal Party of Canada emulating this. I think the Tommy Douglas ‘Mouseland’ adage still applies re: the Conservative and the Liberals, the black cats and the white cats, with the ‘fatcat’ insinuation.
    And for those who see the higher taxes in these other countries being a negative, Norwegian citizens, for example, wanted higher taxes to maintain revenue flow while they saved their oil and gas revenue in their sovereign fund, now worth $1 trillion + or -, which is now ‘making money on money.’

  9. Let’s not forget, as conservatives always do, the social democracies of northern Europe – Denmark, Sweden, Norway (look how it saved its oil wealth because it acted on democratic socialist principles), Finland, Holland etc.

  10. I dislike such outrageous analogies from the right. However, they don’t have a monopoly on it. The left often accuses the right (even the moderate ones) for being fascist for things like supporting the US Government to enforce its laws on illegal immigration, expecting immigrants to Canada to be functional in a official language, or supporting Brexit so that the UK can control who can enter the country. Worse, it’s perfectly acceptable to call other people fascists because of political correctness.

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