It’s easy to laugh. Sarker is clearly an extreme case, whose views would be condemned by most sensible people. Yet the logic behind them – and the distinct lack of taboo around such statements – is pervasive, and arguably owes a lot to the way we teach and conceptualise history.
Most obviously, our failure to teach the violence and horror associated with communism has enabled remarks like these to become increasingly commonplace. The mass murder inflicted by communist regimes represents, by most estimates, the biggest man-made disaster of the 20th century – yet the Holocaust remains the only historical event whose study is compulsory on the National Curriculum.
As James Bartholomew has highlighted for some time, there is no “Museum of Communist Terror” in the UK. You are far more likely to find exhibits showcasing Maoist or Soviet art and other forms of communist paraphernalia than anything documenting the loss of life associated with those regimes.
To be fair, those who do study the history of communism will normally learn about show trials, gulags and purges – though this is often accompanied by a tendency to over-hype the “positives”, such as the position of women in Soviet Russia. 20 million dead seems like quite a high price to pay for free childcare.
Crucially, there is often an element of debate to these conversations which would be unimaginable elsewhere. I had a quick glance at BBC Bitesize, a popular online revision tool for students. In the section surrounding communist history for GCSE students, one suggested question for discussion was: “Stalin – monster or necessary evil?”. It would be quite unthinkable to see the same question being asked of Hitler.
On the far less extreme end, other areas of modern politics, including the Thatcher years, are often taught with extreme bias. Roosevelt’s New Deal, another common GCSE and A-Level topic, is largely examined through a statist lens – with the Great Depression portrayed as stemming from insufficient government intervention, and Herbert Hoover, the president who preceded Roosevelt, cast as a staunch defender of free markets, whose inaction and spending cuts worsened the crisis.
Yet the reality is quite different. Hoover’s much-feted “rugged individualism” certainly wasn’t replicated at a macro level. Indeed, Hoover made aggressive use of government power to combat the crisis, advocating and implementing policies comparable to those of Roosevelt. In fact, much of the New Deal was merely a continuation of policies initiated under Hoover. Taxes increased during the Hoover years, while spending as a percentage of GDP rose from 3.4% in 1930 to 8% in 1933 – hardly a “laissez-faire” track record.
The merits of the New Deal itself have been hotly-contested since the 1930s, and students are rightly encouraged to assess the pros and cons of Roosevelt’s tenure. Yet here, a soft interventionist bias often emerges, with Roosevelt unequivocally praised for creating jobs in the early stages of his tenure. The fact that unemployment rose to new heights towards the end of the 1930s is often ignored, or viewed in Keynesian terms as simply an outcome of reduced government spending. Scant attention is given to the opportunity costs of Rooseveltian job creation. Here, students might at least consider the words of New Deal critic Henry Hazlitt, invoking Bastiat in Economics in One Lesson: “Every dollar of government spending must be raised through a dollar of taxation. For every public job created by [a] bridge project a private job has been destroyed somewhere else.”
These may seem like minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things, and it’s perhaps a stretch to expect GCSE students to grapple with economic theory. But there is, I believe, a problem when matters of ongoing debate are presented as established facts. Nudging students towards a view that the New Deal effectively “saved America” – even though its success is very much a “live” issue in economic history – is likely to instil a Keynesian preference, long before they’ve studied economics.
More fundamentally, “groupthink” of any kind should be avoided. Ignorance of history is dangerous in itself. Yet homogeneity of thought, if entrenched, can also become the enemy of intellectual freedom.
A version of this article first appeared on the 1828 Opinion blog.