In the 19th century, several European nations were convinced of their almost divine mission to forcibly "educate" underdeveloped peoples. The colonial powers were superior through their achievements. It was for the inferior races to learn from their masters. By elevating the moral and intellectual standards of the colonized countries, the latter would gradually be given more say in the governance of their nations. That vague vision, however, did not interfere with the often extreme cruelty of colonial rule. One idea of imperialists was, basically: human fights and democracy are not for everybody, as everybody is not ready for them.
Judging from Western rhetoric of the second half of the 20th century, we believe that every nation has a right to govern itself, in freedom, and is capable of developing democracy. But how deeply rooted is that conviction?
In the 1990s, I have published two books on the debate in my own country about the years from about 1968 and well into the 1990s. The ideas of that period in Sweden reflect similar attitudes in several Western nations. What I found was a surprising tolerance towards dictatorships.
Take, for example, the regime of Mao Tse-tung. Important opinion makers in my country were fascinated by and romanticized the Cultural Revolution at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. This period in Chinese history was an orgy of violence. Hundreds of thousands were murdered, millions deported, tens of millions of families were divided. Chinese intellectuals were assaulted by the Red Guards.
Or listen to the debate on China ten years before, say between 1958 and 1961. Intellectuals in many countries expressed admiration for the Chinese experiment. They assured us that China at the time had overcome starvation and famine thanks to the wisdom and determined planning of the Communist regime. We now know that about 30 million people died from starvation and famine during exactly those years.
Let me give you a concrete example here. The then editor-in-chief of the largest and most influential morning paper in Sweden, Dagens Nyheter (published in Stockholm), visited China in 1970, when the terror, deportations and bloodshed of the Cultural Revolution were well known. In sixteen articles in 1970 and 1971 Olof Lagercrantz proclaimed his enthusiasm or understanding. Here are just a few quotes, which tell you something about the cultural and ideological climate in Sweden about 30 years ago:
The crucial difference between China and our world is that human beings...count for so very much more than with us.... In China, human beings come first.... People are China's biggest asset, and therefore the value put on human beings is automatically a high one.... The role of people is more important in China than elsewhere and realization of this spreads and enlivens millions as they go about their everyday tasks.
This is way of describing the role of individuals in a turbulent, totalitarian society. He goes on by saying that "the values on which the (Chinese) Communist regime is founded are the same as ours." Sport in China is chivalrous; people smile readily; the food there is abundant, good and cheap; the system of ideologically motivated "barefoot doctors" with three months' training is a method "both sensible and proper"; the Cultural Revolution has increased the chances of peace; "before long the world will see the present Chinese economy producing astonishing results..." - he is speaking of the Maoist economy, of course.
And the dictator himself, Mao Tse-tung, derives his legitimacy "by virtue of his wisdom," he is both "a great writer and a determined man of action...the unrivaled guarantor of China's national independence." The Communists practice democracy at home …