THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
A blog by Barry Edelson
Communism is Dead
But Tyranny Marches On
A little-noticed item in the news last week said that the government of North Korea has approved a new constitution in which the word "communism" does not appear. If we can manage to recover from our astonishment over the revelation that a totalitarian dictatorship actually has a constitution, we might spend a few moments contemplating what it means when the world's most recalcitrant police state no longer wishes to be associated with the ideology that had heretofore provided its only claim to legitimacy.
We might also ponder the remarkable image of China's president Hu Jintao (above), addressing the government-ordered throngs at the 60th anniversary celebration of the establishment of the modern Chinese state, dressed in a snappy, and no doubt expensive, version of Mao's once ubiquitous peasant uniform. What does it say about Chinese communism today that one of the most potent symbols of the workers' paradise has become so little revered that it can be safely reduced to a fashion statement? The vast majority of China's actual laborers today are either wearing American-style denim or aspiring to be able to afford it, as a casual stroll down any urban Chinese street would no doubt confirm.
It has now been 20 years since the breaching of the Berlin Wall, and even longer since Deng Xiaoping declared, "Poverty is not socialism. To be rich is glorious." Whether or not Deng actually ever made this statement, he indisputably led the transformation of China from a very poor collectivist society to a very rich capitalist one, and in the process junked the entire facade of communist ideology, if not the apparatus of absolute political control. In so doing, he helped the world rid itself of history's most extensive and most inhuman justification for the exercise of state power, and unwittingly unmasked the cruel hypocrisy of the "people's republic".
For a brief time in the early 1990's, we had the luxury of enjoying the lovely thought that the end of communism's dominion over billions of the world's people might usher in an era of political enlightenment and global cooperation. Even without the shock of September 11 to shatter the illusion that the defeat of Soviet communism was "the end of history", the events of the ensuing generation have proven a terrible disappointment to idealists and ardent anti-communists alike. In our euphoria, we failed to take human nature into account in our analyses and expectations of the post-Soviet and post-Maoist era. The end of communism did nothing to loosen the grip or dampen the enthusiasm of determined despots. Even worse, the shedding of the communist mantle only made the shedding of blood in communism's name over the previous century seem all the more wicked.
I once shared an apartment in college in the 1970s with a very sheltered young man, the son of European immigrants, who was totally convinced that the vast prison known as the Soviet Union was in fact the "dictatorship of the proletariat" described by Marx and Engels, and that, in due course, it would inevitably yield to the promised egalitarian utopia. He was impervious to any suggestion on my part that the Soviet leaders were merely thugs, who discovered in the Communist Manifesto's naive prescription for centralized control the most perfect recipe ever devised for the exercise of absolute power. He wasn't a communist himself, by any means, but in his simplicity understood Stalin's purges of his political enemies (both real and imagined) as perfectly justified in order to protect the gains of the "revolution". I have no recollection if we ever discussed Mao's analogous campaigns of mass murder — the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution — that masqueraded as programs of national economic and social progress. But there is little doubt that he would have seen these, too, as part of the march toward the socialist ideal.
What would he think now? More to the point, what must Kim Jong-il's indoctrinated cadres think of a "constitution" stripped of its nation's founding ideology? What must Cuba's long-suffering dissidents think of the ideological bankruptcy of a government that, since the collapse of its Soviet sugar-daddy a generation ago, has blamed the failure of its self-proclaimed superior social system solely on the stinginess of the capitalist behemoth next door? What must the survivors of the Soviet gulag and the Chinese "re-education" camps think of the sacrifice they were forced to make in the name of…what exactly? To see their countries devolve into a heartless kleptocracy in the one case, and a merciless capitalist juggernaut in the other? And in both instances, with political and economic power still firmly in the grasp of a small criminal enterprise that is no more concerned with the welfare of its own citizens than was its communist predecessor.
Those American protesters who have fallen into the habit of labeling President Obama a communist (among other things) should take note. We all need to be reminded, first, that life in Stalin's Russia and Mao's China was, for countless millions, an unremitting horror of a kind and degree that no American at home has remotely experienced since the freeing of the slaves, and that daily exhibitions of state-sponsored inhumanity continue for countless Cubans, North Koreans, Iranians, Burmese and the unfortunate citizens of numerous other despotic regimes. Second, we must never forget that the human tendency towards the acquisition of power and its subsequent abuse is unrelenting. It is the very reason the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution: not in the naive belief that a democratic system of government would create a new kind of man, but in the starkly realistic acknowledgement that we can check, but never eliminate, the ambitions of the most rapacious and tyrannical among us. And finally, we would do well to keep in mind that modern social democracy — including its most reluctant practitioner, the United States of America — has created the closest model yet to the the ideal society in which citizens are guaranteed the basic necessities of human life and reserve the right to call their president or prime minister a dictator in public without being arrested, tortured and summarily shot (as happened to thousands of protesters in the benighted African nation of Guinea just the other day).
Our government is far from perfect, but if you are a conservative who thinks Barack Obama is the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler, or a liberal who thinks the real Hitler was George W. Bush, may I suggest an extended stay in North Korea? As two recently released American journalists can attest, the North Koreans will be delighted to show you around the inside of the concentration camp they call a country. Please thank them, for all of us, for proving once and for all that communism was the sham we always knew it was, and for tacitly admitting that their rulers' sole ambition is now and has always been the enjoyment of power. If you ever manage to get out again, we would love to hear all about it.
October 4, 2009
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