North Korea: Orwell Was Not Exaggerating

Just a quick thought.  When I was doing research for my Advanced Higher English dissertation last year on dystopian literature, I came across a few critics who argued that Orwell intended Nineteen Eighty-Four to be an unrealistically extreme example of a totalitarian state to make his warning and message more effective.  I strongly disagreed back then; recent events in North Korea, meanwhile, are serving to remind me so much of the novel that, frankly, it’s frightening.

Back in November the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Chang Song-thaek, was hauled out of a session of the ruling party by armed guards.  Recent reports indicate he has now been machine-gunned to death.  Formerly considered to be the most powerful man in the country during the leadership transition in 2011-2012, he has fallen victim to Kim Jong-un’s first serious purge.  Just like in Orwell’s Oceania, leading figures in The Party and the lower classes alike can be disappeared upon the whims of the country’s leadership.

The propaganda screaming out of the North Korean state media is even more terrifying.  Read it for yourself – it contains horrific excerpts like, “However, despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.”  From memory, this is just as extreme as any of the propaganda in Nineteen Eighty-four, perhaps even worse.  I remember from various BBC documentaries, state imagery is prevalent across Pyongyang and much of the capital: great murals idealising the country’s leaders and quasi-Communist ideology; loudspeakers blare party doctrine and patriotic music across the city; the state controls both the television and the internet – North Koreans are only permitted to use a heavily censored country-wide intranet.  Like Oceania, the totalitarian state’s propaganda pervades every aspect of life.

In the novel, Winston works at the ‘Ministry of Truth’.  His job involves literally rewriting history: writing disgraced figures out of newspaper archives, editing history books and news broadcasts, and so on; doing whatever necessary to fit The Party’s current stance.  The state not only kills dissenters – it removes them from existence.  If you read that North Korean official announcement I linked to, it attempts to discredit Chang by suggesting he has planned to seize power ever since ‘long ago’ and destroy the revolution.  But it’s far worse than that – a recent state-sponsored documentary has reportedly had all mention of Chang edited out, while images have literally been photoshopped in order to pretend Kim Jong-un never truly trusted him within his inner circle.  While I couldn’t comment on whether the people of North Korea are so psychologically conditioned as the citizens of Oceania to just accept this change without thought, I certainly doubt it will be seriously questioned.

As the former North Korean ambassador for the UK has just told Newsnight, there is a real chance of North Korea starting up another crisis similar to the one we saw earlier this year, threatening to start World War Three and to turn South Korea into a ‘sea of fire’ alongside other such insane rhetoric.  Absolutely baseless, of course, but it serves a logical purpose: the North Korean people’s confidence in their leadership will be shaken after this recent report, so what better way to unify them alongside the ruling party than to show the country facing a threat from evil imperialistic powers?  By artificially creating a state of war and siege within the country, dissent can successfully be quelled through what may be only the beginning of a wider purge.  This is a central theme of Nineteen Eighty-Four – Orwell dedicating an entire chapter to the political theory behind it, in fact – as Oceania is always at war with either Eastasia or Eurasia.  The constant state of war rallies people behind The Party and create a deep sense of patriotism and loyalty.

Dissenting citizens of Oceania are taken to the Ministry of Love where, through a combination of torture and brainwashing, they are forced to love Big Brother.  The aim is not to rehabilitate them into society; everyone entering the Ministry of Love has a death sentence above their heads.  For the Party it is not enough to kill a dissenter – they must die fully under its control.  North Korea, meanwhile, has its own form of repression.  According to Amnesty International, hundreds of thousands of people, including children, are incarcerated in massive prison and labour camps.  This counts for almost 1 in 100 people.  Many of these are political prisoners of conscience, while others will be there through guilt by association to other dissenters alone – the family members of political enemies, for example.  Mass executions are common: that report mentions prisoners are often made to dig their own graves before being killed by a hammer blow to the neck; others are publicly beaten before being shot to death.  Women are frequently raped and then ‘disappeared’ to hide the evidence.  This goes on every single moment of every single day while we carry on largely oblivious.  Just like in Orwell’s vision, the North Korean state systematically tortures its own citizens.

These are only a few examples of how the North Korean state is in many ways identical to the nightmare world of Nineteen Eighty Four.  Orwell’s masterpiece is not an exaggeration nor a satire; it exists today within North Korea.  The North Korean state is living proof that such a world is possible – it’s only by luck that we’ve avoided the same fate.  Stories coming out of North Korea might seem funny and weird but I hope I’ve convinced you that it really isn’t a laughing matter.  It is shameful for our entire species that these atrocities are still allowed to occur.  I have no solutions. I suspect, barring a spontaneous change within the North Korean political system – not impossible – the totalitarian state will only collapse once it loses the support of China.  By that point, I’m convinced, it would be utterly unable to function.  Until such a time, the anonymous millions within North Korea are destined to continue their suffering.

Image attribution: By stngiam (Mural outside Songdowon Hotel, Wonsan, North Korea) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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A History of Communism: From Idealism to Tyranny

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The idea of Communism means many things to many people, and has evolved considerably since it was first developed by Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto of 1848.  Marx saw Communism as a solution to the mass poverty and class structure which the capitalist system had created.  Most significantly, and this is where he parted from various socialist and liberal ideas, Marx believed the implementation of Communism had to be revolutionary.

I’m not an expert on his beliefs, and I’ll confess I’ve never read The Communist Manifesto – though it’s definitely high on my list of books to read.  However, I believe he advocated a state which would possess supreme power over the people in order to liberate the workers from extreme poverty and their ‘bourgeoisie’, upper class rulers.  To do this it would be necessary, if not desirable, to create a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which would, in essence, follow the idea of a ‘benign dictator’.  Communism would not follow immediately, but this dictatorship would work towards the world revolution and eventually develop a stateless, classless world.  This is what Marx perceived to be true Communism.

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A depiction of revolutionary chaos in Berlin.

However, despite being formed in the euphoric hope of the doomed 1848 Revolutions, Marx’s ideas gained little traction during his lifetime.  He died in 1883 with the cause making little headway, though Marx maintained his belief that socialism was an inevitable stage in human development.  As the Europeans carved up Africa and created alliances, the ideas of Communism must have seemed fanatical.

Then, in the worldwide chaos caused by the First World War, everything changed.  In February 1917 the Russian monarchy collapsed after centuries of power in a complex series of events which, I will again admit, I have not deeply studied.  As German and Austrian soldiers advanced further and further into Russian territory, the people and soldiers protested and mutinied in what became a mass uprising against Tsar Nicholas II, who was forced to abdicate.  This was not a Communist revolution; Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Communist party, lived in exile and returned upon hearing the news.  It was in a second revolution during October 1917 when the Communists took advantage of the power vacuum which followed Tsar rule and seized power in a coup.  Not, as future Russian propaganda would have you believe, in a united empowerment of the proletariat demanding Communist rule.

Lenin worked to introduce Marx’s ideas and established a Dictatorship of the Proletariat – with himself as chairman, of course.  A bloody civil war ensued, as the Communists (‘reds’) fought European-backed reactionary forces (‘whites’), resulting in a red victory.  The formation of the Soviet Union was complete, and the world’s first Communist State entered the world stage.  Half of Europe had been set ablaze during the First World War – in addition to the Russian Empire, the war saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire.  Dozens of new states were created and in this revolutionary chaos thrived many short-lived Communist governments, but as the dust settled Russia stood the only country in which Communists had managed to keep their grip on power.  (There was also a Communist government in Mongolia, which achieved independence with the help of the ‘Reds’ during the Russian Civil War, though this had very little influence).

So the Soviet Union stood alone.  Lenin died in 1924 and, after a struggle for power, Joseph Stalin became leader.  This struggle fractured a split in the Communist Party, as two sides formed led by Stalin and a man called Leon Trotsky.  Trotsky believed that socialist policies could not work alone in Russia, that Marx’s doctrine clearly stated a worldwide revolutionary was necessary to create Communism.  Stalin, in contrast, was throughout his life an extreme paranoiac and believed the Soviet Union vulnerable against its capitalist enemies, so felt the focus should be on building defences.  Stalin won and Trotsky was sent into exile, eventually to be assassinated on Stalin’s command in 1940.

Stalin’s Soviet Union saw unprecedented industrial, technological and demographic development.  The Soviet Union became the first state to lead an organised Industrial Revolution, in which the country worked by ‘Five Year Plans’ to determine the focus of development.  This led to a much faster development than the random and uncontrolled forces of capitalism which had driven development elsewhere in the world.

More significantly, in my opinion, Stalin’s rule marked the transition between idealism and tyranny in Communist belief.  This need not have happened.  Stalin’s paranoia led to the creation of a totalitarian state and a cult of personality, in which human rights were non-existent and a level of devotion close to worship was expected for the Communist Party and for Stalin himself.

The rise of Communism coincided with the rise of Fascism in Europe during the 1920s and 30s.  Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and many other countries fell to the sway of Fascist leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini, imposing vast military rule upon their people and creating similar cults of personalities for the leaders.  It is said that if you could get Hitler and Stalin, bitter enemies, in a room together and avoid talk of economics, they would find much in common.  The creation of such brutal Fascist regimes created parallels with Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, with many critics labeling the Soviet Union as a Fascist regime itself.  There is certainly a strong argument for this claim.  Though not on the scale of The Holocaust, Stalin’s purges of anyone he perceived a threat led to the executions of millions of people.

This was how Communism would be defined during the second half of the century.  Once again it took a world war to make Communism a reality in many countries.  After the fall of Nazi Germany, Europe was carved up between the Allies and the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union set up a series of puppet states making up the Eastern block, comprised of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania.  To the east, Communists in China had won a bloody civil war after Japanese defeat in the Second World War, and the Korean War split Korea into two states, the north of which became ruled by a Communist government.  Communist also began spreading to the French colonies of southeast Asia, which would lead to the famous Vietnam War.

This spread of Communism led to a ‘Cold War’ forming between the liberal, capitalist forces of ‘The West’ headed by the USA, and the tyrannical, Communist forces of ‘The East’ headed by the Soviet Union.

Communism at its greatest extent in 1983.

The middle classes and landowners in capitalist countries were terrified of a Communist takeover, fearing land repossessions and reprisals, perhaps even threats to their lives.  And so a global war of power spheres, espionage, technological advancement and fear would define the 20th century; a war in every aspect besides the fighting.

And then, suddenly, Communism collapsed.  There are too many reasons for this collapse to go into in this blog, particularly as my understanding will be very limited.  I think the most significant factor was an economic crisis which brought the entire fragile system crashing down.  The Eastern block crumbled, ironically, during mass revolutions, and the Soviet Union split into a series of successor states not long afterwards.  Other than a handful of Communist States which survived in Asia, mostly reliant on China’s growing influence, and also Cuba, Communism has died a swift death.  Even these countries are increasingly accepting capitalism as a road to success.  Occasionally a Communist party will join a coalition government in some small country somewhere in the world, but as a major political force it is utterly spent.

So what are my thoughts on Communism?  If I had lived during the turmoil of the 20s following the First World War, in a period marked by extreme poverty, I would undoubtedly have been a Communist.  However as the totalitarian nature of Communist states became clearer, the Liberal within me must reject Communism.  It is an incredible idea, but human history has shown that whenever an individual is given power, however benevolent the reason, they will become corrupted.  Very often Communist states have exacerbated the poverty they were created to solve, while well-fed dictators think only of war and power.  Left-leaning institutions such as the welfare state have proven an effective means of lifting the majority out of poverty without imposing the extremes of Communism and this, I believe, is the path we ought to continue to follow.  Think of it as a diluted, safer form of Communism, achieving the same goals without the idealistic insanity.