两 岸   啼 不 住

Liang an yuan sheng ti bu zhu:

The monkeys on both banks are still gibbering.

This piece by Zsuzsanna Clark reflects on growing up under communism in Hungary and compares it to her life in the UK today. It is cross-posted from the Prole Center, and apparently appeared first in the Guardian, of all places. I am intrigued by this piece (although not persuaded by its conclusion), since I am increasingly interested in communism in power. Most analyses we have today analyse bourgeois and capitalist power and modes of resistance to it, but relatively few deal with communism in power. More is needed.

When people ask me what it was like growing up in Hungary in the 1970s and 80s, most expect to hear tales of secret police, bread queues and other nasty manifestations of life in a one-party state. They are invariably disappointed when I tell them that the reality was quite different and that communist Hungary, far from being hell on earth, was in fact rather a good place to live.Victor Orban, the recently defeated rightwing Hungarian prime minister, described my generation – those whose fate was sealed by the “failure” of the 1956 uprising – as “the lost generation”.

But Hungarians like myself, who grew up in the years of “goulash communism”, were actually the lucky ones. The shockwaves of 1956 bought home to the communist leadership that they could only consolidate their position by making our lives more tolerable. Stalinism was out and “Kadarism” – a unique brand of liberal communism (named after its architect, Janos Kadar) from which Mikhail Gorbachev would later draw inspiration for perestroika – was in.

Instead of a list of achievements in health, education, transport and welfare, let me offer some personal observations on what living under goulash communism was really like.

What I remember most was the overriding sense of community and solidarity, a spirit I find totally lacking in my adopted Britain and indeed whenever I go back to Hungary today. With minimal differences in income and material goods, people really were judged on what they were like as individuals and not on what they owned.

Western liberals may sneer at such movements as the Young Pioneers, which sought to involve young people in a wide range of community activities, but they reflected an ambition to build a cohesive society – in contrast to the atomisation of most “advanced” nations today. I was proud to be a Pioneer; contrary to popular belief, we did not spend all our time sitting round campfires singing songs in praise of Lenin, but instead learned valuable life skills in social interraction and building friendships.

I was also privileged to be bought up in a society where the government understood the value of education and culture. Before the war, in the Hungary idolised by snobbish, reactionary writers like Sandor Marai, secondary education was the preserve of the wealthy classes. My mother and father had to leave school at 11; under the Kadar regime, they were given a second chance to resume their studies as adults. Communism opened up new opportunities for people of my background and led to a huge increase in social mobility.

A corollary of the government’s education policy was its commitment to the arts. Again, the emphasis was on bringing the maximum benefit to the largest number of people, and not just the wealthy in Budapest. Theatres, opera houses and concert halls were all heavily subsidised, bringing prices down to a level everyone could afford. The government opened up “cultural houses” in every town and village, so that provincially based working class people, like my parents, could have easy access to the arts.

Book publishing was similarly supported, so that prices remained low and bookshops proliferated. With 1 forint (1.5p) editions of a wide range of classic works available, reading became a national obsession. For those who believe a rigorous censorship existed, I can tell you that among the most popular published foreign writers were PG Wodehouse, Aldous Huxley and W Somerset Maugham, hardly Marxian propagandists.

Now, 13 years after “regime change”, much of this cultural heritage has been destroyed. Museums, theatres and galleries have had to sink or swim in the new economic “realism”. As ticket subsidies have been withdrawn, once again it is only the rich (and German tourists) who can afford to go to the opera. Hundreds of smaller art cinemas have been forced to close, while the big Hollywood multiplexes move in. Television has dramatically dumbed down, too. When I was a teenager, Saturday night prime time meant a Jules Verne adventure, a poetry recital and a Chekhov drama; now it means the same dreary diet of game shows and American action movies as in Britain.

Reform politicans sarcastically refer to Kadar’s “velvet prison”, yet they have surely created a prison of their own, where large sections of the population have been sold to the foreign-owned multinationals, which control 70% of the nation’s production and threaten to pull out of the country if wages or workers’ rights are improved. My best friend’s husband works for such a company, and tells how visits to the toilet are strictly timed and taking a full lunch break is seen as showing lack of commitment to the firm. It’s all a far cry from the paternalistic state-owned companies of 20 years ago, with their nurseries, subsidised canteens, holiday homes and free sports facilities.

Communism in Hungary certainly had a downside. While trips to other socialist countries were unrestricted, travel to the west was problematic and only allowed every second year. Few Hungarians (myself included) enjoyed the compulsory Russian lessons. There were petty restrictions and needless layers of bureaucracy and, of course, we were living in a one-party system where freedom to criticise the government was limited. Yet despite all of this, I firmly believe that, taken as a whole, the positives outweighed the negatives.

Today Hungarians have the theoretical right to travel to the west whenever they like, yet the fall in real wages has been so dramatic that few of them can now afford even to go to Lake Balaton. The “patriotic” politicans who shouted so loudly about Hungary’s “occupation” by a foreign power under communism, are now strangely silent when the country is effectively controlled by New York financial institutions and unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.

As a young adult in Hungary, I grew accustomed to a diet of news stories about the “imperialist” west and its wicked plans for global domination and control of the world’s resources. We were all aware that this was the official party line and so its effectiveness as propaganda was limited.

Now, more than 10 years on, with the US (and Germany) having connived in the breakup of Yugoslavia, colonised Afghanistan and now planning to invade Iraq for control of the world’s oil supply, it is surely obvious that what we were told about western intentions was true.

I have seen both communist and western news management and know which is the more devious – and therefore the more effective. I witnessed the way media manipulation works in the “free world”, when we were told the Stop the War march I went on in London recently was attended by just 150,000 people and in the dismissive coverage Britain’s biggest-ever peace demonstration was given in most newspapers.

Education, or rather the denial of it, is the key to all attempts at social control. Gorbachev said that education, in his view the greatest achievement of 70 years of communism, also paradoxically helped bring about its downfall. Put simply, the communist regimes educated their people to such an extent that they developed the critical faculty to challenge, and eventually overthrew the system. After three years of living in Britain, I see no danger of that happening here.

Earlier, I posted about Stalin’s strong stand against anti-semitism and the tough penalties for any form of racial abuse in the USSR. Here is another piece. In his report to the seventeenth congress of the CPSU(B), Stalin once again comments on fascism, in the context of Hitler’s recent seizure of power in Germany.

Still others think that war should be organised by a “superior race,” say, the German “race,” against an “inferior race,” primarily against the Slavs; that only such a war can provide a way out of the situation, for it is the mission of the “superior race” to render the “inferior race” fruitful and to rule over it. Let us assume that this queer theory, which is as far removed from science as the sky from the earth, let us assume that this queer theory is put into practice. What may be the result of that?

It is well known that ancient Rome looked upon the ancestors of the present-day Germans and French in the same way as the representatives of the “superior race” now look upon the Slav races. It is well known that ancient Rome treated them as an “inferior race,” as “barbarians,” destined to live in eternal subordination to the “superior race,” to “great Rome”, and, between ourselves be it said, ancient Rome had some grounds for this, which cannot be said of the representatives of the “superior race” of today. (Thunderous applause.) But what was the upshot of this? The upshot was that the non-Romans, i.e., all the “barbarians,” united against the common enemy and brought Rome down with a crash. The question arises: What guarantee is there that the claims of the representatives of the “superior race” of today will not lead to the same lamentable results? What guarantee is there that the fascist literary politicians in Berlin will be more fortunate than the old and experienced conquerors in Rome? Would it not be more correct to assume that the opposite will be the case? (Works, volume 13, p. 302).

James Endicott (1898-1993) was both a Christian missionary and a communist. Of Canadian background, he was ordained as a minister in the United Church. His claim to fame was active support of the communists leading up 1949 and then, back in Canada after more than two decades in China, speaking and agitating openly for support of the PRC. He was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, for his work towards peaceful coexistence between communists and Christians.

endicott

endicott and zhou

This was a meeting between Endicott and Zhou Enlain in 1972.

This one is cross-posted from the Prole Center, which cross-posted it from Liberation News:

By Marcel Cartier.

I had the unique opportunity to spend several days in three different parts of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly just referred to as “North” Korea. This was an exceptionally life-changing experience that challenged many of the pre-conceptions that myself and fellow western visitors who accompanied me from Beijing had going in. Here are some things about North Korea that may surprise you, as many of them surprised me, as well.

1. Americans Are Not Hated, But Welcomed

The Koreans have a very high level of class consciousness, and do not equate the American people with our government. They make no secret of their contempt for U.S. imperialism, but if you say you’re an American, the conversation will usually revolve around culture or sports more than politics. At the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang (think your local library on steorids, with over 30 million books), the most popular CD is The Beatles’ “Greatest Hits”, although Linkin Park is also requested a lot among local youth. The young men seem fascinated with the NBA, and know a lot more about the league than just Dennis Rodman.

2. Customs and Border Patrol Were A Smooth, Easy Experience

Many of the westerners who traveled to Pyongyang from Beijing with me were concerned that the immigration procedure would be a long and intense one. Everyone seemed quite surprised that passports were stamped with no questions asked, and that only a handful of passengers had a few items in their bags looked at. Prior to traveling, it is strongly advised by tour companies that people not bring any kind of books on the Korean War or items that have American flags on them. This may be solid advice, but immigration didn’t really seem too concerned about what was brought into the country.

3. Pyongyang Is Beautiful, Clean and Colourful

Probably the most gorgeous city in the world, Pyongyang is incredibly well kept. Considering that the entire city was carpet bombed by U.S. forces in the Korean War (what they call the Fatherland Liberation War) and that only two buildings remained in 1953, it is an impressive accomplishment. The statues and grand buildings are awe-inspiring, as are the large green spaces where you can see people relaxing. There are many new apartment buildings sprouting up across the city, but even the ones that are evidently older are maintained well. It is often said that Pyongyang at night is dark, and although it may be compared to a western city, it does have beautiful lights that illuminate much of the downtown area.

4. Kim Jong Un Haircuts Are Practically Non-Existent

There was one man who sported the Kim cut who I saw while en route from the airport to the city center, and it wasn’t a good look on him at all! The haircut was rumoured by BBC and TIME who picked up on a South Korean tabloid story to now be mandatory for all North Korean men of university age. Not only is this story not true, so is the allegation that the men in the DPRK only have a select few styles to choose from at the barber shop that are “state sanctioned.” It really works just as it would in the west – there are flyers at barbershops where styles are pictured, making it easier for customers to say, “I want a number seven cut.” But, just as in a New York barber shop, that doesn’t mean that you are restricted to that particular look.

5. North Koreans Laugh, Smile and Joke – A Lot

The question you’re asking is probably, “but isn’t that for show?” It would be a mighty accomplishment indeed if with all of the genuine laughs I shared with Koreans, they were putting on an act. Not only that, but for vehicles speeding by on the streets, those Koreans do an impressive job of making sure they’re aware when there are foreigners passing so they can pretend to laugh! Koreans have jokes for just about everything, from Canadians and ice hockey (“why did the Canadians have sex from the back? So they can watch the hockey game”) to Americans at the DMZ (“an American passes a DPRK soldier a cigarette across the demarcation line. The solider smokes it, but the American asks why if he hates Americans he is smoking something from the U.S. The solider replies, I am not smoking it but rather burning it.”)

6. Monolithic Ideology Does Not Mean Monolithic Personality

This is a good reminder that individualism and individuality are not one in the same. In fact, observing people interact with one another in North Korea provided the impression that a diversity of personality types was just as strong there as it is in the “open” west. People have a divergence of interests, from sports to culture, and are free to pick what they enjoy and dislike.

7. People are incredibly well dressed across the country

Even in the countryside, Koreans dress in a very dignified manner. There was not one place I traveled to where people appeared in the least bit sloppy, or wearing clothes that appeared to be old. Men and women also don’t all wear the same style of clothing, as we are often conditioned to think. It is common to see women wearing very bright clothes, including pink business suits as well as more traditional Korean dresses. Men may often wear ties, collared shirts and suit coats, but it is also not uncommon to see them in more casual wear such as tracksuits depending on the occasion.

8. Children Begin To Learn English At the Age of 7

The people’s command of English, particularly among the younger generation, is very impressive. While in previous decades, high school was the time when English began to be learnt, this has been changed to the third grade. Although many children are shy (they don’t see that many foreigners, after all), I was able to get many of them to shake my hand and even exchange a few words in English. Popular languages that are studied in high school include Chinese and German.

9. Tourism Will Be Boosted In The Near Future

One of the aspects of the economy that will be prioritized in the future appears to be tourism. The entire Pyongyang Airport is under construction at the moment and in the midst of major expansion. The Koreans are keen to open up to the outside world, but they are also certain to do it in a very different way than the Chinese (after being in Beijing, the omnipotence of some of the worst aspects of western culture their gives them every reason to be cautious in this regard). Air Koryo, which was given the only 1-star rating by the company SkyTrax, was in reality much better in terms of service and comfort than at least a dozen other airlines I had previously flown on. They have a new fleet of Russian planes that fly between Pyongyang and Beijing, provide in flight entertainment throughout the journey (the children’s cartoon Clever Raccoon Dog is hilarious), and serve a “hamburger” (not so good, but edible) and an assortment of drinks (coffee, tea, beer, juice). The whole experience was at least worthly of three-stars if we had to go the rating route!

10. Koreans Are Keen To Talk About The Country Candidly

People are very open about the problems facing the country, and don’t shy away from discussing some of the more difficult aspects of life. For instance, they would speak about the “Arduous March” (think the “Special Period” in Cuba) where drought, famine and floods coupled with the loss of the majority of the country’s trading partners brought big setbacks to a country that until the 1980s had a higher standard of living than the South. They will also discuss the narratives regarding the Korean War and are keen for a betterment of relations with South Korea in the eventual hope of reunification. However, they are also very firm on the fact that they will never renounce their socialist principles in order to facilitate this reunification.

11. Beer Is Considered A Soft Drink, Micro Breweries Are Popular

Almost every district in the country now has a local brewery that provides beer to the local area. There are a variety of different kinds that are enjoyed around the country, and most meals are served with a small quantity of beer. At Kim Il Sung Stadium where the Pyongyang Marathon started and ended, it was not uncommon to see locals having a drink as they watched the exhibition matches between DPRK football teams. Think Yankee Stadium, just without the aggressiveness of the crowd.

12. Most of the Tabloid Stories About the DPRK Are Utterly False

There were probably at least one hundred Americans in Pyongyang at the same time as me, due in large part to foreign amateur runners being allowed to compete for the first time in the marathon. One couple testified how this was their second visit after having traveled to DPRK the year before. They mentioned how they were a bit scared to come the previous time, because it was right after a story had hit the news about Kim Jong Un having had his ex-girlfriend and others killed for making a porn tape. The couple talked about how they walked into an Opera in Pyongyang, and as they sat down noticed that the very women who were supposed to be dead were sitting directly across from them. Walking dead, indeed! Other recent stories to hit the western press via South Korean tabloids regarding mass executions in stadiums or Kim Jong Un’s uncle being fed to a pack of hungry dogs are also said to be non-sense by westerners who travel there frequently and know the country’s situation well. This isn’t to say anything about the existence of political re-education camps or prisons, but an all-out demonization campaign against the country that completely distorts it is of no service to the Korean people.

13. Koreans Will Not Hesitate To Make You Join In Their Fun

There were a number of events organized in Pyongyang on the occasion of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, which is a national holiday where people have two days off of work. Some of these were publically organized, like the “mass dances” where hundreds of people dance in large squares to popular Korean songs. Others involved people in the park having family lunches while the kids bought ice cream from vendors and drunk grannies danced hilariously because they had far too much home-made soju. But, just like in any authoritarian state, you must participate! Being shy is not an option, as they will pull you by the arm and teach you every dance move even if they themselves are not quite doing it correctly.

In short, I found the Korean people in the north to be some of the warmest, most authentic human beings I’ve ever had the chance to interact with. It would be silly to refer to the country as a “workers’ paradise” due to the depth of problems it faces. As in all societies, there are positive aspects and negative ones. However, considering that they have overcome centuries of imperial domination, the loss of about a quarter of their population in the Korean War, and continue to maintain their social system in the face of a continued state of war, they have done tremendously well. The accomplishments in free education through university, the non-existence of homelessness, and a proud and dignified people should be presented in order to gain a fuller, more nuanced picture of the country.

I must say that the way that the DPRK is portrayed in the western bourgeois media actually says a great deal more about the effectiveness of our propaganda apparatuses and brainwashing techniques than it does about theirs. The fact that I even have to write about the surprising things I witnessed in DPRK is evidence of the serious lack of understanding we have about the country. The problems facing Korea are never contexualized as they should be – as an oppressed nation aiming to free itself from servitude to big powers intent on gobbling up every remaining state free from a dying unipolarity.

Oh, and I almost forgot about nuclear weapons! Well, let’s consider if the North Korean military was holding military drills annually off the coast of New York that simulated the carpet bombing of Manhattan and the occupation of the entirety of the country, of which they already controlled the western half. Would it not be sensible given that context for Americans to develop a nuclear deterrent? The Koreans are not war hungry or even “obsessed” with the army or military. However, given the way that the situation in Libya played out, they are all the more convinced – rightfully so – that the only reason their independent state continues to stand is due to the Songun (“military first” policy) and the existence of nuclear capabilities. To be sure, they have no intention of using it unless put in that position to have to do so.

It is my sincere desire that there will be continued cultural and people-to-people exchanges in the near future between people from the DPRK and the western countries. Pretty much all of the people who traveled with me back to Beijing were in awe of just how different their experience was compared to what they had expected. They – like myself – gained a great deal from the humanizing experience of interacting with Koreans. Although westerners are relatively free to travel much more so than DPRK citizens, it’s ironic how the Koreans seemingly know a great deal more about us than we know about them. That will need to change in the years to come.

Are we witnessing the end of the myth of Western classicism? By this I mean the myth that ancient Greece, with its philosophers, drama, art, culture and pretence at democracy, is the foundation of ‘Western’ – that is, European – culture. The efforts by many of the north-western European powers to force Greece out of the Eurozone and the European Union suggest that we may well be seeing the end of that myth.

Slightly less than two hundred years ago, ancient Greece entered forcefully into the Western European consciousness. In 1823 Greece began fighting for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Support in Western Europe was widespread and enthusiastic. By 1827, the Ottoman fleet was destroyed at Navarino. Greece became autonomous and independent, which for many Europeans was Greece’s ‘natural’ status. In Western Europe, people of all manner of persuasions supported Greece’s inclusion in Europe: Christians, political liberals and left-wingers, conservatives and even new humanists. Greece stood at the border of civilised Europe and the barbarous Orient, so it was crucial to claim that it was part of a vibrant and advanced Europe. No longer were ancient Egypt, India and China the embodiments of power, wealth and wisdom.

The elevation of all things Greek was spectacular. What had been a trickle became a flood. As custodians of ancient Greece, the modern Greeks embodied ‘progress’ in terms of freedom, harmony, individualism and the role of reason, and they provided the sources of philosophy, drama, the arts, politics and the ideal of the human form. Philhellenes abounded, especially in Germany, where Greece was regarded as the true source of all that was good in the world. Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Friedrich August Wolf may have been precursors in the later eighteenth century, but by the nineteenth century Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, the Humboldts and Hegel all proclaimed the greatness of Greece. For Hegel, only in ancient Greece had human society begun ‘to live in its homeland’ (The Philosophy of History, 1837, p. 247). Or as Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, an early sociologist, wrote in Kulturgeschichtliche Charakterkopfe (1891) concerning his recollections of life in a German gymnasium of the time:

We regarded Greece as our second homeland; for it was the seat of all nobility of thought and feeling, the home of harmonious humanity. Yes, we even thought that ancient Greece belonged to Germany because, of all the modern peoples, the Germans had developed the deepest understanding of the Hellenic spirit, of Hellenic art, and of the harmonious Hellenic way of life.

How things have changed. A couple of centuries ago, a Western Europe conscious of its new global power needed a dynamic new model that was in some way European. The classical Greeks provided that image: youthful, energetic, progressive, even ‘democratic’ (although this took longer to emerge). The ‘Classics’ became the core requirements for educating the ruling class, providing a cultural framework that had its own codes and signals. Plato occupied the chair in many philosophy departments, with Aristotle his understudy. Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes found similar locations in drama departments. Pericles and Athenian democracy became the darlings of political science. All of them seemed very much present, interlocutors in current debates.

Now Greece is a pariah. For north-western Europeans in our time, Greece is the embodiment of ‘southern laziness’. Their culture is chaotic; they cannot manage their finances; they allow all those dreadful Africans into Europe; they are too close to Turkey and the turmoil of the Middle East. So for the last five years, they have been punished with ‘austerity’ measures, administered by European banks, funds and politicians. At the forefront is Germany, which has had a profound change of heart. And when the Greeks elected a mildly left-wing government, led by Syriza, the grey bureaucrats of the European Union felt called upon to punish Greece even further. How dare they vote against austerity measures! They will be brought to heel. So each time the government of Tsipras caves in and agrees to the latest round of measures, the EU manipulators raise the bar.

Indeed, it has become clear that a hard-core majority of European states want to push Greece out of the Eurozone, out of the European Union, and thereby out of Europe. They keep proposing measures that Greeks can hardly accept. The tragedy in all of this is that many Greeks have internalised the myth of the Greek origins of Europe. While they oppose the crippling austerity measures, they overwhelmingly wish to remain part of Europe. Indeed, they cannot imagine that the rest of Europe would banish them. Or rather, they respond with disbelief that north-western Europe should wish to do so. In light of this situation, it may well be that for the time being the government caves in to the latest and even harsher measures. But this will be yet another step in the process of banishing Greece.

The symbolism is powerful. The fount of Western civilisation is now being stripped of that mythical honour. It may have enjoyed this status for a couple of centuries, but it is fading fast. But this raises a problem: who or what will become the new basis? Will it be a revamped Aryan myth? Not so long ago, this myth was expressed in terms of the Indo-European hypothesis. The problem with the hypothesis is that it included the Greeks. But another strain has always argued that human civilisation began not in the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle East, not even among the Mediterranean peoples, but in northern latitudes. Will this become the dominant myth of north-western Europe as it demonises anyone from southern or eastern Europe – especially Greece?

This is one I am watching now, dreaming of cycle touring in China in coming years. It is about six retired people, from Guangzhou, who ride more than 3,000 km from north-west China and into Tibet, passing through lhasa and then to Everest base camp. The film is called ‘Across the Plateau‘.

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