As I read through History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), commonly known as the Short Course, I am increasingly intrigued by the genre of communist historiography. This was the first time a communist party was in power and had the power to write a history. Examples of course continue today, but this first effort is most intriguing. Earlier, Stalin had already begun commenting on efforts to write such histories, giving advice to the writing teams. For instance:

Without these explanations the struggle between factions and contradictions in the history of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R., would appear to be merely the facts of an incomprehensible dispute and the Bolsheviks to be incorrigible and tireless quibblers and scrappers (Works, col. 14, p. 299).

As one would expect, these accounts are usually dismissed as ‘ideologically driven’, but that dismissal misses the unique shape the genre first took and has taken since.

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.


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

Many are the reasons as to why one would want to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For some it is way off the ‘beaten track’. The fact that many people think you cannot travel to the place at all reinforces this sense. For some it provides a window into what the communist countries of Eastern Europe might have been like before 1989. Indeed, the tourist companies trade on this desire, offering Soviet architecture tours or plane tours in which you fly with Air Koryo’s fleet of Tupolevs. For some it is an effort at reinforcing their own ‘world’, to remind themselves of how ‘bad’ socialism really is and why capitalism is far ‘better’. For some it is a genuine desire to see what this form of socialism looks like, even to the point of sympathising with the sheer effort of maintaining the system. For these people, it is extraordinary that the DPRK has survived for almost seventy years.

For some, however, it is the appeal of what I would like to call ‘communist mystery’. By this I mean the profound sense that the DPRK is keeping much hidden from public scrutiny. More than once has the ancient foreigner’s title of Korea as the ‘hermit kingdom’ been used for the north. Indeed, whole projects exist – sponsored by the limited ‘intelligence’ services of countries such the United States – to try and find out what is happening in the DPRK. Most of that is pure speculation, since they really cannot find out all that much. Foreign journalists are forbidden to enter the country and one is not permitted to take in any GPS device. Add to this the fact that the telephone networks do not connect internationally, and that there is a separate phone network for foreigners who visit the country. The two networks do not connect with one another. And the DPRK’s computer systems also remain internal, without connection (mostly) to the wider internet. A visitor is therefore ‘off the grid’ when visiting the place.

This mystery, of course, generates a desire by some visitors to act as pseudo-journalists, attempting to find out about what is being kept hidden. It may take the form of trying to photograph items they think they are not supposed to photograph, or of ducking off from a tour group for a few minutes to see what might be seen. But let me give two examples.

When travelling the metro system, one is told not to photograph the metro tunnels. You may photograph anything else – people, metro cars, the glorious artwork in the stations, one another – but not the tunnels. So of course one or two try to photograph the tunnels. Who knows, they may hold some secret weapon stash, or some underground laboratories, or whatever. But as soon as the photographs are taken, a platform attendant immediately walks up, calls to a guide and demands that the photograph be deleted. This only exacerbates the mystery. I happened to be standing next to one such culprit when the deletion took place. The photograph merely contained a black space, with nothing to see. But the fact that you could not take a photograph of black space meant that it much conceal something.

The other example is the fabled ‘fifth floor’ of the Yonggakdo Hotel, one of the hotels where many visitors stay. The lifts skip by the fifth floor, jumping from four to six. And if one has bothered to check the internet, then stories abound of the mysteries of the fifth floor (check google or youtube). Many are speculations: here the guides are kept under guard so as not to be corrupted by foreigners; here is equipment to spy on visitors; here is a crack military squad ready to deal with any problem. To add to the mystery, occasionally a guard may appear and sternly demand that you depart. In our group, a few tried to get to the fifth floor by the stairs. One or two even managed a photograph. What did they reveal? Some pipes, perhaps a door or a wall or a corridor. And of course rooms with doors. Nothing else.

That is the point: nothing is there. The Koreans are very good at creating the impression that something is there, hidden from prying eyes. I suspect that they have created such zones precisely to maintain the mystery, for it appeals immensely to some foreigners, especially of the bleeding heart liberal type. Nothing actually exists in the metro tunnels except tracks for the trains. And nothing is to be found on the fifth floor of the hotel, except rooms and a possible guard to tell you not to enter. After all, if there really was something to hide, why have stairs with a door that opens on the fifth floor, or why have a ‘secret lift’ that visitors can actually use to get close to the fifth floor?

Let the mystery continue, for it keeps some visitors coming.

Most would hold that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) bans religion of all sorts, indeed that it has become a truly atheistic state. However, the various constitutions (1948, 1972, 1992) guarantee freedom of religion and non-religion. It may seem that such statements are not worth the paper on which they are written, but let us look at some facts.

To begin with, the local Chondoism – or ‘Religion of the Heavenly Way’ – is recognised and in fact favoured by the government. Based on the teachings of Choe Je-u (1824-1864), it melds Confucian influences and local religious traditions. It inspired the Donghak Peasant Revolution of 1894 and is seen by the current government as a revolutionary and thereby anti-imperialist movement. In an echo that will be familiar to many, this religion is characterised as minjung or ‘popular’. It has about 2.8 million adherents and 800 places of worship, and is led by Ryu Mi Yong, who ‘defected’ from south to north. Indeed, they even have a political party, called the Chondoist Chongu Party, or The Party of the Young Friends of the Heavenly Way.

But what about Christianity? Surely it is severely repressed. To be sure, its fortunes have been varied and its appeal has never been very strong. However, I am most intrigued by an article by Dae Young Ryu, ‘Fresh Wineskins for New Wine: A New Perspective on North Korean Christianity’, Journal of Church and State 48 (2006), pp. 659-75. It begins by noting a new openness of Christianity in the 1980s, with new churches built, a strengthened Protestant theological college in Pyongyang, and an increase in worshippers, now put at about 12,000. (This does not of course include foreign evangelical missionaries, who seem to want to spoil the party).

Is this a recent phenomenon, especially since the government itself has constructed the new churches? Not according to Ryu. He suggests it has a much longer history, going back to Christians of the 1950s who opted for Marxism-Leninism and supported the leadership of Kim Il-sung. This development is even more remarkable, since it took place in a context where Christianity was widely viewed as an imperialist, American phenomenon. Indeed, evidence indicates that the government tolerated about 200 pro-communist Christian churches during the 1960s. He writes:

Contrary to the common western view, it appears that North Korean leaders exhibited toleration to Christians who were supportive of Kim II Sung and his version of socialism. Presbyterian minister Gang Ryang Uk served as vice president of the DPRK from 1972 until his death in 1982, and Kim Chang Jun, an ordained Methodist minister, became vice chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly. They were buried in the exalted Patriots’ Cemetery, and many other church leaders received national honors and medals. It appears that the government allowed the house churches in recognition of Christians’ contribution to the building of the socialist nation (p. 673).

From this background, the role of the Korean Federation of Christians (a DPRK organisation) makes some sense. They established the Pyongyang theological college in 1972, published Bible translations and a hymnal in 1983, and oversaw the building of three new churches in 1988 with state funds. In all, five churches now exist in Pyongyang: three Protestant, one Roman Catholic and one Russian Orthodox (completed with state funds in 2006). The rise in numbers worshipping is attributed to the active search for Christians who are now enabled to worship openly. Even more, the Federation of Christians was crucial in enabling massive amounts of foreign aid into the north during the economic difficulties of the 1990s. Ryu writes that the ‘Federation has successfully established itself as a valuable organization that works for the greater good of North Korean society’.


Above all, the Federation has been actively working with the south on a consistent campaign for reunification. Given that this is state policy in the north, it should be no surprise that the Federation has been seen in a positive light. Recently, on 15 August 2014, a worship service was held in Bongsu Protestant Church in Pyongyang, with prayers for peace and reunification. It was organised by the National Council of Churches of Korea (from the south) and the Korean Federation of Christians (from the north).

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DPR Korea, Pyongyang. 18 Oct. 2009 Visit to Bongsu Church with Secretary General Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia.

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‘Brazen American imperialist aggressors’ – this is perhaps my favourite phrase from my first visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It appeared in a video shown at the museum of the Korean War. The video set out an alternative narrative, producing select pieces of evidence to show that the occupying US forces in the south had instigated the Korean War. Of course, each side in a conflict has its own narrative. The catch is that the US version has dominated accounts for the last 60 years, while that of the DPRK has not had the same privilege.

I was with a group of 20 people, all of us visiting the DPRK for the first time. They came from various countries in Europe, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. In fact, one third of the group were Australians. Koryo Tours, based in Beijing, organised the tour, in conjunction with the Korean International Tourism Company based in the DPRK. We had one guide from Koryo and three from the Korean company. More details of that in another story, but I was struck by how many visitors come to the DPRK. Asking further, I was told by one of the guides with whom I had many discussions that more than 10,000 foreigners visit the north every year. Even more, many Koreans from the north travel internationally, mainly for study and business.

Our itinerary was packed from dawn to after dusk, with many sites visited in Pyongyang and then a trip along a bumpy road to Kaesong and the demilitarised zone between north and south. On the way, we often heard variations on my favourite phrase: ‘American imperialists’; ‘US aggressors’; ‘American colonisers’; ‘US occupation’. Some of the group became a little weary of the constant reiteration, preferring not to be reminded of the 70,000 US soldiers in the south, let alone the massive amount of military hardware and thousands of nuclear weapons.IMG_7412 (2) (320x203)

But the demilitarised zone itself was a real eye-opener. We were shown the place where the armistice was signed in 1953, the villages and farmers who live in the zone, and then taken to the 38th parallel. Here the feel was quite relaxed, with a smiling soldier telling us about the current situation and openly flirting with some of the women. We were free to photograph and joke.

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Looking out over the temporary border, we saw ten DPRK soldiers standing guard on one side. No foreign soldiers were present. However, on the other side only a couple of South Korean soldiers could be seen. The rest were clearly American soldiers. One soldier photographed us with a powerful lens as we photographed them all. But then, a small tour group from the other side appeared. They were led not by civilians, not by South Koreans, but by yet more swaggering US soldiers. Indeed, there were almost as many American GIs present as there were people in the group.

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The response in our group was palpable. They were clearly annoyed at the presence of so many American soldiers. Many spoke of the swagger, the arrogance of telling others what to do, the intervention in other countries. It seemed as though they had realised that the brazen imperialist aggressors were indeed present.

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