Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Power of Language (and Self-Delusion)

North Korean rallies have always been
 more Red Square than Third Reich
BBC reporter John Sweeney's highly controversial Panorama report, North Korea Undercover, proved to be a bit of a damp squib in the end.

This is not ground-breaking footage of the country's mysterious hinterland or the ever-expanding Gulag described in the bestselling Escape from Camp 14, where "babies are born to be slaves".

Instead, it is just another semi-covert recording of the standard Potemkin tour of monuments, memorials and public works projects which visitors to the Hermit Kingdom always receive.  A write-up of this surreal experience had already been ably penned by the notorious Peter Hitchens; folk devil to the Left and terror to Tories.

(In fact, Mr Sweeney seemed to ape Mr Hitchens very closely on occasion, even down to a roguish request for a copy of Orwell's 1984 at the Grand People's Study Centre.)

One striking innovation, however, was the early claim that this last great Marxist bastion is not a relic of the revolutionary Left at its 20th century worst, but "a far-right state; an ultra-nationalist state".

Many see North Korea as a communist state.  One year ago, [portraits of] Marx and Lenin still had pride of place [in Pyongyang's main square].  But this year, on our trip, they've gone. ... So what sort of system is this?

Professor Brian Myers, a contributing editor to the studiously left-wing magazine The Atlantic, justifies the characterisation of the DPRK as "far-right" with reference to the fact that it has more men under arms than Hitler's Germany or Mussolini's Italy prior to the Second World War.

Where does this notion that large standing armies are exclusive to (or indicative of) right-wing regimes come from, though? Pronounced, strident militarism is a more or less universal feature in communist states; from the combat fatigues of the Castros to the parades of the People's Liberation Army.

John Everard, Britain's ambassador in Pyongyang from 2006-2008, is used to buttress Professor Myers's argument.  The late Kim Jong-il, he asserts, "was an unabashed admirer of Hitler and copied him quite consciously, down to details like the Nuremberg marches, which are staged in Pyongyang to this day."

The Dear Leader's true role models came from
places closer to home than Austria
How Mr Everard formed his impression is left unclear.  The ex-ambassador had previously acknowledged in a Korea Economic Institute podcast that contact with the North's leadership was well above his pay grade.  Whatever Kim Jong-il may or may not have felt about the Führer, however, it was the "Mao suit" made famous by the founder of the Chinese People's Republic he was always careful to be seen in, not a German greatcoat.

The Numeremberg connection is even more tenuous.  Vladimir Lenin institutionalised mass marches and rallies before Adolf Hitler was ever heard of, and they have long been used as tools of control and power projection in communist states.

The Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceaușescu famously met his end after losing conrol of a rally in 1989.  The Kims' paymasters in the People's Republic of China have been more successful, holding a particularly extravagant one for their state's 60th anniversay four years ago.

Curiously, Mr Everard had previously described North Korea as having been "created by Soviet Army officers".  It was the men of the Red Army, not the Waffen SS, who took Kim Jong-il's father and "built [him] into a leader, [and] when they found that he commanded insufficient public respect, they built up around him a Stalinist cult of personality so that the country ended up being ruled by a god-king".

This brings us back to the portraits of Marx and Lenin.  Their (very recent) disappearance co-incided with the removal of a third portrait.  This one depicted North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung, the Great Leader who continues in the office of Eternal President within a glass coffin, modeled after the ones in which the corpses of Lenin and Stalin — his patron — were preserved.        

Mr Sweeney does not infer from this that Kim Il-sung's influence is at an end.  Indeed, he is at pains to stress the continuing importance of the deceased's cult of personality.  It seems more than likely that the removal of the three portraits was simply an aesthetic decision, with no wider significance.

In truth, however, it has never been common for foreign communists to be used in the propaganda of the DPRK.  It would run contrary to the spirit of Juche, the rather poorly understood governing ideology of North Korea adapted from the Soviet brand of communism by Kim il-Sung.

This is best summed up in the following passage from the Great Leader's seminal 1955 speech On eliminating dogmatism and formalism and establishing Juche in ideological work:

[T]he form of our government should ... be fitted to the specific conditions of our country.   Does our people's power have exactly the same form as in other socialist countries?  No, it does not.  They are alike in that they are based on Marxist-Leninist principles, but their forms are different. ... Many comrades swallow Marxism-Leninism whole, instead of digesting and assimilating it.  It is therefore self-evident that they are unable to display revolutionary initiative. ... Marxism-Leninism is not a dogma, it is a guide to action and a creative theory.  So, Marxism-Leninism can display its indestructible vitality only when it is applied creatively to suit the specific conditions of each country. 

In short, Kim il-Sung believed that his Propaganda Department was too slavish in its imitation of the USSR and Maoist China.  It would promote Soviet Five-Year Plans and hang paintings of Siberian landscapes, while local strategies and familiar scenery went neglected.  He warned that if Koreans were not taught to admire their own leaders, educated in the history of their own revolution and inspired with an affection for their own particular homeland, the Party would not be able to carry them with it.  

"If we mechanically apply foreign experience," he said, "disregarding the history of our country and the traditions of our people and without taking account of our own realities and level of preparedness of our people, dogmatic errors will result and much harm will be done to the revolutionary cause."

"To do so is not fidelity to Marxism-Leninism nor to internationalism; it runs counter to them."

So, was it failure on the part of Professor Myers and Mr Sweeney to appreciate these subtleties of Juche that explains their mischaracterisation of the DPRK as an "ultra-nationalist", "far-right" state?

I suspect not.  It seems instead to be a consequence of the peculiar tendency of those with left-wing sensibilities disavow any regime with negative attributes.  They use the Right as a sort of political dumping ground, into which they can deposit mercenary, laissez-faire capitalists, intolerant religious fanatics and atheistic totalitarians alike, despite their having nothing in common besides their obvious wickedness.

This control of the Left over political terminology is incredibly powerful.  It leaves the public with the impression that the Right is defined solely by aggression, bigotry, dictatorship and selfishness.  The widespread delusion that state socialism is "a good idea — in principle" has thus survived the depredations of  its practical application in a way that fascism has not, because people like Mr Sweeney can always rationalise that far-left regimes like North Korea's are not really left-wing.

Some on the Right have begun to resist this paradigm, thankfully: Lord Tebbit has pointed out the absurdity of the BBC describing of hardline Marxists within the Chinese Communist Party as "conservative".  Daniel Hannan has explained how the BNP's advocacy of state-ownership of industry and hatred of "banksters" makes it far-left, not far-right 
— and their leader agrees:

And what of that terrible exemplar of right-wing extremism, the National Socialist German Workers' Party?

One suspects that conservatives in the cast of Edmund Burke would reject its one-party dictatorship and its revolutionary character.  Modern libertarians, meanwhile, might take issue with its anti-capitalism and maintenance of strict gun control laws.

Perhaps it is significant that Sir Oswald Mosley progressed from Conservative backbencher to Labour Party minister before blossoming into leader of the British Union of Fascists?


For a more in-depth, rough-and-ready undercover documentary than Panorama's, try VICE Media's Inside North Korea:

Eagle-eyed viewers will notice in one of the videos that, somehow or other, North Korea has been penetrated by Teletubbies merchandise.  Clearly, there are some Western evils even the Bamboo Curtain is not proof against.

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