CLASSIC DALRYMPLE: The Wilder Shores of Marx, excerpt (1991)

In 1989 Theodore Dalrymple managed to join up with a group of British communists on its way to the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students in North Korea:

The British ‘delegation’ was fixed at 100 and I was accepted as a member because, though neither a youth nor a student, I was a doctor who had practiced in Tanzania, a country whose first President, Julius Nyerere, was a close friend and admirer of Kim Il Sung, Great Leader of DPRK (as the country is known to cognoscenti). It was therefore assumed I was in sympathy with what was sometimes called, rather vaguely, ‘the movement’.

The ensuing trip, one of five to communist holdouts in 1988 and 1989, was recounted in his 1991 book The Wilder Shores of Marx (published in the U.S. as Utopias Elsewhere). Throughout two weeks in July of 1989 Dalrymple witnessed an imprisoned nation, attended a mass rally addressed by Kim Jong-Il, and was transfixed by what he saw at Pyongyang Department Store Number 1…

I went several times during the festival to Pyongyang Department Store Number 1. This is in the very centre of the city. Its shelves and counters were groaning with locally produced goods, piled into impressive pyramids or in fan-like displays, perfectly arranged, throughout the several floors of the building. On the ground floor was a wide variety of tinned foods, hardware and alcoholic drinks, including a strong Korean liqueur with a whole snake pickled or marinated in the bottle, presumably as an aphrodisiac. Everything glittered with perfection, the tidiness was remarkable.

It didn’t take long to discover that this was no ordinary department store. It was filled with thousands of people, going up and down the escalators, standing at the corners, going in and out of the front entrance in a constant stream both ways – yet nothing was being bought or sold. I checked this by standing at the entrance for half an hour. The people coming out were carrying no more than the people entering. Their shopping bags contained as much, or as little, when they left as when they entered. In some cases, I recognised people coming out as those who had gone in a few minutes before, only to see them re-entering the store almost immediately. And I watched a hardware counter for fifteen minutes. There were perhaps twenty people standing at it; there were two assistants behind the counter, but they paid no attention to the ‘customers’. The latter and the assistants stared past each other in a straight line, neither moving nor speaking.

Eventually, they grew uncomfortably aware that they were under my observation. They began to shuffle their feet and wriggle, as if my regard pinned them like live insects to a board. The assistants too became restless and began to wonder what to do in these unforeseen circumstances. They decided that there was nothing for it but to distribute something under the eyes of this inquisitive foreigner. And so, all of a sudden, they started to hand out plastic wash bowls to the twenty ‘customers’, who took them (without any pretence of payment). Was it their good luck, then? Had they received something for nothing? No, their problems had just begun. What were they to do with their plastic wash bowls? (All of them were brown incidentally, for the assistants did not have sufficient initiative to distribute a variety of goods to give verisimilitude to the performance, not even to the extent of giving out differently coloured bowls.)

They milled around the counter in a bewildered fashion, clutching their bowls in one hand as if they were hats they had just doffed in the presence of a master. Some took them to the counter opposite to hand them in; some just waited until I had gone away. I would have taken a photograph, but I remembered just in time that these people were not participating in this charade from choice, that they were victims, and that – despite their expressionless faces and lack of animation – they were men with chajusong, that is to say creativity and consciousness, and to have photographed them would only have added to their degradation. I left the hardware counter, but returned briefly a little later: the same people were standing at it, sans brown plastic bowls, which were neatly re-piled on the shelf.

I also followed a few people around at random, as discreetly as I could. Some were occupied in ceaselessly going up and down the escalators; others wandered from counter to counter, spending a few minutes at each before moving on. They did not inspect the merchandise; they moved as listlessly as illiterates might, condemned to spend the day among the shelves of a library. I did not know whether to laugh or explode with anger or weep. But I knew I was seeing one of the most extraordinary sights of the twentieth century.

I decided to buy something – a fountain pen. I went to the counter where pens were displayed like the fan of a peacock’s tail. They were no more for sale than the Eiffel Tower. As I handed over my money, a crowd gathered round, for once showing signs of animation. I knew, of course, that I could not be refused: if I were, the game would be given away completely. And so the crowd watched goggle-eyed and disbelieving as this astonishing transaction took place: I gave the assistant a piece of paper and she gave me a pen.

The pen, as it transpired, was of the very worst quality. Its rubber for the ink was so thin that it would have perished immediately on contact with ink. The metal plunger was already rusted; the plastic casing was so brittle that the slightest pressure cracked it. And the box in which it came was of absorbent cardboard, through whose fibres the ink of the printing ran like capillaries on the cheeks of a drunk.

At just before four o’clock, on two occasions, I witnessed the payment of the shoppers. An enormous queue formed at the cosmetics and toiletries counter and there everyone, man and woman, received the same little palette of rouge, despite the great variety of goods on display. Many of them walked away somewhat bemused, examining the rouge uncomprehendingly. At another counter I saw a similar queue receiving a pair of socks, all brown like the plastic bowls. The socks, however, were for keeps. After payment, a new shift of Potemkin shoppers arrived.

The Department Store Number 1 was so extraordinary that I had to talk to someone about it. But the young communist from Glasgow to whom I described it simply exclaimed: ‘So what! Plenty of people go to Harrods without buying anything, just to look.’ Nevertheless, I returned twice to Department Store Number 1 because, in my opinion, it had as many layers of meaning as a great novel, and every time one visited it one realised – as on re-reading Dickens or Tolstoy – that one had missed something from the time before.

Department Store Number 1 was a tacit admission of the desirability of an abundance of material goods, consumption of which was very much a proper goal of mankind. Such an admission of the obvious would not have been in any way remarkable were it not that socialists so frequently deny it, criticising liberal capitalist democracy because of its wastefulness and its inculcation of artificial desires in its citizens, thereby obscuring their ‘true’ interests. By stocking Department Store Number 1 with as many goods as they could find, in order to impress foreign visitors, the North Koreans admitted that material plenty was morally preferable to shortage, and that scarcity was not a sign of abstemious virtue; rather it was proof of economic inefficiency. Choice, even in small matters, gives meaning to life. However well fed, however comfortable modern man might be without it, he demands choice as a right, not because it is economically superior, but as an end in itself. By pretending to offer it, the North Koreans acknowledged as much; and in doing so, recognised that they were consciously committed to the denial of what everyone wants.

But the most sombre reflection occasioned by Department Store Number 1 is that concerning the nature of the power that can command thousands of citizens to take part in a huge and deceitful performance, not once but day after day, without any of the performers ever indicating by even the faintest sign that he is aware of its deceitfulness, though it is impossible that he should not be aware of it. One might almost ascribe a macabre and sadistic sense of humour to the power, insofar as the performance it commands bears the maximum dissimilarity to the real experience and conditions of life of the performers. It is as if the director of a leper colony commanded the enactment of a beauty contest – something one might expect to see in, say, a psychologically depraved surrealist film. But this is no joke, and the humiliation it visits upon the people who take part in it, far from being a drawback, is an essential benefit to the power; for slaves who must participate in their own enslavement by signalling to others the happiness of their condition are so humiliated that they are unlikely to rebel.

Copyright 1991 Anthony Daniels. Reprinted with permission.

NOTE: Monday Books has made this book available on iTunes and Amazon as an e-book at a very generous (to you) price. There is so much more of interest in the book than this story. Read how Dalrymple gets arrested and struck with truncheons for photographing an anti-government demonstration in Albania, smuggles banned books to dissidents in the Romania of the Ceaucescu era, and much else.

30 thoughts on “CLASSIC DALRYMPLE: The Wilder Shores of Marx, excerpt (1991)

  1. David Barker

    Nice idea to make this older material available. This is probably my favourite section from my favourite Daniels (as opposed to Dalrymple) book. Excellent choice!

  2. JG

    Fascinating. I have heard/read similar stories about “special” foreigners visits to the the former USSR. Just imagine the orchestration necessary to shuffle people about the store in a vein attempt to keep up appearances.

    Also fascinating is only 20 some odd years have passed. And likely little has changed, likely the circumstances that those living there find themselves is only that much worse.

    By the way, way to go, now I have another book to read. It’s immediately number 2 on my list.

  3. Marion Brown

    This is a sad article. Actually, I don’t much like it as it smacks of a sense of self-righteousness and smug superiority on the part of the Englishman writing it. I muse, we will probably see the likes of it here in the future US of A somewhere down the road but what I don’t visualize is a “stong man” like Kim il Jong becoming our Head of State. We have become a nation of wimps. As I wrote, it is a sad article…makes my head hurt to think about it.

  4. Emma

    I must disagree with Marion Brown”s comments. Sad, I am not sure that I would term this sad as the Capitalist system has also the extreme responses on a larger scale.

    Self-righteousness and smug superiority, definitely not.

    Theodore Dalrymple has contributed to the literature world in order to share his experiences and also create a thinking body of people who then in turn discuss and debate his writing. To this he has achieved respect and yes, not entirely agreeable with his political and personal status, yet I have, as a result devoted a large amount of time studying the two extremes of capitalism and communism and guess what, there is little difference. Both provide a facade to gain control by few, one under the disguise of state wealth and one under individual wealth. When we consider violence of human rights, again the opposite approach occurs, communism appears to select a few for the shock element and capitalism select mass. Somewhere we do have democratic foundations in both systems, so where have they gone wrong? I suspect human greed to control and exercise power over others at both a micro and macro level. This does not suggest I have exercised or represent my persona convictions and or political stance. I continue to explore and reinforce tolerance and hope for a balance world that is based on human rights.

    Thank you for the opportunity to participate and I do look forward to further article based on the writings of this robust, dynamic human being.

  5. Damo

    You read something that makes you feel uncomfortable and you take it out on the author? I could also say your post smacks of a sense of self-righteousness and smug superiority. Incidentally his written is not smug, he just writes very well.

  6. Kevin Baker

    I am reminded of something “Longshoreman Philosopher” Eric Hoffer once said in an interview:

    “…I have no grievance against intellectuals. All that I know about them is what I read in history books and what I’ve observed in our time. I’m convinced that the intellectuals as a type, as a group, are more corrupted by power than any other human type. It’s disconcerting to realize that businessmen, generals, soldiers, men of action are less corrupted by power than intellectuals.

    “In my new book I elaborate on this and I offer an explanation why. You take a conventional man of action, and he’s satisfied if you obey, eh? But not the intellectual. He doesn’t want you just to obey. He wants you to get down on your knees and praise the one who makes you love what you hate and hate what you love. In other words, whenever the intellectuals are in power, there’s soul-raping going on.”

    Dr. Daniels just described in a few pargraphs a perfect example of such soul-raping.

  7. BrendaK

    Well said. I read only astute observations, and Dalrymple displayed an obvious compassion for the people he observed.

  8. TTB

    “it smacks of a sense of self-righteousness and smug superiority on the part of the Englishman writing it.”

    He clearly wasn’t feeling superior to the poor actors in the store: He explicitly said he refused to photograph them because it would increase their humiliation.

    I don’t think it was a sad article at all, anymore than “Huckleberry Finn” is a racist novel. One depicts a sad situation, the other depicts racism.

    A “a sense of smug superiority” to Communists, both the British and the North Korean? I certainly hope so. All any rational person need do to see the superiority of relative liberty is to compare Department Store Number 1 with Harrods, or Sears, or Macy’s. Or North Korea to Britain, Canada, or the US.

    What human happiness does Communism produce? The joy of crushing the human spirit? The ecstasy of oppressing others? The delight of starvation?

  9. Adam

    I’m not sure for whom to feel the greatest sadness – the tortured souls of North Korea or the young communist from Glasgow. At least the North Koreans knew they were perpetuating a ruse that 2 plus 2 equals 5; the Scotsman actually believed it.

  10. Dudebro

    Great, an objetivist dissing intellectuals, what’s next? Nazis vs the KKK? go back to reading some of ayn’s TL;DR landfill material pal.

    And “man of action”? have you even been on the military?

    1. Gtwreck

      You have a pretty narrow view of men of action. The military is not the only place you find men of action. Do try to get a wider viewpoint.

  11. Dudebro

    He’s probably a hedge fund manager now, most of these europeans “communists” are all talk and no show, they pretend to believe in the cause but at the end of the day they don’t like the “proletariat experience” and go back to the country club.

    Did you know the richest woman in Spain is a communist? the least she could do was donate most of her money, but no sir, in fact thanks to her nobility title she pays less taxes than the “awful” capitalist pigs.

    Stranger than fiction indeed.

    1. TTB

      Oh, but it most certainly was communism.

      Real world communism, not the beautiful world predicted by Marx. The real world resulting from all power in the hands of the few in a system in which power freaks naturally strive to the top. Real world communism, a world not of peace, prosperity, and freedom, but of conflict, famine, and oppression.

      Scientific Marxism is a fraud: every real world experiment has failed to produce the predicted results. Every real world experiment has resulted in calamity for the proletariat. Yet the anti-scientific scientific Marxists continue to bleat that REAL Marxism has never been tried, because they know that if it had been, the result would have been beautiful. The results were never beautiful, therefore real marxism was never tried.

      So scientific.

  12. Shishir

    LOL, it never is indeed and there will never ceases lame apologists like Rizk for every totalitarian systems out there- thats not real Nazism,real Islam(ism),real fascism,real Hutu racial supremacism etc etc etc each tailored to the specific audience in mind.

    What I find amazing is how much PC group think has affected even the most virulent of bigots.I remember responding to a commentator on a blog sympathetic to white nationalists by calling him an anti semite because he believed that Jews were behind pretty much all that was wrong with the modern world and that Israel was most cruel and despicable nation on earth.
    His response of righteous indignation- he claimed he was not an anti Semite.He actually pulled the “my best friends are Jews” card.

  13. Shishir

    You are an angry man! Why cant an intellectual be mindful of the negative aspects of his type especially since they were responsible for most of the misery in the 20th century.

    what’s next? Nazis vs the KKK?”

    Indeed there are a lot of differences between the Nazis and the KKK.For one the KKK initially wasnt anti Semitic ,the Confederecy had no issues with Jews -there were many Jewish generals and even a Secretary of State (Judah Benjamin) and there main focus was on terrorising and disenfranchising free blacks in the aftermath of the Civil War
    The new KKK ,after the first one was crushed by the federal government was regenerated ,one of the catalysts was DW Griffiths KKK apologist film Birth of a Nation.
    Now the KKK came to exclude and terrorize Catholics as well!
    However they were always regional and had a Southern focus.

    While the Nazis were always genocidal maniacs bent on world domination and had the resources to achieve it.

    The only similarity between both now is that they are(thankfully) irrelevant.

    Theodore Dalrymple is very critical of Ayn Rand and doesnt care much for most of her philosophy or her personality(which seems to be very unpleasant and tyrannical ironically)

    What do the posters opinion have anything to do with whether he has been in the military?

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