Published April 4, 1991
View at Amazon
Journeys in a Vanishing World
by Anthony Daniels
Published August 27, 1991
View at Amazon
Reviews: Arnold Beichman; National Review; October 21, 1991
Communism has always been an important theme in Anthony Daniels’ writing. His father was a belligerent Marxist, and Daniels was exposed to its tenets at an early age. He has said that the combination of his father’s professed love for humanity in the aggregate and his consistent hatred of individual humans in particular was an early signal to him that Communism was philosophically suspect. Nevertheless, Daniels read an enormous amount of Communist literature during his youth, and he has witnessed its reverberations in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere during his extensive travels, such that his understanding of its principles is surely greater than that of most of its adherents.
In 1988 he traveled throughout the Baltic Republics and filed a series of articles for the Spectator on the growing anti-Communist uprisings there. A few months later, when the collapse of the Soviet Union became apparent, he decided to investigate a few Communist holdouts out of a desire “to experience the full flavour of communist autocracy”. Throughout the next few months, he traveled to Albania, North Korea, Romania, Vietnam and Cuba, writing a chapter on each. “The Wilder Shores of Marx” was published in 1991.
Daniels’ travel writing is always fascinating. His epic journeys serve the same purpose as his extensive reading: to identify the ways in which people’s ideas determine their behavior, including their social and political arrangements. Provocative events arrive with such frequency that one marvels at their convergence around a single man. No doubt the sheer quantity of his travel is a factor. His curiosity clearly drives him to seek out the most interesting places, but his powers of discernment also enable him to find meaning and significance in events most of us would consider unremarkable. In this book his encounters with Communism’s well-known dystopian features are enough to impress, but his analysis of the psychology behind Communism ensures the book’s lasting contribution.
He sees throughout these Marxist backwaters a physical infrastructure comprising perhaps the most ugly and dehumanizing architecture known to man. The cavernous emptiness of all public spaces and the gigantism of the buildings are designed to intimidate, to belittle and to discourage insurrection by making every crowd seem small. Any pre-Communist architecture not destroyed to make way for these monstrosities is charming only because it is preserved by a lack of economic development, which also, however, ensures its eventual degradation.
What few consumer products he finds are of the very worst quality, with packaging that provides as little information as possible and that destroys all confidence in its contents. Even the material shortage of these products has its uses to the state, however, as they remind the comrade that it is only by the good grace of their leaders that they eat, and when one spends all afternoon queuing for an item that turns out to be unavailable, there is little time or energy left for revolution. Besides, isn’t the desire for consumer goods artificially created by capitalists to enslave the proletariat?
Nowhere is the dishonesty of this last belief (as well as the sheer insanity of modern North Korea) better illustrated than in Daniels’ description of his visit to the creatively-named Pyongyang Department Store Number 1. He wanders into the store without a minder and is dumbstruck by his eventual realization: the entire store is a fake. Although it is a frenzy of activity and is filled with beautifully packaged and artfully arranged consumer goods, no one is actually buying anything. Daniels watches individual “shoppers” go up and down the escalators or exit and re-enter the store in a continuous loop of simulated shopping. At the line for a cash register, cashiers and customers stare aimlessly past each other, unmoving. Under Daniels’ gaze some of them realize they are found out and cast about nervously, wondering what to do next. “I did not know whether to laugh or explode with anger or weep,” he says. “But I knew I was seeing one of the most extraordinary sights of the twentieth century.”
As fascinating as this account is, even more interesting is his explanation of its deeper significance: that it is “…a tacit admission of the desirability of an abundance of material goods, consumption of which was very much a proper goal of mankind”, something the North Koreans and other Communists have long denied. The North Koreans “recognized that they were consciously committed to the denial of what everyone wants.” Perhaps even more importantly, by forcing the desperately poor to engage in a charade of wealth, the North Korean leaders were not only mocking and humiliating them but forcing them to participate in their own humiliation, stripping away their self-respect and conditioning them to accept oppression. The same idea is at work when North Korean police are made to direct traffic that does not exist.
Daniels goes on to address other psychological features endemic to Communism, including the ceaseless propaganda, the monotonous prose and speech of Communist leaders and the nature of fascist spectacle, which he describes as “a perfect demonstration of Man as a means and not an end”. In all of these cases, his analysis is arresting and persuasive.
More than its aesthetic and material shortcomings, the greatest evil of Communism is surely its dispiriting nature. As Daniels has often noted regarding Africa, physical deprivation is bearable if people possess a sense of purpose and a source of joy in life. But what joy can people have when they are made to inform on one another, and human relationships are thus destroyed at their most fundamental level? There is no room for joy when all human activity must be directed toward the creation of the communist New Man. Visiting these countries, Daniels discovers “the vital importance of frivolity”.
In the face of such clear evidence of the evils of Communism, we should remember its seductive appeal. Its allure to non-Western leaders is easy enough to understand: it blames Western capitalism for local poverty and can be used to justify the tyranny that many leaders already crave. But of course Communism is a product of Western liberal intellectuals and remains attractive to many of them. More than anything, liberals desire complete freedom from the constraints of civil society, which they regard as unjust. Inevitably, they seek to find other, more attractive societies that demonstrate by comparison the injustice of their own. If those other societies rely on the kind of policies of individual oppression that liberals say they find so abhorrent, not to worry. Regardless of their stated views, they don’t actually want to live in those societies anyway. They want “utopias elsewhere”.
It is probably no fluke that the only avowed Communist I have ever met was an insufferably arrogant bore who, deciding to leave his native France, chose not Cuba or China but America, where he opened a nightclub in New York City, played guitar in a rock band, assembled a collection of expensive modern furniture and drove a Jaguar. Clearly, Communism’s rejection of private property was not its appeal to him. Perhaps he would claim that the implementation of Communism requires unanimity, but we know this will never exist. Until it does, he is in the very convenient position of being free to enjoy Western liberty and prosperity while appearing magnanimous for decrying its injustice.
In addition to their eagerness to criticize Western society, liberal intellectuals are squeamish about criticism of non-Western societies, since it might give the impression that their own society is really not so bad after all, and thus its constraints on individual action might be reasonable. Multiculturalism is the new excuse for diminishing the authority of Western culture, as it posits that all cultures are of equal value and that individuals should be free to choose their own society as easily as one chooses which ethnic restaurant to visit for dinner. If multiculturalism wins out, what are the chances that these intellectuals will choose to live under the kind of societies they have long been advocating?