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Counter-revolutionary and Revisionist Die on the Same Day

While people were still spilling too much ink writing peonages to a petty bourgeois essayist who, regardless of whatever skill he possessed as a stylist, will eventually be forgotten, two historically important figures died.  Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-Il are now dead; the closeness of their respective deaths is simultaneously marked by a vast political distance.  Whereas Vaclav Havel represented the aspirations of the global bourgeois class, the frenzied excitement at the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the elevation of capitalism as "the end of history", Kim Jong-Il represented the continuation of the kind of "communism" that served as a straw-person justification for victorious capitalism.  And the demonization of the latter figure, that will doubtless continue after his passing, will also serve to justify the hagiography of the former.

Indeed, expect the hagiography of Vaclav Havel to reach frenzied heights in upcoming weeks.  Although the cultural industry that thrust him into the position of "velvet revolution" hero was no longer necessary in the decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall, we will all be reminded of his importance, his bravery and self-sacrifice, in innumerable obituaries.  Doubtless, Bono will speak at his funeral and U2 will produce a chart-topping hit about Havel's accomplishments.  The historical amnesia regarding Havel's very existence (for we so often forget the heroes force-fed to us by the bourgeois media industry) will be replaced by that previous historical amnesia, the one that made us believe he was a saint in the first place.  Although we must agree that the state capitalism of Czechoslovakia needed to be criticized by the left, the fact that we were told to celebrate Havel and his "velvet revolution" rather than the Czechoslovakian Communists and their Prague Spring (an authentic communist rebellion against Soviet chauvinism where "Lenin wake up, Brezhnev is speaking bullshit!" was the rallying cry) is the most cynical expression of historical memory.

The official obituaries of Vaclav Havel, all of which will be devoted to elevating the man to the status of St. Francis of Assisi, will never mention that Havel was a dedicated counter-revolutionary, not the humanist that the Bonos of the world like to claim, whose presidency in Czechoslovakia demonstrated, as Michael Parenti pointed out years ago in Blackshirts & Reds, "his reactionary religious obscurantism, his undemocratic suppression of leftist [even anti-communist liberal leftist] opponents, and his profound dedication to economic inequality and an unrestrained free-market capitalism."  And if we were told anything honest about Havel's social background we would know the following:
"Raised by governesses and chauffeurs in a wealthy anti-communist family, Havel denounced democracy's 'cult of objectivity and statistical average' and the idea that rational, collective social efforts should be applied to solving the environmental crisis." (Parenti, 97)
Havel also whole-heartedly supported the original Gulf War, suspended his own parliament when he was in power so that he could rule without worrying about constitutional niceties (and to speed up free-market reforms), sold weapons to the repressive regimes in the Philippines and Thailand, signed a law that made the advocation of socialism in Czechoslovakia a felony, advocated that any self-proclaimed "communist" be barred from employment, and passed a law that made criticisms of corporations a "hate crime."  He regained his family fortune, becoming extremely wealthy, while pushing through privatization laws that ensured massive poverty.

And yet we will celebrate him as a hero, a great statesman, a pacifist standing against "totalitarianism."  Especially since he died almost simultaneously to Kim Jong-Il, the perfect spectre of the very totalitarianism we are told communism means.  So while Havel's praises are sung with utter historical amnesia, Kim Jong-Il's crimes will be perfectly remembered (along with a bunch that will be added without any historical evidence).  A saint and a demon, we will be told, died on the same day: a tragedy and celebration at the same time.

Obviously I am not one of those uncritical leftists who imagines the DPRK was the communist wonderland proclaimed by "juche thought".  And though I celebrate the Korean revolutionary resistance led by Kim Il-Sung against the forces of reaction led by US imperialism, the extremely problematic feudalized communism that would eventually be promoted by Kim Jong-Il was history repeating first as tragedy and then as farce.  At the same time, however, we cannot ignore the brutal sanctions that were applied to North Korea following the imperialists' failure to win the Korean War, sanctions that grew more brutal when China became state capitalist in the 1970s and stopped supporting the DPRK.  We know that similar sanctions levelled upon Cuba were a serious problem for the revolutionary government, and North Korea was far more isolated than Cuba.  Always the target of imperialist intervention, even though it lacked the power to do anything aside from trying to feed its people and throw parades for a communist leadership distorted into an imperial dynasty, one has to admire the tenacity of the DPRK's people (though not, admittedly, the politics of their leader).

Although we will be told that Vaclav Havel was the hero and Kim Jong-Il the villain on this shared obituary date, we should ask why this is the case.  What makes Havel more of a "hero" than Kim?  Really, only the fact that he served the interests of empire.  A plutocrat, an autocrat, a man who used political power to take away democratic rights and who now uses his economic power to ensure that poverty flourishes in his country… How is this man more of a hero than his counterpart in death?  Only because Kim Jong-Il more obviously fits the role of villain.

Vaclav Havel is a statesman, a staunch opponent of "totalitarianism", a cultural icon who wrote literature and was thus loved by a small but vocal group of the western literati.  Kim Jong-Il is a "buffoon", a totalitarian despot, the kind of dictator who fancied himself a cultural icon but whose literary and artistic worth was the product of a self-inflated ego.  But Havel was a statesman because he was a manufactured to be a statesman by the imperialist forces behind his "velvet revolution"; his opposition to "totalitarianism" was matched by the anti-democratic laws he pushed through his post-communist parliament; and he's only a cultural icon because he was promoted as such by the imperialist industry.  (I mean, really, have you actually tried to read The Memorandum?  When I was a confused quasi-anarchist who believed the lies told about Havel I actually tried… Try it for yourself: it's derivative of Beckett, a pantomime of absurdism barely hiding the woefully typical "Animal Farm" anti-communism, the sort of thing no one would care about if Havel had been anyone other than who he was.)

Havel cuts a mean figure, sauve and smooth and proto-individualist… and, we must not forget, absurdly rich.  The shorter Kim, an easy outlet for orientalism, is the perfect archetype of the "asian despot" which is part of the imperialist collective unconscious… is it any wonder that every so-called "satire" of the man has primarily involved, despite the fact that there is so much that could actually be satired, the most racist "chinaman" depictions?

So here is what we will encounter in the piles of obituaries produced in the following weeks: Vaclav Havel the friend of humanity died, a great loss for the world; Kim Jong-Il, totalitarian enemy of existence, is finally gone and this is cause for celebration.  But I would suggest that, while not mourning the passing of the latter, those of us who proclaim that we are anti-capitalists, that we are leftists, should celebrate the passing of the former whose death was, like the deaths of so many imperialists and capitalists who promoted the starvation and death of the masses, worth less than the weight of a feather.


  1. It's almost beautifully poetic that they should die so close to each other given the binary that existed while they were alive and will surely be reified in their deaths.

  2. Not in total agreement, I never am, but close. Thanks and well done.

  3. I appreciate this analysis of the deaths of these two public figures. Particularly the ways that anti-communism and racism conflate to produce a villain. The other side of the coin being the way that the same discourse produces a rich white plutocrat into a hero for freedom. The insidiousness of this two pronged narrative, even among the left, can really benefit from your lucid reading.

    I also love the irony you draw out about the supposed literary prowess of both men. Kind of hilarious that the politically powerful often want to claim creative genius too.

  4. I also recently learned that Kim Il-Sung was a major target of the criticism and ire of the Red Guards, the proletarian left element that spear-headed the GPCR - they correctly pointed out that he was a Kruschev lackey and a revisionist who denounced the GPCR and accumulated capital and lived in opulence, building mansions for himself while socialists were being slaughtered by US imperialists in Vietnam. There were even attempts to spread the GPCR into North Korea. Unfortunately I can not get my hands on any primary historical documents on the subject.

    Literary side-note: Although it's true that Orwell was a cynical Trotskyist sell-out, I never really read "Animal Farm" as being anti-communist, if anything it is a warning about capitalist reconstruction, (the antagonist, Napoleon, an obvious stand-in for Stalin, is made a villain for abandoning Marxist-Leninist principles, not for embracing them) albeit from a Trotskyist rather than Maoist perspective. (However, I enjoy interpreting art not solely on the grounds of what the author intended, but what the work reflects of the greater society. Reading "Animal Farm" from our historical vantage point, we can just as easily imagine Snowball as the Gang of Four and Napoleon as Deng Xiaoping) Nineteen Eighty-Four, similarly, is even more cynical, going as far as to imply that the fictional stand-in for Trotsky, Emmanuel Goldstein, may be an agent of the Stalinesque Big Brother, (thus perhaps betraying an unintended truth on the author's part about the similarity between Trotsky and Stalin) but as the protagonist says, "any hope for the future must lie with the proles". Orwell was a jerk, but the liberal anti-communists who try to claim his works carry some anti-communist message are reading into something that isn't there.

    -Ghan Buri Ghan

  5. Well Kim Il-Sung, despite being the leader of the Korean Revolution, was terrified by the GPCR. Before the Cultural Revolution he thought Mao was a great revolutionary but, after this moment, and terrified of what this would mean for his leadership, critiques of the Cultural Revolution became essential to Juche Thought. Otherwise, yes, it is difficult to get any accurate "criticism from the left" historical/journalist material regarding that period in North Korea.

    I have to admit that your reading of Animal Farm is more creative and productive than how it is usually pedalled. I'm not sure if Orwell meant it that way, however, because of his ideology… Still, I can see how it could be less anti-communist than how it has been used. On the other hand, though, as much as I really like how you've reimagined it as a metaphor for capitalist reconstruction (especially reinterpreting in the context of the fall of the Chinese Revolution), there are moments where it reads very strongly as a condemnation of the supposed "telos" of the Bolshevik Revolution.

    In any case, we can't ignore the fact that Animal Farm is now understood primarily as an anti-communist cliche. So when I spoke of Havel's Animal Farmism, I meant it as a metaphor of his derivative use of cliche.

    Also, just a tangental point on your use of the 1984 concept of "Big Brother"... I also think 1984 was intended (and the intention here is far clearer than Animal Farm based on the historical period) as a critique of fascism and not actually existing socialism. Which is why the statement about the hope for the future actually could be, based on what really does appear to be that novel's intent, interpreted as revolutionary.


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