BOOK REVIEW: Journeys in a Vanishing World

Theodore Dalrymple, The Wilder Shores of Marx: Journeys in a Vanishing World, Monday Books, 2012

‘The most decisive thing that’s happened in my political lifetime,’ said John Howard in a 2009 interview, ‘is the collapse of Soviet imperialism. It dwarfs anything else.’ This is significant from Howard, whose political life covers nearly half a century.

His observation, however, is lost on a generation of younger Australians. Certainly, oppressive regimes exist today but are fewer in number, while command and control economics have been trounced by liberal market capitalism and globalisation. For anyone under forty the idea of growing up on a planet of rivalling superpowers with conflicting ideologies is no doubt strange.

Tearing around New Zealand on a recent trip I found time to wade through Theodore Dalrymple’s The Wilder Shores of Marx. Dalrymple first published this back in 1991 after visiting the heights and ruins of communism in Albania, North Korea, Romania, Vietnam and Cuba. With usual wit and insight, he elucidates both the absurdity and grimness of life under the banner of Marxist-Leninism.

The absurdities are endless. An Albanian phrase book, for example, reminds him of a 1986 visit to Soviet-influenced Somalia where the travel pages brimmed with useful phrases such as ‘pass me the Opera glasses please.’ Somalia was, at this time, in the throes of a cholera epidemic. Kim Jong Il sank eleven holes-in-one on his first day of golf and his birth was, supposedly, foretold by a swallow. Fidel Castro once rose for a toast when dining with guests in Havana and, ten hours later, finally took his seat.

With these comical accounts one can almost lose sight of an ideological systemestimated to have killed 94 million people (some feel this estimate is too low). And the less exquisite details about communism, especially in the Soviet Union, weren’t well-understood or broadcast until after the Cold War.

In fact many leading ‘thinkers’ journeyed from the West to the Soviet Union and left excited and impressed. ‘For decades,’ writes Dalrymple, ‘they blinded themselves to the obvious.’ We can add to this list the Australian historian Manning Clarke.

There were, however, some that knew of the deception and tyranny. Here, for example, is a telling extract from the historian Robert Conquest’s Wikipedia:

After the opening up of the Soviet archives in 1991, detailed information was released that Conquest argued supported his conclusions. When Conquest’s publisher asked him to expand and revise The Great Terror, Conquest is famously said to have suggested the new version of the book be titled I Told You So, You Fucking Fools.

Today the horrors of communism are so tragic they’re hard to fathom, especially for a younger generation who have known slim alternatives to freedom and prosperity. Che Guevara shirts are sported with ignorance by some while, for others, the modern imperfections of representative democracy are comparable to life in Pyongyang.

These actions and utterances aside, it’s interesting when reading Dalrymple to note the flatness that communism both requires and administers. ‘Under communism,’ writes Dalrymple, ‘green is the tree of theory, but grey is life.’ Communism ‘infantilises people, makes them beholden to authority.’ ‘Opacity’, ‘banality’, ‘without meaning’ and ‘dishonest’ are Dalrymple’s social descriptors of life under constant tyranny.

As the demise of communism shows, the complete evacuation of any individual liberty, vigour, drive or imagination does nothing for the advancement of a society. Tradition and history can’t be flogged out of people but are important for national character.

Today of course we’re less worried by communism. It lost badly but limps on in varying forms. In the epilogue to this edition, for example, Dalrymple touches on meeting a British-Korean academic at a dinner party comparing Rupert Murdoch to Kim Jong Il. We’d do well not just to celebrate communism’s demise but cast aside the careless comparisons that, in some way, keep it alive.

Published at Menzies House

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