I wrote this entry in September of 2006 from Helsinki, Finland just after arriving there from the Trans-Siberian Railway and a month in China. For a while I was consumed by learning about Communism and needed to get it on paper, so to speak.
This post is a bit of a departure from the usual travel topics and I hope you’ll pardon its serious and dark nature. Having been to
I figure that the root of my fascination is related to the fact that so many smart people believed in it so fervently and killed so many in an attempt to make it work – and the work continues to this day. To me as an American entrepreneur, Communism is endlessly fascinating because it diverges so greatly from my world view. The more I learn about it, the more baffled I become that so many could believe that it is a perfectly reasonable way to run a country.
I started the trip knowing very little about the Communist ideology, Marxism, Leninism or the history of the peoples’ revolution. After reading a number of books, visiting museums, etc., I think I have a handle on some of the basics. To test myself, I’d like to try to describe my layman's version for you as briefly and simply as possible.
Karl Marx was known as the father of Communism and the author of the Communist Manifesto – the first declaration of his theory in late 19th century. To Marx, capitalism (free markets, supply and demand, etc.) was evil and would eventually cause great misery to the people of the world. His goal was to stop it.
To understand why he thought this, we must consider the lives of workers in the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. At the time he saw a world where people were either rich owners or exploited and unhappy workers. Marx saw this as a great injustice that was getting worse through the growth of Capitalism. He foresaw a future where Capitalism would create a small handful of rich people and a world of miserable people that would get more miserable over time. This would even be extended to a worldwide scale with the world eventually being run by a few rich industrialists. This was what some called Imperialism and it was the end game of Capitalism.
Marx was successful in convincing a lot of very smart and powerful people that his was the true vision of the world and his Communist ideology its savior. He promoted the idea that the true power of a civilization lies within the working class and if properly motivated, the working class can rise up in revolution against the rich land owners. This was revolution and it was the first stage of building a Communist system which would be fair to everyone – a single class society that worked to provide what it needed for the whole society. The government owned everything and everyone worked toward a common goal of self-sufficiency. In fact, according to the theory, there would be no need for government in the future – it would “whither away” as the Communist utopia was achieved. Everyone would be well fed, protected and happy as they worked together as one.
Of course, history shows that this is not the case. Two contributing factors:
- Marx got it wrong. He did not predict the rapid rise of the middle class. Before he died, he saw Capitalism creating opportunities for a new class that were neither the rich owner nor the exploited worker.
- Marxism was just a theory: It described how things should work and what should happen, but it never described *how* Communism or revolution should actually be managed. It was a theory with no doctrine.
Of course in the 20th century there would be no shortage of world leaders to test the Marxist theory in the form of prompting a revolution and establishing a Communist government – supposedly freeing the working classes from Capitalist oppression.
The first serious revolutionary was Lenin in
What has happened since then is the subject of great debate. Most would agree that if there is a winner in the Cold War, it is Capitalism. Many questions remain about what went wrong with Communism. I’ll let you research the myriad perspectives on what happened and leave you with my own admittedly half-baked answer.
I think there are two main reasons Communism failed. The first is human nature. Communism underestimated the human need for achievement, competition and recognition. Making everyone the same reduced everyone to the lowest common denominator and bred more misery and frustration than it prevented. The second reason is leadership. Have you ever heard of the founder of a company having to hire a CEO? It happens often because the people that start things are not often the best people to manage them. Revolutionaries are great at revolution, but can be poor at administration and management. The history of Communism is rife with stories of Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot making ludicrous decisions that caused the deaths of millions of their people. They grew omnipotent through revolution but lacked the skills to use that power in any responsible manner.
My guess is that human history will show Communism as a destructive and deadly force in the world, not because of the idea or theory, but its implementation. It enabled the centralization of absolute power that bred mass corruption and quickly became unmanageable. To give you an idea of the level of destruction, consider the number of deaths in these countries in the Communist era:
and Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1950’s) - 30 million dead from starvation China and Pol Pot’s Communist Revolution (1970’s) 7 million dead from starvation and executions (1 in 7 Cambodians) Cambodia and Stalin’s Iron Rule (1920-50s) – 40 million dead from starvation and executions Russia
… and this is not counting the unquantifiable misery wrought on families and individuals in these countries as secret police, hidden agendas and propaganda were a fact of life.
Could a system of government that produced numbers like this be considered a positive force in the world? I think not. Yet, the Communist Party is still a major player in world politics. In
Maybe the real root of my fascination with Communism is related to how it helps me to understand all the things I take for granted. The more I learn, the more I wonder what my life would be like if I was a child of Communism. With an entrepreneurial American worldview, I find it nearly unfathomable.
Growing up in a time when the fall of the
The locals I’ve spoken with tell a consistent story. Ho Chi Minh’s revolution was a good thing because it gave
I asked a tour guide about the difference it made to have a free market economy and I may never for get his response. He said “For 10 years in Communist government, I have only one shirt and wear it every day. Now, I wear different shirt every day.” That example said volumes to me. I'll be interested to see how it is China and Russia, both coming up on the itinerary soon.
The first memorial is a former school that was turned into a prison when schools were outlawed. The prison was called “S-21” or “Tuol Sleng” and it played a central role in the identification and execution of those accused of treason within the Khmer Rouge itself. Of the over 20,000 people sent to the prison, only 7-12 reportedly survived.
Pol Pot and the others running the show became increasingly paranoid and convinced that CIA and KGB agents were operating within their ranks. Unbelievable means of torture were used to bring out “confessions” including electricity, mutilation and burning. The accused were forced to name other “spies” and faced a choice of naming other innocent people or dying. This created a vicious circle of needless death as these soldiers named one another in an attempt to save their own lives. In the end of course, all involved were executed.
Many of the deaths actually occurred at what is now known as the “Killing Fields” which are mass graves about 30 minutes outside of
While these memorials are sad, gruesome and effective, I think it is a bit unfortunate that Cambodia is known more for genocide than it's beautiful beaches, waterfalls or incredible ancient ruins. I'm seeing a nation on the rebound who is ready to shed all the baggage and move on.
Having learned a bit about the Khmer Rouge period of Cambodian history lately via books and visits, I’ve been struggling about what I should share here on TwinF. I want to say so much – too much. I find myself being overwhelmed with interesting, horrifying and heartbreaking stories that a single blog entry cannot do justice. I’ve resolved to focus on just a few points:
- Modern History of Cambodia in 100 words or less
- Only seven Doctors Left
- Year Zero
Modern History of Cambodia in 100 words or less
In 1975 a new Communist government came to power in
Only Seven Doctors Left
I met a Cambodian man in our hotel lobby that was watching BBC World News when a news story came on about the upcoming trial of some now-elderly Khmer Rouge leaders. His name was Dom and he spoke with obvious emotion. I was interested to know his story. In 1975 he was 2 years old (same as me) when Pol Pot came to power. His father, a physician, was immediately separated from the family after being identified by his profession. Dom never saw his father again. The systematic execution of intellectuals was a strategy implemented by the Khmer Rouge. People who were deemed to be educated were potential enemies and enemies had to be “smashed to bits”. When the regime finally crumbled, some estimates conclude that there were only seven physicians left in all of
Pol Pot’s goal was to turn
In talking to Cambodians I heard a theme regarding the Pol Pot time that related to starting over from “Year Zero”. I’m only starting to grasp what it means for
The more I learn about the Khmer Rouge the more unbelievable it seems and I get the feeling that Cambodians that are my age feel the same. I don't get a sense of anger or hatred as much as disbelief. From my own perspective I cannot get past the fact that Pol Pot and his cadre were absolutely convinced that their plan would actually work and would be a good thing for the country. Simply unfathomable.