On Communism

By: leelefever on December 28, 2006 - 10:31am

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 Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Russia, Germany and the Czech Republic, Communism seems to be a recurring theme and something to which I’ve devoted a lot of time reading and learning. I’ve developed a fascination for the subject, likely more than any other subject on the trip.

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 Russia. He put Marxist theory into practice and established the first Communist government in 1917 and in doing so created Leninism – the way a person goes about revolution and enacting Marxist principles.  This created what is known as Marxism/Leninism and became a complete package for people like Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot in Asia.  They now had the idea (Marxism) and the practice (Leninism) for Communist Revolution.

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:

  • China and Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1950’s)  - 30 million dead from starvation
  • Cambodia and Pol Pot’s Communist Revolution (1970’s) 7 million dead from starvation and executions (1 in 7 Cambodians)
  • Russia and Stalin’s Iron Rule (1920-50s) – 40 million dead from starvation and executions

… 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 Vietnam and Russia it has considerable power and of course in China, Cuba and North Korea it is the dominant force. How could this be? How could there still be demand for such a system?  The answer lies somewhere in the real world security and equality that Communism provides the working class.  Despite the horrific past, some people still yearn for a system where they can depend on the government for everything – they are ready to trade freedom for security.

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.

For more reading, check out the Wikipedia entries on:  Communism, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Karl Marx, Marxism, Capitalism, Dictatorship of the Proleteriat, Imperialism


Americana - Romulus and Remus in Rome Georgia

By: leelefever on December 2, 2006 - 1:28pm

Directly in front of the Rome, Georgia city hall is this is peculiar statue of the Italian Rome's founders Romulus and Remus, suckling away at their legendary caretaker.

The plaque under it reads:

This statue of the Capitoline Wolf, as a forecast of prosperity and glory, was sent from Ancient Rome to New Rome, during the consulship Benito Mussolini, in the year 1929.

Apparently the statue was hidden during World War II and replaced after the war.


The Sad and Sometimes Beautiful State of European Graffiti

By: leelefever on November 15, 2006 - 2:05am

The graffiti people should be hanged” – that is what I heard from a business owner in Lisbon, where graffiti is starting to take over nearly every inch of space in the Barrio Alto area of the city.  Walking through the Barrio, the graffiti is so dominant that it starts to blend into the look of the streets as if it is a mélange of paint and shapes.  In some ways, it gives the Barrio a unique and atmospheric feel while at the same time being messy and senseless.  Mostly it's messy and senseless.

And so it is for a lot of Europe from our experiences.  In nearly every city we have been saddened by the amount of graffiti sprayed onto walls with aerosol cans in languages that we mostly don’t understand – except the popular “Bush” reference.  Some locals don’t really mind – it’s as if it is a part of living in the city.  Indeed, it seemed that they had stopped noticing it and accepted it as normal and acceptable.  For me, it is mostly not acceptable even realizing that graffiti has been around since the ancient Roman Empire.

I have enough of a counter-culture lean to like some forms of graffiti. It is an art form and there are incredibly talented people who do their work with aerosol cans and public walls.  Unfortunately, these are the exceptions.  99% of the graffiti we’ve seen is not an attempt at art, but what appears to be late-night scribbles by disaffected individuals that wish to state publicly their discontent with politics, football, the environment, their personal lives, etc.  This is the sad and ugly graffiti that plagues Europe.

There is of course, a beautiful side as we saw in Paris and Lisbon.  Stencil graffiti, works done by spraying paint over a pre-cut piece of paper or cardboard,  can produce artful, beautiful and interesting visual experiences.  This is the graffiti I respect.


Jef Aerosol,  in Paris has been doing stencil graffiti in Paris for a few years and we ran across some of his works just off Rue Mouffetard in the Latin Quarter


In Lisbon we saw a few pieces that I really enjoyed – particularly this one of the painter covering himself. 

A few others struck me too.

In Seattle, where graffiti is also a problem, there is a city law that business owners must cover graffiti within a set amount of days or face fines.  As it turns out, Europe has similar laws and Britain has led the way with the Anti-Social Behavior Act of 2003 which was is similar to a piece of potential EU legislation with the aim to:

…eliminate dirt, litter, graffiti, animals' excrement and excessive noise from domestic and vehicular music systems in European cities, along with other concerns over urban life.

The sad reality from our perspective is that graffiti appears to be taking over the walls of Europe’s cities.  Art, beauty, or not, I hope that something can be done because the experience of the visitor to these historic places is being altered in a way that reflects a feeling of degradation or mis-care.  It appears that some cities are taking on the look of a “bad neighborhood” and nobody wants that.

Sometimes though, graffiti has a way of stating something that just wouldn't be as appropriate any other way...

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The US Elections from Portugal

By: leelefever on November 9, 2006 - 2:56pm

The above headline in Portuguese reads: "Democrats oblige Bush to look at what he has done in Iraq."

It has been rather strange to watch the mid-term US elections from Portugal. On the morning of the 8th, I got up early, like a kid on Christmas, to see the early results and went back to bed with satisfied thoughts of a Democratic House and the defeat of Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania. Since then, we've been checking in on the headlines, but I think we both miss the analysis (which I imagine most Americans are already sick of). More than anything else, I want to be able to watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart right now and experience something close to the moment we all hoped for in 2004. I'm sure he has a lot to say.

The election is of course huge news here too. One of the guys that runs the hotel here said it is the top story on the radio, newspaper, TV, etc. From what we've heard many, many times on the trip, we think this election will make some sense to the Europeans. Most of our friends in Europe were completely baffled by Bush being elected a second time. They often say that it seems impossible because they have never met an American that likes him. Our response is usually something like "Well, remember that something like 80% of Americans do not hold a passport".

We both will take some satisfaction in returning home to a government with a different agenda and with a not-so-subtle message having been sent to W from our countrymen. Home is looking better all the time.

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Sex and Drugs in Liberal Holland

By: leelefever on October 14, 2006 - 3:58am

I described Amsterdam to my Mom as "A bastion of hedonism".  Sure, it has beautiful canals, nice people, amazing sights, about a billion bicycles and a ton of charm, but what is truly impressive about Amsterdam and what differentiates it on a worldwide scale is the liberal policies of the Dutch government concerning drugs and prostitution.

For instance, we stayed in a guesthouse in the Red Light District and within two blocks of our guesthouse, anyone with the money can legally buy "soft drugs" like marijuana, mushrooms and hashish in small quantities and sexual services from a host of licensed prostitutes who display their wares in large windows under red lights.  I suppose you could also see some music and complete the hedonists triumverate of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll.

The view from our place:


Coming from George W.'s America, this all seems quite surreal. Surely these things must be causing all sorts of social ills. As it turns out, the Dutch policy is quite calculated and appears to be surprisingly healthy for the country compared to other EU countries. 

From wikipedia:

Most policymakers in the Netherlands believe that if a problem has proved to be unsolvable, it is better to try controlling it instead of continuing to enforce laws with mixed results.This means that the sale of sex and drugs are regulated and taxed, ensuring as much safety as possible and that the government can benefit from the revenue.  Further, it means that the government can exert control when it is needed. But, what about drug abuse?  Doesn't the availability increase the instances of abuse?  

Apparently not.  Through studies completed across the EU since 2000, The Netherlands ranks 7th in the use of marijuana - after Cyprus Spain, the UK, France, Germany and Italy.  The prevalance is similar for other types of drugs.

For the visitor to Amsterdam, these elements of the city can be surprising and intimidating - we talked to some people who would not step foot into the Red Light District. However, I think it is more surprising that the city doesn't have the overall feel of a "bad neighborhood" with a high frequency of drugs, sex shops and prostitutes.  There is a ragged and depressing element to the Red Light District, but I don't think it is much different than any other city - it is just that tourists are exposed and invited to participate in activities that would otherwise be managed in dark alleys and controlled by criminals instead of government agencies.

The Dutch policy seems based on the idea that people are going to do what they are going to do, regardless of the government or the potential for punishment.  And if this is true, their only tools are regulation, taxation and tolerance.  It makes sense to me and the Dutch folks we talked to about it.

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The Hammer and Sickle

By: leelefever on July 22, 2006 - 1:28am

Growing up in a time when the fall of the Soviet Union came in my formative years (born:1973), I saw the Hammer and Sickle as a relic of a bygone era of Communism. I had assumed that with the end of the Cold War, the Hammer and Sickle would have its place next to the more sinister swastika in the Hall of Retired Political Iconography.  Upon visiting Vietnam, I found that this is not true.  The Hammer and Sickle is alive and well in Vietnam and bandied about with all the glory of a flower display on a parade float.  While completely normal for the Vietnamese, I find it interesting and a bit strange.

The locals I’ve spoken with tell a consistent story.  Ho Chi Minh’s revolution was a good thing because it gave Vietnam independence and freedom from foreign powers (mostly France).  However, the Communist government that took over the country made life very hard for the Vietnamese. After Communism failed to produce results, the country became Socialist in the 80’s and started to open the country to a free market economy.  However, today the Communist Party is still operating and has significant power in the Vietnamese government.  So, I imagine this has something to do with the prevalence of the hammer and sickle.

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.

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Evidence of Genocide, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

By: leelefever on July 12, 2006 - 2:17am

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia has a dark reputation on the tourist trail from a horrific past of genocide - not unlike Dachau, Germany or Rwanda. Indeed, Phnom Penh was the center of the Khmer Rouge “revolution” that left over 1 million Cambodians dead. While a majority of the deaths occurred through starvation, malnourishment and poor medical care, thousands died at the hands of Khmer Rouge soldiers.  Cambodia has created two genocide memorials that make up two parts of the machination of death implemented by Pol Pot.


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 Phnom Penh.  Perhaps the darkest of the sites I’ve visited, the Killing Fields offers an absolutely chilling experience of walking across mass graves where the soil is littered with human bones and clothes of victims.  Signs are posted by trees that say things like “Killing tree against which soldiers beat children” and “Mass grave of 166 victims without heads”.

 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.

Pol Pot and his Murderous Khmer Rouge

By: leelefever on July 12, 2006 - 1:55am

http://encyclopedia.laborlawtalk.com/wiki/images/thumb/0/01/200px-Pol%3Dpot.jpgHaving 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:


  1. Modern History of Cambodia in 100 words or less
  2. Only seven Doctors Left
  3. Year Zero

Modern History of Cambodia in 100 words or less

In 1975 a new Communist government came to power in Cambodia called the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot.  Pol Pot instituted an extreme and cruel version of fundamentalist Communism that quickly forced the population into farm labor.  Further, the regime outlawed money, markets, schools and religion.  Families were split apart; starvation and brutal murders became commonplace.  By 1979, when Vietnam invaded, over 1 million (1 in 7) Cambodians had lost their lives and every part of Cambodian society lay in shambles – all in the deranged pursuit of Communist Utopia. 

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 Cambodia - seven doctors out of 7 million people.

Year Zero

Pol Pot’s goal was to turn Cambodia upside down and into an agrarian society.  According to his plan, the population would work to produce crops that would be exported to bring in money to fund social products and industry.  This is why money, schools and religion were banned- they were not needed for farming. Cambodia would revert to a pre-industrial backward-looking culture.

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 Cambodia to start over from Year Zero.  Once Pol Pot had been driven out, Cambodia started to rebuild, but found that the very means to rebuild had been eliminated.  Hospitals had no workers, schools had no teachers, government had no administrators – the cornerstones of modern society had been systematically eliminated.  The Khmer Rouge had murdered a generation of people that could have worked to speed the country’s recovery.  Instead they were left with former soldiers, rural farmers and broken families to rebuild a country that was “revolutionized” into the stone ages. 

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.

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