Le Québécois Libre, January 15, 2012, No 296.
Two famous men died last month. One was a great thinker, the other—a vile dictator and despicable thug. This will not be an obituary for either of them. Kim Jong Il did not deserve an obituary, and Christopher Hitchens would have preferred a different treatment. I was shocked by Hitchens’s sudden death from pneumonia, as he had just days before published his “Trial of the Will”—an essay that strongly suggested that he had at least several months of life left in him. But such is the fundamental injustice of death—a horror that indiscriminately visits even the best of us.
Instead of an obituary, I offer today a discussion of one of Hitchens’s ideas—helping in this way to keep his thought alive, as he would surely have wished. I will try here to generalize from Hitchens’s observations and take them a bit further, in the interests of continuing the intellectual conversation.
In 2010, Hitchens published a powerful article in Slate, titled “A Nation of Racist Dwarfs”—discussing his unique and insightful impressions of some overlooked elements of North Korean totalitarianism. What struck Hitchens about North Korea under Kim Jong Il was not so the so-called communism of its regime, but rather its racist and nationalist bigotry. Hitchens noted that this was entirely consistent with the totalitarian mentality of Kim Jong Il, because, in Hitchens’s words, “nothing is more ‘total’ than racist nationalism.” Hitchens rightly pointed out that “race arrogance and nationalist hysteria are powerful cements for the most odious systems”—no matter what they call themselves.
For all his theoretical flaws, Karl Marx was an internationalist; he wanted an international socialism that transcended national or ethnic allegiances—hence the slogan, “Workers of the world, unite!” Marx even opposed the emerging welfare-statism of Otto von Bismarck and Benjamin Disraeli on the grounds that it would appease too many people through superficial wealth redistribution, while hindering the true international workers’ revolution that Marx and Friedrich Engels saw as the wave of the future.
But the mentality of top-down central planning—that of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”—infected Marxist thought in the early 20th century, particularly through the ideology of Lenin and Stalin. The path down which North Korea has gone is a logical conclusion of that central-planning mindset; it is utter desolation combined with xenophobic ultra-nationalism. There can be no internationalism, no cosmopolitanism, no progress for all human beings under central planning. Those who try to homogenize and dictate the economy will inevitably come to homogenize and dictate the culture—and will have no tolerance for dissent or substantive difference in either realm. Furthermore, Hitchens’s observations confirm that the central-planning mentality cannot produce the prodigious “new socialist man” conceived by Trotsky; it can only create stunted bigots.
As I expressed previously in “The Perils of Cultural Homogeneity,” any attempts to impose one uniform lifestyle or ideology upon a people will result in the rule of a few entrenched elites. Kim Jong Il and his oligarchy of cronies were an extreme example of this more general principle. There can never be a true “dictatorship of the proletariat.” There can only be a dictatorship of a handful of perverse parasites, ruling in the name of the proletariat, gradually shedding even that pretense in favor of cultivating outright leader-worship in the general population.
The legacy of Kim Jong Il has been to show just how far into the depths of depravity the central-planning, homogenizing mindset can plunge an entire society of human beings. The legacy of Christopher Hitchens has been to stand out as a light of reason and friend of liberty, an incisive observer of evil and a champion of its antidote: the individual creator, the indomitable human spirit that—alas—can be killed, but which can never be truly conquered by tyranny.
It saddens me that Christopher Hitchens died a few days too early to see the news of Kim Jong Il’s demise. But, given the secretive practices of the North Korean news media, there is a good chance that Hitchens actually outlived the dictator and we just did not find out about Kim’s death for several days. Regardless, a window of opportunity has now opened in North Korea—and I sincerely hope that the political instability there will lead to a regime collapse, a breath of freedom, and an opening-up to the world. Maybe someday, future generations of North Koreans will be reading Hitchens and shaking their heads at their country’s abysmal past.
* Gennady Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist and philosophical essayist, and is Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He lives in Carson City, Nevada.