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The International Writers Magazine: Opinion

Worker’s Paradise
The Myth of Communism
Antonio Graceffo
There were 171 people killed attempting to escape over the Berlin Wall. None were killed trying to go the other way.


Capitalism has been criticized because of the dwindling middle class. If you look at every communist country that has ever existed, they managed to create near equality. They made 90% of the population equally poor.

A taxi driver in Phnom Penh shook his fist when we were cut off by a huge, fancy car with tinted windows. He shocked me by saying, “I miss Pol Pot. In Pol Pot times, I ate porridge, and rich men also ate porridge.” This was his solution to lessening the gap between the rich and the poor; make everyone function at a subsistence level, and then we’ll all be equal. But of course, even in the Khmer Rouge, cadres ate and lived infinitely better and with more power and privileges than the workers.

This morning, I watched a US documentary which criticized the CIA. In the video, numerous Americans spoke out against the CIA, calling it a terrorist organization. Next, searching in Korean and Chinese language, I looked for similar documentaries made by North Korean and Chinese citizens, criticizing their own secret police organizations, but there don’t seem to be any. Could it be that the very existence of the CIA defends our right to make and broadcast films criticizing the CIA?

Before beginning a discussion of communism or capitalism, it is important to note that both of these models are economic theories, not governmental systems. It does seem, however, that in practice, communism as an economic system only works in a totalitarian regime, whereas capitalism is closely tied to democracies and republican style governments.

I have lived and worked in East Germany, Lao, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, all communist or former communist countries. At no point did I regret having been born in the US versus one of these countries. At no point did I lament my ability to leave. And if they thought they wouldn’t suffocate in the unpressurized luggage compartment on the airplane, any number of locals would have been willing to hide in my suitcase, if it meant getting out.

More than 255,000 Vietnamese got into overcrowded, leaking boats, with inadequate food or water, and very little chance of survival. They spent weeks or months at sea, where they were hunted by hostile militaries and raped and robbed by pirates. After surviving the ordeal at sea, they spent months and even years in refugee camps, all for a chance to go to America, Australia, Canada or some other western democracy. None requested resettlement in Bulgaria or North Korea. And of course, no Americans, Australians, or Canadians ever went through similar ordeals to get Vietnamese citizenship.

At the end of the Korean War, more than 22,000 Communist soldiers, mostly North Koreans, refused to be sent back to their home country, but only 1 Brit and 23 American elected to be resettled in China. After the war, a further six Americans were known to have defected to North Korea.

In China and Vietnam, as soon as the communist government came into power and nationalized rice production people began starving. Hundreds of thousands or even millions of people died from these repressive economic policies. In fact, more Vietnamese died in the years immediately following the Vietnam War than died during the war itself.

Under the Communist government in Cambodia, nearly 100% of the population was working in agriculture, and yet, nearly a quarter of the population died of starvation.

Only 2% of Americans work in agriculture. And the biggest health risk in the country is obesity. Westerners who defend communism always say that communism was never given a fair chance. They say that the poverty and starvation in these countries is caused by US embargos. But the US is not responsible for the nationalization of business in these countries. This is simply part of the communist or socialist doctrine. The reason these countries become poor is because they don’t make and sell products. If you aren’t making products then a US embargo can’t prevent you from selling them. Certainly the US never told anyone to nationalize rice production. And if it did, why did those countries listen? They generally hate the US.

Much of the abject poverty in the former communist regimes came after the fall of The Soviet Union and an end to the financial subsidies that kept these governments more or less afloat. But, doesn’t the need for constant subsidies prove that this system is untenable? 

Do constant foreign aid subsidies keep Belgium, Italy, or England afloat?

When I was teaching in East Germany, just after the reunification, each morning when I arrived at my class, I found my adult students reading catalogues. I finally asked them, now that the literature of the whole world was available to them, why would they be reading catalogues? One man, the spokesman for the class, answered, “Teacher, we just can’t believe that such things existed.” He pointed to the open catalogue. “There are two pages of hammers. We didn’t know there could be so many kinds of hammers. Under the Soviets, if we needed a hammer we filled out a form. Then waited for months. If we were approved, and the hammer was delivered, it came in a brown box, marked ‘hammer.’ There was only one kind. And it was hard to get.”

A lot of students at the university where I studied in West Germany used an East-German made individual coffee maker.  It was kind of hip to have one of these anachronistic devices in your student flat.  And it was considered even cooler if you still had the original box which said, ‘coffee maker’ in black on cardboard writing.

No US embargo prevented Russia from making a variety of hammers or coffee makers.  This was simply the Soviet ideal for a workers paradise.  Clearly, it is the veritable plethora of hammers and coffee makers that is brining down the capitalist, democratic model.

Westerners I have met in Asia who speak out in favor of these communist countries always say that it is the variety of goods which fuels the capitalist feeding frenzy. They point at the credit card debt and mortgage failures of US consumers and say this is proof that the capitalist/democratic system doesn’t work.  Of course, none of the people making this accusation live the life of a communist peasant.  They were all well dressed and had money and freedom to travel the globe, finding fault with America.  But, even if they are thrifty, and refrain form the massive consumption trap endemic in the capitalist system, they still watch CNN or BBC, read newspapers, read books, think independently, and spout loud and open criticism of their own government.

The citizens of Communist countries don’t generally have such privilege.

In practice, Capitalism isn’t just owning too many pairs of shoes, or taking a sub-prime mortgage to buy an overly large house that you don’t need. It is also the freedom to read the New York Times, or the London Times, the right to blog and complain, the right to vote, to protest, and to congregate without a permit.

These privileged westerners who speak out in favor of the systems in Vietnam, Lao, China, North Korea, and Cambodia often cite CNN as being a biased tool of the financial-militaristic establishment. Maybe, but do you really believe you get better coverage from North Korean national TV? What about the Chinese or Vietnamese news channels? Is that where you get free, fair-handed reporting?

As a reasonable westerner, with a free-thinking education, and freedom to chose, I say, watch CNN, BBC 24, Al-Jazeera and Deutsche Welle, then take an average. That’s certainly going to give you a better grip on world affairs than limiting yourself to Channel News Lao, or whatever the government approved news channel in Vientiane is called.

It’s not just hammers and coffee makers that frightens these regimes. They all have strict restrictions on press and media. The American president or the British Prime minister, on the other hand, are not afraid of twitter. And the Australian regime doesn’t fear being toppled by youtube.

If you went to the home of most westerners who speak out in favor of this communist ideal, I imagine you would find a modern coffee maker and possibly even a hammer. As a doer and not just a talker, I would like to point out that NONE of these do-gooder westerners who speak out in support of communism ever gave up their British or Canadian citizenship to go live as a noble farmer or factory worker in a communist country.

At a Christmas party in Saigon a New Zealand woman attacked me for being American. She was telling me what a huge debt America owed to Vietnam and asked me why we weren’t doing anything to help Vietnam. Actually, the US is the single largest export partner of Vietnam. We are also Vietnam’s fifth largest bilateral donor. Aid from the US is greater than total aid from the UN or the EU.

My point is not that the US is angel or that our system is perfect. My point is that we should use facts, rather than ingrained hatred, as the building blocks of opinion.

The New Zealand woman went on to tell me how nice and generous the Vietnamese were, and how they should be commended for having built such a great country… It should be pointed out that she was an extremely well-paid teacher, living in a villa. And, the school she taught at was a for-profit, terribly expensive, elite English school which farmers and factory workers can’t afford for their children.

She had almost no grasp on how Vietnamese people lived. In addition to not speaking the language, she lived in such a white bubble world. The only Vietnamese she encountered were from the privileged class. And even with this distorted view of how well Vietnamese people live, she did not give up her citizenship to remain in the workers utopia of Vietnam.

Changing the subject to something less inflammatory, I mentioned to her that I was having trouble shipping a martial arts DVD out of the country because all DVDs and books had to be opened and viewed by censors before they could be sent in or out of the country. To the credit of the country’s increasing openness, I will say that what was probably an airtight seal ten years ago, is slightly more than an annoyance now. But it was still frustrating to have to drive all of the way to the central post office and fill out forms to receive my mail, which had been opened, viewed, and deemed acceptable.

The New Zealand woman then told me that she had trouble getting books to the school where she teaches, as half the shipments go missing after arriving in the port of Saigon. 

Before I had a chance to get political again, an Australian jumped in on my side. “If the Yanks had won the war you probably wouldn’t have problems getting your mail.”

Capitalism isn’t just Choco Puffs breakfast cereal. It’s also the sanctity of mail delivery.

Another documentary I found on the web was called “Friends of Kim,” which featured an organization called Korean Friendship Association, a group which supports North Korea.  In the video, a small troop of idealistic westerners went on a friendship tour of North Korea, headed by Alejandro Cao de Benós de Les y Pérez a Spanish noble who maintains both Spanish and North Korean citizenships.

It’s important to point out that as mush as Alejandro loves the 'Dear Leader', he never gave up his Spanish citizenship. Also important to note is that Spain, a capitalist democracy, allows Alejandro to go in and out of Spain, doing work in support of North Korea. Would North Korea allow one of its citizens the right to go in and out of North Korea, doing work in support of Spain?

In the beginning of the documentary, we see that the westerners, with the exception of the film crew, are idealistic and spout a lot of propaganda in favor of North Korea and against the US. During their tour of the workers’ paradise it becomes clear to the film crew, but not these idealistic visitors, that they are being spared visits to the poor countryside or views of the abject poverty and starvation which is the reality of life for about 90% of the North Korean population.

The party line says that the North Korean system is self sufficient and everyone has enough of everything. During the tour, the group is housed at expensive, hard-currency hotels and resorts. At one of these, they meet Richard Reagan, country director of the United Nations World Food Program, an American, who says that every single year North Korea has to ask for food aid. He went on to say that the US was feeding nearly half of the North Korean population. As the documentary went on, nearly all of the westerners seemed to have a dramatic change of heart. One of the reporters, fearing for his life, sought refuge in the Swedish embassy.

Toward the end, they came back to their North Korean hotel and found their rooms had been ransacked and their video footage stolen. One journalist had every single tape stolen. They also broke into his computer and even stole his notebooks he had written for his future article on North Korea.

When the team finally got out of North Korea and landed in Beijing one of them said that he never believed that landing in Beijing could feel so free. But obviously, living in China is a lot better than living in North Korea.

But living in Toronto, as a Canadian citizen or New York as a registered alien with a work permit, is better than living as a citizen in any of these countries. And if you disagree, please move there, renounce your citizenship, and start a blog to tell the world about your new found happiness.

© Antonio Graceffo March 4th 2011
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.

Warrior Odyssey, the book chronicling Antonio Graceffo’s first six years in Asia is available at The book contains stories about the war in Burma and the Shan State Army.



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