On October 10 North Korea lavishly celebrates what is officially described as “the day when the North Korean Communist Party was founded by the Great Leader Kim Il Sung.” Well, as historians know – and curiously, North Korean official media itself used to admit – in this sentence only the verb “to found” is correct, while everything else, including the date, is wrong. However, let’s forget about it for the time being and talk about another issue: what is the Communist (or, broader speaking, ruling Leninist) Party? What does it do? Where did it come from?
When in 1848 two young Germans penned a booklet, entitled Manifesto of the Communist Party (known today as The Communist Manifesto), they did not aim at creating a monolithic structure determining everything in the society under its control. On the contrary, both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would probably have seen such a scenario as rather nightmarish: They were unhappy about the world around them, and wanted to make it better which, for them, included making it more democratic and egalitarian. Many people on the left still believe that the subsequent emergence of the Stalinist party/state was just a stroke of bad luck, brought about by the vane ambitions of some individuals, unfavorable circumstances and other factors beyond human control. Well, let them believe this if they like; people need to maintain their cherished illusions.
In the Marxist-Leninist view, world history is moved by the struggle of classes. The Communist Party does not merely represent the most progressive class – the working class – but also is in possession of the one and only truly scientific ideology that alone truthfully reflects and explains the world. No other party can achieve what is officially described as “the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism,” and hence all other parties are superfluous in a society where the Communist Party keeps power. The Communist Party alone, so to speak, has access to the correct maps of humankind’s past, present and future, while all its rivals are false prophets, better to be silenced or eliminated for the sake of humankind.
Thus, in the early 1920s the emergence of the one-party system was justified in the Soviet Union. Eventually, the one-party state became a feature of all communist regimes of latter eras (some of them accepted controllable “minor parties” which could not aspire to any political role).
Initially the Communist Party itself was remarkably democratic, and vestiges of these traditions survived, but as merely decorative formalities. The ruling Communist Party held congresses and its committees, including the all-powerful Central Committee, were formally elected. However, at the congresses the participants always extolled the virtues of the current leadership, cursed the current enemies and unanimously voted for the policy of the leaders, while at the elections the party members voted for the only available candidate, whose name was already decided by the party committee.
In practice, the party soon developed into a strict hierarchy of committees, largely arranged by regions, starting from a village or county level, going up to the level of a city or province and crowned by the Central Committee. The elections existed on paper, but were mere formalities, increasingly neglected in many countries, so in essence party committees were self-selected. The committees either chose and appointed their new members themselves or obediently accepted the candidates sent down by a higher-ranking party authority. Higher-level authorities would also normally appoint a local secretary.
Since the Soviet-style Communist Party was a core element in the political structure of any communist state, this system was copied across the entire communist camp
As time went on, more and more power was acquired by bureaucrats working in the committees, the countless “instructors” known in North Korea as chidowon. There are country chidowon, province-level chidowon and Central Committee chidowon, the latter of which were obviously the most powerful. So, in real life a party committee is, essentially, its secretary, his or her deputies and “instructors” – not the people technically considered “committee members.”
Since the Soviet-style Communist Party was a core element in the political structure of any communist state, this system was copied across the entire communist camp. North Korea, where the party was once created under a close watch of the Soviet generals, and where Soviet citizens of the Korean extraction initially took key positions in the party organization and personnel management sections, the emulation was especially thorough. Even now the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) has a strong imprint from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, even though this debt, like many similar debts, is never acknowledged.
At first glance, the structure of a communist state looks somewhat bizarre: It appears that there co-exist, essentially, two parallel governments. The government has ministries responsible for weapons production, and the Central Committee has a Military Industrial Department. The government has its Foreign Ministry, while the Central Committee has its International Department. Functions of state and party agencies clearly overlap – or, to be more precise, the party competence covers pretty much all areas under government authority, and also much more. How can one make a sense of this mess?
At the end of the day, one cannot. In the party-state interaction too much depends on the traditions and personality relations. However, some basic rules might be useful. First of all, the party has positioned itself as the bearer of the only Universal Truth. In the original version, it was described as “the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism,” while in North Korea nowadays this is the universal truth of Juche, represented by the Leader, the embodiment of this lofty idea. In essence, this claim is very similar to the claims made by, say, Catholic Church or, for that matter, other churches of the Judeo-Christian tradition. One can think of a ruling Leninist Party as something the Catholic Church aspired to become in the Middle Ages, in the days of its greatest power: the universal guide of the humankind leading its towards the only existing path to the salvation, the supreme judge on virtually all matters.
NOWHERE TO HIDE
Such a grand role implies that there can be no social, cultural and political issues beyond the party’s reach or competence. Like the church, it has the right to control politics, culture, sexual behavior and diet, to name just a few, and uses this right with little or no hesitation. Party officials don’t merely send instructions about economic production and determine foreign policy, but also decide the size of daily rations, arrange efforts to extinguish or control extramarital sex and order writers about which topics they should deal with in their next novels. To the uninitiated, it might appear an excessive intervention in all spheres, but it is justified as something which makes possible to guide the entire society into the correct direction. Admittedly, in most communist countries, including North Korea, the need for such justifications long became obsolete: such omnipresence and omnipotence of the party, or rather its bureaucracy and/or its leaders, has become a part of established tradition, and people are smart enough not to ask dangerous questions.
This means that, historically, in communist states the party was the single most important tool of state building and state control. At first approximation, the division of power between the party and government is that the party decides strategy while the government carries these decisions out, and is also held responsible when/if things go wrong.
There is another similarity between the party and the church: both are supposed to educate the masses
However, this is the first approximation: in all known communist states the relations between party and regular bureaucracy were remarkably poorly documented, and were often driven by established traditions rather than written instructions and statutes. While generally the party apparatchiks have priority in strategic decision-making, there are areas controlled by government bureaucrats.
There is another similarity between the party and the church: both are supposed to educate the masses – ideally, the entire population – into the right spirit of virtue. All party members are expected to attend the regular indoctrination sessions, sort of sermons where they are enlightened about the current domestic and international situation, and where the theoretical wisdom and practical righteousness of the party leadership never cease to be extolled. In North Korea such meetings are especially frequent, happening three times a week. Another North Korean peculiarity is that the non-party members are also required to separately attend similar meetings. These efforts are justified by the need to morally uplift the populace to the high standards required by the party policy. In practice, of course, the goals are not different from those of the regular indoctrination/propaganda efforts in any society: to ensure support for the government and its policies.
The party has another function as well. In order to get promoted to any managerial position, one has to be a party member. As I’ve talked about before, the common Western misperception that all party members are privileged is wrong. Party membership is necessary but not sufficient for any socially ambitious person. However, party membership means that such a person is placed under greater control, and this helps to select reliable and obedient cadres not only for the party, but also for the government, military forces (all army officers are party members) and even assorted quasi-NGOs.
North Korea might be the only place on the face of the earth where these basic principles, once developed by Joseph Stalin around 1930, are still implemented consistently. Admittedly, the “universal truth of Marxism-Leninism” has been replaced by the same truth of Juche, and many elements of the system have been redesigned. Nonetheless, this is still the closest approximation to the once common model, a living fossil of a sort.
The obvious decision of Kim Jong Un to celebrate lavishly might be an indicator that the North Korean leaders do not want the party-centered system to go any time soon. While economy and society has changed much, on the matters of the political structure and associated ritual, North Korea is still a Stalinist party/state, and determined to remain such.
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1695 words of this article.
Featured Image: Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and Ryugyong Hotel by Clay Gilliland on 2013-10-06 05:55:17