All Things Being Equal

Korea times
Andrei Lankov

Those who joined the Communist movement in its early, heroic stage might have had a lot of shortcomings. They could be (and often indeed were) brutal, manipulative, and over-ambitious. But one cannot deny that they believed in a lofty ideal. They hated the world because of the gross material inequalities they saw first-hand.

They believed that under a capitalist system underdogs were treated unfairly, and they wanted to bring about a great change _ one that would put an end to the sufferings of the poor, and finally establish a society of equality and prosperity.

Contrary to what the early Communists wanted to think of themselves, few of them came from the ranks of the underdogs _ the vast majority of the first generation of Communists were born in comfortable middle class or landowning families. But perhaps this makes them even more worth of respect: after all, these people risked their lives and sacrificed their privileges to bestow a happier life on fellow human beings.

However, history is rich with ironies. Once these youthful idealists took power, they began to change, and the system they created began to re-produce the inequality it was supposed to destroy.

In the early stages of the Communist revolutions in countries like Russia and China, the party cadres indeed led a life not so different from that of the common people. But soon they discovered that maintaining their daily life was time-consuming, especially in a shortage-ridden socialist society. Thus, as a matter of course, the emerging bureaucracy began to distribute more and more perks between its members.

Once a truly manipulative leader (Stalin, a great Machiavellian, is probably the best example) reached power, he began to use these perks to ensure the support of the bureaucracy, corrupting them even further. Very soon, a socialist country developed an extensive network of shops, hotels, service centers, and hospitals for the exclusive use of the elite.

In the Soviet Union, by the early 1930s, cadres came to live a life that distinguished them from commoners. In the days of the widespread famine they enjoyed a good supply of food. They were attended to by the best doctors, without the need of spending long hours in queues. They were allocated best drugs, unavailable to the lesser folk, and could take holidays in special resorts.

When the Soviet armies took over a large part of the globe in the late 1940s, they exported the then Soviet system wholesale, so in the newly established Communist countries cadres enjoyed considerable privileges right from the beginning.

North Korea was no exception. By the late 1940s, the top officials were receiving special rations that allowed them to eat meat daily, they lived in huge houses, usually appropriated from the former Japanese officials, had servants, and sent their children to special schools that were off-limits for the average Kim family.

I always wonder how the former enemies of all privileges did not notice their own transformation. Perhaps, some of them actually did, but the majority took the new privileges as if they were their due. After all, did not they suffer for the new system? So, it was only just that this system rewarded them for their sacrifice _ or so they believed.

How bad was the inequality? I am afraid this is one of many questions that cannot be answered with any great precision. No Gini coefficient can be calculated, because in a state socialist economy access to goods matters more than money.

On paper, a bureaucrat could easily have the same income as a skilled worker. However, in real life, their living standards would be vastly different since the bureaucrat had access to many goods that a humble worker could not buy (or had to buy at a high black market price).

In the late 1980s, before the collapse of the North Korean state economy, a Party secretary (that is, a CEO) of a large plant received some 250 won a month, while a skilled worker at the same plant had a salary of 100 won. However, the CEO was given rationing coupons for meat, fish, and eggs _ products that were available to a humble worker only a few times a year.

The CEO received rations of beer and filtered cigarettes. He lived in a large comfortable apartment provided free of charge. He could be certain that his children would go to a good college in Pyongyang _ perhaps, even to the Kim Il-sung University. All these were beyond the reach of a worker.

Thus, the difference was far greater than the formal wage differential (100:250) would suggest, but it could not be measured with any precision. One can speculate that this difference was still smaller than it was in most capitalist countries.

This indeed seems to be the case, but even a statement such as this is difficult to prove, since no economic and social indicators can take into account the non-market distribution of goods, so overwhelmingly important in a state socialist economy.

Thus, socialism, built according to Marxist-Leninist blueprints, produced a society where inequality was re-born, albeit in a somewhat diminished form. The system had another bad feature: the ruling elite tended to develop into a hereditary caste, with children of officials becoming officials.

The chances for social promotion in the socialist system diminished as the time went by, and eventually those chances became smaller than would be the case under capitalism. But that is another story…


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