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28 November 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 1:23pm

Meet the British millennial communists defending North Korea

“Though I can’t tell for certain, I’m pretty sure Kim Jong-un’s got his heart in the right place.”

By Tom Ball

What’s here today is gone tomorrow – but will likely be back again at some point soon. That’s the mantra that underlies the rise and fall of every trend, from beards to lava lamps to bell-bottom trousers.

Political ideologies are subject to the same rules as everything else. And back on trend this season is communism. Whether it’s Ash Sarkar, senior editor at nu-media site Novara, shouting down Piers Morgan with the words, “I’m literally a communist, you idiot”, or Goldsmith’s LGBTQ Twitter account “debunking” Soviet gulags.

But as with all trends, you start to wonder how many of the millenial communists are in it for the long run.

Many of the self-professed Marxist-Leninists I’ve met in the last few months came to communism on the wave of the Corbynquake. In Peckham, at a recital of works by early Soviet poets, I met Ali and Sandy, two design students who run a communist art collective (they didn’t want to give their surnames). In the comfy backroom of the coffee shop where the event was being held, Sandy explained to me that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, who have both named Marx as a significant influence, were the ones who inspired her to begin looking into communism as a “viable political agenda”. Ali, a Labour party member, had a similar story and said that Marxism had become a “no-brainer” for him once he began looking into to it more. “Everyone wants to be free and everyone wants to be equal. If you’re a moral person then you should be a communist too.”

The collective was later that week putting on a Rave for Revolution night, and though Ali and Sandy’s enthusiasm for the cause was clear, I couldn’t be certain just quite committed to it they were. Neither was a signed-up member of any communist party. “Obviously,” said Ali, “there are a few bits that don’t work,” citing North Korea as an example.

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By contrast, the members of the youth wing of the Communist Party of Britain I had met the year before, on the banks of the Black Sea at a communist youth festival celebrating the centenary of the October Revolution, were much more the stuff of popular imagination. In the vein of Che Guevara, or Citizen Smith, the urban guerrilla of Tooting Bec, they sported star-studded berets, tattoos (of Marx on one pec and Engels on the other) and freely and unironically addressed each other as comrade. They would readily quote passages to you from the classical Marxist texts.

At the festival, hosted at the Sochi Winter Olympic park, they forged links with other parties around the world, riled the rival Trot group from the UK and stayed up late singing the Internationale with the Cubans. For a group of young communists from a country with a party membership of less than a thousand, it was a rare delight to be surrounded by 20,000 delegates representing the parties of nearly every country in the world.

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Unlike Ali, the young party members are staunch supporters of North Korea. In Sochi, I remember how they trailed the dark-suited delegates from the DPRK as though they were emissaries from a different, more advanced world, taking selfies with them and asking to buy their cigarettes.

“The aim of their government is to clothe, house and feed their populace,” said Daoud Hamdani, a ten-year long Communist Party of Britain member who works at the Morning Star and has Marx’s face inked into his bicep, told me. “Whereas the aims of our government and the US government actively make it harder to clothe, house and feed people. We are curtailing our welfare provisions – they are expanding them, and that has to be a good thing.”

It is not easy to verify anything that goes on inside the secretive state. But the young communists I spoke to declared unerring support for the Kim dynasty, whose litany of despotic deeds and personal cruelties is oft reported in the western media.

“We are living in an age of extreme disinformation,” said Robin Talbot, an administrator. “Some scumbag can sit in his bedroom tapping away at a keyboard saying whatever he likes, and as soon as it gets published it becomes fact.”

“And the coverage given to the North is almost exclusively gossip in nature,” added Johnnie Hunter, the chairman of the party’s youth wing, “You hear all sorts of things about Kim Jong-un – like how he allegedly killed his own uncle with a rocket launcher – which later turn out to be completely untrue.” (The execution was announced by North Korean state media in December 2013).

“To me,” rounded off Daoud as we were leaving, “Kim Jong-un just seems like a happy, relaxed guy. He looks like the bloke who’s just won a competition, and though I can’t tell for certain, I’m pretty sure he’s got his heart in the right place.”