Socialist Education in Korea
In contrast to miseducation in the imperialist USA
My commentary today is based on Socialist Education in Korea: Selected Works of Kim Il-Sung, edited by Riley Seungyoon Park and Cambria York, and published in 2022 by Iskra Books. Located in Madison, Wisconsin, Iskra Books is the imprint of the Center for Communist Studies, an international research center dedicated to the advancement of academic and public scholarship in the fields of applied communist theory and Marxist-Leninist studies.
In a brief autobiographical preface, Riley Seungyoon Park describes himself as a Korean who was much influenced by U.S. propaganda as he was growing up in the USA. He began to critically reflect during his undergraduate education, which led him to turn to his roots to learn the true story, a process that included study of the works of Kim Il-Sung.
The book includes “Theses on Socialist Education,” which was presented by Kim Il-Sung, the historic leader of the Korean Revolution, to the 14th Plenary Meeting of the Fifth Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea on September 5, 1977. And it includes two speeches delivered by Kim at the 14th Plenary with respected to the “Theses on Socialist Education.” In addition, the book includes a speech delivered by Kim on December 28, 1955 to Party Propagandists and Agitators, in which he explains the Juche idea, which is a central concept of the Korean revolution.
Kim Il-Sung initially formulated the Juche idea in the 1920s, in a complicated context in which there was unfolding simultaneously in Korea an anti-feudal democratic revolution and an anti-imperialist movement against Japan. Juche, which could translated as self-reliant independence, maintains that Marxist theory ought to be adapted to the particular conditions of Korea, which requires looking at Korean history not only through the lens of class domination and class struggle, but also from the vantage point of five centuries of foreign domination.
Kim presented the Juche idea at the Meeting of Leading Personnel of the Young Communist League and the Anti-Imperialist Youth League in June 1930. He further developed the idea in the context of the practical experience of struggle during the next fifty years. The formulation of the idea was updated in a manifesto written by Kim Jong Il, “On the Juche Idea: Treatise Sent to the National Seminar on the Juche Idea Held to Mark the 70th Birthday of the Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung, March 31, 1982.” I provide a detailed review of the historic March 31, 1982 document, “On the Juche Idea,” by Kim Jong Il in “The Juche idea of Korea: Marx reformulated in the context of the colonial situation,” November 30, 2021; and “North Korea defends its independence,” December 3, 2021.
Korea had been a unified kingdom and unified people for centuries. Following the collapse of Japanese colonialism in Korea in 1945, Korea was ideologically divided between, on the one hand, those Koreans militantly opposed to Japanese imperialism and allied with Chinese communists, who were opposed to Japanese domination of the region; and on the other hand, those Koreans that were collaborators with Japanese and American imperialisms.
It was an ideological and not a geographical division. The geographical division between north and south Korea was created as a practical arrangement between the United States and the Soviet Union concerning territorial occupation of their armies immediately following World War II. It was conceived a temporary arrangement, and it was assumed that the Korean peninsula would be unified.
In the north, people’s councils were organized, and the Soviet occupation forces granted them de facto local self-government. The people’s councils tended to have progressive ideas. They were militant against Japanese imperialism, and they were oriented to cooperation with the socialist projects in the Soviet Union and China. In contrast, the U.S. military occupation in the south supported reactionary political forces that were allied with U.S. imperialism and that repressed the people’s councils that were emerging in the south.
The U.S. intervened militarily in 1950. The subsequent Korean War resolved none of the political questions, and it resulted in an endless geographical division between the two political/ideological Koreas, which stood for two fundamentally different political-economic systems. See “Reimaging North Korea,” December 7, 2021.
Kim Il-Sung was committed to the peaceful reunification of Korea. He believed that reunification would be attained through successful socialist construction in the north—which would strengthen the economic foundation and raise the standard of living—combined with effective political work toward the south, so that the people in the south would support the approach of the north. He also believed that reunification was favored by international trends: the socialist camp would continue to grow stronger, and national liberation movements were emerging in the colonial and dependent countries. He believed that U.S. imperialism will ultimately be compelled to withdraw from Korea. He allowed for the possibility that reunification could be attained by war, taking into account the possibility that imperialists would unleash a war on a worldwide scale, but he desired reunification by peaceful means.
Many Westerners, if they were to read what Kim said, would be inclined to think that these projections by Kim were entirely wrong. But in fact, they remain vibrant today. Socialism in the world, overcoming the setbacks of the 1990s, is today stronger than ever, with countries constructing socialism playing a leading role in the construction of an alternative world-system based on cooperation and mutually beneficial trade. And the anti-colonial movement has taken organizational form. The Non-Aligned Movement today consists of 120 governments of the Third World, which regularly denounce with a united voice the structures and policies of the world-system. In addition, the United States has degenerated into a decadent and aggressive imperialism, in the context of which the unleashing of a worldwide war and the abandonment of Korea remain possibilities.
Ideology with Korean characteristics
In Socialist Education in Korea, Kim Il-Sung was strongly critical of the ideological work of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which had been created through the merger of the Communist Party and the New Democratic Party. Kim criticized the tendency of propagandists and agitators in the Party toward superficiality, not diving deeply into the issues. This leads to a tendency to copy and imitate what the major socialist countries (the Soviet Union and China) are doing, to copy the external forms of their socialisms without grasping the essence of their experiences. The result is dogmatism and formalism.
Ideological work, Kim Il-Sung maintained, must be subordinated to the interests of the Korean Revolution. The Party is making a revolution in Korea, so it must know the history and geography of Korea as well as the customs of the Korean people. And the people must be educated in the history of their own struggle, especially the struggle against Japanese imperialism, because it is the basis for national pride and the carrying forward of the struggle for socialist construction.
Accordingly, Kim declared, “In revolutionary struggle and in the work of [socialist] construction, we should firmly adhere to Marxist-Leninist principles, applying them in a creative manner to suit the specific conditions of our country and our national characteristics.” Marxism-Leninism “is not a dogma; it is a guide to action and a creative theory.” It must be “applied creatively to suit the specific conditions of each country.”
Kim explained the pedagogical structure of the Workers’ Party of Korea. It gives the highest priority to educating the cadres who constitute the core or the nucleus of the Party, which in turn educates the Party members, many of whom had joined the Party under the influence of factional elements with misunderstandings. The Party members must be able to explain things to the people. They must have a revolutionary mass viewpoint, in order to be able to explain the Party program, which is formulated to protect the interests of the masses of workers and peasants and their allies.
The principles and characteristics of socialist education
Kim Il-Sung believed that education is the most important component of the construction of a socialist society, and he considered that education in a society constructing socialism has characteristics fundamentally different from education in imperialist and capitalist societies.
Above all, the masses have to be taught that they are the masters of the society, that is, that they are working for their own benefit and for the prosperity of society. With such an understanding, they will work hard and with discipline, and they will take care of all public property. Long, persistent education is necessary to get the working people to understand the fact that the society is being constructed by and for them, because it is contrary to what they have been taught in the previous society.
Building socialism, therefore, requires the re-education of the people, and this re-education unavoidably occurs in the context of a capitalist world, in which “bourgeois reactionary ideas and degenerate culture can infiltrate from the outside.” In addition, obsolete feudal and capitalist ideas are present. So the thinking of the people must be remolded. The people must be armed with communist ideas, giving them independence from outdated feudalist and bourgeois ideas and from a degenerate culture. The people must develop a communist morality and a socialist way of life.
Education must be guided by the revolutionary ideas of the Party. Kim is opposed to the liberalization of education, which claims education ought to be non-ideological. Kim maintains that feudalist and capitalist ideas must be eliminated from education. Good education, he believed, has an ideological character.
Especially important is class consciousness, in which a clear distinction is maintained between the interests of the working class and the interests of the capitalist class. Revolutionary ideas defend the interests of the working class from a working-class viewpoint.
Kim maintains that the Juche idea must be established in education. The people of each nation must be the masters of socialist construction in accordance with the realities of their country. “We must solve all the problems of theory and practice that arise in education creatively by our own efforts in accordance with the situation in our country.” Accordingly, education must stress knowledge of Korea, past and present, and the Korean Revolution. Worship of major powers must be eliminated; it is contrary to the true spirit of internationalism.
Party members must possess faith in the victory of the revolution. “It is important to cultivate faith and optimism regarding the prospects of the revolution in the minds of the Party members. Without firm faith in the final victory of our cause and without optimism regarding the future of the revolution, under any and all circumstances, it would be impossible to overcome the difficulties one inevitably encounters in the course of the revolutionary struggle.” Such optimism requires solid Marxist-Leninist education, because Marxism-Leninism is rooted in a clear understanding of the laws of social development, which point toward the triumph of socialism and communism.
Socialist education cultivates collectivism as against individualism and selfishness, Kim maintains. The people must acquire the habit of fighting for the people and the society and for the interests of the Party and the revolution, moving beyond personal concerns and issues.
In addition, socialist education teaches love for work. Students must be taught that work is honorable and sacred. They must acquire the practice of labor discipline.
Socialist education cultivates patriotism. Love for the socialist homeland and its socialist system, pride in the nation, and love of the country and the people are held up as exemplary. But patriotism is complemented by proletarian internationalism, which supports the revolutionary struggles of the peoples of all lands for peace, democracy, national independence, and socialism. “A true patriot is precisely an internationalist and vice versa.”
The methods of socialist education
As is clear from the above, socialist education has a definitive content. Its methodology seeks to effectively cultivate understanding of national and world history and socialist revolutions. Accordingly, its method, Kim maintains, emphasizes clear, illuminating, and convincing lectures, including the effective use of examples and visual aids, accompanied by discussion and question-and-answer exchanges. Explanation and persuasion, not imposition and coercion, is the way.
Theoretical education should be combined with practical training. Lessons and lectures should be combined with experiments and practical activities. Kim recommends visits to revolutionary battlefields and places as well as visits to public, cultural, and educational establishments, factories and other enterprises, and cooperative farms. Participation by students in productive labor is especially effective.
In developing revolutionary consciousness, education should be combined with revolutionary practice. Universal revolutionary principles ought to be taught to students in close combination with practice. Practice is the starting point of understanding. The development of communist and socialist youth organizations is important in this regard.
Kim envisioned making the entire society intellectual through the further development and expansion of factory colleges, so that everyone can study while they work. Everyone eventually would be expected to have higher education. This would reduce the distinction between mental and physical labor, and it would provide the society with the consciousness necessary for the long and difficult task of the construction of socialist society.
By way of contrast: Education in the imperialist USA
In contrast to socialist education in Korea, college education in the United States of America has an essentially bureaucratic function. Rather than seeking to elevate social and political consciousness and to cultivate an understanding of national and world history and world dynamics, it grants credentials to students that become the basis for their entrance into the labor market. As a result, only a fraction of students, perhaps ten percent, are oriented to education as a learning process with respect to the challenges that humanity confronts.
The epistemological structures of higher education were established in reaction to Marx, who had formulated a synthesis of the ideological currents of Western Europe, written from the vantage point of the working class. Marx’s achievement pointed the way toward the integrated development of philosophy, history, and political-economy, oriented to the resolution of the practical problems that human societies confront. This possibility of such an integrated philosophy and science of society was negated, however, by the epistemological structures that emerged in the universities, which, it happens, were financed by the monopoly capitalists that had recently emerged as the dominant class in the USA.
Especially important was, first, the definition of objectivity as ideological and value neutrality; and secondly, the fragmentation of knowledge into the distinct disciplines of philosophy, history, economics, political science, sociology, psychology, and anthropology, each with its own literature and faculties. These epistemological assumptions nicely complemented the bureaucratic function of the university, and they served the interest of monopoly capitalists in minimizing the possibility of the emergence of a knowledge of society and history that would point the road toward an alternative society formed in accordance with the interests of the people.
I taught in the United States from 1973 to 2011, at five public and private colleges/universities in the East, Midwest, and South. Without any awareness of socialist education in Korea, I developed an educational method that coincided with the method of Kim Il-Sung. Of course, I was developing it in practice in the context of an imperialist and capitalist society, and as a teacher for the most part isolated, although I did have some contact with like-minded souls in national academic associations.
Like Kim, I wanted to convey a definite content, which I sought to cultivate as part of the consciousness of the student. In my case, the content that I sought to teach was formulated as a response to the ideological conditions in the USA. It included the causes of global inequality, the process of colonial and neocolonial domination of the world, and the struggles of the peoples of the Third World to forge a more just world order. My goal was to expand the consciousness of the students (I would not say “remold”), so that they would be aware of the fundamental facts of modern history and political reality, facts that were hidden by the structures and practices of capitalist and imperialist society.
Like Kim, I believed that the key to success in this endeavor was clear explanation, so I worked hard in developing clear lectures supported by relevant reading. And there had to be included ample time and space for discussion and exchange of ideas, with an orientation to patient explanation to those under the influence of the prevailing ideas of the society.
However, the American educational system has suppressed the spirit of inquiry and the desire for learning among students. It was extremely difficult to generate discussion and dialogue. I was constantly adjusting the content and the technique, but such adjustments were not helpful in stimulating more engaged interest in the issues.
I attained a partial breakthrough by means of experiential education, which also is consistent with Kim’s emphasis on practical education and visits to places of relevance to the theoretical lessons. Accompanying the college chaplain and a group of students on a mission trip to Honduras, I discovered that when students see the conditions of underdevelopment with their own eyes, their humanity is awakened. They reacted with moral indignation; they declared that “it is wrong that children are living in such conditions, and somebody ought to do something about it.” When the chaplain expressed, in a tone philosophical resignation, “Why does this happen,” I responded, “You know, there is a historical and political-economic answer to that question. I cannot give a complete answer here and now, but I can provide students with the comprehensive answer during the course of a semester, which could supplement an experience of this kind.”
And thus was born a long-term commitment to experiential education. I devoted the next twenty years to developing educational projects in Cuba and Honduras. In the various pedagogical designs, the experience never stood on its own. It was invariably accompanied by reading, lectures, and discussion of issues of relevance to the experience.
I was able to accomplish my pedagogical goals with respect to Honduras. By the end of a semester-long course that included eight days in Honduras, offered annually, the students had arrived to understand the content that I was endeavoring to convey. However, they had no idea what to do with it. They found no structures, except in a couple of cases, for continuing with their inquiry in theory and practice. They in general continued on their road of bureaucratic education and employment, with their experience in Honduras preserved as a fond memory.
I had less success with respect to Cuba. The students arrived to the study of Cuba with varying degrees of negative beliefs, and considerable time and energy was devoted to the unlearning of false teachings. This was in contrast to Honduras, in which the students presented themselves for study with virtually no beliefs and preconceptions, other than general ones with respect to Latin America and the poor. In addition, in Honduras, the students found it much easier to be sympathetic with the leaders of the people’s movement, who formulated alternative principles and general strategies, but had limited capacity to implement them. In Cuba, by contrast, a people’s revolution had taken power and was in the process of constructing an alternative society, and the students were not always in agreement with what the Cuban people decided to do in the exercise of their sovereignty. I had limited success in persuading the students, first, on the intelligence of the Cuban decisions in the context of their reality; and secondly, that respecting the sovereignty of nations means respecting the decisions that sovereign nations make.
Kim Il-Sung, as noted above, speaks of the importance of faith in the future victory of socialism. I must confess that in the 1980s, in the wake of what I had learned concerning U.S. imperialism in Vietnam and the colonial foundation of the world-system, and at the time of the political victory of Reaganism, I did not have faith in the future of humanity. However, in a visit to a remote mountain village in Honduras in the 1990s, the people, receiving me with much respect and courtesy, expressed the view that my presence was a sign that God had not abandoned them. They asked me to explain to the people of the United States the things that I was learning through my travels in Honduras, and I promised them that I would make a sincere effort to do so.
In seeking to convey what I had learned, I adopted as part of my own discourse before my students the evident faith of the impoverished peasants of Honduras in the future of humanity. This was not merely a pedagogical strategy. It was based on the conviction that if humble peasants had faith in the future of humanity, I did not have a right to not have such faith. So my pedagogical discourse assumed an attitude of faith, and this led to a change of heart, such that I too began to have faith in the future of humanity. My faith in the future of humanity remains with me as an enduring gift from the peasants of Honduras.
I subsequently learned, in travels to Cuba, that faith in the future of humanity is a characteristic of revolutionaries. Above and beyond its evidence in the discourses of leaders, journalists, and academics, Fidel explicitly declared it so, often repeating that “No one has the right to lose faith in the future of humanity.” And in today’s commentary, we discover that Kim Il-Sung put forth the same teaching.
Perhaps faith in the future of humanity—or the absence of it—is fundamental to the North-South divide. Among the colonized and neocolonized, hope prevails; but among the sons and daughters of the colonizers, cynicism rules. Reflecting this, the Left in the USA speaks, although inconsistently, about U.S. imperialism; but it speaks much less about the achievements of anti-imperialist societal construction among the colonized. The discourse of the global North both reflects and reinforces cynicism.
Kim Il-Sung teaches that the people must be educated in the history of their own nation’s struggle, as a fundamental precondition for the stimulation of that national pride necessary for moving forward in the construction of the society. It seems to me that Marxists, socialists, and communists in the United States ought to give serious reflection to the implications of this insight for a revolutionary movement in the United States. In the USA, a republican form of government was established in the late eighteenth century by a revolution led by a settler commercial bourgeoisie and incipient manufacturing class, in alliance with small merchants, professionals, small farmers, artisans and workers. The Revolution culminated in the establishment of fundamental principles of liberty and democracy as the constitutional foundation of the first American republic.
With consciousness of the limitations of that foundation from a fully democratic point of view, subsequent social movements emerged, including women’s, workers’, African-American, indigenous, and anti-war movements. These movements expanded the scope of American democracy, by expanding the definition of who ought to be included in the American promise of democracy. And they deepened the meaning of American democracy to include rights that had not initially been imagined. These included the rights to such human necessities as food, clothing, housing, and medical care, framed as rights not conditioned by capacity to pay. And they included the rights of groups and nations, such as the rights of nations to sovereignty over their economies and their natural resources.
Such is the essence of the American story, told from the vantage point of the people: the progressive advance of the nation in expanding and deepening of the meaning of democracy. Ordinary Americans have been taught some version of this story, and the majority has internalized it with a degree of pride in and affection for their nation.
Taking into account this historical ideological and emotional context, two ideologies that today compete for the hearts and minds of the American people can be seen as formulated from above and from the exterior, and therefore, as incapable of bringing the people to ideological consensus in the construction of an alternative, more just and democratic society. The first is Critical Race Theory, which denies the progress made in race relations since 1965, seeing white society as irredeemably racist, and seeing black conservatives as betrayers of their race. It is an ideology that has been formulated by the black professional class, which has an interest in keeping alive a mediating role for black professionals in a racially unequal society; with the support of the elite, who find the theory functional for distracting the people from uniting themselves, as they began to do following the financial crisis of 2008, when they put forth the notion of the 99% versus the 1%. (I have written various commentaries on or related to this theme; see the section on the USA in the Thematic Index).
The second is Marxism in many of its forms, in particular, its emphasis on the revolution as a working-class revolution. Perhaps this is an example of what Kim calls the copying of external forms from revolutions in other countries but not grasping the essence. Marx formulated a critique from below in the 1840s, on the basis of encounter with the emerging movements of workers, artisans, and allied intellectuals in Western Europe. The external form was the formulation by Marx that he was taking a working-class point of view. The essence of Marx’s teaching, however, can be expressed differently. It can be said that Marx encountered a movement formed from below, by the excluded and the unimportant, which became the experiential basis for Marx’s critique of existing forms of knowledge that legitimated capitalism in a given stage in its development. In the context of the United States, rather than focusing on workers and on workers’ movements, it would be more consistent with the history of the people’s struggles to speak of the movements of the various sectors of the people, only some of which were movements of workers as workers. The people in their constructed social movements also were organized as women, blacks, indigenous persons, and students; and their critique included analysis of worldwide structures of imperialism and anti-imperialist movement. In the context of the United States today, it would be better to speak of a people’s revolution, a revolution of the 99%.
This issue can perhaps be seen as one of the dimensions of the problem of superficiality, concerning which Kim’s proclamations seem most relevant to our time and context. The notion of the working class leading a revolution in the United States perhaps could be understood as a superficial copying of external forms, different from analysis of the unfolding of the people’s democratic revolution since 1763, which scored triumph after triumph, and which in the period 1965 to 1972, arrived to include consciousness of worldwide structures of colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism. To be sure, the people’s movements in the United States never arrived to the taking of political power by the people. The causes of this limitation should be analyzed, understood, and taught; with the optimistic and realistic intention of taking this next step.
These are my reflections on socialist education in the United States, stimulated by study of the discourses of Kim Il-Sung in 1955 and 1977. I find him to be one of the great revolutionaries of the twentieth century, worthy of our continuous study and reflection.
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