The Juche idea of Korea
Marx reformulated in the context of the colonial situation
The November 21 Webinar on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, sponsored by the International Manifesto Group, provided a most informative introduction to the DPRK, very much needed, given the lack of study and reflection, even among leftists, of the Korean socialist project, and given the major distortions in the West concerning the project. My November 16 commentary provided a summary and review of the Webinar.
The panelists spoke of the Juche idea, the central concept of Korean socialist ideology. They made reference to a socialist 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.” In today’s commentary, I review the historic March 31, 1982 document written by Kim Jong Il.
Kim maintains that the communist revolution began as a working-class struggle in the nineteenth century, but as it advanced, it entered into a new age, which was characterized by a struggle for national liberation as well as class emancipation, making necessary the formulation of a new world outlook, a new ideology appropriate for the new age. The Juche idea responded to this need. (Kim 1982, P. 71)
The leader of the Korean Revolution, Kim Il Sung, embarked on the revolutionary struggle in the 1920s, a time in which the struggle of the working class and the liberation struggles of the peoples in the colonies and semi- colonies was intensified. In Korea, the situation was complex. An anti-imperialist, national liberation movement against Japanese imperialism existed alongside an anti-feudal democratic revolution. There was flunkeyism, in which lackeys dreamed of independence through dependence on foreign forces. And communist groups competed for the recognition of the Communist International. At the same time, many intellectuals mechanically imitated theories based on the experiences of others, without taking into account conditions in Korea. Moreover, the communists and nationalists did not educate, organize, and inspire the people; they were divorced from the masses, and they divided the masses through sectoral conflicts. (Pp. 5-6)
These political and ideological conditions made necessary the formulation of a new theory. Kim Il Sung created the Juche idea on the basis of this practical requirement. Kim was well-versed in Marxism-Leninism, but he led the people toward a new phase of struggle based in the Juche idea. He explained the principles of the Juche idea, as initially formulated, at the Meeting of Leading Personnel of the Young Communist League and the Anti-Imperialist Youth League held in Kalun in June 1930. The idea was further developed on the basis of reflection on the experiences of the revolutionary struggle during the subsequent fifty years. (Pp. 7-8)
The Principles and Concepts of the Juche Idea
The Juche idea centers on the human being; it sees the human being as the master of the world and of human destiny. The human being transforms the material world and shapes it, in accordance with human interests and desires. The human attitude is to change the world in accordance with human interests, so that the world can better serve human needs. The human being is superior to other species, because humans use cognition and brain capacity to change the world so that it serves them. (Pp. 9, 11)
The human being is a social being, with independence, creativity, and consciousness. As an independent being, humans strive to throw off the fetters of social subjugation, outdated ideas, and nature. As a creative being, humans transform the world and shape their destiny, creatively changing the world to make it more in accordance their interests and desires. And humans have consciousness, which involves understanding of the world and the laws of its motion and development. Independence, creativity, and consciousness enable humanity to approach the world not with fatalism but with a revolutionary transformative spirit; not passively but actively; and not blindly, but with consciousness and purpose, in order to reshape the world. (Pp. 10-11)
The masses of people are the subject of history and the motive force of social, scientific, and technological progress. History develops through the struggle of the masses to creatively transform nature and society, who struggle to replace the old system with a new one more emancipatory. Social movements, which are the source of historical progress, are caused by and developed by the volitional action and role of the subject, which consists of the masses of the people. (Pp. 14-15, 26)
The masses of the people are the masters of revolution and construction and the decisive factor in transforming nature and developing society. . . . The masses of the people undertake the revolution and construction for themselves in order to shape their destiny. It is the masses that want revolution and construction, and it is also the masses that carry them out. They produce all their wealth by their hand, and transform the world and advance history by their struggle. (P. 15)
Social change and progress would be inconceivable without the creative activity of the masses. (P. 15)
Therefore, the creativity of the people is of primary importance in forging the revolution. “The success of the revolution and construction depends on how the creative efforts of the popular masses are utilized. . . . The masses of the people know the reality better than anybody else and have a wealth of experience. . . . One must not only formulate a policy mirroring the will and aspirations of the masses but should also bring it home to the masses so as to make it their own.” The task is to unite the people into a single political force in order to draw upon the creative power of the people; to unite the people and give full scope to their creativity. (Pp. 53-54)
Rightist and “Leftist” deviations weaken the unity of the masses and paralyze their revolutionary zeal and creative power. A struggle must be waged against all outdated things that hamper innovation, and against passivism. One must “give full play to the creative power of the masses and bring about continuous innovations and upsurge in the revolution and construction.” (P. 55)
Creativity also demands developing methods suitable to the actual situation. The revolutionary movement must address all problems in accordance with the reality and the specific conditions of the country. “One must correctly assess the subjective and objective conditions of the revolution in one’s own country and define the line, strategy, and tactics in accordance with them.” Priority must be given to forging the internal political forces and educating the masses with respect to the correct ideology. (Pp. 57-58)
In addition, there must be “a correct attitude toward the established theories.” One must apply the propositions and formulas of the established theories in accordance with specific conditions and peculiarities. “The starting point is not the propositions or formulas of the established theories but the actual realities. The point is not whether something conforms with the established theories but whether it conforms with the demands and interests of the masses and the subjective and objective conditions of a given period.” Accordingly, “one must actively inquire into new principles and methods of the revolution and construction which are suitable to the historical conditions of the time and one’s concrete situation.” (P. 58)
The revolution needs a critical and creative approach to learning from the experiences of revolutions in other nations.
“A critical and creative approach to foreign experiences is important in the revolution and construction. Such experiences always reflect the socio-historical conditions and the national peculiarities of a particular country. Some of them are necessary and beneficial to one’s country and suitable to one’s actual conditions but others are not. One must accept what is beneficial to one and reject what is not. In accepting the good experiences of others, one must not swallow them raw but adhere to the stand of changing and modifying them to suit one’s actual conditions.
“Though one had better refer to the experiences of others, one must make effective use of one’s own experiences as far as possible. It is wrong both to try to copy others blindly and to refuse to learn with an open mind from the good experiences of others.” (P. 59)
Dogmatically and unconditionally worshipping others without creativity makes impossible the forging of a correct policy suitable to one’s actual conditions. All problems must be approached creatively, with a scientific and revolutionary method, rejecting flunkeyism and dogmatism. (Pp. 59-60)
Whereas the masses of the people are the driving force of human progress, the exploiting classes try to arrest and turn back the historical advances of the working masses. All exploiting classes constitute a reaction against history, and they are therefore the target of revolution. “The whole course of existence of class societies has been a history of sharp struggles between the creators of history and the reactionaries of history. . . , between the working masses and the reactionary exploiting classes. Society has advanced and developed through these struggles.” (Pp. 15-16)
In class societies, the masses of the people do not have awareness of their strength, and they are unable to “unite into a political force.” As a result, “they were deprived of all rights, subjected to exploitation and oppression, by a handful of ruling classes and denied their legitimate position as masters of society. . . . They were unable to shape history in an independent manner.” (P. 16)
How can this incapacity to shape history, in opposition to human destiny, be overcome? By the taking of political power by the people. “Only by seizing state power and the means of production in their own hands and by establishing a socialist system can the working masses free themselves from exploitation and oppression and create history consciously as true master of society and their own destiny.” (P. 16)
Kim discerns that “distinguished leaders” formulate revolutionary ideas (P. 3), and that revolutionary leadership plays a central role in the process of change and revolution. “In the socialist society the working masses undergo a radical change in their status and destiny, and their position and their role are enhanced. This is due to revolutionary leadership and struggle of the working class.” (P. 16)
Leadership is provided by the leader and the party. “The working-class party is the general staff of the revolution, and the leader of the working class is the foremost leader of the revolution.” The level of consciousness and organization among the people depends on correct leadership by the party and the leader. “Only when they receive correct guidance from the party and the leader, would the working class and the masses of other people be able to vigorously develop the deep-going and complicated revolutionary struggle to transform nature and society, achieve national and class liberation, build a socialist, communist society successfully, and run it property.” (P. 17)
But correct leadership is necessary, as well as contact between the masses and the leadership. The link between the leadership and masses is very important in a revolutionary, communist movement. Without correct leadership and connection between the leadership and the masses, the communist movement would not advance. (P. 17)
In an interesting paraphrase yet reformulation of Marx, Kim writes that the “the history of human society is the history of the struggle of the popular masses to defend and realize independence.” He writes that “throughout the long history of human society, people have ceaselessly struggled to free themselves from the fetters of society and nature.” All the struggles to transform society and nature are struggles to defend and attain independence for the masses of people. (P. 18)
To attain independence in what sense? Independence from class exploitation and foreign domination. “The struggle for social reforms is an undertaking of the masses to provide themselves with social and political conditions for their independent life, free from class and national subjugation.” (Pp. 18-19)
And this requires fundamental social transformation. “Only when they wipe out the old social institutions and set up a social system which provides people with independence, will the masses of the people be able to become the true masters of society and their destiny and lead an independent life.” (Pp. 18-19)
And it requires creating material conditions for an independent life, free from the fetters of nature. Progress requires the harnessing of nature and the producing of material wealth, through the transformation and conquest of nature. (P. 19)
And it requires the creation of the “ideological and cultural conditions for an independent life, free from the shackles of outdated ideas and culture.” Only then “will people be able to hold their destiny firmly in their hands, reshape it, and live and act genuinely as human beings.” Humans can attain complete independence only when they are “free from social bondage, natural fetters, and the shackles of outdated ideas and culture.” (P. 19)
And it requires social and political independence: “The primary question arising in the struggle of the popular masses for independence is to realize independence socially and politically.” This is the key to human freedom from natural fetters, and to ideological and cultural development. Without social and political independence, the masses of the people cannot adequately develop the productive forces, nor can they be free from reactionary ideas and culture. (P. 20)
And it requires non-interference by the imperialist powers in the internal affairs of countries. The masses of the people are capable of handling the problems of the revolution. “The right to deal with all these problems belongs solely to the people, the masters, of the country concerned. All questions related to the revolution and construction in a country must naturally be disposed of by the judgment and decision of the people of that country. . . . The people of each country must not tolerate any foreign pressure of interference.” (Pp. 23-24)
“The history of all hitherto existing society”
Like Marx, Kim presents an overview of human history. But looking from the vantage point of a Korean history that has included five centuries of foreign domination, human history is more than class domination and class struggle. Kim writes: “The history of human society ever since its division into hostile classes has, above all, been a history of social revolutions to realize social and political independence for the popular masses.” (P. 20)
In Kim’s view, slavery collapsed due to slave revolts, which constituted the first struggle in human history of the exploited working masses. Subsequently, the feudal system of the Middle Ages collapsed due to the peasant struggles against feudalism. This meant progress for the working masses, but it involved “the replacement of the chains of slavery with feudal fetters, which in turn were replaced with the yoke of capital, not the abolition of class domination and oppression itself.” Capitalism is the last exploiting system. Capitalism “is a violently oppressive system which combines class domination with national oppression.” (P. 20)
When the communist movement organized the working class, the creative activity of the working masses became more advanced. They became “genuine creators of history who transform the world to meet their own will and desire and share their destiny in an independent manner.” It is a struggle to “reshape nature and society,” such that technological development and social transformation are intertwined in the process of emancipation. Creativity is necessary for victory and for overcoming problems and meeting goals in accordance with the interests of the people. Only through creativity can the objective world be understood correctly. Dogmas, outdated attitudes, and mechanically imitating others block the possibility of working out a scientific method of revolution and construction. One must be based firmly in the specific reality and maintain a creative attitude in order to identify the correct method of transforming nature and society. (Pp. 27-28)
With the rise of socialism, humanity has reached a historic turning point. “The liquidation of the capitalist system and the establishment of a new socialist system mark a historic turning point in the development of the revolutionary struggle for independence.” With socialism, “all exploiting classes and institutions which trample upon the aspirations and demands of the masses for independence are abolished.” The masses are now able “to hold state power and production in their hands and lead a fully independent life.” (Pp. 20-21)
Kim maintains that at the dawn of human history, people’s creative power was weak, and ideological and cultural levels were limited. But because of the struggle of the masses, “the masses have increased their ability to conquer nature, enriched their knowledge, developed the productive forces, and steadily raised the levels of their ideological consciousness and culture.” Because of the historic struggles of the masses, modern science and technology and progressive ideas have emerged. (P. 21)
For Kim, the full transformation of nature and human emancipation from the fetters of nature and outdated ideas can only be accomplished under socialism, “where the working masses are the masters of society.” The tasks of socialism at the present time are to reshape nature, reeducate the masses, and steadily consolidate the socialist system. (Pp. 21-22)
Kim maintains that the revolution is propelled forward by the consciousness of the people.
“All revolutionary movements are conscious movements. A revolutionary movement begins with awakening people to an advanced idea and emerges victorious on the strength of the masses of the people who are armed with the advanced idea. . . . Ideologically unawakened masses are unable to rise in the revolutionary struggle in spite of exploitation and oppression imposed upon them, nor can they successfully transform nature and society to meet their needs. . . . The communist movement, the highest stage of the revolutionary movement, requires a high degree of consciousness from the people.” (Pp. 30-31)
In solidarity with the neocolonized peoples
Kim declares that the struggle today for independence has an international character. The forces of imperialism are allied on an international scale; therefore, the struggle against imperialist domination and oppression and in defense of independence must be an international undertaking.
And such an international undertaking is in fact occurring among the neocolonized peoples. “Because of their common historical backgrounds and interests, the formerly oppressed nations and peoples who have been subjected to colonial slavery, with their independence and sovereignty downtrodden by imperialism, are united together on the same front of struggle to oppose imperialism and defend independence.” (P. 22)
In language similar to that of Fidel addressing the Non-Aligned Movement during the same period, Kim declared that all nations and peoples must struggle jointly, “in close unity under the revolutionary banner of anti-imperialism and independence. This is the only way to abolish the imperialist world order” and “to set up a new international relationship based on independence and equality amongst countries and nations.” (P. 22)
In this vein, Kim stresses the importance of economic cooperation among socialist and newly-emerging nations, which also are struggling against imperialist aggression and plunder, seeking to defend their national sovereignty and natural resources. They are seeking to put an end to the old economic order, in which the majority of countries are exploited and plundered by a few capitalist powers, and to establish “a new fair world economic order.” He notes that “the newly-emerging countries have inexhaustible manpower resources and natural wealth and huge economic potentialities.” Therefore, “if they strengthen economic and technical cooperation and vigorously struggle with their forces united, the newly-emerging countries and peoples will be able to thwart the imperialist policy of aggression and plunder, uphold their national dignity and right to survival, and achieve economic self-sufficiency and prosperity in a short period without depending on great powers.” (P. 48)
For Kim, the ceaseless struggle of the masses can attain its ultimate aims by building socialism and communism. “The struggle for socialism and communism is the highest stage of the struggle for independence. It is a struggle to end once and for all the exploitation of man by man, the oppression of class by class, and the domination of state by state in human society.” (Pp. 22-23)
For Kim, all of humanity ought to defend the independence of all peoples, because independence is an “inalienable fundamental right.” (P. 23)
The revolutionary must give priority to transforming people into revolutionaries with consciousness and commitment. The people must have a solid understanding of communist ideology and have advanced scientific knowledge and a high level of culture, empowering them to leave aside outdated ideologies. There must be intense revolutionary studying in order to understand the truth and arrive to a high level of consciousness and revolutionary vision. For a revolutionary, studying is the first and foremost duty. (Pp. 60-61, 64)
“Political work aimed at educating and rousing the people into action” should be given priority. “Work among the people is, in essence, a political work and work to enhance their ideology. Giving precedence to political work, the work among the people, means equipping the popular masses with party policy and arousing their revolutionary zeal . . . so that the masses themselves will demonstrate a high degree of consciousness.” (P. 66)
There are important similarities between the Korean struggle to construct socialism and to attain sovereignty and the struggles of China, Vietnam, and Cuba. All four were driven above all by the anti-imperialist impulse of liberation from foreign domination; and freed from the ideological distortions of colonialism with respect to capitalism, they were able to discern that socialism was not only the path to national liberation but also to modernization and the overcoming of the colonial legacy of underdevelopment and poverty.
In all four cases, an exceptional leader could discern the necessary road, hidden among the complexities that defined the situation. The leader possessed political intelligence, the capacity to explain to the people in clear terms, and an unlimited commitment to the cause of justice for the people. With consciousness of their natural human limitations, the four leaders formed vanguard political parties that would ultimately guide the revolution, although this dimension was complicated by errors in the case of Mao. They understood, without saying so, that they would live eternally, through their teachings and their example, kept alive by the collective memory and affection of the people.
All four revolutions possessed an extraordinary faith in the people, casting aside centuries of disparaging attitudes toward those with modest means and limited formal education. They envisioned the triumph of the revolution as the taking of power by the people. They stressed the education of the people, shaping the educational process itself toward a focus on historical and political consciousness. With confidence in the people, following the triumphs of the revolutions, they forged structures of people’s power, designed to ensure people’s control of the political process, guaranteeing that the country would never again return to the shame of foreign plundering. In this they saw the example of Lenin, even though not fully implemented in the land of Lenin.
All four of the great leaders discerned the need for learning from the currents of thought of the entire world. But they understood the necessary appropriation and adaptation of insights to the specific situations of their countries. They were inspired by all, but they copied none.
All four of the leaders and their revolutions were built on the foundation of the great intellectual work of Marx, who had analyzed human history and modern science from the vantage point of the forgers of the first modern revolution, the European working class. But they understood that they lived in a different revolutionary age, one forged by the revolutions of the colonized and semi-colonized. They were Marxists, but not Marxists in the classic sense.
Marx had forged a materialist critique of idealism, necessary in an epoch in which idealism was integral to the established social order. But from the vantage point of the colonized and semi-colonized of the twentieth century, what was required was a synthesis of modern Western science with ancient human hopes and aspirations for social justice. The four revolutions thus sought not only a transformation of material conditions but also a fundamental change in the heart and soul of the person. Traditional religious beliefs could find space in the new socialism, insofar as they accepted its fundamentals.
The great universities of the West, without acknowledging it, saw the dangerous implications for the capitalist world order of the great intellectual work of Marx. They therefore fragmented the academic disciplines, preventing the insights of Marx from being further developed in the comprehensive form that they required. The great universities thus abdicated, leaving the further development of the historic human quest for knowledge to the intellectuals of the four revolutions and their comrades and associates of the Third World.
The Third World revolution expressing itself during the course of the twentieth century, at once a political and intellectual revolution, has been largely beyond the horizon of the intellectuals of the global North. This limitation must be corrected. The four advanced revolutions must be appreciated and studied, as sources of inspiration and knowledge, the bases for new insights relevant to the not yet born anti-imperialist revolutions of the North, a necessary step in the definitive transformation of the world-system to a more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system.
In this sense, the International Manifesto Group represents a small but potentially significant development. Its manifesto imagines a pluripolar world. We can begin to see the poles: East Asia, led by China, Vietnam, and Korea, with China playing a leading role in the development of the more just world-system that all envision; Latin America, with Cuba as the vanguard nation; the Islamic World, with the Islamic Republic of Iran as its center; and Africa, based on the teachings of Nyerere and Nkrumah. Popular anti-imperialist movements in the nations of the North have to guide their peoples toward a reformulation of their place in the world, constituting a pole in a pluripolar world.
Reflecting the centrality of the concept of independence in the Korean Revolution, On the Juche Idea gives considerable reflection to the dimensions of true independence. I will review these reflections in my next commentary.
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