Marxism and Elections Part Two

In my last blog post, I argued that Marxists cannot hope to win socialism solely through the electoral system. The capitalist state is rigged against the interests of workers. Sacrificing other kinds of organizing in favor of intervention in the electoral sphere can only result in the defeat of the socialist movement. However, this does not mean that socialist parties should abstain from elections entirely. There are a variety of benefits to standing in elections, In this essay, I hope to outline them from a Marxist perspective.

I think the best place to begin is with The Communist Manifesto. This document was drafted at the founding of the Communist League, a revolutionary organization that Marx and Engels helped to organize. The Manifesto was meant to serve as a set of perspectives that could guide the League in its revolutionary struggle. In it, Marx and Engels pointed to three strategic tasks for the Communists. The first was that they needed to build working class organizations at the primary site of worker’s power: the workplace. Secondly, they had to build social movements to fight against all forms of oppression in society more broadly. Finally, struggle necessitated the construction of an independent political party of and for the working class to, as they put it, “win the battle of democracy” [1].  This battle broke out in a very serious way in 1848, before the ink on the Manifesto had even dried. The 1848 revolutions, by way of background, essentially constituted mass uprisings against the reactionary feudal order and replace it with a representative, democratic one. During this period, the workers were the most militant and dedicated fighters. They were prepared to carry the revolution through to its democratic end. The capitalists, although they mouthed support for democracy and revolution, betrayed the struggle by forming alliances with the feudal oligarchy [2].

The Communist League was far too small to determine the course of these events, but by relating to the wave of revolutions that broke out across Europe in this period, Marx and Engels could better articulate what they meant when they called for an independent working class political party. Marx wrote a document entitled “The March 1850 Address to the Communist League.” In it, he put forward a strategy to prevent another 1848-style betrayal of the working class. He wanted to ensure that the next democratic revolution would be completed to its fullest extent. This strategy grants insights into the ideas of Marx and Engels concerning the relationship between revolutionary socialism and electoral politics. This document was of such great importance that Lenin supposedly committed it to memory [3].

The document warned against workers entering into tight alliances with capitalists. Marx again argued for the formation of an independent worker’s party, in which the working class could realize its potential to lead the revolution through to the end. This political party was described as “the coming together or coordination of various communes and worker’s associations” [4]. The communes referred to local branches of the Communist League, while worker’s associations meant unions, clubs, and the like. Each of the local worker’s groups formed by this coordination was to act as a nucleus or center in which “the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence” [5]. Here, Marx is arguing not merely for the organizational independence of the working class, but also its political independence, which would be formed from the ground up.

Marx points out that this organization-formed again by the merger of the advanced communist organizations and the worker’s movement as a whole-must be capable of functioning both in secret and in the open. Further, this organization must arm itself to create a military force independent of the existing state. Then, as a product of the revolutionary creation of a representative democracy, this organization must “run its own candidates within the new electoral system and take every opportunity to put forward [its] own demands so that the bourgeois democratic government not only immediately loses the support of the workers but finds themselves, from the beginning, supervised and threatened by authorities behind which stand the whole mass of the workers” [6].

Here, we see one of the key reasons why standing in elections can be a useful tool. Seeing a worker’s party on the ballot threatens the bourgeoisie’s stranglehold over the status quo. It shows them that they are being watched, that we are working to overthrow them. This may help reign them in and push them further left. Although running in elections can never bring about socialism on its own, our mere presence on the ballot may be enough to win workers minimal gains in the short term. When we explain to workers how these gains were won, they will be more likely to rally behind us. It is only at this stage that the Party can really become a force to be reckoned with. Electoral engagement, then, does two things: it keeps the bourgeoisie in check and shows workers that there is an organization fighting for their interests.

The second element is the most important. Even when there was no potential at all of getting a candidate elected to government, Marx and Engels argued that the worker’s party must still put forward their own candidates. This helped to preserve the independence of the working class, project working class politics into public life, and assess the audience for such politics and count the forces behind the workers. Standing for elections, even when we know we cannot win them, is an important ideological and organizational tool. It shows workers that someone is standing with them, someone really does represent their interests. Socialist candidates give us a rallying point. They give us a face. Standing in elections turns us into a legitimate, visible political movement capable of making public gains.  It also provides us a point to refer people who have questions about politics. In effect, socialist intervention in the electoral sphere makes working class politics visible, and thus helps to radicalize those sectors of society most willing and able to bring about socialism.

Further, standing in elections can help us gain key information about the strength of our movement. We will know how many votes the worker’s party received, and thus understand the kind of manpower we have at our disposal. We can measure the strength of our movement against the strength of our opponents, and use this data to ascertain what kind of action is possible in the streets. In this sense, standing in elections is not only advantageous for the masses, but for the Party itself.

It is often claimed that standing in elections is counterproductive, because socialist candidates will split the vote between themselves and the mainstream “center left” party. It is argued that instead of running our own candidates, we should accept the lesser of two evils. Marx and Engels took a firm stance against this, writing,

“All such talk means, in the final analysis, is that the proletariat is to be swindled. The progress which the proletarian party will make by operating independently in this way is infinitely more important than the disadvantage resulting from the presence of a few reactionaries in representative bodies. If the forces of democracy [meaning the liberals] take decisive action against the reactionaries from the very beginning, the reactionary influence in the election will already have been destroyed” [7].

Essentially, what Marx and Engels mean is that if the liberals lose elections, it is not because a proletarian party has split the vote. Rather, it is because the liberals themselves have failed to put forward a program that the masses can rally around, and in so doing neutralize the reactionaries.

The purpose of running in elections, in Marx and Engels’ view, was this: win the masses over politically, challenge the political hegemony of the capitalist class, pose a real alternative to its agenda, and to defend that alternative by force. The electoral strategy, then, was to be part of a process of self-activity, leading to the self-emancipation of the working class.

Marx and Engels, therefore, saw the fight for representative democracy as crucial. It opened up important political space, as well as a range of tactics and tools that workers could integrate into the revolutionary struggle. This did not, however, mean that radical change could be won by electing socialists to office and legislating it into being. Elections were seen as a tool, one component part of a wider revolutionary strategy that included an armed and militant working class. Elections were not to be a substitute for this militant organization.

Twenty-five years after the March Address was written, the German Socialist Party (SDP) came into being. Within ten years, they had already won half a million votes for their candidates running for seats in parliament. By 1912, they had built up an impressive membership and exercised a considerable degree of political influence in working class life [8]. This shows that elections can be a kind of “broadcasting station” for the Party and its platform. Elections cannot bring about socialism, but they can help galvanize workers to do so.

The experience of the SDP, although it does prove that standing in elections has some benefit, also shows the dangers of treating the electoral area as the primary site of struggle. Given the aforementioned success in this area, it is perhaps understandable that a significant faction within the Party argued that a socialist society could be voted into being. The left wing of the SDP, led by Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, and Paul Levey, understood that this was a pipe dream. The real power in society, they argued, does not lie with the elected officials. It lies with the board members of corporations and the heads of the major financial institutions in society. These people are not elected, but the government is really set up to serve them [9]. Of course, this fact must remain a secret. This is why politicians make promises they can never hope to keep: they need to win over the majority and convince voters that the state is looking out for their own best interests. When these politicians enter office, however, they do little more than serve the interests of capital. A recent example of this can be found with Barack Obama, who campaigned on a slogan of hope and change. He was the “people’s candidate,” ready and willing to take the government back from the greedy corporate parasites who had taken it over [10]. Once in office, he immediately rescinded this vision of a new egalitarian order, making ninety percent (90%) of the Bush tax cuts permanent [11].

This gets at the core problem of reformism, which I discussed at length in the previous post. Representative government, like the military and police, is a component of the state. The state is an organ that functions to protect the interests of a particular class. The capitalist state, then, has been developed and tuned to defend the interests of capital against labor. Marx developed this point in a letter to his German comrades. He wrote,

“A historical development can remain peaceful only for so long as its progress is not forcibly obstructed by those wielding social power. If, in England, for instance, or in the United States, the working class were to gain a majority in parliament or congress, they could, by lawful means, rid themselves of such laws and institutions as impeded their development. However, the peaceful movement might be transformed into a forcible one by resistance on the part of those interested in restoring the former state of affairs. If they are put down by force, it is as rebels against lawful force” [12].

In other words, if the ruling capitalist class feels that its power is threatened, it will not hesitate to use the state to remove that threat. If attempts at cooptation or coercion fail, the military and police will employ brutal force to crush the socialist movement.

This was not abstract speculation on the part of Marx and Engels. Rather, it was arrived at through a rigorous analysis of the 1871 Paris Commune. For a short time, the workers of Paris took control of the city and formed their own institutions of direct democracy. The Commune taught Marx and Engels that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” [13]. A radically different form of worker’s self-government would need to be established and defended against counterrevolution. The Paris Communards were content to establish an island of socialism within the city, but did not defeat the existing bourgeois state of France. As a result, the deposed ruling class was quickly able to regroup and, as Marx put it, “drown the Commune in its own blood” [14].

In analyzing elections, we should always be mindful of the corrosive and destructive effects of capital. Our goal, in this respect, should not necessarily be to win office, but to spread our message and rally the workers behind a concrete political program. Capitalism, as the Paris Commune proves, can never be voted out of existence. Those in power will never let us peacefully take that power from them. There must be a revolution in which the workers and oppressed forcibly defeat the bourgeoisie, break up their state, and create a radically new one in its place.

As I argued above, reformist socialism necessarily entails watering down our political program to appeal to the widest possible audience of voters. Receiving as many votes as possible becomes the goal, instead of winning socialism. This negates the tactical benefit of elections described above: elections no longer show workers that someone is fighting for their actual interests, but merely sow confusion as to what those interests are. In order for elections to benefit the Party, therefore, they must remain subordinate to other forms of struggle. Only in doing so can they actually serve to push workers towards socialism.

This dynamic played itself out disastrously in the SDP at the outbreak of World War One. They turned their backs on their working class comrades around the world and supported their own state in the conflict. They did this in order to win over German voters, who had been temporarily whipped into a pro-war frenzy by the bourgeoisie. This abandonment of international solidarity by the Party-the most advanced detachment of the worker’s movement-caused German workers to believe that international solidarity was not in their interests and set the worldwide struggle for socialism back by decades [15].

In fairness, the SDP took their pro-war position at a time when speaking out against the war would mean imprisonment of leaders and the outlawing of the organization entirely. This, of course, would have eliminated their electoral strategy altogether and jeopardized the progress they had made in that arena. While their actions are understandable, they also reveal the strategic problem with focusing on elections. By engaging exclusively in legal modes of struggle, we subject ourselves to the whims of the law. Since the judicial system is part of the state, this means that we put ourselves at a disadvantage. By acting openly in the electoral sphere, and leaving open no other avenues of struggle, repression of the Party would have meant the complete downfall of the movement. Not diversifying our tactics, as the experience of the SDP shows, can only mean death [16].

Given this experience, it is understandable that some revolutionaries could develop a complete aversion to political elections under capitalism. It is understandable that some would argue that we should not partake in elections under any circumstances. I would, of course, argue against this view. Lenin and the Bolsheviks engaged in a similar debate as a result of the 1905 revolution. In response to mass upheaval, the Russian Tsar granted the creation of a parliament called the Duma. He did not do this because his mind had been changed by the masses, but rather because he knew that the revolutionary movement was most dangerous in the streets. If he could redirect it to legal channels, the pressures of the parliament would render it ineffective. The Duma, because it was stacked with pro-tsarist forces, could easily control and neutralize the revolutionary struggle. For the Tsar, the establishment of the Duma was not matter of principle. It was a purely tactical consideration based on an actual assessment of a particular situation. It is important to note at this juncture that even our enemies are aware that there is no electoral road to socialism [17]. When standing for elections, we must be ever vigilant and on guard, ensuring that we do not get caught up in the spectacle of anti-worker politics. If our enemies utilize bourgeois democratic institutions in a tactical manner, we must also understand them in this way.

Initially, the Bolsheviks organized an active boycott of the election. They recognized that it was a trap and chose to focus their energy on harnessing the rising struggle in the streets. In this context, this was the correct line. The point that we need to take away from this is that we ought not use elections as a substitute for struggle, but neither should we swear them off completely. Whether we intervene in the electoral sphere at a given moment should be dependent on a rigorous analysis of the concrete material conditions of struggle. This is how the Bolsheviks understood this question as well. In 1906, when it was clear that the struggle was turning towards a period of reaction, the Bolsheviks changed their position on the Duma [18]. This was the result of a long theoretical and practical debate in the Party. The Bolsheviks understood that at that particular point, the forces of reaction had vastly outnumbered the forces of progress. In order to rally the workers behind the Party, it was necessary to unify them around a program and a “face.” Elections here functioned, as I said above, as a “broadcasting unit” capable of carrying the struggle forward.

Lenin also published a pamphlet called “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” in which he put forward another argument for participation in the Duma. He argued that, while revolutionaries understand that the electoral system is set up to serve the people in power, the masses have not necessarily drawn this conclusion. If the electoral arena garners the political attention and focus of the working class, if the masses believe that the government can serve them, then revolutionaries must play an active part in it. This is part of how we relate to the masses, shift their consciousness, and win them to revolution. This theoretical point reflects an understanding of the mass line, which I have argued should be the primary method of work of the Party. The mass line begins when we meet the people where they are at. We cannot run ahead of the masses. If we do so, we risk alienating them and dooming the Party to isolation [19].

The Bolsheviks, based on this understanding, participated in the Duma and eventually won six delegates (which they called Deputies) to it. In the same vein as the Marx-Engels attitude outlined above, the Bolshevik Deputies were used as a tactic in pursuit of a wider strategy of raising the revolutionary consciousness and combativity of the masses. The elections were not an end in and of themselves, but rather a means to an end. For this to be possible, the Deputies had to engage in activity outside the Duma as well as inside it. They needed to have strong, intimate connections with both the workers and the rest of the Bolshevik party. Unlike capitalist politicians, the deputies were not divorced from the real conditions of working people and subject to the totalizing influence of the bourgeoisie and their lackeys. Nor could they be like the German socialist representatives mentioned above. They were not put on a pedestal and divorced from the socialist party from which they came. The Bolshevik deputies were deeply involved with non-electoral Party work as well as the Duma. They made daily contact with the editorial board of Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper, and were also in close contact with the central leadership of the Party. They also attended the regional and national Party congresses. All the Bolshevik deputies were workers themselves, and Bolshevik trade union work meant that they had already cultivated grassroots connection to the class. The Bolsheviks knew that electoral engagement was merely one tactic among many, not to be used in place of genuine organizing [20].

They also understood, however, that electoral intervention gave them a unique advantage, in that it allowed them to reach sections of the masses they would ordinarily have been cut off from. Having seats in the Duma helped to legitimize the Party and its platform in the eyes of the general public. It gave them an opportunity to meet with labor leaders and other working class organizations within their districts, and thus exercise greater influence on the worker’s movement as a whole. Elections, as this experience makes clear, can help extend the influence of the Party and carry the struggle towards revolution [21].

The Bolshevik deputies made cunning use of the privileges that came with being members of the government. They were able to conduct propaganda among the masses, give radical speeches at strikes and protests without legally being arrested. When the police and the government tried to crack down on the deputies, it only enhanced the ties between the Party and the masses, making it more difficult to follow through with the persecution [22].

The deputies also used the Duma as a platform to concentrate the attention of the masses on crimes committed by the Tsarist government. They found that they could do this effectively in the Duma by using a procedure called an interpolation. This involved the deputies giving a speech on the floor of the Duma and officially asking the government to explain their reasoning behind a particular anti-worker policy or action. Knowing full well that liberal ministers within the Duma wanted to cast themselves as sympathetic to the workers, the Bolshevik deputies would bring them worker concerns, publish a full account of the conversation-including the false promises made by the ministers-and then use the breaking of those promises to appeal to the workers to continue their struggles and not place any hope in the liberal authorities moving forward [23].

The Bolshevik deputies utilized the Duma to expose the workers to the actual nature of the system, to show the workers that they could not rely on liberals who pretended to speak for workers while apologizing for violence against them. They could only rely on themselves and their party to make real, lasting change [24].

This point is key to our understanding of elections. Because the masses are focused on the parliamentary sphere, winning seats in it actually allows the Party to spread its critique of the system to a wider audience. We cannot change the system from within, but we can call it out from within. This, again, reflects an understanding of the mass line. Once we meet the people where they are (in this case in parliament), we must develop their understanding of the issues and move them forward in struggle. Because elections are seen as legitimate by the masses, winning seats in representative bodies is an excellent way to do this.

The Bolshevik deputies were always careful to meet the people where they were, often literally. Upon hearing of any worker incident or protest, the deputies would rush there, provide solidarity, and collect information from the workers on the ground. They would then use this information for the next interpolation. Before long, resolutions began streaming in from the workers to the deputies, requesting that the government be questioned on everything from the persecution of trade unions to the treatment of political prisoners. In this way, the Duma functioned as a rallying point for the workers, showing them that the Party was willing and able to fight for their interests. To quote the Bolshevik deputy A.Y. Badayev, “the worker’s deputies were in the thick of the fight. We were in constant communication with the strikers, helped to formulate their demands, handed over funds collected, negotiated with various government authorities, etc” [25]. The deputies would collect strikes and deliver the money to workers so that they would have an income even when they were on strike. This was a way of providing concrete solidarity with workers and winning them over to the cause of the Party. Badayev continues,

“Workers would call on me to ask all sorts of questions, especially on paydays when money and aid for strikers was brought. I had to arrange supply passports and secret hiding places for those who became illegal, help to find work for those victimized during strikes, petition ministers on behalf of those arrested, [and] organize aid for exiles. Where there were signs that a strike was flagging, it was necessary to instill vigor into the strikers, to lend the aid required, and to print and send leaflets….There was not a single factory or workshop, down to the smallest, with which I was not connected in some way or another. Often, my callers were so numerous that my apartment was not large enough for them, and they had to wait in a queue down the staircase. Every successive stage of the struggle, every new strike, increased these queues, which symbolized the growing unity between the workers and the Bolshevik faction, and at the same time furthered the organization of the masses” [26].

To reiterate, socialism cannot be handed down from above, but must be a product of the self-activity of the workers and their party. Revolutionaries cannot simply win seats in parliament and cloister themselves off from the struggle. They must remain in contact with the masses every step of the way. Elections are merely one path by which to do this.

Putting this electoral strategy into action not only increased the self-activity and consciousness of the masses, it also gave the Bolsheviks a thermometer through which they could measure the mood of the masses and tailor their practice to fit that mood. This helped them win the masses over to their program with much greater expediency than if they had abstained from elections entirely.

Ultimately, in 1917, it was by assessing their elections to the soviets that allowed the Bolsheviks to ascertain whether they had enough support to wage an armed revolutionary struggle [27]. If you think back to the strategic perspectives put forward by Marx and Engels in 1848, all of this should sound familiar. Elections were not the be-all and end-all of socialist practice. They were a tool to be utilized as part of a greater strategy of winning the masses over to revolution and organizing them to take power.

Of course, there are some significant differences between where we are as a movement today and where we were in 1848 or 1917. Just like the Bolsheviks debating whether or not to boycott the Duma, all strategy and tactics need to be based on as accurate an assessment as possible of the concrete situation. They must be based on our weaknesses as well as our strengths, on what we think we can accomplish. Above all, however, we must always return back to the central question every revolutionary should ask: what will it take to increase the consciousness, combativity, and organization of the workers and the oppressed? In short, what will it take to win?

Elections ought to be subordinate to this goal, but they can play an important role in catalyzing and sustaining revolutionary struggle. In the United States particularly, one of the major factors holding back the progress of the worker’s movement is the Democratic Party. Unlike in other countries, where workers have their own political Party, the American working class is tied to an organization that, although it claims to support their interests, is actually bound up with the interests of capital. Election law in this country is rigged against third party challenges. Unlike in Europe, where seats in parliament are dictated by the proportion of the vote a party receives, America has a winner-take-all system. As a result, workers feel that they only have two choices at the ballot box [28]. One is voting for the party which openly supports the rich and powerful, the Republicans, and the other is the Democrats. Although this party may occasionally pay lip service to the issues of workers and oppressed people, at the end of the day they carry forward the same capitalist, imperialist agenda as the Republicans. This creates a dynamic in which the workers, no matter how frustrated they are with the Democrats, feel compelled to vote for the “lesser of two evils.”  Every four years, there is pressure on the worker’s movement to put militant organizing on pause and focus on making sure a Republican is not elected into office. When Democrats feel like the have the working class vote on lock, there is nothing to stop them from shifting further and further to the right once they actually get into office.

This was never clearer than in the Obama presidency. On the 2008 campaign trail, Obama said he was going to “put on his walking shoes” and walk picket lines with workers [29]. He was nowhere to be found when Democrat Rahm Emanuel attempted to smash the teacher’s strike in Obama’s hometown of Chicago [30]. This strike was waged for better working conditions and against racist school closures. You would imagine that, if there was ever a time for a black Chicago native to walk a picket line, this would be it. The Left’s ties to the Democratic Party, as this example illustrates, serves only to demobilize and demoralize the working class and oppressed. Marx’s call for an independent political party of the working class has never been more relevant and vital.

Imagine the impact it would have on the consciousness of the working class and oppressed if they had candidates that jumped in the opportunity to participate in and support strikes the way the Bolshevik delegates to the Duma did. While the conditions in the United States are very different from the conditions of more than a century ago, we are still faced with the historic task of building an independent political party of the working class and oppressed. In this country, that means breaking the stranglehold of the Democratic Party on the working class. This is not going to be easy. It will be a long process, encompassing a wide variety of tactics, strategies, and moments. In this task, we should never cut ourselves off from the tools at our disposal. Standing in elections is just such a tool. Insofar as we assess that standing in elections would carry the struggle forward, that it would make a real impact on the consciousness of the masses, we should make use of this tactic. We must always remember, though, that the goal of the revolutionary party is to raise and direct the consciousness of the masses. Elections are nothing more than a way to help this along. We should stand firmly against reformist roads to socialism and firmly in favor of a working class revolution, one that can create a better society for everyone.

  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Retallack Imperial Germany p. 187
  14. Ibid.
  15. See Retallack, Op. Cit.
  16. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.

Marxism and Elections Part One

There has been much debate about how radical political actors should engage with electoral politics. Some, like anarchists, argue that the correct tactic is to ignore electoral politics entirely, focusing on what they see as the more useful path of direct action or “propaganda by the deed” [1]. Among those who identify as Marxists, thought on this topic is generally more varied. Some parties have chosen to confine themselves entirely to the electoral sphere, attempting to win socialism through the ballot box. Others have boycotted elections and embarked upon a “people’s war” of armed struggle with the state and capital. The point here is that there is no one Marxist theory of elections. This is partly because elections themselves are a vastly different from place to place. The electoral system in Britain, for example, is quite different from the one in Peru. As such, it is impossible to approach elections in a vacuum. Marxists understand that tactics must be based on the material conditions of the struggle, so attempting to craft a platonic plan of action in the electoral sphere is useless. In the essays that follow, I will not attempt to craft such a theory. This is not a manual or a blueprint for Marxist organizations. What I want to do here is sketch out, in broad terms, an analysis of electoral politics from a Marxist perspective. This is simply my opinion of the topic, and I caution readers not to trust in it blindly. It is important to conduct concrete social investigation of every issue rather than simply reading about it. We must, in the words of Mao, “oppose book worship” [2].

In this post, the first of two on the topic of elections, I want to refute the idea of “voting our way to socialism.” This strategy has been a failure nearly everywhere it has been attempted. I am firmly in favor of a revolutionary road to socialism, based on smashing the existing state and building new organs of worker’s power where it once stood.

It is important to note that the social democratic parties-that is, parties whose main goal is to win socialism through elections rather than revolution-have failed to abolish capitalism even once. This is especially egregious in the context of Western Europe, where many of these parties have enjoyed media backing and majorities in parliament. These parties have not only failed in their aims to bring about socialism peacefully, however. In many cases, they have actually become parties of the bourgeois elite or the labor aristocracy. Across the region, social democratic parties have implemented dramatic cuts in social spending, as well as a host of reforms designed to boost the position of capital at the expense of workers. In Greece and Italy, proposed or recently passed budgets will reduce spending over the coming years by about 29 billion dollars [3]. In Germany, this number is as high as $96 billion. This figure constitutes the largest collection of spending cuts in this country since World War Two [4]. Cuts will also total as much as one billion dollars in France [5]. Planned or approved reforms in this region include a host of anti-worker measures. This involves a three-year increase in the age at which French workers can retire [6], the elimination of payments into the pensions of the unemployed in Germany [7], and changes to Spain’s labor laws which will make it cheaper and easier for employers to lay off workers [8]. These attacks have, predictably, been met by a great deal of militancy from workers. Many will have heard of the mass strikes and violent protests opposing catastrophic austerity plans in Greece [9].

I bring all of this up because they tell us quite a bit about the nature of social democracy, or “socialism through the ballot box.” As I said above, Western Europe has traditionally been a hotbed of reformist socialism. Many of these parties still exist across the continent. At one point, they hoped to slowly implement reforms culminating in the transition to socialism. This view stood opposed to that of revolutionaries, who sought a sharp, rapid overthrow of the system [10]. After the Second World War, however, many of these parties gave up even this goal. They instead settled on a program of slow progressive alterations to capitalism, offering piecemeal improvements in the lot of workers within the bounds of a “managed capitalism” [11]. They focused on creating welfare institutions, extensive public sector employment, and government support for unions. All of these measures, meager though they are, have been or are being destroyed. In many cases, this destruction is being spearheaded by the same parties that instituted them in the first place. This gets at the real problem with reformism. Because reformist socialist parties want to work within states designed to uphold the rule of capital, they will forever be bound by the laws of capitalism. This means that any reforms they win will be subject to market forces and cut back at the first opportunity. We can never hope to win socialism by passing one reform after another, because these reforms will always be fragile. The capitalist class will seek to cut public services and benefits so that they can better exploit their workers. A socialist party working within a capitalist state will also find themselves subjected to this pressure. This is why social democratic parties have, in many places, become a vehicle for the set of pro-free-market, anti-worker policies often grouped under the banner of neoliberalism. In Greece, Germany, and elsewhere, it is social democratic governments or coalitions pushing these measures [12]. Even outside of government, reformist socialists have led no sustained or comprehensive attempts to resist the neoliberal order.

How has it happened that in Europe, where the power and influence of social democratic parties has been greater than anywhere else, social democrats have not only failed in their original mission of abolishing capitalism in the electoral sphere, but have largely come to serve the interests of capital against labor? Perry Anderson, editor of the New Left Review, explained the trajectory this way in 1994: “Once, in the founding years of the Second International, social democracy was dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. Then it pursued partial reforms as gradual steps towards socialism. Finally it settled for welfare and full employment within capitalism….[I]t now accepts the scaling-down of one and the giving-up of the other…” [13].

I want to make some theoretical points about why this shift has occurred. Firstly, socialism is not just state ownership of the economy, as many social democrats believe. In many cases, efforts to bring about socialism in the electoral process failed because the “socialism” these parties were working towards did not actually challenge capitalism. It is entirely possible that an economy could be majority state-owned and still be controlled by capitalists. The state is an instrument of class power, so a transition to state ownership does not automatically correlate to worker’s power. For Marxists, the question is not whether the state owns the economy, but who owns the state. Socialism is the collective rule of a class, the working class. It thus cannot be handed down from above, but must won through the self-activity of the class guided by a Party which is deeply imbedded in it. Reformist socialism ignores the fact that socialism can only be a collective project, instead trusting the will of a group of politicians rather than the advanced workers. This is one reason why efforts to vote in socialism have continually failed.

Further, the electoral system is rigged in favor of capital. However, this is not a new development, as social democrats like Bernie Sanders say [14]. The American state was not “taken away” from the people, but instead was designed from the beginning to subjugate them. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, admitted as much in a 1787 debate on the constitution. He wrote:

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge the wants or feelings of the day-laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevailed lent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe, — when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability” [15].

In other words, wealth (“landed interests”) will be increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands through markets (“various means of trade and manufactures”).  The wealthy, therefore, would be outvoted in a democratic system and government would be overrun by the majority of working people.  To prevent the working class from attaining political power and expropriating the property and wealth of the rich (“an agrarian law”), we have to “wisely” ensure that government “protect the minority” of the rich against the majority of the poor.

What this means is that the very institutions socialist parties engage with in the electoral arena-the senate, the congress, and even city councils-are designed to hamstring worker’s parties. The American electoral system is explicitly engineered so that socialists-or those opposed to the rule of capital-can never take power within it. Thus, we should not see electoral engagement as the primary means of struggle. We cannot put all our eggs in that basket, as it were. It is vital that, in our engagement with elections, we do not neglect other kinds of mass organizing, such as strikes. Elections, I want to stress, are a tool in our arsenal, one tactic among many.

The capitalist state is, whether “democratic” or otherwise, is constructed to serve the interests of a class that exists for and through the exploitation of workers. As Engels, Marx’s longtime friend and collaborator, once put it, ”the modern representative state is an instrument of exploitation of wage labor by capital” [16]. This function is expressed not simply in the parliament itself, but also in the civil services sector, the courts, and-crucially-the fundamental bodies of the state: the “bodies of armed men,” as Lenin put it [17]. These institutions-the army, the police, and so on-cannot simply be redirected towards defending worker’s power. Workers “cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes” [18]. Rather, workers must smash the existing state and build their own worker’s state.

Where reformist socialists take power, the institutions of the state-army, police, courts, etc-will revolt. This was seen in General Pinochet’s 1973 military coup, backed by the United States, of the reformist socialist government in Chile [19]. The army and police were created in the interests of capital. This purpose is baked into their very DNA. Attempts to build socialism without fundamentally altering these institutions will inevitably be, to quote Marx in a different context, “drowned in blood” [20].

The reality, however, is that there have been very few Chiles. Despite a long-held rhetorical commitment to socialism, reformists have rarely, in practice, done things that threaten the power of capital in a significant way. To explain that failure, revolutionaries often point to the character flaws of reformist politicians. The reformists have historically been bourgeois, and this explains why they did not build socialism. This is an incorrect tactic. Our objection is not to reformists as people, but to reformism as a strategy. No matter their background, social democrats, by virtue of their position, eventually become members of a class distinct from the workers they supposedly represent. Well-paid and freed from the daily insults of normal working-class existence, reformist leaders come to occupy a privileged position. This condition is dependent upon their ability not to fight for the emancipation of workers, but to balance the competing interests of capital and labor. They grow conservative and become the out-and-out representatives of capital. We might also add that the importance of campaign contributions and positive media coverage in modern elections mean that electorally-oriented politicians of all stripes must gain support from those who own the money and the media: the capitalist class [21].

Despite the power of this argument, there are deeper reasons for the failure of reformism. Even if the social democratic parties were run by a collection of true proletarians who spent their free time laboring in factories, and even if such parties have media backing and a majority in parliament (which, to reiterate, they often have), they still would not legislate socialism into being. Reformism is definitionally contradictory, and it is these contradictions that are to blame for its continued failure.

Reformism posits that socialists can win elections and use their control over the state to legislate the destruction of capitalism, but the nature of electoral competition itself prevents socialists from forging the kind of solidarity necessary to create majority support for socialism. Elections are static and passive forms of political action that encourage compromises on important principles and the formation of alliances based on lowest-common-denominator politics. Prioritizing elections leads socialists to adapt to, rather than challenge, popular but conservative ideas. The point of elections, for reformists, is not to advance ideas (that comes later, once they are in power) but to win elections. Because reformists believe that the parliament is the site of liberation, they cannot actually begin liberating the people until they are in parliament. In service to this goal, reformists must learn to avoid radical positions or actions that might threaten short-term vote totals. Persuing a reformist strategy inevitably leads to missing the forest for the trees. Social democrats cannot lead politically, which is what the masses require, but are instead doomed to tail the most backward elements in the movement.

This leads reformists to hold back mass movements at moments of radicalization, to channel mass grievances into elections and parliamentary maneuvering, and to limit demands to those that do not threaten the power of elites to a degree that those elites would be forced to engage in open struggle against the popular movement, and thus reveal their true character to the masses. In this respect, reformism blinds the masses and makes them incapable of understanding society as it actually exists. Unless one understands society, one cannot hope to change it. Reformism, therefore, actively prevents the transition to socialism from taking place. It confuses the masses so that they become distracted, unable to carry the struggle forward.

Reformists might move left when faced with pressure from the masses, but always within very strict limits. They will attempt to restabilize capitalism at those moments of social, economic, and political crisis: precisely the moments at which very large numbers of people could come to understand that there is something deeply wrong with the system. A perfect example of this is Syriza in Greece which, at the moment of crisis, chose to ignore the issues really facing the masses and embrace austerity [22].

Finally, profits are the lifeblood of the capitalist system. As long as capitalism exists, profits are what will keep it afloat. If the state is to have resources to distribute to workers and the poor, as reformists claim to want, they must collect enough taxes to do so. That will only happen if the economy is growing. If workers are to win ever greater wage and benefit increases, the firms in which they are employed must stay in business. Not only that, they must be profitable enough relative to their competitor capitalists to afford concessions. As one Swedish social democratic leader put it, “because social democracy works for a more equal distribution of property and incomes, it must never forget that one must produce before one has something to distribute” [23]. This raises a dilemma. The reality is that large-scale structural reforms, such as wage increases or social welfare, can drive capitalists to reduce investment in a given country. This happens because capitalists want to punish governments that implement policies antithetical to their interests. Pro-worker reforms mean that capitalists can invest their money more profitably elsewhere, and those who choose not to do this will go out of business. When capitalists stop investing or lack the capital to invest, the result is economic crisis, declining tax revenue, and inflation. This leads to a sharp drop in support for the government, resulting in its fall from power. Social democrats must, by necessity, balance their desire to reform the country towards socialism with their need to keep capitalists profitable and investing. When there is a contradiction between these two impulses, there are structural pressures built into the state, described above, that push them to side with capital over labor. This can be seen happening right now in Norway, the supposed liberal utopia [24].

It should be noted, by virtue of Western social democracy’s need to accommodate the interests of capital, it has failed to provide an alternative to imperialism. Scandinavia, for example, largely maintains itself through violent imperialist policies just like other Western nations.

In 2008, Norwegian communications multinational, Telenor was exposed in a documentary as partnering with a Bangladeshi supplier that employed child labor in horrendous conditions. The report also uncovered that the children were made to handle chemical substances without any protection and one of the workers even died after falling into a pool of acid. Not only was the treatment of workers unacceptable, they also ruined the crops of farmers in the surrounding areas with the waste from the plant. Like other Western multinationals that deliberately go to the developing world looking to save money on labor and operations costs, the company washed its hands of the accusations, denying knowledge about their partner’s inhumane practices [25].

Similarly, Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil, has been involved in multiple corruption cases around the world-especially in underdeveloped countries-where they have bribed state companies and government officials in order to obtain licenses for extraction. Their involvement is not only limited to these aggressive economic practices, they are also deeply involved in the West’s military exploits. Norway dropped 588 bombs on Libya but scarcely is mentioned as being part of these imperialist operations. Statoil has since started joint extractions operations worth millions in the ruined country [26].

Both of these companies, it is crucial to note, are partly owned by the state. This furthers the above argument that state ownership does not automatically translate to a more equitable system of production or distribution. By working within the capitalist state, reformist socialists will be forced to make concessions to that state. This will always mean exploiting workers at home and abroad.

The Swedish clothing giant H&M can retail affordable products in rich nations and make huge profits only because they exploit and underpay workers in impoverished nations such as Bangladesh. As John Smith points out in his book Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century , only 0.95 euros of the final sale price of an H&M T-shirt remains in Bangladesh to cover the cost of the factory, the workers, the suppliers, and the government. The remaining 3.54 euros goes for taxes and transportation in the market country, with the bulk going to the retailer. In other words, Western nations capture most of the profit although it is the poor workers and nations that have put most of the input in terms of labor and resources [27].

The ‘Nordic Model’, as it has come to be known, is hardly a system that we should look to for inspiration. No model, system, or structure that depends on the exploitation and domination of others can be ethical. Western nations and their people—if they are to be taken seriously by the rest of the struggling world—must begin to think about developing socialist political and economic structures that are internationalist and crucially, anti-imperialist at their foundations. This can never be done by working within the capitalist state. Imperialism is, as Lenin put it, “the highest stage of capitalism” [28]. It is a phenomenon that is bound up with capitalist production. Once a capitalist economy becomes sufficiently developed, imperialism must arise in order to keep it afloat. Social democratic parties, because they are working within the capitalist state, must bow to the pressures of capitalist markets. As such, they must engage in imperialism and rank exploitation.

This is the crux of the matter: the state under capitalism is an organ of capitalist power. In light of this, attempts to build socialism by winning seats in parliament or similar political bodies will always result in failure. Treating the electoral arena as the primary space in which socialism will be won is a recipe for disaster. In order to achieve victory, we must organize workers in a militant communist party capable of smashing the existing state and running society in the interests of all.

  1. John Most, “Action as Propaganda” Freiheit, July 25, 1885
  2. Mao Zedong, Oppose Book Worship, 1930.
  10. Paul Blackledge (2013). “Left reformism, the state and the problem of socialist politics today and Jesus followers”. International Socialist Journal.
  11. Stan Parker (March 2002). “Reformism – or socialism?”. Socialist Standard.
  18. Ibid.
  23. Quoted in John Hall, The State: Critical Concepts. 1993. p. 325.
  26. Ask, Alf Ole (2003-09-12). “Statoil’s international director resigns”. Aftenposten.

A Marxist Critique of Worker’s Cooperatives

All socialists-and increasingly many who do not identify as such-are aware that capitalism, a crisis-prone and exploitative system, requires an alternative. Many socialists, such as the economist Richard Wolff, hold that worker cooperatives are just such an alternative [1]. These are firms in which workers directly elect managers and have a say in the day-to-day management of production. To quote Wolff, “In each enterprise, the co-op members . . . collectively own and direct the enterprise. Through an annual general assembly the workers choose and employ a managing director and retain the power to make all the basic decisions of the enterprise” [2]. Certainly, many of these elements, such as the election of managers, are important aspects of socialism. Workplaces in the Soviet Union, for example, were generally organized along very similar principles [3]. What differentiates socialist workplaces from worker cooperatives, however, is ownership. Cooperatives are owned directly by the workers in them, whereas socialist workplaces are owned by the state-which is itself controlled by workers. In this essay, I want to argue against Wolff’s conception of cooperatives as an already-existing alternative to capitalism.

I should begin by saying that I think cooperatives are a useful tool in struggle, and they have many benefits. However, I reject the notion that they are a pathway out of capitalism in and of themselves. Marx himself praised the cooperative movement in 1864, writing,

“The value of these great social experiments cannot be overrated. By deed instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labor need not be monopolized as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the laboring man himself; and that, like slave labor, like serf labor, hired labor is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labor plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart . . .” [4].

Marx was right in asserting that cooperatives play an important role in capitalism. They show that workers are in fact capable of managing production without the “carrot and stick” imposed upon them by the capitalist. Workers can take control of production and, by extension, of society.  Further, the fact that workers control their own immediate work, in a cooperative fashion, is itself a contribution to enhancing their well-being. It decreases their alienation from their work, and permits them to flex their intellectual as well as their physical muscles. There is cause to establish cooperatives within capitalism, but treating them as if they are themselves a road out of capitalism can only harm our movement.

Marx understood that cooperatives showed the possibility and desirability of socialism, but he did not think that cooperatives were socialism in and of themselves. Marx rejected the idea that we could get out of capitalism simply by establishing one cooperative after another. He held that the only real way out of capitalism was the complete destruction of it, rather than a gradual “changing from within.”

It should be noted that from the very beginning the co–op saw itself as providing an alternative to struggle against the system. The Mondragón cooperative-which Wolff upholds as a prime example and which we will return to later-was originally the idea of a Catholic priest named José Maria Arizmendiarrieta who regarded class struggle as destructive and who hoped to overcome it not by directly challenging the power of the exploiting capitalist class, but by creating a small corner of the economy in which class differences supposedly did not exist [5]. Cooperatives establish a form of worker’s power in a single workplace, but they leave the normal capitalist order in place elsewhere. Cooperatives on their own do not fundamentally alter the system. For this reason, a reliance on cooperatives in the socialist movement may divert energy from real anti-capitalist struggle. Marx noted this in the aforementioned speech. He also noticed that a variety of establishment figures had come to support the cooperative movement. In his words,

“[P]lausible noblemen, philanthropic middle-class spouters, and even kept political economists have all at once turned nauseously complementary to the very co-operative labor system they had vainly tried to nip in the bud by deriding it as the utopia of the dreamer, or stigmatizing it as the sacrilege of the socialist” [6].

Even fascists have sometimes praised co–ops. In the 1960s, the labor minister of Spain’s fascist dictator General Franco awarded the Gold Medal for Merit in Work to Mondragón’s Arizmendiarrieta. [7]. Decades earlier, in fascist Italy, Benito Mussolini established the National Fascist Cooperative Agency (Ente Nazionale Fascista della Cooperazione) and encouraged the expansion of cooperatives in the farming and food processing sectors as a way to downplay class differences [8].

Individual co–ops do not threaten the system and can absorb time and resources that could be used for other kinds of organizing. Yet, as Marx put it in his speech, “To save the industrious masses, cooperative labor ought to be developed to national dimensions, and, consequently, to be fostered by national means” [9]. Cooperatives can be an important starting point for establishing socialism, but they can never do so on their own. The advocacy of cooperatives by forces objectively hostile to socialism should be evidence enough of this. In order to effectively be an alternative to capitalism, worker-managed organizations must receive support from a state that represents the interests of the working class. If this is not the case, the cooperatives will crumble under market mechanisms.

Worker’s cooperatives, in addition to diverting energy from socialist organizing, are not in and of themselves powerful enough to challenge capitalism from within. Capitalism, as its name suggests, is a system organized for the perpetuation of the supremacy of capitalism. The economic, political, and legal systems are organized to prevent forces antagonistic to capital-such as the workers-from taking power. James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, admitted as much in a 1787 debate on the constitution. He wrote:

The man who is possessed of wealth, who lolls on his sofa or rolls in his carriage, cannot judge the wants or feelings of the day-laborer. The government we mean to erect is intended to last for ages. The landed interest, at present, is prevalent; but in process of time, when we approximate to the states and kingdoms of Europe, — when the number of landholders shall be comparatively small, through the various means of trade and manufactures, will not the landed interest be overbalanced in future elections, and unless wisely provided against, what will become of your government? In England, at this day, if elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure. An agrarian law would soon take place. If these observations be just, our government ought to secure the permanent interests of the country against innovation. Landholders ought to have a share in the government, to support these invaluable interests, and to balance and check the other. They ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority. The senate, therefore, ought to be this body; and to answer these purposes, they ought to have permanency and stability” [10].

In other words, wealth (“landed interests”) will be increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands through markets (“various means of trade and manufactures”).  The wealthy, therefore, would be outvoted in a democratic system and government would be overrun by the majority of working people.  To prevent the working class from attaining political power and expropriating the property and wealth of the rich (“an agrarian law”), we have to “wisely” ensure that government “protect the minority” of the rich against the majority of the poor.

What does this mean for worker’s cooperatives? In short, it means that the system is set up to discourage and crush these firms. Since worker’s cooperatives represent a kind of worker’s power, they do in some sense threaten the capitalist order. While they do not change the system as a whole, they do make workers aware of the fact that they are capable of running things by themselves, without capitalists. This, obviously, is very bad for the capitalists. Therefore, the very market mechanisms that allow capital to exercise control over labor also discourage attempts by labor to threaten capital. Worker’s cooperatives will always be at a disadvantage under capitalism, and will therefore never be able to do away with it unaided.

German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg, in her pamphlet “Reform of Revolution,” expanded upon this idea. “Co-operatives,” wrote Luxemburg, “especially co-operatives in the field of production, constitute a hybrid form in the midst of capitalism. They can be described as small units of socialized production within capitalist exchange” [11]. The problem is that cooperatives that are established in the context of the capitalist market must compete in order to survive, and if the rate of exploitation is high among your competitors, then you must match it. Cooperatives must always “self-exploit” in order to keep up with capitalist enterprises, and thus compromise their own egalitarian ideas.

As Luxemburg put it, 

“in capitalist economy exchanges dominate production. As a result of competition, the complete domination of the process of production by the interests of capital—that is, pitiless exploitation—becomes a condition for the survival of each enterprise” [12]. 

She continues:

“The domination of capital over the process of production expresses itself in the following ways. Labor is intensified. The workday is lengthened or shortened, according to the situation of the market. And, depending on the requirements of the market, labor is either employed or thrown back into the street. In other words, use is made of all methods that enable an enterprise to stand up against its competitors in the market” [13].

Some cooperatives find small niche markets in which to survive, but the majority will either be driven out of business or be forced to copy the practices used by other employers. In Luxemburg’s words:

“The workers forming a co-operative in the field of production are thus faced with the contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the utmost absolutism. They are obliged to take toward themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur—a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving” [14].

The history of the world’s biggest co–op, the Mondragón Cooperative Corporation in Spain, is a perfect illustration of Luxemburg’s argument. Mondragón was set up with the ideals of worker participation, solidarity and equality, but as the business has grown bigger and bigger, and become more and more integrated into global capitalism, its founding principles have applied only to a shrinking percentage of its workforce.

In 1993, Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that Mondragón was restructuring to get ready to compete in the European single market. It noted that “increased salary differentials, advertising campaigns in Fortune and cooperative alliances with companies like Hotpoint have had many co–op workers wondering whether in the new Mondragón Cooperative Corporation [MCC] some members are more equal than others” [15].

By this time daily life for most Mondragón workers was not noticeably different from working for a more traditional capitalist employer, although with greater job security. Decision-making had become highly centralized, with most co–op members having no say in the company’s day-to-day operations. Perhaps not surprisingly, in a survey comparing job satisfaction of Mondragón manual workers with workers in a similarly sized privately-owned company, there was little difference between the two groups, with the Mondragón workers slightly less satisfied [16].

A few years later the Guardian reported, “MCC members have learned to think like the shareholders of any other global business. In order to protect their own jobs from fluctuations in demand, 20% of the workforce are on part-time or short-term contracts and can easily be shed.” The corporation president, Antonio Cancelo explained: “Our clients cannot guarantee us steady workloads, so we have to have a number of people on temporary contracts. We live in a market economy. That we cannot change” [17].

Meanwhile, most workers employed by Mondragón outside of the Basque region are not members of the co–op. By the late 1990s Mondragón was setting up joint ventures with capitalist firms in other parts of Spain, and operating plants employing low-wage labor in countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Thailand, and China [18].

MCC adopted an ethical code for its foreign employees and promised that their treatment would reflect the cooperative’s “core values.” But in early 2011, Mondragón was accused of employing sweatshop labor in an appliance manufacturing company it owns in Poland, where low-paid workers started a work-to-rule. According to one commentator sympathetic to Mondragón:

“The Polish struggle represents the dark underside of worker co-operation. Our movement can’t engage in the exploitation of workers even to protect other members of the co-operative or, worse, a nostalgic legacy. I don’t think that this means that Mondragón should simply accept worker demands; however, when the situation gets to the point of a work slow-down, work-to-rule, or all-out strike, it seems to me that a worker cooperative is no longer acting according to the principles of co-operatives or worker rights” [19].

MCC’s image as an egalitarian paradise suffered a further blow in November of 2013 when one of its largest components, the domestic appliances manufacturer Fagor Electrodomésticos, was forced to declare bankruptcy. Fagor had run up debts of over one billion dollars during Spain’s severe and continuing economic crisis, and the Mondragón Group General Council decided it could not risk lending the company any more money. Attempts by Fagor’s management to persuade US hedge funds to invest in the co–op also fell through.

Almost 2,000 workers lost their jobs in the Basque region and another 3,500 were laid off from Fagor factories in France, China, Poland, and Morocco. MCC’s Corporate Employment Office offered the Basque workers help with finding work, but hundreds of them occupied one of the affected plants in Edesa and workers later formed a human chain outside MCC’s main office in Mondragón [20]. Even the world’s largest cooperative has been forced to bend to the market in order to survive. It has proven incapable of challenging capitalism by itself.

In addition to the totalizing nature of market mechanisms analyzed above, worker’s cooperatives do not alter the material basis of capitalist production to the degree necessary for the establishment of socialism. They are useful for showing workers that they have power, but they do not actually allow them to exercise that power across the whole of society.

In order to explain why that is, I want to turn to the Spanish Civil War of 1936. In Spain, just before the bourgeoisie’s attack led by Franco, anarchists were leading the most important mass trade union (the CNT had more than one million members) and had a political apparatus, despite what they claim, with the Federación Anarquiste Ibérica (FAI). In a dominating position, anarchists had the organizational capacity and the possibility to lead the proletarian and peasant masses in the abolition of capitalism [21]. It was partly their reliance on decentralized worker-owned cooperatives that resulted in their defeat by fascist and capitalist forces.

Spanish anarchists believed, much like those of today, that a system of autonomous self-managed communes, with the weakest links between each other, was the alternative to capitalism. They thought that as soon as they had collectivized villages in the countryside and cooperative factories in the city, they would also have socialism.

But, as Lenin argued, “small production engenders capitalism” [22]. This is true whether the small companies are owned by a single owner or by the entire workforce.  Despite the  heroism of anarchist activists, their Spanish project failed because the material basis which gave birth to capitalism, namely social classes and the resulting inequality is compatible with cooperative production. Anarchism failed because it saw small production units, organized along cooperative principles, the solution to capitalism.

The market forces of capitalism quickly reasserted themselves within communes led by anarchists. These forces were not mainly linked to difficulties of the civil war, but by economical relationships between communes. The communes’ incapacity to overcome inequalities, as with other problems, was noticed by all serious civil war commentators, from various tendencies, and even by some leaders of the CNT [23].

This inability to overcome inequality does not mean that the communes were a failure. Some functioned well, others not. Again, despite their faults, they demonstrated that workers could continue production without bosses. But cooperatives were not enough to stave off the return of capitalism.

This was precisely because of the  worker cooperative method of ownership. In Anarchist Spain, cooperatives were owned by the workers who directly made use of them, not by a state managed by the entire proletariat. This caused workers to consider their factory as the possession of those who worked in it rather than property of the whole proletariat. While unemployment was high, workers in collectivized shops tended more often than not to proceed to improve their own working conditions through better wages and social programs than to distribute their advantages with other workers. As with agricultural communes, great disparities lasted between laboring workers and unemployed ones, between workers from better-paid strategic sectors and those from secondary sectors [24]. This does not reflect the egalitarian, cooperative values of proletarian socialism, but is rather reminiscent of the bourgeois doctrine “every man for himself.” This bares a striking resemblance to the all-too-common phenomenon of settler workers betraying immigrant workers within unions, in that both prioritize the individual over the collective [25]. Small ownership caused this mentality to flourish, which is why it was incapable of staving off the return of capitalism.

The Marxist theory of historical materialism holds that ideas are the result of the ways in which humans change the world, that is, the ways in which they engage in labor [26]. Therefore, we can conclude that the commune’s decision to look out for one’s own workplace rather than the working class as a whole is a result of fundamentally bourgeois relations of production. Cooperatives in ‘non-capitalist societies’ such as anarchist Spain, therefore, failed to prevent the inequalities of capitalism from resurfacing, because they did not sufficiently change the material basis of capitalism.

In Anarchist Spain, evidence of difficulties in the union-controlled economy soon came in abundance. The Republican Minister of Industry reported that by January 1937 he had received petition asking for state intervention in no less than 11,000 enterprises [27]. This is nothing less than proof of Marx’s assertion that cooperatives require a state to function on the market. Cooperatives are simply not designed to function on the market. As such, they cannot possibly represent an exit strategy from capitalism.

This method of small collective ownership, which led to inequalities, also led to a lack of independence for many workers in rural cooperatives. The poorest collectivized workplaces did not have the necessary funds to pay wages. They were forced to acquire these funds by mortgaging their workplace’s equipment, as well as their warehoused material with the bourgeois Catalan government. One by one, workplaces passed from proletarian hands to those of the bourgeoisie. Eventually, capitalism returned entirely. In this sense, the direct ownership of workplaces by those employed there meant a lack of freedom for the working class as a class. Direct ownership would seem to be more conducive to freedom than state ownership, but the case of Anarchist Spain shows this to be far from the truth.

What is missing from the strategy of establishing cooperatives is any way of achieving this bigger goal, because “the lords of the land and the lords of capital will always use their political privileges for the defense and perpetuation of their economic monopolies. So far from promoting, they will continue to lay every possible impediment in the way of the emancipation of labor” [28].

Economic democracy is an important element of of socialist society, but this can only be permanently established by adopting a strategy aimed at dismantling the power of the capitalist state and expropriating the expropriators. The working class must create its own state which can organize production for the benefit of everyone, rather than a small minority (or groups of minorities) who owns the factories, land, and so on. In other words, what is needed is  a political strategy, not one focused primarily on attempting to create alternative economic models within existing capitalist society. We must become, in a word, revolutionary.

  1. “Yes, there is an alternative to capitalism: Mondragon shows the way,” The Guardian, Sunday, 24 June 2012 (…).
  2. Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It, 2nd ed. (Northampton, MA: Interlink Books, 2013).
  3. See my blog post “Socialism and Democracy in the USSR”
  5. Kasmir, The Myth of Mondragón, p. 86
  6. Op. Cit.
  7. Vera Zamagn, “Italy’s cooperatives from marginality to success,” paper presented at XIV International Economic History Congress, Helsinki, Finland, August 2006 (…).
  8. Ibid.
  9. Op. Cit.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Andy Robinson, “Co–ops face an unequal fight,” January 2, 1993.
  16. Sharryn Kasmir, The Myth of Mondragón: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working Class Life in a Basque Town (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996), chapters 5 and 6. See especially pp.162–4.
  17. Giles Tremlett, “Basque co-op protects itself with buffer of foreign workers,” October 23, 2001 (…).
  18. John McNamara, “Contradictions in Paradise: When the Workers Become Bosses,” January 31, 2011,….
  19. “Trouble in workers’ paradise,” The Economist, November 9, 2013 (…); Andrew Bibby, “Workers occupy plant as Spanish co-operative goes under,” The Guardian, November 15, 2013 (
  20. Christopher Bjork, “Recession Frays Ties at Spain’s Co-ops,” Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2013 (…).
  21. Pierre Broué and Émile Témime, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain, London: Faber & Faver Limited, 1972.
  23. Joseph Green, “Anarchism and the marketplace”, in Communist Voice, No. 4, Sept. 15, 1996.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Jacobson, Robin and Geron, Kim (2008)’Unions and the Politics of Immigration’,Socialism and Democracy,22:3,105—122, Page 112
  26. See my blog post, “Marxist Dialectical and Historical Materialism.”
  27. Juan Peiró, De la fábrica de vidrio de Mataro al Ministerio de Industria – Valencia 1937
  28. Op. Cit.


People Power: Democracy and Popular Participation in Venezuela

Opponents of socialism love to paint any country that pursues a path other than neoliberal capitalism as “dictatorial” and “undemocratic” [1]. Venezuela, a socialist country, is naturally a victim of this slander. In this essay, I would like to argue that this characterization of Venezuela is in fact slanderous, based in nothing but propagandistic phrase mongering. In fact, Venezuela is one of the most democratic countries in Latin America, perhaps even the world.

Let’s begin with Venezuela’s elections. I have argued in the past that elections are not the only, or even the primary, component of democracy. Elections, in my view, are nothing more than a tool the people can use to exercise political power. This-power in the hands of the people-is what democracy really means. However, given the focus on Venezuela’s electoral system as “fraudulent” or “meaningless” [2], I feel it is necessary to mention them here. The idea that Venezuelan elections do not mean anything, or that they are rigged, is a complete fabrication.

The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSVU, has been repeatedly affirmed at the polls, winning twelve of fifteen major elections between 1998 and 2015 [3]. The government has won these elections cleanly, and has immediately conceded on the rare occasions when it has suffered defeat, including December 2015’s parliamentary elections [4].

Nicolas Maduro, dubbed Chavez’s “handpicked successor” by bourgeois media sources [5], actually won the election squarely. A presidential election was held in Venezuela in April 2013 following the death of President Hugo Chávez on 5 March 2013. Voters gave Nicolás Maduro—who had assumed the role of acting president since Chávez’s death—a narrow victory of fifty-one percent (51%) over his opponent Henrique Capriles Radonski, the Governor of Miranda [6]. The fact that this victory was so narrow is a strong indication that it was earned. Fraudulent elections have, historically, resulted in the victor winning by a huge margin, upwards of ninety percent (90%). If Maduro really was manipulating the system, why did he not do so to a greater degree? Why did he only award himself 51% of the vote? This is a very low number to choose if one hopes to rig an election successfully. Why not choose something like 80 percent, giving yourself a kind of safety net should things go awry? Put simply, if Maduro wanted to rig the elections, he could have done a much better job of it.

The elections in Venezuela are not necessarily proof that the country is a democracy, but they are strong evidence in favor of it. After all, the people have evidence that the PSVU would step down if voted out. If they disliked the Party, why not vote it out? Indeed, the country’s own opposition has learned this. In 2004, the opposition enacted their constitutional right to a recall election, seeking to have then-President Hugo Chavez removed from office. However, Chavez remained in power after the recall was rejected by a wide margin of fifty-eight percent (58%) [7]. The Venezuelan people had an opportunity to vote out Chavez, and yet declined to do so. If democracy is rule by the people, then democracy in Venezuela means Chavismo. The people chose Chavez, just as they chose Maduro.

A predictable retort here would be that the people have not chosen Maduro. There would have been a recall election had the supposedly dictatorial government not suspended it in order to secure its own power. This, too, is incorrect on a number of levels.

In order to explain why, we must examine who the opposition actually is. In the words of Afro-Venezuelan activist and feminist Maria Emilia Duran, the opposition is “a white, bourgeois, classist, racist and sexist elite that has no patriotism…They want a Venezuela where only they exist, not Black, Indigenous and poor people” [8]. Venezuela’s opposition is not made up of poor or working people oppressed by the government. It is a wealthy elite whose actions are motivated by a desire to empower themselves, not the people. Venezuela’s right-wing opposition, connected to multinational oil companies, called for national strikes protesting the Bolivarian Revolution. Opposition leaders, claiming that Chavez was a “dictator” who wanted to “make Venezuela into another Cuba,” ordered sectors of the country’s armed forces to arrest him and installed wealthy oil businessman Pedro Carmona as president [9]. Carmona, a right-wing politician backed by the U.S. [10] sought to undo all of the actions taken by the revolution. But the Afro-descendant, Indigenous and working class masses-in a word, the oppressed-who supported the revolution immediately responded to his ouster, holding large protests outside the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas calling for his return [11].

The opposition and supporters in Venezuela could not be more different. One wishes to install a wealthy businessman as head of the country, while the other wishes to lift up the most oppressed sectors of society. The opposition wants nothing more than to take power away from the people of Venezuela.

The opposition has routinely made use of illegal actions in order to satisfy these aims. Of the 1,957,779 signatures submitted during the first phase of the recall, for example, over thirty percent—or 605,727—had irregularities, including signatures from over 10,000 deceased persons [12]. The submission of false signatures is a major offense and allowing the recall to proceed under those circumstances would have undermined the credibility of the entire Venezuelan electoral system. The country’s right-wing opposition responded to the suspension of the recall referendum process with indirect calls for a military coup. What else is this but an anti-democratic action? The opposition is attempting to impose its will on the people of Venezuela through the artificial inflation of signatures. If the government were as unpopular as opponents claim, the internal opposition would not have felt the need to do this. The opposition’s own actions are proof of its real, anti-democratic character.

Nonetheless, the opposition is crying foul and has called for street protests, claiming the constitution has been violated [13]. The opposition is striving to portray themselves as helpless victims who have been thwarted by the socialist government. However, the opposition’s narrative is at odds with the facts on the ground. The opposition is not a grassroots movement born out of frustration with the government, but rather a group of privileged elites willing to resort to dishonest, violent tactics to ensure that the masses of society return to a state of exploitation and ignorance rather than empowerment. These groups should not be trusted under any circumstances.

In light of this evidence, we can confidently assert that the government’s repression of the opposition is not, and has never been, dictatorial in the classic sense of the word. In fact, the opposite is true. A democratic state is one in which the power of the people is the highest authority. This cannot be the case if certain elements in the state wish to rob the people of power. The opposition in Venezuela, as I have shown, is one such element. The repression of anti-democratic, right-wing organizations is meant to facilitate the exercise of people’s power. A truly democratic state must repress anti-democratic elements if it wishes to remain worthy of the label. Democracy is not a state of affairs in which the people can theoretically exercise power, it is one in which this is materially the case. This cannot be achieved so long as oligarchic groups are permitted to exist. While allowing opposition protests to occur may seem democratic on the surface, nothing could be further from the truth.

That covers elections, but elections are not the end of the democratic process. There exists in Venezuela a “dual” or “constituent” network of communal councils in which the people make decisions directly. This is a democratic process on its face. If the people manage their communes directly, power cannot reside anywhere but in their hands. Still, these councils are not free of contradictions or conflicts. In order to really understand democracy in Venezuela, we need to go deeper, examining not only the inner workings of these councils, but also how they came to be.

In Venezuela, the concept of constituent power arose at the end of the 1980s as the defining trait of a continuous process of social transformation. The main slogan of the neighborhood assemblies was “We don’t want to be a government, we want to govern.” This idea, understood in increasingly radical terms, came to orient the revolutionary transformation, acquiring  broad support in the political debate of the 1990s [14]. This idea has its roots in the beginnings of the Bolivarian revolutionary process itself, which called for the building of a “participatory and protagonistic democracy” [15]. Originally, this concept was used as shorthand for a “third way” that went beyond both capitalism and socialism. In 2005, though, Chavez and others came to understand that socialism was the only economic system capable of fostering such a participatory order. Thus, the idea of participation was officially defined in terms of popular power, revolutionary democracy, and socialism [16].

Communal councils began forming that same year as an initiative “from below.” In different parts of Venezuela, rank-and-file organizations, on their own, promoted forms of local self-administration named “local governments” or “communitarian governments.” During 2005, one department of the city administration of Caracas focused on promoting this proposal in the poor neighborhoods of the city [17]. In January 2006, Chávez adopted this initiative and began to spread it. On his weekly TV show, “Aló Presidente,” Chávez presented the communal councils in a favorable light, calling them  “good practice” [18]. At this point some 5,000 communal councils already existed. In April 2006, the National Assembly approved the Law of Communal Councils, which was reformed in 2009 following a broad consulting process of councils’ spokespeople. The communal councils in urban areas encompass 150-400 families; in rural zones, a minimum of 20 families; and in indigenous zones, at least 10 families. The councils build a non-representative structure of direct participation that exists parallel to the elected representative bodies of constituted power [19].

According to the text of the law, communal councils will “represent the means through which the organised masses can take over the direct administration of policies and projects that are created in response to the needs and aspirations of the communities, in the construction of a fair and just society” [20]. This reflects an understanding of democracy as “rule by the people.” The communal councils are meant to be a training ground for people’s self-government, a preparation for the Leninist concept of “the withering away of the state” [21]. While the councils themselves are not necessarily a concrete step on the road to communism, they offer us a vision of what communism might look like.

At the moment, the communal councils are financed directly by national state institutions, thus avoiding interference from municipal organs. The law does not give any entity the authority to accept or reject proposals presented by the councils. Legally, the state is not allowed to interfere with the communal process. This, too, represents the germs of a new order: one in which the people govern themselves. Put another way, the communal councils are the building blocks of a genuine democracy.

The relationship between the councils and established institutions, however, is not always harmonious; conflicts arise principally from the slowness of constituted power to respond to demands made by the councils and from attempts at interference. The communal councils tend to transcend the division between between those who govern and those who are governed. Hence, liberal analysts who support that division view the communal councils in a negative light, arguing that they are not independent civil-society organizations, but rather are linked to the state. In fact, they constitute a parallel structure through which power and control is gradually drawn away from the state in order to govern on their own [22]. This is one reason why it is enshrined in the constitution that the Venezuelan National Assembly is obliged to consult with these community organizations. Article 2 of the Communes law states that a community parliament is the “maximum authority of the self-government in the Commune” [23]. Its decisions are made through the passing of rules for the regulation of social and community life, toward public order, cohabitation and the collective interest. It can pass community development plans, sanction community letters, oversee debates, and even dictate its own internal rules [24]. These are all vitally important aspects of life. The council gives its members choice in the running of schools, the building of public works projects, and the production of goods. In short, the councils bear all the markings of democracy.

A large, connected group of these councils became known as a commune. As of 2016, 45,000 communal councils and 1500 communes organize hundreds of thousands of Venezuela’s 31 million people. Included in this network are the cooperatives, Enterprises of Social Production. These are either state-owned or operated directly by the communes themselves [25].

Above the communes stands their Communal Parliament, empowered to decide what communes produce and how it is distributed. According to the Commune Law, the Communal Parliament envisions integrating the communes into a regional and national federation, to construct “a system of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption rooted in social property” [26]. However, this Parliament has only met once, right after the electoral defeat of the Chavistas in December 2015 [27]. This illustrates a tension between the communes and the government. Indeed, the communes regularly run into conflict with the government. However, this does not mean that democracy in Venezuela is nonexistent. Rather, it means that contradictions will always exist in class societies. The struggle between the communes and the government illustrates the importance of building communism. Only when there is no state can the people truly govern themselves. To put it in Lenin’s words, “Only when there is no state does it become possible to speak of freedom” [28]. Socialism is vastly more democratic than capitalism, but genuine democracy can only come about with the abolition of classes (and thus the state) achieved by communism. Venezuela shows us that if we care about democracy, we must be communists.

This is not to say that the government is wholly opposed to the communes. Far from it. In 2002, Chavez gave peasants titles to land, and in the cities, urban land committees, CTUs were one of the first organs of grassroots self-organization. “By 2016, more than 650,000 titles to urban land had been granted through the CTUs, benefiting more than a million families” [29]. The government’s support for this initiative reflects that it is truly a government for the people, operating in their best interests to the fullest extent possible. This remains true today.  The Maduro government works with the collectives  through the variety of  Social Missions such as community health care, housing, food, education [30].

All of this shows that Venezuela is not undemocratic. Indeed, the direct management of social life through councils and communes mean that it is a great deal more democratic than the United States and other capitalist countries. Despite the myriad contradictions inherent in the Venezuelan system, the country is proof that the masses are capable of governing themselves. It is only socialism that can provide them the opportunity to do so. If one is concerned with democracy, one must struggle for socialism and against capitalism.

  1. Trombetta, Reynaldo. “Let’s call Venezuela what it is under Maduro: a dictatorship.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 17 Nov. 2016.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Hetland, Gabriel. “The Truth About Chávez.” Jacobin, 20 September 2015
  4. Hetland, Gabriel. “The End of Chavismo? Why Venezuela’s Ruling Party Lost Big, and What Comes Next.” The Nation. 22 June 2016.
  5. Duell, Mark. “Former bus driver and Chavez’s handpicked successor is elected president of Venezuela.” Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 15 Apr. 2013.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Buxton, Julia. “Venezuela After Chávez.” New Left Review 13 July 2013
  8. Fúnez, Ramiro S., et. al. “Afro-Venezuelan Slams ‘Racist, Sexist’ Opposition Protests. Telesur English 11 April 2017
  9. Forero, Juan. “VENEZUELA’S CHIEF FORCED TO RESIGN; CIVILIAN INSTALLED.” The New York Times., 12 Apr. 2002.
  10. Vulliamy, Ed. “Venezuela coup linked to Bush team.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 21 Apr. 2002.
  11. Golinger, Eva. Correo del Orinoco International, 13 April 2010 “Coup and Countercoup, Revolution!”
  12. Ceja, Lucho Granados. “Why Venezuela Suspended the Recall Referendum Against Maduro.” TeleSUR. Mision Verdad.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Roland Denis, Los fabricantes de la rebelión (Caracas: Primera Linea, 2001), 65.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Hugo Chávez, El Poder Popular (Caracas: Ministerio de Comunicación e Información, 2008), 38.
  17. Duran, Cliff. Moving Beyond Capitalism Routledge Critical Development Studies Series, 2016.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Lenin, Vladimir, Collected Works, Volume 25, p. 381-492 1918.
  21. Duran, Cliff. Moving Beyond Capitalism Routledge Critical Development Studies Series, 2016. Op. Cit.
  22. Elkins, Zachary, Tom Ginsburg, and James Melton. 2009. The Endurance of National Constitutions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. George Ciccariello-Maher, Building the Commune. Verso, 2016. p. 19-20
  26. Ibid, 21.
  27. Ibid, 36
  28. Ibid, 59.
  29. Ibid, 58.
  30. Robertson, Ewan. “Maduro Demands Greater Government Support for Venezuela’s Communes.” 08 August 2013.

Is Venezuelan Socialism A Disaster?

Venezuela is often cited in discussions about the possibility or desirability of socialism. Commonly, the country is referred to as a “failed state” [1]. This is taken as evidence that socialism will necessarily lead to disaster. In this essay, I would like to assert the opposite: for all its faults, Venezuelan socialism has dramatically improved the lives of the poorest and most oppressed in the country. It should serve as a beacon for all those who want to build a better world.

Here, I want to address the state of Venezuela’s economy. It is indeed true that Venezuela is having a food crisis. A study released by researchers from three Venezuelan universities reported that nearly 75 percent of the population lost an average of 19 pounds in 2016 for lack of food. The report, titled, “2016 Living Conditions Survey,” noted that about 32.5 percent of Venezuelans eat only once or twice a day, compared to 11.3 percent the previous year [2]. The situation is dire, to be sure, but it is not as dire as we have been led to believe. Venezuela is, in fact, food secure. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization or FAO gauges food security in terms of the amount of food available, measured in kilocalories per person per day. This is usually calculated over a complete year, based on the total quantity of foodstuffs produced and imported. The FAO says a country enjoys food security when food availability stands at 2,720 kilocalories per person per day, or more [3].

The numbers supplied by the government’s own Institute of Nutrition, and validated by the FAO, show a rising trend, with some ups and downs, from 1999, when availability stood at 2,200, to 2011, when it reached a peak of 3,500 [4]. Since 2011, there has been a decline to 3,000 in the most recent figures, for 2015 [5]. By this measure, Venezuela remains well above the FAO’s minimum food security level. There is not hunger in Venezuela, as defined by international standards. On a world scale, after being one of the best performers during the first decade of this century, Venezuela has slipped a bit, but is still quite high up the scale. Again, there are certainly problems related to food access in Venezuela. The point here is not to deny hardships, but to present a more complete picture of the situation.

It should be stressed that economic deficiencies are not the fault of socialism. There are a variety of factors that account for the situation in Venezuela other than socialism. These include natural conditions, sanctions, and illegal hoarding by the opposition.

It is impossible to understand the economic situation in Venezuela without understanding oil. The price of oil began to decline massively in 2014. This decline lasts today, in the beginning of 2017 [6]. Obviously, countries whose economies are based on oil will suffer from this. Venezuela, of course, is one of these. Oil makes up about ninety-five percent (95%) of the country’s exports [7]. Naturally the decline in oil prices had a profound negative effect on Venezuela. It is no coincidence that the country’s economy began to stagnate in 2014, right as oil prices began to fall [8].

Starting in 2014, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia flooded the market with cheap oil. This is not a mere business decision, but a calculated move coordinated with U.S. and Israeli foreign policy goals. Despite not just losing money, but even falling deep into debt, the Saudi monarchy continues to expand its oil production apparatus. The result has been driving the price of oil down from $110 per barrel, to $28 in the early months of 2016 [9]. The goal is to weaken these opponents of Wall Street, London, and Tel Aviv, whose economies are centered around oil and natural gas exports.

Venezuela, as I have said, is a country that depends on oil. Saudi efforts to drive down oil prices have drastically reduced Venezuela’s state budget and led to enormous consequences for the Venezuelan economy. The United States and its allies are intentionally driving down oil prices in order to wreak havoc on Venezuela. This is a common practice of capitalist countries attempting to bring down socialism. Writing for Town Hall in 2014, Michael Reagan bragged that his father did the same thing to hurt the Soviet Union during the 1980s. He writes, “Since selling oil was the source of the Kremlin’s wealth, my father got the Saudis to flood the market with cheap oil. Lower oil prices devalued the ruble, causing the USSR to go bankrupt, which led to perestroika and Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapse of the Soviet Empire” [10]. Claims of economic war on Venezuela are not conspiracy theories. The capitalist rulers of many countries have openly acknowledged it. Venezuela’s economic situation is principally the fault of imperialism.

Natural weather conditions have exacerbated the problem. Venezuela has been in/near drought since 2010, and that drought became catastrophic with the onset of El Nino. Venezuela receives seventy percent (70%) of their electricity from hydroelectric sources [11]. Fully sixty percent (60%) of it is from the Guri Dam [12]. Because of this, the drought has crippled their electrical infrastructure and ability to export energy to neighboring countries. This, too, was a major source of capital for the country. The inability to do this has also contributed to the economic crisis in a major way [13]. The drought has secondary effects as well. Over ten percent (10%) of Venezuela’s labor force is employed in the agricultural sector, and the drought has heavily impacted their ability to produce food [14]. On top of this, Venezuela relies on reservoirs and rivers for public drinking water and irrigation, and the government has been forced to divert water from drinking reservoirs to keep the turbines turning [15]. The weather plays a significant role in Venezuela as it does everywhere. For all the good socialism does, it does not grant anyone the power to manipulate the skies. Therefore, we can confidently say that factors other than socialism have resulted in Venezuela’s current economic predicament.

One of these factors, it should not be forgotten, is illegal hoarding by those in the country opposed to socialism. Since the early 2000s, supermarket owners affiliated with Venezuela’s opposition have been purposefully hoarding food products so they can resell them at higher prices and make large profits [16]. Food importing companies owned by the country’s wealthy right-wing elite are also manipulating import figures to raise prices. In 2013, former Venezuelan Central Bank chief Edmee Betancourt reported that the country lost between $15 and $20 billion US dollars the previous year through such fraudulent import deals [17]. In 2015, over 750 opposition-controlled offshore companies linked to the Panama Papers scandal were accused of purposely redirecting Venezuelan imports of raw food materials from the government to the private sector. Many of these companies sell their products to private companies in Colombia, which resell them to Venezuelans living close to Colombia [18]. Even the bourgeois media outlet Reuters admitted in 2014 that Venezuelan opposition members living in border states are shipping low-cost foodstuffs provided by the Venezuelan government into Colombia for profit [19]. The food crisis is the direct result of deliberate sabotage by anti-socialist forces, not socialism itself. If the government is at fault here, it is because they have not arrested the  leaders of Venezuela’s right-wing.

The impact of sanctions on Venezuela’s economy should also be mentioned. The most visible recent example of such sanctions was President Obama’s March 9, 2015, executive order declaring that “the situation in Venezuela” poses an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” [20].  The order placed sanctions on seven high-ranking Venezuelan government officials accused of human rights abuses and corruption.

It is worth pointing out that when this occurred, Venezuela’s anti-government opposition rejected the “extraordinary threat” language and declared, “Venezuela is not a threat to any nation” [21]. There is, of course, a direct economic effect of US sanctions against a country, or high-ranking officials within a country. Arguably more important are the indirect effects, which, as Mark Weisbrot has pointed out, send a message to would-be foreign investors that the country being targeted may not be a safe place to invest in. Weisbrot notes that foreign “financial institutions that wanted to arrange a swap for Venezuela’s gold…a couple years ago, they couldn’t do it” [22]. According to Alex Main, a senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Contacts in the financial sector have noted that the U.S. Treasury Department has strongly urged investors and bankers to avoid making loans to the Maduro government. Recent U.S. sanctions targeting Venezuelan officials also serve to discourage U.S. and European banks from doing business with Venezuela” [23]. Recent US actions have had a considerable and highly detrimental impact at a time when Venezuela is in desperate need of dollars but is prevented from gaining access to them by Washington, which has made little secret of its support for Venezuela’s anti-government opposition [24].

I have just argued that socialism is not the primary cause of Venezuela’s economic crisis. In fact, Venezuela itself is proof of this. The country’s socialist economic system has resulted in a great many achievements that ought to be highlighted, especially in the face of imperial aggression.

Venezuelan-born sociologist María Páez Victor commented on the state of the Venezuelan economy in 2014, writing, “the Venezuelan economy is doing very well. Its oil exports last year amounted to $94 billions while the imports only reached $59.3 billions -a historically low record. The national reserves are at $22 billions and the economy has a surplus (not a deficit) of 2.9% of GDP. The country has no significantly onerous national or foreign debts” [25]. The fact that the United States press chose not to spotlight these successes at the time should tell you something about what “freedom of information” means to capitalists.

The UN’s Human Development Index ranked Venezuela the 71st out of 188 countries examined in 2016. In the report, each of the 188 countries is given a measurement between zero and one. The closer to one, the higher the level of human development. Venezuela was measured at 0.767 — better than Brazil’s 0.754, Peru’s 0.740 and Colombia’s 0.727 — only slightly lower than its 2013 rating of 0.771, and significantly higher than its ranking of 0.677 in 2000, just as President Hugo Chavez came to power and initiated his Bolivarian Revolution. In South America, only Chile, Argentina and Uruguay had higher rankings than Venezuela. [26].

Venezuela’s economy is focused squarely on meeting the needs of the people. Under Chavez, the country saw a massive reduction in poverty. This was made possible because the government took back control of the national petroleum company PDVSA, and has used the abundant oil revenues, not for benefit of a small class of renters as previous governments had done, but to build needed infrastructure and invest in the social services that Venezuelans so sorely needed.  During the last ten years, the government has increased social spending by 60.6%, a total of $772 billion [27].

Venezuela is now the country in the region with the lowest inequality level (measured by the Gini Coefficient) having reduced inequality by 54%, poverty by 44%. Poverty has been reduced from 70.8% in 1996 to 21% in 2010. Extreme poverty was reduced from 40% in 1996 to a very low level of 7.3% in 2010. About 20 million people have benefited from anti-poverty programs, called Misiones. Up to now, 2.1 million elderly people have received old-age pensions – that is 66% of the population while only 387,000 received pensions before the revolution [28].

Bolivarian government has placed a particular emphasis on education allotting it more than 6% of GDP. UNESCO has recognized that illiteracy been eliminated [29]. furthermore, Venezuela is the third country in the region whose population reads the most [30]. There is tuition free education from daycare to university [29]. Seventy-two percent (72% )of children attend public daycares, and eighty-five percent (85%) of school age children attend school [31]. There are thousands of new or refurbished schools, including ten (10) new universities. The country places second in Latin America and second  in the world with the greatest proportions of university students [32]. In fact, 1 out of every 3 Venezuelans are enrolled in some educational  program [33].

.Before the Chavez government took power in 1998, twenty-one percent (21%) of the population was malnourished. Venezuela now has established a network of subsidized food distribution including grocery stores and supermarkets. While ninety percent (90%) of the food was imported in 1980, today this is less than thirty percent (30%).  Misión Agro-Venezuela has given out 454,238 credits to rural producers and 39,000 rural producers have received credit in 2012 alone [34].  Five million Venezuelan receive free food, four million of them are children in schools and 6,000 food kitchens feed 900,000 people [35].  The agrarian reform and policies to help agricultural producers have increased domestic food supply [36].  The results of all these food security measures is that  today  malnourishment  is only five percent (5%), and child malnutrition  which was 7.7% in 1990 today is at 2.9%. This is an impressive health achievement by any standard [37].

The media loves to highlight Venezuela’s health crisis, but it ignores the many successes the country has had in this field. These include infant mortality, which dropped from 25 per 1000 in 1990 to only 13/1000 in 2010 [38]. An outstanding 96% of the population has now access to clean water [39]. In 1998, there were 18 doctors per 10,000 inhabitants, currently there are  58, and the public health system has about 95,000 physicians [40]. It took four decades for previous governments to build 5,081 clinics, but in just 13 years the Bolivarian government built 13,721. This marked a 169.6% increase [41]. In 2011 alone, 67,000 Venezuelans received free high cost medicines for 139 pathologies conditions including cancer, hepatitis, osteoporosis, schizophrenia, and others; there are now 34 centres for addictions [42]. In 6 years 19,840 homeless have been attended through a special program; and there are practically no children living on the streets [43]. Venezuela now has the largest intensive care unit in the region [44]. A network of public drugstores sell subsidized medicines in 127 stores with savings of 34-40% [45].

An example of how the government has tried to respond in a timely fashion to the real needs of its people is the situation that occurred in 2011 when heavy tropical rains left 100,000 people homeless. They were right away sheltered temporarily in all manner of public buildings and hotels and, in one and a half years, the government built 250,000 houses [46]. The government has obviously not eradicated all social ills, but its people do recognize that, despite any shortcomings and mistakes, it is a government that is on their side, trying to use its resources to meet their needs.

According to Global Finance and the CIA World Factbook, the Venezuelan economy presented the following indicators: unemployment rate of  8% 45,5% government (public) debt as a percent of GDP (by contrast  the European Union debt/GDP is 82.5%) and a real GDP growth: GDP per capita is $13,070. In 2011, the Venezuelan economy defied most forecasts by growing 4.2 percent, and was up 5.6 percent in the first half of 2012. It had a debt-to-GDP ratio comfortably below the U.S. and the UK, and stronger than European countries; an inflation rate,  an endemic  problem during many decades,  that had fallen to a four-year low, or 13.7%, over the most recent 2012 quarter [47].

The revolutionary changes in Venezuela are not abstract. The government of President Chávez significantly improved the living conditions of Venezuelans. This new model of socialist development has had a phenomenal impact all over Latin America, including Colombia. Progressive governments that are now the majority in the region see in Venezuela the catalyst that that has brought unparalleled economic and social progress to the region [48]. No amount of neoliberal rhetoric can dispute these facts. Venezuelan socialism has the potential to be a massive success. It betters not only the lives of the Venezuelan people themselves, but also serves as a reminder of what is possible for others. The existence of a viable alternative to capitalism and neoliberalism in Latin America has motivated the creation of numerous popular movements in the region. Venezuela, as I argued in the beginning of the piece, is a beacon for the oppressed. However darkened it may be, it should be resolutely defended against the machinations of imperialists and anti-communists.

  1. Finnegan, William. “Venezuela, A Failing State.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 4 Nov. 2016,
  2. Pestano, Andrew V. “Venezuela: 75% of population lost 19 pounds amid crisis.” UPI, UPI, 19 Feb. 2017,
  3. “Chapter 2. Food Security: Concepts and Measurement[21]”
  4. “FAO Country Profiles:Venezuela.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. “Crude Oil Prices – 70 Year Historical Chart.” MacroTrends.
  7. “Crude Oil Supply Vs. OPEC Output Target:Venezuela.” IEA Oil Market Report. 11 August 2015.
  8. Davies, Wyre. “Venezuela’s Decline Fuelled by Plunging Oil Prices.” BBC News. BBC, 20 Feb. 2016.
  9. Puko, Timothy. “Oil Settles Below $28 a Barrel.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 09 Feb. 2016.
  10. Critchlow, Andrew. “Cheap Oil Will Win New Cold War with Putin – Just Ask Reagan.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 10 Nov. 2014.
  11. “World Energy Council.” Venezuela.
  12. Ibid.
  13. “U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis.”Venezuela – International – Analysis – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
  14. Background Note: Venezuela Archived 8 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine. U.S. Department of State.
  15. Marquez, Humberto, “Venezuelans Thirsty in a Land of Abundant Water.” Inter Press Service. June 4 2014
  16. Arsenault, Chris. “Is Hoarding Causing Venezuela Food Shortages?” Al Jazeera English. March 2, 2014.
  17. Torres, William Neuman and Patricia. “Venezuela’s Economy Suffers as Import Schemes Siphon Billions.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 05 May 2015
  18. Ibid.
  19. Gupta, Girish. “Smuggling Soars as Venezuela’s Economy Sinks.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 20 Jan. 2016.
  20. “50 U.S. Code § 1701 – Unusual and Extraordinary Threat; Declaration of National Emergency; Exercise of Presidential Authorities.” LII / Legal Information Institute
  21. Miroff, Nick, and Karen DeYoung. “New U.S. Sanctions Lost in Venezuela’s Translation.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 11 Mar. 2015.
  22. Weisbrot, Mark. “Is There an Economic and Political War Against Venezuela?” The Real News Network. 02 June 2016.
  23. LEDERMAN, JOSHUA GOODMAN and JOSH. “Trump Sanctions Venezuela Vice President on Drug Trafficking.” Associated Press. Feb 13, 2017.
  24. Weisbrot, Mark. “US Support for Regime Change in Venezuela Is a Mistake | Mark Weisbrot.”The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 18 Feb. 2014
  25. Victor, Maria Paez. “Venezuela Under Attack Again.” Counterpunch. 04 Nov. 2014.
  26. Julija Sardelic and Aidan McGarry., Szilvia Rezmuves, Isak Skenderi & Violeta Vajda, Miriam Krenzinger, Amílcar Sanatan, and Ajamu Nangwaya. “Venezuela Maintains High Human Development: UN.” News | TeleSUR English
  27. Páez Victor, Maria. “Why Do Venezuelan Women Vote for Chavez?” Counterpunch, 24 April 2012
  28. Ibid.
  29. Venezuela en Noticias, Venezuela en Noticias <> Venezuela en Noticias, Venezuela en Noticias
  30. Gallup Poll 2010
  31. Muntaner C, Chung H, Mahmood Q and Armada F. “History Is Not Over. The Bolivarian Revolution, Barrio Adentro and Health Care in Venezuela.” In T Ponniah and J Eastwood The Revolution in Venezuela. Harvard: HUP, 2011 pp 225-256; see also 4, Muntaner et al 2011, 5, Armada et al 2009; 6, Zakrison et al 2012
  32. Armada, F., Muntaner, C., & Navarro, V. (2001). “Health and social security reforms in latin america: The convergence of the world health organization, the world bank, and transnational corporations.” International Journal of Health Services, 31(4), 729-768.
  33. Zakrison TL, Armada F, Rai N, Muntaner C. ”The politics of avoidable blindnessin Latin America–surgery, solidarity, and solutions: the case of Misión Milagro.”Int J Health Serv. 2012;42(3):425-37.
  34. Ismi, Asad. “The Bolivarian Revolution Gives Real Power to the People.” The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor , December 2009/January.
  35. Carmona, Adrián. “Algunos datos sobre Venezuela”, Rebelión, March 2012
  36. Weisbrot, Mark and Johnston, Jake.  “Venezuela’s Economic Recovery: Is It Sustainable?”  Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, D.C., September 2012.
  37. Hunziker , Robert. “Venezuela and the Wonders of Equality”.  October 15th, 2012
  38. Golinger, Eva. “US$20 million for the Venezuelan Opposition in 2012”,
  39. Páez Victor, Maria. “Chavez wins Over Powerful Foreign Conglomerate Against Him”, Periódico América Latina, 11 October, 2012
  40. Milne,Seumas.  “The Chávez Victory Will be Felt Far Beyond Latin America” , Associate Editor, The Guardian, October 9, 2012:
  41. Alvarado, Carlos, César Arismendi, Francisco Armada, Gustavo Bergonzoli, Radamés Borroto, Pedro Luis Castellanos, Arachu Castro, Pablo Feal, José Manuel García, Renato d´A. Gusmão, Silvino Hernández, María Esperanza Martínez, Edgar Medina, Wolfram Metzger, Carles Muntaner, Aldo Muñoz, Standard Núñez, Juan Carlos Pérez, and Sarai Vivas. 2006. “Mission Barrio Adentro: The Right to Health and Social Inclusion in Venezuela”. Caracas: PAHO/Venezuela.
  42. Weisbrot, Mark.”Why Chávez Was Re-elected”. New York Times. Oct 10th 2012
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid.
  48. “How Did Venezuela Change under Hugo Chávez?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 04 Oct. 2012

Nuclear Weapons in the DPRK 

The DPRK’s nuclear weapons program is often cited as evidence that the country is a threat to world peace. The so-called ‘rogue nation’ (by which pundits mean a nation that charts its own course of development rather than allowing itself to be manipulated by the West) is painted as having the capability to kill fully ninety percent (90%) of Americans [1]. Not only this, it is asserted that the country’s leadership is “crazy enough” to do so [2]. In this essay, I will argue that the DPRK’s nukes do not mean that it is a threat. Its nuclear program is justifiably used as a deterrent to Western aggression, chiefly on the part of the United States. In short, the DPRK’s nuclear weapons are defensive tools rather than offensive ones. It is in fact the United States that is the real threat to peace, especially as far as nuclear weapons are concerned.

It is vital that we understand why the DPRK has placed such importance on the development of nuclear weapons. The United States has attempted to destroy the country at every opportunity. For several years, the United States has participated in war games along with south Korea, known as Foal Eagle. According to one report, the drills involve “involve some 25,000 U.S. forces and 50,000 members of South Korea’s military” [3]. although the games are described by South Korean officials as “non-provocative,” the same official admits that the drills are “designed to enhance readiness” [4]. This signals that the US is ready for war at any moment. For the DPRK, war is always a looming spectre. The country has never had any illusions about the stance of the united states toward them, and their military program was always one of shoring up the defenses; reinforcing the country. Although the economic sanctions against the DPRK, used to block the trade of items which could prove useful in militarization (such as medical equipment, medicines, food, and other “dangerous” supplies) have proven unable to destabilize the country as hoped, they have in a certain sense cut off other avenues of militarization. Put another way, the West has given the DPRK no choice but to develop nuclear weapons. All other options for developing a conventional military capable of taking on the imperialists have been stolen from them [5].

This is the key point: the DPRK has no other options. It must develop nuclear weapons in order to deter the United States from a full-scale invasion. It is no coincidence that the DPRK conducted a nuclear test during one of the annual Eagle Foal drills. The nuclear bomb is, for the DPRK, a symbol: it shows that the country is willing to fight for its survival, it will not roll over and allow the West to cannibalize it. Yongho Thae, Minister of the Embassy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in London, puts it this way:

“The world situation changed again after 11 September 2001. After this, Bush said that if the US wants to protect its safety, then it must remove the ‘axis of evil’ countries from the earth. The three countries he listed as members of this ‘axis of evil’ were Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Bush said that, in order to remove these evils from the earth, the US would not hesitate even to use nuclear weapons. Events since then have proved that this was not a simply rhetorical threat – they have carried out this threat against Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now it comes to North Korea. There was DPRK Framework Agreement between the Clinton administration and the DPRK in 1994, but the Bush administration canceled this, saying that America should not negotiate with evil. The neo-cons said that ‘evil states’ should be removed by force. Having witnessed what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, we came to realise that we couldn’t put a stop to the threat from the US with conventional weapons alone. So we realised that we needed our own nuclear weapons in order to defend the DPRK and its people” [6].

The DPRK developed its nuclear weapon’s program in response to aggression by the United States. The program exists not to dominate the world, but to ensure that the DPRK is allowed to determine its own course of development. The DPRK’s nukes are not a threat, they are a defense mechanism. This is not simply “state propaganda” as is often claimed. Even Lakov, an admitted right-winger and anti-DPRK author, agrees. He writes,

“For the North Korean leaders, the nuclear weapons program is not an end in itself, but rather one of many strategies they use to achieve their overriding goal of regime survival…Their cautious decision to go nuclear is..deeply related to the peculiarities of their domestic and international situation” [7].

Lakov here describes the DPRK’s choice to develop nuclear weapons as “cautious.” This implies, correctly, that the DPRK would not have chosen to go down this path if it felt it had any other choice. The DPRK understands that nuclear weapons are not toys. Experience has taught them not to treat the matter lightly. Thae comments on this in the above interview:

“[T]he US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later on the USSR developed nuclear weapons too. As time went on, the Soviet nuclear arsenal played the role of counterbalancing the possibility of US nuclear weapon usage. That is the main reason that the US couldn’t use these weapons in the second half of the 20th century. Later on the nuclear weapons club was expanded to include China, Britain and France. In terms of world peace as a whole, the enlargement of the nuclear club would intuitively be seen as a bad thing, but the reality was that the possession of nuclear weapons by China and the Soviet Union was able to check the use of nuclear weapons by anyone for any purposes. I think this is a fact we should admit.

As far as Korea is concerned, you know that Korea is just next door to Japan. Many Japanese lived in Korea, because Korea was a colony of Japan. Our media system at the time was run by Japanese. So when Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred, we heard about it and we understood very well the scale of this disaster. The Korean people understood very well how many people were killed in the space of just a minute. So the Korean people have a very direct experience of nuclear warfare from the beginning.”

“Eisenhower asked his advisers: how can we win this war? The American generals suggested using the nuclear threat. The US felt that if they warned the population that they were going to drop a nuclear bomb, the people would flee from the front. Having witnessed the effects of nuclear warfare just five years previously, millions of people fled North Korea and went to the south. The result of this is that there are still 10 million separated families.

So you can see that the Korean people are the direct victims of nuclear bullying – us more so than anybody in the world. The nuclear issue is not an abstract one for us; it is something we have to take very seriously” [8].

The people of the DPRK are well aware of the horrors of nuclear war. The aftermath of the United States’ nuclear bomb is seared into the minds of the populace. In light of this, we can assume that the DPRK did not want to develop nuclear weapons. It was forced into this position by the imperialists, and it did not compromise its principles thoughtlessly. In fact, the DPRK was at one time a member of the NPT, or nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Thae says,

In the 1970s, there were discussions among the big powers as to how they could prevent nuclear war. What the big five counties agreed is that they would stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Only five countries would be allowed to have nuclear weapons; the others would not. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was born in 1970. The NPT clearly states that nuclear power states cannot use nuclear weapons for the purpose of threatening or endangering non-nuclear states. So the DPRK thought that if we joined the NPT, we would be able to get rid of the nuclear threat from the US. Therefore we joined. However, the US never withdrew its right of preemptive nuclear strike. They always said that, once US interests are threatened, they always have the right to use their nuclear weapons for pre-emptive purposes. So it’s quite obvious that the NPT cannot ensure our safety. On this basis, we decided to withdraw and to formulate a different strategy to protect ourselves” [9]

The DPRK was more than willing to discount the possibility of developing a nuclear weapons program. It proved this to the international community when it joined the NPT. When the US made it clear that it would use a preemptive strike against the DPRK, however, the country knew that its policy had to change. In a quite literal sense, the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program was and is a response to US aggression.

This can be seen in the fact that, unlike the United States, the DPRK has recently affirmed a no first strike policy regarding nuclear weapons. During the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in 2016, supreme leader Kim Jong-un stated that North Korea would “not use nuclear weapons first unless aggressive hostile forces use nuclear weapons to invade on our sovereignty” [10].

All of this should lead one to conclude that the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program was not created for offensive purposes, as is the case with the United States. Instead, it was developed in response to aggression by foreign imperialist powers. The DPRK felt that if it did not have nuclear weapons, then the US and other powers would overrun it. The question now is whether this position is correct?

I argue that it is. The case of Libya is an instructive one. Tad Daley, a writer at the bourgeois Christian Science Monitor, argues that the disarming of Libya was what opened it up to invasion. He writes,

“If Libya had possessed the capability, oh, to obliterate a major American military base in Italy, or to vaporize an entire American “carrier battle group” off the southern coast of France, it almost certainly would have dissuaded Washington (not to mention Rome and Paris) from military action. If the Libyan regime wanted to ensure its own survival, then, just like North Korea, it should have developed a nuclear deterrent – small, survivable, and just lethal enough to inflict unacceptable damage on any aggressor” [11].

The fact that both of these leaders, Qaddafi of the Libyan Jamahiriya and Kim, died in the same year in such radically different ways provides an interest point of contrast. Qaddafi was ousted after a set of imperialist-backed rebels launched a racist campaign to topple a revolutionary government in North Africa, which succeeded precisely because of NATO’s assistance. He died beaten, broken, sodomized, tortured, and executed in a muddy sewage pipe without trial [12].

Kim, on the other hand, died peacefully from a heart attack on a train en route to a factory inspection and a public meeting with Korean workers [13]. While his death rocked the Korean people with grief, from Pyongyang to Beijing and beyond, the Korean revolution continues and shows no signs of wavering. China’s proximity to Korea is a factor in Democratic Korea’s continued security, but nothing keeps the American military from an all-out war to topple the Worker’s Party of Korea more than the threat of a nuclear bomb destroying one of their many military bases across the Republic of Korea. The DPRK did not suffer the same fate as Libya precisely because it did not disarm. Just as Thae said, the nuclear deterrent has meant the difference between invasion and survival.

In short, the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program does not constitute a threat. Rather, it is a necessary component of the country’s survival. The DPRK does not want to destroy the world, it only wants to be left alone. The DPRK’s nuclear weapons serve this purpose, and this purpose alone. Calling on the DPRK to disarm without understanding the reasoning behind the program serves only to reproduce the causes of imperialism, war, and genocide.

  4. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. “Kim Jong Un Says Pyongyang Won’t Use Nukes First; Associated Press”.
  11. Tad Daley, “Nuclear lesson from Libya: Don’t be like Qaddafi. Be like Kim,” The Christian Science Monitor, October 13, 2011,
  12. Alan Maass, Lance Selfa, “Washington celebrates Qaddafi’s death,” Socialist Worker, October 24, 2011,
  13. “North Korean leader Kim Jong-il dies ‘of heart attack'”. BBC News. 19 December 2011.

National Liberation and the DPRK

There is no shortage of coverage in Western media of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK. This coverage is almost wholly negative. This is not surprising, given as the United States has imperialist ambitions in the region. Their long-standing sabre-rattling in the form of war-games should be evidence enough of that. Despite the DPRK’s obvious status as a target of US imperialism, many supposed leftists are still unwilling to lend their support to it. This is usually done on the basis that the DPRK is not in fact democratic, but rather an absolute monarchy that violates the human rights of its citizens. In the first section of this essay, I would like to argue that we should show solidarity with the country even if these assertions are true. The DPRK is waging a progressive national liberation struggle. This should be supported regardless of whether the country is democratic or socialist (though, to be clear, it is both of these things).

As Stalin argued in Marxism and the National Question,  “The revolutionary character of a national movement under…imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary…program of the movement, the existence of a democratic base of the movement.” The determining factor in the revolutionary character of a national movement is whether it “weakens, disintegrates, and undermines imperialism” [1]. That which is being waged by the DPRK is an example of just such a struggle. It objectively works against the interests of imperialism, the greatest enemy of proletarian revolution. As such, it should be unapologetically supported and defended. 

In order to substantiate these assertions, we need to go back in time to 1910. It was here that Japan colonized Korea. The country became an invaluable source of profits for the colonialists, both in the form of raw materials and (crucially) labor. Untold numbers of Koreans were forcibly shipped to Japan and effectively enslaved. Many performed hard labor, while others were coerced into becoming “comfort women.” Japan carried out these atrocities with the help of wealthy Korean landowners and industrialists, who, just as they had found favor with their Japanese masters, would find favor with the US occupation government and later fill key positions in the south Korean state [2].

Throughout this period, Japan and the United States both sought to dominate the countries of the Pacific Rim so that they could lay sole claim to the riches of these countries. Tokyo followed an aggressive and expansionary foreign policy, backed by the gun, to drive other imperialist powers from the region. The US, already with a dominant position in the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii and Samoa, sought an open door for its exporters and investors in China. With both sides seeking a dominant role, it was inevitable they would sooner or later come to blows [3].

Following the Pearl Harbor attack and the United States’ entrance into World War Two, this conflict came to a head.  Washington knew that if Japan were defeated, its colonies would pass to the United States. They could then be managed, perhaps not as outright colonies, but as territories in which the US would have a dominant voice. In other words, a successful conclusion to the war would present the US with everything it had sought before the war. Thus, the US State Department began toying with the idea of establishing a post-war trusteeship in Korea. Debate raged over whether a trustee arrangement would give Washington enough influence in post-war Korean affairs. The idea of a multilateral trusteeship of Korea was presented to the British and French in 1943, but both countries declined, fearing the arrangement would weaken their own empires [4].

This is the context in which the division of Korea took place. It wasn’t Koreans who bisected the Korean peninsula at the 38th parallel. It was the Americans. On August 10th 1945, with the Soviets having crossed into the Korean peninsula from the north two days earlier, two US Colonels, Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel, were ordered to divide Korea into two occupation zones: one American and one Soviet. They chose the 38th parallel as the dividing line. It would give the US control of the capital, Seoul. Rusk explained how he came to the decision this way:

“Neither Tic nor I was a Korea expert, but it seemed that Seoul, the capital, should be in the American sector. We also knew that the US Army opposed an extensive area of occupation. Using a National Geographic map, we looked just North of Seoul for a convenient dividing line but could not find a natural geographic line. We saw instead the 38th parallel and decided to recommend that” [5].

This is a vitally important point. There was no natural geographic barrier between the territory that would become North Korea and that which would become the South. The division was based on nothing other than a desire to further American interests.

The choice to divide the country at the 38th parallel, incidentally, goes a long way in explaining the food insecurity of much of the North Korean population. The Northern half of Korea was an industrial area, used primarily for mining. The vast majority of the nation’s arable land (which makes up only 18% of the total to begin with) is located on the Southern part of the peninsula. The two sides depended on one another prior to the American division. This is one reason why reunification efforts are just.

Even according to the US Army,

“Only about 18% of the total landmass…is arable. The major portion of the country is rugged mountain terrain. The weather varies markedly according to elevation, and lack of precipitation, along with infertile soil, makes land at elevations higher than 400 meters unsuitable for purposes other than grazing. Precipitation is geographically and seasonally irregular, and…as much as half of the annual rainfall occurs in the three summer months” [6].

We can conclude from this that American imperialism is literally starving the Korean people to death. It is the willful malevolence of the United States that results in famines, not the socialist economy of the DPRK. As communists, it is our duty to fight against hunger and want. We can only do this by opposing American imperialism, and we can only oppose US imperialism by supporting the national liberation struggle of the DPRK. This support is based on an objection to genocide and starvation. Anyone unwilling to lend it has no right to call themselves a communist.

A government organized by Koreans for Koreans, headquartered at Seoul, was founded within weeks of Japan’s surrender. It called itself the Korean People’s Republic, born of the Committee for the Preparation of Korean Independence, and the People’s Committees rooted in the countryside. Despite its pretensions to be a champion of democracy, the United States refused to recognize the government and actively worked to repress it. For the Americans, the Korean People’s Republic had two strikes against it: The first was that ) it wasn’t answerable to Washington, and the second was that it had strong communist influences [7].

Instead of allowing the newly created indigenous government to flourish, the United States established what it had been planning from 1943: a US military occupation regime. The government, which lasted until 1948, was overwhelmingly opposed by local residents, who were tired of foreign occupation and wanted an independent, unified Korea, not an artificially bisected one occupied in the south by a foreign power that was going to insist on having a major voice in Korean affairs [8].

The US spent the first year of its occupation suppressing the locally formed People’s Committees. US General John Hodge recruited Koreans who had served in the Japanese Imperial Army to staff an English language officers’ school. By 1948, a south Korean army was in place, comprising six divisions, led, to a man, by officers who served in the Japanese Imperial Army. One of the officers, Kim Sok-won, had been decorated by Hirohito for leading campaigns against Korean guerrillas in Manchuria. Hodge also put together a police force, 85 percent of whose personnel were former members of the colonial police, and set them to work in smashing the government of the locally formed Korean People’s Republic [9]. From the beginning, the Americans were more than willing to violently impose their will on the Korean people, just as the Japanese had done years earlier.

This would be further demonstrated when a rebellion broke out in the South, coinciding with a strong guerrilla movement. By 1948, most villages in the interior were controlled by the guerrillas, who enjoyed widespread popular support. In October 1948, the guerrillas liberated Yosu, sparking rebellions in other towns. The People’s Committee was restored, the north Korean flag was raised, and allegiance was pledged to the north. A rebel newspaper called for land redistribution, the purge of Japanese collaborators from official positions, and a unified Korea. While the US military government nominally allowed membership in left-wing organizations, the police regarded rebels and leftists as traitors who were best imprisoned or shot. In 1948, the draconian National Security Law was used to round up 200,000 Koreans sympathetic to the north and communism. By 1949, 30,000 communists were in jail, and 70,000 were in concentration camps, euphemistically dubbed guidance camps. The south, in its repression of leftists, was beginning to resemble Italy of the 20’s and Germany of the 30’s. The resemblance would soon grow stronger [10].

A crackdown on the rebellion was organized by the US, whose formal control over the south Korean military had, by this time, been ceded. However, by secret agreement, command of the south Korean military remained in US hands. Even today, command of the ROK military remains with the US in the event of war [11]. This is a very clear example of US imperialism.

Korea had been a severely class divided society, with a small landed elite, that collaborated with the Japanese occupation, and a large population of poor peasants. The United States intervened on behalf of the landed elite and against the majority of the population, perpetuating the elite’s privileges.

The CIA noted in a 1948 report that south Korea had become divided by conflict between a “grass-roots independence movement, which found expression in the establishment of the People’s Committees” led by “communists who based their right to rule on the resistance to the Japanese,” and a US-supported right-wing that monopolized the country’s wealth and collaborated with Imperial Japan [12].

Owing to the right-wing’s unpopularity, it was impossible to put forward its representatives for election. So the US looked to non-communist exiles, whose absence from the country had allowed them to escape the taint of collaboration. The fiercely anti-communist Syngman Rhee was eventually brought to power. Rhee had lived in the US 40 years, earned a PhD from Princeton and married an American wife, a background very different from that of Kim Il-sung, north Korea’s founder, who was active from the early 30s as a prominent leader of the resistance to Japanese occupation. Korea expert Bruce Cumings notes that “for nearly four decades (south Korea was) run by military officers and bureaucrats who served the same Japanese masters that Kim and his friends spent a decade fighting in the 1930s” [13]. What we can draw from this is that resistance to US occupation was characteristic of both the North and the South.

The DPRK and the Republic of Korea exist as two separate countries, but the Korean people meet all of the characteristic features of a nation; “a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” [14]. Understanding that Korea is not two separate nations is essential to placing the actions of the DPRK in their appropriate context.

Fearing the widespread popularity of the Korean revolution in both the north and the south, the US continued to militarily occupy the Republic of Korea after World War II. Koreans were left out of the decision to divide their country and despite promises of fair nationwide elections aimed at reunification, the US intervened in the South Korean elections on behalf of the Western-educated, right-wing nationalist, Syngman Rhee.

Many bourgeois scholars and critics of the DPRK argue that the Korean People’s Army (KPA), centered in the north, initiated the Korean War by crossing the 38th parallel, the act that is often cited as the start to the Korean War. While the KPA did send troops into South Korea on June 25, 1950, calling this an act of aggression by one sovereign state towards another implicitly legitimizes the imperialist division of Korea at the Potsdam Conference in 1945. Richard Stokes, the British Minister of Works, put it this way in a 1950 report on the origins of the Korean war:

“In the American Civil War, the Americans would never have tolerated for a single moment the setting up of an imaginary line between the forces of North and South, and there can be no doubt as to what would have been their re-action if the British had intervened in force on behalf of the South. This parallel is a close one because in America the conflict was not merely between two groups of Americans, but was between two conflicting economic systems as is the case in Korea.” [15].

Much like the American Civil War, any so-called aggression by the North was actually an attempt to re-unite a nation partitioned by a foreign imperialist power. Any critics of the actions of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in initiating the conflict would have to also condemn US President Abraham Lincoln and the Union Army for sending supplies to reinforce Fort Sumter at the onset of the American civil war, which was where the conflict began.

The atrocities committed by the United States in this war cannot be stressed enough. Three Million Koreans lost their lives. More bombs were dropped on Korea than were used in the whole of the European theater of World War Two, and the entire North was leveled to the ground, with Pyongyang left completely flattened [16].

There was, in fact, germ warfare used against North Korea during the Korean War. A report was authored in 1950s on what this warfare consisted of, The International Scientific Commission Report on Bacterial Warfare during the Korean War. [17]. Here is what the Korean Central News Agency reports on the issue:

The U.S. imperialist aggression forces who had put the northern half of Korea under their temporary occupation during the June 25 war were beaten back by the Korean People’s Army and took to flight when they spread in a crafty manner a number of contagious disease germs including smallpox in many areas including Pyongyang, Yangdok County of South Phyongan Province, and Kowon and Jangjin counties of South Hamgyong Province between November 29 to December 8, 1950.

A top secret document dated September 21, 1951 which ordered the “large experiment of specified pathogens in actual situation to see their effects for germ warfare in operational situation” was discovered at the U.S. national archives in 2010.

In November 1951 the U.S. imperialists dropped the first germ bomb in the areas north of the River Chongchon and south of the River Amnok and in Yangdok, Hamhung and Wonsan with the involvement of the U.S. third bomber wing in the Kunsan air base and the 19th bomber wing under the command of the U.S. air force in the Far East based on Okinawa.

Entering 1952 they began an all-out germ warfare, massively dropping germ bombs in all areas of the northern half of Korea.

They made no scruple of using even internationally banned chemical weapons, to say nothing of germ weapons.

During the indiscriminate bombing of Nampho City on May 6, 1951, the U.S. spread toxic gas, killing 1,379 inhabitants. On July 6 and September 1 it dropped tear, asphyxiating, and other toxic gases in the area of Wonsan and several areas of South and North Hwanghae provinces, poisoning and killing many people.

They even made no scruple of mixing poisonous substances in sweets, biscuits, taffy, toasts, canned food, shellfish and other foodstuff and banknotes before dropping them from planes.

The U.S. imperialists used prisoners from our side as guinea pigs for germ and chemical warfare in wanton violation of international agreement on treatment of POWs and killed them in a barbarous way [18].

 Pilots were interrogated by North Korea during the war and admitted to germ warfare. When they returned to the US it was claimed that this happened because of communist brainwashing and harsh interrogation. This was used as a justification to create a program to train military personnel how to withstand torture; this program is what morphed into the modern torture program, though the US has a history of torture outside of this. It is, however, interesting to note that part of the justification for having a torture program was founded in a cover-up of US use of germ warfare in Korea [19].
In its efforts to subjugate the people of Korea, the United States committed a genocide against its people. Resistance against this horror is unequivocally correct, regardless of the moral character of the resistance. Leftists in the  imperial core should concentrate on defeating their own genocidal states rather than lecturing those suffering from imperialist aggression. North Korea is not a threat to world peace, it merely wants to be left alone. It is, in fact, the United States that is the greatest threat to world peace [20]. If leftists really want to struggle for peace, they should start by attacking that state which poses a material threat to it, rather than the nation that is working to establish peace for itself.

Marxist-Leninists should support the re-unification efforts of the North in both the American civil war as well as the Korean war because they were historically progressive and revolutionary. Korea was occupied by a foreign imperialist government at the time of the KPA’s incursion into the south, just as Japanese colonizers had occupied the nation for the previous 35 years. As such, the KPA’s ‘invasion’ of southern Korea was a campaign in the larger, protracted struggle for national liberation that began as an anti-colonial struggle against imperial Japan [21].

Foreign occupation of Korea continues today, and Marxist-Leninists must evaluate the actions of the DPRK within the framework of an ongoing national liberation struggle. The 28,000 US troops permanently stationed in the Republic of Korea attest to the continued imperialist domination of the southern half of the Korean nation [22].

It is clear why north Korea’s fight for sovereignty and economic rights is opposed by the ruling class-dominated foreign policy of the United States. The interests of the two clash. But there is no comparable clash of interests between north Korea and the bulk of people who live in the advanced capitalist countries. The coolness, if not outright hostility, of the greater part of the left in these countries requires explanation. Patriotic intoxication and lack of class consciousness — the idea that we have more in common with the ruling class that dominates foreign policy in our own country than with Koreans, of the south and north, who fight for sovereignty and economic justice — is part of it. So too is the regular, law-like propensity of the leaders of the soft left to barter away principle for votes and respectability, to sacrifice fundamental goals for immediate gains, a reason for self-defeating coolness toward the DPRK. In other words, even leftists in leadership roles have been ‘bought off’ by imperialism, and are thus unwilling to oppose it. In order to build a truly socialist movement, it is the responsibility of committed communists to break the influence of these leaders.

Ignorance is a part of the explanation too. Many Western leftists are unaware of both the history and of the government in the north, but also of the distorting, unpleasant and dystopian effects of the policies of war, intimidation, and economic strangulation the United States has pursued to bring an end to north Korea. It’s not pleasant to have too little to eat, to be conscripted into the army for an extended period of your life and to be forced to live your whole life under threat of nuclear war, but these are not conditions north Koreans have freely chosen for themselves. They have been imposed from the outside as punishment. The United States does not want the Korean people to control their own destiny.

North Korea is the product of its history: its colonization by the Japanese, the guerilla wars of the 30s, its attempts to unify the country and drive the post-WWII occupation regime out the south, the holocaust the United States delivered upon it under a UN flag in the early 50s, and its daily struggle with the United States for survival, now intensified in the wake of the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Add to this Washington’s unceasing quest for world domination and you have a sound explanation for the supposed misery of north Korea. Whatever its faults, we ought to support it because of its role in the broader geopolitical landscape. It weakens US imperialism, and in so doing, furthers the cause of the international proletariat.

  1. Prosveshcheniye, Nos. 3-5, March-May 1913, Carl Kavanagh, “Marxists Internet Archive.”
  2. Bruce Cumings, “Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (Updated Edition),” W.W. Norton & Company, 2005; p. 404.  
  3. Bruce Cumings, “North Korea: Another Country,” The New Press, 2004.
  4. Ibid.
  7. Hugh Deane, “The Korean War: 1945-1953,” China Books & Periodicals, San Francisco, 1999.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Bruce Cumings, “North Korea: Another Country,” The New Press, 2004. Op. Cit.
  10. Ibid.
  11. New York Times, August 13, 2003.
  12. Bruce Cumings, “Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (Updated Edition),” W.W. Norton & Company, 2005; p. 404.  Op. Cit.
  13. Prosveshcheniye, Nos. 3-5, March-May 1913, Carl Kavanagh, “Marxists Internet Archive.” Op. Cit.
  14. Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country, The New Press, New York, 2004. Op. Cit.
  19. Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country, The New Press, New York, 2004. Op. Cit.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.

The Economy of the DPRK: Myth and Reality

North Korea is often painted as an economic hellhole whose people are in a perpetual state of poverty due to the economic model.  The dominant narrative in the Western press is that the DPRK is on the verge of collapse [1]. What commentators lack in hard data to prove this, they often try to invent. There is no way, it is suggested, that the economy could ever recover on its own from the combined economic, financial and energy crisis that hit it in the 1990s [2]. And indeed, though it remains difficult to quantify the damage done by the collapse of the Soviet Union, we know that the DPRK was then suddenly confronted with the loss of important export markets and a crippling reduction of fuel and gas imports. These two factors triggered a cataclysmic chain reaction that severely impacted the Korean economy.

Perhaps the most dramatic aspect of the disaster was the collapse of food production. The sudden shortages of fuel, fertilizer and machinery, compounded by “a series of severe natural disasters” from 1995 to 1997 [3]. This made the DPRK tumble from a self-reported food surplus in the 1980s to a severe food crisis in the 1990s. Figures provided to the Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO’s) investigative team indicate production dipping from “a plateau of 6 million tons” of grain equivalent from 1985 to 1990 to about 3.5 million tons in 1995 and less than 3 million in 1996 and 1997 [4]. Food requirements for the roughly 23 million-strong population were almost 5 million tons [5]. The chain of events left the DPRK no choice but to make a formal appeal for aid to the international community in August 1995.

Sadly, this appeal went largely unanswered. The international community largely reacted to it in a hostile manner. A barrage of sanctions also seriously disrupted and continues to disrupt the DPRK’s ability to conduct international trade, making it even more difficult for the country to get back on its feet. Besides the unilateral sanctions regimes that the US and its allies have put in place since the early days of the Cold War [6], the country also has had to face a series of multilateral sanctions imposed by UN Security Council resolutions in 2006, 2009 and 2013 [7]. The bulk of these are financial and trade sanctions, as well as travel bans for targeted officials.

Financial sanctions curtail access to the global financial system by targeting entities or individuals engaging in certain prohibited transactions with or for the DPRK. The professed intention is to prevent specific transactions from taking place, particularly those related to the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program, or alleged money-laundering activities. In practice, however, the stakes of even a false alarm can be so high that banks might well shun even the most innocuous transactions with the DPRK. In the Banco Delta Asia (BDA) affair, for instance, public suspicion by the US Treasury that a Macanese bank might be money-laundering and distributing counterfeit dollars for the DPRK destroyed the bank’s reputation and triggered a massive bank run even before local authorities could launch a proper investigation [8]. An independent audit commissioned by the Macanese government from Ernst & Young found the bank to be clean of any major violations [9], but the US Treasury nonetheless blacklisted BDA in 2007, triggering suspicions that it was simply trying to make an example of the bank [10].

Whatever the case, the blacklisting effectively prevented BDA from conducting transactions in US dollars or maintaining ties with US entities, and caused two dozen banks (including institutions in China, Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam and Singapore) to sever ties with the DPRK for fear of suffering a similar fate [11]. Veiled threats by the US Treasury also seem to be behind the Bank of China’s closure in 2013 of the DPRK Foreign Trade Bank’s account [12] and possibly had an indirect influence on other major Chinese banks’ cessation of all cross-border cash transfers with the DPRK (regardless of the nature of the business) [13]. As we can see, financial sanctions effectively contribute to making the DPRK an “untouchable” in an economic sense, greatly affecting its ability to earn foreign currency by conducting legitimate international trade or attracting foreign direct investment. Obviously, shortages of such foreign currency have grave developmental consequences, because they limit vital and urgently needed imports of fuel, food, machinery, medicine, and so on, “stunting” both the economy and the general population [14].

Trade sanctions also have a more disruptive effect than their wording suggests. Although the sanctions were ostensibly designed to prevent DPRK imports of nuclear, missile or weapons-related goods and technology, in practice they had the effect of blocking DPRK imports of a whole range of goods and technology that are classified as “dual-use,” which means that their civilian use could potentially be adapted for military purposes. The result is that the “dual-use” lists prohibit imports of equipment, machinery and materials that are in practice essential for the development of a modern economy, impeding the development of a broad range of industries such as aeronautics, telecommunications as well as the chemical and IT sectors [15]. In his book “A Capitalist in North Korea,” Swiss businessman Felix Abt explained, for instance, how a $20 million project to renew Pyongyang’s water supply and drainage system fell through, simply because the Kuwaiti investor was concerned that importing the software needed for the project could run afoul of US dual-use sanctions against the DPRK [16]. Abt further recalls the role UN sanctions played in preventing his pharmaceutical company from importing the chemicals it needed for a healthcare project in the DPRK countryside. [17].

Given the formidable obstacles, the international press has drawn the conclusion first that the DPRK is one of the poorest countries in the world [18]. But it has also concluded that its misery is almost entirely the result of systematic mismanagement [19], and that it will go from bad to worse as long as it refuses to implement liberal reforms [20].  These assertions, which have been repeated throughout the period of six decades of sanctions, are rarely supported by hard data. On the contrary, they run counter to the little reliable evidence available.

It is because of imperialist sanctions, not socialism, that north Korea’s economy is in its current state. To prove this, we need only to look at north Korea prior to the institution of the bulk of these sanctions. Barbara Demick, an anti-DPRK author admits that “the country once had an enviable healthcare system, “with a network of nearly 45,000 family practitioners. Some 800 hospitals and 1,000 clinics were almost free of charge for patients. They still are, but you don’t get much at the hospital these days. The school system that once allowed North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung (father of the current leader) to boast his country was the first in Asia to eliminate illiteracy has now collapsed. Students have no books, no paper, no pencils.” [21]. North Korea, like other socialist countries, had eliminated illiteracy! By way of comparison, the United States is the richest country in the history of the world. Despite this, it still has not used its vast wealth to ensure that all of its citizens can read. In Alabama alone, 1 in 4 citizens are functionally illiterate [22]. This shows the distinct priorities of the DPRK and the United States. The DPRK is a socialist country, and as such has a vested interest in providing for the needs of its people. The United States, however, is more concerned with advancing its own interests. It would rather starve Koreans to death via sanctions than provide all of its own citizens the necessities of life.

The United States is motivated not by a desire to help the Korean people, but to crush communism. After a visit to the DPRK in 1946, Harry Truman’s friend Edwin Pauley wrote that,

Communism in Korea could get off to a better start than practically anywhere else in the world. The Japanese owned…all of the major industries and natural resources.. The Communist Party…will have acquired them without any work in developing them” [23].

The United States government is here admitting that communism has the potential to be a massive success. They embarked on a concentrated campaign to strangle the Korean economy in order to destroy the foundations for communism that were present in the North. The sanctions are merely another aspect of this plan. The United States wants to present capitalism as the only system possible, and it will do anything-including genocide-to accomplish that goal.

North Korea and other socialisms, however, shatter the US narrative. The DPRK still guarantees universal healthcare to its people, which is something the United States also does not do. Despite the imperialist onslaught, the DPRK is doing its level best to provide for its people. The values of socialism-solidarity, cooperation, and collective unity-are on full display.

This can be seen in the DPRK’s attitude towards education. To quote one eyewitness visitor,

“Education is highly valued in north Korea. Education at all levels is free for all citizens. We toured the Grand People’s Study Hall, a huge seven-story library, open to all people. Not only do they let you borrow books and music and use the computer, you can hear lectures on all different topics. Then there was the Grand Children’s Palace where children come after school for activities like dancing, singing, artwork and sports. There are eight floors, more than 100 rooms and over 100 teaching staff. Places like this exist in each province, although this is the largest one in the country” [24].

In fact, the DPRK was at one time more economically developed than its southern neighbor.  According to Japan Focus, “by the early 1960’s, well before South Korea’s industrial takeoff, the North had impressively re-industrialized. This difference cannot be explained by foreign aid alone, which was far greater in absolute terms in the South than in the North. The Regime’s ability to  mobilize…the population…was indispensable” [25]. It was explicitly socialism, with its emphasis on cooperation, that allowed the north Korean economy to recover following the war.

Socialism in the DPRK has lead to numerous other incredible feats which bettered the lives of the working masses. In her book Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, provides statistics which show that “Already in 1949, per capita national income had more than doubled since 1945” [26]. She goes on to say that “Electricity was extended to 29,850 households from 16,513 households” [27]. The revolution in Korea materially benefited the people, lifting them from extreme poverty and improving their quality of life.

This improvement continues today. Education is free and compulsory for 11 years, with plenty of opportunity for further education for those who wish to pursue it. The means of production are overwhelmingly in public ownership (the exceptions relating to foreign and south Korean investment), and so the vast majority of factories, farms, and so on exist solely and exclusively to serve the people’s needs [28].

Democratic Korea enjoyed a comparable standard of living to their neighbors in the south well into the 1980s. [29]. Living spartan lifestyles, the Korean people were nearly self-sufficient in terms of light industry and consumer goods by 1967, with goods like textiles, underwear, socks, shoes, and alcoholic beverages becoming increasingly available for every citizen [30].

Industry in the north grew at 25 percent per annum in the 10 years following the Korean War and at 14 percent from 1965 to 1978. US officials were greatly concerned about south Korea’s economy, which lagged far behind, raising doubts about the merits of Washington’s right-wing, pro-capitalist, neo-colonial project in Korea. By 1980, the north Korean capital, Pyongyang, was one of the best run, most efficient cities in Asia. Seoul, on the other hand, was a vast warren “of sweatshops to make Dante or Engels faint,” complete with a teeming population of homeless [31].

Eager to present the south’s economic system as superior to the north’s, Washington allowed the ROK to pursue a vigorous program of industrial planning behind a wall of tariffs and subsidies, while, at the same time, offering south Korean industry access to the world market. To help matters along, huge dollops of aid were poured into the country. Japan delivered $800 million in grants and loans as compensation for 35 years of colonial domination, at a time south Korea’s exports were only $200 million. And in return for dispatching 50,000 soldiers to fight on the US-side in Vietnam, Washington handed over $1 billion in mercenary payments from 1965 to 1970, equal to eight percent of the south’s GDP. South Korean engineering firms were given contracts with the US military, and Vietnam soaked up almost all of the south’s steel exports (produced by an integrated steel mill built with the $800 million aid injection from Japan.) [32].

At the same time, the north was hobbled by miscalculations. Pyongyang angered the Soviets in the early 60s by siding with China in the Sino-Soviet split. Moscow cut off aid in retaliation. While Soviet aid had never been as generous as the aid the US and Japan had showered upon the south, it had made a difference, and its interruption (it was later restored) slowed the north’s economic growth. Then, in the 70s, Pyongyang ran into debt trouble when it began buying turnkey factories from the West [33].

As a result of the south’s industrial planning, its import-substitution model, its high-tariff barriers, and injections of aid from the US and Japan, the ROK economy was steaming ahead of the north’s by the mid-80s. Still, while growth had slowed in the north, the difference in standard of living between the average south Korean and the average north Korean was never as great as south Korea’s backers would have you believe. And the north had its attractions. While consumer goods were scarce, daily necessities were available in abundance at subsidized prices. Cumings points to a CIA report that acknowledges (almost grudgingly, he says) the north’s various achievements: “compassionate care for children in general and war orphans in particular; ‘radical change’ in the position of women; genuinely free housing, free health care, and preventive medicine; and infant mortality and life expectancy rates comparable to the most advanced countries until the recent famine” [34].

Lakov, a self-described right-wing economist, also notes the achievements of the DPRK in the face of this economic chaos. He writes,

“Life expectancy in north Korea peaked at 72, only marginally lower than the life expectancy in the much more prosperous south. According to the 2008 census results, life expectancy at birth seems to be about 69 years nowadays. This is some ten years lower than in the south, but still impressive for such a poor country.

In 2008 child mortality in North Korea was estimated by the World Health Organization at 45 per 1,000 live births. This is a bit higher than China….

Chad and North Korea have roughly the same levels of per capita GDP” [35].

Even the U.S. government cannot deny the accomplishments of Korean socialism. Written behind closed doors in 1990, a declassified CIA report admits that the DPRK administers outstanding social services for children, guarantees totally free housing to citizens, provides a highly successful country-wide public preventative medical program, oversees a police force with an extremely low level of corruption and has achieved high life expectancy and low infant mortality rates [36].

The same CIA report points out that there are more college-educated women than men in the DPRK, and admits that the Workers Party of Korea legitimately committed to ‘radical change’ in Korean gender relations. The facts support their conclusion: women are permitted to serve in the military, state child-care programs allow women to have independent careers outside of the house and a significant number of high level political positions are occupied by women, including representation in the Supreme People’s Assembly [37].

The DPRK’s remarkable public health care system – which provides unconditional universal coverage for citizens – continues to perform tremendously well, even in the midst of crippling U.S. sanctions. Just last year in a report to the United Nations on the North Korean health care system, Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), called it “something which most other developing countries would envy.” She pointed out that the “DPRK has no lack of doctors and nurses,” and praised the system for its “very elaborate health infrastructure, starting from the central to the provincial to the district level” [38].

Today, under Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s capital city is in fact thriving. Even South Korean tabloids admit that this is the case. One writes,

“Three years after Kim Jong-un came to power in North Korea, the streets of Pyongyang look much different. The streets of the city are lined with new 40-floor skyscrapers, and taxis drive down them. Before, they had been dark at night, but now they are illuminated by bright lights, while smartphone-toting women are dressed more smartly than before. The unanimous testimony of recent visitors to Pyongyang is that the North Korean city has doffed its drab garb in favor of a coat of many colors.“It was my first visit to North Korea in five years, and I was shocked by how much the atmosphere had changed,” Jang Yong-cheol, permanent director for the Isang Yun Peace Foundation, told the Hankyoreh on Dec. 16. Jang was in Pyongyang for five days in October” [39].

It should also be mentioned that, despite facing isolation and genocidal sanctions, the DPRK has come to the aid of African national liberation movements. The DPRK participated in combat operations alongside the People’s Armed Forces for the liberation of Angola. It aided the African Congress in the struggle against Apartheid and provided assistance to countries such as Ethiopia [40]. Like Cuba, the DPRK’s socialist internationalism has improved the lives of many around the world.

All of this shows that socialism can in fact be a success, and that imperialism is responsible for the deficiencies of the north Korean economy. The north Korean people are not suffering under socialism. In fact, they have made remarkable achievements under the circumstances. This is a testament to the tremendous power of socialist economics.

  1. Rüdiger Frank, “A Question of Interpretation: Statistics From and About North Korea,”38 North, Washington, D.C.: U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University, July 16, 2012.
  2.  Evan Ramstad, “North Korea Strains Under New Pressures”,The Wall Street Journal, March 30, 2010. Retrieved on April 10, 2014; Geoffrey Cain, “North Korea’s Impending Collapse: 3 Grim Scenarios”,Global Post, September 28, 2013. Doug Bandow, “The Complex Calculus of a North Korean Collapse”,The National Interest, January 9, 2014.
  3. Soo-bin Park, “The North Korea Economy: Current Issues and Prospects,” Department of Economics, Carleton University (2004).
  4. World Food Programme. Office of Evaluation, Full Report of the Evaluation of DPRK EMOPs 5959.00 and 5959.01 “Emergency Assistance to Vulnerable Groups,” March 20 to April 10, 2000, p.1.
  5. Food and Agricultural Organization/World Food Programme,Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, November 12, 2012, p.10.
  6. Food and Agricultural Organization/World Food Programme,Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, June 25, 1998.
  7. U.S. Department of Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control, An Overview of Sanctions with Respect to North Korea, May 6, 2011.
  8. “Breaking the Bank,” The Economist, September 22, 2005.
  9. “Ernst & Young says Macao-based BDA clean, cites minor faults,” RIA Novosti, April 18, 2007.
  10. Ronda Hauben, “Behind the Blacklisting of Banco Delta Asia,” Ohmynews, May 25, 2007. John McGlynn, John McGlynn, “North Korean Criminality Examined: the US Case. Part I,” Japan Focus, May 18, 2007. Id., “Financial Sanctions and North Korea: In Search of the Evidence of Currency Counterfeiting and Money Laundering Part II,” July 7, 2007; Id., “Banco Delta Asia, North Korea’s Frozen Funds and US Undermining of the Six-Party Talks: Obstacles to a Solution. Part III,” Japan Focus, June 9, 2007.
  11. Daniel L. Glaser, testimony before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, U.S. Senate, September 12, 2006.
  12. Simon Rabinovitch and Simon Mundy, “China reduces banking lifeline to North Korea,” Financial Times, May 7, 2013.
  13. Simon Rabinovitch, “China banks rein in support for North Korea,” Financial Times, May 13, 2013.
  14. Rüdiger Frank, “The Political Economy of Sanctions against North Korea,”Asian Perspective, Vol. 30, No. 3, 2006, at 5-36. Retrieved on April 10, 2014.
  15. Ibid.
  16.  Chad O’Caroll, “How Sanctions Stop Legitimate North Korean Trade,” NK News, February 18, 2013.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Michelle A Vu, “Living conditions in North Korea ‘very bad’,”Christian Today, March 31, 2009; Harry de Quetteville, “Enjoy your stay… at North Korean Embassy,”Telegraph, April 5, 2008.
  19. “Where the sun sinks in the east,”The Economist, August 11, 2012 (print edition). Retrieved on April 10, 2014; Nicholas Eberstadt, “The economics of state failure in North Korea,” American Enterprise Institute, May 23, 2012.
  20. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. “North Korean Economy Records Positive Growth for Two Consecutive Years”. The Institute for Far Eastern Studies. 17 July 2013.
  29. Ellen Brun, Jacques Hersh, Socialist Korea: A Case Study in the Strategy of Economic Development, 1976, Monthly Review Press, New York and London
  30. Ibid.
  31. Cumings, Op. Cit.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid.
  37. Ibid.
  38. “Country Comparison: Life Expectancy at Birth”. CIA World Factbook.

Socialism and Democracy in the DPRK

The DPRK is continuously cast as a villain in international politics. The “hermit kingdom” is painted as tyrannical, repressive, and dynastic. In this essay, I want to argue the opposite: North Korea is a deeply democratic country, and this is reflective of its socialist values.

Contrary to popular belief, elections do in fact take place in the DPRK. Bourgeois media, such as AJ English, admit this. However, they portray the elections in an incredibly dishonest way. One report alleged that the elections consist only of a yes/no vote on a single candidate selected by the party, carried out in view of the public and with the no vote requiring an accompanying written explanation [1]. This is at best half-true and at worst entirely fabricated. Here, I will argue that the DPRK is democratic, and its elections are one reason why this is the case.

Before we proceed, however, we must provide for ourselves a working definition of what democracy actually is. It is my opinion that we ought to return to the word itself. Demos means people, while -Krata is used to mean rule. Democracy, therefore, must mean rule by the people. This is how the website defines the term. They write that democracy is, “government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system” [2]. A democracy is a society in which the majority of the people has the ability to make decisions about their political and social life. My use of the dictionary here is not meant to imply that dictionaries are the supreme authority on definitions. I make use of it simply to avoid accusations that my definition of democracy is ideological. I have not invented a definition of democracy that includes the DPRK because I want to force you to consider it democratic. I have taken a mainstream source whose political agenda is the polar opposite of mine.

The DPRK has county, city, and provincial elections to the local people’s assemblies, as well as national elections to the Supreme People’s Assembly, their legislature. These are carried out every five years.

Candidates are chosen in mass meetings held under the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland, which also organizes the political parties in the DPRK. Citizens run under these parties or they can run as independents. They are chosen by the people, not by the “party” (in fact, the parliament in the DPRK consists of three separate parties as of last election, the Workers Party of Korea, the Korean Social Democratic Party, and the Chondoist Chongu Party) [3].

The fact that there is only one candidate on the ballot is because there has already been a consensus reached on who should be up for nomination for that position, by the people in their mass meetings. This is a truly democratic arrangement, as it places power directly in the hands of the people rather than in the hands of wealthy “representatives” who have no idea how the majority actually live. According to one report, the median income of a member of the United States congress is 14 times that of the average citizen [4]. It is simply impossible for them to understand the struggle of the masses. In the DPRK, by contrast, the masses advocate for themselves directly. They understand their own interests and are able to advance them openly. This is what real democracy entails.

The DPRK does in fact allow foreign observers of their election. People vote in a separate room from anyone else and are afforded privacy. The mass meetings require input from the popular masses, so they are not secret, nor should they be, since this would impede the democratic process and make it more difficult for the deputies to directly address the needs and demands of the people. They are more than votes and ballots, they are meetings where the people are given a voice and the power to impact their political system in a meaningful way.

The Central Electoral Committee is composed of several members of the SPA, WPK, and Presidium. It is formed by a vote of the Presidium. The DPRK displays extensive political stability and I know of no instances of the candidates chosen by the people being rebuked by any part of the democratic process.The elections are effectively a fail-safe against any corruption of the democratic process that occurs during the mass meetings. The results are therefore expected to show overwhelming support because a no-vote indicates the mass meetings failed to reach a consensus with popular support [5].

Here, we see the profound difference in DPRK elections and American elections. American elections are designed merely to give the illusion of popular participation in government. Citizens are given a choice, effectively, between two candidates who both represent the interests of big business. It is virtually impossible to break out of the two-party system, unless one is independently wealthy. Ross Perot, for example, was only able to run against billionaires because of his status as a billionaire [6]. He was only able to break out of the two-party system imposed by corporate capitalism because he himself embodied corporate capitalism. Time and again, we see that it is the candidate with the most money who wins elections in the United States [7]. In the making of policy, it is monied interest groups who get what they want, not ordinary working class people [8]. Despite the veneer of democracy that the US has adopted, it is in fact a dictatorship of the capitalist class. There is no genuine alternative to the interests of capital (which are in reality the interests of a minority of business owners), and thus no real democracy.

In the DPRK, however, democracy flourishes. As we have seen, they are designed with the explicit goal to empower the popular masses. The no-vote is a direct result of this.It is not evidence of the monopolization of power into the hands of the Party but rather evidence of the power of the people. No-votes arise when the discussions of the masses become too contentious. In a certain sense, the masses sometimes have too much power. The elections exist to mediate this and come to truly democratic conclusions, where the will of the majority is enacted. The elections are not a barrier to democracy, but rather an expression of it.

Citizens in capitalist countries are typically only made aware of one aspect of the election process in the DPRK. They are led to believe that only one candidate ever appears on the ballot, and this is used to paint the DPRK as dictatorial. The same method of selective reporting could be used to misrepresent Western ‘democratic’ systems. If the media only covered the electoral college during an American election, for example, they could easily assert that just 538 Americans were allowed to vote for president. This reveals the importance of rigorous research regarding the DPRK. While there may be elements of truth to Western reporting on the DPRK, they never reveal the whole picture. It is vital that we strike out on our own and refuse to trust the bourgeois media in the United States.

Elections, though, are not the only marker by which democracy is determined. The United States has elections, but I have just argued that it is undemocratic. This must mean that arenas beyond parliament (or similar bodies) also play a role in determining whether or not a country is democratic. In my view, an important area to consider when talking about democracy is the economy. It is the economy which determines whether or not we stay alive, let alone what political forms we adopt. It would be virtually impossible to spend a day theorizing about politics if one had to worry about whether or not one would eat that night. As such, the question of who controls the economy is an important one. If a small minority of individuals controls the economy, then it follows that the same group has the final say in the politics, art, and culture of a particular society. This can be seen in the United States. A minority of the population is made up of wealthy business owners, who exercise a huge amount of control over policy. They only hold this political power because they have money. It is therefore the case that the primary center of power in society is the economy. Societies can only be considered democratic if the masses of people manage the economy as well as the political sphere.

This is obviously not the case under capitalism, but is it the case in the DPRK? I would argue that this is the case. Workplaces in the DPRK are managed according to the Tean Work System, which is described this way by Country Data:

The highest managerial authority under the Taean system is the party committee. Each committee consists of approximately twenty-five to thirty-five members elected from the ranks of managers, workers, engineers, and the leadership of working people’s organizations at the factory. A smaller “executive committee,” about one-fourth the size of the regular committee, has practical responsibility for day-to-day plant operations and major factory decisions. The most important staff members, including the party committee secretary, factory manager, and chief engineer, make up its membership. The system focuses on cooperation among workers, technicians, and party functionaries at the factory level [9].

This system has persisted long in the DPRK. In his New Year’s address at the thirtieth anniversary of the Taean Work System, Kim Il-Sung said:

[The] Taean work system is the best system of economic management. It enables the producer masses to fulfill their responsibility and role as masters and to manage the economy in a scientific and rational manner by implementing the mass line in economic management, and by combining party leadership organically with administrative, economic, and technical guidance [10].

The DPRK’s economy is a dual state-owned/cooperative economy, with workers in the latter constitutionally entitled to ownership of their workplaces. According to the Constitution of the DPRK:

Article 22

The property of social cooperative organizations belongs to the collective property of working people within the organizations concerned.

Social cooperative organizations can possess such property as land, agricultural machinery, ships, medium-small sized factories and enterprises.

The State shall protect the property of social cooperative organizations [11].

The Korean revolution gave opportunities to workers and landless poor peasants that were unimaginable under the past oppressive conditions. Korea expert Bruce Cumings writes, “At any time before 1945, it was virtually inconceivable for uneducated poor peasants to become country-level officials or officers in the army. But in North Korea such careers became normal.” [12]. He also notes that inter-class marriages became normal, common, and widespread with the establishment of Democratic Korea, and educational access opened up for all sectors of society.

Arguably the most important part of the economy is land ownership. Prior to the revolution, land was concentrated in the hands of an astonishingly small Japanese elite. The Worker’s Party undertook a gradual but steady process of converting private land ownership into cooperative organizations. Beginning with the process of post-war reconstruction in 1953, only 1.2% of peasant households were organized as cooperatives, which encompassed a mere .6% of total acreage. [13]. By August of 1958, 100% of peasant households were converted into cooperatives, encompassing 100% of total acreage. [14]. Ellen Brun, an economist whose 1976 Socialist Korea study remains the most comprehensive to date, writes that “In spite of lack of modern means of production, the cooperatives – with efficient assistance by the state – very early showed their superiority to individual farming, eventually convincing formerly reluctant farmers into participating in the movement” [15]. Collectivization was not forced from above, but rather an expression of the will of the masses. It was-and remains-a democratic action.

Local people’s committees, in which any Korean worker could participate, elected leadership to guide agricultural production and collaborated with national authorities to coordinate nation-wide efficiency [16]. These people’s committees were the primary means by which “the Party remains in contact with the masses on the various collective farms, thus enabling it to gauge public opinion on issues affecting the policies of the country people’s committee” [17]. In 1966, the Worker’s Party introduced the “group management system,” which “organized groups of ten to twenty-five farmers into production units, each of which was then put permanently in charge of a certain area of land, a certain task, or a certain instrument of production” [18]. This represents another instrument of people’s democracy implemented in Korean socialist production.

No serious antagonism between the countryside and industrial centers developed in the process of socialist construction in Democratic Korea. Brun notes that “tens of thousands of demobiilized men and many junior and senior graduates as well as middle school pupils went to the countryside in the busy seasons and rendered assistance amounting to millions of days of work,” all voluntarily and without coercion by the state [19].

Most importantly, Korean socialist construction reorganized industrial production by and in the interests of the formerly dispossessed Korean proletariat. Drawing on the mass line – the Marxist-Leninist organizing method that “is both the cause and effect of the politicization and involvement of the masses in the process of economic development and socialist construction” – the WPK implemented the Taean work system, described above, in December 1961 [20]. In contrast to the past system, in which managers were appointed to oversee a workplace unilaterally by a single party member, “The Party factory committee assumes the highest authority at the level of the enterprise” in the Taean work system [20]. Brun further describes this system, and I will quote her at length:

“Ways of solving questions affecting production and workers’ activities, as well as methods of carrying out decisions, are arrived at through collective discussions within the factory committee, whose members are elected by the factory’s Party members. To be effective this committee has to be relatively small, its precise numbers depending on the size of the enterprise. At the Daean Electrical Plant, with a labor force of 5,000, the Party factory committee is made up of 35 members who meet once or twice a month, while the 9 members of the executive board keep in continuous contact. Sixty percent of its members are production workers, with the remainder representing a cross-section of all factory activities, including functionaries, managers, deputy-managers, engineers, technicians, women’s league representatives, youth league members, trade union members, and office employees. Its composition thus gives it access to all socioeconomic aspects of the enterprise and the lives of its worker.

This committee has become what is called the ‘steering wheel’ of the industrial unit, conducting ideological education and mobilizing the workers to implement collective decisions and to fulfill the production target. Through its connection to the Party it has a clear picture of overall policies and aims as well as the exact function of individual enterprise in the national context. In other words, this setup ensures that politics are given priority” [21].

Workers have input and supremacy in production and interact dialectically with the state to plan and carry out collectivist production on behalf of the whole Korean people. The fact that the economy is managed, often directly, by the whole of society is evidence that the country is a democratic one. Workers are not trapped in top-down workplaces to be ordered around, as are workers in the United States, but rather have a say over what is produced and how it is done. The people have a say over the economy, and thus a say in all other aspects of life. This, as I have argued, means that the country is vastly more democratic than all capitalist countries, even the most advanced.

Many allege that the firm establishment of ‘Songun’ politics; a policy the Worker’s Party of Korea describes as “giving precedence to arms and the military” [22] nullifies the aforementioned democratic gains. I would like to assert that this is not the case. Despite Western insistence to the novelty of Songun politics, the official history of the DPRK points to the development of Songun decades before the DPRK was even formed. This is important to note because it highlights how an anti-imperialist and essentially national liberation struggle has tempered the politics of socialist Korea from the very beginning [23]. Regardless, the collapse of the Soviet Union did bring qualitative changes to the political structure of the DPRK. Notably, the National Defence Commission has become the “backbone organ in the state administrative organ” and “commands all the work of the politics, military and economy”. This can largely be attributed to the unique position the DPRK assumed following its de facto isolation internationally in the mid 1990′s. The fall of the Soviet Union meant deep economic austerity, moreover, it meant an emboldened US and comprador south. This meant the DPRK was forced to pursue a deeply militaristic road of development (hence, the superiority of the National Defence Commission and wide dissemination of Songun politics) [24]. Ultimately what we see emerge from this 1990′s transformation is a unique worker’s state conditioned by the intense contradictions between its socialist construction and the ever present threat of imperialist intervention. Unique not only in its precarious historical predicament but also in the related development of its internal contradictions which no doubt assume an intensely dialectical relationship with parallel external contradictions.

In light of these contradictions, we must examine the organs of class power in the DPRK; namely the state organs and their relationship with the broader Korean people. Clearly, the state organs of the DPRK exercise supreme authority over the economy and social life. The state, constitutionally, represents the interests of the working people and thus has legally excluded exploiters and oppressors from formal representation:

The social system of the DPRK is a people-centered system under which the working peoples are masters of everything, and everything in society serves the working peoples. The State shall defend and protect the interests of the workers, peasants, and working intellectuals who have been freed from exploitation and oppression and become masters of the State and society. [25]

Therefore the political organs of class power have taken become explicitly proletarian organs of class power; at least in the sense that is provided constitutionally to the Korean people. The guiding political force in the DPRK remains the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK) which holds 601/687 seats in the Supreme People’s Assembly and the de facto leading party in the ruling coalition Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland [26]. All Koreans over the age of 17 irrespective of race, religion, sex, creed etc. are able and encouraged to participate in the organs of state power. Elections are routinely held for local and central organs of state power being usually People’s Assemblies which comprise the core of state power in the DPRK; from which come the ‘standing’ organs of class power being institutionally the National Defence Commission and the Korean People’s Army (KPA) [27].

As mentioned earlier, the road of Songun has meant material developments in the social realities which comprise what the West considers North Korea. The large emphasis on military advancement and might has only assisted the imperialist detractors in their description of the DPRK as a ‘military dictatorship.’ This is at best a surface-level analysis. It is considered the highest honor for a Korean to serve their Fatherland in the struggle against imperialism by joining the Korean People’s Army. Unlike other standing military forces, the KPA is definitively involved in the social as well as material construction of socialism in north Korea. Understanding this helps us understand how the unique internal developments of socialist Korea created an equally unique expression of class power.

The people are also closely connected to the leaders of the DPRK, the Party cadres.The Party cadres are an inescapable feature of north Korean political apparatus and are therefore possibly the closest link the Korean people have to their formal organs of power. Cadres as well as Party officials and administrators are known to visit workplaces and provide motivation as well as guidance to the working people [28]. This is in sharp contrast to the relationship between capitalist politicians and citizens. In the capitalist countries, politicians are far removed from the people and have no idea what their struggles are like. In the DPRK, the opposite is true.

Because the working class is the vast majority of the population of the DPRK (roughly seventy percent [29]), the management of the state by the working class means that the state is managed by the majority of the people. This is consistent with the definition of democracy proposed earlier.

It is often claimed that none of this matters because north Koreans are forced to engage in hard labor for their crimes. The state keeps 200,000 political prisoners, according to Amnesty International. It is the same state that shot dead three North Korean citizens who were trying to cross the border into China in late December” [30].

A more nuanced appraisal of the Korean prison system in the north ironically comes from bourgeois liberal historian Bruce Cumings. In his 2004 book, North Korea: Another Country, he notes that most claims about the Korean penal system are grossly exaggerated. For instance, he writes that “Common criminals who commit minor felonies and small fry with an incorrect grasp on their place in the family state who commit low-level political offenses go off to labor camps or mines for hard work and varying lengths of incarceration,” the goal of which is to “reeducate them” [31]. This reflects a materialist understanding of the roots of crime, arising in large part from a person’s material conditions and incorrect ideas, which can change through altering a person’s conditions. It’s important to note that the vast majority of criminals in the Korean penal system fall into this category and thus the aim is to rehabilitate and reeducate, as opposed to the punitive aims of the American penal system.

Cumings notes the contrast between Democratic Korea’s criminal justice system and that of the United States, especially in terms of a prisoner’s contact with and support from their family. He writes:

The Aquariums of Pyongyang is an interesting and believable story, precisely because it does not, on the whole, make for the ghastly tale of totalitarian repression that its original publishers in France meant it to be; instead, it suggests that a decade’s incarceration with one’s immediate family was survivable and not necessarily an obstacle to entering the elite status of residence in Pyongyang and entrance to college. Meanwhile we have a long-standing, never-ending gulag full of black men in our prisons, incarcerating upward of 25 percent of all black youths” [32]

It should also be noted that the only north Korean ever to escape from a prison camp, Shin Dong-hyuk, recanted large parts of his story from Escape from Camp 14. According to a New York Times article on the subject,

“Mr. Shin, who gives his age as 32, now says that the key fact that set him apart from other defectors — that he and his family had been incarcerated at a prison that no one expected to leave alive — was only partly true, and that he actually served most of his time in the less brutal Camp 18. He also said that the torture he endured as a teenager, instead happened years later and was meted out for very different reasons” [33].

Similarly, the revelation that chemical weapons are used on prisoners in Camp 22 has since been proven spurious. The story was first invented in the 2004 BBC documentary Access to Evil. The documentary featured several interviews with Kwon Hyok, a DPRK defector and former head of security at the camp. The documentary’s evidence for this claim was also based on a “Letter of Transfer” supposedly authorizing human experimentation. These claims, however, we entirely manufactured. Even intelligence agencies in south Korea quickly ruled that the documents were forgeries. They write,

First, it was revealed that Kwon had not been military attache in Beijing as claimed. Next, attention was focused on the Letter of Transfer…there were problems with nomenclature, size of seals, and type of paper.

Joseph Koehler…a virulent critic of the North…came to the conclusion that the document looks like a fake” [34].

While this is not evidence that every claim by defectors is spurious, this does call into question the validity of the story. It is not a surprise that defectors would exaggerate their stories, given that, “South Korea said on Sunday that it would quadruple the cash reward it provides for North Korean defectors arriving with important information to 1 billion won, or $860,000, in an effort to encourage more elite members from the North to flee” [35]. North Korean defectors are not simply persecuted individuals seeking a better life. They have a direct economic incentive to lie about the country. It is important, as I said above, to verify each story independently rather than blindly trusting them.

The fact that time in the Korean penal system does not result in social castigation like it does in capitalist countries reflects a stark point of contrast with capitalist penal systems. Using one’s family as a support network, the state encourages political reeducation and opens opportunities for rehabilitated prisoners to re-enter Korean society as full citizens. The prison system in north Korea is far more humane, on principle, than the system in the United States. It is based on a people-centered philosophy which holds that criminality is not innate to humanity. This is strong evidence that the DPRK is a state of the majority, and thus democratic.

The suppression of religion in the DPRK-a favorite chestnut of the right-is also vastly overstated. In article by Dae Young Ryu, ‘Fresh Wineskins for New Wine: A New Perspective on North Korean Christianity’ [36]  begins by noting a new openness of Christianity in the 1980s, with new churches built, a strengthened Protestant theological college in Pyongyang, and an increase in worshippers, now put at about 12,000.

Although the government itself constructed new churches during this period, Ryu claims that this is not a recent phenomenon. In fact, it goes back to Christians of the 1950s who adopted Marxism-Leninism and supported the leadership of Kim Il-sung. This development is even more remarkable, since it took place in a context where Christianity was widely viewed as an imperialist, American phenomenon. Indeed, evidence indicates that the government tolerated about 200 pro-communist Christian churches during the 1960s. He writes:

Contrary to the common western view, it appears that North Korean leaders exhibited toleration to Christians who were supportive of Kim II Sung and his version of socialism. Presbyterian minister Gang Ryang Uk served as vice president of the DPRK from 1972 until his death in 1982, and Kim Chang Jun, an ordained Methodist minister, became vice chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly. They were buried in the exalted Patriots’ Cemetery, and many other church leaders received national honors and medals. It appears that the government allowed the house churches in recognition of Christians’ contribution to the building of the socialist nation [37].

I would like to conclude with an examination of Kim Il Sung and the supposed “cult of personality” surrounding him. The mass grief surrounding his funeral is taken as evidence that he is worshipped as a god in the DPRK. In reality, this grief stemmed from the immense popular support he enjoyed as a leader, during and after the revolution.

Kim scorned Korea’s inability to resist foreign domination. The Japanese regarded him as a highly able and dangerous guerilla leader, going so far as to establish a special anti-Kim insurgency unit to hunt him down [36]. The guerillas were an independent force, inspired by a desire to reclaim the Korean peninsula for Koreans, and were controlled by neither the Soviets nor Chinese. While they often retreated across the border into the Soviet Union to evade Japanese counter-insurgency forces, they received little material help from the Soviets.

Unlike the US, which imposed a military government and repressed the People’s Committees, the Soviets took a fairly hands-off approach to their occupation zone, allowing a coalition of nationalist and communist resistance fighters to run their own show. Within seven months, the first central government was formed, based on an interim People’s Committee led by Kim Il-sung.

Contrary to popular mythology, Kim wasn’t handpicked by the Soviets. He enjoyed considerable prestige and support as a result of his years as a guerilla leader and his commitment to national liberation. In fact, the Soviets never completely trusted him [38].

Eight months into the occupation, a program of land reform was begun, with landlords dispossessed of their land without compensation, but free to migrate to the south or work plots of size equal to those allocated to peasants. After a year, Kim’s Workers Party became the dominant political force. Major industries, most owned by the Japanese, were nationalized. Japanese collaborators were purged from official positions.

Citizens of the DPRK support Kim Il-sung because of his courageous defiance of U.S. domination, his commitment to the reunification and the real accomplishments of socialism. In the face of those who wage war for exploitation and oppression, Kim’s decisions represented the aspirations of Korean workers, peasants, women and children – the united Korean nation – for freedom. Kim’s support was not derived from a cult of personality or taken by force. On the contrary, he earned the support of his people in struggle.

Indeed, there were no mechanisms by which to force the Korean people to support Kim Il-Sung during his rule. Lankov writes, “North Koreans in the Kim Il-Sung era were not brainwashed automatons whose favorite pastime was goose-stepping….nor were they closet dissenters….neither were they docile slaves who sheepishly followed any order from above” [39]. Kim Il-sung’s DPRK was not a police state, but rather a democratic and socialist country waging a valiant war against imperialism. The Korean people were-and continue to be-unified in struggle and support their leaders on this basis.

A survey of defectors estimates that more than half of the country they left behind approves of the job leader Kim Jong Un is doing. Seoul’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, as reported by Yonhap news agency, asked 133 defectors to hazard a guess as to Kim’s actual approval rating in the country, which at least publicly buys into the absolute cult of personality surrounding its leadership. Just over 60 percent said they think most of the country is behind him. In a similar survey in 2011, only 55 percent believed Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, had the support of the majority of the country.

As the BBC writes:

“Experts put Kim Jong-un’s popularity down to efforts improve everyday citizens’ lives, with an emphasis on economic growth, light industries and farming in a country where most are believed to be short of food, Yonhap says. There are no opinion polls in the closed communist state, where — outwardly at least — the leader enjoys full and boisterous support. Though not directly comparable, the perceived approval rating outshines those of Western leaders. A recent McClatchy poll suggested only 41% of Americans back President Barack Obama’s performance, while UK Prime Minister David Cameron scored 38% in a recent YouGov poll” [40].

The Wall Street Journal, quoting the poll, says more than 81 percent of the defectors said people were getting three meals a day, up from 75 percent of the previous batch surveyed.

“It points to a successful consolidation of power for the young leader, who took over with the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011. That seemed uncertain a year ago, at least based on the institute’s previous report on defector interviews. Speaking then with 122 people who had fled North Korea between January 2011 and May 2012, it found that 58% were unhappy with the choice of the young Mr. Kim as successor. (Of course, people who flee the country may tend to be more dissatisfied with it than people who remain.)

“The new leader seems to be tightening his grip, with 45% saying society is tightly under control, up from 36% in the previous report. Anti-regime leaflets and graffiti are a bit less common (but maybe that’s the high approval rating at work): 66% of the latest group said they’d seen such things, down from 73% in the 2012 survey and 70% in 2011. Travel to other parts of the country has become more difficult. The percentage who reported having done so, after rising for five consecutive years—to 70% among the defectors interviewed in 2012, from 56% among those interviewed in 2008 — retreated to 64%” [41].

Bourgeois media continues to portray the DPRK as a totalitarian nightmare, populated exclusively by a pacified and frightened citizenry. As I have shown, this is far from the case. The north Korean people have a far greater say in how their lives are structured than do citizens of even the most “democratic” capitalist countries. They are not forced to adhere to a Party Line handed down from on high, but rather are encouraged to participate in the running of society. The DPRK is an excellent example of socialism, which is focused on developing the working class-and humanity-to its full potential. It is only through socialism that we can realize our collective dream of a free and prosperous society. The DPRK is marching towards this dream, even in the face of unparalleled imperialist aggression. It is partly on this basis that we should pledge solidarity with the country. To reiterate the point I made in my last post, however, the DPRK should be supported regardless of whether it is itself socialist. It is standing against imperialism, which is the greatest enemy of socialism. Indirectly or directly, the DPRK works in the interests of socialism.

Hands off DPRK!

  10. Ibid.
  12. Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country, The New Press, New York, 2004.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ellen Brun, Jacques Hersh, Socialist Korea: A Case Study in the Strategy of Economic Development, 1976, Monthly Review Press, New York and London
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Suh, Jae-Jean. 2004. The Transformation of Class Structure and Class Conflict in North Korea. International Journal of Korean Reunification Studies. p. 55 content/uploads/2007/07/transformation%20of%20class%20structure.pdf
  22. Ibid. p. 56
  23. Ibid. p. 57
  24. Ibid.
  25. 10th Supreme People’s Assembly. Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Article 8.
  26. ]
  27. Korea-DPR. 2013.
  28. Journal of Asian and African Studies. 2013. Elite Volatility and Change in North Korean Politics: 1970-2010
  31. Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country, The New Press, New York, 2004. Op. Cit.
  32. Ibid.
  36. Journal of Church and State 48 (2006), pp. 659-75.
  37. Ibid, 673.
  38. Bruce Cumings, “Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (Updated Edition),” W.W. Norton & Company, 2005; p. 404
  39. Ibid.

Class Struggle and Social Reproduction Theory

It is often claimed that Marxism is too narrow to represent a pathway to liberation. It supposedly focuses on the workplace or the economy to the exclusion of not only race, gender, and other forms of oppression, but also issues of community empowerment and non-worker struggles. Marxism apparently leaves no room for discussions of service work, unpaid home labor, and other forms that go beyond the factory. In this essay, I want to use social reproduction theory to argue that the working class extends far beyond the assembly line. Capitalism’s sway over humanity appears to be a totalizing one. Capitalism not only controls the spaces in which it makes profits (our workplaces) but seeks to alter our entire lived experience from our body image to the practices by which we bring up our children. Capitalism must do this in order to ensure the continued flow of profits. I will argue that Marxism has the potential to describe forms of work that take place beyond the factory and, in so doing, reassert its usefulness as a revolutionary theory.

We must reconsider our visualization of the global working class. I am not attempting a concrete summation of who constitutes the working class today. I am proposing a theoretical restoration of the working class as the subject and object of history. Secondly, I argue in favor of a broader understanding of the working class than those employed as wage labor or factory production (the two conditions most closely associated with the term proletariat) at any given moment.

Only a narrow understanding of capitalism imagines its reach to be limited to the point of production. The centrality of wage labor is, in actuality, “a general illumination which bathes all the other colors and social relations and modifies their particularity” [1]. This is a quote from Marx himself. In analyzing wage labor and the system of factory production under capitalism, Marx hoped to bring to light certain contradictions in capitalist society as a whole. He was not a reductionist as is often claimed. I am going to deal here with how Marx actually conceives of capitalist production, or ‘the economy,’ and why it is important that we look to this understanding for today’s struggles against neoliberal capitalism.

We must begin with the incorrect implications of the term ‘economy.’ The allegations against Marxism as “reductionist” and “economistic” are only true if one understands the economy in one of the following two ways. The first is in the neoclassical sense, where neutral market forces determine the fate of humans by chance. The second is in the sense of a union boss whose understanding of the worker is restricted to the wage earner in a single branch of trade. These two concepts are connected are actually connected in important ways, and I will examine them in more detail later.

First, I want to explain why this restrictive view of the economic is something that Marx actually critiqued. The oft-quoted passage which supposedly proves that Marx is an economic reductionist is in Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, where he claims, “the mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general” [2]. In the common sense reading of this phrase, the “mode of production of material life” is understood to be the economy or economic processes. This, on the face of it, is correct. Marx did mean that the economic base of a society (the process by which we produce the necessities of life) played a very significant role in determining politics, art, and other forms of activity. However, Marx did not conceive of economic processes in the narrow sense of production in the workplace. What, then, did Marx really mean by economic processes? In order to answer this question, it is important to recall that Marx wants us to forget everything we are told about what the economy is by the newspapers and standard economists. Instead of merely describing the surface workings of the economy as these outlets do, Marx is writing about capitalism in a revelatory mode. He is sharing its secrets with us. He stresses that capitalism is not what it seems. By economy, he cannot mean simply “that which goes on in the workplace and market squares” because this is how capitalist economists themselves say we should conceive of it. The view of the economic process as being confined to the workplace is the view, as Lenin said, of the “trade union secretary” [3]. To pretend that Marx also held this view is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of his project.

Marx wants to construct a new picture of the economy. He will expose for us how capitalism actually reproduces itself, rather than how it appears to do so. This involves examination of labor outside the workplace. Marx writes that capitalism reproduces itself in part “behind the back of its direct producers” [4]. He will make us “take leave of this noisy sphere where everything takes place on the surface and in the view of all men” [5]. Marx will lead us “into the hidden abode of production” [6] where “we shall see not only how capital produces but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit-making” [7]. It is clear, then, that Marx could not have focused solely on the production process. The entire point of his work was to show the ways in which capital exists not only because of, but beyond formalized labor.

If what we currently understand as the economy is merely surface, as Marx posits, what is the secret that capital has fought to keep hidden from us? The answer is simple: the animating force is not the movement of products charted by graphs, but human labor. As soon as we, following Marx, restore labor as the source of all wealth and as the very social life of humanity, we restore to the economic process its messy, unruly, gendered, and raced component: living human beings capable of following orders as well as disobeying them. The economy, then, is not merely a static set of relations: worker and machine, boss and employee, et cetera. Rather, it is constantly in motion. It is the actions of human beings, engaging in labor, that determine the nature of the economic process.

The secret source of all profits is exploitation. I have written about this in some detail here (Marx’s Theory of Exploitation ) but it is worth going over the concept again. Although the worker produces all the wealth, capital does not pay her for the full value of what they actually produce. Workers are only paid for the cost of their own reproduction as workers. The additional value produced during the working day is appropriated by capital as surplus value or profit. The wage is nothing but the value necessary to reproduce the worker’s labor power. The value produced by the worker beyond this is essentially stolen. In order to explain how this theft occurs every day without the constant use of direct military force, Marx introduces the concepts of necessary and surplus labor time. Necessary labor time is that portion of the workday in which the direct producers make value equivalent to what is needed to sustain them so that they can continue laboring. Surplus labor time, meanwhile, is all the remaining workday where workers make value for capital.

The line between these two concepts is not always clear. There is no bell that rings when workers transition from necessary labor time to surplus labor time. Further, there is no set definition of what the worker needs for their own reproduction. Marx expands upon this fuzziness, writing,

If the owner of labor power works today, tomorrow he must again be able to repeat the same process in the same conditions as regards health and strength. His means of subsistence must therefore be enough to maintain him in his normal state as a laboring individual. His natural wants, such as food, clothing, fuel and housing, vary according to the…physical conditions of his country. On the other hand, the number and extent of his so-called “necessary wants” as also the modes of satisfying them, are themselves the product of historical development and depend therefore to a great extent on the…conditions under which, and consequently the habits, and degree of comfort, to which the class of free laborers has been formed [8].

Here, we sense that the content of Marx’s critique is inadequate to his form. In simple terms, he is not going deep enough. Is it enough for Marx to say that the so-called natural wants, such as food and clothing, are historically contingent? (That is, they are not static and unchanging, but determined by the society in which they exist). No, it is not.

Marxists must examine the labor expended to prepare the food, to wash and iron the clothing. This is labor that is performed outside the production of commodities. While Marx himself did not spend a great deal of time on this, the centrality of the labor process that is the core of Marxism compels us to do so.

One of the most important Marxists to take up this task was the feminist Lise Vogel. Marx, Vogel rightly argues, did not discuss a second component of necessary labor. Vogel calls this the domestic component. This includes the labor performed at home to make the worker ready for the next day, so cooking, cleaning, and so on. It also includes the biological replacement of labor through childbirth. As we know, the lion’s share of the processes by which individual workers renew themselves away from the site of surplus labor production falls on women of the working class [9]. The domestic component of the labor process, then, is yet another hidden (or secret) element of production. If the aim of Marxist economic analysis is to uncover the secret ways in which capitalism produces itself, then Marxists must take up the question of the domestic component of labor.

Looking closely at Marx’s Capital, Vogel and others argue that the key to the system, our labor power, is actually itself produced and reproduced outside of capitalist production, in a “kin-based” site called the family. In an excellent passage, Vogel explains clearly the connection between class struggle and women’s oppression:

Class struggle over conditions of production represents the central dynamic of social development in societies characterized by exploitation. In these societies, surplus labor is appropriated by a dominant class, and an essential condition for production is the…renewal of a subordinated class of direct producers committed to the labor process. Ordinarily, generational replacement provides most of the new workers needed to replenish this class, and women’s capacity to bear children therefore plays a critical role in class society….In propertied classes…women’s oppression flows from their role in the maintenance and inheritance of property…In subordinate classes…female oppression…derives from women’s involvement in processes that renew direct producers, as well as their involvement in production [10].

This is essentially the main argument of what Vogel and these other later Marxists call “social reproduction theory.” Social reproduction theory shows how the “production of goods and services and the production of life are part of one integrated process,” as Meg Luxton has put it [11]. If the formal economy is the production site for goods and services, the people who produce such things are themselves produced outside the ambit of the formal economy at very little cost for capital. In short, the working class doesn’t only work in its workplace. A woman worker also sleeps in her home, her children play in the public park and go to the local school, and sometimes she asks her retired mother to help out with the cooking. In other words, the major functions of reproducing the working class take place outside the workplace.

This is why capitalism attacks social reproduction viciously in order to win the battle at the point of production. This is why it attacks public services, pushes the burden of care onto individual families, cuts social care–in order to make the entire working class vulnerable and less able to resist its attacks on the workplace.

Domestic labor does two things: it reproduces humans-thus labor power-and it prepares workers to go to work daily. Canada estimated in 1994 that the value of housework, if it were paid, would be $318 billion [12]. The variety of jobs you must do when you look after home and children are endless: cook, maid, launderer, health-care provider, mediator, teacher, counselor, secretary, transporter of children and household supplies, and so on. All this work-which is necessary for the reproduction of labor power and hence the production of commodities-goes on quietly, unheroically. Many women who toil away for no pay are ground into an early grave through the physical exertion of bearing and raising children while struggling against squalor, disease and poverty.

These activities, which form the very basis of capitalism in that they reproduce the worker, are done completely free of charge for the system by women and men within the household and the community. In the United States, women still carry a disproportionate share of this domestic labor. The relation between (usually women’s) domestic labor and the system of wage exploitation led to the once-fashionable leftist notion that household labor is exploited like factory labor. But the proletarian wife, in her household role, does not produce value and surplus value—and therefore is not exploited by capital. Nor is she exploited by her husband (although she may be oppressed by him). She is responsible for reproducing the labor-power commodity, but not under conditions directly governed by the law of value. (For example, even if there is an excess of the labor power commodity on the market, she must still work to reproduce her family’s labor power so that they survive.) What the working-class housewife does is produce use values in the home. But removal from a direct role in value production in a society where value is the end-all and be-all ensures the subordination of women.

Engels called the position of the proletarian housewife “open or concealed domestic slavery” [13]. Like a slave, the domestic laborer is tied to a particular household and family; she cannot move freely about between “employers”; and like chattel slaves in the capitalist era, she is subordinated to the relations between labor power and capital. But unlike a slave, no particular capitalist ruler directly provides for her welfare or even appears as her master. Rather she depends on the relationship between wage-labor and capital to receive her share of the family wage, an indirect payment from the capitalist class for the maintenance and production of labor power. Although domestic laborers are not exploited by capital directly, the root of their position is caused by capital. Domestic laborers are not strictly proletarian, but they still possess objective revolutionary potential as laborers.

Capitalism’s exploitation of the wage laborer is all the more insidious because it is concealed under the pretension of the “equal exchange” of wages for labor power. Likewise with the oppression of women: the “equal exchange of love” as the foundation of a freely chosen marriage conceals the underlying economic compulsion. Of course, the proletarian woman often faces the double burden of wage and domestic labor. Capitalism takes full advantage of the ideology that woman’s “primary” role is in the home to keep down her wages and rights as a worker.

Despite the above analysis, we probably think of ourselves as workers only when we work outside of home. This was evident during an interview conducted by the historian Susan Stasser for her book Never Done. Stasser said an 88 year-old woman told her she could not believe that her unpaid work (as opposed to her “jobs”) could have any importance to a historian [14].

One of the first women to challenge the view that domestic labor was not productive work was Maria-Rosa Dalla Costa, who wrote from Italy in 1972 that the housewife and her labor are the basis of capital accumulation. Capital commands the unpaid labor of the housewife as well as the paid laborer. Dalla Costa saw the family as a colony dominated by capital and state. She rejected the artificially created division between waged and unwaged labor and said that you could not understand exploitation of waged labor until you understood the exploitation of unpaid labor [15].

Other feminist writers have criticized this viewpoint because it does not acknowledge that men directly benefit from having women work in the home. Heidi Hartmann writes in Women & Revolution that white union men early in the 19th century wanted women, children, and non-whites out of the work force because their presence lowered wages. They asked for a wage for men high enough so that their wives could afford to stay home and tend to the house and children. Hartmann sees this as a collusion between workers and capitalists. In this way, white men kept women home for their own personal benefit, and bosses-who realized that housewives produced and maintained healthier workers and future workers-got more docile workers. So the family wage cemented the partnership between patriarchy and capitalism [16].

This is why Marx and Engels considered the family to be the major economic unit in capitalist societies [17]. At the start of industrialization, men were being thrown out of their craft jobs as mechanization made it easier and cheaper to employ women and children. When the factory system began to employ three children and a woman in place of a man: “now four times as many workers’ lives are used up in order to gain a livelihood for one workers’ family” [18]. The value of labor power decreased, since now it took four wage-earners to earn what had been the norm for one. In this scenario the unemployed male worker became dependent on his wife and children. It meant a type of family wage, but it did not last. The brutality of early industrialization threatened to destroy the working class altogether by killing off women and children at a high rate.

This super-exploitation of the family was opposed by women as well as men. But the domination of the struggle by labor-aristocratic leaders convinced many male unionists that their jobs were directly threatened by female employment; they failed to see-and indeed could not see-that capitalism’s process of bringing women into new lower paid jobs was an attack on the entire class. Women’s employment was seen as the problem, and the establishment of the traditional family wage was posed as the solution [19]. The struggles also won important working-class gains such as child labor regulations and other protective labor laws to benefit women.

Thus the achievement of a family wage was a temporary gain for sections of the class. But it also suited capitalism’s needs. Capitalism maintains itself by reinforcing divisions and backwardness within the proletariat. Workers are often forced to accept what the boss wants because “I have to feed my family.” Women’s family role—above all the inherent conservatism of laboring in isolation rather than collectively—also weakens the ability of the proletariat as a whole to fight the class struggle.

The fact that the family is propertyless is all the more reason it is needed. The male worker is taught to identify with at least one element of bourgeois consciousness, sexism. He doesn’t own productive property, but he can imagine that he controls the family funds and is master of the house, even though in reality he is still only a wage slave. This is what Lenin meant when he wrote,

Present-day capitalist society conceals within itself numerous cases of poverty and oppression which do not immediately strike the eye. At the best of times, the scattered families of poor townspeople, artisans, workers, employees and petty officials live in incredible difficulties, barely managing to make both ends meet. Millions upon millions of women in such families live (or, rather, exist) as “domestic slaves”, striving to feed and clothe their family on pennies, at the cost of desperate daily effort and “saving” on everything—except their own labour [20].

The family as economic unit not only fills the capitalists’ fundamental need for the reproduction of labor power, but the family-based division of labor also enables capitalism to keep down the social wage: public services like child care, education and health care. To the degree that workers accept the myth of the family as a private refuge from their jobs and dealings with their bosses, no matter how bad things really get in reality, they are restrained from making demands on the state for social needs. Whatever needs are not met at home become the failure of the individual family, especially the wife, rather than the bosses.

The direct wage is also reduced. Capitalism fundamentally depends on a reserve army of labor as an important underpinning of the system. Women are used chiefly as part of what Marx defined as the “floating” section of this reserve. Women still must give priority to home and child-care duties and are therefore willing to accept part-time jobs and lower wages. (In the U.S., a quarter of all working women held part-time jobs in 1986 compared with 9 percent of men) [21]. The bosses use the classic divide-and-conquer strategy to lower men’s wages as well; men are forced to “compete” by accepting lower wages or else risk replacement by women workers willing to work for less. Of course, all women are not wives and mothers. But the family rationale—that woman’s income is supplementary and optional—is used to keep wages down for all.

The tradition of women working for free in the home, and men working for household wages out, has changed. Most men do not get paid enough to support a family. Most women now have paid employment. But, as Ruth Schwartz Cowen notes in her book, More Work for Mother, while the tasks that women do in the home have changed, the time spent on domestic labor has not [22]. This is partly because domestic workers today are held to higher standards of cleanliness, have more cleaning appliances, spend more time as consumers (approximately 8 hours a week buying and transporting goods that were previously delivered), face greater pressure to provide enriching experiences for their children, have less help from adult relatives, and not nearly enough help from male partners. When both male and female household partners have full-time jobs, the woman still does significantly more housework than the man-15 more hours per week, totaling an extra month of 24-hour days each year [23].

According to a 2012 survey, U.S. women put in 25.9 hours a week of unpaid domestic labor in 2010, while men put in 16.8, a difference of more than nine hours. The survey includes indexable tasks such as child care, cooking, shopping, housework, odd jobs, gardening and others [24].

According to Forbes magazine, if unpaid domestic work was included in the measuring the GDP, “it would have raised it by 26 percent in 2010.” But, of course, we also have to add to this already formidable list the additional non-indexable tasks such as providing psychic care and support to both the employed and non-worker(s) within the household. Anyone who has had to soothe a child after a hard day at her own workplace, or figure out care for an ageing parent after a grueling shift knows how important such apparently non-material tasks can be [25]. We see yet again that domestic labor plays an incredibly important part in the economy. Although it does not produce value in the Marxist sense, it provides the preconditions for value production. Without domestic labor, productive labor could not function. Since productive labor is what generates all wealth under capitalism, it follows that capitalism itself could not survive without domestic labor.

In this sense, people who engage in labor that does not result in the production of commodities, but rather in the reproduction of the laborer, are oppressed by capital. Capital relies on these reproductive laborers just as much as those who actually produce commodities. It is vital that Marxists broaden their conception of the proletariat or working classes to include these reproductive laborers. This complicates the narrow definition of the economy or production that we began with. Beyond the two-dimensional image of the direct producers locked in wage labor, we see emerge myriad branches of social relations that extend between workplaces, homes, schools, and hospitals. There is a wider social whole sustained and co-produced by human labor that does not end with the factory. The working class is not just those who actually produce commodities, it is also those who perform the labor necessary for the continuation of this production. This includes not only educators and healthcare workers, who reproduce the proletariat in a literal sense (through training the future workforce and keeping them in healthy enough conditions to work), but also those who engage in unpaid home labor. Only in asserting-but more importantly struggling for-this unity can we hope to make a revolution that not only succeeds, but improves the lives of all the laboring people, as Marx wished.

  2. K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, with some notes by R. Rojas.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  10. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 129, emphasis mine
  11. Luxton, Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neoliberalism, 2006
  14. Strasser, Susan May. Never done: the ideology and technology of household work, 1850-1930. Ann Arbor, MI: U Microfilms International, p 4
  16. Heidi Hartmann, Women and the Revolution: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, 1981. p. 60