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.” https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1913/03.htm
  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.
  5. https://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9781403969828
  6. http://countrystudies.us/north-korea/49.htm
  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.” https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1913/03.htm Op. Cit.
  14. Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country, The New Press, New York, 2004. Op. Cit.
  15. http://cryptome.org/2015/01/isc-biowar-kr-cn.pdf
  16. http://www.cool-dprk.com/archives/1019640883.html
  17. http://www.workers.org/2010/world/korea_0701/
  18. https://www.rt.com/news/us-biggest-threat-peace-079/
  19. Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country, The New Press, New York, 2004. Op. Cit.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. https://books.google.com/books?id=YGGScItq-BsC&pg=PA9&lpg=PA9&dq=2800+troops+stationed+korea&source=bl&ots=oHaxCpHJ18&sig=uV_5xAUi481Cu4RucJqzyQwMTlw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwis2q3yjffSAhWh14MKHXGkADYQ6AEILjAD#v=onepage&q=2800%20troops%20stationed%20korea&f=false

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. http://www.nknews.org/2013/02/how-sanctions-stop-legitimate-north-korean-trade
  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.
  21. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/jul/17/north-korea-famine-fears
  22. http://literacywa.org/literacy-facts-2/
  23. https://thelmaandlouisegointernational.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/communism-in-korea-could-get-off-to-a-better-start-than-practically-anywhere-else-in-the-world-edwin-w-pauley-trumans-ambassador-investigating-reparations-traveling-in-the-russian-zone-o/
  24. http://www.fightbacknews.org/2004/03summer/korea.htm
  25. http://apjjf.org/-Charles-K.-Armstrong/3460/article.html
  26. https://books.google.com/books?id=kes9AAAAQBAJ&pg=PT215&lpg=PT215&dq=Already+in+1949,+per+capita+national+income+had+more+than+doubled+since+1945&source=bl&ots=vJFNIvIP_-&sig=s5lu5JkibUsIZ9ALY9NSKr9T1LE&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjj5-DhyKTTAhVC9IMKHdHEAacQ6AEIJTAA#v=onepage&q=Already%20in%201949%2C%20per%20capita%20national%20income%20had%20more%20than%20doubled%20sinc
  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.
  35. https://books.google.com/books?id=LNpRyIPgi3wC&pg=PA64&lpg=PA64&dq
  36. http://memory.loc.gov/master/frd/frdcstdy/no/northkoreacountr00word/northkoreacountr00word.pdf
  37. Ibid.
  38. “Country Comparison: Life Expectancy at Birth”. CIA World Factbook.
  39. http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_northkorea/671159.html
  40. http://www.voltairenet.org/article190705.html

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 dictionary.com 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!

  1. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/07/local-elections-north-korea-bring-change-150718180133222.html
  2. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/democracy
  3. http://wayback.archive.org/web/20120303054935/http://www.asgp.info/Resources/Data/Documents/CJOZSZTEPVVOCWJVUPPZVWPAPUOFGF.pdf
  4. https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2014/01/09/let-them-eat-cake-members-of-congress-14-times-more-wealthy-than-average-american
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4P0dMEH4RQ
  6. http://mashable.com/2015/08/06/trump-richest-candidates/
  7. https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2008/11/money-wins-white-house-and/
  8. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/apr/21/americas-oligarchy-not-democracy-or-republic-unive/
  9. http://www.country-data.com/cgi-bin/query/r-9558.html
  10. Ibid.
  11. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Constitution_of_North_Korea_(1972,_rev._1998)
  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 http://www.nkeconwatch.com/wp 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. http://www1.korea-np.co.jp/pk/061st_issue/98091708.htm
  26. ] http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/
  27. Korea-DPR. 2013.
  28. Journal of Asian and African Studies. 2013. Elite Volatility and Change in North Korean Politics: 1970-2010
  29. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/kn.html
  30. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/11/north-korea-prison-camps-very-much-in-working-order/
  31. Bruce Cumings, North Korea: Another Country, The New Press, New York, 2004. Op. Cit.
  32. Ibid.
  33. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/world/asia/prominent-north-korean-defector-shin-dong-hyuk-recants-parts-of-his-story.html
  34. http://ipcprayer.org/ipc-connections/item/4946-a-srebrenica-esque-massacre-has-recently-taken-place-in-north-korea-s-killing-fields
  35. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/05/world/asia/hoping-to-lure-high-level-defectors-south-korea-increases-rewards.html
  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.
  40. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/08/30/217186480/defectors-think-most-north-koreans-approve-of-kim-jong-un
  41. http://blogs.wsj.com/korearealtime/2013/08/30/kim-jong-un-tipped-to-win-in-latest-north-korea-poll/

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.

  1. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch01.htm
  2. K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, with some notes by R. Rojas.
  3. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/iii.htm
  4. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/ch47.htm
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch25.htm
  9. http://time.com/2895235/men-housework-women/
  10. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 129, emphasis mine
  11. Luxton, Social Reproduction: Feminist Political Economy Challenges Neoliberalism, 2006
  12. http://sc2218.wikifoundry.com/page/The+Commodification+of+Everyday+Life
  13. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ch02d.htm
  14. Strasser, Susan May. Never done: the ideology and technology of household work, 1850-1930. Ann Arbor, MI: U Microfilms International, p 4
  15. https://libcom.org/library/capitalism-reproduction-mariarosa-dalla-costa
  16. Heidi Hartmann, Women and the Revolution: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, 1981. p. 60
  17. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/
  18. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/ch09.htm
  19. http://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/5865/volumes/v08/NA-08
  20. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1913/apr/27.htm
  21. http://www.irp.wisc.edu/publications/focus/pdfs/foc201.pdf
  22. http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1340&context=ijcs
  23. http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/14/battle-over-housework-breeds-stress/comment-page-1/
  24. https://www.bea.gov/scb/pdf/2012/05%20May/0512_household.pdf
  25. https://www.forbes.com/forbes/welcome/?toURL=https://www.forbes.com/sites/brycecovert/2012/05/30/putting-a-price-tag-on-unpaid-housework&refURL=&referrer=

The Truth About Cuban Socialism

Cuba is often painted as an authoritarian dictatorship whose people live in fear and poverty all their lives. As is usually the case, these statements are backed not by credible research, but by capitalist propaganda. In this article, I want to dispel some of these myths and argue that Cuba is a shining example of socialism that should be studied and defended.

The best place to begin, I think, is with Cuba prior to the revolution. When we place modern Cuba in this context, we will see very clearly the power of socialism to uplift the oppressed and exploited. Before 1959, the country was lead by the fascist dictator Batista, supported by the United States. Batista regularly assassinated labor activists and lived in a sprawling palace, while the majority of Cuban citizens were in deep poverty. Castro and other rebels looked upon these horrible conditions and decided to put an end to them. To quote Christopher Mercer in “The Cuban Revolution,”

“On the morning of July 26, 1953, Castro made his move. For a revolution to succeed, he needed weapons, and he selected the isolated Moncada barracks as his target. 138 men attacked the compound at dawn: it was hoped that the element of surprise would make up for the rebels’ lack of numbers and arms. The attack was a fiasco almost from the start and the rebels were routed after a firefight that lasted a few hours. Many were captured. Nineteen federal soldiers were killed, and the remaining ones took out their anger on captured rebels and most of them were shot. Fidel and Raul Castro escaped, but were captured later.

The Castros and surviving rebels were put on public trial. Fidel, a trained lawyer, turned the tables on the Batista dictatorship by making the trial about the power grab. Basically, his argument was that as a loyal Cuban, he had taken up arms against the dictatorship because it was his civic duty. He made long speeches and the government belatedly tried to shut him up by claiming he was too ill to attend his own trial. His most famous quote from the trial was “History will absolve me.” He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but had become a nationally recognized figure and a hero to many poor Cubans.

In May of 1955 the Batista government, bending to international pressure to reform, released many political prisoners, including those who had taken part in the Moncada assault. Fidel and Raul Castro went to Mexico to regroup and plan the next step in the revolution. There they met up with many disaffected Cuban exiles who joined the new “26th of July Movement,” named after the date of the Moncada assault. Among the new recruits were charismatic Cuban exile Camilo Cienfuegos and Argentine doctor Ernesto “Ché” Guevara. In November, 1956, 82 men crowded onto the tiny yacht Granma and set sail for Cuba and revolution.

Batista’s men had learned of the returning rebels and ambushed them: Fidel and Raul made it into the wooded central highlands with only a handful of survivors from Mexico; Cienfuegos and Guevara were among them. In the impenetrable highlands the rebels regrouped, attracting new members, collecting weapons and staging guerrilla attacks on military targets. Try as he might, Batista could not root them out. The leaders of the revolution permitted foreign journalists to visit and interviews with them were published around the world.

As the July 26th movement gained power in the mountains, other rebel groups took up the fight as well. In the cities, rebel groups loosely allied with Castro carried out hit-and-run attacks and nearly succeeded in assassinating Batista. Batista decided on a bold move: he sent a large portion of his army into the highlands in the summer of 1958 to try and flush out Castro once and for all. The move backfired: the nimble rebels carried out guerrilla attacks on the soldiers, many of whom switched sides or deserted. By the end of 1958 Castro was ready to deliver the knockout punch” [1].

Although the rebels were both outnumbered and outgunned, they managed to put up a fight and deal a death blow to fascism and imperialism. This is a testament not only to the power of Leninist organization, but also the popular character of the revolution. It would have been impossible to overthrow Batista if the Cuban people had not thrown their weight behind the rebels. The revolution was an expression of the popular will of the masses, it cannot be otherwise.

So, what is the state of Cuba now? First, it has established high-quality universal healthcare, even in the face of an economic blockade that cost the country well over one hundred billion dollars. Life expectancy is an impressive 79. Infant mortality is 4.83 deaths per 1,000 live births compared (better than the US figure of 6.0, and incomparably better than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean, which is around 27 deaths per 1,000 live births) [2]. Cuba has the lowest HIV prevalence rate in the Americas [3]. There is one doctor for every 220 people in Cuba, a higher ratio than even England [4].

These doctors often volunteer overseas in crisis situations, in places such as Venezuela and Ecuador [5]. The country offered to send personnel to aid the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, but they were declined [6]. Unlike the US ruling class, which would rather let innocent people die than accept help from leftist forces, Cuba understands that it is our duty as people to aid one another as best we can. There is none of the greed and selfishness that is found under capitalism. The medical internationalism of Cuba stems directly from the socialist belief that the global working class should be united in its struggle for a better world. Contrast this with the completely self-serving “internationalism” of the Clinton family or Bill Gates.  As historian Greg Grandin argued  in an article in The Nation, the impacts of Clinton’s policies in Latin America of ramping up free trade, border militarization, and the war on drugs have played a part in worsening insecurity and human rights conditions in several countries. “Beyond any one country or policy, these policies fed off of each other,” Grandin wrote, noting links between privatization, displacement, and violence [7]. These billionaires do not care about the welfare of the people. Any supposed philanthropy they engage in is meant only to extend their influence abroad. Only socialism, with its aforementioned emphasis on human needs over profit, can actually benefit the poor and exploited over the long term.

Cuba has relatedly made huge strides in medicine. Currently, their lung cancer vaccine Climax is in trials in Peru [8]. According to UNICEF, they have eliminated child malnutrition and tuberculosis, a feat not even the US can manage [9].

Similarly, Cuba has an incredible education system. An article by Nina Lakhani in the Independent gives a helpful overview. In it, she says,

“Education at every level is free, and standards are high… The primary-school curriculum includes dance and gardening, lessons on health and hygiene, and, naturally, revolutionary history. Children are expected to help each other so that no one in the class lags too far behind. And parents must work closely with teachers as part of every child’s education and social development… There is a strict maximum of 25 children per primary-school class, many of which have as few as 20. Secondary schools are striving towards only 15 pupils per class – less than half the UK norm.

“School meals and uniforms are free… ‘Mobile teachers’ are deployed to homes if children are unable to come to school because of sickness or disability… Adult education at all levels, from Open University-type degrees to English- and French-language classes on TV, is free and popular” [10].

The quality of Cuba’s education is recognized at the top international levels. For example, Cuba is ranked at number sixteen in UNESCO’s Education For All Development Index, higher than any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean (and higher than the US, which is ranked at number 25) [11]. It has the highest literacy rate in the world, at ninety-nine percent [12].

This is evidence of the power of socialism. Rather than putting the profits of a few above the needs of the majority, Cuba has used its resources to promote the health of the entire world. When the masses are in power, as is the case in Cuba, humanity is allowed to flourish. The socialist theory that the masses make history is what has led to the funding of cheap and high-quality education. Education in the capitalist United States, on the other hand, is but a means to create an obedient workforce. Education under socialism is about reaching the full potential of the people. This can be seen in Cuba.

Along these lines, Cuba’s education system is built on participatory mechanisms. These include, according to a World Bank report, “student assemblies, parents’ councils, “council addressing minors,” school councils, parents’ schools, and study homes” [13]. The whole community is invested in the welfare of the school and its students. Children clean the school, fix broken facilities, help fellow students with difficulties, discuss class and school problems, and work in the school garden. The director we interviewed considered the student work in the school garden more of a pedagogical than a productive activity and declared that the school invests more in this activity than it gains. Such work encourages a more active role for students inschoollife.16 In Cuba thesis called”pioneers protagonism” (protagonismo pionieristico) since students participate in school life through the Pioneers Association” [14].

The report goes on to talk about the linking of school and work.

The primary curriculum includes 480 hours of “labor education” over six years, out of a total of 5,680 hours. Here the Marxist principle of combining study and work is applied to school gardens (las huertas escolares). By participating in simple agricultural activities, students are expected to develop a positive attitude toward work along with attitudes of solidarity with workers. School gardens size range from one to more than 20 hectares. When schools do not have their own garden, students work in “collective gardens” in the provincial capitals. “Education and not production,” is the aim of this experience, we were told while visiting a few schools, thus disclaiming possibility of exploitation of child labor.

As part of labor education, all students take one year of drawing. The following year, there is a bit of wood carving, using the models designed in the first year. In the third year, the boys go to woodwork and the girls to sewing.”2 4 In secondary school (grades 7 to 9), labor education represent 280 hours of a total of 5,799 hours, a less significant share than in primary school but still equivalent to half the time devoted to History and a significant amount of time compared to that given to classic academic subjects [15].

This shows the power of Marxism in practice. Cuba is committed to remaking the whole of society. In order to do this, students must believe they can change the world. Engagement in labor is one way to engender this idea. Education in Cuba is founded on the flourishing of the human spirit, not profit and exploitation.

Further, the legacy of racism is being wiped out. Pre-revolutionary Cuba was, in effect, an apartheid society. There was widespread segregation and discrimination. Afro-Cubans were restricted to the worst jobs, the worst housing, the worst education. They suffered from differential access to parks, restaurants and beaches. The revolution quickly started attacking racism at its roots, vowing to “straighten out what history has twisted” [16]. In March 1959, just a couple of months after the capture of power, Fidel discussed the complexity of racism in several speeches at mass rallies, saying, “In all fairness, I must say that it is not only the aristocracy who practice discrimination. There are very humble people who also discriminate. There are workers who hold the same prejudices as any wealthy person, and this is what is most absurd and sad … and should compel people to meditate on the problem. Why do we not tackle this problem radically and with love, not in a spirit of division and hate? Why not educate and destroy the prejudice of centuries, the prejudice handed down to us from such an odious institution as slavery?” [17].

The commitment to defeating racism has brought about tremendous gains in equality and racial integration. Isaac Saney writes, “It can be argued that Cuba has done more than any other country to dismantle institutionalized racism and generate racial harmony” [18].

Of course, deeply ingrained prejudices and inequalities cannot be eliminated overnight, and problems remain, especially as a result of the ‘special period’ in which Cuba has had to open itself up to tourism and some limited foreign investment. Racism thrives on inequality. However, Cuba remains a shining light in terms of its commitment to racial equality.

Assata Shakur, the famous exiled Black Panther who has lived in Cuba for several decades, puts it well when she says, “Revolution is a process, so I was not that shocked to find sexism had not totally disappeared in Cuba, nor had racism, but that although they had not totally disappeared, the revolution was totally committed to struggling against racism and sexism in all their forms. That was and continues to be very important to me. It would be pure fantasy to think that all the ills, such as racism, classism or sexism, could be dealt with in 30 years. But what is realistic is that it is much easier and much more possible to struggle against those ills in a country which is dedicated to social justice and to eliminating injustice” [19].

Isaac Saney cites a very moving and revealing anecdote recounted by an elderly black man in Cuba. “I was traveling on a very crowded bus. At a bus stop, where many people got off, a black man got a seat. A middle aged woman said in a very loud and irritated voice: ‘And it had to be a black who gets the seat.’ The response of the people on the bus was incredible. People began to criticize the woman, telling her that a revolution was fought to get rid of those stupid ideas; that the black man should be viewed as having the same rights as she had – including a seat on a crowded bus. The discussion and criticism became loud and animated. The bus driver was asked to stop the bus because the people engaging in the criticism had decided that the woman expressing racist attitudes must get off the bus. For the rest of my trip, the people apologized to the black comrade and talked about where such racist attitudes come from and what must be done to get rid of them” [20]. Who can imagine such a scene occurring on a bus in London, Paris or New York?

Along the same lines, Cuba has an excellent record in terms of building gender equality. Its commitment to a non-sexist society is reflected in the fact that 43% of parliament members are female (ranking fourth in the world after Rwanda, Sweden and South Africa). 64% of university places are occupied by women. “Cuban women comprise 66% of all technicians and professionals in the country’s middle and higher levels,” according to an AAWU report [21]. Women are given 18 weeks’ maternity leave on full pay, with extended leave at 60% pay until the child is one year old [22].

A recent report by the US-based Center for Democracy in the Americas (by no means a non-critical source) noted that, “By several measures, Cuba has achieved a high standard of gender equality, despite the country’s reputation for machismo, a Latin American variant of sexism. Save the Children ranks Cuba first among developing countries for the wellbeing of mothers and children, the report points out. The World Economic Forum places Cuba 20th out of 153 countries in health, literacy, economic status and political participation of women – ahead of all countries in Latin America except Trinidad and Tobago” [23]. I doubt that anyone outside Cuba could make similar claims.

There is also a huge amount of community spirit. Modern capitalism breaks down communities. Consumerism and individualism create isolation and depression. Poverty creates stress and family tension. Inequality leads to crime, which leads to a culture of fear antagonistic to the project developing a sense of community and togetherness. Anyone who has experienced life in a modern western city will understand this only too well.

Cuba provides a very different example. It is an exceptionally safe country, with very little in the way of violent crime. With a high level of participation in local administration, social stability, social welfare, low unemployment and a media that promotes unity rather than disunity, Cuba’s sense of community is something that visitors quickly notice.

Assata Shakur mentions this, and contrasts it with the US:

“My experience in the United States was living in a society that was very much at war with itself, that was very alienated. People felt not part of a community, but like isolated units that were afraid of interaction, of contact, that were lonely. People didn’t build that sense of community that I found is so rich here [in Cuba]. One of the things that I was able to take from this experience was just how lovely it is to live with a sense of community. To live where you can drop in the street and a million people will come and help you. That is to me a wealth that you can’t find, you can’t buy, you have to build. You have to build it within yourself to be capable of having that attitude about your neighbors, about how you want to live on this planet” [24].

And as another Cuban commentator notes in an article for Monthly Review, in Cuba there are,”no street kids, no malnourished faces, and people walking the streets at night with almost no fear” [25]. This cannot be said of any other country in the region.

Although there is certainly poverty, the blame for this can be placed squarely on the blockade and the loss of trading partners like the Soviet Union, rather than on the defects of socialism. The Cuban blockade has cost the country one trillion dollars, according to a CBS report [26]. The UN has admitted that the embargo has interfered with the country’s ability to contribute to AIDS research and other humanitarian causes. What this means is that Cuba would doubtless have the ability to drastically eliminate poverty were it not for the blockade. It is important to note the difference between poverty in Cuba and poverty in the United States. In the US, the resources to alleviate poverty already exist. The only reason they have not been utilized in this way is because it would not be profitable for the capitalist class. In Cuba, however, the resources to alleviate poverty have been denied to the people. If they were put back in the rightful hands of the Cuban people, poverty would be massively reduced. In short, poverty in Cuba is not the result of socialism, but capitalism.

It is also important to note that poor individuals in Cuba have access to benefits that many poor people in other countries do not have, such as the aforementioned healthcare and education. Housing is also leaps ahead of other societies in Cuba. Although housing is not free in Cuba, the government does take steps to keep the cost of housing low. That leads to a high rate of homeownership—around 85%. By way of comparison, the Census Bureau says the rate of homeownership in the United States was 66.9% in 2010 [27]. This, again, can be attributed to socialism. Marxist theory holds that the State is always controlled by a particular class, and is used to protect the interests of that class. In Cuba, the state is controlled by the workers, who make up the vast majority of the population (as they do in any society). As such, the state has an incentive to guarantee basic necessities (like housing) to its people.

Worker’s rights in Cuba are leaps and bounds ahead of the United States. According to both the CIA World Factbook and the World Health Organization, unemployment is just under three percent, compared with five percent in the US. Workers have recently been granted a large degree of power within their workplaces, a feature characteristic of socialism, as well as having achieved sustainable development. In “Redefining Socialism in Cuba,” Gary Leech writes that, “In order to find alternatives to large-scale industrial farming and to stimulate production the government broke-up many large state-owned farms and turned them over to the farmers as smaller worker-owned cooperatives. The new cooperatives…increased production….” [28].

Even before this shift to more direct forms of workplace democracy, Cuban workers had a significant degree of autonomy in the state-owned workplaces. As far back as 1961, writes Helen Yaffe in her book Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, “the Production Assemblies involve[d] all the workers of the factory who meet democratically and put their viewpoints about the progress of industry and the plan. The Production Assembly represents a kind of legislative chamber….” [29]. Democratic institutions extended to the workplace. Workers were not subordinated to the will of the bosses, as is the case in capitalist nations like the United States. The transformation of the workplace into a people-centered institution rather than a profit-centered one is a tremendous step forward.

Trade unions took the form of democratic structures rather than bureaucratic ones, as they do in capitalist countries. According to the 1989 Cuba Annual Report, “the union’s role as a worker-run body that…seeks to protect worker’s needs continues to be stressed” [30].

The UK-based Cuba Solidarity Campaign notes that the central role that trade unions play in the country’s politics was unique for most of Latin American history in the 21st century. They write:

“Owing to the adoption of neo-liberal policies, with their emphasis on ‘flexibility’ and deregulation, the trend since the eighties in Latin America, in common with countries in other continents, has been to override workers’ rights. Union membership is discouraged or banned – violently in some countries, such as Colombia where 164 trade union activists were murdered between 2004 and 2006. (1) As a result, large sections of the work force, such as agricultural labourers and workers in the maquilas (export assembly factories), are non-unionised and habitually receive low pay for very long hours in poor and sometimes hazardous conditions with no job security or welfare rights.”

In contrast, the report notes that 98% of Cuba’s 4 million workers are members of trade unions. Women make up 43% of all trade union members, but – speaking to the country’s amazing progress in advancing the position of women – they “account for 58.9% and 53.6% of officials at regional and local levels respectively.” The report goes on to note that “trades unions make a major contribution to decision making in respect to the economic policy adopted by the Cuban government to counteract the effects of the US Blockade, in force since 1961,” and that their role has “increased substantially” since the counter-revolution in the USSR.

The real effects of the Cuban Workers Confederation (CTC) on socialist policy were boldly demonstrated during this so-called ‘special period’ in the 1990s, as the country was thrust into the turmoil of losing their largest trading partner. The report states:

“In preparation for the CTC Congress, held in 1996, over 2 million workers discussed measures to deal with the economic crisis and to evaluate government proposals to that end. These were presented for consideration, first to Congress and then to the National Assembly, the Cuban parliament. This period of consultation which extended across all trades and areas of the country took almost a year. More than 167,000 suggestions were made. (12) Among the measures proposed were laws on monetary policy, taxation, budgets and pricing policies.”

First, let’s take a moment to recognize the level of democratic participation that workers have in the drafting of major policy decisions at a time of overwhelming turmoil and economic crisis. This is significant, especially when we look at the relative lack of public participation at any level during the financial crisis of 2008 in the US. But did their participation have an effect? Let’s see what the report has to say on the matter:

“The National Assembly took these suggestions seriously, and many of them were incorporated into the legislation introduced subsequently. For example, in 1995, after submissions from the trades unions, the National Assembly voted to withdraw an early draft of the Foreign Investment Law that would have permitted workers to be hired directly by foreign enterprises. Instead, the decision was taken to oblige such enterprises to hire workers only through state agencies in order to safeguard their pay and working conditions. In 1996 the majority of workers rejected the proposal to tax salaries during this period of severe privation, although they did not discount the idea for the future once the economic situation had changed. As a result the National Assembly postponed the proposal. Similarly, as a result of country-wide discussions, a proposal that workers should contribute to the social security system was not implemented.”

Indeed, the report states that between “1995 and 2001 more than 150 agreements relating to around 100 subjects were adopted after consultation with workers.” It’s hard to imagine anything of the sort in a country like the US, and even less imaginable in a quasi-fascist, anti-worker puppet state like Colombia, where trade unionists are openly murdered by paramilitary death squads [31].

I would like to quote extensively from Linda Fuller’s Work and Democracy in Socialist Cuba to drive this point home. She writes,

The extent to which producers are involved in economic planning lies at the heart of the problem of the democratization of production. … After [1970], however, the situation changed. In notable contrast to the earlier period, workers throughout Cuba began to become involved in the formulation of annual technical-economic plans at their worksites. And, significantly, a survey of more than 300 Cuban workers and peasants revealed their view that the discussion of plans was by far the most important area of workers’ participation in production. (111)

[Before 1970,] workers wielded little influence in this important area of decision making during the revolution’s first decade. Beginning slowly after 1970, major changes began to occur making it imperative, if democratization were to expand, that producers have a voice in enterprise planning. (114) Planning was not fully regularized and solidified in Cuba, however, until the institution of the SDPE (El Sistema de Direccion y Planificacion de la Economia). … As a consequence, explained one worker:

If the figures are too unrealistic, too high, then the workers slough off because they know they can’t reach them anyway. But when workers have a say in deciding what the figures of the plan should be – and they, after all, have the most realistic notion of this – then you get plans that can be reaching and workers will work as hard as they can to fulfill the planning goals, because they know they have a chance to get some extra money. (115)

Regular and widespread workers’ participation in formulating enterprise plans began in mid-1974, before the SDPE was implemented, with the well-publicized discussion of the 1975 annual plan in the Aceros Unidos steel plant. Thereafter, the number of workers taking part in similar discussions increased: Sixty-five percent of all union members discussed the 1976 plan; the 1977 plan was discussed in 75 percent of all enterprises, and the 1980 plan, in more than 90 percent. … In that year, the 2d Party Congress declared that workers’ participation in drawing up plans was “a basic principle of socialist democracy,” a right formally specified by Article 16 of the Cuban Constitution and reiterated in a 1980 decree regulating state enterprises. Every worker I interviewed in 1982 and 1983 affirmed base-level input into planning, and it was reported that participation in discussions of the 1984 plan were the most extensive to date. (116)

The first plan discussion took place when the control figures (cifras de control) for the following year’s plans arrived at the worksite. In work center assemblies, produces analyzed the figures, usually by comparing them with analogous figures from past years, and either approved them or proposed modifications. Proposals originating in the assemblies, which in 1980 numbered about twenty-five thousand, were then discussed at the enterprise level. These discussions did not include all workers; only members of the management council, union bureau officers, and worker representatives elected in the earlier work center assemblies attended. More than 113,000 such representatives were chosen in 1980. (116-17) Workers had their second opportunity to discuss planning figures in work-center assemblies held, ideally, in the first quarter of each year, when the directive figures (cifras directivas) for the annual plan were announced. These figures were derived from the control figures, modified above the work center on the basis of workers’ and manager’ suggestions and shifts in such things as world market prices and interest rates. Workers’ contributions to planning in this second round of discussion concerned only implementation of the plan, not what the plan would consist of, as in the prior discussions of the control figures. Once again workers’ representatives met afterwards with buro officers to discuss implementation of the directive figures. (117)

According to both workers and planning personnel, health and safety standards, worker training, finances, and especially supply and budgeting of raw materials and other inputs were indicators that prompted the most intensive discussions at the base level. A JUCEPLAN official designated the first five indicators below as examples of ones analyzed in almost every Cuban worksite.

  • Volume of goods produces and services delivered
  • Productivity
  • Salary fund
  • Health and safety standards
  • Work norms
  • Quality of goods produces and services delivered
  • Maintenance of equipment and facilities
  • Raw material and energy consumption
  • Sales goals
  • Prices of inputs and outputs
  • Production costs
  • Size and distribution of labor force
  • Supply and budgeting of raw materials and other inputs
  • Training of work force
  • Discipline
  • New construction and investments
  • Finances (cost of producing goods and delivering services compared to income and net earnings or losses) (118)

The Cuban unions were central to workers’ participation in the planning process at both base and supraworksite levels in a number of ways. First, the process created opportunities for workers to expand their comprehension and production and economic matters, one of the aspects of democratization as empowerment discussed in Chapter 1. Yet this required of workers a certain level of general and technical knowledge, as well as an understanding of economic planning, if they were to avail themselves of these opportunities. The effort the union devoted to these educational tasks could be the subject of a study in itself. To name a few, union activities in this area included organizing seminars and courses for members on a variety of topics, preparing written materials, and regularly publishing educational pieces in Trabajadores. Furthermore, prior to worksite planning assemblies, unions offered training seminars to familiarize their leaders with the most successful methods of soliciting workers’ input. In my view, such union educational endeavors contributed to the significance of the work-center planning assemblies as yet another forum through which workers could become involved in decision making about production. (121-2)

Nonetheless, this chapter has brought to light a number of shortcomings with the procedures as they operated in the latter period. Some of these were well recognized in Cuba. Others, such as the difficult yet essential project of concomitantly democratizing planning at the supraworksite level, were not discussed at the time, at least not publicly.

Within limits, however, Cuban procedures allowed workers at the micro level to propose, and their unions to argue for, alternatives to the plan figures devised at the center. Observers have commented that, compared to those in other socialist countries, these planning procedures were more democratic. My own research in the German Democratic Republic supports this view. The worksite planning assemblies I learned about these sparked minimal interest among workers and little debate, covered a narrower range of topics, and had less of an impact on the final form of the work-center plan. The comparatively more activist role that the Cuban unions assumed in planning accounts, in part, for the difference. (123)

In 1965 the grievance commissions [for resolution of workplace disputes] were eliminated by a new law establishing work councils (consejos del trabajo), which have played a meaningful, though varying, role in resolving worker-manager disputes ever since. The most significant change was the discontinuation of administration and Ministry of Labor representation on worksite grievance bodies. Throughout the rest of the 1960s and 1970s, only workers would judge disciplinary cases and alleged violations of labor legislation at Cuban workplaces. Thus, in terms of their relative proportions, Cuban workers were in the optimal position in the consejo forums.

Under the 1965 law, five council members were elected at each worksite by secret ballot. In the following decade the number of councils increased, though the original number formed is unknown. In 1971 about sixty thousand workers served on more than eleven thousand work councils; by 1978, nearly eighty-eight thousand sat on almost eighteen thousand councils. The main qualification for council membership was a good work record. Council members were elected for three years; many were regularly elected to consecutive terms. (127)

Workers’ participation on the consejos represented an example of involvement in the implementation and evaluation, as opposed to the formulation, stages of decision making. The work councils were empowered to resolve conflicts between workers and administrators over regulations concerning both discipline and workers’ rights. (128)

This emerging worker democracy through cooperatives not only existed in agricultural production, it also occurred in the selling of products. A group of community members in Belén formed the Belén Agricultural Market as a cooperative to sell produce that they purchased from a farming cooperative situated on the outskirts of the city. Communities such as Belén now enjoy an abundance of inexpensive organic fruits, vegetables and meats [33].

According to Cuban permaculturist Roberto Pérez, Cuba established the foundation for a more ecologically sustainable society more than fifty years ago “when the revolution gained sovereignty over the resources of the country, especially the land and the minerals, this was the base for sustainability. You cannot think about sustainability if your resources are in the hands of a foreign country or in private hands. Even without knowing, we were creating the basis for sustainability” [34].

Cuba has been on the front lines of the fight against climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. Marxism, which sees humans and nature as inextricably bound up with one another in a dialectical relationship, demands that this be the case. Cuba has risen to the challenge, showing that socialism is the only way out of the impending environmental disaster. According to an article from Reuters on the subject of organic beekeeping,

Bee keepers in the United States, Canada and other regions have long complained that pesticides are responsible for killing their bees and hurting the honey industry more broadly.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a study in January indicating that a widely-used insecticide used on cotton plants and citrus groves can harm bee populations.

“I don’t think there are any doubts that populations of honey bees (in the United States and Europe) have declined… since the Second World War,” Norman Carreck, science director of the U.K.-based International Bee Research Association told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Climate change, fewer places for wild bees to nest, shifts in land use, diseases and pesticides are blamed for the decline, he said.

Because it is pesticide free, Cuba’s organic bee industry could act as protection from the problems hitting other honey exporters, said the FAO’s Friedrich, and could be a growing income stream for the island’s farmers.

“The overall use of pesticides is fairly controlled, he said. “Cuba has been immune to the bee die-offs (hitting other regions)” [35].

It is commonly claimed that Cuba is an authoritarian dictatorship under the iron rule of Castro. In fact, Cuba is far more democratic than Britain or the US. The process of decision-making is far more open to grassroots participation, and is in no way connected with wealth. One cannot expect to be successful in politics in the capitalist countries without a good deal of money behind them; political success is therefore determined largely by the whim of wealthy businessmen. Cuba, on the other hand, crafts policy based on the will of the masses.

Despite popular belief, elections do take place in Cuba, and are vastly more democratic than those in the United States. In the United States, elections are predicated on the financial backing of the wealthy, who expect return on their investment. Political representation in Cuba is nothing like this. Representatives are elected by the people, and are expected to serve the people [36].

The elections take place every five years and there have been turnouts of over 95% in every election since 1976. Anybody can be nominated to be a candidate for election. Neither money nor political parties or orators have a place in the nomination process. Instead, individuals directly nominate those who they think should be candidates. It is not a requirement that one be a member of the Communist party of Cuba to be elected to any position. The party does not propose, support, or elect candidates. As a result, the Cuban Parliament has representatives from across society, including an exceptionally high proportion of women [37].

Beyond representative democracy, Cuba also has a meaningful direct democracy. The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) were formed in the early years in order to organize the population to defend the revolution. Membership is voluntary and open to all residents over the age of 14 years. Nationally 88% of Cuban people are in the CDRs. They meet a minimum of once every three months to plan the running of the community; including the organization of public health campaigns to promote good health and prevent disease; the upkeep of the area in terms of waste and recycling; the running of voluntary work brigades and providing the adequate support to members of the community who are in need of help (for example in the case of domestic disputes etc). The CDRs discuss nationwide issues and legislation and crucially, feed back their proposals to the National Assembly and other organs of popular democracy [38].

Looking at the Cuban system of democracy, you begin to understand the painfully shallow nature of western-style parliamentarism, where ‘democracy’ means nothing more than “the oppressed [being] allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament,” as Karl Marx put it [39].

Also contrary to popular belief, Cuban’s prisons are not barbaric institutions, and you don’t get thrown in them for insulting Che Guevara. Political prisoners are defined as those accused or convicted of crimes committed to achieve political objectives. In other words, they have broken the law. Such offenders are not “prisoners of conscience,” which are people engaged in non-violent activities that have been imprisoned solely for their political views. According to Amnesty International’s latest report, there are currently no prisoners of conscience in Cuba. The Ladies In White protests weekly in Havana in support of so-called political prisoners in Cuba. The US media highlighted the fact that the Ladies in White protesters were rounded up by police during a demonstration on the day Obama arrived in Havana. These arrests have been repeatedly pointed to by the media and pundits as a graphic example of how Cuba violates the human rights of peaceful political protesters. As such, it would appear that arrested members of the Ladies in White constitute prisoners of conscience. But these analysts have conspicuously ignored an important component of Amnesty International’s definition of “prisoner of conscience,” which states, “We also exclude those people who have conspired with a foreign government to overthrow their own”  [40]. It is clear that Cuba does not imprison political dissidents, as is often claimed. Those who are in prison have attempted to overthrow the Cuban state. Any reasonable person would assert that they belong in jail.

Relatedly, Cuba has a very progressive prison system. As Soffiyah Elija, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, said in an interview with Guernica Magazine,

“Back in the late 1980s, I took a trip to Cuba with the National Lawyers Guild. I had never had an interest in going to Cuba. But on that first trip I had an opportunity to visit a men’s prison, and I was really struck by everything that was so very different from my experiences as a criminal defense lawyer in the United States visiting clients in prison.

When we drove up to the facility, I kept looking for what I was used to here: high stone walls, lots of barbed wire, guard towers, guards with assault weapons. And I didn’t see any of that. We pulled up to a building that looked similar to a large elementary school, and when we entered the building, there was no metal detector, which was something else I wasn’t used to. And no one was checking my bag to look for weapons or contraband, and there was no sign-in book; none of the things that I was used to experiencing when I entered a prison in the United States.

And then our guide announced that we would have, say, maybe two or three hours at the facility, and we could take a tour with him but we were not restricted to staying on the guided tour. So I wandered off with a couple of other people from the Guild, and we just went around the prison and sat in people’s rooms on their bunk beds and talked with them and literally went wherever we wanted, and that was totally different from any experience that I have had in the United States. Even as the executive director of the Correctional Association now, with legislative authority to monitor prison conditions and go inside the facilities in New York, we don’t take unguided tours of any facility. It’s very scripted where we go, and we are always accompanied by prison staff for the entire visit….You don’t have this demonization and stereotyping that we have here, where incarcerated people are so ostracized they’re like the untouchables” [41].

That last sentence is of particular interest to us. In capitalist societies, crime is seen as an  individual phenomenon. Theft, for example, is treated as though it has no systemic causes. People do not steal because they are poor, but because they are “morally deficient.” Thus, punishment is seen as more important than rehabilitation. That is why solitary confinement, exploitation, and abuse are so prevalent in American prisons: inmates are seen as less than human. Marxism, by contrast, is a materialist philosophy. It regards social phenomena such as crime as having causes external to the people who commit them. Crime is not caused by the moral character of perpetrators, but rather by the material conditions of society. As such, prisoners are regarded as victims of circumstances who should be aided rather than demons who ought to be shunned.

Cuba, as we have seen, is not a hellish nightmare. It is rather a socialist state that is thriving even as Western imperialism attempts to undermine it at every turn. It is the duty of every communist to uphold its achievements and defend it against attacks from the imperialist war machine.

  1. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/castro/peopleevents/e_moncada.html
  2. p.org/redirect.php?file=/publications/pmtdocuments/-Asian%20Development%20Outlook%202013%20Update:%20Governance%20and%20Public%20Service%20Delivery-2013Asian-Development-Outlook
  3. https://www.avert.org/professionals/hiv-around-world/latin-america/overview
  4. http://www.socialmedicine.org/2012/07/30/about/cuba-leads-the-world-in-lowest-patient-per-doctor-ratio-how-do-they-do-it/
  5. Foreign Affairs, July/August 2010. page 69
  6. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/9311876/ns/us_news-katrina_the_long_road_back/t/katrina-aid-cuba-no-thanks-says-us/#.WMmVCZArLrc
  7. https://www.thenation.com/article/a-voters-guide-to-hillary-clintons-policies-in-latin-america/
  8. http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/02/health/lung-cancer-vaccine-cuba/
  9. https://youthandeldersja.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/unicef-cuba-has-0-child-malnutrition/
  10. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/latin-lessons-what-can-we-learn-from-the-worldrsquos-most-ambitious-literacy-campaign-2124433.html
  11. http://en.unesco.org/gem-report/sites/gem-report/files/178428e.pdf
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Claudia Lightfoot Havana: A Cultural and Literary Comparison. 2006. p. 113
  16. Pedro Perez Sarduy AfroCuba. Center for Cuban Studies, 1993. p. 102.
  17. here
  18. Ibid.
  19. http://www.shunp
  20. iking.org/bhs2007/0402-BHS2-IS-readingcuba.htm
  21. http://www.revolutionarycommunist.org/culture/3821-assata-autobiography
  22. http://www.shunpiking.org/bhs2007/0402-BHS2-IS-readingcuba.htm Op. Cit.
  23. http://www.aauw.org/files/2013/01/Cuba_whitepaper.pdf
  24. http://democracyinamericas.org/pdfs/Womens_Work_Executive_Summary.pdf
  25. https://wibailoutpeople.org/page/405/?archives-list=1
  26. https://monthlyreview.org/2010/04/01/how-to-visit-a-socialist-country
  27. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/cuba-us-embargo-causes-1-trillion-in-losses/
  28. https://fresnoalliance.com/homeless-in-cuba-not-likely/
  29. http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/18/redefining-socialism-in-cuba/
  30. Helen Yaffe, Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution. Palgrave MacMillan 2009. p. 146
  31.  Cuba Annual Report 1989. p. 200
  32. http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/18/redefining-socialism-in-cuba/ Op. Cit.
  33. Cuba Solidarity
  34. See Garry Leech, Op. Cit.
  35. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-cuba-farming-honey-idUSKCN0VI172
  36. Roman 2003, pp. 103–104.
  37. http://cuba-solidarity.org.uk/resources/DemocracyinCuba.pdf
  38. http://www.ratb.org.uk/130-news/ratb-writes/253-cubademocracy-community
  39. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/ch05.htm
  40. See Garry Leech, Op. Cit.
  41. https://www.guernicamag.com/hyatt-bass-lessons-from-cubas-incarceration-model/

Mao’s China: A Counter-History

As nearly everyone knows, Mao Zedong was a leader of the Chinese Revolution and chairman of the Chinese Communist party. Like Stalin, he is often portrayed as a power-mad dictator who deliberately murdered and repressed millions of his own people. A quick look at evidence outside of mainstream academia (That is, bourgeois propaganda), reveal these claims to be either exaggerated or completely falsified.

First, there is the question of the Great Leap Forward, which many have dubbed the biggest famine in history. It is also claimed to be a deliberate result of Mao’s policies. The typical number is somewhere around 45  million, though estimates vary greatly [1]. This is a blatant lie. Firstly, much of the evidence, such as that found in The Chinese Quarterly edited by Roderick McFarquhar, comes from sources that received funding from the CIA [2]. Given that this is an imperialist agency with a strong incentive to undermine communist movements, it is safe to say that we can discard it. The CIA has spent billions of dollars attempting to undermine leftist governments all over the world. Trusting them to report on socialism in an unbiased way is ludicrous.

More objective studies reach very different conclusions than those funded by imperialists. As Chinese scholar Carl Riskin states, “In general, it appears that the indications of hunger and hardship did not approach the kind of qualitative evidence of mass famine that have accompanied other famines of comparable (If not equal) scale, including earlier famines in China” [3]. This is corroborated by the writing of Felix Greene. He traveled through areas of China in 1960 and wrote about it in the book China: A Curtain of Ignorance. He says that food rationing was very tight but that he did not witness mass starvation, nor did any of the eyewitnesses that he spoke to there [4].

Further, many of the sources cited by Joseph Becker in his famous book Hungry Ghosts did not appear until the 1990s. The stories of cannibalism and starvation contained therein rely heavily on an unofficial collection of Mao’s speeches and a document smuggled out of the country by a dissident called Thirty Years in the Countryside. Becker makes no attempt to explain why these sources ought to be trusted and even discusses the possibility that the papers might be forgeries. Many of his eyewitness accounts, collected in the 1990s came from peasants who he admits were coached by the Deng Xioping government (which has denounced Mao) [5]. He also cites journals that were released by the U.S. State Department in 1966 regarding the famine. As the British newspaper Telegraph states, “They have been in American hands for some time, although nobody will disclose how they were acquired” [6]. No anticommunist historian has been able to cite any evidence that appeared at the actual time of the Great Leap Forward. All of this should lead one to conclude that while famine certainly occurred, it was largely due to natural causes and was not as horrible as we have been lead to believe.

It is also worth noting that famines were common in China prior to the communist seizure of power. John Leighton Stuart, the US ambassador to China from 1946-49 claimed that roughly seven million people starved to death in China per year during his tenure. Famines were a fixture in China prior to the Great Leap Forward, so there is nothing about communism that makes famines more likely. In fact, there was never a famine in China after the Great Leap Forward. This is a testament to the power of socialist economic policy [7].

So if Mao did not kill millions in the Great Leap Forward, what did he do? His policies were far from disastrous. They improved millions of lives and laid the groundwork necessary for China to become the superpower it is today. Even the anticommunist historian Nicholas Kristoff has to admit that Mao had some incredible successes. He writes, “Land reform in China…helped lay the groundwork for prosperity today….Mao’s assault on the old economic and social structure made it easier for China to emerge as the world’s new economic dragon” [8]. In spite of unprecedented loss from famines, China’s population never went down during the Great Leap Forward. In fact, it increased from 650 million in 1958 to 680 million five years later [9].

Prior to the revolution, life expectancy was around 35 years. By the time Mao died in 1976, it had almost doubled to 67 years [10]. Literacy followed a similar course. The pre-revolution literacy rate was around 20 percent, compared to 93 percent after Mao’s death [11]. Mao helped China’s population growth out of stagnation, with population reaching 900 million by the time he passed on [12]. Much of this is due to the fact that a high-quality universal healthcare system was instituted, and production of food increased due to cooperative farming and irrigation [13]. This healthcare system led to a medical remedy for malaria, a disease that decimated China prior to his rule [14]. Healthcare was not merely availible, but leauges better than it was prior to the revolution. In a very material sense, Mao improved the lives of the Chinese people.

Mao’s programs did not cause famines, but rather ended them. Agricultural production did decrease in five years between 1949-1978 due to “natural calamities and mistakes in the work,” as Mao himself admitted [15] However, he states that during 1949-1978 the per hectare yield of land sown with food crops increased by 145.9% and total food production rose 169.6%. During this period China’s population grew by 77.7%. On these figures, China’s per capita food production grew from 204 kilograms to 328 kilograms in the period in question [16].

Even according to figures released by the Deng Xiaoping government, industrial production increased by 11.2% per year from 1952-1976 (by 10% a year during the ‘catastrophe’ of the Cultural Revolution). In 1952 industry was 36% of gross value of national output in China. By 1975 industry was 72% and agriculture was 28%. It is quite obvious that Mao’s socialist economic policies were a great boon to the people of China. They paved the way for the rapid development of China after his death [18]. All of this was summed by Maurice Meisner, a vocal critic of Mao, when he said that Mao’s victory and subsequent socio-economic developments “Must be seen as one of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century…few events have done more to better the lives of more people” [20].  William Hinton, in his book Away With All Pests, wrote that, “In China there is no inflation,” due to economic planning [21]. These unparalleled economic achievements are ignored in favor of outright lies regarding Mao. These will be further discussed below.

I would be remiss not to mention the Communes that sprung up thanks to Mao. One of the more salient examples is the Chengguan Commune. To quote Some Facts About China,

“That the collective economy of the entire Cheng Kuan commune is thriving can be seen in other aspects of its economy. The commune operates more than a dozen enterprises, including a plant for manufacturing and repairing farm machinery, a brickyard, a lime kiln, a nursery for mulberry saplings and a veterinary station. The brigades under the commune also have their own small and medium-sized enterprises. The Bright Star brigade to which Chiao Li belongs operates four electric irrigation and drainage stations, a shop for processing farm and sideline produce, a cultivation station equipped with three tractors and eight cable-operated plows, and a forest farm.

Each of the three levels—commune, brigade and team—manages and distributes its own income and enjoys the profit or bears the losses itself. While economic undertakings run by the commune and brigades are relatively few at present, these contribute much to developing the economy of the teams and improving the life of the commune members. Like the other production teams, Chiao Li manages its own land, livestock and the use of its small and medium farm tools in a unified way for collective production. The members’ main source of income is from the team.

The team has its own public accumulation fund which is used to cover expenditures that benefit its members collectively. They have, therefore, a direct interest in the proportion set aside for this fund.” These Communes organized schools, kitchens, farms, and factories. Many of these necessities were available on the basis of need. They worked so well that the Communist Party revised its plan to achieve communism. Mao originally planned the transition to take one hundred years, but many in the Party noticed the performance of the communes and wanted to change it to ten” [21].

The Communes were also very democratic. In Some Facts About China, the Maoist International Movement also writes,

“The people’s commune is run on the principle of democratic centralism. The representative assemblies of the production team, the production brigade and the commune are the organs of power at these levels. Representatives are elected after thorough discussions by the members. Every member has the right to vote and be elected. Between sessions of the representative assembles, work is carried out by a permanent body. (In the production team it is called a leading group and in the brigade and commune, a revolutionary committee.) These permanent leading bodies are also elected by the members.

Before the start of every production year, these leading groups at each level draw up production plans based on the targets set by the state, the actual conditions in each unit and the members’ needs. Unified planning gives due consideration to each of these at each level. The drafts are given to the members for full discussion, then revised according to suggestions and finalized. The figures on expenditures and distribution are made public each year. The join in discussions, approve plans and other matters, and criticize and supervise the way they are carried out, are the rights of all commune members. These rights are protected by law. In addition  to these democratic rights in the political and economic spheres, every commune member has the right to work, reset and education and to share in social welfare. Every member able to work has the right to take part in productive labor. Men and women get the same pay for the same work. When work is assigned, the special physical problems of women are given due consideration.

Time for work and rest are arranged according to local farming customs and vary with the seasons. Proper reset is guaranteed. Commune members give their first attention to fulfilling collective targets. In their spare time they can work at the small private plots allotted to them by the production team, raise a little poultry or a few head of stock, or do handicrafts. Members can do what they like with products from this labor” [22].

This system of democracy extended to China’s factories as well as the rural areas. According to an article published in 1965 in the Peking Review,

“The staff and workers’ representatives conference is an important means of broadening democracy and getting the masses of staff and workers to take part in management and to supervise the work of the administration. Comrade Teng Hsiao-ping has said: “The staff and workers’ representatives conference under the leadership of the Communist Party committee is a good means of broadening democracy in the enterprises, of recruiting workers and staff to take part in the management and of overcoming bureaucracy. It is an effective method of correctly handling contradictions among the people.” The conference helps integrate centralized leadership with the bringing into play of the initiative of the masses of staff and workers, thus simultaneously strengthening the centralized leadership from top to bottom and providing supervision by the masses from below. This results in continuously improving administrative work and ensuring the overall fulfilment of state plans.

In state-owned industrial enterprises, the staff and workers’ representatives conference is an important form through which the staff and workers all participate in management. The conference may hear and discuss the director’s report on the work of the enterprise, examine and discuss production, financial, technological and wage plans as well as major measures to realize them, check regularly on the implementation of these plans and put forward proposals. It may examine and discuss the use of the enterprise’s bonus, welfare, medical, labour protection and trade union funds as well as other funds allotted for the livelihood and welfare of the staff and workers. On condition that the directives and orders issued by higher authorities are not violated, the conference may adopt resolutions on the expenditure of the above funds and charge the administrative or other departments concerned to carry them out. It may criticize any of the leaders of the enterprise and, when necessary, make proposals to the higher administrative authorities for punishing or dismissing those leaders who seriously neglect their duties and behave badly. Should there be disagreement with the decisions of the higher administrative authorities, the conference may put forward its own proposals, but if the higher authorities insist on the original decisions after due study, it must carry them through accordingly.

This is why the staff and workers’ representatives conference is an important means of developing democracy and getting the masses of staff and workers to participate in management throughout the factory. Through this conference, the Party’s principles and policies can be better implemented among the masses, the relations between the interests of the state and those of the staff and workers of the enterprise in question can be correctly handled, those between the administration on the one hand and the trade union organization and the masses of the staff and workers on the other can be correctly adjusted; and at the same time the socialist consciousness of the staff and workers and their sense of responsibility as masters in their own house can be raised, the masses’ supervision over administrative work strengthened, and the improvement of management promoted.

The staff and workers’ representatives conference is convened regularly and presided over by the trade union. When the conference is not in session, its routine work is done by the trade union under the leadership of the enterprise’s Party committee and with the active support and coordination of the enterprise’s administration” [23].

It is obvious from this that worker’s rights under Mao were far more advanced than they were in the United States at the time, and poverty was on a minute level. The economic organization of Mao’s China was far more democratic than it is in capitalist countries. Corporations are in fact quite similar to what anticommunists believe Mao’s China was: a top-down system in which a small group of owners holds all the power. Socialism, on the other hand, is a system based on the collective rule of the working class. Workplaces are focused around meeting human needs and improving the lives of the masses rather than generating profit. Mao’s China is a superb example of this.

Mao also helped women make unprecedented strides towards social equality, according to the document Women in Mao’s China. Before he rose to power, women were expected to be completely subservient to their husbands, and arranged marriages were common. Families would often pay dowries, meaning that women were viewed as little more than commodities. Mao changed this. He refused to go through with his own arranged marriage in protest against this culture and encouraged women to take key position in the party. He also granted them the right to vote, having famously said that, “Women hold up half the heavens” [24].

Many Black Panthers and other civil rights activists supported the Chinese Revolution on the basis that it improved the lives of black people around the world. According to Robin D.G. Kelley, Black Panther leader Elaine Brown visited Beijing in 1970 and was “pleasantly surprised with the way the revolution improved people’s lives” [25]. China made numerous steps towards national and collective liberation, which was recognized by many American activists at the time. The achievements of China in the social arena cannot be understated.

China’s support of socialism around the world should also be mentioned. Mao’s theories of the People’s War helped influence and strengthen liberation struggles in Africa, Asia, Bolivia, and parts of Latin America. It is in part because of Mao that global imperialism is under such severe threat. Were it not for him, Western hegemony would be even greater than it currently is, and the repressive right-wing government of India would not be challenged by the Naxalites, a guerrilla group which also aids the poor [26].

Contrary to popular belief, Mao was not a totalitarian, in philosophy or in deed. He did not treat his ideas as infallible. He understood the need for creative problem solving and discussion in revolutionary activity. In Oppose Book Worship, he writes that,

“Unless you have investigated a problem, you will be deprived of the right to speak on it. Isn’t that too harsh? Not in the least. When you have not probed into a problem, into the present facts and its past history, and know nothing of its essentials, whatever you say about it will undoubtedly be nonsense. Talking nonsense solves no problems, as everyone knows, so why is it unjust to deprive you of the right to speak? Quite a few comrades always keep their eyes shut and talk nonsense, and for a Communist that is disgraceful… Of course we should study Marxist books, but this study must be integrated with our country’s actual conditions. We need books, but we must overcome book worship” [27].

It is clear from this statement that he did not regard his writings-or anyone else’s-as infailiable. He did not object to critiscism, but rather encouraged it on the basis that it improved the practice of revolutionaries.

He was also vehemently anti-bureaucracy, writing that, “The task of combating bureaucracy…should arouse the attention of our leading bodies at all levels,” and, “the struggle against bureaucracy, corruption, and waste should be stressed as much as the struggle to suppress counterrevolutionaries” [28]. As Mobo Gabo (a peasant who grew up during the Cultural Revolution)  writes in Mao and the Cultural Revolution: The Battle for China’s Past, “There is documented evidence [that] it was Mao who called on the Chinese youth to rebel against the authorities, who provoked them not to be obedient and not to follow their leaders blindly” [29].  Criticism of Party leaders was encouraged, not suppressed. Dongping Han writes in The Unknown Cultural Revolution,

“During the Cultural Revolution, big character posters more than made up for the absence of a free press. Writers of the big character posters did not need to please any editors, and no reputation was required to put one out. This forum was tailored to the needs of ordinary farmers, workers, and others for participation in the political life of their units.”

“[M]ass associations debated with one another and with Party leaders-in public.”

Jiao Chuanfa, an ordinary worker…said that the ability to speak publicly was empowering” [30].

This, coupled with the aforementioned grassroots economic democracy, suggests that Mao was not in fact a totalitarian. Rather, he was a man of the people. Criticism of the leaders was open and direct, involving not just an elite body of elected representatives, but the people themselves. This represents a marked different from the United States or Europe, wherein only the press (themselves wealthy elites) are granted direct audience with officials.

Many would assert that Mao’s China could not have been democratic because all of Mao’s political opponents were executed. Like the propaganda around the Great Leap Forward, this is false. It is true that Mao took responsibility for 800,000 deaths, but he did not do so because these people crossed him personally. Rather, those who were executed came from bourgeois class backgrounds. They were landlords, nationalist generals, and so on. These were massively popular executions based on the will of the people. The executions followed people’s trials against the most hated landlords and pro-Japanese traitors who had terrorized the peasants during World War Two and its aftermath. 800,000 is indeed a large number of people, but it came after a hundred years of invasion, civil war, and occupation. During this period, 22 million people died of starvation [31]. In this context, executions are completely understandable and, I would contend, commendable.

In fact, Mao believed that the people went too far in exacting vengeance for decades of imperialist murder. He called for fewer executions going forward and explicitly ordered the Cultural Revolution to be nonviolent. Central Committee Party directives stated,”debates should be conducted by reasoning, not by coercion or force,” and “as regards scientists, technicians and ordinary members of the working staff, as long as they are patriotic, work energetically, are not against the Party and socialism and maintain no illicit relations with any foreign country, we should continue to apply the policy of unity-criticism-unity” [32]. Mao was not a bloodthirsty dictator. Rather, he viewed violence as an abhorrent but necessary consequence of revolution. Given the aforementioned civil war and the contradictory class interests of the landlords, this can only be described as correct.  Those who carried out illegal killings were dealt with harshly, as they would be in any society. Song Binbin, a non-party member who murdered her high school teacher (the first instance of this in Chinese history) was forced to flee the US. In sharp contrast to the fundamentally peaceful character of the Chinese socialist state, she was embraced as a political refugee by the United States [33]. With all of this in mind, it is unsurprising that the brunt of the violence in the Cultural Revolution came from people who were politically opposed to Mao [34].

Although there were executions, they were based on the popular will of the masses, rather than the whims of the elite. As such, the existence of violence in the Mao era is insufficient evidence to characterize it as undemocratic. It is also not a compelling reason to characterize Maoism or socialism as inherently violent.

Many of Mao’s own enemies survived being expelled from the Party. Both Deng Xiaoping and President Xi’s father survived re-education camps and continued serving their country. Xi Jinping himself admits that the level of violence during this period is exaggerated. He says,

“People who have little understanding of power, those who have been far away from it, tend to regard these things as mysterious and novel. But I look past these superficial things: the power and the flowers and the glory and the applause…I understand politics on a deeper level” [35].

Even the victims of Mao’s violence admit that it was necessary due to the exigences of the revolution. It was not carried out because Mao had a psychopathic lust for power, but rather because the people were attempting to build a new society. As we have seen, this new society was a good deal freer than the capitalist “democracies” detractors love to uphold.

 As further evidence that Mao was not a totalitarian or an elitist, we need only look at educational norms during the Cultural Revolution. Don Pinghan writes,

“Rebels questioned the Party’s authority and its educational policies and demanded fundamental changes in education.”

“The Cultural Revolution destroyed the supreme authority teachers had over students…Students…wrote big character posters to air their grievances against their teachers at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution”[36].

If Mao wanted to exercise absolute power over his people, why did he encourage critical thinking and rebellion among students? Why did he go out of his way to destroy systems that would have encouraged subservience to authority? The idea that he was an authoritarian elitist crumbles in light of this evidence. He made every effort to empower the people.

There is much ado about intellectuals and educated youth being “sent down to the countryside” to engage in hard labor. It is assumed that this was done because Mao hated intelligent people and wanted to see them suffer. In actuality, Pinghan writes,

Educated youth ‘suffered’ only from an urban perspective and to a large extent only from hindsight. From the perspectives of the rural residents, the educated youth had a good life. They did not have to work as hard as the local farmers and they had state and family subsidies. They would frequently go back to visit their parents in the cities (Leung 1994) and they had money to spend and wore fashionable clothes. They would bring food in tin cans that the rural people had never seen (Seybolt 1996). They had the privilege of being allowed to violate local rules and customs, and sometimes behaved waywardly by stealing fruit and vegetables and killing chickens raised by villagers for their own benefits. For most rural people, the educated youth were the envy of their life and were respected (Davies 2002). Finally, those educated youths whose family backgrounds were of ‘class enemies’ actually enjoyed a period of relief [during the Cultural Revolution] because the rural people respected them all without bothering about the class line [37].

We can see from this that sending the youth to the countryside served a specific purpose: it was meant to decrease the gap between urban and rural mentalities, thereby reducing the amount of necessary violent conflict. Mao did not reeducate the educated because he was violent, but because he was striving for peace.

Many academics hold the position that Mao was deeply concerned with the welfare of the people. Historian Lee Fangion describes Mao as “earthy,” meaning that he remained closely connected with the Chinese people and their struggle [38]. Australian historian Ross Teriel noted that Mao was a ‘son of the soil,’ and, “Unsophisticated in origins” [39]. While some have described Mao as ‘lazy,’ those who worked with him disputed the accuracy of this characterization [40]. Mobo Gao even proves that Mao stopped eating meat in solidarity with peasants during the Great Leap Forward, further identifying him as a hero of the people [41].

Mao improved the lives of many in China, granting them liberation from poverty, serfdom, and patriarchy. Why, then, are those in the West so intent on slandering Mao and minimizing his achievements? It is because he represented a credible alternative to capitalism, the system that allowed them to become rich off the backs of other’s labor. They have a direct economic incentive to misrepresent Mao. This is why it is important to defend him and the society he helped create, as I have done here. Doing so helps to strike a blow against capitalism and furthers the struggle for the emancipation of the working class.

    1. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/maos-great-leap-forward-killed-45-million-in-four-years-2081630.html
    2. https://www.prisoncensorship.info/archive/etext/faq/chinaquarterlycia.html
    3. C. Riskin. ‘Seven Questions About the Chinese Famine of 1959-61’ China Economic Review, vol 9, no.2. 1998, p121.
    4. Ibid.
    5. M. Meissner, The Deng Xiaoping Era. An Enquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994, Hill and Wray 1996, p189-191
    6. Daily Telegraph 06/08/63.
    7. http://china.org.cn/opinion/2013-05/23/content_28910164_2.htm
    8. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/23/books/review/mao-the-real-mao.html?_r=0
    9. http://www.chinatoday.com/data/china.population.htm
    10. http://www.indexmundi.com/facts/china/life-expectancy-at-birth
    11. http://www.indexmundi.com/facts/china/literacy-rate
    12. http://ablog.typepad.com/keytrendsinglobalisation/2012/02/chinas-achievement.html
    13. Ibid.
    14. Guo Shutian ‘China’s Food Supply and Demand Situation and International Trade’ in Can China Feed Itself? Chinese Scholars on China’s Food Issue. Beijing Foreign Languages Press 2004.
    15. Ibid.
    16. The Unkown Cultural Revolution
    17. see J. Eatwell, M. Milgate, P. Newman (eds) Problems of the Planned Economy, Macmillan Reference Books 1990
    18. M. Meissner, The Deng Xiaoping Era. An Enquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994, Hill and Wray 1996, p189-191. Op. Cit.
    19. http://www.massline.org/PolitEcon/China/Inflation-pamphlet.htm
    20. see this
    21. Ibid
    22. https://www.marxists.org/subject/china/peking-review/1965/PR1965-09k.htm
    23. http://www.popline.org/node/411809
    24. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/mar/27/arundhati-roy-india-tribal-maoists-1
    25. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/ccbh/souls/vol1no4/vol1num4art1.pdf
    26. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/…6/mswv6_11.htm
    27. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-5/mswv5_24.htm
    28. www.strongwindpress.com/pdfs/ebook/The_Battle_for_Chinas_Past.pd
    29. Chairman Mao Talks to the People (NY: Pantheon, 1974) 77-8
    30. http://busin.biz/library/china/The%20Unknown%20Cultural%20Revolution%20-%20Dongping%20Han.pdf
    31. Associated Press,; Ann Arbor News, 10/1/89, B9.
    32. Chairman Mao Talks to the People (NY: Pantheon, 1974) 281
    33. http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/13/bowed-and-remorseful-former-red-guard-recalls-teachers-death/
    34. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=mAz_n6F7jJsC&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=anti-mao+violence+cultural+revolution&ots=jCbN8dmSc9&sig=Pj50VuM2tkp8udf7Un_23sKch14#v=onepage&q=anti-mao%20violence%20cultural%20revolution&f=false
    35. Chinese Times, 2000
    36. The Unknown Cultural Revolution, op. cit.
    37. Ibid.
    38. Feigon, Lee (2002). Mao: A Reinterpretation. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 26
    39. Terrill, Ross (1980). Mao: A Biography. Simon and Schuster. 480
    40. DeBorja, Q.M. and Xu L. Dong, eds. (1996). Manufacturing History: Sex, Lies and Random House’s Memoirs of Mao’s Physician. New York: China Study Group. p. 48.
    41. The Battle for China’s Past, op. cit.

 

 

 

A Critique of Socialist Criticism

On the left, there is an increasing tendency to disavow Stalin and the USSR. It is either claimed that these things do not deserve defending, or that it is more important to learn from the mistakes of past socialist experiences than it is to defend their gains. In this essay, I will take a different position. Socialists should make every effort to oppose bourgeois propaganda, defend actually-existing socialism, and only discuss mistakes privately, among comrades.

First, I would like to provide a framework through which we can understand past socialist experiences. Past socialisms were not utopias for workers, nor could they be. Past socialist experiences took place in countries ravaged by war and imperialism. The workers had to contend not only with the threat of their internal deposed bourgeoisie, but with the towering bourgeoisie of imperialist countries. They had to build socialism in countries that had been devastated by war, resulting in underdeveloped productive forces. We should judge these experiences based on this chaotic beginning, rather than on an ideal conception of socialism that exists only in our heads. Many leftists who want to critique actually-existing socialism fail to do this, which serves only to hold back our movement.

What these conditions mean is that socialist leaders were forced to, in many cases, make decisions that would seem counterintuitive to the establishment of working class rule. One example of this is Lenin’s choice to increase labor hours and crack down on strikes following World War One. (in a policy known as war communism). These measures were necessary in order to rebuild the shattered economy. Although they did lead to the temporary emmiseration of workers, they are not evidence of a lack of working class power.

To further illustrate this point, I want to turn to the United States. The USA is a capitalist country, yet this does not mean that the capitalist class gets its way every time. Indeed, labor often wins its individual disputes with capital. This is why we have an eight-hour workday and a minimum wage. No one would take this as evidence of socialism in America. By the same token, we should not zero in on individual moments in which workers were suppressed as evidence that the Soviet Union and other such countries were not socialist. Class rule does not mean class utopia. Building socialism in any context takes hard work. Failing to accept this fact in our analysis of past socialisms makes us less likely to accept them in our own efforts. If we are not prepared to make difficult choices, we will fail. Our criticism must reflect this.

My next point is that in many cases, “critique of past socialist experiences” is often nothing more than an excuse to parrot bourgeois propaganda. Those who wax poetic about the need to criticize Stalin are rarely doing so in good faith. They do not want to engage in rigorous analysis of the material conditions Stalin faced, or the inherent difficulty that comes with trying to build an entirely new kind of society. All they want to do is parrot lies about suppression of free speech and the like. Socialists who argue that Stalin must be criticized openly almost always want to argue that Stalin was an evil monster rather than a human being engaged in complex revolutionary work. The problem with this is that this narrative is one that the bourgeoisie has been pushing for decades. By airing these “criticisms” publicly, socialists only play into the hands of the bourgeoisie. This is because the bourgeoisie can use socialist denunciations of Stalin to bolster their own credibility. They can say, “we must be right. Even the Socialists agree with us.” This serves only to divide the movement and turn the public against us. It makes us seem as though we are fractured, chaotic, and unfit to lead. The worldwide socialist movement is still comparatively small. We are nowhere close to taking power, much less holding onto it. We must be vigilant in the struggle for power. We cannot allow exploitation of criticism to stop us in our tracks.

This is not just a hypothetical. Bourgeoise cooptation of socialist rhetoric has a long and storied history. One example of this can be found with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When it was clear that the Chinese socialist economy was successfully meeting the needs of its people, FDR and others took to calling them “radishes” because they were “red on the outside only,” meaning that they were communists in name only. To quote an article in All China Review,

Unable to come to terms with their blind ideology, FDR, Washington and the popular press simply could not bring themselves to say “communists”, so Mao and Co. were dubbed “the so-called communists”. Joseph Stalin helped shape this legerdemain of the tongue, by telling wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Roosevelt that the Chinese were “radishes”, red on the outside, but white below the surface – not real communists. Thus, the square peg of CPC reality was crammed into the round hole of Western denial. At least the occidental imperialists got one thing right. Not only did the CPC sweep Japan and the Western colonialists out of New China, but it chased the KMT all the way to Taiwan” [1].

We can see that left-socialist criticism has been used as a weapon by the imperialists in the past. FDR and Churchill used the label “So-called communist” to discredit China and turn the public against communism by disassociating it from the achievements of China. Left-socialists, by refusing to recognize China as communist, do the same. Whether or not they mean to, they serve the imperialist bourgeoisie by denouncing actually-existing socialism. Failure to uphold actually-existing socialism-and to abide by principles of unity and discipline-these do nothing but weaken our movement. It only makes us more vulnerable to bourgeois influences.

This can be seen today as well as in the past. Across the world, there has been an increase in the amount of anti-fascist groups that violently protest against reactionaries like Donald Trump and Charles Murray. Most of these groups are anarchist, and as such I have my critiques of them. However, their suppression of reactionaries is commendable and can only further the struggle for liberation. Reactionaries advocate violence on a much larger scale than the antifascists. Milo Yiannopoulos, who was scheduled to speak at Berkeley  University before anti-fascists shut him down, planned to out undocumented students and encourage his audience to “purge [their] local illegals” [2]. Milo and other reactionaries are themselves violent. Any violent action taken against them serves to prevent more violence, and as such can be seen as self-defense. All socialists should recognize this and support anti-fascist groups in their effort to combat reaction.

This is especially true in light of the coming crackdown on anti-fascist groups. These groups will assuredly be targeted by the state at some point, as has been the case at nearly every point in history. A surge in left activity has always been met with a surge in repressive right-wing activity. In an era where this is becoming increasingly likely, it is vital that all socialists stand against the capitalists in their support of anti-fascism. Only when we do this can we hope to defeat fascism once and for all.

The International Socialist Organization does not recognize the necessity of this. In an article for Socialist Worker, Mukund Rathi writes “They…shift [everyone’s] attention to the violence” [3]. Not only does this deny the violence perpetrated by reactionaries, it also gives the corporate media an excuse to defend these reactionaries. In an article for the Washington Times, Shawn Steel uses this condemnation to advocate for the violent suppression of “extreme radicals.” He calls for the the Justice Department to “get tough with black-clad rioters” [4]. Here, again, we see the cooptation of left-socialist critique by the bourgeois media. In this case, socialist critique has been used to call for the active crushing of our movement. This is a perfect example of my point: left socialism can often inadvertently serve the capitalists. It is important that we keep our critiques internal so that they are not used as weapons against us. Our movement, as I said above, is too small to afford any division.

Many left socialists would say that it is necessary to critique past and current socialist practice because they were authoritarian. These socialists, like those in the ISO, hold that it is undesirable and unnecessary to suppress speech, even violent speech. They hold that a willingness to criticize the authoritarian measures of Stalin, Mao, and the like is the only way to convince others to join our cause. If we do not repress free speech, according to them, the capitalists will be unable to tar us by invoking the “horrors of socialism.” This is an example of the highest idealism. Capitalists can never be “convinced into socialism” because socialism involves expropriating their property. It is contrary to the class interests of the capitalists to ever fight for socialism, even if this could be done peacefully. This is evidenced by the fact that capitalists are more than willing to spread propaganda about socialist atrocities now, even if there is no real evidence that these atrocities have ever taken place. Even if we are peaceful, even if we spill no blood, they will still slander us. No matter how nuanced our approach is, the capitalists will take every opportunity to split our movement and turn the public against us. We should absolutely highlight the mistakes made by socialists in order to learn from them. However, we must do this privately, so that they cannot easily be used to divide us or dissuade new leftists.

When socialists criticize Stalin and others for suppressing free speech, they are not only playing into the hands of the bourgeoisie, they are also denying history. It has always been necessary to suppress free speech in the name of revolution. According to Albert Szymanski, eight states formally banished tories following the American Revolution [5]. When ultra leftists criticize Stalin for repressing free speech, they make it impossible for us to win. It is in this way that their critique serves the bourgeoisie: it is not only a criticism of Stalin, it is a rejection of victory.

This does not mean that we can never critique socialists for going too far in their repression. When we do this, however, we should do it away from the prying eyes of the capitalists and their pawns. Further, we should uphold the goals of the socialists we are critiquing. A good example of such a critique is that which Mao gave of Stalin. Mao argued that Stalin went overboard in his suppression of counter-revolutionaries. What he did not argue was that Stalin did not want to build socialism, or that the repression of free speech is inherently immoral. On the contrary, he held the opposite views [6]. By accepting these premises, his critique acted against the interests of the bourgeoisie. It is possible to critique socialists without serving the bourgeoisie, and we must take great pains to determine who our critique actually serves.

As evidenced by Szymanski’s findings and the above-mentioned call for a crackdown on antifascists, the bourgeoisie has always been willing to repress free speech in service of its own goals. Therefore, when socialists criticize Stalin for repressing free speech, they are not arguing in favor of free speech absolutism. In agreeing with the bourgeoisie that suppressing free speech in the name of socialism is immoral, socialists are de facto agreeing that suppressing free speech in the name of capitalism is moral. This is how the bourgeoisie is framing the discussion, and it is more than willing to use socialists as tools in doing so. In effect, socialists who hold that Stalin is a monster (for many of the same reasons capitalists do, no less) they are accepting the hegemony of bourgeois narratives. Unless we counteract these narratives, we cannot win. Making our criticism public-and using bourgeois ideas to make it-only hinders our ability to construct a socialist counter-hegemony.

Before I conclude, I would like to address the argument that socialists should not spend time building this counter-hegemonic narrative. It is ostensibly more important to learn from the mistakes of past socialisms than it is to defend their gains. I do not disagree with the first part of that argument. It is vitally important that we should learn from past socialisms in order to improve our current practice. However, it is impossible for us to do this if the prevailing narrative is that these socialisms were hell on earth. If we begin with the assumption that Stalin was a heartless monster, what could we possibly learn from him? We cannot learn from the mistakes of socialists if we assume every action they took was a mistake. In order to seriously learn from socialism, we must clear away the cobwebs of famine and oppression. We should assume that the old socialist leaders wanted to improve the lives of the working class and were willing to do whatever it took to make this happen. Only by casting socialism in a generally positive light can we convince people that there is something to be learned from this experience. Doing this requires unified defense and the construction of an unflinching socialist counter-hegemony.

In order to create this hegemony, we must combat bourgeois critiques of socialism and only engage in our own critiques when we are safely among comrades. It is only under these conditions that we can build a movement capable of overthrowing capitalist-imperialism.

Deny the lies publicly, discuss mistakes privately!

Uphold actually-existing socialism!

 

References:

  1. http://www.allchinareview.com/so-called-communist-china/
  2. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/uc-berkely-protests-milo-yiannopoulos-publicly-name-undocumented-students-cancelled-talk-illegals-a7561321.html
  3. https://socialistworker.org/2017/02/06/thousands-confront-the-right-in-berkeley
  4. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/mar/1/liberal-left-employs-violence-to-accomplish-goals/
  5. Albert Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union. Zed Books, 1984, p. 143
  6. http://www.massline.org/SingleSpark/Stalin/StalinMaoEval.htm