People Power: Democracy and Popular Participation in Venezuela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Venezuelan Socialism A Disaster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Finnegan, William. “Venezuela, A Failing State.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 4 Nov. 2016, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/11/14/venezuela-a-failing-state.
  2. Pestano, Andrew V. “Venezuela: 75% of population lost 19 pounds amid crisis.” UPI, UPI, 19 Feb. 2017, www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2017/02/19/Venezuela-75-of-population-lost-19-pounds-amid-crisis/2441487523377/.
  3. “Chapter 2. Food Security: Concepts and Measurement[21]” http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/y4671e/y4671e06.htm
  4. “FAO Country Profiles:Venezuela.” http://www.fao.org/countryprofiles/index/en/?iso3=VEN
  5. Ibid.
  6. “Crude Oil Prices – 70 Year Historical Chart.” MacroTrends. http://www.macrotrends.net/1369/crude-oil-price-history-chart
  7. “Crude Oil Supply Vs. OPEC Output Target:Venezuela.” IEA Oil Market Report. 11 August 2015.
  8. Davies, Wyre. “Venezuela’s Decline Fuelled by Plunging Oil Prices.” BBC News. BBC, 20 Feb. 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-35622188
  9. Puko, Timothy. “Oil Settles Below $28 a Barrel.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 09 Feb. 2016. https://www.wsj.com/articles/oil-prices-rise-on-output-uncertainty-1454993303
  10. Critchlow, Andrew. “Cheap Oil Will Win New Cold War with Putin – Just Ask Reagan.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 10 Nov. 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/oilandgas/11220027/Cheap-oil-will-win-new-Cold-War-with-Putin-just-ask-Reagan.html
  11. “World Energy Council.” Venezuela. https://www.worldenergy.org/data/resources/country/venezuela/hydropower/
  12. Ibid.
  13. “U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA – Independent Statistics and Analysis.”Venezuela – International – Analysis – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis.cfm?iso=VEN
  14. Background Note: Venezuela Archived 8 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine. U.S. Department of State.
  15. Marquez, Humberto, “Venezuelans Thirsty in a Land of Abundant Water.” Inter Press Service. June 4 2014 http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/06/venezuelans-thirsty-in-a-land-of-abundant-water/
  16. Arsenault, Chris. “Is Hoarding Causing Venezuela Food Shortages?” Al Jazeera English. March 2, 2014. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/03/hoarding-causing-venezuela-food-shortages-20143210236836920.html
  17. Torres, William Neuman and Patricia. “Venezuela’s Economy Suffers as Import Schemes Siphon Billions.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 05 May 2015 https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/06/world/americas/venezuelas-economy-suffers-as-import-schemes-siphon-billions.html
  18. Ibid.
  19. Gupta, Girish. “Smuggling Soars as Venezuela’s Economy Sinks.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 20 Jan. 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-smuggling-insight-idUSKCN0UY1IT
  20. “50 U.S. Code § 1701 – Unusual and Extraordinary Threat; Declaration of National Emergency; Exercise of Presidential Authorities.” LII / Legal Information Institute https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/50/1701
  21. Miroff, Nick, and Karen DeYoung. “New U.S. Sanctions Lost in Venezuela’s Translation.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 11 Mar. 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/new-us-sanctions-lost-in-venezuelas-translation/2015/03/11/f8f3af6a-c7ff-11e4-bea5-b893e7ac3fb3_story.html?utm_term=.2e895661f47b
  22. Weisbrot, Mark. “Is There an Economic and Political War Against Venezuela?” The Real News Network. 02 June 2016. http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=31&Itemid=74&jumival=16421
  23. LEDERMAN, JOSHUA GOODMAN and JOSH. “Trump Sanctions Venezuela Vice President on Drug Trafficking.” Associated Press. Feb 13, 2017. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/fd8f13f1afa14261a7109a2d92d4ea27/ap-sources-us-sanctions-venezuelas-new-vice-president
  24. Weisbrot, Mark. “US Support for Regime Change in Venezuela Is a Mistake | Mark Weisbrot.”The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 18 Feb. 2014 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/18/venezuela-protests-us-support-regime-change-mistake
  25. Victor, Maria Paez. “Venezuela Under Attack Again.” Counterpunch. 04 Nov. 2014. http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/17/venezuela-under-attack-again/
  26. Julija Sardelic and Aidan McGarry., Szilvia Rezmuves, Isak Skenderi & Violeta Vajda, Miriam Krenzinger, Amílcar Sanatan, and Ajamu Nangwaya. “Venezuela Maintains High Human Development: UN.” News | TeleSUR English http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Venezuela-Maintains-High-Human-Development-UN-20170325-0003.html
  27. Páez Victor, Maria. “Why Do Venezuelan Women Vote for Chavez?” Counterpunch, 24 April 2012 http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/04/24/why-do-venezuelan-women-vote-for-chavez/print
  28. Ibid.
  29. Venezuela en Noticias, Venezuela en Noticias <venezuelaennoticias@minci.gob.ve> Venezuela en Noticias, Venezuela en Noticias venezuelaennoticias@minci.gob.ve
  30. Gallup Poll 2010
  31. Muntaner C, Chung H, Mahmood Q and Armada F. “History Is Not Over. The Bolivarian Revolution, Barrio Adentro and Health Care in Venezuela.” In T Ponniah and J Eastwood The Revolution in Venezuela. Harvard: HUP, 2011 pp 225-256; see also 4, Muntaner et al 2011, 5, Armada et al 2009; 6, Zakrison et al 2012
  32. Armada, F., Muntaner, C., & Navarro, V. (2001). “Health and social security reforms in latin america: The convergence of the world health organization, the world bank, and transnational corporations.” International Journal of Health Services, 31(4), 729-768.
  33. Zakrison TL, Armada F, Rai N, Muntaner C. ”The politics of avoidable blindnessin Latin America–surgery, solidarity, and solutions: the case of Misión Milagro.”Int J Health Serv. 2012;42(3):425-37.
  34. Ismi, Asad. “The Bolivarian Revolution Gives Real Power to the People.” The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor , December 2009/January. http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/latin-american-revolution-part-iv
  35. Carmona, Adrián. “Algunos datos sobre Venezuela”, Rebelión, March 2012
  36. Weisbrot, Mark and Johnston, Jake.  “Venezuela’s Economic Recovery: Is It Sustainable?”  Center for Economic and Policy Research, Washington, D.C., September 2012.
  37. Hunziker , Robert. “Venezuela and the Wonders of Equality”.  October 15th, 2012
  38. Golinger, Eva. “US$20 million for the Venezuelan Opposition in 2012”, http://www.chavezcode.com/2011/08/us-20-million-for-venezuelan-opposition.html
  39. Páez Victor, Maria. “Chavez wins Over Powerful Foreign Conglomerate Against Him”, Periódico América Latina, 11 October, 2012
  40. Milne,Seumas.  “The Chávez Victory Will be Felt Far Beyond Latin America” , Associate Editor, The Guardian, October 9, 2012:
  41. Alvarado, Carlos, César Arismendi, Francisco Armada, Gustavo Bergonzoli, Radamés Borroto, Pedro Luis Castellanos, Arachu Castro, Pablo Feal, José Manuel García, Renato d´A. Gusmão, Silvino Hernández, María Esperanza Martínez, Edgar Medina, Wolfram Metzger, Carles Muntaner, Aldo Muñoz, Standard Núñez, Juan Carlos Pérez, and Sarai Vivas. 2006. “Mission Barrio Adentro: The Right to Health and Social Inclusion in Venezuela”. Caracas: PAHO/Venezuela.
  42. Weisbrot, Mark.”Why Chávez Was Re-elected”. New York Times. Oct 10th 2012
  43. Ibid.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid.
  48. “How Did Venezuela Change under Hugo Chávez?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 04 Oct. 2012 https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/oct/04/venezuela-hugo-chavez-election-data

Nuclear Weapons in the DPRK 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/defense/326094-how-north-korea-could-kill-up-to-90-percent-of-americans-at-any
  2. https://www.aol.com/article/news/2017/04/03/north-korean-defector-tells-lester-holt-kim-jong-un-would-use-nukes/22023501/
  3. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/08/22/490921432/u-s-south-korea-war-games-begin-despite-threats-from-north-korea
  4. Ibid.
  5. http://www.firstpost.com/world/sanctions-have-failed-to-stop-north-koreas-nuclear-programme-says-un-panel-2618210.html
  6. http://www.invent-the-future.org/2013/11/understanding-north-korea/
  7. https://books.google.com/books?id=FHpYCwAAQBAJ&pg=PA180&lpg=PA180&dq=For+the+North+Korean+leaders,+the+nuclear+weapons+program+is+not+an+end+in+itself,+but+rather+one+of+many+strategies+they+use+to+achieve+their+overriding+goal+of+regime+survival&source=bl&ots=-yCluqAZDU&sig=IQQTd_a8IIECslMspPJejyEmidA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjVjYTRn4nTAhXJ64MKHbqcDUUQ6AEIGjAA#v=onepage&q=For%20the%20North%20Korean%20leaders%2C%20the%20nuclear%20weapons%20program%20is%20not%20an%20end%20in%20itself%2C%20but%20rather%20one%20of%20many%20strategies%20they%20use%20to%20achieve%20their%20overriding%20goal%20of%20regime%20survival&f=false
  8. http://www.invent-the-future.org/2013/11/understanding-north-korea/
  9. Ibid.
  10. “Kim Jong Un Says Pyongyang Won’t Use Nukes First; Associated Press”. http://abcnews.go.com/
  11. Tad Daley, “Nuclear lesson from Libya: Don’t be like Qaddafi. Be like Kim,” The Christian Science Monitor, October 13, 2011, http://bit.ly/w1wO00
  12. Alan Maass, Lance Selfa, “Washington celebrates Qaddafi’s death,” Socialist Worker, October 24, 2011, http://bit.ly/z8Df7r
  13. “North Korean leader Kim Jong-il dies ‘of heart attack'”. BBC News. 19 December 2011.

National Liberation and the DPRK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even according to the US Army,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Prosveshcheniye, Nos. 3-5, March-May 1913, Carl Kavanagh, “Marxists Internet Archive.” 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/

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.

 

 

 

The Real Che Guevara

Many communists uphold the ideas and achievements of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. Communists seek to follow his example in liberating the oppressed worldwide. The capitalist class has taken note of this. In response, they have propagated numerous lies about Che, in an effort to not only discredit the gains of the Cuban revolution, but also to sully the moral character of those communists who see him as an inspiration. In this essay, I want to counter two of these claims, and thereby restore the good name of Che and his supporters.

One of the most common claims is that Che was racist against black people. The only evidence of this ever cited comes from a section in Che’s book The Motorcycle Diaries, in which he writes about his experience in a Venezuelan slum. He writes that the black people he encountered there were ‘indolent and lazy.’ He also states that the black people in Caracas were racially inferior to the Portuguese [1]. These statements were written by Guevara in 1952 when he was 24 and encountered black people for basically the first time in his life, during his motorcycle trip around South America. This kind of culture shock would understandably produce an emotional reaction, though this is of course no excuse for bigotry. It is, however, important to provide this context.

Many scholars object to the characterization of Guevara as racist. These include Mark Sawyer, a UCLA political science professor, and New York University professor Jorge Castañeda, author of Compañero: The Life and Death of Ché Guevara [2]. Capitalists and their apologists attempt to pass off Che’s racism as an undisputed fact, but not even bourgeois academics are willing to concede this point.

This can also be said of those who knew Che. Che’s Congolese teenage Swahili interpreter for his African expedition,  Freddy Ilanga, lived in Cuba until 2006, and his dying wish was to erect a lighthouse memorial to Guevara in Africa. In 2005 he told the BBC that Che “showed the same respect to black people as he did to whites” [3]. (Emphasis mine)

The full context of this particular statement is addressed by biographer Jon Lee Anderson in Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, which is said to be Che’s most well-researched biography [4].  Anderson notes they were “stereotypical of white Argentine arrogance and condescension” [5]. These statements, while obviously indefensible, were by no means exclusive to Che himself. The fact that those who accuse Che of racism do so without also indicating the broader cultural issues of white Argentinians shows that they are being dishonest. They do not care about the well-being of black people, they are only interested in slandering communism and continuing the subjugation of oppressed working people the world over.

At the end of his continental trip, Guevara announced himself a transformed man and even denounced the racism he encountered while living in Miami for a month, awaiting his return to Argentina [6]. Essentially, the quote was from before he was “Che,” in both literal nickname and political beliefs.

While the statements regarding black people are certainly despicable, Che more than made up for them through the actions he took later in life. In August 1961, (nine years after his “indolent” remark), Guevara attacked the U.S. for discrimination against black people and the actions of the KKK [7]. This matched his declarations in 1964 before the United Nations (Twelve years after his “indolent” remark), where Guevara denounced the U.S. policy towards their black population [8]. Further, in 1953, while traveling through Bolivia with his friend Carlos “Calica” Ferrer, Guevara became indignant when he observed that all the dark-skinned indigenous Indians had to be sprayed with DDT (ostensibly to kill lice) before being allowed to enter the Ministry of Peasant Affairs [9].

In 1959, Che pushed for racially integrating the schools and universities in Cuba, years before they were racially integrated in the southern United States [10]. For context, the Alabama National Guard was needed to force Governor George Wallace aside at the University of Alabama in 1963 and forced school busing wasn’t enacted in the U.S. until 1971 [11]. These are just a few events that disprove the idea that Che was a racist. There are numerous others, such as Che leading all-black revolutionary group in the Congo [12].

Many prominent figures in the black liberation movement took note of these great deeds, praising Che as a friend and comrade. The black anti-colonial philosopher Frantz Fanon proclaimed Che to be “the world symbol of the possibilities of one man” [13]. African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela also praised Che for his efforts in the struggle for liberation [14]. Stokely Carmichael followed suit [15]. In light of all this, we can say that the idea that Che was racist is at best intellectually dishonest and at worst totally false.

The other major lie is that Che was a mass murderer, killing thousands of innocent people in pursuit of personal power. This was also debunked succinctly in Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. In it, he says, “I have yet to find a single credible source pointing to a case where Che executed ‘an innocent.’ Those persons executed by Guevara or on his orders were condemned for the usual crimes punishable by death at times of war or in its aftermath: desertion, treason, or crimes such as rape, torture, or murder. I should add that my research spanned five years and included anti-Castro Cubans among the Cuban-American exile community in Miami and elsewhere”  [16]. Many of the people Che killed were former members of the Batista government, a fascist dictatorship put in place by the US to serve corporations [17]. There is certainly discussion to be had about whether it is morally correct to kill people for desertion during wartime, but it is incorrect to say that Che was a “mass murderer.” On the contrary, Che Guevara was a freedom fighter. All those who dream of a better world would do well to follow his example.

Briefly, I would like to address the claim that Che burned books and music. This, like the above claims, is completely false. This claim was popularized by Humberto Fontova, a Cuban exile, in his book Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him. This book has been exposed as false even by bourgeois academics.  Journalist and Buenos Aires bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires Michael Casey reviewed Exposing the Real Che Guevara in his 2009 book Che’s Afterlife: The Legacy of an Image. Casey described it as “an art form of mixing frustration with ridicule.” Casey said that Fontova’s prose was a marriage of Ann Coulter with the Gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, and that Fontova “basically yells at his readers, mixing a sarcastic wit with a touch of self-deprecation until it is overwhelmed by disdain for his opponents.” Lastly, Casey observed that Fontova often “lathers himself into a rage” when it comes to the issue of Che Guevara, noting that his barrage of hyperbole leads him to describe Guevara as an “assassin”, “sadist”, “bumbler”, “fool”, and “whimpering-sniveling-blubbering coward” who is “revered by millions of imbeciles.”Other descriptions by Fontova of Guevara, cited by Casey, were “shallow”, “boorish”, “epically stupid”, “a fraud”, a “murdering swine”, an “intellectual vacuum”, and an “insufferable Argentine jackass” [18].

The book is nothing more than propaganda, unsubstantiated and politically motivated. Even the former CIA officer Robert Chapman admits that Humberto exaggerates his claims [19] If even the imperialists are unwilling to support the author’s claims, then we can reasonably claim that the claims are false.

Anti-communists, as we have seen, are more than willing to perpetuate lies about Che Guevara. Many would be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt, saying that they are merely unaware that they are making false claims. I am not so kind. Anti-communists are well aware that their statements about Guevara are lies. They deliberately perpetuate these myths. The reason for this is simple. Anti-Communists know that Che Guevara represents something for the working class. He is proof that the workers can liberate themselves from the oppression of capitalism and imperialism. This is why it is important to defend him: he is a symbol of what struggle can accomplish.

  1. Guevara, Che. The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey. Melbourne: Ocean, 2003. P. 62
  2. “Did Ché Guevara Write ‘extensively’ about the Superiority of White Europeans? Rubio Says Yes.” @politifact.
  3. Doyle, Mark. “BBC NEWS | Africa | DR Congo’s Rebel-turned-brain Surgeon.” BBC News. BBC, 2005.
  4. “Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life.” Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life Columbia University
  5. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Grove, 2010. P. 92
  6. Guevara, Che. “Economics Cannot Be Separated from Politics.” Economics Cannot Be Separated from Politics
  7. Babbitt, Susan E. José Martí, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and global development ethics: the battle for ideas. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
  8. Ibid
  9. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: a revolutionary life. New York: Grove Press, 1997 p. 101
  10. Pedro Pérez Sarduy, AfroCuba, Center for Cuban Studies, p. 88
  11. E. Culpepper Clark, The Schoolhouse Door: Segregation’s Last Stand at the University of Alabama Oxford University Press, 1995. P. 180
  12. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: a revolutionary life. New York: Grove Press, 1997, p. 769. Op. Cit.
  13. Winter, Mick. Cuba for the misinformed: facts from the forbidden island. Napa, CA: Westsong Publishing, 2013 p. 59
  14. Samuel Willard Crompton, Nelson Mandela: Ending Apartheid in South Africa Chelsea House Publishing. New York. 2006.  p. 45
  15. Winter, Mick. Cuba for the misinformed: facts from the forbidden island. Napa, CA: Westsong Publishing, 2013 p. 59 Op. Cit.
  16. Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: a revolutionary life. New York: Grove Press, 1997, p. 92. Op. Cit.
  17. Timothy Alexander Guzman, “Cuba Pre-1959: the Rise and Fall of a U.S. Backed Dictator” Global Research July 26, 2015
  18. Casey, Michael (2009). Che’s afterlife: the legacy of an image. New York: Vintage Books. pp. 249–50.
  19. Chapman, Robert D. “Righting Cuban History”. International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. 27 (2): 421–4.

The Lessons of the Grenada Revolution

 

Introduction-Purpose for Writing

 

One of the most common arguments against  communism rests on the methods by which it must be achieved. Communists understand that the capitalist class will never allow us to vote away their property. Indeed, the entire legal system of the United States was founded in order to prevent this from occurring. James Madison admitted as much in a 1787 debate, when he said that the senate “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” [1]  In other words, the parliamentary system of the United States was built with the explicit purpose of preventing the working class from seizing the property of, at that time, the landed interests. Today, this extends to industrial interests as well. This proves that the destruction of capitalism, and with it the empowerment of the working class, can never come about by electoral means. Communism requires a revolution.

This fact is undeniable, which leads many to oppose communism. These people argue that a revolution can only make things worse than they were before. Despite all the atrocities capitalism is responsible for, it will always be preferable to the bloodshed and uncertainty of revolution.

Because of the hold this argument has over the masses, it is vital that communists dedicate time and effort to refuting it. One way to do this is to analyze situations in which conditions improved immediately after the revolution. In this way, we can prove that revolutions do not mean chaos. A revolution is not about wanton violence, it is about struggle. The concrete results of this struggle show that the outcome of a revolution will in actuality be preferable to the pre-revolutionary society.

In this article, I would like to use the Grenada Revolution as a case study. I choose to do this for two reasons. The first is that Grenada is rarely discussed. When people think of socialism, they envision China, the Soviet Union, or Cuba. While all three of these societies are superlative examples of socialism, I feel that it is necessary to broaden our conception of socialism as much as possible. The Grenada model is similar to the Soviet one, but with (as we will see), a number of important differences. Most notably, these differences concern institutions of direct democracy and “people’s power.” While it is a myth that the Soviet Union and other socialist experiments were not democratic, Grenada is the most democratic of them all. Democracy is an important concept for the working masses, particularly in the United States. Highlighting this unique aspect helps to encourage working people to think of socialism in terms other than those forced down their throats by the capitalist class. This, in turn, may inspire people to take up the cause of socialism as their own. With capitalism increasingly putting the planet in existential danger, this is of the utmost importance.

The second reason is that Revolutionary Grenada lasted a mere four years, a far cry from the Soviet Union’s seventy. While this is often cited as a disadvantage by both communists and anti-communists alike, I feel that in this case it is actually beneficial. Because of the relatively short time span in  question, we can make the point that the gains of the revolution are essentially immediate. The working class does not have to wait decades for improvement. When they understand this, working people will be more willing to undertake the risks that come with revolution.

 

  1. Avalon Project – Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, Taken by the Late Hon Robert Yates, Chief Justice of the State of New York, and One of the Delegates from That State to the Said Convention.” Avalon Project – Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, Taken by the Late Hon Robert Yates, Chief Justice of the State of New York, and One of the Delegates from That State to the Said Convention.

 

Pre-Revolutionary Grenada

 

An analysis such as this can begin at no other place than Grenada prior to the revolution. This, of course, is for the purpose of comparison. One cannot claim that Grenada improved as a result of revolution unless one understands the conditions the revolution grew out of. By the early 1950’s the Grenadian colonial economy was a classic example of a small-scale plantation type economic system. The economy, based on small-sized plantations of cocoa, nutmegs and sugar, was owned by the very small, light-skinned elite group. [1] The peasantry eked out a living on their small plots of land or on seasonal employment offered by the export-oriented plantations. With a per capita income at about $250, unemployment and underemployment caused serious hardships for the Grenadian majority. [2]

This colonial economic system went hand in hand with a Crown Colony government in which power resided in the hands of the British Governor assisted by his civil servants. Until the granting of universal adult suffrage in 1951, the majority of the Grenadian population did not participate in the political process. [3] Eric Gairy came to power on the back of strikes organized by his trade union but quickly betrayed the working class. [4] Gairy’s title was Premier as Grenada became an Associated State in free association with Britain. In general, this new relationship meant that Grenada, led by Gairy, controlled its internal welfare, with Britain responsible for defense and external relations. [5] In this sense, Grenada was a client of the British State, a colony built for exploitation.

By 1967, Eric Gairy had emerged as an extremely controversial figure who generated strong feelings both for and against his leadership. His appeal was based on a curious admixture of a charismatic-type personality; a skillful manipulation of religious symbols including his involvement in voodoo-type worship; and ultimately, the emergence of the “Mongoose gang.” This latter group comprised largely of thugs, roughly akin to the Tonton Macoute of Haiti, emerged during the 1967 elections and were not disbanded until the NJM coup twelve years later. [6]  Gairy’s cavalier attitude toward leadership and administration of state affairs contributed during this period to his ultimate downfall. This administration was characterized by personal corruption, financial mismanagement, fiscal inefficiency, and the emergence of arrogant and somewhat dictatorial leadership. [7] There was little discernible government planning. While the land reform program permitted the government to acquire twenty-six estates, very little of this was redistributed to the poor and landless. [8]

Moreover, the ever present threat provided by Gairy’s Mongoose gang did not contribute to open participation in the democratic process. Between 1974 and December 1976, Gairy’s party controlled 14 of the 15 seats in parliament. The lone opposition member was rarely in attendance. [9] During the second phase from December 1976 until the coup in March 1979, there was a strong opposition party since the government now controlled 9 of the 15 seats. [10] However, during both periods, the Parliament was a mere “rubber stamp for the government decisions that had already been made elsewhere.” [11]  And moreover, because of Gairy’s decision-making style, “questions in Cabinet were not always resolved by debate and majority resolutions (since) Cabinet members merely echoed the views of the Prime Minister.” [12]

It is also interesting to note that during the entire duration of the second independence parliament, a period of twenty-seven months, the Parliament met for a total of eighteen days even though the constitution demanded more frequent meetings. [13] While the formal structure of democratic institutions and processes existed, decision-making over the five year period became increasingly concentrated in the hands of Prime Minister Gairy. This concentration persisted to such a degree that Gairy’s own personal idiosyncrasies became serious issues of policy. At the United Nations, Gairy’s Grenada made significant issues of UFOs, psychic research, and the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle. [14]  

It was this climate of fear and intimidation of the increasingly economically depressed masses that provided the setting for the New Jewel Movement. In short, the Grenada revolution occurred because of the complete immiseration of the masses. [15] [16]

 

  1. H. Gill, The Grenada Revolution. Mimeo. July, 1983. p. 3.
  2. EPICA Task Force, “Grenada: The Peaceful Revolution.” Washington, 1982, p. 45.
  3. D. Webster, “The Role of ‘Leader Personality’ in The Foreign Policy of Grenada.” M.A. Thesis, University of the West Indies, Trinidad. October, 1983, pl. 19.
  4. Ibid., p. 18
  5. Radio broadcast was quoted in EPICA op. cit.
  6. “To Construct from Morning: Making the People’s Budget of Grenada.” St. George’s, Fedon publishers, 1982,
  7. As recorded in H. Gill op. – – cit., p. 12.
  8. Current Economic Position and Prospects of Grenada. Documents of the World Bank. April, 1989,
  9. Speeches of Maurice Bishop. pathfinders Press, New York, 1983, p. 294.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., p. 295
  12.  Ibid.
  13. Ibid., p. 302
  14. For a detailed discussion see D. Webster, op cit, summarized from H. Gill, op. Cit
  15. “Grenada : The Birth and Death of a Revolution (Dialogue #34)” Ken I. Boodhoo. Florida International University, Department of International Relations, 1984
  16. Grenade, Wendy C. The Grenada Revolution: reflections and lessons. Jackson: U Press of Mississippi, 2015.

 

The Revolution Itself

 

A revolutionary movement was bound to arise from the conditions described above. In this case, this was a movement called the New Jewel Movement (NJM). What eventually became known as the NJM actually had its beginnings with the return of Unison Whiteman, a young economist, to Grenada in 1964. Whiteman was disturbed by the conditions in Grenada’s working class. He organized a small discussion group confined largely to the strongly agricultural parish of St. David. [1] In 1972, this group was formalized as the Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education and Liberation – “Jewel.” After legal training and involvement in the West Indian minority politics in England, Maurice Bishop–the son of a middle-class St. George’s businessman–returned to Grenada in 1969. He immediately became involved in domestic politics, protesting with and later successfully defending a group of nurses. The nurses took to the streets to dramatize the deplorable conditions at the government hospitals. [2] In 1972, at Bishop’s initiative, the Movement for the Assemblies of the People (MAP) was formed. The MAP opposed the existing Westminster model of government as non-functional to the needs of the society. The MAP instead suggested a radical alternative:the establishment of People’s Assemblies. The latter was viewed as a practical method for permitting the broader mass of the society to have more meaningful input into the state’s decision-making process. The NJM explicitly wished to expand democracy. It also wanted to improve education, schooling, healthcare, and women’s rights. [3]

Confrontation between the NJM and Gairy’s government was swift and, in most cases, violent. In late 1973, when the NJM was engaged in a brief alliance with the GNP while both organized a series of strikes, Gairy responded with state force. Gairy invoked physical abuse of the opposition, the jailing of its leadership, and eventually, the killing of several NJM sympathizers. [4] The events of “Bloody Sunday” became a foremost example of state violence against the opposition; and eventually, they became the turning point of opposition against Gairy. The revolution gained mass popular support, even among the middle class who had formerly allied themselves with Gairy. This was the climate in which the revolution succeeded. [5]

It should be noted that, although there were violent confrontations in the lead-up to the revolution, the coup in which the NJM took power was bloodless. [6]. This deals a decisive blow to the idea that revolutions are inherently violent. Although there must always be some bloodshed, the idea that a revolution involves indiscriminate murder and war is false. The Grenada Revolution proves this to be the case.

 

  1. Meeks, Brian. Caribbean revolutions and revolutionary theory: an assessment of Cuba, Nicaragua and Grenada. London: MacMillan, 1993. P. 142
  2. “Grenada revolution: history of Maurice Bishop.” Grenada Carriacou and the Grenadines.
  3. As recorded in H. Gill op. – – cit., p. 12.
  4. S. Dabreo, The Grenada Revolution. Castries: M.A.P.S. Publications. 1979, p. 304.
  5. “BLOODY SUNDAY, 18 November 1973.” Bloody Sunday NOW Grenada
  6. Prof. Gus John The Grenada Massacre: Lest We Forget

 

The Achievements of the Revolution

 

Now that this foundation is laid, we can begin to examine the gains of the Grenada revolution. The New Jewel Movement quickly got down to the serious work of improving the lives of Grenada’s long-suffering people. As Bishop said in his first broadcast on Radio Free Grenada after the capture of power on 13 March 1979, “This revolution is for work, for food, for decent housing and health services, and for a bright future for our children.” [1]

Pre-revolutionary Grenada suffered with unemployment levels upward of 50%. Through the development of cooperatives, the expansion of the industrial base, the diversification of agriculture, the expansion of the tourist industry, and the creation of massive public works programmes, unemployment dropped to 14% and the percentage of food imports dropped from over 40% to 28% “at a time when market prices for agricultural products were collapsing worldwide.” [2]

Paulo Freire was invited to design and lead the implementation of a literacy program, which all but eliminated illiteracy (the literacy rate increased from 85% to 98%). [3] The leaders of the revolution realised that an educational system must be established that broke away from the British colonial tradition and the inferiority complex that it sought to instil in its ‘subjects’. As Bishop elaborated, The colonial masters recognised very early on that if you get a subject people to think like they, to forget their own history and their own culture, to develop a system of education that is going to have relevance to our outward needs and be almost entirely irrelevant to our internal needs, then they have already won the job of keeping us in perpetual domination and exploitation. Our educational process, therefore, was used mainly as a tool of the ruling elite.” [4]

Chris Searle observed an intense, widespread desire and demand for learning:

“One of the first overwhelming truths and discoveries of the Revolution was that education was everywhere, it was irrepressible! It came at once from every side and at every moment. The dammed-up flood of four centuries of the people’s urge to know, to understand, to learn, to connect, to criticise, to express themselves, was unstoppable. At meetings, at rallies, at panel discussions, through songs, poems, plays and calypso, the message poured down upon the revolutionary leaders: Teach us, we want to know! Young and old, farmer and urban worker, fisherman and the woman cracking nutmegs, seamstresses and road-workers, all clamoured for more education, giving the cue for the slogan: Education is a must – from the cradle to the grave.” [5]

By 1983, 37% of the national budget went to education and health. School fees were abolished; schools were repaired. “Free books, school uniforms and hot lunches were provided for the first time for the poor. Health care was made free and the number of doctors and dentists doubled.”  [6]

For the first time, Grenadians had a very real say as to how public funds were allocated. They chose via a People’s Budget that preempted the celebrated Porto Alegre participatory budget by more than a decade. [7] Meanwhile, the economic growth rate averaged 10% during the years of the revolution. A World Bank memorandum on the Grenadian economy in 1982 stated: “The government which came to power in March 1979 inherited a deteriorating economy, and is now addressing the task of rehabilitation and of laying better foundations… Government objectives are centred on the critical development issues and touch on the country’s most promising development areas.”  [8] The World Bank is an institution whose sole goal is to perpetuate capitalism, so it is unlikely that it would admit such a thing unless it was accurate.

Regarding agriculture, Searle writes that “there was increased enthusiasm to work on the land. The old pattern of the plantocratic estate, the hierarchical control of the expatriate landlord or the man in the ‘great house’ and the living death of laborious daily-paid work on land which was not theirs – all this was changing. The growth in cooperatives on the land and the collective stake in production and profit had brought many young people back to the land, and three farm training schools had been established to give these young farmers some basic expertise in agriculture and cooperative management techniques.” [9]

The revolution was strongly focused on women’s empowerment and participation. The first decree of the revolution was to outlaw sexual victimization, and women’s unions constituted a large part of the grassroots democracy discussed below. [10]

The changes in society were reflected by a massively invigorated national culture, expressed through calypso, poetry, dance and drama. “The shyness and reticence that characterised many of the Grenadian people before the Revolution, the self-consciousness of being a ‘small island’, second-rate or unnoticed was replaced by an explosion of national self-assertion through the revolutionary culture… More Grenadians were writing poetry and performing calypso than ever before, and receiving publication and air-play.” [11]

One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the revolution was the construction of an international airport – the first airport to be built by a post-colonial Caribbean state, built by the Grenadian people themselves. In an impressive show of international solidarity, Cuba, Angola, and Bolivia provided money and labor for the construction of what would come to be known as the Bishop International Airport. [12]

Revolutionary Grenada came under criticism from many angles for not holding parliamentary elections – particularly since Bishop’s first broadcast after the seizure of power had promised the restoration of “all democratic freedoms, including freedom of elections.” [13] This lack of elections was constantly used by the US and its regional proxies to besmirch the New Jewel government, and there are plenty of people – even those broadly sympathetic to the revolution – who feel that the whole experience was tainted through lack of democracy.

Why weren’t elections held? After all, there was never any doubt that the NJM would comfortably win at the polls. Given that Bishop promised elections in the first broadcast, there is no reason to assume that he refused to hold elections because they would have threatened his power. On the contrary, he initially argued in favor of them. This should lead us to conclude that specific material conditions prevented the NJM from holding elections after the revolution.

Bishop discussed this issue in an interview with New Internationalist in 1980:

“We don’t believe that a parliamentary system is the most relevant in our situation. After all, we took power outside the ballot-box and we are trying to build our Revolution on the basis of a new form of democracy: grass­roots and democratic, creating mechanisms and institutions which really have relevance to the people, If we succeed it will bring in question this whole parliamentary approach to democracy which we regard as having failed in the region. We believe that elections could be important, but for us the question is one of timing. We don’t regard it now as a priority. We would much rather see elections come when the economy is more stable, when the Revolution is more consolidated. When more people have in fact had benefits brought to them. When more people are literate and able to understand what the meaning of a vote really is and what role they should have in building a genuine participatory democracy.” [12]

Speaking at an event to mark the first anniversary of the revolution – an event at which the guests included Daniel Ortega and Michael Manley – Bishop highlighted some of the obvious flaws of the Westminster system:

“There are those (some of them our friends) who believe that you cannot have a democracy unless there is a situation where every five years, and for five seconds in those five years, a people are allowed to put an ‘X’ next to some candidate’s name, and for those five seconds in those five years they become democrats, and for the remainder of the time, four years and 364 days, they return to being non-people without the right to say anything to their government, without any right to be involved in running their country.” [13]

In place of a such a pseudo-democracy, there was instead a system of grassroots democracy that, by any reasonable standard, must be considered far more democratic than the pretend democracy in place in Britain and the US. [14] Organs of power sprung up everywhere, and nearly everyone was involved in some level of organisation and decision-making: the Zonal Councils, the Workers’ Parish Councils, the Farmer Councils, the Youth Movement or the Women’s Movement, and many more which met at least once a month. Free facilities were made available for all such meetings, and they were often attended by senior government figures. These government figures would have to answer directly to the people [15].

In 1981, the People’s Revolutionary Government established a Ministry of National Mobilisation, headed up by senior NJM leader Selwyn Strachan. This was a whole government ministry dedicated to devising means of continually spreading and improving popular participation in the running of the country and ensuring maximum levels of accountability for those in positions of power. [16]

Searle points out that the army was expected to be at the service of the people, and was deeply involved in helping to carry out decisions made by the organs of popular power. He states: “The army was involved and was extremely popular. if repairs [were] needed or houses [had to be] built, soldiers would be there.” [17]  In Grenada, the Army was built to serve the people. This is quite different from the army in a typical bourgeois pseudo-democracy, which lords above the people rather than moving among them.

I would like to mention here that the democratic institutions analyzed above constitute an excellent translation of the mass line from theory to practice. I have written about this theory in depth here, but it is enough to say here that the mass line is about strengthening the ties between the state and the people. This tie between the people and the state shows that socialist states, while repressive in some limited senses, are substantially more democratic than capitalist ones. Socialism (as well as democracy) gives the masses power. Revolutionary Grenada is a brilliant example of that power.

 

  1. “A Bright New Dawn (13 March 1979).” Grenada Revolution Online
  2. Zunes, Stephenie “Global Policy Forum.” The US Invasion of Grenada
  3. Ibid
  4. Bishop, Maurice Education in New Grenada. July 1979. Grenada Revolution Online
  5. Searle, Chris, and Tony Benn. Grenada morning: a memoir of the ‘revo’ London: Karia Press,
  6. Mills, Stephanie “Welcome to Bishop International Airport” Workers.org
  7. To Construct from Morning: Making the People’s Budget of Grenada. St. George’s, Fedon publishers, 1982,
  8. Current Economic Position and Prospects of Grenada. Documents of the World Bank. April, 19/9,
  9. Searle, Chris, and Tony Benn. Grenada morning: a memoir of the ‘revo’ London: Karia Press Op. Cit.
  10. Bishop, Maurice. “Maurice Bishop Speaks to US Working People” Grenada Revolution Online
  11. Searle, Chris, and Tony Benn. Grenada morning: a memoir of the ‘revo’ London: Karia Press Op. Cit.
  12. “Interview with Maurice Bishop.” New Internationalist. 1980
  13. Bishop, Maurice. “Forward Ever.” March 13, 1980 Grenada Revolution Online
  14. Hart, Richard. “Grenada: An Assessment of the Revolution”
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid
  17. Searle, Chris The Struggle Against Destabilization. 1983.

 

Conclusion-Learning from Grenada

I wrote this essay with the explicit intent to prove a point regarding revolution. I make no attempt to hide my ideological persuasion. I am a Marxist-Leninist, and I advocate a proletarian revolution to overthrow capitalism. This view places me far outside mainstream political discourse, due in large part to its aforementioned revolutionary content. In the popular consciousness, revolutions are portrayed as violent, bloody affairs that result only in the misery of the masses. The Grenada Revolution solidly proves this portrayal to be a myth, intended to pacify the working classes and frighten them from revolution. In just four short years, the people of Grenada liberated themselves from a brutal, repressive autocracy. With this came the dramatic expansion of social, political, and economic rights, in addition to a sharp rise in standard of living.

Revolution, far from being a hellish nightmare, is a deeply liberating process that improves the lives of those who undertake it. Therefore, the fact that socialism requires a revolution is not a  factor in determining whether it is desirable.

Revolutionary Grenada also has lessons to teach us regarding the relationship between the state and the community. Many proponents of decentralization argue that centralism necessarily involves taking power away from communities and concentrating it in the hands of the state. Revolutionary Grenada shows us that this is not the case. As I said above, lawmaking during the revolution was carried out on a democratic basis. Community councils and interest groups came together to decide what they needed, and then proposed their plans to the state. The state did its best to unify these goals into a plan that everyone could agree on. The councils could then review the plans and recommend any needed changes. The process would then continue from there as needed. In this sense, law-making remained central, while also empowering communities. The Grenada Revolution shows us that the two are not mutually exclusive and, in so doing, helps to win the masses over to Marxism-Leninism. Returning to the point I made in the introduction, the experience of Revolutionary Grenada helps the masses to think of socialism as a participatory cause which gives them a voice. This will likely inspire them to adopt it for themselves, and therefore hasten its arrival.