Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 27, 2006

Lenin’s Tomb ponders North Korea

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 3:54 pm

UPDATE from Lenin’s Tomb:

I’ll take these criticisms on board and read up a great deal further before even attempting to offer a serious reply, but I did want to note for the record that the author of the post at Kotaji does not in fact agree with the quote you have actually excerpted from his blog. He has replied in the comments box at the Tomb:
“I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick with my post on the South Korean ‘new right’ history book. As I said, I probably agree with most of the (very crudely simplified) propositions that I outlined from the book in question. I do not agree with that particular one that you chose to quote.

“For the record, I also get very pissed off by all the frankly racist and orientalist nonsense that often passes for news about North Korea. Kim Jong-il is no doubt a despot, but he’s not a despot of a special kind, just a plain old dictator who needs to be overthrown by his own people.”

Although I am a big fan of Lenin’s Tomb (without sharing his enthusiasm for Zizek), I am rather disappointed to read his item on North Korea today: http://leninology.blogspot.com/2006/02/capitalists-paradise.html

From it we learn that there is at least one factory there owned by South Koreans which operates in pretty much the same manner as sweatshops in China or Vietnam for that matter. Well, okay. If North Korea were such a “capitalist’s paradise” as he puts it, then there’s the little matter of explaining the fierce rivalry between North and South.

Much of Lenin’s post is a direct quote from a blog run by a chap called Owen at http://kotaji.blogsome.com/ which agrees with the claims that “Rhee was a Machiavellian politician who made progress on the political/democratic front and laid some of the foundations for South Korea’s later economic growth.” This, of course, might ring a bell:


General Franco successfully led the Nationalist armies against the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, with support from Hitler’s Germany and Italy under Mussolini.

Under Franco Spain has enjoyed stability and relative prosperity, especially after reforms introduced since 1959 that modernised administration and industry.


Only a few short years later, a major economic miracle had taken place in Chile. How had it happened? Pinochet began by recruiting into government a number of Chilean economists who had been schooled at the University of Chicago by Milton Friedman. His object was to eliminate poverty by spurring growth through privatization and competition. For starters, his free-market reformers exploded the widely accepted socialist idea that powerful bureaucrats at the top can guide an economy by deciding which resources should be allocated where and at what price. In order to give consumers themselves the freedom to guide the market by their own daily economic decisions, the Chicago Boys junked the entire structure of stifling statist controls.

Lenin would also appear to agree with Owen’s citation from a certain Kim Ha-yong that:

“The basis for Soviet policy towards the Korean peninsula was not revolutionary internationalism but the desire for imperialist expansion. Stalin’s ambition was to inherit the old possessions of the Tsar’s empire and to restore its former glory.”

There is so much wrong here that one doesn’t know where to begin. To begin with, although Stalin was never about “revolutionary internationalism,” by the same token he was not bent on “imperialist expansion” either. If so, he would have encouraged the CP to take power in Greece, or in France. Instead, Stalin proved all too willing to sacrifice what appeared to be such significant “expansionist” bids in exchange for less potent buffer states to his West and to his South. Furthermore, this takes place in the context of losing perhaps half of the USSR’s industrial infrastructure and millions of its citizens in WWII. One can certainly understand the desire to circle the wagons, even if this has little to do with Marx or Lenin’s concept of proletarian internationalism.

To continue, the term “imperialism” is not useful if you rip it from the economic context. Capitalist imperialism was mainly about extracting superprofits. But, COMECON, the main vehicle of Soviet trade beyond its borders was associated with a NET LOSS each year. One of the driving forces of perestroika was to cut ties to COMECON nations so that the USSR would not bleed red ink. Here’s what Vladimir Sobell has to say about capital flows in “The Red Market: Industrial Co-operation and Specialisation in Comecon”:

Although it is impossible precisely to evaluate the gains and losses in intra-Comecon trade it is generally agreed that the USSR was subsidising Eastern Europe and that over time this subsidy was rising largely because of the growing opportunity costs involved in supplying the grouping with ‘hard’ commodities such as oil. Up to the mid-1970s the Soviet Union was apparently willing to pay this price in return for politically stable and loyal allies; up to the 1973 oil-price explosion the only way in which the subsidy was reduced was the Soviet insistence that East European countries contribute to the development of its resources. During the 1970s, however, it became clear that the terms of trade of ‘hard’ goods would continue to rise and that East European countries would not be able to reduce the subsidy for the following two reasons: first, because they incurred, in some cases considerable, convertible currency debts so that their ability to buy oil in non-Comecon markets was severely restricted, and secondly, the imports of Western technology initially undertaken in the hope that the ‘softness’ of East European manufactures would be reduced did not result in a direct improvement (and could, as in the case of Poland, lead to severe strain and eventual collapse). On the other hand, the USSR is in no position to continue to subsidise Eastern Europe indefinitely. There are several reasons for this. First, the Soviet economic growth has declined to unprecedently low rates; secondly, the oil industry is experiencing difficulties in securing adequate supplies for the 1980s; thirdly, the Soviet Union is forced to continue to spend substantial hard currency outlays on the import of grain; and fourthly, it undertook to subsidise the developing members of Comecon — Cuba, Mongolia and most recently Vietnam…

Finally, on North Korean economic woes. To start with, even if there were “independent trade unions” there, I doubt that would make much difference in the standard of living. Basically, you are talking about an economy that has suffered the loss of a major trading partner and a devastating drought. If Kim was replaced by Alex Callinicos, people would still be suffering.

People who do not subscribe to Cliffite orthodoxy often find themselves repelled by what people like Mike Gonzalez have written. Frankly, I find the one-presentation of North Korean history much more offensive. Keep in mind that this nation was once considered far more advanced than its rival to the South.

Martin Hart-Landsberg, “Korea: Divison, Unification and US Foreign Policy,” Monthly Review Press, 1998:

The End of the Economic Miracle

North Korea’s economic advance began to slow in the second half of the 1960s. The government announced in 1966 that its seven-year plan would not be completed on time, and the planning period was extended for three years, until 1970. A new six-year plan was launched in 1971. Although the North announced its successful completion in late 1975, four months ahead of schedule, no new plan was presented in either 1976 or 1977. In spite of these difficulties, even CIA estimates, as summarized by Lone and McCormack, showed that, “as of early 1976, the North Korean economy was out-producing the South in per capita terms in almost every sector, from agriculture through electric power generation, steel and cement, to machine tools and trucks (but not in televisions and automobiles).” Nevertheless, the North was losing the economic race. Between 1960 to 1976, Northern per capita GNP grew by an average annual rate of 5.2 percent; Southern per capita GNP grew by 7.3 percent. The South caught the North on a per capita basis sometime in the mid to late 1970s, and then continued to pull further ahead.

North Korea’s economic difficulties had several causes. Among the most important were the decline in aid from the Soviet Union and the division impelled diversion of scarce resources into the military sector. While North Korea has always prided itself on following an economic strategy based on the traditional principle of juche (self-reliance), the country also benefited significantly from foreign aid. For example, North Korea received substantial aid from the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries in 1953 and 1956 that helped finance its three-year plan. According to one scholar: During the Three Year Plan, 75.1 percent of all capital investments of the DPRK was financed from the grants from the communist bloc. In these years 24.6 percent of the Pyongyang state budget was financed from aid from the bloc countries (including credits). Finally, aid and credits from socialist countries financed 77.6 percent and 3.9 percent respectively of all DPRK imports during the Three Year Plan.

The Soviet Union also gave substantial scientific and technical aid, almost all without charge. By 1962, the Soviets had given North Korea over 2,581 technical documents; some 935 were drawings of complete plants or machinery. This technical support enabled North Korea to produce many industrial products, including trucks, cranes, compressors, agricultural machinery, electric motors, transformers, and tractors, which greatly contributed to the country’s rapid industrialization.

Beginning in the late 1950s, relations between the DPRK and the Soviet Union grew tense. In 1956, the Soviets started pressuring the North to give up its attempt to construct a heavy industrial base and instead concentrate on producing light manufactures and primary commodity exports as part of a COMECON-structured division of labor. The DPRK did join COMECON in 1957, but only as an observer; it refused to accept any limitations on its national planning.

Complicating the dispute over economic strategy was a growing split between China and the Soviet Union. Kim had worked hard to remain friendly with both countries and was therefore placed in an awkward position by this development, especially the increasingly frequent Soviet criticisms of China. Kim actually supported the Chinese in their confrontation with the Soviet Union. He was critical of what he saw as Soviet revisionism, especially the policy of “peaceful coexistence” with the United States, the very country that had prosecuted the Korean War. Kim believed that “peaceful coexistence” reflected a racist attitude on the part of the Soviet Union toward Asia. As he saw it, détente was a policy that was developed strictly within, and had meaning only in, a European context. It could have no meaning for Vietnamese, Chinese, or Koreans, people whose countries were divided, with the socialist halves under threat of attack from the United States.

In the early 1960s, when the Soviets started openly criticizing the DPRK for its economic plans and unwillingness to condemn China, Kim stood his ground. The result was the sudden withdrawal of Soviet aid and technical support and, from 1962 to 1965, a reduction in trade between the two countries. Not surprisingly, this had a serious impact on the North Korean economy.


  1. Louis,

    I read with interest this article on the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.

    Anyhow, just wondering if you have ever read Nelson Peery’s book ‘An American Revolutionary Talks to the People: The Future is Up to Us’. Well, I have got a copy and I honestly believe that it has added something to Marxist Leninist theory. I would not give that accolade out lightly either. That’s not to say I fully endorse every single argument in it – or maybe even the central thesis – about which I have insufficient data – but I think it is head-and-shoulders ahead of much else I’ve read and is deserving of a much wider audience in the left generally.

    If you have read it maybe you might be able to do a ‘critique’ or ‘commentary’. Like any really meaningful left wing work it’s written for the average reader so is accessible and tends to repeat variances of the same argument from different angles and using different metaphors.

    Anyhow, glad to see your blog is so professional. It is a pity that it doesn’t seem to have many comments. I suspect this is not because it’s not interesting more perhaps that it is difficult to argue with many of the pieces.

    Le meas,

    Comment by Domhnall O Cobhthaigh — March 1, 2006 @ 5:04 pm

  2. All the comments from my old blog at unrepentant.blogspot.com were unfortunately not able to be imported into this new blog, which is still in the testing stage. One of the main reasons that I am leaning to a permanent move here is that it handles comments much better, for what that’s worth.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 1, 2006 @ 5:11 pm

  3. A chara,

    I understand. So there are lots of comments at the old blog. You must forgive me – I’m very busy with stuff and so don’t get the time I would like to keep abreast of things – I think you should link to your blog from the marxmail website as I didn’t know it existed before your last message. I must have missed earlier references.

    Anyhow, think about that suggested review. I think you might do it justice as someone I think is pretty much open to new thinking without wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Le meas,

    Comment by Domhnall O Cobhthaigh — March 2, 2006 @ 8:48 pm

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