Bob Gould, 2004

The class character of the North Korean state
The DSP makes a political gesture towards the “deformed workers state”

Source: Ozleft, Green Left Weekly discussion list, December 23, 2004
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Green Left discussion list

The Christmas break issue of Green Left Weekly has an excited review by Chris Atkinson of Jim McIlroy’s pamphlet, Origins of the ALP, which condemns Laborism and Laborites in the most sweeping way. Right next to that review is an article about North Korea, ostensibly a review of a book by a US historian, Bruce Cumings.

The review is by Iggy (Ignatius) Kim, who is one of the younger leaders of the DSP. He’s of Korean background and comes of a zealous Korean Catholic family, who sent him to good Catholic schools. He became a Marxist a few years ago.

I have to confess to a certain respect, and even personal liking, for Iggy Kim. He’s a tall bloke with an infectious laugh and a winning smile. He’s an energetic activist of the DSP. He obviously lives on not much money and is very dedicated. He’s often to be seen pedalling his pushbike around the inner city.

His personal commitment deserves respect, and he’s also a serious Marxist intellectual, although he’s commissioned from time to time by the DSP leadership to perform intellectual tasks that are extremely problematic.

For example, the DSP leadership got him to write a pamphlet, The Origins of Racism, at the time of the Pauline Hanson outbreak a few years ago. The pamphlet blamed the Labor Party for the origins of racism in Australia and attacked official multiculturalism at the same time as the Hansonites were doing the same thing from the right.

Now, Iggy Kim has obviously been given the job of prettifying North Korea because of his Korean background, and to my mind, chronically suspicious in matters relating to the DSP leadership, this suggests that this may have something to do with the DSP’s planned new year conference.

Maybe there will be delegates at the conference from pro-North Korean groups in South Korea, or even from the North Korean regime itself.

I vividly remember the Asia-Pacific conference before last, to which the DSP managed to get a delegation from the ultra-Stalinist Japanese Communist Party, who were the stiffest Stalinists, in black three-piece suits (flanked by younger interpreters, also suited up to the nines), that I’ve seen for many a long year.

I want to preface what I’m going to say now with a general political statement. I believe that it’s necessary for socialists to oppose the US and Japanese imperialist machinations (supported by Australia) in the northern Pacific region, directed against North Korea, quite independently of the bizarre character of the North Korean regime. The struggle against imperialism isn’t conditional on the character of regimes under the imperialist hammer.

Having said that, when I see Iggy Kim shyly introducing the notion of the “deformed workers state of North Korea” into his fulsome review of an enthusiastic book about North Korea, I’m deeply angered, politically speaking.

I’m an old revolutionary socialist of the sort that generally characteristed the Soviet Union as a deformed workers state, rather than a form of state capitalism, as the International Socialist Tendency generally viewed it. I haven’t changed my mind about the deformed workers state analysis of the Soviet Union, and I still consider that in its time that analysis was more scientific and useful to the working class than the state capitalist analysis.

Nevertheless, the debate between workers statists and state capitalists was a serious and far-reaching argument on both sides, and there is considerable literature about that debate, and this material is worthy of serious study by young Marxists.

In the modern revolutionary socialist movement there are substantial groups still active on the far left that owe their ideological origins to one or the other of those two general political currents.

It’s as an old deformed-workers-statist that I find trying to prettify the bizarre regime in North Korea as a deformed workers state eccentric, politically dangerous and thoroughly opportunist.

The DSP, mainly prodded by Eva Cheng’s initiative, characterises China as a capitalist state, and has done so for a number of years. I agree with that analysis of China, put forward by Eva Cheng and the DSP.

On the other hand, I think it’s reasonable to call Vietnam a deformed workers state, and even possibly Laos, and I certainly believe that Cuba is a deformed workers state, the vigorous defence of which against imperialism is entirely desirable. It’s equally clear that Cambodia is now a semi-colonial capitalist state.

To call North Korea a deformed workers state is a mad caricature of the whole concept of deformed workers states elaborated by Trotsky.

This categorisation does a great disservice to the whole idea of workers states. The idea that the North Korean regime is in any way, any kind of model for socialist development, does terrible harm to the idea of socialism.

North Korea is not a deformed workers state, but a feudal hereditary monarchy, in which the royal family runs the state from top to bottom by the most brutal police methods. There is a wealth of evidence to show that’s the actual situation in North Korea today.

In the case of China, a reversion to capitalism has taken place in economic and class terms. In the case of North Korea, an even stranger permutation has taken place. Reversion to capitalism is not the only possibility in a workers state. In North Korea, there has been a leaping of stages back to something closely resembling feudalism.

Under feudalism the monarch had complete control of the land and the country, and was the major active political force in the country. The monarch’s subjects held property at the monarch’s wish, etc.

North Korea closely resembles a medieval feudal state. In the 1930s, the ex-communist theorist Kurt Wittfogel developed the idea that the Soviet Union had reverted to what Marx described as oriental despotism. Wittfogel’s theory was overstated in relation to the Soviet Union, but it applies forcefully to the social relations in North Korea.

In South America just before the Spanish conquest, the realm of the Incas was a kind of statist empire in which the land and productive resources were run in a kind of communal way with, however, a highly authoritarian structure focused on the emperor.

I recommend to Iggy Kim that he carefully study The Inca Empire by Thomas C. Patterson, published by Berg, Oxford and New York, in 1997. The resemblance of the current North Korean regime to the Inca empire is striking.

The North Korean regime is also very fragile because of its reactionary, feudal quality, and it’s reasonable to predict that one day, possibly quite soon, after some division within the regime, the masses will tear down that regime from below in the elemental way that the masses tore down the regimes in Rumania and Albania, which had some features in common with North Korea, although neither was as feudal as the set-up in North Korea.

When the North Korean regime implodes, as it inevitably will, its downfall is very likely to be bloody and chaotic.

On China, Eva Cheng and the DSP leadership point out that the potent combination of explosive, almost 19th century, capitalist economic development with a rigid Stalinist political system, is a combination that is in the sharpest conflict with the interests of the working class and peasantry in China, as demonstrated by recent industrial disputes there.

I would add to that analysis the proposition that in China, basic democratic demands, such as the right to trade unions, free speech, and even the formation of a constituent assembly, are appropriate.

In a situation such as China, socialists should be completely on the side of the democratic demands of the workers and peasants. If it’s possible, the situation in North Korea is even worse than that in China.

Iggy Kim relies on evidence from one North Korean expert, a pro-North-Korea one, that he manages to dig up. There are quite a number of other experts on North Korea, some of them on the left, for instance Gavin MacCormack, from Australia, whose book on the Korean War is extremely useful.

They paint a picture quite different, and in my view more accurate, than the one painted by Iggy Kim and Bruce Cumings.

The DSP itself, even had a direct report of the situation in North Korean from two then DSP members who went to a world youth festival in Pyongyang in the late 1980s and described the actual situation. Even their interpreters and guides were afraid to talk to them frankly, or even to walk in a garden where they might be out of sight of their overseers and in a position to talk privately.

There are several books about the history of the North Korean Communist Party and Kim Il Sung’s royal dynasty. Kim the elder, rather like Stalin, exterminated most of the other leaders of the North and South Korean communist movement and the Korean guerrilla movement between 1947 and 1955.

Bruce Cumings quite rightly points to the massacres perpetrated by the US and the South Koreans, but he almost ignores the brutal massacres carried out by the North Korean regime.

Iggy Kim, who presumably speaks and reads Korean, is probably aware of the ongoing crisis of the past 10-15 years in the leftist political movements of Koreans in Japan.

The form of the crisis is as follows. There’s a large community of Koreans in Japan, rather like the Irish in Britain. Many of these Koreans originally came from South Korea.

From just after World War II until the early 1980s these exiles were overwhelmingly sympathetic to North Korea on generally nationalist grounds. Lenin distinguished between the reactionary nationalism of imperialist countries and the progressive nationalism of oppressed colonial countries. Korean nationalism clearly falls into the second category, particularly when expressed against its former Japanese colonial oppressor. In this respect, Korean nationalism is very similar to Irish nationalism.

In the 1960s and the 1970s, more than 100,000 Koreans from Japan moved to North Korea, and with their families and descendants they probably make up 200,000-300,000 people now. Unfortunately for them, after they were enticed to North Korea, the regime there treats them with enormous suspicion, and many thousands of them were imprisoned or executed. A few hundred managed to escape back to Japan, mainly through China.

The sympathy for the North Korean regime among Koreans in Japan has steadily fallen because of the disappearance of relatives and the evidence from escapees as to what happened to them.

This has produced a sustained and very public continuing crisis in the political organisation of Koreans in Japan. I suspect Iggy Kim knows a fair bit about this, and he should discuss it publicly, rather than repeating what is essentially propaganda by Cumings in favour of the North Korean regime.

An infuriating feature of Bruce Cumings’ book and Iggy Kim’s review is their avoidance of the issue of the conventional military invasion of South Korea by the North in 1950.

The book never comes out very clearly and accepts that the North invaded the South. It goes to great lengths to describe, quite accurately, how bad the regime in the South was but it avoids the question of the North Korean invasion.

Stalinists in the 1950s and 1960s routinely denied that North Korea had invaded, and tried to make a case that the South had invaded. The extremely courageous, but on this question quite misguided, US left-wing liberal I.F. Stone wrote a book, The Hidden History of the Korean War trying to make a case that the South invaded the North.

The partial opening of the Soviet archives since 1989 blows that conspiracy theory sky high. There’s a considerable amount of material in the Soviet archives that makes it clear the North invaded the South.

I’m not arguing a moral case here. Given the reactionary character of the South Korean regime, there’s some force in the argument that the Korean War was a civil war, but nevertheless launching a conventional war between one state and another is a strategic and military matter. There’s no doubt in my mind that the invasion of South Korea by the North was a dangerous adventure, politically and militarily, and was inevitably going to get the response that it got from US imperialism, and Western imperialism in general.

The invasion of the South by the North was a military strategic error of the highest order, and the carnage of the Korean War stemmed from that political error.

You only have to contrast the situations in Korea and Vietnam to underline the adventurist nature of the North Korean invasion. The Vietnamese, although they had considerable moral weight for their case for reunification of Vietnam, relied mainly on a guerrilla struggle to achieve their objective, and they were successful. The invasion of South Korea was a military and political disaster.

To try to evade all this as Cumings does, echoed by Iggy Kim, is to abdicate Marxism, or even any pre-Marxist military strategic analysis.

I generally avoid arcane and pretentious discussions from afar about strategy and tactics in countries about which the people commenting are really not expert, that often passes for discussion on the Marxmail and Green Left Weekly and Leftist Trainspotters email lists.

I’m constantly amazed that people in many of these discussions could be so sweeping in their judgments on so little evidence. But that’s not the case with North Korea.

There’s a very large body of evidence about the character of the North Korean regime, and a lot of it emanates from North Korea itself. In 1960, as secretary of the Sydney Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament I sent our little newsletter to the more or less official mouthpiece of North Korea published in Japan, The People’s Korea offering an exchange. Thereafter, that 12-page newspaper, printed on ricepaper, came every week for the next 30 years. I wrote several times trying to stop it, and eventually gave up.

It arrived faithfully at my Catholic mother’s residence at Bondi (where I was living in 1960), much to her fascination and eventual irritation. Every issue for 30 years had about five photographs of Kim Il Sung in it, and from time to time we would also get large, free, indigestible sets of books of the Great Leaders’ trite works, all leather-bound.

They are such eccentric pieces of high Stalinism that they’re now collectors’ items.

Over the years as a bookseller I’ve acquired three or four books of North Korean art, all totally dominated by pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

I present this humorously, but the public art of any society is a serious matter. The adulation of Stalin, expressed in the public art of the USSR, was a political and cultural crime. The same applies to the cult of Mao. The cult of the two Kims is even more ubiquitous and far worse.

A government that devotes so much of its resources to such a cult when the masses are starving and dying is, from the point of view of the working class and peasants, criminal.

Eventually the North Korean masses will overthrow that regime by some means, and I will support that overthrow. The idea of defending the North Korean “deformed workers state” against its own population is an absurdity and an obscenity.

Socialists should defend North Korea like any other colonial or ex-colonial state against US and Japanese imperialism, but they should never defend the North Korean state against its own workers and peasants.

I write about these questions with considerable personal feeling. At the age of 67 a large part of my conscious political life has involved defending genuine revolutionary socialism against Stalinism. I have read and studied everything that I can lay my hands on about the history of Stalinism, its bloodthirsty assault on the old Bolsheviks and the working class in many countries.

Part of the political sections in my bookshop reflects this lifelong preoccupation. It seems to me, on the basis of my life experience in the socialist movement, completely unprincipled, dangerous and against the interests of reviving the socialist project to prettify in any way the reactionary feudal monarchy in North Korea.

This is not a personal attack on Iggy Kim. In my view he has just performed a political task to which he has been assigned by the DSP leadership. But someone who can speak Korean and knows something about Korea, in my view ought to know better.

The purpose of this contribution is to open up a political discussion on the class character of the North Korean regime.

PS. The question of North Korea and the Korean War figured rather dramatically in the modern division between the revolutionary socialist workers statists and the state capitalists of Tony Cliff.

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, the supporters of Cliff who adhered to the state capitalist theory were a minority in Gerry Healy’s British revolutionary socialist organisation, which adhered to the deformed workers state theory.

The Healy leadership of the organisation launched a campaign for the workers state of North Korea and the state capitalists adopted a position summarised in their then slogan, which was on the banner of their magazine for many years: “Neither Washington nor Moscow. Fight for international socialism.”

The Cliff supporters in union bodies and Labour parties broke the Healy organisation’s discipline and put forward different resolutions on the Korean War in public. They were then expelled from Healy’s group and formed their own organisation.

The historical origins of the modern splits between state capitalists and workers statists were thereby precipitated by a theoretical dispute with practical implications, about the class character of North Korea.

Discussion and the holiday period

December 24, 2004

As Peter Boyle says, Marxists enjoy the holiday season like anyone else. But they tend to enjoy it in whatever way they enjoy life in general. I run my shop for long hours, I buy the odd gift for close friends, but inevitably late at night and over the holiday period my interest turns back to my general political interests.

The holiday season is not a bad time to read, study and write, in my experience. I rapidly get bored with Christmas television, as do most of us, and I get back to business as the mood takes me.

Peter Boyle overdoes it a bit, for my taste, with his emphasis on getting pissed and stuffing oneself. My appetite for that is a bit limited and it always has been. At close family gatherings at Christmas over many years we always seem to end up arguing about politics.

The timing of my piece about the class nature of North Korea was dictated by when the piece appeared — a week or so ago — and it has taken me about a week to think about the question, do a bit of research and tidy up the article.

I don’t imply that Iggy Kim is some kind of mindless clone. He accepts the general, extremely rigid discipline of the DSP willingly, but the fact that an article of this type appears — despite what Boyle says, a kind of line article — is significant in an organisation like the DSP.

Several months ago, as we all know, LF was expelled from the DSP because he didn’t allow every detail of his political work to be conducted under the direct control of the DSP leadership. That’s the kind of organisation the DSP is.

I’m interested that Boyle quotes for support someone called Stan Smith, who puts forward all the traditional Stalinist arguments against anyone who questions any Stalinist regime.

I reassert my basic point. It seems to me, when a significant article like the one by Iggy Kim appears in Green Left Weekly, it’s an appropriate time to have a sensible discussion about the class nature of North Korea and the regime that runs the place.

Boyle and I bounce off each other various forms of rather personal polemic — Boyle rather more than me, actually — but the question of the class nature of North Korea and the totalitarian regime running it as a feudal monarchy is an objective question that ought to be subject to the possibility of rational discussion.

The silly season is quite a good time for rational discussion because that’s one way we can all escape from the silly season.

Concerning the Asia-Pacific conference, I’ve always regarded them as a useful initiative by the DSP, and I always attend those parts of them that interest me. I made favourable comment on one of them in the long piece I wrote attacking Keith Windschuttle, and I’ll certainly be at the next one, putting forward my point of view on various questions, as is my lifelong habit.

Did the Korean War take place?

December 26, 2004

There have been three main responses to my piece on North Korea and the DSP. Alan Bradley accuses me of Stalinophobia but says he’d like to see a discussion of Korea anyway. One very crude apparent DSP supporter on Sydney Indymedia says I spend my life attacking the socialist movement, which to him is clearly the DSP and it alone, and this is proved by the fact that I hold a Labor Party ticket. He concludes with a vintage piece of old-style Stalinism: “By advocating the destruction of the DPRK state, Gould is essentially advocating that the DPRK adopts capitalism (and its associated by-products including war, greed, exploitation, environmental destruction and more).”

This crude Stalinist is so intoxicated with the regime in North Korea that he can’t even imagine the masses overthrowing it without a return to capitalism.

The more serious response is from Chris Kerris, who obviously knows quite a bit about Korea. He draws my attention to an earlier article by Iggy Kim (from 2002), which turns out to be extremely useful.

This article is an overview of the history of the Korean nationalist and socialist movements, although unfortunately Iggy Kim doesn’t cite many sources. That’s a shame because it’s a pretty good history, up to a point. I’d hazard a guess that the sources for that article were a good deal broader than Bruce Cumings.

At the very end of the 2002 article Iggy Kim briefly mentions Kim Il Sung’s extermination of the other leaders of the Korean Communist movement. He says: “The counter-revolution also helped to fossilise the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. During the war, Kim Il Sung had opposition factions suppressed and their leaders killed, and democracy within the state and party was severely curtailed. After 1953, the heavily militarised standoff between North and South continued to give Kim’s autocracy a measure of legitimacy.”

In his review of Cumings’ book Iggy Kim avoids even that limited criticism of the barbaric practices of the Kim Il Sung regime.

In his earlier article, Iggy Kim says the suppression of factions and the killing of the leaders in the party and the state led to the curtailment of democracy. That statement is bizarre. In fact those acts led to the total elimination of any kind of democracy in North Korea. To talk about curtailment of democracy is to capitulate completely to Stalinism.

Chris Kerris takes up the thrust of Dick Nichols’ recent, rather strange satire on Bob Gould, an unintentional self-satire on the DSP (obviously Nichols is playing his usual role of writing the satirical skits for the cabaret at the coming DSP New Year national gathering).

Chris Kerris compares me with the television detective, the awkward and chaotic Columbo. I find that comparison rather flattering. Columbo generally comes up with the true story in the end. In that Christmas spirit, I’ll dissect some aspects of Chris Kerris’s contribution.

Like the crude DSP supporter on Sydney Indymedia, Chris Kerris unintentionally reveals the substantial drift towards Stalinism in DSP circles. For a start, Kerris draws an equals sign between North Korea and Cuba and defends the dynastic handing down of power within the same family. Of Kim Jong Il taking over from Kim Il Sung, Kerris says something similar will happen in Cuba when Raul Castro takes over from Fidel in the event that Fidel dies or becomes unable to continue in his post. That’s a massive slander of the Cubans. Firstly, it’s not at all clear that Raul will succeed Fidel.

Secondly, it’s fantastic to compare the barbaric, reactionary, feudal monarchy of North Korea with Cuba. They’re societies of quite different character. For a start, Cuba is relatively open to the world. Secondly, in Cuba they don’t systematically kill all political opponents. Thirdly, in Cuba there are not hundreds of thousands of political prisoners.

There are some problems with the set-up in Cuba, but to squeeze in support for the Kim regime by equating Cuba and North Korea is a political obscenity.

North Korea is a thoroughly feudal Stalinist state in which the mechanisms of political control have become the determining factor.

The fact that the state controls the means of production, such as they are after their relative collapse, is in the case of North Korea a secondary question to the way the state is run. A regime like North Korea could reintroduce capitalism tomorrow, and quite possibly will if that suits the interests of the dynasty that runs the place.

The North Korean regime has in relatively recent times kidnapped hundreds of individuals who are citizens of other states, and has organised political assassinations of opponents in third countries, as well as systematically terrorising its own population.

To compare the set-ups in Cuba and Vietnam with this regime is to slander the governments of Vietnam and Cuba.

Chris Kerris persists with the conspiracy theory about the beginning of the Korean War, so beloved of the Stalinists when I was young and now taken over wholesale by the DSP.

He puts the invasion of the South by the North in quotation marks, refers again to Cumings’ two-volume work as an authority and introduces another book, by William Blum, saying the name of the chapter gives a certain idea of what he’s arguing” “Korea 1945-53, was it all that it appeared to be?”

Chris Kerris, who I understand is an academic, is here being ever so postmodern. The bizarre postmodernist Jean Baudrillard wrote a little book called: The Gulf War did not take place, about the first Gulf War. The thrust of Baudrillard’s argument is rather similar to the Chris Kerris-Bruce Cumings-Iggy Kim trope on the Korean War. Baudrillard appeared to argue that the first Gulf War was a media construct more than a real war.

Kerris, Cumings et al have a similar spin on the invasion that began the Korean War. The difficulty for me with that sort of bullshit is that wars are powerful, cruel material events. Decisions to launch invasions that begin wars have enormous consequences.

In the given circumstances, the invasion of the South by the North, even allowing for the reactionary regime in the South, was a disastrous political and social blunder.

Allen Myers’ major DSP pamphlet on the Vietnamese leadership makes the point strongly that the attack of many ultralefts on the Geneva settlement in 1954 was mistaken because the Vietnamese leadership had no practical alternative. He points out that they persisted with guerrilla military activity to eventually achieve their revolutionary aims and unify the country.

On those two narrow points, Myers was obviously correct, as were Gerry Healy and Mike Banda, who took a similar position in approximately the same period. What stuck in my throat, however, about Myers, Healy and Banda on this question was their facile dismissal of the activities of the relatively large Vietnamese Trotskyist movement, which was suppressed by the Viet Minh, and many of the Trotskyist leaders were killed.

I’m no great fan of formal logic, but revolutionaries such as the Cubans, the Chinese and the Vietnamese relied mainly on guerrilla struggles while the Koreans attempted a conventional set-piece invasion. Both things can’t be strategically correct in roughly the same time frame and roughly similar circumstances.

The Korean War certainly did take place. An ill-considered invasion was launched, thoroughly incompetently. The incompetence of the operation is clear from the fact that the North Koreans launched a military strike while the USSR was boycotting the UN Security Council, which gave US imperialism the perfect opportunity to round up the other imperialist powers behind their war machine in Korea.

In the final analysis the thing that angers and alarms me most about the DSP view of these matters, as expressed by Chris Kerris, Iggy Kim and the anonymous apparent DSP hack on Indymedia, is the way DSP thinking has crystallised against any support for a popular uprising against the bizarre Stalinist autocracy in North Korea.

What became of the political proposition about the need for political revolutions to overthrow the bureaucracy in Stalinist states?

In the DSP for the past 15 years or so there have been two approaches, more or less in conflict, concerning the approach to Stalinist states and Third World national leaderships.

One approach has been the development of an increasingly uncritical attitude to those regimes.

The most striking aspect of this was the DSP’s romantic view that in some way Mikhail Gorbachev represented an uncorrupted socialist tradition inside the CPSU. The current relatively uncritical attitude towards North Korea is another example of this approach.

There has also been an approach, contradictory to the first, of a more critical, empirical investigation of the realities of Stalinist states. Good examples of this are Eva Cheng’s work on China and Mike Karadjis’s work on the Balkans and Vietnam.

It’s fairly clear from the prospectus for the DSP’s coming Asia-Pacific Solidarity Conference that Mike Karadjis’s more critical, empirical approach to the realities in Vietnam is more or less in eclipse in the DSP.

When you combine fulsome praise for the alleged good features of the Stalinist regime in North Korea with other indicators, it seems to me that the DSP is moving fairly rapidly in a Stalinist direction. I hope I’m wrong about that, but the portents are not good.

To equate the regime in North Korea with the interests of socialism and the working class is total political bankruptcy.

Despite the historical differences between the two streams in the Trotskyist movement, the workers’ statists and the state capitalists, they were both generally able to mobilise in support of the working class and the masses revolting against Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the extreme case of the suppression of the students in Tien an Mien Square in China.

The DSP once had an honourable tradition of supporting political revolution against Stalinism, exemplified in its support for Solidarnosc in Poland against the Stalinist regime. It persisted with that approach despite abuse from ultraleft, essentially Stalinist-oriented groups such as the Spartacists.

As we now know, the elemental movements of the masses against Stalinism in Eastern Europe demolished most of the structures of the Stalinist regimes but that was not followed by political revolution for a better form of socialism. It was followed in most cases by capitalist restoration.

In my view it was not wrong for socialists to support the movement of the masses to shatter Stalinism, despite the subsequent outcome. The capitalist restoration flowed from the fact that the Stalinist regimes were a good deal worse than any anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialists had fully appreciated, and the masses voted initially for what appeared to them to be better alternatives.

The masses are beginning to realise now, in a number of these countries, that capitalism is not what they had expected, and the long march of the socialist movement will in due course recommence.

It’s my considered view that it’s completely unsound to think that some facile literary defence of the North Korean regime, essentially against its own population, will prevent capitalist restoration.

The masses have to go through the experience of overthrowing those Stalinist regimes. The overthrow of a regime such as North Korea is inevitable, and socialists should not side with that despicable regime against its own population.

Who is Michael Berrell?

December 27, 2004

I’ll put aside arguing with the points that Michael Berrell raises in his latest post, because he’s disingenuous to the nth degree. My two pieces already take up most of the points he raises. It’s as if Berrell hasn’t even read them.

The sting, however, is in the tail. He wrings his hands that I appear to be going the same way as Christopher Hitchens. What a strange individual this Berrell is, to make such a gratuitous slander.

My political activity and my writing have been very public for 50 years. In the past two or three years, the period of Hitchens’s belated reconciliation with the ruling class expressed in his support for the imperialist invasion of Iraq, I’ve been involved in very public activity against that invasion.

I was one of the initiators of the broad committee in Sydney that organised the half-million-strong demonstration against the Iraq war.

In fact, it was me who moved several of the critical resolutions at the very early stages that helped incorporate all the significant forces, from right to left, in the organising committee, which ensured the kind of committee necessary for a broad mobilisation.

Berrell and the SEP were conspicuous by their total absence from any of the organising activities in any of the committees campaigning against the Iraq war.

During the course of the Iraq events I wrote and published sharp polemics against those, formerly on the left, who supported the Iraq war.

Over the past five or six years I’ve conducted a sustained public polemic against neoconservatives such as Keith Windschuttle who’ve gone over to the side of ruling class.

The debate I organised in my shop between myself and Henry Reynolds on one side and McGuinness and Windschuttle on the other, kicked off the public debate on Aboriginal history.

My long piece on Aboriginal history has now been distributed in about 3500 hard copies and consulted on the web by more than 700 people (editor’s note: more than 4400 by March 2008, when this article was shifted to Ozleft’s blog from the original Ozleft site).

My other long polemic, outlining Windschuttle’s political history, and arguing with him on all the major questions has been accessed on the web by several thousand people.

So much for Berrell’s stupid, offensive slander, and his phony hand-wringing about me being like Hitchens. I’ve spent the past few years arguing with the Hitchens of this world.

The strange thing about Berrell is that he appears to be older than 30, but no one I know has ever encountered him in any significant sphere of political agitation or activity.

All we know about him is his self-identification as a one-time member of the Labor Party and his current self-identification as a supporter of the World Socialist Web Site.

The WSWS sect is noted for two features: it condemns all existing labour movement organisations, including the trade unions, as agencies of the ruling class; and it asserts that the only possible political activity these days is building the Socialist Equality Party as the world party of socialist revolution.

It equally condemns the Labor Party, the Greens, the Socialist Alliance and all other socialists as agencies of the ruling class.

In all elections the SEP advocates an informal vote, except for voting for a few token SEP candidates, and in one election it carried this out by registering a ticket with the Electoral Commission, giving half its preferences to Labor and half to the Liberals. In that election, therefore, it’s fair to say that the SEP supported the Liberals. Some socialists!

The SEP has evolved into an almost classic Marxian sect, known for its systematic slander of everyone else on the left, and this strange bloke, Berrell, who for about a year on the Green Left discussion list appeared to try to present himself as two people, and who has no significant history of political activity that anyone else is aware of, feels free to slander anyone he chooses, in this case, me. What a strange man.

The class character of the North Korean state

December 29, 2004

The discussion on North Korea opens the big Pandora’s Box of Stalinism and whether it still exists. I start by noting that Chris Kerris adopts a generally rational and careful tone in his latest response to me, although the last paragraph about shit and pedophiles seems a trifle bizarre, but that’s an aesthetic question, not a major political one, and it seems it’s possible to have a serious argument with Kerris, with a bit of cut and thrust on both sides, without verbal abuse.

Chris Kerris still broadly defends the view that the North didn’t start the Korean War because there had been previous clashes on the border. However, he more or less caves in to my view when he says, in a rather involved way, “was it a tactical error to try to reunify the nation in such a way? I would say history would answer in the affirmative on that, although it’s a rather pointless discussion.”

The point is that the opening of parts of the Soviet archives confirms that North Korea consulted Moscow and was given the go-ahead to launch a conventional military invasion deep into South Korea. In any real military sense, the North started the Korean War.

To say that it would have broken out anyway because both sides were itching to get at each other is beside the point because it’s so speculative. It’s not speculative that launching a major invasion when the Soviet Union was boycotting the UN Security Council constituted an enormous misestimation of the relationship of military and political forces, and was bound to get the military response it did from US imperialism and its allies.

In the short term, the carnage and destruction of the war stemmed directly from the North Korean invasion.

Chris Kerris’s further extension of this argument — that the degeneration of the North Korean state was a direct result of the war — isn’t entirely true. Kim Il Sung had already eliminated many of his opponents in the Korean Workers Party before the war began. The war sped up the process of Stalinisation, but did not cause it.

These are not questions of whether the North Koreans or imperialism had the better case. They are questions of military and political strategy from the point of view of the Korean workers and peasants. The military invasion from the North substantially damaged the interests of the Korean masses.

In addition, who began the military conflict is a question of normative history, political judgment and analysis. It doesn’t educate anyone in the new generation to try to perpetuate a leftist conspiracy theory that the South started the war. Mystification of that sort doesn’t educate anyone in socialism.

The second issue that has emerged is the current class character of the North Korean state. What got me going on this question was the jarring note struck in my mind by Iggy Kim’s rather forced phrase about defending the so-called North Korean deformed workers state.

I hadn’t seen the old, but accurate and important Trotskyist formulation, deformed workers state, used in DSP-speak for many a long year. Columbo forensic detective that I am, I set out to try to understand what this reflected.

Maybe North Korea is the only deformed workers state left in the world. Possibly, in Iggy Kim’s view, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba are undeformed workers states, but I’ll leave that question aside for the moment.

This odd note led me to seriously consider my own view of the North Korean regime. For me, for it to be a deformed workers state it would need to have preserved some of the gains of the socialist revolution, and I couldn’t think of any significant gains that had been preserved in North Korea.

All observers agree that industry has collapsed, that the regime is a military tyranny and that it’s doubtful that the Korean Workers Party still exists in any meaningful sense. All observers who go there who aren’t Stalinists describe a collapsing economy, an extremely authoritarian social atmosphere, the omnipresence of the army and the mad, weird, all-pervasive cult of the leader.

That kind of social set-up, in my view, can’t reasonably be called a workers’ state, deformed or otherwise. The only analogy that I could think of was the collectivist empire of the Incas, run by the imperial family, a kind of “oriental despotism”, to use Kurt Wittfogel’s term.

North Korea certainly isn’t any sort of workers state, and there’s no evidence that it’s a capitalist state, either. A hereditary monarchy and a relapse into feudalism (of the Inca sort) seems to me the only description that makes any sense.

For some years Humphrey McQueen has been describing North Korea as a hereditary monarchy, although I haven’t heard him develop any view about the class character of this hereditary monarchy, so I’m not alone in at least one part of my view: that North Korea is an hereditary monarchy.

Finally, Chris Kerris chides me for introducing the question of Stalinism, and there’s a relative rush of others to support that view: the Stalinist on Indymedia who attacked me (whose attack has just been posted on the Green Left list by Nobby Tobby), Alan Bradley, the serial slanderer Michael Berrell, and now the rather pontifical Dave Riley.

At least Chris Kerris still appears to adhere to one aspect of the deformed workers state notion, when he asserts that there’s no evidence the DSP has relinquished the concept of political revolution against Stalinist regimes.

On the hand Bradley, to use his own phrase, takes off his DSP hat and says he’s not too keen on political revolution these days because it’s dangerous and may lead to capitalist restoration.

The eclectic and opinionated Berrell, the sweeping political pundit from nowhere much, comes out in full Stalinist plumage, asserting that he supported the Berlin Wall and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and repeats the slander that I’m like Hitchens because I supported the overthrow of the Stalinist regimes in eastern Europe. Well, I’m not Robinson Crusoe on that point. So, to their credit did the DSP and the ISO, and even Berrell’s SEP/WSWS.

Support for working-class revolts against Stalinism is a deep-rooted part of my view of the world. Revolutionary socialists supported the uprising of the East German workers against Stalinism in 1953, they supported the Hungarian uprising in 1956, and that was a decisive moment in my own political life because it shook me free of Stalinism.

Revolutionary socialists also supported the uprising of the Czechoslovak workers in 1968, and opposed the suppression of that uprising by the USSR’s tanks and troops. They supported the uprising of Solidarnosc in Poland in 1981, they supported the Chinese students against the tanks in Tien an Mien Square.

Supporting the uprisings of the oppressed masses in Stalinist countries against their bureaucratic oppressors is integral to the whole world outlook of revolutionary socialists, in my view.

The rather incoherent Riley takes matters even further. In his world view, not all the Communist parties were Stalinist in the 1930s and there are no Stalinists in Australia now. He says poor old Peter Symon’s party isn’t Stalinist. Like hell it’s not. From time to time the Peter Symon Communist Party of Australia still publishes paeans of praise for Stalin and defence of the Moscow Trials. It’s hard to imagine what Stalinism would be if defence of the Moscow Trials isn’t Stalinism.

This hullaballoo about Stalinism raises very serious questions facing revolutionary socialists. In any meaningful sense, the feudal monarchy in North Korea is also a thoroughly Stalinist political set-up, and the disappearance there of any significant vestige of socialism, and particularly of workers’ power, clearly brings that regime into conflict with the masses of North Korea.

It’s a bankrupt Stalinist regime, which in due course will go the same way as Albania and Rumania. The fact that it uses (increasingly infrequently) rhetoric about socialism is beside the point.

Was Pol Pot’s Kampuchea a deformed workers state? Was Mengistu’s Dergue regime in Ethiopia a deformed workers state? Were the 10 or so states in sub-Sarharan Africa, the elites of which proclaimed Marxism-Leninism and one-party states in the 1970s, also deformed workers states? Even more importantly, should socialists side with the corrupt dictatorships of those regimes against their own masses?

In my view, socialists should stand beside the masses in these places in the democratic demands that they tend to raise.

Two good current examples of this kind of problem are Zimbabwe and Hong Kong. This particular revolutionary socialist sides unequivocally with democratic opposition in Zimbabwe (including the ISO group there) against Mugabe. Similarly in Hong Kong, I support unreservedly the democratic opposition (including socialists such as the hairy bloke with the Che T-shirt who just won a parliamentary seat), in their struggle for democratic demands such as full extension of the franchise. I take this position even if the people who may be elected under an extended franchise are not socialists.

Obviously, working out the bounds of questions such as these is not easy, or simple, for revolutionary socialists in current conditions, but it’s necessary to support the self-activity of the masses in such current circumstance.

Finally, I emphatically oppose supporting a group such as Sendero Luminoso in Peru taking exclusive power, on the same grounds that Hugo Blanco does: they would exterminate all political opposition. I also oppose supporting exclusive power for Jose Maria Sison and the Communist Party of the Philippines, because there is strong evidence that they also would exterminate all their opponents.

I would describe Sendero Luminoso and Sison’s group as thoroughgoing Stalinists.

If Dave Riley is in any serious doubt as to whether Stalinism still exists, he should consult Sonny Melencio and Reihana Mohideen, who have just published on the web evidence that the Sison group had an apparent assassination list with Sonny’s name on it. In recent weeks the Sison group has assassinated several supporters of Sonny’s organisation.

If Riley has doubts about the continuing existence of Stalinism he needn’t look further than the Philippines, which aren’t all that far from Australia.

Discussion, Discussion