From Fourth International, Vol.11 No.5, September-October 1950, pp.132-137.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Regardless of its further course, the war in Korea has brought a rude awakening to the American ruling class. “It is a war unlike any we have faced before,” one war correspondent writes, “it is a political war as well as a military war.” But they are still rubbing their eyes. While they lecture the soldiers on the battlefields not to refer to the embattled Koreans, who had been pushing them farther and farther to the sea, as “gooks,” Warren Austin, their chief diplomat in the United Nations continues to speak of the North Korean leaders as “zombies,” “Soviet zombies.” Thereby the rulers of the US show they are still far from understanding what they are up against.
But they are not alone in this misunderstanding. There are so-called
“radicals” and “socialists,” some with Marxist pretensions, who fail to
recognize the essential character of the war despite the daily flashes
of lightning that illuminate it from all parts of Asia, from the China
of the “Communist” Mao Tse-tung to the India of the bourgeois democrat
Pandit Nehru. If this is a political war it would seem necessary to
determine what its politics are. Instead American public opinion is
being mesmerized by the concept that what is happening in Korea is
purely and simply an element in the warming up of the “cold war”
between the US and the USSR. They fail to grasp that it is much more an
element of the onrushing anti-imperialist revolution in Asia, whose
momentum cannot be arrested by any of the rulers or governments in
It is, of course, indisputable that the Soviet bureaucracy has from the first regarded Korea, as well as every other territory to which its Influence was extended by World War II, exclusively from the point of view of its own narrow national interests. Stalin’s agreement with Roosevelt at Yalta underwrote the latter’s Cairo pact with Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek to give Korea independence “in due course.” This was supplemented by the arrangement between them, upon the USSR’s entry into the war against Japan, to divide Korea at the 38th parallel “for the purpose of accepting Japanese surrender.” The strategic and economic exploitation of the area north of the 38th parallel—along with the wall of secrecy typical of Kremlin policy in its buffer zones—followed as a matter of course.
But the very nature of the Soviet bureaucracy and its historical
roots imposed a different line of conduct upon the occupying power in
North Korea from that pursued by the US occupation authorities in the
South. For, what both powers encountered in Korea, as in all of Asia,
was the stirring colonial, agrarian revolution.
The difference in approach between the Soviet bureaucracy and the US imperialists was indicated in the tone of their first pronouncements to the Korean people. The Command of the Soviet Army declared at the outset:
“Citizens of Korea! Your country is now free. But this is only the first page in the history of Korea ... The Soviet Army has created all conditions to enable the Korean people to embark upon free, creative work. You, yourselves must become the creators of your own happiness, etc.”
While Stalin’s generals did not fail to take the usual credit for “liberation,” they were obviously constrained to recognize and adapt themselves to the temper of the population. MacArthur, on the other hand, issued the following order:
“The entire administrative power of the territory of Korea south of parallel 38 is under my jurisdiction. The population should unreservedly obey the orders issued over my signature. Those acting against the occupation or violating order and tranquility will be mercilessly and severely punished. For the period of military occupation, English is introduced as the official language.”
To a people rising from forty years of Japanese
domination, under which large-scale revolts flared up regularly every
other year, the calling cards of the two new occupants were bound to be
impressive. If the Stalinists thereafter made full use of this
contrast, that was only to be expected.
Even before the entry of American or Russian troops,
however, local revolutionary committees divested the Japanese
authorities of power throughout the country. The lease to private
entrepreneurs of industrial plants taken over from the Japanese
resulted by 1949-50 in a standard of living below the average of that
under the Japanese occupation; in 800,000 unemployed; in black market
profiteering which undermined the whole economy. The anti-labor laws
deprived the workers of any means of economic betterment by collective
bargaining. The electoral laws virtually placed a political monopoly in
the hands of the landlords and capitalists. The suppression of civil
rights led to continued revolts which encompassed virtually all
political tendencies outside the narrow Syngman Rhee clique.
Compounded with all these sources of resentment was that of the division of the country itself, felt equally strongly by the mass of the people in the South as well as in the North. The natural economies of the two regions dovetailed with each other, in agriculture as well as industry. The South was a great rice bowl, the North a source of wheat, fish and fertilizer; the South, a consumer goods producer and the North a center of heavy industry. The artificial division of the country at the 38th parallel was choking the life-blood out of the nation. Unification of Korea became a crying necessity, giving a still greater impulse to the social ferment and placing the national revolution on the agenda.
The Stalinist bureaucracy, while sharing equal responsibility with American imperialism for the division of the country, nevertheless adapted itself in this respect also to the revolutionary developments, again for its own purposes to be sure. We have already noted how at the very first, the Soviet Army Command sanctioned the activities of the People’s Republic set up at Seoul and later dissolved by the US authorities. In the subsequent course of events, while Washington sought to manipulate the United Nations machinery for its maneuvers with the unification problem, Moscow relied on a continued campaign of negotiations for unity conducted by the North Korean regime. In this campaign practically all political groupings in the South exclusive of Rhee and his henchmen came to participate.
Distrust of the US and the UN Commission grew constantly in the
South, as the results became evident to the broad masses: stolen
elections, a balloting system discriminating openly in favor of the
propertied classes, police suppression of civil rights and
organizations, the outright jailing as well as assassination of
anti-Rhee leaders of all opinions. Every attempt of native political
groups to work out unity with the North “drew the fire of the American
command” and the narrow ruling group cooperating with it. Involved in
one such attempt, at a nation-wide conference in 1947—which called
for withdrawal of both US and Soviet forces among other conditions for
establishing a unified government—besides the Northerners, were Kim
Kiusic, chairman of the Interim Legislative Assembly set up by the US
authorities; Choi-Tongo, its rightist vice-chairman; Kim Koo, who had
replaced Syngman Rhee as president of the “Korean Provisional
Government” during World War II; Hong Myungki, head of the liberal
Democratic Independence Party; and Lyuh Woonhyung, chief of the Social
Even after the election of the carefully gerrymandered National Assembly of the “Republic of Korea” in 1948, 18 members introduced a motion for a “North and South Special Unification Committee” to explore the possibilities with the Soviet-sponsored regime. It was defeated.
By contrast, the North Koreans continued to press the subject even as late as the Spring of 1950, offering to unite their legislature elected in 1948 with the National Assembly elected in the South that same year. As became well known at the time—although the fact has since been carefully suppressed in the American press—a delegation from the North, which came to meet the UN commission on this very subject at the frontier last May, a month before the opening of hostilities, was arrested under gunfire from Rhee’s troops and abducted into his jails.
Mass terror was the response of the US occupation and the Rhee regime to the agitation for national unity. Three “major round-ups” took place, McCune recounts. A wave of demonstrations and strikes in October 1946 supported the unification program of a “Coalition Committee” headed by Kim Kiusic, the former associate of Rhee, and Lyuh Woonhyung, president of the short-lived People’s Republic. In the city of Taegu alone, police trained under the Japanese slaughtered 50 civilians, themselves suffering an equal number of casualties. 1,500 persons were arrested and tried, 150 convicted. All “left wing” publications were suppressed. In March 1947, 2,718 persons were arrested in a second round-up. In August 1947, right wing. “Youth Corps,” in collusion with the police, ran a reign of terror of their own. Among the many victims of assassinations was Lyuh Woonhyung, who had been considered a compromise candidate for president against Rhee.
Roger Baldwin, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, upon
returning from a Korean visit in the summer of 1947, summed up his
observations: “By nurturing the police state, we drive moderates into
the Communist camp.” After the withdrawal of the troops by the USSR in
1948 and by the US in 1949, the tendencies displayed in both parts of
Korea under the occupation became more pronounced. The pressures for a
showdown on the national as well as on the economic, on the colonial as
well as the social planes were greatly increased. Whatever the
resultant strategic plans of the big power sponsors of the two regimes,
it is obvious that a brewing revolution was dividing native society,
developing a drive of its own. The social classes and their leaders
were undoubtedly relying upon support of one or the other big power.
But they were girding for a battle all their own, on vital issues
growing out of their own past, which could not have been cooked up in
the diplomatic corps or the general staffs, in either Moscow or
Washington. “An internal South Korean rebellion against the Rhee
government would have occurred if the forces of North Korea had not
invaded,” runs the testimony of an Economic Cooperation Administration
official of the US government and former CIO official, Stanley Earl,
who returned from Korea at the end of last July.
Not to understand the background of revolutionary torment that preceded the outbreak of the Korean war inevitably entails a misunderstanding of the character of the war itself. For in this background alone lies the key to the military operations of an erstwhile oppressed colonial people which have given serious battle to the armed might of the great US. Some publicists have begun to recognize it vaguely as a “people’s war,” that is, a political war which, to be more precise, has to be characterized as a revolutionary war.
To speak of the regime conducting this “people’s war” as no more than a puppet regime of the USSR and of its leaders as “Soviet zombies” —like the picture of the war itself as a simple episode of the world-wide struggle of the Big Two—is the height of superficiality.
An interesting sidelight serves to illuminate this question. At the beginning of the war, the entire body of official public opinion in this country ascribed the rapid military successes of the North Koreans to the fact that they were assuredly Russian-led “from the top command all the way down to regimental units,” as one report put it. After more than two months of incessant and widespread warfare, with casualties on both sides as well as prisoners numbering in the thousands, Washington and Tokyo haven’t been able to offer a single example of any Russian soldier in the Korean fighting.
But it has become known that the top commanders themselves are
actually Koreans. “Half a dozen such, in positions from division to
corps commanders, have now been identified,” says a dispatch to the NY
Times from MacArthur’s HQ in Tokyo, indicating “that at least
thus far the leaders of international communism have left the Korean
war in the hands of homegrown though foreign-educated Red Koreans.” The
“foreign education” they have received, it appears, is in the Chinese
civil war. Three of those named, Kim Ir Sen himself, Kim Mu Chong and
Choi Young Kun were leaders of major battles in that war, with Kim Mu
Chong identified as one-time commander of the famous 8th Route Army.
All three, it also appears, are graduates of the equally famous Whampoo
Military Academy, which was established in China in the early 1920s
with Soviet aid and whose founder was none other than Chiang Kai-shek.
Like the Chinese civil war which finally overthrew Chiang Kai-shek, the Korean war is anchored in a revolution which, challenging foreign imperialism, tends to overturn all of society in the process. The events in China proved that the revolutionary ferment produced by World War II had risen to such proportions that the ruling class, no matter how superior its material resources and how great the aid obtained from abroad, could not withstand the assault of the dispossessed. (Chiang is estimated to have received no less than $3 billion from the USA in the postwar period, while the 8th Route Army is said to have operated on its territory on an overall state budget of $15 million annually.) The events in Korea offer the even more startling spectacle of a relatively new revolutionary army in the Orient not only resisting successfully but of scoring victories over the better equipped forces of the most modern imperialist army.
Both phenomena have been recognized as examples of the “people’s war.” This is a new type of war ;that our soldiers do not understand, the correspondents warn from the front. The “enemy” is all around them. He “swarms fanatically” over them without regard for life and safely. He infiltrates around their flanks dressed as refugees. He rises in their rear as guerilla detachments. Where does this fanaticism come from? What accounts for all this?
In Korea, as in China, the war proceeds with a constant division of the landed estates. The army recruits as it marches forward, the peasants are only too anxious to defend their newly acquired land, the population its newly acquired rights. That’s what makes for the undiminishing mass of soldiers and their “fanaticism.” What makes the “people’s war” so superior tactically, as Jack Belden has pointed out in China Shakes the World, is that its soldiers know exactly what they are fighting for, they have it tangibly before their eyes. On the other hand, the soldiers opposing them have only the vaguest notions as to the whys and wherefores of the struggle. At best, as one of them explained to a front reporter in Korea, “I am fighting to remain alive.”
The example of China, and now of Korea, cannot help but have its effect on the rest of Asia. “The promptness with which the North Koreans instituted drastic land reforms in the conquered areas of South Korea is an impressive fact for many Asians,” writes Harold R. Isaacs in The Nation. And this, the writer explains, undermines the ability of politicians like Nehru, much as they desire, to carry their countries into an alliance with the US. “If the American fight against Communist aggression can be successfully twisted into a fight against needed revolutionary change, the outcome is a foregone conclusion regardless of episodic military decisions.”
To combat the “people’s war,” the US must yield to the “needed
revolutionary change” which is its driving force, this ex-Marxist
proposes along with all the other liberals. The tiger must change his
The Korean war is, as we have seen, the result of the unfolding Asian revolution. No amount of UN mummery about North Korean aggression—and it is hardly clear just what the real occasion for the opening of hostilities was—can obscure that fact. At the same time the strategic benefits of a North Korean victory for the USSR are undeniable. just as the converse holds true for the US. But which is decisive: the strategic advantage gained by the Soviet bureaucracy or the revolutionary advantage achieved by the Korean people in arms?
This same question has a direct bearing on the relation of the Kremlin to the broader problem of the Asian revolution. In undermining US imperialism, the Asian revolution at present works in favor of the Moscow bureaucracy in the conflict between the two big powers. Jacob Malik, the Soviet delegate to the Security Council, speaks not to the Council but to the people of Asia, the newspapers complain.
And he wins this “propaganda” battle hands down. Of course. But all
this indicates that the Soviet bureaucracy, contrary to the “Big Brain”
in Washington, is aware that a revolution is taking place and is trying
to exploit it for its own advantage. Does that mean that the Kremlin is
promoting the revolution, as capitalist propaganda claims? Does that
mean that the bureaucracy has complete control of it as certain
“radicals” and “socialists” think?
The whole record of Stalinism in Asia since 1925 presents a veritable avalanche of proof that far from instigating or promoting the revolution—in China especially—the Kremlin has done everything possible to throttle it. Up until most recently, including the postwar period, Stalin has not only not sought control over the ferment in Asia, but has done what he could to lodge power in all kinds of coalitions, in which the colonial ruling class would predominate. China, Indo-China, and Korea itself are outstanding examples of this.
In China, Stalinist policy began in 1925-27 with the
subordination of the Chinese Communist Party to Chiang Kai-shek within
the Kuomintang. After Chiang’s march to the North and the massacre of
the Shanghai workers, whose strikes started the wave of revolution at
that time. Stalinism pursued a similar policy with Wang Chin-wei and
the Left Kuomintang. When this bloc yielded similar disastrous results,
a brief ultra-left period marked by the putsch of the Canton “Commune”
intervened, but for the whole following period the two-class party
(“workers and peasants’ party”) and the “bloc of the four classes”
(bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, peasants and workers) became the essence
of the Stalinist line all over Asia. The whole course of the Chinese CP
and the army and territories under its control was based originally on
The war with Japan and the requirements of guerilla warfare that ensued from it. pushed the Chinese CP ever forward as the rallying center for the agrarian revolution and widened the cleft between it and the ruling class all across the vast nation. The Chinese CP was riding the twin horses of the agrarian revolution, that threatened to leave it behind, and of the policy of coalition with the ever more discredited Kuomintang. Moscow itself pursued, a line of loyal collaboration with Chiang as a war partner, and even as late as 1949 concluded an agreement with him relating to Manchuria and Sinkiang province. This was universally regarded as a slap in the face of the Mao Tse-tung leadership of the CP for Mao was then getting ready for the showdown with Chiang, who had rejected all compromise proposals. Clearly, “the Kremlin seems to have been very skeptical of the post-war possibilities of Mao,” as Belden says.
While Mao had been forced by the Kremlin to seek a practical
solution in negotiations with Chiang at Chungking, the famous “Border
Region” of the Hopei-Shantung-Shansi-onan provinces
was so completely engaged in the revolutionary.process that its leaders
and troops “would not have surrendered the sovereignty ... to the
Kuomintang even at the direction of Mao,” Belden reports. It was the
irresistible spread of this agrarian revolution that made any kind of
compromise with Chiang impossible. The revolution undermined Chiang’s
regime within the very social strata that supported it. By the same
token, the revolution pushed Mao and the CP to the fore as the rallying
center of the new nation being created. For the Kremlin it was a matter
of expediency to shift to support of the revolution, not at all a
matter of policy or aims.
In Indo-China, the collapse of Japan in 1945 swept the CP-organized Viet Minh movement under Ho Chi Minh into control of virtually the entire country. No other authority capable of governing existed. Even the former Emperor Bao Dai pledged loyalty to Ho’s regime. The French imperialists were forced to deal with it. But the pressure of the Kremlin and of its agents in the French CP forced Ho Chi Minh and his government to agree to the incorporation of’ the country, renamed Viet Nam, within the “French Union,” as the French Empire was then rebaptized.
The French imperialists thereafter only had to wait long enough to land their own troops in force at the port of Haiphong in order to abrogate all agreements with Ho, set up a succession of puppet regimes (the latest one headed by Bao Dai), and to open up full-scale war against the Viet Minh. Without a murmur of audible dissent from Moscow, the French Stalinists continued to vote credits to finance this war organized by the various coalition governments in which they participated until they were thrown out of office in May 1947.
Only when, despite this stab in the back, the Viet Minh army
continued effectively to challenge the French for control of Viet Nam,
did the line of Stalinism change. Stalin recognized the Ho government
not in 1945, when it had unchallenged control, but in 1950 when Ho Chi
Minh was fighting desperately to regain it. And even then, recognition
by Mao had to be granted first. Moscow was merely bowing to necessity.
In Korea also, the Kremlin was prepared, despite its early adaptation to revolutionary events, to provide a means lor curbing them. At the Foreign Minister’s Conference in Moscow, in December 1945, it proposed setting up a coalition government under a four-power trusteeship, US-USSR-Britain-China (Chiang). A Joint Commission of American and Russian occupation forces was formed to work out details. Pressure on the North Koreans swung them into line behind the Moscow proposal, which was of course accepted by the other powers.
The Korean rightist under Syngman Rhee took the initiative to disrupt the trusteeship plan by a campaign of agitation, including both mass demonstrations as well as assassinations of supporters of the plan. Like the Kuomintang in China, the Korean party of the landlords and capitalists could not countenance the possibility of any government that was not strictly under their control in the existing revolutionary situation. McCune explains that the Americans were “caught in a dilemma: If the rightists were repudiated ... the American delegation (in the Joint Commission) would have eliminated the largest group of anti-Communists in South Korea. On the other hand, if the Americans supported the Korean reactionaries, it was almost inevitable that the Joint Commission would collapse.” The dilemma was naturally resolved in the latter way.
As in the other instances, the initiative in breaking up all possibilities of a bourgeois coalition with Stalinist participation and imperialist control came—not from the Kremlin, but from the old ruling classes. Revolutionary struggle was the only recourse left to the native Stalinists. The Moscow bureaucracy had to adjust itself to the events.
In all three cases cited, Stalin was interested in crushing a
revolution, not in fostering it; in obtaining a lever within an
imperialist-backed bourgeois government for the strategic protection of
his nationalistic foreign policy—not in establishing control through
a revolutionary government, as part of an internationalist policy.
Events got out of hand. To maintain its objectives, the Kremlin had to
adjust its policies to an unwanted revolutionary upsurge.
The line of the Kremlin in Asia, as in Europe, can only be understood by grasping its essentially conservative character. Revolution in general, and proletarian revolution in particular, is anathema to the Soviet bureaucracy. In Europe, where proletarian revolution threatened, it took a directly counter-revolutionary position at the outset of the postwar period. For a proletarian revolution, with its inevitable surge of politically experienced worker masses, could not long be restrained from taking the road toward workers’ democracy, an immediate and deadly menace to Stalin’s regime. In Asia, the revolutionary awakening of the backward peasantry was bound to be a slower process, within which the bureaucracy saw an opportunity for maneuver.
But in both cases, the Kremlin preferred a deal with imperialism which would leave the status quo more or less unaltered, and with it all the advantages in the Yalta and Teheran agreements. Hence, its original friendly policy to General de Gaulle as well as to Generalissimo Chiang. It was only when Wall Street felt that capitalism had successfully survived the Second World War and had ruled out any further deals with Moscow, that the Stalinist bureaucracy reversed engines in both Europe and Asia—its whole strategy in the so-called buffer zone in Eastern Europe having been determined by its conservatism and by defensive considerations. The mounting revolution in Asia merely presented itself as another shield for the Kremlin in the tug-of-war with Washington.
But the aims of the bureaucracy and the power of the colonial
revolution can be confounded only at the risk of losing one’s bearings.
This confusion is one of the causes of the growing crisis of the
American ruling class. The more experienced, but much weaker British
bourgeoisie understands the distinction better. British Tories speak of
the need “of establishing the West rather than Moscow as the friend of
the great Asian revolution of our time;” they support British
recognition of the Mao regime wholeheartedly and look with dread upon
American policy toward Formosa, for instance, which “if persisted it
means tragedy for her no less than for us.” (From an editorial in the London
For Marxists, such confusion can be fatal. The Asian revolutionary wave, more specifically the stormy Chinese revolution which is at present its powerhouse, has taken shape differently than we had foreseen, to be sure. The national revolution has overturned the old colonial society without direct proletarian hegemony; the peasants have risen, the workers in the cities are still quiescent. The peculiarities of the law of uneven development, into which the treacherous role of Stalinism has entered as an objective factor, brought about a new departure from the anticipated course of development.
Before the working class could recover sufficiently from the defeats of 1925-27 to take the same powerful lead in the third Chinese revolution, the ruling class and its imperialist backers were so debilitated by World War II and its convulsions that the old order simply crumbled. The agrarian masses in upsurge moved into the vacuum thus created under the leadership of a Communist party long cut off from the proletarian masses of the cities. But this CP led by Mao Tse-tung, while not a revolutionary proletarian party, was not a peasant party in the traditional sense either. Although it believed that the agrarian revolution should confine itself to democratic tasks and to the capitalist construction of Chinese industry, it did not have the links to the capitalist class that traditional peasant parties have. Its revolutionary antecedents of the 1920s and its international roots, placed it in a position, under the circumstances described, of heading an agrarian revolution in isolation from the two main contending classes in present day society.
But the momentum of the agrarian revolution makes such isolation untenable for any length of time. The revolution must become permanent or retreat. Solid capitalist support—and that can come only from the imperialist USA today—could throw back the agrarian revolution and subordinate the peasant masses to a revived capitalist class. The only other alternative is its forward development into a socialist revolution. For that, the worker masses of the cities have to move into political action. In other words, the third Chinese revolution has to be transformed into a proletarian revolution. Trotsky, polemizing against the Stalinists as far back as 1928, formulated the problem in terms that remain valid today:
“Then China has matured for the dictatorship of the proletariat? Only the experience of the struggle can provide a categorical answer to this question. By the same token, only the struggle can settle the question as to when and under what conditions the real unification, emancipation and regeneration of China will take place. Anyone who says China has not matured for the dictatorship of the proletariat declares thereby that the third Chinese revolution is postponed for many years to come.” (Third International After Lenin)
The very rise of the third Chinese revolution poses the question of its proletarian character and in this broader, more fundamental sense, confirms again Trotsky’s analysis.
As the revolutionary struggle sharpens in Asia, the old opportunist formulas of Stalinism—the “bloc of the four classes,” the “two class party”—are being swept away by titanic social forces. Mao launches a campaign of recruitment of industrial workers to “enhance the proletarian character” of the Chinese CP. Kim Ir Sen says:
“The people’s committees represent organs composed of representatives of various sections of the Korean people and are founded on a solid alliance of the workers and peasants under the leadership of the working class.”
We do not need to take these words at their face value to deduce from them an actual trend: The force of the Asian revolution itself compels the native leaders to cast off their Stalinist miseducation and in contrast to Stalin’s policy for decades, to seek out, however hesitantly and confusedly, the great strategic concepts of the October Revolution.
The task of Marxists under these circumstances is clear. To place themselves firmly on the side of the permanent revolution; to distinguish between its dynamic forces and those of the Kremlin trying to exploit it; to support the struggles of the colonial peoples against imperialism in their present complicated form. The successful prosecution of these revolutionary struggles, we are profoundly convinced, will bring the insurgent Asian peoples into conflict with the conservative and counter-revolutionary Soviet bureaucracy and, as Yugoslavia has shown, will open up the path for the regeneration of the revolutionary Marxist movement throughout the world.
Last updated: 16.12.2005