We must use Marxism, which is positive in spirit, to overcome liberalism, which is negative.
– Mao Zedong
In my previous work on the DPRK I introduced an hypothesis of their unity as a protection from imperialist siege. This is unity as negatively determined by outside forces. Recently I watched the a video of a Michael Parenti lecture, which I saw pinned to Volmer Mulshoun‘s twitter page, and this prompted me to want to develop an hypothesis of a positive development of unity for socialist countries, as this was almost completely absent from my previous piece (though this was done partially on purpose to make a political point). To explore this, I’m going to rely more on quotes to show the thoughts that were going on historically in the struggle for socialism.
Here is the Parenti video if you’d like to view it before continuing. I highly recommend watching it, even if you’ve seen it before maybe a while back, to put you in the right state of mind to read the following. I can’t tell you how many times I rewatched it while writing what follows – I lost count.
What could possibly require more unification from a Marxist party than a revolution? This is where discipline becomes an absolute necessity and unity becomes essential to all tasks.
Let’s take a small sample from the revolutionary writing from Lenin and Mao, leaders in theory for the two most spectacularly successful revolutions. Lenin and Mao also seem to have dialectics cooked into their marrow, which I think was important for these formulations. This isn’t meant to be representative of Marxist rhetoric in general, but of what particular revolutionary circumstances call for.
In his work “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, Lenin writes,
I repeat: the experience of the victorious dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia has clearly shown even to those who are incapable of thinking or have had no occasion to give thought to the matter that absolute centralisation and rigorous discipline of the proletariat are an essential condition of victory over the bourgeoisie.
In Combat Liberalism, Mao writes the following.
A Communist should have largeness of mind and he should be staunch and active, looking upon the interests of the revolution as his very life and subordinating his personal interests to those of the revolution; always and everywhere he should adhere to principle and wage a tireless struggle against all incorrect ideas and actions, so as to consolidate the collective life of the Party and strengthen the ties between the Party and the masses; he should be more concerned about the Party and the masses than about any private person, and more concerned about others than about himself. Only thus can he be considered a Communist.
While these sorts of calls have been echoed by others, none I’ve read have put them forth as forcefully as Lenin and Mao (and I looked for a while because I wanted a third quote). It could be coincidence that these are, aside from Marx and Engels, the two most idolized Marxists, but it’s worth considering that their strict calls for unity that created the conditions for building socialism also created the conditions for this idolization. And when other revolutionary leaders called for unity in the Russian and Chinese revolutions, they often invoked exactly these two leaders. This speaks of a necessity arising from material conditions in struggle.
In propaganda work we see a similar trend: there is a clear pride in these leaders that heartened all the brave people that sided with them. To go along with this, Giap notes how important propaganda work is to revolution,
Therefore, to make good preparations for armed insurrection, the most essential and important task was to make propaganda among the masses and organise them, to “develop and consolidate the organisations for national salvation.” Only on the basis of strong political organisations could semi-armed organisations be set up firmly, guerrilla groups and guerrilla units organised which have close connection with the revolutionary masses, eventually to further their activities and development.
Unity has indeed shown itself to be essential to successful revolution, and we can see the seeds for a positive building of Marxist ideology from this necessity. But from where can this ideology draw from? It had to be created anew, but also out of national, proletarian, and peasant culture with an interaction between the party apparatus and the population.
Diane di Prima brilliantly and beautifully expresses an ideal of rejecting bourgeois ideology and creating new ideology in her REVOLUTIONARY LETTER #31,
not all the works of Mozart worth one human life
not all the brocaded of the Potala palace
better we should wear homespun, than some in orlon
some in Thailand silk
the children of Bengal weave gold thread in silk saris
six years old, eight years old, for export, they don’t sing
the singers are for export, Folkways records
better we should all have homemade flutes
and practice excruciatingly upon them, one hundred years
till we learn to
make our own music
But of course that is only an ideal.
Serving the People
Socialism is about creating an equitable society based in solidarity and laboring for the good of everyone to build towards communism. This requires from a communist party a devotion to serving the people, which has been central to every revolution. This devotion being an expressed goal and propagandized as such would indeed, I believe, maintain the unity established during the revolution, at least for a time.
If we look at the life expectancy of people in the USSR and China before and after the revolution, we see nearly a doubling, and the USSR eventually had a life expectancy exceeding that of the United States. The statistic of this is shocking enough, but think of the subjective effect such a thing would have on a people. And think of all that this had to have come with.
As Parenti expresses in the video, a primary aspect of serving the people is education. Regarding the effect of education, Luria’s 1930s research in Uzbekistan after the revolution is informative. He studied the effect of education on the local people by dividing them up into levels of education and studying their abstract organizational abilities. Education very quickly improved this capacity, with a significant effect being found after only some months in education programs. Luria notes,
Although our non-literate peasant groups could use logical relations objectively if they could rely on their own experience, we can conclude that they had not acquired the syllogism as a device for making logical inferences.
As in all of our other research, the picture changed sharply when we turned our attention to the educated subjects, who responded to these logical syllogisms much as we would. They immediately drew the correct, and to us obvious, conclusion from each of the syllogisms presented, regardless of the factual correctness of the premises or their application to a subject’s immediate experience.
[…] Moreover, we were able to establish that basic changes in the organization of thinking can occur in a relatively short time when there are sufficiently sharp changes in social-historical circumstances, such as those that occurred following the 1917 Revolution.
So, to be sure, we are not simply talking about reading or not reading, but even more fundamentally an ability to simply think in a way that we find second nature. Imagine not being able to form abstract logical syllogisms for decades of your life and then now having that ability. That’s like a new light being shined on the world – wouldn’t this lead to an admiration of the leadership? Would the party not appear to you as a savior? Would it not in actuality be a savior of a kind? Thinking back to the Parenti video, remember the Cuban who responded to the question, “Do you like Fidel?” with “Yes, yes, with all our souls.” Think of having lived in a peasant society that had been kept in ignorance for decades or centuries and now having communists from a revolution that you may only be distantly aware of coming to educate you, feed your children, and provide social services. Not doing this for profit, but for social development in solidarity with the rest of the country.
Turning to constructing socialism on the ideological front, let’s look at the DPRK, which found itself in a peculiar situation as being a newly socialist country navigating its way through the political mess that the socialist bloc would become. This resulted in a struggle with building a positive ideology of its own. Kim Il Sung, in his speech to party propagandists on establishing Juche against dogmatism, says,
Why does our ideological work suffer from dogmatism and formalism? And why do our propagandists and agitators fail to go deeply into matters, only embellishing the façade, and why do they merely copy and memorize foreign things, instead of working creatively? This offers us food for serious reflection.
What is Juche in our Party’s ideological work? What are we doing? We are not engaged in any other country’s revolution, but precisely in the Korean revolution. This, the Korean revolution, constitutes Juche in the ideological work of our Party. Therefore, all ideological work must be subordinated to the interests of the Korean revolution. When we study the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the history of the Chinese revolution, or the universal truth of Marxism-Leninism, it is all for the purpose of correctly carrying out our own revolution.
Further, the work of propaganda and agitation should be stepped up among the broad masses. Education of the masses of the people in socialist ideology should be the main content of the work of propaganda and agitation. What is most important in this connection is to give the workers and peasants, especially the workers, a clear understanding that they are masters of power. When they have such intense consciousness, the workers will do everything as masters—take good care of their places of work, machines and equipment, work hard, maintain good discipline, and effectively combat counter-revolutionaries.
Something seems very true and genuine about this. However, with what we know of the current ideological makeup of the DPRK, I think that this may cause some dissonance. Even more, looking at the predominance of works on ideology from Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il that’s found on the Korean Friendship’s Association website we see a clear trend. To get past any simple dissonance and establish an understanding we’ll have to approach this again from the negative side.
Imperialist siege brings extraordinary pressures onto socialist nations, and all have dealt with it differently. Unity can be maintained or destroyed, but always with important ideological changes resulting from it.
Looking back on the writings that occurred around the time of Khruschev’s “revelations” is extremely disheartening, because you can see the unity from the October revolution being shed across the world as if in layers. Interestingly, the Communist Party of China in its official organs had this to say on the issue,
Modern revisionism is the product of the policies of imperialism and of international monopoly capital which are both headed by the United States. Terrified by the policy of nuclear blackmail and corrupted by the policy of buying over, the modern revisionists are serving as the pawns of U.S. imperialism and its servile followers in opposing revolution.
The revisionist Khrushchov is also scared out of his wits by the hysterical war cries of the U.S. imperialists, and he thinks that this “Noah’s ark”, the earth, is threatened with destruction at any moment and he has completely lost confidence in the future of mankind. Proceeding from national egoism, he fears that revolutions by the oppressed classes and nations might create trouble for him and implicate him.
I find that in talk of the problem of Khruschev this aspect gets a bit lost. The USSR was under constant imperialist pressure and, indeed, the CPC spoke of being itself subject to attempts at nuclear blackmail. It’s been written that the end of the Korean war was brought about by exactly this. We also know that Nixon and Kissinger would strategically present the US as almost psychotic when using nuclear arms for leverage.
Further, looking into propaganda operations, the first world committed extensive resources to ideologically infiltrating socialist countries with broadcasts from outlets like Radio Free Europe and various other propaganda efforts. Just recently we saw a flare up of tensions on the Korean peninsula over propaganda broadcasts that went so far as to result in threatening usage of artillery. These pressures take their toll, and these propaganda operations would play significant roles in the various uprisings that would happen in Eastern Europe that would end socialism there.
In 1990 we can see how the DPRK was reacting to these degenerations. In a speech to the central committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, Kim Jong Il says,
Recently the imperialists are getting more and more frantic in their attempt to frustrate socialism. In step with their unprecedented intensification of anti-socialist machinations, various trends of thought, which distort and deny the ideal of socialism, are appearing. These anti-socialist trends have worn out the socialist system in some countries and made their societies capitalistic, giving rise to grave consequences in these countries. Such developments have been witnessed mainly in the countries which failed to maintain the revolutionary principles of the working class and which failed to formulate lines and policies creatively in conformity with changing situations, even though some have asserted that they were guided by Marxism-Leninism.
Building our style of socialism more successfully is a lofty historic mission entrusted to us not only for the prosperity of our motherland and the happiness of our people but also for the ultimate victory of the cause of independent humanity, the socialist cause. Bearing this in mind, we must fully equip ourselves with the Juche idea, the ideological foundation of socialism of our own style, and apply it in a thoroughgoing fashion to accelerate the revolution and construction more dynamically.
And again something rings true here, though perhaps some dissonance remains. Aside from the mountain of propaganda to get over there is, afterall, still the question of Juche. I’ve tried to approach Juche honestly and in good faith – I don’t think it can be taken seriously as an extension of Marxism-Leninism due to its reliance on idealism in opposition to materialism. While it is also presented as an ideology, I believe that the ideology of Marxists should remain strictly materialist in its basic conception. The slogan that man is the “master of everything and decides everything” presents clear issues in regard to science and ecology. Having said the above, I haven’t done a serious enough study of Juche to present a full judgment on the topic, and my current opinion is subject to change in whichever direction.
However, when talking about unity in the DPRK, it’s very easy to go too far. In his book Pyongyang Lessons: North Korea from Inside the Classroom, Stewart Lone (an open-minded Australian professor who taught in the DPRK) repeatedly emphasizes the quality of the textbooks that are used for teaching and the open-mindedness of the teachers in their approach to their classes. He notes that there is really not that much mention of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il in the education system, and classes are taught on all the typical subjects. In the preface he specifically says, “I present this account without any intended bias; not once, in all the hundreds of hours of my teaching and conversation with colleagues and students, did anyone in Pyongyang ever attempt to limit or regulate what I said or heard.” This stands in absolute conflict with what the vast majority of the West would believe, but he lived it and there’s no reason to doubt his honesty. He speaks of the Western culture to be found there, noting knowledge of the Simpsons, Western sports, and even broadcasts of Tom & Jerry on their public television, among other things. He speaks of students having computers with pirated movies on them with no repercussions whatsoever. Here is the passage in question:
In one of our informal conversation classes, some of the boys told me that they could see even the latest releases on their computers. Apparently some citizens were following the practice in China and copying movies from their theatre seat […] then posting them on the North Korean intranet. When I asked other groups of boys, however, the general response was that they refused to open such files because they were illegal. Indeed, when I mentioned the practice to Teacher Kim, he was clearly taken aback and exclaimed, ‘But that’s piracy!’ Perhaps it is. However, the government’s aim is to use cinema to entertain, educate, or distract its people. The copyists could argue that, in making the films more widely and easily available, and in making no profit for themselves, they are actually assisting in this endeavour; a kind of socialist piracy. I did not hear of any ‘pirate’ being caught so either they are very clever or the authorities are not unduly concerned about them.
There are many, many more examples of such things that fly directly in the face of the propaganda narrative we are fed. So, indeed, things really are not as we are led to believe.
Imperialism tears at the social fabric of the world with its lies. Imperialist siege, with all its blood-soaked intrigues and cynical crimes against humanity, cannot help but leave the societies it touches scarred.
How Should Marxists Approach Unity?
This is difficult to answer concretely because most Marxists in the West aren’t really in the position to have an answer. Looking at Marxist struggles globally one sees fractures of all kinds. Most of what Marxists these days know about unity is found in its lack. The various schisms that have occurred on the left over the years have resulted in a general lack of effectiveness and an inability to rally around important issues. But to counter this, unity cannot be conjured or pulled out of the ether with the right political program. Material conditions are needed. In his book The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, Minqi Li explores walls that capitalism simply has to run up against. Ecological collapse (global warming, ocean acidification, etc.), the extraordinary debt built up by the West, and the constant imperialist wars and schemes. There is a massive contradiction between the debt that is required to accumulate capital and resources in the West and the fact that such debt cannot be sustainable. The contradiction between capitalism and the environment becomes more apparent by the day. Rosa Luxemburg’s famous slogan of socialism or barbarism seems again prophetic in these times. So material conditions seem to be on the horizon, but they will have to establish themselves before unity can be concretely built so that a real struggle can be waged against the bourgeois forces at home. Though the results of these contradictions are impossible to predict, preparations are vital, and the question of unity should be raised throughout these processes.
Unity is of profound service for revolution and building socialism against opposing forces, and when we find ourselves in material conditions for energizing a fight for socialism and communism, we should be prepared to build unity and assess the value of that unity as an overall strategy. We should stay true to the scientific aspects of Marxism-Leninism and maintain honesty with those we are interpellating towards the cause or, hopefully, leading by establishing ourselves as a vanguard of the proletariat. In addition to apperception of unity, the strategic implementation of it should be done with an eye towards possible negative effects, already acting as if those effects would come so as to cut off deviations from Marxism-Leninism before they become problematic. Obviously this becomes extremely difficult in real politics – the communists who have fought so bravely for socialism and communism were (and are) keenly aware of these issues. However, without the need or conditions for true unity in most of the West, the question of unity seems to only arise in the context of vague notions and ideal hopes, creating “united fronts” and “popular unities” that often come to serve as the tools of the imperialists. This creates a real obscuring of the usages of unity in previous struggles and in ongoing struggles in Cuba and the DPRK, and even with countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Indeed, many socialists look at these states’ or parties’ ideological unity in an idealist fashion, not understanding its conditions or acknowledging any need for such unity to exist.
I believe that the KKE holds up a good example for the West on how to approach unity as material conditions begin to come to the fore. Austerity seems to be more and more widely applied as a tool for finance capital to hijack economies, destroy social programs, and establish foundations for further capital accumulation through dispossession and impoverishment. The KKE upholds Marxist-Leninist principles, are resolute in their internationalist orientation, and consistently hold positions that reveal the contradictions of bourgeois politics to the workers of Greece. They are very aware of all the issues I’ve raised here and should be considered a theoretical leader for approaching unity. Indeed, their understanding of these aspects far surpasses mine and what I’ve presented here. Amid all the false talk of “unity” in the imperialist and fake left, the KKE upholds socialism and communist spirit against the forces arrayed against Greek workers. One can only be inspired by speeches like this:
Such speeches speak directly in the interests of workers without any “theoretical” sophistry that we find in the sections of the left that serve petty bourgeois reaction. Their large rallies with all those red flags waving can only serve to hearten honest Marxist-Leninists across the world. They maintain a focus on culture and stage large events to build an ideological base for attacking the bourgeois forces in the country. When reading their statements, one is struck by clarity – the same kind of clarity that has historically been found in the best of the Marxist-Leninist tradition. Though often derided as “sectarian,” their ability to build a unified proletarian force should be an inspiration to Marxist-Leninists in the struggles to come.
The entire Parenti lecture should be watched: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xP8CzlFhc14