The classical Soviet Marxist approach to history is, first and foremost, extremely simple. History is divided into five stages, called “formations”: prehistoric society, slave state, feudal state, capitalist state, and communism.
The final part is further divided into socialism – the order that existed in the USSR and elsewhere – and communism, the future utopia. The driving force of history is the economy and only the economy, and the change of formations is perpetuated by class struggle.
A Marxist-Leninist publications of history is expected to first, mention the Five Formations Theory, second, describe almost all thinkers as “representatives of class interests”, third, if they speak of modern times, mention the idea of two stages of socialism and fourth, to assert that an individual cannot change the pace of history, since the latter is defined by scientific laws discovered by Marx, not by one man.
The first three traits are alive and well in the DPRK historiography.
When it comes to the doctrine of five formations, the most vivid manifestation of it is the term “feudalism”. It comes from the word feudum, Latin for “fief”. In other words, a feudal state is a fief-based state.
This is also true for the Korean term for feudalism: the first syllable of the word ponggonjuui means “fief”. A fief, as readers know, is a European concept. Old Korea had no developed system of vassalage – no dukes, barons and no fiefs. Yet North Korean historiography continues to describe the era of the Lee dynasty (1392-1910) as “feudal”. Why? Because Marxist doctrine requires a country to go through a feudal stage.
Describing a prominent historical figure as a “representative of class interests” is perfectly normal, too. For example, Confucius ends up being a representative of the class desires of landlords. Another example is Socrates: after all, the “Big Korean Encyclopedia” says that Socrates’s ideas became the ethical basis for the pre-feudal slave state.
The biggest difference is the question of the importance of personality
And if one searches hard it is actually possible to find references to the “two stage of socialism”, and even communism. Back in the days of actually existing socialism – as Brezhnev called it – Kim Il Sung mentioned communism a great deal, and since these references were never edited out, there are still occasional references to communism in North Korean encyclopedias.
…OR DOES IT?
However, there are significant differences between Marxist and North Korean historiography. First, the word “communism” has disappeared from North Korean rhetoric for good, and while North Korea asserts from time to time that they are going to achieve something marvelous in the future, (like unification of Korea by 1995 or a “strong and prosperous nation” by 2012) it is not wrapped in any Marxist rhetoric about scientific laws of history leading to a utopia.
Back in the days of actually existing socialism – as Brezhnev called it – Kim Il Sung mentioned communism a great deal
The biggest difference is the question of the importance of personality. In other words, can one human being change the course of history? Marxism asserts that the answer is no. North Korea asserts, however, that the answer is most definitely yes, especially if the human being is a member of the Kim family.
The DPRK, they say, is the greatest country in the world not because of some natural law, but because Kim Il Sung was just that brilliant. Likewise, the future triumph of North Korea is inevitable not because of the march of history, but due to hard work of the people thanks to the leadership of Kim Jong Un.
MARXISM – KIMILSUNGISM
Both the persistence of, and deviations from, Marxism-Leninism in North Korea can be explained by the personality of Kim Il Sung, as North Korean historiography was introduced to the country by the Soviet Union in the 1940s and subsequently altered by the leader.
Before Kim Il Sung fled for the USSR in 1940, he never received a proper education: a school in northeast China in the 1910-20s is all that he got. As testified by Soviet General Lebedev who taught young Kim in 1945, Kim Il Sung was neither interested nor well-versed in Marxism-Leninism. Hence much of the stuff about five formations and class struggle remained untouched.
The DPRK, they say, is the greatest country in the world not because of some natural law, but because Kim Il Sung was just that brilliant
However, when it came to things which are personally related to Kim, he deviated from Marxism a great deal. For a ruler – especially one surrounded by such a grotesque personality cult – the very thought of being a mere instrument of history is unbearable. It is much more pleasant to think that he is the master of historical process. Hence the DPRK’s historiography took a full 180, and Marxian determinism was forgotten.
The same goes with communism. It is quite unlikely that Kim considered that in the future Korea, and the rest of the world, would evolve to a stateless utopia. Most likely, he hoped that the future would be better, but more or less the same.
In a sense, the state of North Korean historiography is the same as the state of the entire ideology of the country – initially Stalinist, with many of its traits being later replaced by omnipresent and self-justifying personality cult of the Kim family
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Ann Wuyts
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Featured Image: Bronze Statue of Kim Il Sung by John Pavelka on 2010-05-03 03:09:39