Monday, February 23, 2015

No, Professor, Communism is Still Stupid

On February 17th 2015, a history professor from the University of Southern California, Kyung Moon Hwang, penned an articleHistory of anti-communism in South Korea – in The Korea Times.

In the article, Professor Hwang claimed that particularly older Koreans' views of communism was outdated and antiquated. He claimed that it was a result of the American government's attempt at establishing an anti-communist front in Northeast Asia during the height of the Cold War, as well as subsequent Korean governments' attempts to legitimize their own rule over the people.

Therefore, as Professor Hwang says, despite the fact that “communism was a much more complicated topic than what they (Koreans) had been taught, most people took it for granted, and the Korean people “simply equated communism with North Korea, without wondering how communism or socialism arose around the world, or why it might have been so appealing in Korea in the earlier part of the 20th century, which has, therefore, allowed the ruling class to maintain their hold on power by engaging in red-baiting.

Professor Hwang ends his article by saying that older South Koreans remain beholden to their history, in an almost juvenile manner; and that “a truer maturation of this (Korean) society will eventually emerge with the passing of its most mature generations.”

Professor Hwang was certainly correct about a lot of things; though I'm not sure about his last sentence. However, what is interesting is that Professor Hwang never seems to explain a few things.

For one thing, he does not explain why Koreans' views of communism may be antiquated. He simply starts out with that premise as an established fact. To be specific, he assumes that because the American and Korean governments said that communism was evil, the people accepted that communism was evil at face value.

I am not sure if Professor Hwang consciously or subconsciously believes this or not, but I get the feeling that he seems to think that individuals are not capable of having their own thoughts that are not spoon-fed to them by governmental or intellectual elites.

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For instance, although Professor Hwang mentions a great deal about the corrupt nature of South Korea's past dictatorships, their use of anti-communism as a tool to suppress political opponents, and the unjust nature of the National Security Law, he does not even mention in passing the egregious acts of terror and political crimes that were committed by the communists (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

No, the crimes that were committed by the communists do NOT excuse the crimes that were committed by the anti-communists, whether they were committed in Korea or in any other part of the world. Two wrongs never make a right. However, what Professor Hwang utterly failed to do, which ought to shame him considering that he is a professor of history, is that he seems to be implying that anti-communism somehow existed in a vacuum.

However, one thing that Professor Hwang certainly got right was when he said that it is wrong to equate communism with North Korea. I agree with him there. Such comparisons are ludicrous. That would be akin to equating capitalism with South Korea (I'm looking at you, Korea Exposé).

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But how would accepting communism as a much more complicated topic lead to “a truer maturation of this society?” Is Professor Hwang simply talking about raising the academic standards of Koreans? Or is he talking about adopting (at least some) communist policies or philosophical beliefs as our own?

If it is the former, I certainly have no problems with it. After all, it was Sun Tzu who said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

However, if it is the latter, well.

Of course, some people who are reading this will quickly object that communism, as advocated by Karl Marx and Ludwig Feuerbach, has nothing to do with the crimes and the terror that were committed in its name by their successors. But is that true?

I have heard many people say that while the tactics and the methods that were employed by communist regimes were brutal and evil, communist ideals remain noble. That is a damned, dirty lie.

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Communist ideals are NOT noble. When an ideology makes the claim that an individual must not live for himself, but rather for the sake of the Proletariat, it becomes evident that the chief purpose of such an ideology is to destroy independence in all of its forms – thought, action, property, and being. It's very end goal becomes to create nothing less than a slave-state.

Professor Hwang is correct when he says that communism has been absurdly distorted by the North Korean regime. However, he does not seem to stop to wonder whether or not the North Korean regime might be the logical outcome of communist ideals when put into practice.

When calls are made for people to give their all, by necessity, there must be those who will do the collecting. And when people are made to live for the King or the State or the Proletariat or for God, then, by necessity, that ideology, and its leaders in particular, will demand conformity, submission, and obedience.

Academics are quick to focus on their theories and neat models that exist in their perfect worlds. But too often they remain painfully unaware of how their theories and models might work in reality.

So do Koreans have a rather juvenile understanding of communism? I think it would not be too difficult to make such a case. In that regard, Professor Hwang may be right. The problem, however, and one that Professor Hwang does not bother to mention, is that communism itself is quite juvenile.

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  1. I enjoy reading your blog, largely because your thoughts and opinions differ quite a bit from my own. It's important to try and understand things from different angles, and your posts generally help me do that. You often say a lot of things that I agree with, and then you say some things I don't. I feel the need to reply to this one.

    First, I'll tell you about some of the parts you got right here. First, I think you're right in your belief that ideas are not something which a society firmly rooted should be afraid of. The Sun Tzu quote is an apt one in this situation. Second, I think your disparagement of ideologies is a good one, any time an individual submits to an authority which contradicts one's individual autonomy they find themselves shackled to "conformity, submission, and obedience". Third, two wrongs don't make a right is a truism.

    That being said, I think you miss the point of the whole article, in exactly the manner he might complain about, when you choose to attack communism rather than his thesis which is that South Korea presently has an antiquated view of what communism is and continues to limit freedom of expression because of this. Your charge is that Professor Hwang emptily asserts that the Korean people have anti-communist views without any basis as to how or why that might be, and that he seems to be implying that that sentiment arose in a vacuum.

    As regards the latter, he writes in the 4th paragraph of the article that that generation of Koreans was "the product of their country's struggle against a communist state, and so it is understandable that they hold such views." So it's not as if he doesn't understand the causes of anti-communist sentiment.

    As far as the assertion that Professor Hwang believes "that [Korean] individuals are not capable of having their own thoughts that are not spoon-fed to them by governmental or intellectual elites." Again, I think you are being unfair. He states that anti-communism was implemented and enforced by the American occupation and later manifested itself in the creation of the National Security Law. As far as the first goes, the mass murder of individuals harboring communist or anti-state feeling (both of which were popular during Japanese colonization) is fairly well documented (see: Then, the NSL, which I believe is Professor Hwang's true target of criticism in this piece, was and is able to prevent any dissenting political opinion from being expressed. I understand that South Korea is still technically at war, and as such needs to maintain a certain level of security. Unfortunately, this law has been used on a sweeping scale which prevents freedom of speech and in a lot of ways prevents freedom of thought (not just communist either, any opinion critical of the state is suppressed by these methods as well)-- back to conformity, submission, and obedience. I believe it is very unfair to say that he assumes Korean individuals only believe what is spoon-fed to them, as it's clear to see that the implementation of anti-communist feeling was less with a spoon and more with a sword.

    I think we agree that communism is a failure as a political and economic ideology. I don't, however, think that Professor Hwang is trying to prop it up as one. His claim that Koreans, particularly of the older generation, lack an understanding of what communism (and leftist politics on the whole) is, and as such prevents themselves from maturing as a politically conscious society.

    1. Hello. It was a pleasure to read your comment.

      I did not disagree that Koreans may have an antiquated view of communism. For instance, as a Korean, it has always been clear to me that my country's enemy was North Korea. However, while I was in the Army, the propaganda department always insisted that North Korea was evil because it was communist. It's true that North Korea and communism are both evil, but, as Professor Hwang said, communism has been widely distorted by North Korea. So, especially a lot of older Koreans do have an antiquated view of communism.

      I also agree wholeheartedly that the National Security Law is highly problematic and unethical. Though I understand the rationale that was used to make such a law when it was first passed, I do believe that the costs have far outweighed the benefits.

      So, I couldn't criticize something that I agree with.

      And you are also right that Professor Hwang did say “that generation of Koreans were the product of their country's struggle against a communist state, and so it is understandable that they hold such views.”

      But were Koreans motivated by only their own struggle against North Korea? I provided a lot of links in my original post about communist crimes and acts of terror from the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, North Korea, and Cambodia. So it's not that Professor Hwang doesn't understand the causes of anti-communism among Koreans. The problem is that he asserts that that Koreans' anti-communism is simply a result of its own struggle in its own little pond. He failed to mention the crimes that were committed by communists from all around the world (including the North Koreans since 1948 to the present day) or any of the philosophical flaws of communism (from the days of Karl Marx).

      What you are right about is that there have been massacres that were committed by the anti-communists. Those were horrendous war crimes. But did anti-communism exist only from 1950 onwards? Again, that is forcing the debate to merely an intra-national conflict between North and South Korea.

      The conflict between communism and liberty is more than a conflict between nations. It is a conflict of ideas. So yes, Koreans have a juvenile understanding of communism. But, as I said, what Professor Hwang does not mention is that communism itself is very juvenile.

    2. Thanks for the response John. This issue in particular is one that I find interesting after having lived and studied in Korea for several years. I’m certainly not a communist, as I mentioned earlier, but I do have an interest in ideas being seen in a context free from distortion.

      I find it hard to reconcile your claim that Koreans' anti-communism is not merely a result of its own struggle but also a result of the larger crimes against humanity conducted by communist countries with your earlier remark that army propaganda insisting that North Korea is evil because it is communist. In a country where every healthy member of the male population must do service in the Korean military, and one where anyone who disagrees with the above statement can be punished (by varying degrees of harshness depending on what year one is living in), it would seem to follow that communism is bad because it is practiced in North Korea. In a lot of ways, it is probably this very idea that has been so engrained in the public consciousness and prevented it from understanding the ideas or why they might have been of interest during and after Japanese colonial rule.

      I think you are absolutely right that the antagonism between communism and anti-communism (I don’t think your conflation of liberty with anti-communism is a good one) was one which took place on a truly global scale, not only on the Korean peninsula. Anti-communism of course existed before 1950, but the large scale propaganda war and following proxy wars undertaken by both sides truly kicked off around that time. That being said, an article criticizing outdated and harmful security laws, as well as a head in the sand understanding of communism (or, what frustrates me the most, any criticism of the state) doesn’t necessarily have to acknowledge the atrocities committed by communist countries. I don’t feel he ever tries to defend communism as a political ideology so much as points out the lack of understanding of what exactly it is. Just for perspective, should someone supporting greater freedom of speech in a communist country by proxy then have to support every violation of human rights committed by a capitalist one? I assure you we could find a list of events comparable to the ones which you cited above.

      I think Professor Hwang might have been more convincing if he had broadened his scope beyond just communism and anti-communism. I do think that he is right, however, that the current understanding of what communism (or again, leftist politics) is a sort of redundancy which is that North Korea is communist so North Korea is bad and communism is North Korea’s political system so communism is bad (which you already mentioned is a false conception). But also, I think that it is a little dishonest to simplify political philosophies down to the atrocities of the nations who (often loosely) adhere to them.

    3. And thank you for replying in kind. Rest assured, I did not assume that you were a communist.

      In regards to my comment about the ROK Armed Forces, it's true that the military is the most anti-communist branch of the government. However, in reality, it is not so much anti-communist as it is anti-North Korean.

      The military regularly holds mandatory “Consciousness Education” classes. During these classes, the military usually sends a North Korean defector or a retired officer to give lectures to conscripts about the evil nature of the North Korean government. In my experience, however, very little is ever said about communism. A lot is said about the dynastic succession, the human rights abuses, and the development of WMDs; but communism, not so much.

      I had only had to sit through two of such lectures when the topic was focused on communism. However, aside from a very summarized history of Bolshevism and something so shallow that even Fox News would say that they need more substance, very little was said about the topic.

      All that the military needed was to say that North Korea was evil and that it was the enemy. Oh, and it's communist to boot. In other words, the military treats communism more like an afterthought.

      Anyway, my point is that the ROK military does not hold nearly as much sway on people's minds as people think.

      I think I phrased myself quite poorly if you thought that I conflated liberty with anti-communism. I would never equate, say Park Chung-hee or Augusto Pinochet or Suharto as being pro-liberty. And I think it would be a piss poor state of affairs if the only choices that people had was between communism and anti-communism. That is why I said “liberty” when I talked about the conflict of ideas.

      And I said, I did not say for a fact that he was defending communism. Perhaps he was, perhaps he wasn't. He was ambiguous about that. Perhaps he simply was talking about raising the academic standards of Koreans. But, I have to go back to my point, I don't think Koreans are that naive about communism.

      Is it possible that some Koreans are as unaware of communism as Professor Hwang says? I'm sure those people exist. However, the problem is that Professor Hwang treats the Korean people, even if he is only talking about its most mature generations, as an abstract aggregate. He did say that entire generations would have to die before Korean society became more mature.

      And you are right, it is dishonest to vilify an idea by conflating it with its adherents. If that were an acceptable mode of argument, there wouldn't be a single thing in the world that could be considered good. That is why the last portion of my post was dedicated toward attacking the philosophy of communism itself, rather than Professor Hwang's thesis.

  2. Thanks for clarifying. It's interesting to hear about your experiences in the military and how they might relate to Korean political sentiment today.

    I agree that one of the major flaws in Professor Hwang's article was the lack of clarity as to why gaining a greater understanding of communism might be a benefit to society as a whole. His disdain for the continued methods of suppressing political dissent (the NSL), and the reduction of the words "communism" or "communist" to slurs used to throw mud at political opponents, however, are appropriate. He does not clarify these things to an acceptable point, I agree, and that may be due to a number of reasons: word limits, his own political leanings, demands of the editor, or whatever else. I for one would have liked him to broaden his scope to include support for a more progressive stance on freedom of speech and the importance of fostering a political consciousness outside of the status quo. Instead he opts simply to say, as you mention, "oh, after the old folks die, we'll start thinking more about these things."

    That being said, I really do think there is a dearth of understanding of leftist political thought in Korea. I don't know if naivete is the right word, but after gaining independence from Japan the stamping out of communism through force or propaganda, not unlike the United States, created a culture where exploring or expressing interest or support for those ideas were discouraged. The desire to do this, when seen as necessary to reinforce opposition to North Korea, is clear, but the legacy left by that is one which cripples any understanding of the broader political spectrum and stifles freedom of expression. I think of lot of people's conceptions of communism, on a global scale, are really antiquated, as are many of the laws still used from that era to stifle political opposition

    Anyway, I'm on little sleep, so maybe this didn't come out the way I wanted. I do want to say that I always appreciate the blog and your writing style. It's nice to read someone thinking outside the box, even if I generally take a different tack when approaching the same issues.