I have today signed the contract on a new and rather exciting grant. The project is called ‘Chinese Marxism: Concerning the Sinification of Marxism in Chinese Academia’. The project and its grant are significant on a number of counts. First, it is my first completely Chinese grant, in my capacity as being on the staff of Renmin (People’s) University of China – the university first established under Mao Zedong’s influence in Yan’an in 1937. Second, I am learning much about the way Chinese grants and research operate. Granting bodies take an idea and work with you on it, providing advice and guidance on the way. Third, it involved some personal meetings over breakfast to find out if I am a ‘friend’ (Zhongguo pengyou). Fourth, this is their first international grant.

Let me elaborate on the final point. Uniquely for China, they have about 200 city and provincial research institutes. These institutes mediate between government sectors and the research undertaken at universities and elsewhere. I see it as one of the many feedback mechanisms that operate here, in which the movement of ideas between government and researchers is encouraged. In Beijing, the institute in question is the Federation of Social Sciences, which has a number of branches. The branch with which I am engaged is the Centre for Studies on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. They have their own director, staff, book series, journals and so on. Obviously, at a city level, they tend to receive applications for grants from Chinese researchers. My application was the first one from a foreigner and they are excited to be moving into an international arena. One of my main points is that the project will also enable Chinese scholars to engage more regularly in international conferences related to Marxism – apart from international scholars engaging more fruitfully with the unique developments in China. In short, this is the first step in a longer project called ‘Socialism with “National” Characteristics’. I think I’ll be working with these and other people (such as the Academy of Marxism, within the Academy of Social Sciences) for quite some time.

Finally, alongside the obligatory conferences and publications, I am also expected to write a couple of articles for the flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily. The topics: the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics (from the perspective of a foreigner), and the decline of bourgeois democracy in the United States. I am busting to get into these pieces.

A few photos from the ceremony for signing the contract. The other scholar is the director of the Centre for Studies on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics – an absolutely lovely and helpful woman.

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The propaganda on which we were raised had it that the Second World War came to an end through the decisive action of the United States in dropping a couple of atomic bombs on Japan. Then, US troops immediately moved to the Korean Peninsula to ensure that the freedom-loving Koreans were not subjected to the totalitarian rule of evil communists. They were not entirely successful, because the north had been overrun by the Soviet Red Army, which brutally imposed collectivisation and socialist methods on the north. They then appointed a puppet as leader, Kim Il-sung. A few years later, the United States and troops from other nations such as Australia defended the southerners from aforesaid evil communists when the latter tried to take over the whole peninsula during the Korean War. Since then, the people of the south have earnestly wanted reunification, but the totalitarian ‘regime’ of the north has simply not been interested.

Needless to say, this account is more than a little biased, so let me see if I can provide some correctives.

To begin with, as war historians have long pointed out (see, for instance, Geoffrey Roberts), Japan began suing for surrender as soon it became clear that its colonisation of Korea and parts of China would soon be over. This occupation had been in trouble for some time, with Chinese and Korean fighters – led by the communists – undermining the occupying forces. But the decisive moment came when the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrived, fresh from the capture of Berlin and after having spent more than two weeks on the Trans-Siberian railway line. As Japanese troops were routed, Japan began suing for peace.

Somewhat alarmed, the United States hastily decided to drop an atomic bomb. This was entirely unnecessary for ending the war, since the Japanese were about to surrender. But the United States had its eyes on the post-war situation, using the two bombs to show the world, and especially the Soviet Union, its new firepower. In this light, the use of the bombs actually constitutes a war crime. Not satisfied, United States troops made haste to land on the Korean Peninsula and push as far north as possible.

At this point, the situation began to resemble Germany after the Second World War. In the north were Korean communists, led by Kim Il-sung, supported by Chinese units and the Red Army. In the south were American troops, which established the Allied Military Government. Now it becomes interesting. In theory, the Soviets and the Americans were allies, but they did not behave so. Kim Il-sung proposed that the Korean people should decide on the post-war situation in Korea. This entailed the removal of foreign forces from north and south. Negotiations over this process went on for three years.

Or rather, people tried to negotiate. The American military governor in the south, Lieutenant General Hodge, refused to meet with delegations. Syngman Rhee, a staunch anti-communist strongman, was appointed as provisional leader. Under his direction and with American support, a series of uprising in the south were brutally crushed. In autumn of 1946, workers and peasants rose up against the American occupation; from April 1948 until 1953 islanders from Jeju rebelled; in October 1948 regiments in the southern Korean army rose up in the Yeosu–Suncheon Rebellion; in December 1949, Mungyeong citizens and their families were massacred since they were suspected of being communist sympathisers. In suppressing these socialist movements, swathes of villages were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were killed.

These repressions were all part of the mechanisms for establishing a separate state in the south. Indeed, it was declared in August 1948, with Syngman Rhee as president. In response, the north found itself needing to declare the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The comparison with East and West Germany is striking. There too, the Anglo-American forces stalled on negotiations for a united Germany, which was pushed by the eastern Germans, as well as Stalin and Molotov. There too, plans began in 1948 for a separate state in the western parts, which was foreshadowed by a new currency. There too the West German state was declared first, in September 1949. And there too the east had no option but to respond with its own state. Throughout, the aim was to keep Germany separated, despite the will of most of the people.

In light of all this, what has happened to the desire for Korean unification? It has been consistent policy of the Democratic Republic of Korea since its earliest days. But on what terms? A northern takeover of the south? Not at all. The policy is that reunification would be undertaken without outside interference, peacefully and in terms of a federal system, socialist in the north and capitalist in the south. This position was made explicit in the Communiqué of 1972, after the leaders of both countries had secretly met. In 1973 and again in 1980, Kim Il-sung reiterated this position, proposing a Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo.

However, the most significant movement happened after the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration of 2000, between Kim Jong-il of the north and Kim Dae-jung of the south. Given that reunification has been a core northern policy, the change was obviously in the south. Here more progressive governments became open to the idea and agreed to the declaration. The change began with Kim Dae-jung’s ‘Sunshine’ policy of 1998. The result was the opening of borders, family reunions, a series of meetings between leaders of north and south, sports, cultural and economic exchange, and even the two Olympic teams marching together at the opening ceremonies in 2000, 2004 and 2006.

But as is the way with the vagaries and uncertainties of bourgeois democracies, the south changed its tune in 2008 with the new president, Lee Myung-bak. His right-wing policies led to a hard-line approach more in tune with United States foreign policy. Cooperation ended and tensions once again escalated – the situation in which we find ourselves now.

The north Koreans I encountered view that time as one of hope disappointed, although they ardently hope for an eventual reunification along federated lines.

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I am working my way through Farnham Maynard’s Religion and Revolution (1947). He was canon of St Peter’s, Eastern Hill, Melbourne, from 1926 to 1944. He saw socialism arising from Christianity, especially the Anglo-Catholicism he championed. Indeed, he managed to escape the Australian government’s ban on people travelling to the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. He toured for eight months in 1952, moving across eastern Europe, through Russia and then to a conference in Beijing.

Anyway, in Religion and Revolution he traces the roles of Christianity in the French and Russian revolutions, arguing that it mostly missed the opportunity to be constructive contributors to the establishment of new modes of production. I am particularly taken by a discussion of the League of the Militant Godless in relation to the Soviet Union.

Maynard begins by noting Stalin’s response to a question from the First American Labour Delegation to the Soviet Union in 1927. He was asked about religion and repression of the church, to which Stalin replied in his typical fashion: ‘Have we repressed the reactionary clergy? Yes, we have’ (Works, volume 10, p. 139).

And then Maynard writes concerning the League itself: ‘Let us note, however, that a substantial part of the work done by the Anti-God League consisted in bringing about reforms which in the West had been brought about by Christians themselves’ (Religion and Revolution, 1947, p. 45).

I am writing an article on Farnham Maynard (1881-1973), who was a priest in the Anglican Church of Australia in the middle of the twentieth century. He wrote a number booklets and contributions to books on Christianity and communism, which were texts of speeches he gave: Economics and the Kingdom of God (1929), ‘Christianity and Socialism’ in A Fair Hearing for Socialism (1944) and Religion and Revolution (1947). More on this material soon, but I am quite intrigued by a forword given to the final work by none other than the secretary of the Victorian branch of Australian Communist Party, Jack Blake.

This foreword manifests the tensions of Marxist approaches to religion, found in the works of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. Indeed, does so in a rather sharp fashion:

The Communist Party welcomes the growing interest among Christian people in the popular striving for a new social order as revealed in this collection of lectures which correctly set forth the Marxist viewpoint.

The Communist world outlook is based on dialectical materialism, which means that the Marxist does not include religion as part of his mental outlook.

Precisely because we Communists base ourselves on the dialectical materialist outlook, we are strongly opposed to any kind of persecution of religion, or attacks upon people’s religious beliefs. Frequently it is said that this is merely a tactic of the Communists to dupe innocent Christian people; actually it is a matter of deep principle with us; it arises from the fundamentals of our Marxist outlook on life.

Marxism teaches that religion arises from the economic and social foundations of society, and as society is changed and reaches the highest pinnacles of human attainment and enlightenment, religion as such will wither away.

Christian people believe otherwise, but the great question now posed before them is whether they are so lacking in faith as to defend an outmoded form of society as a means for preserving their religion, or whether they have enough faith in Christianity to play their part in the advance to a new form of society for the betterment of mankind: a society in which all religious freedoms will be preserved and even increased.

No person is excluded from the ranks of the Communist Party because of religious beliefs. For our part, we gladly welcome any steps to increase co-operation between Christians and Communists having a common interest in the advancement of mankind.

I was reminded of this great little story by an email request, since I mention it in an article in Philosophers for Change. Engels used it in his speaking tour of Germany in 1845. It had a great effect in showing how ridiculous a capitalist system is:

Let us, however, discuss present-day trade in a little more detail. Consider through how many hands every product must go before it reaches the actual consumer. Consider, gentlemen, how many speculating, swindling superfluous middlemen have now forced themselves in between the producer and the consumer! Let us take, for example, a bale of cotton produced in North America. The bale passes from the hands of the planter into those of the agent on some station or other on the Mississippi and travels down the river to New Orleans. Here it is sold — for a second time, for the agent has already bought it from the planter — sold, it might well be, to the speculator, who sells it once again, to the exporter. The bale now travels to Liverpool where, once again, a greedy speculator stretches out his hands towards it and grabs it. This man then trades it to a commission agent who, let us assume, is a buyer for a German house. So the bale travels to Rotterdam, up the Rhine, through another dozen hands of forwarding agents, being unloaded and loaded a dozen times, and only then does it arrive in the hands, not of the consumer, but of the manufacturer, who first makes it into an article of consumption, and who perhaps sells his yarn to a weaver, who disposes of what he has woven to the textile printer, who then does business with the wholesaler, who then deals with the retailer, who finally sells the commodity to the consumer. And all these millions of intermediary swindlers, speculators, agents, exporters, commission agents, forwarding agents, wholesalers and retailers, who actually contribute nothing to the commodity itself — they all want to live and make a profit — and they do make it too, on the average, otherwise they could not subsist. Gentlemen, is there no simpler, cheaper way of bringing a bale of cotton from America to Germany and of getting the product manufactured from it into the hands of the real consumer than this complicated business of ten times selling and a hundred times loading, unloading and transporting it from one warehouse to another? Is this not a striking example of the manifold waste of labour power brought about by the divergence of interests?

MECW 4: 246-47.

Cross posted from Bible and Class Struggle:

This academic colloquium on Radicalism, Violence and Religious Texts will take place at the University of Auckland from 10-11th September 2015.

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José Clemente Orozco – Christ Destroying His Cross

What is the relationship between religion, violence, and the interpretation of texts? On the one hand, sacred texts are populated by depictions of divinely-sanctioned violence. On the other hand, both insiders and outsiders repeatedly emphasize the non-violent aspects of various religious traditions. This seminar will facilitate critical discussion on the associations and contradictions between radicalism, violence, and religious texts in an age of terror, abuse, and capitalist exploitation. Papers will utilize the most revolutionary-oriented methods currently available in biblical and religious studies, including critical theory, Marxist exegesis, radical indigenous, postcolonial, and genderqueer hermeneutics, and other ideological and political readings.

Confirmed speakers:

There are slots available for additional papers from both established scholars and PhD students. To be considered, please send a title and brief abstract (150 words) to Robert Myles at r.myles@auckland.ac.nz by the deadline: 24 July.

When: 10-11 September 2015
Where: University of Auckland
Official twitter hashtag: #RVRT2015
Deadline for abstracts: 24 July 2015

Many are the reasons as to why one would want to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For some it is way off the ‘beaten track’. The fact that many people think you cannot travel to the place at all reinforces this sense. For some it provides a window into what the communist countries of Eastern Europe might have been like before 1989. Indeed, the tourist companies trade on this desire, offering Soviet architecture tours or plane tours in which you fly with Air Koryo’s fleet of Tupolevs. For some it is an effort at reinforcing their own ‘world’, to remind themselves of how ‘bad’ socialism really is and why capitalism is far ‘better’. For some it is a genuine desire to see what this form of socialism looks like, even to the point of sympathising with the sheer effort of maintaining the system. For these people, it is extraordinary that the DPRK has survived for almost seventy years.

For some, however, it is the appeal of what I would like to call ‘communist mystery’. By this I mean the profound sense that the DPRK is keeping much hidden from public scrutiny. More than once has the ancient foreigner’s title of Korea as the ‘hermit kingdom’ been used for the north. Indeed, whole projects exist – sponsored by the limited ‘intelligence’ services of countries such the United States – to try and find out what is happening in the DPRK. Most of that is pure speculation, since they really cannot find out all that much. Foreign journalists are forbidden to enter the country and one is not permitted to take in any GPS device. Add to this the fact that the telephone networks do not connect internationally, and that there is a separate phone network for foreigners who visit the country. The two networks do not connect with one another. And the DPRK’s computer systems also remain internal, without connection (mostly) to the wider internet. A visitor is therefore ‘off the grid’ when visiting the place.

This mystery, of course, generates a desire by some visitors to act as pseudo-journalists, attempting to find out about what is being kept hidden. It may take the form of trying to photograph items they think they are not supposed to photograph, or of ducking off from a tour group for a few minutes to see what might be seen. But let me give two examples.

When travelling the metro system, one is told not to photograph the metro tunnels. You may photograph anything else – people, metro cars, the glorious artwork in the stations, one another – but not the tunnels. So of course one or two try to photograph the tunnels. Who knows, they may hold some secret weapon stash, or some underground laboratories, or whatever. But as soon as the photographs are taken, a platform attendant immediately walks up, calls to a guide and demands that the photograph be deleted. This only exacerbates the mystery. I happened to be standing next to one such culprit when the deletion took place. The photograph merely contained a black space, with nothing to see. But the fact that you could not take a photograph of black space meant that it much conceal something.

The other example is the fabled ‘fifth floor’ of the Yonggakdo Hotel, one of the hotels where many visitors stay. The lifts skip by the fifth floor, jumping from four to six. And if one has bothered to check the internet, then stories abound of the mysteries of the fifth floor (check google or youtube). Many are speculations: here the guides are kept under guard so as not to be corrupted by foreigners; here is equipment to spy on visitors; here is a crack military squad ready to deal with any problem. To add to the mystery, occasionally a guard may appear and sternly demand that you depart. In our group, a few tried to get to the fifth floor by the stairs. One or two even managed a photograph. What did they reveal? Some pipes, perhaps a door or a wall or a corridor. And of course rooms with doors. Nothing else.

That is the point: nothing is there. The Koreans are very good at creating the impression that something is there, hidden from prying eyes. I suspect that they have created such zones precisely to maintain the mystery, for it appeals immensely to some foreigners, especially of the bleeding heart liberal type. Nothing actually exists in the metro tunnels except tracks for the trains. And nothing is to be found on the fifth floor of the hotel, except rooms and a possible guard to tell you not to enter. After all, if there really was something to hide, why have stairs with a door that opens on the fifth floor, or why have a ‘secret lift’ that visitors can actually use to get close to the fifth floor?

Let the mystery continue, for it keeps some visitors coming.