On Recovering the term ‘Flunkeyism’

As I have been working with material from the DPRK, I came across a wonderful term, flunkeyism. In a basic sense, it means to pay undue reverence to and serve someone who is greater and stronger, exhibiting the characteristics of subservience.

The term came into central usage in the 1950s in the DPRK, when it gained a specifically negative sense. As the communists were seeking to construct socialism in Korean conditions, Kim Il Sung made a significant speech called ‘On Eliminating Dogmatism and Formalism and Establishing Juche in Ideological Work’ (1955). In this context, flunkeyism meant not so much subservience to powers like Japan or the United States, but the larger communist powers of the Soviet Union and China. Kim points out that too many Korean communists were simply repeating formulae, plans, news items and ideas from these places, without knowledge and appreciation of the specificity of Korean conditions.

The opposite is Juche, with the basic sense of self-reliance and being the master of one’s own situation. The idea of Juche has three main components, already outlined in 1930: the need for Koreans to avoid worshipping great powers, that the masters of the revolution are the masses of the people and the need for correct leadership on the road to victory. Each of these points would be emphasised over the coming years, with the other two moving somewhat into the background. Crucially, during the initial phase of Juche theory (1950s), it was opposition to flunkeyism that was the most important.

Of course, Kim Il Sung did not invent either term out of whole cloth. Flunkeyism has a much longer history, going back to Mencius. Being a good Confucian, Mencius used the term in a positive light, writing: ‘He who with a great State serves a small one, delights in Heaven. He who with a small State serves a large one, stands in awe of Heaven’. The Chinese term here is shida, ‘serving the great’. The initial appropriation in Korea (sadae) was used in a similar way, with the Korean Joseon monarchy seeking to follow the example of the Chinese. But with the rise of a desire for Korea to carve its own path, flunkeyism became a decidedly negative term, for it downgraded Korea’s own uniqueness and national traditions.

So we find the emergence of opposition to flunkeyism – sadaejuui, literally ‘serving the great-ism’, or loving and worshipping foreign powers. The term can be double-edged, since it can foster more extreme forms of nationalism. At the same time, nationalism in an anti-colonial context has – since the insights from the Soviet Union – often been closely connected with communism. In this sense, anti-colonial struggles are at the same time anti-imperialist struggles, undermining the efforts at global hegemony by capitalist powers. This is the sense that emerges from the writings of Kim Il Sung. It is also a key to the reunification program in Korea, for a basic desire and position is that the two Koreas will once again unite without outside interference.

It seems to me we need to recover ‘flunkeyism’. We could well do with a good dose of opposition to it – or ‘anti-flunkeyism’ – in Australia. We used to use the term ‘cultural cringe’, with some people feeling that Australia needed to serve some or other greater and more ‘advanced’ place. But ‘flunkeyism’ is a much stronger term. Too often have our politicians, intellectuals and cultural producers been flunkeys, seeking the favours of whichever international power is around.

So here’s to two words for 2018: flunkeyism and anti-flunkeyism.


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