What do Friedrich Engels, Louis Althusser, Terry Eagleton, Kim Il Sung and Stalin have in common?

They all made the – often difficult – step from religious faith to Marxism. Engels, with his Reformed background and the strong religious commitment of his youth, set the initial example. In his footsteps followed Louis Althusser, Henri Lefebvre, Terry Eagleton and Kim Il Sung, to mention but a few. Crucially, they did not give up their interest in matters theological and ecclesiastical. Even if they had “lost” their faith (and not all did), they maintained a lively interest in, if not an insight into, the realities of belief, theology and the church. So also with Stalin.

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Kim Il Sung’s assessment of 1989 in Eastern Europe

As part of my bed-time reading, I continue with Anecdotes of Kim Il Sung’s Life. Towards the end of the second volume is his assessment as to why the communist governments in Eastern Europe were overthrown by coups.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, an abnormal event took place in the world: Socialism collapsed and capitalism was restored in a number of countries.

The renegades of socialism, who had destroyed socialism, tried to justify their despicable betrayal, claiming that the ideals of socialism itself were wrong.

On the other hand, the imperialists asserted that the socialist system was in itself problematic, talking about the ‘bankruptcy of the socialist system,’, with regard to the collapse of socialism in those countries.

This caused ideological confusion among many people.

Are the ideals of socialism and the socialist system wrong?

A stream of foreigners came to Pyongyang to find an answer to this question.

Among them was the chair of the Worker’s Communist Party of Sweden.

On June 29, 1992, Kim Il Sung met him, and explained the cause of the collapse of the Eastern European socialist countries.

He said it could be explained in two ways: the first was that the leaders of those countries took to sycophancy and the worship of great power.

He continued: ‘In the past the East European socialist countries used to do everything the way the Soviet Union did; for example, if the Soviet Union uttered “A”, they said “A”, and if the former pronounced “B”, they said “B”‘.

He cited an example at this: the people of the former German Democratic Republic were said to have remarked that when it was raining in Moscow Berliners used to take an umbrella with them, although it wasn’t raining in their city. In this way Germans criticised the sycophantic attitude of their Party leadership towards the big power.

Secondly, the ruin of the East European socialist countries was due to the fact that the leaders of those countries were grossly bureaucratic.

He said: ‘In capitalist society, where state officials and economic officials are separated from each other, even if the ruling officials act bureaucratically and administer state affairs unskilfully, businessmen can still make money without much interference. In socialist society, however, the situation is different; in socialist society the masses of the people are the masters of state power and the means of production. Leading officials must therefore always go among the masses to learn about their demands and manage the state and economy to meet their will and demands; however, the leaders of the East European socialist countries failed to mix intimately with the masses; instead, they administered state affairs by looking up at the ceiling of their office or asking Moscow what to do. When their subjective opinion was not in accordance with the will of the masses or the reality was not accepted readily by people, they would enforce it in a bureaucratic manner. Consequently, they became alienated from the people and ultimately produced the serious outcome of destroying socialism’.

He continued: ‘It was because of such mistakes as the sycophantic attitude to the great power and a bureaucratic manner that socialism has collapsed in the former East European socialist countries; it was never because the socialist system is in itself problematic’.

After listening to the explanation, the guest from Northern Europe said confidently: ‘It was indeed the right option for me to travel a long way to see you’.

Kim Il Sung and Grace Before a Meal

I have been meaning to write something on the increasing shift in Russia to appreciating the positives of the Soviet era. Or rather, the increasing numbers of Russian scholars at Chinese conferences drawing upon the Soviet experience for common ground with China. However, that will have to wait, for my bed-time reading of late has been none other than Anecdotes of the Life of Kim Il Sung, the founding president of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. So here is the first of a selection, called ‘Arranging Grace Before a Meal’:

On July 3, 1981, Kim Il Sung met the Rev. Kim Song Rak, a Korean resident in the United States.

Kim Song Rak was the president of the Society for the Promotion of National Reunification, an advisor to the South Korean Churches Association and a member of the Corps of Chairmen of the Asociation of the Overseas South Koreans for Democracy and National Reunification in the United States. He had previously served as president of Sungjon University in South Korea.

He had received religious education in the United States and obtained permanent residence there: he was influential in US religious circles and was widely known among US politicians. He was the only Korean to be receiving an annual salary from the US government. In short, he was deeply immersed in anti-communism.

As soon as he arrived in the north, he asked the relevant officials to make arrangements so that there was no news coverage of his activities there, saying that he wanted to return to the United States soon, after a quiet visit to his home-town, Pyongyang.

President Kim Il Sung met him and called him a patriot, praising his national conscience out of which he had made up his mind, though belatedly, to devote himself to the reunification of the country. The President arranged a luncheon in honour of his guest.

Kim Il Sung advised him to say grace before eating.

The Rev. Kim Song Rak was completely taken aback at his host’s advice. His face turned red and his heart beat faster.

His face beaming, his host again urged him to say grace, arguing that he should not violate the rules of Christianity he had observed for his whole life.

The guest’s deep-seated fear and doubts about communism disappeared in an instant.

In fact, he had decided not to say grace on that particular occasion, even if it meant violating the rules of his faith. Moved by his host’s broad-mindedness and magnanimity, he said grace, just as he had done for decades. However, the grace he offered there was totally different from anything he had done before.

He prayed for the good health of President Kim Il Sung, a peerless great man, and for the country’s independent reunification and complete sovereignty.

Before his departure, the Rev. Kim Song Rak asked for a press conference to be convened, contrary to his previous request made upon his arrival. He talked about his feelings when he had said grace before the luncheon: ‘I offered grace because I could not reject the President’s advice. I earnestly prayed for him’ (Anecdotes II, pp. 18-20).