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Saturday, February 05, 2005

Organic intellectuals... in North Korea?! (pt. 2)

So, what about the application of Gramsci’s ideas to North Korean history and art? I thought the idea of the North Korean 'revolution' being a 'passive revolution' was certainly useful in some senses. Of course there have been a number of sophisticated attempts to analyse the sort of transformation that happened in North Korea and Eastern Europe after the World War II. Kim Ha-yong's book 'The Korean Peninsula from an Internationalist Perspective' (국제주의 시각에서 본 한반도), for example, looks at how the North Korean ruling elite imposed its 'people's democratic revolution' on the country. I'm not much of an expert on Gramsci's ideas but I suppose this could be interpreted as something similar to his concept of passive revolution. It might also be designated a 'bourgeois revolution from above' (minus a bourgeoisie) - in other words the formation of an independent national centre of capital accumulation, as Neil Davidson might put it. Gramsci wrote of a situation where "a state replaces the local social groups in leading a struggle of renewal." That is, in the North Korean case neither the working class nor the bourgeoisie played an active role in the national renewal - the former was forced to make huge sacrifices for the sake of high speed industrialisation while the latter was destroyed or disappeared back to Japan - it was instead a new class of party/state bureaucrats that carried through the 'revolution'.

I have more of a problem with Dr Lee's use of the term 'organic intellectuals'. She argued that the North Korean films on the KAPF depicted the formation of a group of organic intellectuals who would direct their artistic work toward the education and emancipation of the masses and the establishment of a socialist society (I hope this is a fair summary of her argument). But what the film clips we saw showed me was rather the appropriation and manipulation of a group of artists / intellectuals for the propaganda purposes of the new post-1945 ruling elite.

While many of these artists (despite accusations of elitism) may genuinely have attempted to connect with the nascent Korean working class and deepen its understanding of itself and the world around it in the 1920s and 30s, this was certainly not their role under Kim Il-sông in the 40s and 50s. In fact the film shows precisely the process of their co-option by the regime through the use of both stick (guilt and fear associated with their supposed unreliability dating from the latter years of the colonial period) and carrot (Kim Il-sông's generous bestowal of gifts such as houses and cars).

So in one sense these artists did conform to Gramsci's conception of a strata of organic intellectuals having a "connection with a fundamental social group", it's just that in this case the social group in question was the new bureaucratic ruling class rather than the working class. However, unless this is spelled out, the use of the term could be misleading. These people were not organic intellectuals like those that Gramsci hoped would develop as part ofworking class political movements, but mass producers of the new ' common sense' of North Korean society. That common sense included blind belief in the wisdom of one man and sacrifice on a mass scale for the sake of rapid industrial development, all wrapped up perversely in the labels of 'socialism' and 'people's democracy'. Unless we stop taking at face value all the North Korean nonsense about 'socialism' and so on we'll never get any where with understanding the reality of North Korean society.

For more on North Korean cinema this article is worth a read.


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