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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Autonomism in Korea

Reading conservative or liberal commentators on Korea, expat bloggers, experts or professional journalists, one thing that irritates is the tendency to lump together the Korean left into an amorphous mass of crazed stick-wielding students with a grudge against all things American and bolshie workers and farmers, who probably get paid too much anyway (to be 'globally competitive' that is).

Some of these stereotypes may exist in real life (I dunno), but the Korean left is actually quite a diverse and rapidly changing place. In some ways this is nothing new as anyone who knows about the various factions of the 80s (handily denoted by easy-to-remember abbreviations like NL and PD) will know. But the biggest difference these days is that much of the left is no longer dominated by Stalinism of one form or another as it was 20 years ago. There are social democrats of various stripes, Trotskyists of different hues and, as the title of this post indicates, the current vogue for autonomism is also present on the Korean peninsula.

I thought about making this the first of a series on the 'new' left in Korea, but I'm not sure I can actually come good on the promise of a series, so we'll see what happens. I might write some more on other aspects of the Korean left... and I might not.

The term used for Autonomism in Korean chayulchuûi (자율주의) must be of fairly recent coinage, although I'm not sure whether it reached Korean via Japanese, as many other newish words have done. Another interesting term that is relevant here is tajung (다중/多衆), a term that I've not seen used elsewhere on the left and which is used by the Korean Autonomists to translate Hardt and Negri's concept of the 'multitude' (their alternative to the proletariat as the modern world's revolutionary agency).

Anyway, according to people I've spoken to, the ideas of Autonomism, particularly in its recently revived form championed by Hardt and Negri, John Holloway, the Tute Bianche and the Zapatistas, have gained quite a bit of popularity on Korean campuses. This is perhaps a result of the general crisis of the old Stalinist left (in Korea and around the world) and the turn by quite a bit of the old Korean left toward social democratic politics.

Of course Korea did have a tradition of non-Stalinist revolutionary politics during the colonial period with the Korean anarchism of Sin Ch'ae-ho and others. But since liberation, anarchism or alternative forms of Marxism seem to have had little chance to make any impact on the left. Now, however, there is a Autonomist publishing house called Galmuri with the slogan 'Intellect of the Multitude' (다중지성).

There is also an Autonomist journal called Chayul P'yôngnon - 'The Autonomy Review'. The July issue (no. 13) is recently out, containing articles on subjects ranging from the debate on the left over the European constitution to the work of Giorgio Agamben. Much of it is translations of the work of European Autonomists, but there is also some interesting-looking writing by Koreans, including some debate between Autonomists and socialists like Ch'oe Il-pung.

So there you go, if Autonomism is your thing and you can read Korean, you now know where to go. Just don't let it be said that the Korean left consists of a load of North Korea-loving America-hating bbalgaengidûl.

Wanted to add some extra information from one of my Korean correspondents who put this in the comment box:
"The [Korean] autonomists also emerged from the disorganisation of the old PD faction. Part of the National Students' Conference (전학협) and the Socialist Party (사회당), particularly the students, became autonomists or other sorts of anarchists... At the moment the PD faction is not only isolated but in an extremely severe state of disintegration, and there are a lot of areas [where the members] are no longer under their control."

Blogger doesn't really seem to do trackbacks, so I'll manually link back to Marmot's link to me here and Budaechigae's here. Thanks for the links guys.


At July 20, 2005 3:41 AM, Blogger KimcheeGI said...

Great Post, I'm looking forward to the rest of the series, when you get a chance to post it. BTW do you accept trackbacks? I was looking for the feature, and couldn't find it on your blog.

The KimcheeGI

At July 20, 2005 7:23 AM, Anonymous 예송 said...

흥미로운 글이네요!

최일붕씨와 조정환씨의 토론글이 빨리 올라왔으면 좋겟어요. 그날 그 자리에 있었는데 얼마나 불꽃튀기는 토론이었던지..

자율주의 출현에는 옛 PD경향들의 혼란도 있는 것같아요. 전학협이나 사회당 중 일부, 특히 대학생들이 자율주의나 기타 아나키즘에 많이 이끌렸다고 하더군요. 제가 아는 사람중에도 그런사람들이 꽤있고..

현재 한국의 PD들은 고립되어 있는데다 분열도 엄청 심각해서 자기단속조차 못하는 실정인 곳이 많죠.

아, 한국 좌파들의 진모습을 알 수 있는 팜플릿이 있는데.. 이번 고대 투쟁을 다룬 '다윗과 골리앗의 투쟁'이라는 제목의 팜플릿인데... 정말 무협지에요 무협지..ㅋㅋㅋ

인터넷에 안띄워져 있는게 아쉽네...
에궁... 그럼 앞으로도 더 재미난 글 기대할께요


At July 20, 2005 7:27 AM, Anonymous 다시 예송 said...

아! 박노자씨 강연 너무 좋았어요!!!

눈물 나왔음.... 정말 그 분은 어쩜 그렇게 말솜씨도 있고 박식하신지...!

완전히 반해버렸어요. 정치적 관점도 너무 괜찮더라구요... 박노자씨 만나면 꼭 전해주세요. 완전히 반해버렸다구..ㅋㅋ

At July 20, 2005 10:16 AM, Blogger kotaji said...

Kimchee GI: Glad you enjoyed the post. Perhaps I should write a series on the Korean left, although I feel my knowledge is a bit limited to do this subject justice. I'll see what I can manage.

예송씨: Thanks for the extra info, I might put some of it about the PD into the post if that's ok with you. I'm also looking forward to reading the debate between 최일붕 and 조정환. Is 조정환 the main intellectual of the Autonomist movement? Is he(?) originally from the PD faction?

I haven't got around to reading the online version of Pak Noja's speech yet, but hopefully I'll have time today. I might even translate some excerpts for the blog. As you say, his Korean ability and his knowledge are amazing. 박선생님은 우리편에 있는 게 정말 다행하죠! ^^

At July 20, 2005 12:13 PM, Blogger Infidel said...

I applaud your dedication to become the historian and scribe of the Korean Left, but I don't see much practical value for South Korean politics other than feeding into a perennial need for new rationalizations for petty factions. It's understandable, but nevertheless grating, that liberalism has seemingly become so discredited in South Korea. Roh's waning popularity, though, reveals less support for progressivism than his North Korea policy is garnering him. South Korean progressives can memorize all the abstruse theorists. like young girls at a fashion show, but ultimately the voters will judge their performance by their account books.

At July 20, 2005 2:47 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

I'm not sure what practical value this could have for the Korean left either. I just wanted to provide some information to people outside Korea or not familiar with the Korean left. For me, the practical purpose of this is for people to have a better understanding of Korea, and perhaps for people with similar political views to mine to better engage in practical internationalism and solidarity.

On the subject of liberalism, I do think that the political and social envrionment of the Korean peninsula makes it difficult to achieve a stable liberal politics. Roh does seem to be trying to do liberal politics in the European style (aka social liberalism) at least to an extent. But I think Korea is so different to European or North American countries that this will be very difficult.

Some of the factors behind the instability of Korean politics are fairly obvious: rapid economic development, massive social flux, recent emergence from an authoritarian regime, clientilistic politics etc. Of course the international dimension can never be left out either: a peninsula divided between two warring superpowers and now between a rising capitalist south and a defunct developmental regime in the north. South Korea now also feels itself squeezed between Japan and the emerging colossus of China. All these things make Korea a very insecure place where it would seem to be difficult for the ruling class to secure the kind of consensus needed for the establishment of a stable, institutionalised liberal politics.

At July 20, 2005 9:37 PM, Blogger usinkorea said...

Just an initial thought on a subject I don't know much about. I found this definition on the net - "Autonomist theory, in contrast to other forms of Marxism, emphasises the ability of the working class to force changes to the organisation of the capitalist system independent of the state, trade unions or political parties. It is less concerned with party political organisation, and with theoretical or doctrinal consistency, than other types of Marxist thought; instead it focuses on spontaneous action and continual development of its theoretical tools."

That doesn't sound promising to me - in general or in relation to South Korea.

I don't mind a move away from a totalizing Theory like Marxism which seeks to not only define the history of human civilization but also predict its future, but the way this definition reads, it sounds like the result of the acceptance of the failure of the Marxist projects in states that tried it by saying you'll just hang. Not an admittance of failure or need for structural reform in the theory or finding a new theory, but a fall back to a "what I'm feeling today." At least that's the way it reads there.

And that is my general impression of what has happened to the far left since the fall of Communism at the state level. An unwillingness to play within the system that won out, or to be seen as playing within it, but not moving to formulate a real alternative even in the face of the implosion of their previous system.

I also wonder about the idea of spontaneous citizen activity not attached to the state the way it states it here. I guess moving away from a theory of overthrowing the state and reeducation of the parts of the masses that don't go along is good. But, in Korean society, what does spontaneous political activity usually entail? Riots.

Interesting topic. If there are any books on it you know of (in English) could you post them?

At July 21, 2005 3:27 AM, Blogger Dram Man said...

As a point of inquery, I do not exactly see how defining the hues of the Korean left gets away from it being as you say:

"an amorphous mass of crazed stick-wielding students with a grudge against all things American and bolshie workers and farmers"

Perhaps the expostion makes it a less amorphous mass, however that still does not address the rest of that claim.

Sniping aside, I think one of the biggest problems for Noh and his reform wish list has nothing to do with the above metioned issues, but the fact that personal accountabilty and corruption is rife in Korea. There is a general perception on left and right that not only do the rules do not apply to them, but also if you have enough money you can get away with anything.

For Korea to progress (right or left) there needs to be a change in this system. Or else the corruption will ruin whatever needs to be done.

At July 21, 2005 3:27 AM, Blogger Dram Man said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At July 21, 2005 12:11 PM, Anonymous oranckay said...

Excellent stuff.

I've long thought about a post about PD/NL, but of course as you may have noticed these days it's my blog program itself that is a far more pressing issue.

Attending Yonsei as an 4 year student, I recognized there were different camps well before I understood the issues based on how sOnbae's treated me when I first entered the Korean lit department. Some really didn't like me and spoke chondaemal to me until quite later, while others wanted to know about progressives in the US. As you might guess the ones who took a while to get used to me were NL and those who were interested in the plight of frogs in other wells turned out to be PD. Our department was overwhelmingly NL when it came to elected department student body positions and that made life tough at times (Not because anyone was harsh with me but just because of things like the songs they'd choose to sing. '단결투쟁가' beats the song '반전반핵 양키고홈' any day, don't it?), but fortunately we PD types organized a rebellion in my final year and believe it or not I got to play dept vice president.

While marriage to a certain nationality never proves anything and obviously there is no shortage of paternalistic & racist white men who invoke marriage to Korean wives as evidence of their love for the place, people are often amused to learn that 진중권's wife is Japanese. He's done some great criticism of NLers btw, if you haven't seen it already.

At July 21, 2005 3:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting post. You provide some helpful diversity of opinion and knowledge about Korea among the expat blog world.

For those interested in more on the topic, you can read Visions of Democracy:
The Communication and Transformation of Revolutionary Ideaologies in South Korea

Btw, stay safe in London.

At July 21, 2005 6:02 PM, Blogger kotaji said...

Thanks for all the comments, not sure I can respond to everything there, but will try on a couple of things.

[btw London is ok. I'm not far from Warren Street tube and UCH Hospital, where apparently a 'bomber' fled. Helicopters constantly flying overhead, public transport completely up the spout, apart from that it fortunately appears to have been a 'minor' incident compared to two weeks ago. Welcome to the 21st century.]


Anonymous: thanks for the link - that looks very interesting.

Oranckay: I have to say that my knowledge of the whole PD/NL thing is a bit thin. However, I do have somewhere on my computer a good article in English about the left in the 80s which covers all that stuff. It's by a PhD student at LSE - Mi Park.

When your blog is up and running again it would be great to read a post on your experiences/thoughts about this.

Drambuie Man: I can only really answer the problem you pose with anecdotal evidence. My experience of marching with and talking to leftists that I know in Korea is that they are increasingly internationalist in outlook and that most people think that the ritualised displays of violence between police and students/demonstrators are pretty non-productive and over the top.

Bubba: I'm not a supporter of autonomist ideas myself although I do find them interesting. Also I'd like to take you up on your description of Marxism as a 'totalising theory'. In my opinion you're mixing up Stalinism and classical Marxism here, which are quite different things.

Marx's ideas are neither a theory nor totalising - they actually constitute a method from which various different scholars, activists, thinkers etc have constructed theories.

Stalinist Marxism on the other hand sought to turn Marx's ideas into a positivistic 'science' of human society, which, as you say, could 'define' the past and predict the future. This is clearly a pretty stupid idea.

At July 22, 2005 2:11 AM, Anonymous oranckay said...

To the many commenters it might be worth nothing that "nationalist, racist" "lefties" are by definition more visible in Korean politics. Being nationalist and racist their politics are based on race and not class. Being nationalist they will sometimes be in agreement with the nationalist right, for example in regards to NK, and so they spend more time in the spotlight. Orthodox socialists (those who put class before race and state) in SK simply have to be anti-NK, and so regardless whether their numbers are large or small (since I wouldn't know how to count them), no SK politician or news agency wants to be associated with them. And obviously the average SK politician or news outlet going to feel threatened by anyone talking about class.

An example of "left-leaning" types who are not nationalist/racist nor especially interested in class are feminists. NL-style nationalism idealizes all that is "traditional" Korean and the joke when I went to school was that NL women were always better dressed than PD women. Paik Nak Chung, recently the leader of the non-governmental delegation to Pyôngyang for the 5th anniversary of the summit there, wrote something in the 80's to the effect that women's issues are a distraction to the real issue, reunification. In the 80's many a male NLer imagined the perfect woman as being one of those Chosônesque ladies who dutifully waits for her husband while he engages in (for example) anti-Japanese activities in the mountains, washing all his clothes and packing more food whenever he briefly stops by for a little lovin'. Novels like T'aebaek Sanmaek are full of them and that's one of the reasons that ten volume novel makes me sick.

Kôt'aji, are you sure that's not ppalgaengidûl instead of bbalgaengidûl?

At July 22, 2005 10:46 AM, Blogger kotaji said...

Oh dear. Never mind NL or PD, it looks as though I'm letting my MR credentials slip.

On T'aebaek Sanmaek, I must say that Antti has been encouraging me to start it (I have vol 1 sitting on my shelf), but he seems to be around vol 7 and getting increasingly annoyed with it.

I think you're right about the lower visibility of non-nationalist socialists, but my impression is that there is also a process of change going on. This is one way in which globalisation (in the broadest sense of the term) can have a positive effect on Korean politics.

Where's Paik Nak Chung at these days? I'm sure someone was telling me that he was a bit of a sell out like a lot of these old nationalist types (who are now in government much like the old student union leaders and Maoists in the New Labour govt here in the UK). Was reading an interesting article by him in translation in Korea Focus.

At July 22, 2005 12:38 PM, Anonymous oranckay said...

"...a bit of a sell out like a lot of these old nationalist types.."

A natural process, I think, for nationalists.

I don't fault Paik for being from a historically rich NK family, I don't fault him especially for being an academic who sold (making a profit) nationalism dressed in progressive clothes for all those years, and I don't fault him for always being so in bed with Chosun Ilbo 'cause heck, I worked for them for 4 years myself. He didn't sell out to the establishment, either, since he was always part of it. I do fault the many "progressives" who because of their worship of him with that traditional 지식인숭배 read his nationalist writings sitting on their asses in libraries.

He's a strange mix: because of his edu and area of specialty he is well versed in Western intellectual history and yet he seems to hold minjok above all else...

At July 23, 2005 3:09 AM, Blogger june cho said...

Kotaji, thanks for the great post. It reminded me of my college years. I was sort of NL, since NL dominated my school. NL and PD were co-operative and co-existent (so they did protest or demonstration together)back then. But I heard that the current NL and PD don’t talk to each other at all (Is it true?) Having diversity or difference is fine, but it seems to me that they (depending on their ideology, belief system etc.) become enemies. Is there any way for the Korean left to stay together without losing their differences?

Oranckay, if you ever met one of the NL leaders with average weight (or slightly overweight) and height (around 5’8’’) from the School of Science in early 90s, he would be my cousin!

At July 23, 2005 11:42 AM, Anonymous Andy said...

I guess from the inside, the difference between the groups mentioned above seem huge. But from the outside, it reminds me of the passionate debate in the middle of 'The Name of the Rose" over whether or not Jesus owned his own clothes. Yes, both sides thought that the other was incorrect to the point of be heretical, but to an outsider they would still both be Catholics.

My main question is which of these groups does not want to snag farmer Jo's apple orchard (or corporation) for the good of the people? That would be the faction that can be dealt with.

At July 29, 2005 4:38 AM, Blogger Jamie said...

Good post kotaji.

I've been meaning to do a similar post about anarchism in SK. Though you are right to mention that it has no large impact on the left, it's not quite dead.

A few years ago I organized a small discussion in Seoul with George Katsiaficas, a historian of European autonomist movements among other things with some of these people who consisted of a loose group of both young and old -- a few octegenarians actually.

You can find out more about them at But I think its fair to say that most of their activism takes a form similar to North American anarchism, in terms of the "counter culture" and small groups like food not bombs. However, they have done some good work in helping conscientious objectors and migrant workers.

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