Research and study of ideologies of social and national emancipation and their application to conditions within imperialist society

The Juche idea. Talk to the webinar organised by the International Manifesto Group on the theme: ‘Korea’s Struggle for Independence, Peace and Reunification’. 21 November 2021.


What good are Marxists?

That was a question posed to me by Alan 15 years ago, as we rather gloomily reflected upon the fact that the greatest grief and obstruction we had each faced in our respective professional, academic and political life had in all too many cases been inflicted upon us by Marxists. And yet all we wanted to do was to follow in the path charted by Karl Marx!

The Korean ideology of Juche, the Juche idea, responds to a somewhat analogous situation at the global level, where it has likewise, ever since its origins, interacted closely with the great debates of socialism.

  • The origins of the Juche idea are inextricably linked to the response by Korea’s great leader, Kim Il Sung, to issues arising in the context of revolutionary party-building, not least of which concerned a critical assessment of the Third International’s interaction with the various currents within Korean communism.
  • The public enunciation of the Juche idea as a distinct approach within the socialist camp was a central element of Kim Il Sung’s response to the growing tensions and polemics between the Soviet and Chinese parties from the late 1950s onwards.
  • Kim Il Sung’s explicit formulation of the content of the Juche Idea was in the first instance a response to the growing demand of progressive circles around the world to better understand how People’s Korea had successfully sustained such unity among its people around its indomitable and consistent anti-imperialist stand.
  • They wanted to understand how Korea had managed to sustain its relations with the governments and communist parties of both China and the Soviet Union at a time when most of the world communist movement had got swept into one camp or another, a central feature of their success in avoiding the factional splits and schisms which might understandably have led to many asking Alan’s question.

By the 1980s, and indeed before, the Korean people, who had never known any other leadership but that of Kim Il Sung, had to face the question of succession to the leadership, and on that matter the only thing on their minds was how to sustain continuity. A comprehensive elaboration and systematisation of his thinking so that it could be carried forward into the following generations was therefore a major issue for party, people and state.

Before looking at the response to this requirement, which was led by Kim Jong Il, I should like to recall a comment which Carlos made to me, to the effect that we should assess the ideologies originated within the anti-imperialist movements of the world not according to some preconceived standpoint or blueprint but according to their success or otherwise in contributing to the mobilisation of their peoples against imperialism.

In this category of anti-imperialist ideologies, once could place, for example, some that are named after the leaders who originated them: Nkrumahism, Guevarism, Chavismo. We also see the bio-socialism of Bolivia, the Ujamaa of Tanzania, the Green Book ideology of Qadhafi. As for our country and its neighbour, the most outstanding anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist movement we have experienced in our lifetime is the Irish Republican Movement, whose ideology rests on the heritage of the life and writings of such leaders as James Connolly and Padraig Peirce. We have also experienced the reverberations of the world’s Black Power movements and their associated ideas generated by such individuals as Marcus Garvey, W E B Dubois, Malcolm X, and movements such as the Black Panthers. The list could go on and on.

It has proved difficult for Marxists to appreciate the significance of the Juche Idea due to the difficulty they have faced in widening their intellectual points of reference beyond those which were available to Marx himself, namely the the Western intellectual traditions of German dialectics, French socialism and English political economy. In contrast, the Juche Idea takes as its intellectual and ideological point of reference this new universe of anti-imperialist ideas, ideas of independence, among which it is distinguished by its uniquely longstanding and close interaction with the great debates of socialism.

Returning to the response of Kim Jong Il to the requirement to systematise the Juche Idea, this involved a project of philosophical, social scientific and theoretical activity which is surely unique in its scope and sophistication among all progressive ideologies not explicitly and exclusively situated within the Marxist tradition.

A prominent aspect of this activity was to identify points of continuity and originality with respect to received ideas within the socialist tradition.

  • As for continuity, this was quite simply the shared project to follow in the path charted by Karl Marx.
  • As for originality, the Juche Idea addressed questions which only arose in the new conditions in the world following the October 1917 revolution, which had raised socialist practice to a new level in which the people of a wide variety of different societies were increasingly able to assert their true nature as the subjects of history, building new societies that were transforming the world in accordance with their own interests.

On the philosophical front, the original contribution of the Juche Idea was defined as posing a new fundamental question for philosophy. The age-old question addressed by philosophy, the relation of consciousness to matter, had long since been definitively answered by Marx and Engels. The Juche Idea was now posing the new question, the relation of people (‘man’) to the world – a relation of mastery in which people transform the world in their own interests.

If Marxist cannot appreciate such ideological achievements, debates and discussions within the anti-imperialist movements of the world today, then whose fault is that?

In 1990, I had the privilege of discussing the potential interlinkage of these ideologies, most particularly those which we interact most directly in this country, with Kim Il Sung himself. Actually I think the meeting was supposed to be between Kim Il Sung and Keith, but somehow arrangements has gone awry and it ended up being me, along with Muhammad Arif, the General Secretary of the British Afro-Asian Solidarity Organisation.

At the meeting, we discussed a speech that Muhammad Arif had made at a recent Irish Republican rally in London, where he had drawn together some of these ideological links. We also mentioned that Kiyul Chung had likewise made a speech at the same event at which he had expressed the mutual solidarity that the peoples of Ireland and Korea are bound to feel, both of their countries being partitioned by imperialism. Kim Il Sung listened intently and commented favourably on what Muhammad Arif had said. At that meeting, then, we felt that we were at the heart of this great global process of the interaction and fusion of anti-imperialist ideologies in our time.

I first seriously started studying the Juche Idea in the 1980s, and this eventually led to my leaving my job as a librarian and taking up the study of the history of ideas, a subject on which I now lecture at University College London. So if you want to be convinced that the Juche Idea is indeed something original, you may, if you wish, take it from me.

But much better than listening to any old academic, I hope that what I have said may encourage you to take the study of the Juche Idea seriously as a valuable guide in your practical activities in the struggle against imperialism.