A Revolutionary Conference in Korea

On October 27 and 28 2006, the internationalist revolutionary Korean group Socialist Political Alliance (SPA) organized a conference under the title: ‘Marx and Revolution: Decadence, Class Struggle and Revolutionary Strategy’. The group invited other organizations in Korea to participate, as well as three left communist organizations from abroad: The International Communist Current, Internationalist Perspective and the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (IBRP). The latter organization declined to participate (we would like to hear from it why this refusal was not sectarian). The ICC and IP submitted texts which were translated into Korean, and sent delegates. The very fact that a conference of this kind took place – for the first time in Korea, or even in East Asia as far as we know - is a milestone in itself. A wide range of opinions was expressed in the lively debates and ties were forged between revolutionaries in Korea and abroad that will be built upon.

The conference took place in two different cities. The first day, devoted to a discussion of Capitalist Decadence, was held in a university auditorium in Seoul, the capital city. The format was more that of an expanded public meeting, in which all interested persons were welcome to participate. The ICC, and IP, delegates gave abbreviated presentations of their positions, while a comrade of the SPA presented an overview and interpretation of the debate on Decadence between the ICC, IP and the IBRP. He concluded with a set of well chosen guidelines for further study and debate, based on the recognition that the concept of Decadence is essential for revolutionary theory; that it cannot be understood with quantitative economic criteria alone; that the relation between decadence and the real domination of capital should be analyzed thoroughly; that the theoretical gaps of Marxism should be addressed (see texts annexed). IP concurred with his view.

The debate was quite general, since the positions presented were new to many in the audience. The issues that were raised ranged from the lessons of the October Revolution to how to explain Decadence in the face of increased affluence in countries such as South Korea. As was to be expected, the answers given by the ICC and IP (the first basing itself on a static view of Decadence, the second defending a dynamic understanding of the period) were quite different. The last part of the day was devoted to a debate over a declaration, presented by the ICC, on the recent nuclear test by North Korea. The declaration denounced the test, as well as the actions of all the other countries involved, as an expression of decadence and of the capitalist nature of all the parties in the conflict . The IP delegate wholeheartedly endorsed the declaration, which brought the concept of decadence home to the concrete and actual situation in Korea. In the debate, objections were raised: some argued that the actual war danger is not that great, others stated that the declaration should finger the US’ aggressive containment strategy as the main culprit. In response, both the ICC and IP argued that the declaration was not an analysis of how imminent the danger of war was, nor which of the parties in the conflict was the most aggressive; that such issues were secondary compared to the need to be clear on the fact that the actions of all the countries involved were an expression of the tendency of global capitalism in crisis to seek a solution for its problems through inter-imperialist conflict, that the working class should not support nor find excuses for any of them, but oppose them all.

On the second day, the conference moved to the Casual Workers’ Center in the industrial city of Ulsan. The first session was devoted to “Class Struggles Worldwide.” Presentations were made by the ICC, IP, Loren Goldner , by a member of the Korean group “Solidarity for Workers’ Liberation,” a group of Trotskyist origin, yet anti-nationalist in its orientation, and finally by a member of the Ulsan Labor Education Community. The latter gave a detailed and fascinating overview of class struggle in Korea between 1987 and 2006, of which unfortunately only an outline was available in English. A lot of discussion was about the trade union question. Some participants criticized the ICC and IP afterwards for being too general and not relating their interventions enough to the concrete concerns of Korean workers. The language barrier may have been a factor but there was some validity to the critique. We have to do a better job in keeping our finger on the pulse of the class struggle, not in order to invent grand theories on how to struggle, but by learning from the experience of workers in different parts of the world and transmitting what the workers are inventing themselves. On the question raised by one of the participants, how to integrate precarious workers in the workers’ struggles, Goldner argued that, with the elimination of permanent contracts for a rapidly growing part of the workforce, and almost 2 billion people excluded from the point of production, capitalism has created a new, mobile kind of worker. He gave different examples of struggles in Argentina, Australia and Italy, in which such workers are turning this mobility into an advantage, by involving themselves in different struggles, as the piqueteros did in Argentina. The ICC responded to this by saying that this was nothing new, that flying pickets and precarious work existed before. Goldner replied, correctly in our opinion, that what is new is that today’s unemployed and precarious workers have little hope of full employment and therefore tend to fight from the perspective of the working class as a whole; and that flying pickets used to be organized by workers at the point of production to generalize their struggle, while the flying pickets in the examples he cited, were organized by the precarious and unemployed workers themselves, bridging different struggles.

The third session of the conference was about revolutionary strategy. Presentations were made by the ICC and IP and by a member of the Korean “Militants Group for a Revolutionary Party.” The latter, which also seemed Trotskyist inspired, was titled “The council movement strategy in the present period of South Korea, how to put it into practice”. While sympathetic to the goal of workers’ councils, it defended a rank & file unionist strategy of conquering “workers’ control” on the shop floor as the way to get there. This perspective was criticized by the ICC, IP as well as by Korean comrades. The discussion also touched upon the party question, which highlighted the difference in the positions of the ICC and IP on this issue. Finally, the declaration proposed by the ICC was discussed again. Some of the same reservations as in Seoul were expressed. One participant proposed to change the characterization of the North Korean regime from “bourgeois” to “despotic,” which was rejected by others, because it is essential to see all the regimes involved as expressions of the same rotten worldwide system. At the proposal of IP, “bourgeois” was replaced by “capitalist,” to indicate that, even though there is no classic bourgeoisie in North Korea, it is, nevertheless, a capitalist class system and state, antagonistic to working class interests. At the proposal of local comrades, a sentence was added to denounce the use of the war threat by the South Korean regime to repress working class militants. The declaration was signed by the ICC, the SPA and IP and by several other participants. Others felt that more discussion on the question was needed.

In its introductory remarks to the conference, the SPA had stated: “Although Korean workers express their difficulties on the shop floor and the revolutionary political forces in Korea are in the midst of confusion on the perspectives of a future communist society, we have to accomplish the solidarity of the world proletariat beyond one factory, beyond one nation”. The conference was an important step in that direction. This first meeting between revolutionary Marxists in Korea and left communists from abroad holds a promise for the future. The SPA and IP have agreed to stay in contact, to continue discussions and to intervene together at important moments. IP thanks the SPA for its invitation and warm welcome and congratulates the comrades in Korea for their excellent work in preparing for and organizing this conference

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