More articles by Leonid A.Petrov

Turning Revolutionaries into Party Scholar-bureaucrats:

Marxist Historians in Colonial Korea and DPRK

by Leonid A. Petrov

International conference “Between Colonialism and Nationalism: Power and Subjectivity in Korea, 1931-1950”,

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, (4-6 May 2001)


Subdued by the Japanese colonial rule in 1910, Korea was immersed into a process of rapid and painful change. Together with this transformation in economy and social life, forcibly imposed by the colonial occupation, the views of Korean intelligentsia also underwent substantial conversion. In the situation of entrenched Japanese colonisation, the Korean intelligentsia felt keenly its responsibility for the loss of national sovereignty. In order to rectify this historical “injustice”, they assumed the mission of anti-Japanese resistance. Assuming this task, scholars of the social sciences were particularly active in exploring new ways that could explain the grim reality of the colonial regime and inspire the nation in further struggle for independence.

Often considered as an essential part of the national liberation movement, the pre-war nationalist historiography is believed to have served the ends of Korea’s economic modernisation and political emancipation from Japanese colonialism. Therefore, persistent efforts of Korean leftist intellectuals to establish a new outlook on national history are often compared to other forms of anti-Japanese struggle, among which were movements for cultural “self-reconstruction”, economic “support for domestic products”, militant guerrilla insurgence, etc. The historians’ concern about the colonial policy of cultural obliteration manifested itself in consistent opposition to the Japanese official historiography. The search for a new approach to understanding Korea’s national past, present, and future – chosŏn insik or understanding of Korea – was undertaken by nearly every group of nationalist historians. A great variety of conflicting academic approaches and the intense character of scholarly debates, which constantly occurred between historians, was the main characteristic feature of the development of nationalist historiography in colonial Korea.

During this period, socialist ideas arrived in Korea from Europe and Soviet Russia via Japan and China. Those leftist historians and economists who united under the banners of the Marxist Socio-economic school of historiography [Sahoe kyŏngje sahak], proved surprisingly successful in their search for the answers to Korea’s poor international status. Marxist theory of history enabled them to create a principally new outlook on Korean history. In the 1930s, the achievements of this materialist historiography clearly demonstrated its ability not only to oppose the notions of official Japanese historiography but also to surpass the results of the idealistic historiography of “uncompromising” nationalists. However, close cooperation of Korean leftist scholars with the local Communist Party put their work under tough control of communist politics and made them rather hostile to other groups of the nationalist movement. As this division widened, it finally led to the political division of the country after the defeat of Japan in August 1945.

These pre-war developments, which allowed historical materialism to be applied to Korean history research, in many ways predetermined the official status of Marxist historiography in post-war North Korea. But the triumphant reign of Marxist scholars in the DPRK was short-lived. Paradoxically, the more historian-politicians followed Soviet patterns in history research, the closer was the end of their domination on the political stage. In reconstructing the general picture of this correlation between academic research and political power in a totalitarian state, one may find certain elements of the North Korean academic system exceptionally graphic. Particularly helpful will be understanding of the mechanism which catapulted Korean Marxist historian-politicians into ruling positions in the DPRK but, at the same time, prepared their demotion to the role of Party scholar-bureaucrats.

The legacy of Korean Marxist historians and economists of the colonial and post-war periods continues to attract the interest of contemporary experts in Korean political history worldwide. For many years, evaluation of its achievements in the non-communist world remained somewhat contemptuous. When discussing the phenomenon of Marxist historiography in colonial Korea, authors often assumed that this materialist outlook on national history appeared only as the result of dramatic modification of identity by history-writing intellectuals. Presumably, as the majority of Korean leftist scholars were brought up and educated during the most dramatic period in Korea’s history – Japanese colonial occupation – it was the natural change in their national identity that forced them to search for the so-called “universal laws” of history and predetermined the typical over-simplification of their outlook on national history. Thus, their efforts to change the understanding of the national past was to be explained not by the methodological power of the Marxist historical materialism but by a mysterious change in the identity of leftist historians themselves.

A recent South Korean work on the history of leftist ideas and Marxist historiography in pre-war Korea gives a comprehensive picture of the complex intellectual atmosphere in colonial Korea. The author tends to credit the protagonist of the Socio-economic school, Paek Nam-un, with the qualities of a fervent nationalist and active detractor of Japanese domination. Certain defects in Paek’s research methodology (illogical jumps in conclusions, insufficient criticism of historical sources, and excessive dependence on the methodology of Morgan and Engels) are explained by his desperation to systematise Korea’s history in full accordance with the dogma of Marx’s historical materialism, itself replete with numerous shortcomings. Thus, the author implies that Marxism for Paek Nam-un and his followers was simply a convenient but faulty scholarly method to express their passionate nationalism. 

A different evaluation was made by Soviet historiography. It usually perceived Marxist scholarship in colonial Korea as intrinsically internationalist and attributed all its weaknesses to the immaturity of the Korean communist movement, severe repression from the colonial authorities, and hostility from bourgeois-nationalistic historiography. Apparently, these factors together hindered Korean leftist historians from deducing numerous discrepancies in their works. This judgment places much emphasis on the crimes of Japanese colonialism and underrates the cognisance of Marx and Engels’s primary works in colonial Korea. In other words, leftist historians were depicted as staunch fighters against Japanese imperialism who, although besieged by factionalism and ruthlessly suppressed by the colonial authorities, were blessed by the truth of Marxism. 

There are reasons to concur with the above-mentioned conclusions about the sources of serious defects which existed in pre-war Marxist historiography in Korea. However, when talking about weaknesses and discrepancies, one should not forget that in its evolution the Socio-economic school of historiography experienced a great many influences. Interlacing political, religious, and cultural currents did exert a combined impact on the Korean intelligentsia throughout the colonial period. Korean leftist intellectuals, including those who openly advocated the Marxist theory of class struggle, stubbornly acted as medieval Confucian scholars, actively participated in the nationalist movement for “self-reconstruction”, and were baptised to join the Christian socialist movement.

One of the greatest influences was the impact of the simplified, Stalinist version of Marxism or, as it has been aptly labelled by E.Hobsbawm, “vulgar-Marxism". While studying overseas, young Korean intellectuals found themselves exposed to the strong influence of Marxist historical materialism which was initially adopted by Chinese and Japanese leftist scholars. Brought from Europe and Soviet Russia, this vulgar-Marxism had been already refracted through the guidelines of the Moscow-based Communist International (hereafter Comintern). As a result, it was Stalin and other Kremlin strategists who engineered many bizarre and irrational actions conducted by local leftists between the 1930s and 1950s, and caused serious confusion in the sphere of national history writing.

Later, with the end of WWII, the tradition of Soviet ideological control among leftist intellectuals re-emerged in northern Korea, occupied by the Soviet Army. When Marxist historians, following the Communist Party resolutions, moved from Seoul to Pyongyang to materialise their dream of a new and democratic Korea, many of them instantly occupied high governmental and academic positions and began playing a significant role in creation of the new academic institutions. However, their frantic emulation of Soviet experience in politicised history writing only helped Kim Il-sŏng establish an unparalleled cult of personality. The upsurge of nationalism in the course of the Korean War also predetermined the slow demise of a class-centred Marxist historiography in the DPRK. In the 1950s and 1960s, Stalinist understanding of history in North Korea was substituted with the ultra-nationalistic historiography of Juch’e.

In this paper, I argue that Marxist historian-revolutionaries in colonial Korea and historian-politicians in the DPRK were living and working under the severe ideological pressure exerted by the Soviet leadership, and that all inconsistencies and internal conflicts in their writings were generated by the erratic policies of Moscow. The tragic fate of Marxist historians in colonial Korea and the DPRK may also exemplify the methods of manipulation of intellectuals in a totalitarian state and provide an answer to the question why revolutionaries, if they survive the revolution, always turn into bureaucrats.

Marxist Historians in Colonial Korea

Giving especial emphasis to the theory of universal uni-linear evolution and the acceptance of the list of “socio-economic formations” given in the preface to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, Soviet-style Marxism implied a certain order in the succession of those formations. E. Hobsbawm states that the academic circles involved in the process of these vulgar interpretations of orthodox Marxism often “were not wholly aware of the implications of what they were doing”. As happened with many well-educated people in the colonised countries of Asia, Korean intellectuals were fascinated by the enormous potential of leftist social theories, eagerly joined the left wing of local national liberation movements, and involved themselves in secret organisational activities led by local communists.

After returning from their studies in Japan, young and radical Korean economists and historians began contemplating the possibility of rewriting their national history in order to show the world and their own countrymen that one day Korea would regain its status of independent and civilised nation, like Japan or Western countries. They harshly criticised the achievements of contemporary Nationalistic historiography for its extreme mystification of national history and strong emphasis on national character. For Korean Marxists the merits of national character were not something to emphasise before the final resolution of Korea’s colonial status. They dismissed a great many popular nationalistic notions including the myth of Tan’gun and the concept of Korea’s national particularity. Paek Nam-un and other Marxist scholars, pursuing the goal of quickest modernisation of the Korean nation, actively recommended learning from Japan, and later, after the end of WWII, they all began admiring the USSR as the most appropriate model for emulation. Their New Historiography [Sinhŭng sahak], which was generally based on Marxist class-centred ideology, was supposed to provide a new and true foundation to such modernisation.

Starting from the late 1920s, the Marxist school of materialist historical research in Korea formed a legitimate part of nationalist historiography. The academic achievements of Paek Nam-un, Yi Ch’ŏng-won, Yi Puk-man, etc. demonstrated its excellent efficiency and ability to surpass both Korean Nationalistic and Japanese Colonial historiographies. Along with attempts to help their fellow-countrymen regain the national pride and confidence that they had been an independent and cultural nation in the past, Korean leftist historians also proposed the construction of a new, economically developed and politically independent Korea in the future.

Despite the strong ideological and methodological differences from other nationalistic groups, in 1927 Marxist intellectuals actively participated in the creation of a broad anti-Japanese united front organisation, Sin’ganhoe. Undoubtedly, it was the example of a mutually beneficial symbiosis between political Left and Right in colonial Korea. The left wing of the united front desperately needed the theoretical support by local intelligentsia. On the other hand, the Korean Communist Party required revolutionary-intellectuals to enhance their understanding of the real life of the populace. Thus, the creation of the united front linked the Communist Party with the wider range of disgruntled social groups. However, with the failure of the Chinese Revolution (1925-1927), the state of affairs in the world communist movement began changing dramatically.

Conflict between Stalin and Trotsky sharply polarised all internal conflicts within the communist movement and placed a huge group of “petty-bourgeois” intellectuals under the constant suspicion of local Communist Parties. To prove their dedication to the revolutionary course, Marxist scholars now were to respond to any change in the Comintern policies by an appropriate shift in their research. Such manoeuvres could only increase the level of resentment which other nationalist groups in Korea bore against the Japanese-trained Marxists for their experiments on the sacred five-thousand-years-long national history. Marxist scholars began condemning both the Nationalistic and Japanese Colonial historiographies as reactionary for not recognising the “objective laws” of historical development. But the understanding of such “laws” was very different even among the Marxist historians themselves.

The lack of unity within the world communist movement was becoming ubiquitous. Marx and Lenin’s ideas had been interpreted and misinterpreted in so many different ways that their proponents often failed to reach consensus even on very basic issues. To consolidate his leadership in the movement, Stalin was to interfere even in minor ideological matters of various Communist Parties. This process of “Stalinisation”, as it was called by Leszek Kolakovski, could not but leave significant impact on the work of leftist intellectuals.

In the natural course of things, Stalinization spread throughout the world Communist movement. For the first decade of its existence, the Third International was still a forum of discussion and conflict between different forms of Communist ideology, but thereafter it lost all independence and became an instrument of Soviet foreign policy, completely subordinated to Stalin’s authority.

Korean leftist scholars of history also began experiencing strong ideological pressure from Moscow. Affiliated with Korean and Japanese communists, the founders of the Marxist Socio-economic school found themselves under the tenacious command of communist politics. Reflecting Comintern’s ambition for hegemony in the national liberation, Korean communists engineered the dissolution of Sin'ganhoe in May 1931. This move remarkably coincided with the goals of the Japanese colonial authorities and, therefore, isolated Marxist intellectuals from the rest of the national liberation movement in Korea.

The revolutionary breakdown in China provided Marxist historiographical scholarship around the world with reasons to suspect that, compared to historical process in the European countries, the historical process in Asia unfolded according to principally different rules. Hereafter, Marx’s neglected theory of the Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP) attracted the keen attention of Soviet scholars. The AMP, as its proponents outlined, included a number of characteristic elements: the absence of private landownership; the equality of land rent and state tax when rent takes the form of tax; the fact that the ruling clans were corporately organised and coextensive with the administrative apparatus of the state. As this notion compromised the so-called “five-stage periodisation theory”, advocated by Stalin and his proxies in the Comintern, a special scholarly conference was held in Leningrad in 1931 to condemn the heretical concept.

Understanding the menace of such ideological supervision for history research, Karl Wittfogel in his post-war writings often drew the sad example of historiographical debates in the USSR and appealed to the nationalist leaders of Asia to “reject Moscow-rooted doctrine as their guide”. Nevertheless, before WWII, Stalinism was firmly entrenched in Marxist historiography worldwide and “hypocrisy and self-delusion had become the permanent climate of the intellectual Left." The identification of a given mode of production was of great political importance for the international strategy of the Comintern. For example, in the presence of Feudal social order, the working class might become the temporary ally of the rising class of bourgeoisie. However, such alliance would be unthinkable should the current stage be defined as Capitalism. The complexities of this and other unsolved questions of orthodox Marxism allowed the Marxist scholars to hone their analytical skills in the exceptionally sharp debates on periodisation of history and identification of social orders.

After 1933, the concept of the AMP was no longer considered a legitimate tool of Marxist historiographical inquiry in the USSR. This notion, as Leszek Kolakowski indicated, appeared to contradict the three basic tenets that orthodox Marxists usually attributed to historical materialism. Whereas mainstream Marxism originally emphasised the inevitability of progress in social history, the AMP concept was based on social stagnation. Whereas orthodox Marxism stressed the dominance of productive forces, the AMP stressed geographic factors. What Marxism usually understood as the manifestation of the uni-linear nature of human evolution, the AMP apprehended as a peculiarly Asian phenomenon. Thus, the entire doctrine could be applied only to Western Europe and Capitalism itself was a mere accident. In any case, the debate on the AMP reached Korea relatively late and local Marxists never seriously accepted this notion. Instead, they focused on the search for Asiatic peculiarities in Korea’s history that demonstrated the ability of Stalinist Comintern to regulate academic interest towards various issues of national history.

Despite the Moscow-imposed taboo, discussions on the AMP were repeated in Japan and China in late 1933, bringing confusion into the circles of Marxist scholars. By that time, Marxist historians in Japan (among them many Koreans) were already split between Kōza and Rōnō factions of the Japanese Communist Party, a split which reflected the variety of attitudes towards the course of Japan’s social evolution . For leftist historians the question of AMP and its compatibility with the uni-linear model of world history was of particular concern. The AMP notion was used by Kōza scholars to make Korean history fit with both the concept of ancient Japanese history and the Marxist theory of “Asiatic peculiarities”. This theory emerged from consideration of the underdeveloped character of property relations and the lingering elements of the Primitive Communal system. Marxist scholars in Japan thought that these “peculiarities” diverted Korea from the universal patterns of social development and predetermined its protracted stagnation. For many of them it was the only chance to prove that their own country, compared to backward Korea, had achieved a more advanced stage of socio-economic development and therefore was ready for social revolution.

Such interpretation of Korea’s history, albeit radiating from the circles of Marxist scholars inspired by Comintern politics, resembled strikingly the colonial view of Korean history and, consequently, conflicted with the nationalist sentiments of Korean leftist historians. The narrative of the peculiar character of Korean history was often used by Japanese colonial propaganda in order to substantiate the Japanese official view of Korean history as stagnant and abnormal. Korean Nationalistic historiography, conversely, consistently employed the idea of national peculiarity in explaining the country’s colonial status. Initially, the materialist New Historiography of Paek Nam-un, which was based on the hypothesis of socio-economic formations formulated by Marx in the preface to his Critique of Political Economy (1859), strove to demonstrate that the historical development of the Korean nation was part of the global historical process and was devoid of any irregular features. Nevertheless, once the Comintern outlawed the heretical AMP and insisted on “Asian peculiarities”, Korean Marxist scholars of history and economics promptly repudiated their previous views and began to argue that Korea had always been beset with Asiatic backwardness.

A variety of opposing views on the question of Asiatic peculiarities in the national history triggered a major theoretical confrontation within the nationalist Left in Korea, which culminated in 1934-1936, in a series of historiographical debates. “Asiatic peculiarity” and other vulgar-Marxist notions ultimately made the anti-Japanese Socio-economic school of historiography in Korea hardly distinguishable from the official Japanese one. As a result, Korean Marxist scholarship was apprehended as pro-Japanese and pushed to the periphery of the national liberation movement. Korean leftist scholars were quickly degraded to the role of political hostages in the hands of an erratic Kremlin leader. In other words, ideological guidance, which was supposed to consolidate the Korean nationalist Left, definitely weakened its position, and significantly complicated intra-movement relations.

With the rapid curtailment of “Taishō democracy” (1912-1926) in Japan, the Korean Marxist historians found themselves in a particularly delicate situation. Their materialist research on national history now was not only being suppressed by the colonial authorities and castigated by the nationalists, but also became a subject for frequent ideological intrusions from the side of the Comintern. The latter brought confusion into Marxist scholarship and caused a number of destructive historiographical controversies. The discussion of Asian peculiarities that attracted the concern of Korean leftist scholars caused division in their own ranks. Asiatic peculiarities began to be equated with the idea of Asiatic stagnancy that could not but raise indignation among some groups of local leftists. In the course of the debate, various opinions were presented, but the main requirement for all Marxist groups was to comply with official Moscow view. As a result, the dependence of Korean leftist intellectuals on the Soviet academic tradition increased.

The years of war in China and the Pacific placed intellectual life in Korea under rigid ideological control and made Marxist research impossible. As the result of prolonged cooperation with the communists, almost every Marxist scholar experienced arrest and imprisonment. Some of them, after signing the tenkō or “conversion” papers, agreed to collaborate with the Japanese. The founder of the Socio-economic school, Paek Nam-un, and some other Marxist scholars like Yin Chŏng-sik, kept publishing pro-Japanese works until the very end of the war, supporting the new Fascist order in Japan and Korea.

In the circumstances where both Stalin and Trotsky considered Fascism only a transient episode, which by radicalising the masses would pave the way for Communism, and claimed that this theory was less harmful than Social Democracy, cooperation between former Marxists and Fascists becomes understandable. Thus, one can presume that for Marxist intellectuals in colonial Korea, Marxism was merely an ideology of social revolution rather than a vehicle of Korean nationalism. Of course, it does not mean that they were completely devoid of any nationalistic sentiments. However, once they were compelled to reject Marxism, their interest was swiftly directed to the Japanese-imposed Fascism as an alternative method of social reform.

Regardless of their political preferences, all Marxist intellectuals in Korea were to cease their academic and revolutionary activities and finally reverted to the practical careers of accountants, clerks and managers. Nevertheless, a decade of Comintern’s tough control over the local Communist Party activities and Japanese Fascist order made leftist intellectuals accustomed to totalitarian methods of ideological guidance. This quality made them particularly valuable for the communist regime which was established in northern Korea after the end of WWII. 

Marxist Historians in post-war Korea

The Soviet entry into the war against Japan on 9 August 1945 not only precipitated the end of WWII; it also foreshadowed the future of northern Korea. A week later, Japan’s surprising surrender made possible the Korean people’s long-cherished dream of independence. However, the unprecedented relief of thirty million Koreans was tempered with serious concern about the future of their country. Among the most immediate questions concerning the creation of an independent and democratic Korean nation were: What kind of political power should be established? Who should become the leader? How should the people benefit from long-awaited independence?

Such questions were not the sole concern of Koreans. Their resolution soon became imperative for the Allies, who initially did not pursue a particular policy in Korea except for the establishment of a four-party trusteeship. For Korean intellectuals who thought the course of national history was the best proof of the country's political maturity, the Allies’ initial intention to impose a trusteeship period of thirty or forty years was particularly offensive. It was precisely over these questions, that the conflict between the Korean political Left and Right escalated noticeably from August 1945, reaching boiling point by early 1946. The underlying differences exposed themselves in the wide range of approaches towards the idea of an independent and democratic state.

In post-war Korean politics, the “Right” grouped around the conservative Korean Democratic Party, it favoured a western-type democracy, advocated the early return of Chongqing Provisional Government, and was enthusiastically supported by the United States authorities for their unbending opposition to any revolutions. In contrast, the “Left” was a consolidation of socialist and communist groups and political parties, which called upon the population to carry out an immediate social revolution. It advocated radical land reform, the nationalisation of industry, and actively supported the establishment of a popular People’s Republic. In effect, the Left represented Soviet policy in southern Korea and for this received harsh criticism from American military authorities. In addition, there was a massive political “Centre” whose program, although devoid of any appeals to radical social alterations, was uncompromisingly directed at the creation of a democratic government of unified Korea.

From the outset, through their research and writings, Marxist intellectuals expressed the desire to participate in the policy-making process. Turning to politics and transforming their historical writings into political programmes, they not only contributed to the formation of a new Korean historiography but also affected the course of contemporary history on the Korean peninsula. Through the efforts of prominent leftist intellectuals, Yŏ Un-hyŏng and Paek Nam-un, the middle class and intelligentsia were successfully united under the banners of leftist and centrist parties and associations such as the Korean People’s Party, Korean Independence League, New Democratic Party, etc. The leftist intelligentsia of southern Korea, which was particularly impatient to take an active part in the state-construction process, was faced with two different interpretative options. One was the Maoist New Democracy, which became known to the Korean intelligentsia in the early 1940s; the other was Stalin's People's Democracy, which was introduced with the Soviet Army’s advance into northern Korea in August 1945.

Both Stalinist People's Democracy and Maoist New Democracy theories of non-capitalist development had common features that attracted active support of the Korean intelligentsia. The theories, however, were fundamentally different, primarily as they related to the role of the non-proletarian classes in the process of state-construction. New Democracy invited the petty bourgeoisie and intelligentsia to participate in the policy-making process of the future coalition government. In contrast, People's Democracy sanctioned no more than a temporary union with these groups, which were to be subordinated to the proletariat and its vanguard, the Communist Party. The Kremlin-controlled communist leaders in the North and their comrades in the South parted ways over topics such as the democratic state-construction, new culture, and progressive historiography. The theoretical controversy spilt over on to the pages of the leftist press, and swiftly took on the form of a historiographical debate, which revealed clearly the depth of the rift between the communists and the non-communist leftists.

This disparity was not fully apparent during the first months after the war, but in 1946 a sudden change in communist tactics towards Left-Right cooperation laid bare serious problems in the theories’ respective attitudes regarding the future democratic state-construction process. The rising ambitions of the Moscow strategists caused an abrupt change in the communist attitude towards the non-proletarian classes and intelligentsia in the Soviet-occupied territories, and precluded constructive dialogue and cooperation between varied political groups in southern Korea. All attempts to form a united front as an organised embodiment of Left-Right cooperation failed.

For example, realising their pre-war plans, Paek Nam-un and his group in Seoul successfully created the Korean Academy of Sciences. This innovative action immediately attracted enormous support from all Korean scholars who strived to join this “advisory body for the future government of liberated Korea”.[19] However, as it used to be during the colonial period, serious ideological contradictions remained between the Marxist and non-Marxist scholarly groups. This conflict prompted quick dissolution of the Academy and proved that joint participation of all groups of Korean intelligentsia in the process of new state construction was virtually impossible. Against the background of continued foreign occupation by the increasingly hostile Soviet Union and United States, internal factional struggles within the Korean Communist Party led to further controversy over ideological issues.

The works of Korean Marxist intellectuals played a central role in the debate. A number of important issues were waiting for a quick theoretical resolution and practical implementation. Amongst the most urgent tasks for Marxist academics were classification of the ongoing revolution, definition of methods for economic reform, and elaboration of social policy towards non-proletarian classes. Albeit deprived of any rights to pursue independent domestic or international policies, the country was no longer a colony. This question required proper academic consideration and was very susceptible to ideological manipulations over the word haebang   [liberation]. Notwithstanding natural academic disputes, all Marxist scholars were ready to join forces and tackle the problem of the democratic and independent state construction. Their personal conflicts and academic differences were to be put behind them for a while.

In clarifying the current socio-economic stage of Korea’s history, leftist historians and economists resumed the semi-forgotten debate on the role of the Asiatic Mode of Production in national history. Appearing in print in southern Korea in 1946-1947, those writings contained the pre-war views and aspirations of their authors. Addressed to the post-war realities of Korean political and academic dissent, many works tried to reconcile the political forces of the Left and Right. But communist politicians, who had totally changed their tactics towards Left-Right cooperation, dealt a serious blow to this balance. Once again, as it was in the 1930s when the Comintern unexpectedly diverted its favour from the united front, the expectations of Marxist intellectuals were frustrated. The forcible merger of all leftist parties with communists in northern and southern Korea and a popular uprising instigated in the American rear in the autumn of 1946 confirmed the worst fears of leftist intelligentsia about their role in the political process.

Korean intelligentsia keenly felt the indignation of occupation by foreign military forces and the establishment of separate military and civil administrations in the North and South, particularly as it followed so closely their release from the painful experience of Japanese colonisation. Korean intellectuals’ role in policy-making in the American zone of occupation never exceeded a secondary consultative function. Not surprisingly, the general attitude of disregard displayed towards them offended the local intelligentsia, and their professional disappointment spread easily into the sphere of politics. As previously, debates about revolution and liberation were conducted under the pressures of foreign occupation and, in southern Korea, under toughening anti-communist laws.

Traditionally concentrated in Seoul, historians, economists, philosophers, writers and artists felt strongly tempted to move north of the 38th parallel and join the actively developing academic and cultural forces there. The escalating repression of leftist forces in US-occupied territory forced many intellectuals to close their eyes to the aggressiveness of the communist politics and side with the North in relation to the new state construction. Indeed, those who moved to Pyongyang between 1945 and 1948 were welcomed as “heroes” and “patriots”, and were quickly promoted to the first rank in North Korean politics. This time Korean Marxist historians were empowered by their participation in politics and could use their knowledge of history in order to make history.

The narrative of national history is an important part of the framework for the development and articulation of the concept of nationhood. Thus, the whole system of national education and culture had to be based on a carefully chosen concept of history. Here one should not overlook the value of the Marxist theory of history, which was highly influential in the pre-war period and subsequently proved to be a powerful tool in communist policy-making and ideological indoctrination. Marxist historical materialism expressed a class-centred conception of the past in the most appropriate way for the ruling regime and, therefore, was conceived of as the mortar in the wall of nation building.

The New Historiography formulated in the early 1930s by Paek Nam-un, Yi Ch’ŏng-won and Yi Puk-man was one possible contender for the status of official doctrine. Another nucleus of national history research emerged in the late 1930's in Yanan, China, and was closely associated with the anti-Japanese ideological and military activity of the Chinese Communist Party. Represented by the Korean Independent League's leaders, Kim Tu-bong, Ch'oe Ch'ang-ik and other immigrant intellectuals, this stream of Korean Marxist historiography was exposed to the combination of academic influences from China and the USSR. It was a mix of an ardent Marxist approach with regular references to Oriental peculiarity. Behind almost every phrase written by scholars of this group, one can easily recognize either Mao Zedong with his peasant philosophy or Stalin with his class struggle theories.  

The third core of Marxist history research was a new, quickly developing tradition of historical analysis, which was brought to North Korea with the beginning of the Soviet military occupation. Korean anti-Japanese guerrilla forces spent enough time in the USSR to learn Russian and become acquainted with Soviet history textbooks. Kim Il-sŏng, Pak Hŏn-yŏng, Kim Ch’ang-man and some other Korean Communist leaders promptly became assiduous students of the Stalinist version of history. However, only Kim Il-sŏng managed to utilise history in order to attain and retain the highest political power. As this trend in Korean Marxist historiography was bound to form the basis for the future official historiography of North Korea, historians of other schools were eager to mingle with it as soon as possible. 

Developed during the colonial period as elements of anti-Japanese resistance by the leftist intelligentsia, all three groups emphasised the idea of new, independent and "democratic" state construction, and examined history from the Marxist perspective of class struggle and the consecutive change of socio-economic formations. However, despite the fact that their appraisal of major historical issues was generally the same, their conclusions indicated serious. Forms of statehood, the outline of land reform and nationalisation prospects as well as other important questions were among the most controversial topics.

For instance, Peak Nam-un was criticised by Chŏn Sŏk-tam for “dubious attempts” to find a Slavery stage in Korean history. Yi Ch'ŏng-won, in contrast to the other two, advocated immediate proletarian revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat. Pak Hŏn-yŏng's erratic attitude toward America [teamigwan ] was not always in line with controversial Soviet-American cooperation and often irritated Kim Il-sŏng and his Russian sponsors. Ch'oe Ch'ang-ik, on the contrary, at times was too dogmatic and subservient to Moscow opinion, which often caused serious conflicts between the former Yanan comrades. Every individual author proposed his own vision of the problem and thus the appraisal resembled a rich palette of off-beat opinions rather than a work of a well-directed orchestra.

As the vulgar-Marxist historical analysis was always fraught with the danger of deviationism, in a situation of consolidating the communist regime in North Korea such pluralism in historiography could not continue indefinitely. Even a slight difference in historical interpretation was bound to lead to disagreement with the current Party line where, in the context of dictatorship, this would be cause for political purges. Soon North Korean intellectuals were to experience the consequences of this fraught link between history writing and policy-making in the communist state. Certain groups of historian-politicians were “unmasked” and “eliminated” within the first ten years of the Democratic People's Republic, while the rest, to survive, were forced to re-train themselves and be satisfied with the humble status of scholar-bureaucrats. The problem lay in their failure to realise the danger posed for them by the revolutionary theories of New Democracy and People’s Democracy.

While Marx advocated the concept of a “complete man”, who harmoniously embodied physical and intellectual work, Lenin often mocked “petty-bourgeois” intellectuals. But as one of them, Lenin stated that it was the radical intelligentsia that would bring revolutionary theory to the masses and instil in them revolutionary consciousness. Although Stalin officially concurred with Lenin, he nevertheless ruthlessly eradicated the cream of Russian intelligentsia through the system of GULAG . Mao Zedong did not share Lenin's trust in and enthusiasm for the intelligentsia, either. In 1942-1943, Mao, supported by Cheng Boda and Kang Sheng, precipitated the first purges against a group of CCP intellectuals that became known as the Yanan Rectification Movement. Apparently, it was under Kang’s influence that in 1963-1965 Mao commenced the policy of luodonghua or “tempering with labour”. Intellectuals in China were forced to dig ditches and fell trees, while university staff was recruited from the ranks of the barely literate but ideologically reliable workers.

This misinterpretation of the Marxist idea of a “complete man” by Chŏn Sŏk-tam, the youngest member of the Socio-economic school, led to the controversial assertion that illiterate peasants understand economic and historical matters better than intellectuals:

...[W]orkers who deal with hammers are better historians than the so-called bourgeois scholars of history; and peasants who till the soil with hoes know more about the human world than the arrogant and frivolous intellectuals. ...[T]hey simply do not have enough opportunity and time to systematise their understanding of history and sufficiently apply their experience.  

In the 1940s, realising that the role of the intelligentsia was pivotal to the creation of a new-democratic state and culture, Mao sought to blur its class essence and stress its national spirit. He often expressed the view that the "[newly-creating] culture should have a national form and new-democratic content". Mao stressed the need for a critical attitude towards foreign culture, and in particular warned against the so-called “wholesale intellectual westernisation”. Even Marxism-Leninism, argued Mao, must be, first, thoughtfully integrated with specific national characteristics and, second, given a definite national form before being incorporated into the national policy and culture. In the 1950s, fascinated by the idea of ideological independence, Kim Il-song repeated these words in the context of establishing Juch’e or “self-reliance” in the Party.

Mao's comments on the creation of the new-democratic state and culture were somewhat ambiguous about the desired input from the “bourgeois intelligentsia”. The true price for this ambiguity was to be paid by local intelligentsia during the repeating cycles of purges in both the PRC and DPRK in the 1950s and 1960s. However, in the early post-war years, intoxicated by the promise of scholarly freedom and its myriad opportunities, Korean leftist intellectuals paid scarce attention to such foreboding remarks. On the contrary, for many Korean Marxist intellectuals, the sudden shift from academic life to political activities appeared to pose few problems; it was neither laborious nor over-dramatic. History-writing scholars rapidly became history-making politicians. 

By the summer of 1946, many prominent scholars of history, economics, philosophy, and linguistics had already been appointed to leading political positions in the North. They were not only well-trained scholars, but also had long records of anti-Japanese resistance activity. During the decades of influence of the intellectual legacy of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, and Stalin, their knowledge of the theories of socialist revolution and state-construction was second to none. Therefore, in addressing issues of recent national history, liberation, democratic reforms, and the cultural rehabilitation of post-war society, these intellectuals acted not merely as the leading experts in their narrow field of academic inquiry, but also as professional politicians.

Both the Maoist notion of New Democracy and the Stalinist People’s Democracy were similarly dangerous for the intelligentsia. Indeed, both theories insisted on the dominant role of the proletariat in culture and ideology. Once employed by the regime, historians would be easily controlled and discouraged from critical appraisal of the past and the present. Their task would be limited to the prejudiced analysis of the damned (or, alternatively, glorious) past and the exulted anticipation of a happy, socialist future. The role of intellectual in the process of shaping a new, proletarian culture sooner or later was to be questioned and eventually reduced to the role of a Party scholar-bureaucrat.

Marxist Historians in the DPRK

In the progress to autocracy in North Korea, an important role was played by a handful of Marxist historians, economists, linguists, and philosophers who, while participating in post-war politics, succeeded in continuing their academic careers. Marxist scholars occupied high posts in the Party and government, while North Korean politicians often addressed the important issues of national history and literature. Paradoxically, their search for a new democratic road for the nation ended in the creation of the most precise copy of Stalinist totalitarianism to exist anywhere.

At this stage, the North Korean communist leaders had probably realised that historiography, if properly manipulated, might serve as a powerful weapon against political rivals in and outside the country. An essentially similar idea was concealed within both Stalin’s attitude towards history as “politics fitted to the past” and Mao’s advice to the history-writing intelligentsia “not to look backward, but to look forward” . Their loyal follower, Kim Il-sŏng, also ensured that historical research in the DPRK developed entirely according to the demands of political necessity. In other words, at a certain stage of its development the Pyongyang government hit upon the common wisdom of every despotic regime: that “who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present, controls the past".

By the time two separate Korean states were established in August-September 1948, most Marxist scholars of history and economics had already settled in Pyongyang to be guided by their famed colleague and coordinator, Paek Nam-un. They were encouraged to organise government-sponsored research institutions, to establish professional journals, and to disseminate Marxist views on various scholarly issues. An official version of national history, which within a couple of years was created in North Korea, was solely based on the Marxist theory of historical materialism. Neither alternative hypotheses nor rivals intervened in the research pursuits of Marxist historians. Moreover, considerable funds and resources were funnelled to nourish this new historiography.

Comparing their personal experiences in colonial and post-war southern Korea to their new status in the DPRK, Marxist academics could really feel that they were at the helm of political power. In dealing with the issues of ongoing education and cultural reforms, they were allowed to act as the supreme decision-making authorities. North Korean intellectuals would often join Kim Il-sŏng and other top leaders to travel overseas and meet with Stalin and Mao. On such trips, they continued learning from “big brother”. Many prominent scholar-politicians and members of their families were dispatched to the USSR and China for studies and academic networking. Emulation of the Soviet academic experience became the major imperative and soon made the North Korean historical profession squarely dependent upon the USSR vision of history.

Relentless efforts by North Korean intellectuals to put the narrative of the national history in good logical order unavoidably confronted many traditional beliefs and nationalist sentiments by providing materialistic and class-based explanations of all events in Korea’s past. The key elements of this official historiography incorporated standard paraphernalia of vulgar-Marxist thought including the “economic interpretation of history”, the “interaction between basis and superstructure”, the idea of “class interest and class struggle”, and the correlation of “historical laws and historical inevitability”. Based on dry statistical data, their research continued creating the image of backward traditional Korea with a sluggish economy full of exploitative land-ownership relations. The bankruptcy of the ruling dynasties and the collapse of the financial system were inevitably making the moribund Korean economy an easy catch for Japanese imperialism.

Another important issue, of which the Korean Workers’ Party leaders sought the urgent resolution, was the question of political leadership in the anti-colonial struggle. Historiographical verification of communist leadership among the masses would immediately have legitimised all future steps of the KWP and its leader, Kim Il-sŏng, in the process of state construction. Therefore, Marxist historians dedicated much of their research effort to the examination of the course and lessons of popular revolts in modern Korean history. Depicting the high level of intra-class tension, they saw that epoch as a sequence of popular revolts and uprisings. But the main implication of books written by Yi Ch’ŏng-won, Ch’oe Ch’ang-ik and other former revolutionaries was that “by the beginning of the twentieth century, after some four thousand years of history, Korea was economically and politically backward and ruled by medieval socio-economic orders”.

Paek Nam-un also supported the opinion that medieval Korean economy and society were exceptionally backward and stagnant. Focusing on the economic and political system of feudalism, Paek was unequivocally sceptical about the overall level of Korea’s development during the Yi dynasty period. He bitterly criticised factional strife, which for centuries plagued Korean political circles, and presumed that continuous social tension in Korea was the inevitable consequence of state land-ownership or the “situation where the state is the most powerful landlord”. However, in contrast with opinions expressed by Yi Ch’ŏng-won and Chŏn Sŏk-tam, Paek highly praised the merits of Tonghak [Eastern Learning] religion and stated that the 1894 popular rebellion of the same name was the first successful experience of mobilising the masses under the banner of ideology.

In other words, North Korean historians continued looking at the issues of their national history from the perspective of Asiatic stagnation. Their main argument was that every aspect of life in traditional Korea before the Japanese colonial occupation (i.e. before the actual development of domestic capitalism) was backward and stagnant. Such supposition normally explained why Korea became so easily trapped in colonial dependency. Moreover, the hypothesis of intrinsic Asiatic backwardness allowed North Korean historians to draw another important conclusion regarding the type of pending social revolution. The dormant class contradictions, which for centuries were concealed under the veil of Asiatic state land-ownership, were woken after the colonial occupation by the rapid growth of industrial capital. Combined with national liberation struggle, all social contradictions in Korea were believed to have found the way for ultimate resolution by the catharsis of a two-stage social revolution – first, bourgeois-democratic, and then, socialist.

This approach, in many ways, was copied from the early official Soviet historiography of Mikhail Pokrovsky. In the 1920s, Pokrovsky, being involved in discussion with Trotsky about the role and interaction of “trade-capital” and “industrial-capital” in Russian history, indiscriminately condemned all Russian Tsars as “rascals and swindlers indulging themselves in drinking or speculation in lands and property”. Finding the state roots in the traditional Russian commune, Pokrovsky also assumed that the peculiarity of historical process in Russia was the contradiction between the “exceptional backwardness of Russian economy, on one hand, and the exceptionally fast growth of capitalism, on the other”.

According to Pokrovsky, a true Marxist historian of the post-capitalist epoch was obliged to unmask the “rottenness” of the old regime and celebrate the “progressiveness” of the new one. Thus, Pokrovsky and his disciples achieved prominence by arguing that Russia, like many other backward Asian countries, detoured all intermediate stages and therefore exercised a great leap forward from Absolutism to Socialism. Although Lenin’s praise of Pokrovsky’s school of historiography for many years gave him immunity from criticism, Stalin’s collectivisation and industrialisation policies strongly demanded a nationalistic interpretation of history. That is why, in 1934, the school of Pokrovsky was mercilessly ostracised in the USSR as “anti-patriotic” and “anti-Marxist”. North Korean historiography underwent a very similar process.

The five years that preceded the Korean War made the development of DPRK historical scholarship heavily reliant on the Soviet academic tradition. When Marxist historian-politicians occupied leading positions in the DPRK, history research there began speedily assuming the shapes and contours of vulgar-Marxist historiography. Of course, by castigating poor socio-economic conditions in pre-colonial Korea, the DPRK historians successfully answered the main question of modern history – why Korea lost its independence. But this mechanistic approach in research resulted in the creation of an historical tradition which was interested in the issues of the past only as much as they could be exploited in proving the “correctness” of the current policies. Sin Il-ch’ŏl calls such outlook the historiography of “present without the past” [kwagŏ puljae hyŏnjaegwan].

Nevertheless, such “unpatriotic” understanding of Korea’s past was bound to come to conflict with the growing nationalistic policies of Kim Il-sŏng’s regime. The bitter experience of the Korean War forced the North Korean historiography to change its face, making the largest part of earlier efforts undertaken by “old” Marxist historians futile. In the mid-1950s, many of them were forced to leave their high posts, while some even were to pay with their lives for having depicted the national past as recommended by Moscow. This was the beginning of entirely new era of self-reliance and nationalism in historiography – the era of Juch’e .

The fratricidal conflict which began on the Korean peninsula in June 1950, had a strong and immediate impact on the evolution of the historical profession in the DPRK. While the entire society was mobilised to fulfil the task of forcible unification of the country, the soldiers of the “historical front” were also expected to support Kim’s military venture by justifying the surprising attack against the South. Likewise, as soon as North’s military campaign faced fiasco the role of historians became even more crucial. In order to withstand the counterattack of the enemy, the North Korean historians were to ensure the sufficient upsurge of patriotism. Temporary retreat to China and years of struggle against the common foreign enemy left a significant imprint on their views.

In this period, nationalist sentiments prevailed over doctrinal issues, firmly entrenching the concept of “patriotism” in historical literature. During the short occupation of South Korean territory, the utilisation of rare historical materials and captured human resources boosted the trend for appreciation of national values in DPRK historiography. Although the ideological course formally remained faithful to the internationalist tenets of Marxism-Leninism, starting from the early 1950s the North Korean academic circles were systematically exposed to the influence of nationalism in ideology. The previous search for the ways to apply “universal laws” of historical development [happŏp ch’iksŏng] to the national history was replaced by an ostentatious demonstration of unique national characteristics.

The post-war resurrection in North Korea was marked by intra-Party discussions on the economic development strategy which were worsened by severe factional struggle within the KWP. Disagreement within the Party leadership triggered the first round of political purges. With the fall of the so-called Domestic faction, the Guerrilla faction of Kim Il-sŏng got the upper hand in this intra-Party brawl. But Kim’s faction was traditionally short of the intelligentsia so valuable in political battles for power. In order to mobilise the academic forces and secure their loyalty to the Party centre, the DPRK Academy of Sciences was established in 1952. Recruiting the loyal army of “new” scholar-bureaucrats, Kim Il-sŏng launched against the “old” intelligentsia the “anti-dogmatism” and “anti-factionalism” campaigns.

Even before the 1953 truce, the sycophantic acclamation of Kim Il-sŏng’s actual and fantastic merits acquired the scale of a fully-fledged personality cult in North Korean historical literature. However, despite the over-inflated significance which they usually attributed to Kim Il-sŏng’s anti-Japanese guerrilla activities, the “old” scholar-politicians continued mechanistic application of vulgar-Marxist concepts to the national history. Customarily following the Soviet history writing patterns, they inadvertently exposed themselves to accusations of “dogmatism” and “factionalism”. The mounting rounds of political reprisals against prominent scholar-politicians prompted a dramatic change in the course of historiography. The Kim Il-sŏng cult of personality continued to bloom, while the former indisputable authority of the Soviet academic tradition began to wane.

In 1956, the Third All-Party Congress set a number of new guidelines before the North Korean historical scholarship. Among the foremost tasks necessary for successful construction of socialism and peaceful unification, historians were required “to eliminate dogmatism, regain Juch’e , study and creatively apply Marxism-Leninism”. In order to complete this new task an essentially new type of academic force was required, and very soon historical circles in North Korea saw the rise of “new” scholars who seemed to know how to apply Marxism-Leninism “creatively”. In reality, their task was simple: to substitute the orthodox Marxist outlook on national history with the self-reliance ideology of Juch’e in mass education and research.  

Against the background of enthusiastic de-Stalinisation, which was ongoing in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, in August 1956 members of major factions in the KWP joined their efforts in challenging Kim’s authoritarian power. Among them were many prominent scholar-politicians who had been long occupying key positions at the helm of DPRK political power. Due to the lack of cohesion between the factional groups involved (the old Korean and Chinese Communist Parties members, ethnic Koreans from Manchuria and the Soviet Union), this attempt proved unsuccessful, putting many members of the intelligentsia out of Kim’s favour. Despite all post-1945 Kim Il-sŏng’s oaths and pledges, “old” academics in North Korea now formed a perfect target for purges and reprisals.

Ultimately, when the Soviet and Chinese factions in the KWP were irrevocably damaged, North Korean historiography began to be systematically subjugated to the nationalist Juch’e ideology. The “new” academics, who under the pretext of Kimilsungist struggle against “dogmatism” had destroyed the forces of the “old”, soon were to find themselves trapped in ideological labyrinths of their own creation. After December 1956, when the DPRKAS Institute for Party Historical Research was established to guide the process of re-investigation of the new and contemporary history, the importance of Juch’e in the context of intra-Party life was elevated to the status of main principle. Accordingly, the concept of tangsŏng [Party spirit] in historical research was stressed and reiterated.

Half a decade of systematic reprisals against the scholar-politicians of the Domestic, Soviet and Chinese factions of the KWP was critical for the development of North Korean historiography. Historians whose guilt was established by association with Ch’oe Ch’ang-ik, Yi Ch’ŏng-won and other former leaders of the DPRK historical circles were purged from the Party and academia. Consequently, their historical writings, which advocated the internationalist approach of Soviet-style Marxism, were banned in North Korea as anti-Party and anti-revolutionary. Before being sent to North Korean GULAG s, they were publicly harassed and humiliated while their works were destroyed or proscribed.

As for those “old” Marxist intellectuals who survived the purges, they found it wise to repudiate their previous conclusions concerning the place of Korea in the world historical process, and resorted to untiring acclamation of the Great Leader Kim Il-sŏng. Although some of them were allowed to maintain their high administrative or academic posts, the status and social role of a history-writing scholar-politician in North Korea starting from the late 1950s were reduced to that of kwahak kanbu or a scholar-bureaucrat. As happened during the Japanese colonial rule, Marxist historians in Korea found themselves under severe ideological pressure and surveillance by political police.

More articles by Leonid A.Petrov