Kim Il Sung and the question of socialist construction

We, the organisations, who make up the Friends of Korea have made it a tradition to have a meeting in April to celebrate the birthday of Comrade Kim Il Sung.  Like all our meetings focussing on Korea, the April meetings centre primarily on current events, which in practice means reporting on the triumphs and setbacks arising in Korea’s struggle for survival and development in the face of the efforts of international imperialism to exterminate its socialist system.  In addition, in April we especially endeavour to remind people of why it was that Comrade Kim Il Sung became such a great leader of the Korean revolution.  We do this by turning to his voluminous works and picking out topics of current interest in order to demonstrate the superiority of his Marxist-Leninist thinking.

This year I have been asked to address the question of what Kim Il Sung had to say about questions of building socialism, the socialist economy and socialist economic planning.  Indeed, this is a topic of primordial importance at this moment in the history of humanity.  As we sit here, the whole edifice of capitalism is crumbling almost audibly all around us.  Everyone can see that the internal contradictions of the capitalist system are tearing it apart, causing untold disruption to the essential human activity of production and distribution of the necessities of life.  The billionaire capitalist class, finding it difficult to make profits, is closing down production units by the thousand in every country of the capitalist world.  Although the billionaires are suffering themselves – it has been reported that the value of their holdings has in many cases halved since the crisis started (so that the mogul who once had $20 billion is left with a mere $10 billion), vast numbers of workers and peasants have been deprived of the very means of subsistence.  Workers are losing their jobs and livelihoods in their millions and peasants are finding it impossible to sell their produce at prices that give them enough to live on.  In other words, another Great Depression is upon us, likely to be deeper and to last longer than the one suffered in the 1930s.  The essence of the problem is that workers and peasants are condemned to starvation because they have produced too much of the things we need!  In order to maximise profits the capitalists who directly exploit the working class pay them as little as possible, and the capitalists who distribute peasant produce pay prices that are as low as possible.  The result is that the increasingly impoverished workers and peasants of the world are too impoverished to be able to buy the ever-expanding mass of commodities brought on to the market by the capitalist class.  Mountains of ‘surplus’ products accumulate – inaccessible to those who need them because of the latter’s relative poverty.  Sooner or later the whole system seizes up: capitalists stop producing because they cannot sell, which in turn impoverishes the working masses still more.

Marx explained 150 years ago how this process works, and the evidence is now absolutely irrefutable that Marx was right.  The unavoidable conclusion is that capitalism must go!  Yet this is a conclusion that not only capitalists but also many of the oppressed workers and peasants have difficulty in reaching.  It is understandable why the super-rich are content to let the crisis run its course, whatever the cost to human life and wellbeing, until the cycle moves once more into an upturn and profits start rolling in again.  The question is: how are these exploiters able to convince the oppressed and exploited masses of the world that capitalism, for all its literally fatal flaws, should be allowed to hang on, notwithstanding the utter misery to which it subjects them?

Following the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and the east European people’s democracies, the argument put forward by the bourgeois media is that awful though capitalism is, there is no viable alternative.  Socialism has been tried and has failed.

Since socialism is in fact the only possible alternative to capitalism, this is equivalent to saying that capitalism is irreplaceable.  Either the production of the goods and services, necessities and luxuries alike, are produced under a system where rich people engage in it as a means of enriching themselves by exploiting workers (keeping for themselves a substantial part of the values that the workers produce) or the workers organise through their own state production exclusively to meet the present and future needs of the producers. The latter system is crisis-free, as need rather than profit is the regulator of production, as a result of which there can be continuous expansion of production that never comes up against any barrier of consumers’ limited spending power. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, whereas all the rich imperialist countries suffered substantial reductions in GDP, that of the USSR increased exponentially year upon year, so that in a mere 10 years it was able to transform itself into an economic superpower, able to muster the wherewithal to inflict defeat on Hitler’s highly sophisticated military machine.

Yet notwithstanding this self-evident superiority of the socialist economic system, revisionists – capitalist roaders – appeared who were able to convince people that only through the application of market norms could ‘efficiency’ be introduced into socialist production. Comrade Kim Il Sung strongly disapproved of this: “A certain country is introducing free enterprise and the decentralisation of economic management by which local authorities and enterprises draw up plans and dispose of profits as they please.  This is, in the long run, equivalent to the capitalist method of economic management.

“A socialist society must be governed by socialist economic laws.  Otherwise, it is impossible to build socialism successfully.  The economy of a socialist country must always be managed by the socialist method, as required by the laws of the socialist economy.  If it adopts a capitalist method of economic management, the socialist economy may go bankrupt” (‘On increasing the function and role of finance in socialist construction’, 31 October 1968).

If well-meaning people in their hundreds were prepared to go along with capitalist roaders, however, there is a reason for it.  The reason is not that socialist methods lead to inefficiency, as is argued by the counter-revolutionaries, but that socialist methods are unfamiliar to workers whose understanding of the world has been created through their life experience in an exploitative capitalist society.  Capitalist methods, and the coercive methods of exploitative societies generally, are ingrained in the consciousness of the people as a result of their having been for generations oppressed and exploited. Old slavish habits of thought do not disappear overnight just because there has been a proletarian revolution. As Comrade Kim Il Sung pointed out, the key to combating old ideas is not by resorting to the old coercive methods that embedded these ideas in the first place, but painstakingly to work at raising the consciousness of the masses:

He wrote: “The producer masses are true masters of production, and they know about production better than anyone else.  Therefore, the most important guarantee for the development of production and success in productive activities is to raise the ideological level of the Party members and other working people and arouse them to voluntary enthusiasm by means of efficient political work among them.  The decisive superiority of socialism over capitalism consists in giving priority to political work in all activities so as to encourage the broad masses to participate willingly in carrying out the revolutionary tasks, displaying their knowledge and talents to the full.  This is the requirement emanating from the essence of the socialist economic system.”[1]

Kim Il Sung in his writings demonstrated how old slavish thinking was an obstacle to efficiency in production.  For example he referred to the fact that in exploitative societies work is considered an imposition and freedom is equated with idleness:

Some comrades think that in a communist society everybody will live idly because everyone will be well-off, but this is a completely wrong idea.  True, in a communist society people will be prosperous in a way we can hardly imagine now, but even then there will be no one who eats the bread of idleness.  That we will all come to enjoy a life of abundance in a communist society does not mean that we will be able to live without working, but that when everyone works, the workday will be shorter and work will become easier and, furthermore, joyful, thanks to technological progress.  To hasten the building of such a good society, we should now work even harder”.[2]

In particular, however, Comrade Kim Il Sung addressed himself to the way these old attitudes damaged the effective management of a socialist economy.  In exploitative society, management is undertaken either by members of the ruling class or by special extra-privileged strata of petty-bourgeois who identify totally with their masters, and from the point of view of the working class are members of the ruling elite.  Under exploitative systems, the managers are therefore much wealthier than the workers, do much less work, consider themselves to be above criticism (especially from the workers), regard the kind of work that workers do as demeaning, and generally have contempt for the workers who they believe to be lower class because they are less intelligent, and so on. However, if the managers have contempt for the workers, the workers are able to repay this contempt in kind, being highly suspicious of orders received from above.  Workers tend to see only the role of the manager in organising their exploitation and oppression.  There is an understandable tendency to overlook the fact that managers, to be effective in managing the production process even under capitalism, need a whole gamut of knowledge and skills, such as are taught nowadays on MBA programmes, although not so long ago they were mainly acquired on the job, or passed down from father to son. The subjects they need to familiarise themselves with include accounting, economics, human resources, organisational planning, etc.

If these old ideas are rife among managers and workers, it is not hard to imagine how difficult it is in practice to organise socialist production.  After investigating management practices at the Taean Electrical Machinery Plant, Comrade Kim Il Sung concluded that the Plant had “done a great deal of work and contributed greatly to the nation’s economic development” and yet there were shortcomings that needed to be corrected:

 “…The main reason for these defects boils down to the irrational industrial management structure and guidance system.

“The present system of industrial management does not come up to the principle of the higher helping the lower in a responsible way; under this system the main function of the higher authorities is to give orders and urge people to obey, imposing all burdens upon the lower echelons and easily shifting all their responsibilities upon the shoulders of their subordinates.  Thus the officials at the higher echelons are supposed to receive more wages than their subordinates while working less and shirking responsibilities, while officials in lower units receive less money while doing more work and shouldering more responsibilities.  People at the lower level, not the higher level, are always liable to punishment in case of failure of production …

“In a nutshell, the current system of industrial management retains much of the remnants of capitalist elements.  Without reorganising this system, it would be impossible to guide and manage socialist industry properly nor develop production speedily…” (‘On improving the guidance and management of industry to fit the new circumstances, 16 December 1961).

Management was poor because “In most cases … functionaries of ministries and management bureaus stay in their offices, wasting their time with superfluous paperwork.  Their routine consists mainly of mechanically dividing planned figures among the factories and enterprises, issuing order slips for the supply of materials, filing statistics from their subordinates and sealing the documents they brought.  Considering even this a nuisance, some officials do not readily meet people from lower units and even let others seal documents, instead of doing it themselves” (ibid.)

The young Korean revolution also lacked organisational skills when it came to production.  Their problem was exacerbated by the fact that their industry, such as it was, before the revolution had for the most part been in the hands of the Japanese, so that local people had little or no experience of organising production.  The result was that materials would not be ordered in time, or material would lie around unused in one factory that was desperately needed in another, or that one official was so overworked that he could not do his job effectively while another had hardly anything to do, and so on and so forth.  Comrade Kim Il Sung proposed a system of regular meetings between production and managerial personnel as a means of developing systems that would avoid such absurdities.  But higher bodies had no right to sit back and simply blame the lower ones for their shortcomings.  Their personnel should have been supervising the implementation of economic planning and found out earlier on about irrationalities that were hindering production.  Comrade Kim Il Sung stressed repeatedly that leadership was not about sitting in an office issuing instructions, but about getting out to ensure that instructions were being carried out and helping subordinates surmount problems that were being encountered in the course of doing so.

Because in the old society managers typically held their subordinates in contempt, it never occurred to them that there was any need to consult with workers.  Such an approach in a socialist society, however, is disastrous.  “If you want to have a thorough knowledge of your work, you must maintain contact with the masses and listen to what they say.  If you talk with the workteam leaders, meet those who work properly and ask their views, and talk with still more people, thus always endeavouring to listen to the voices of the masses, you will get fully informed of who works properly and what difficulties the masses have.  You lose touch with the real state of affairs, because, when attending a meeting, for example, you do not bother to listen to what others say and just hold forth all the time; and you take no heed of your people’s views, just force your own opinion on them.

“Things cannot go well with the management board because it works in such a subjective manner without consulting the masses”.[3]

Comrade Kim Il Sung also pointed out that to correct shortcomings it was necessary to foster an environment where everybody was free to point out shortcomings with a view to their being corrected.  “We must not be afraid of our defects.  One can reveal shortcomings in work. A man who does not work would have neither success nor make mistakes.  But those who work, particularly those who work a great deal, will achieve many successes and reveal defects in working.  It would be inconceivable that one could be free from any faults and shortcomings particularly in doing such a difficult and complicated work as the guidance and management of a socialist industry.

“The point is whether or not one always tries to find out one’s defects and correct them before it is too late.  Just as a man washes his face every morning to keep it clean, officials must always find out shortcomings in the management of factories or in all other work and correct them promptly.  You must find out shortcomings in your daily work, review your monthly work to discover your defects, and repeat the same procedure with your quarterly and yearly work.  Only by doing this will you be able to find out all your defects, both major and minor ones, and correct them promptly …

“It is in the nature of things that no progress can be made free from any shortcomings.  Shortcomings will appear in the course of advance, and these are corrected through criticism and thus progress is made.”

One of the essential management skills that it is necessary to develop is accounting. In exploitative societies the only function of accountants appears to be to maximise profit, and it is easy to imagine that there is no place for accountants in socialist society, but, as Comrade Kim Il Sung pointed out, nothing could be further from the truth.  Accountancy skills are needed so that an account can be kept of values being consumed in production, being produced and being distributed.  This is needed as a tool for ensuring that resources are used as effectively as possible to ensure maximum production for the direct benefit of the masses of the people.  It is thus that “the state uses it [the law of value] as an economic lever for the management of the economy.  Obviously one area where the ability to measure value comes in handy is in the setting of the price of goods.  Under capitalism prices are arrived at haphazardly according to the balance of supply and demand.  Under socialism, however, it is necessary to know what resources have been used up in producing any given item because for the most part prices should reflect this. At the lower stage of communism, before society is able to produce all that everybody needs, the applicable motto is from everyone according to their ability, to everyone according to their work, or, as Comrade Kim Il Sung put it, “The socialist principle of distribution means distribution according to the quantity and quality of work done.  In plain words, it means receiving according to what you have worked and earned.  A big share is allotted to a person who has worked hard and earned a lot, and a small share to a person who has worked a little and earned a little” [4].  In order to allocate products to people in proportion to the work that they have put in, in order to determine what products amount to “a lot” and what amount to “a little”, it is necessary to calculate the relative values of those products.  This is not to say, however, that the law of value has been allowed to become a regulator of production.  In this situation, it is being used only as a guide to distribution.

To help people to absorb quickly the new ways of thinking that would promote more effective production, Comrade Kim Il Sung sought ways to use their own experience to drive home the lessons.  Many leading comrades, for instance, had fought in the guerrilla army against the Japanese.  For an army to succeed in battle, there must be careful and effective management of human and other resources:

The plan drawn up by the State Planning Commission can be likened to a strategic plan for the army, the plan worked out by the ministry to an operational plan and the factory plan to a combat plan.  …

“Before forming a combat plan, the regimental or battalion commanders … always go to the battlefield and investigate the terrain conditions and the location of enemy forces.  They consult with the artillery and engineering commanders about the number and kinds of guns that are needed to forestall enemy fire coming from the top of the mountain, as well as about the amount of explosive and methods that are required to remove the barbed-wire entanglements and obstacles at the foot of the hill.  After closely checking all the specific conditions in this way, they make a detailed combat plan …

“The battle may develop unexpectedly from time to time, so the chief of staff must closely watch the developments of the battle and opportunely cope with each change…

“This is also applicable to industrial guidance.  At the ministry now they coop themselves up in the office, mechanically subdividing the national production quotas, before sending them down. On receiving them from the ministry, the management bureau allots them in the like manner and dispatches them to the factories; and the management of the factories, for their part, mechanically portion out the quotas to the workshops.  No realistic plan can be drawn up in this way …”[5]

Success in socialist production depends on the working class, whether producers, managers or planners, discarding the attitudes of the old society and developing attitudes appropriate to the new conditions – never an easy task.  However, in formulating the Juche idea, Comrade Kim Il Sung summed up in a few easily-remembered words the new attitudes suitable for the working class as the ruling class, that would enable them best to promote the interests of society:

Establishing Juche means … having the attitude of master of the revolution and construction in one’s own country.  It means maintaining an independent stand of rejecting dependence on others and using one’s own brains, believing in one’s own strength and displaying the revolutionary spirit of self reliance and so solving one’s own problems for oneself on one’s own responsibility under all circumstances.” [6]

For countries too, as opposed to individuals, the Juche idea “means adhering to the creative stand of opposing dogmatism and applying the universal principles of Marxism-Leninism and the experiences of other countries to suit the historical conditions and national peculiarities of one’s own country”.  In other words, in the same way that individuals need to get rid of all remnants of a slavish mentality, so do countries that have previously been oppressed.  They too should develop the habit of solving their own problems for themselves – which does not of course preclude seeking the advice and opinion of others where their experience might be helpful.


[1.] On improving the guidance and management of industry

[2.] For correct management of socialist agriculture.

[3.] For correct management of socialist agriculture

[4.] On the correct management of socialist agriculture

[5.] On introducing new systems of economic management

[6.] Report to the Fifth Congress