On the “candlelight demonstrations” in South Korea

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Introduction by the ICC

The recent "candlelight demonstrations" in South Korea, against the newly elected government's decision to allow the import of beef from the United States (banned some years ago over fears of BSE), reached enormous proportions in June, with up to one million people on the streets of Seoul. Clearly, there is more to these demonstrations than a concern for public health, however real this may be. The general degradation of workers' living conditions, with full-time permanent work contracts being increasingly replaced by precarious and part-time working is a world wide phenomenon that has struck Korean workers hard. The newly installed government of Myung-bak Lee has moreover shown itself particularly arrogant and heavy-handed in launching a series of attacks on workers' livelihoods and living conditions. In addition, the Free Trade Agreement signed with the USA in 2007, by eliminating tariffs on agricultural imports from the US, is an immediate threat to the very existence of Korea's small farmers and peasants. The fact that this agreement has been signed by an openly "liberal", "pro-capitalist" government (Myung-bak Lee is an ex-CEO of Hyundai) has inevitably boosted a tendency towards anti-Americanism, which is itself merely a form of nationalism.

The article which we are publishing below has been sent to us by a comrade of the "Left Communist Group" (LCG), previously known as the "Socialist Political Alliance" which our readers will remember organised the Marxist Conference held in October 2006 in Seoul and Ulsan. We strongly welcome this article, for several reasons.

Firstly, as we have said on several occasions, the specific historical experience of the workers' struggles in Korea, added to the weight of the very real difficulties of language and the inaccessibility of texts from the workers' movement in the rest of the world not only on the working class in general, but also on those militants who are working to develop an internationalist perspective in this period of renewed class struggle. The effort by the LCG comrades to develop an internationalist perspective both on these events and on South Korea's history during the last 30 years, and above all to place these within the international context of the world wide class struggle, is thus of critical importance in our view. The fate of the class struggle, the fate of the communist revolution, will not be decided in Korea any more than in any other one country. The development of an internationalist viewpoint in this article is thus something to be strongly saluted.

Secondly, the article shows clearly the danger of the workers' action being "dissolved into street festivals or bourgeois politics" and failing to establish itself on a class basis where the independent action of the working class is able to give a clear lead to the other non-exploiting strata in society. This problem, again, is by no means unique to South Korea. And we want to emphasise our agreement with the LCG comrade when he says that "Even the June Struggles of 1987 were to be a painful historical experience of surrender through achieving direct voting, an illusion of bourgeois democracy and dropping the masses' explosive demands for struggles". Contrary to what we are often told, the struggle for bourgeois democracy does not open up opportunities for the struggle and organisation of the working class. The history of South Korea, as of other countries subjected to military dictatorship like Brazil, shows that precisely the opposite is the case. The establishment of democracy has allowed the flourishing of the bureaucratised trades unions which have since proven to be the first saboteurs of the class struggle.

Thirdly, the article is quite right to pose the question of what lay behind the illusion in June 1987 "that the way which the bourgeois politicians chose would be the very way toward political democratization". In fact the different classes involved in the struggles during the 1980s had different goals, whether or not they were wholly conscious of the fact. For the purely democratic, national opposition to the military dictatorship, the establishment of a democratic government in South Korea is indeed the limit of its - bourgeois - aspirations, however much the reality represented by Myung-bak Lee may disappoint the sweet dreams of 1987! The goal of the working class, however, is not just the destruction of a military dictatorship but of the whole "state capitalist system" - and this is something that can only be done world wide. The fact, as the article points out, that "there was no revolutionary political force which would be together with and give orientations to the struggles" was not a Korean problem but an international problem, a local expression of the fact that the proletariat world wide has been as yet unable to develop a new International - whose existence would in itself be the expression of a development of a revolutionary struggle and consciousness within the class as a whole, world wide. It is our firm conviction that developing ties and common work among internationalists today, however insignificant this may appear in its immediate results, will be critical to the proletariat's ability to create a new International in the future.

Fourthly, in terms of the immediate perspectives of the struggle, we want to highlight the following points.

We agree entirely on the need for workers not only to organise at shop floor level but also to avoid being imprisoned in factory occupations and to make as much use as possible of street demonstrations to develop class solidarity and spread the movement. We agree also with the need for the workers to raise demands that are general to the class as a whole and avoid the trap - typical of trades union manoeuvres - of allowing specific demands, factory by factory or trade by trade, to splinter the movement.

We strongly agree also with the idea that the workers should "at the candlelight meetings (...) prepare actively places to discuss with one another and argue that the pains of workers reside not only in the health or educational problems but are related also to the entire living conditions of workers". The development of discussion groups and circles is a vital need both for workers to gain confidence in themselves and their own ability to organise independently, and to gain a broader political and international vision of their own activity.

Having said all this, there are also several points of disagreement which we think need to be submitted for debate, in South Korea and more generally in the internationalist movement.

The first of these, is the idea which seems to be expressed in the article's final paragraphs that there are separate tasks for "organised" (i.e. unionised) and "unorganised" (often precarious) workers. This is not, as we have said before, by any means a purely Korean problem. We are aware that the organisation of precarious workers is a major preoccupation for comrades in Korea today. In fact, a major difficulty for the working class world wide today is precisely how to confront the divisions created by the ruling class and maintained by the unions between permanent and precarious workers? The precondition for the movement to gain in strength is for precarious and permanent workers to recognise their common interests and to struggle together, in mass meetings open to all workers. The last way to set about this is for unionised and non-unionised workers to perpetuate these divisions and organise separately, still less to try to set up separate unions for precarious workers which will do nothing more than introduce yet another division in the class struggle.

The second point we want to emphasise is the absolute incompatibility between the workers' struggles and national struggles. We have had some difficulty with the translation of the sentence according to which "Through the general demands for the defence of living conditions of the working class even pure patriotism represented by Tae-gk-gi and Ae-guk-ga, the Korean national flag and anthem, could possibly be welded together and transformed into demands of the class". It is possible that we have translated this idea misleadingly, in which case we hope that the LCG comrades will correct us. However we want to state clearly and unambiguously here that it is absolutely impossible to "weld together and transform" patriotic demands into working class demands. Nationalism - patriotism - and internationalism are polar opposites: they express the interests of society's two main antagonistic classes and only one of them can be victorious over the other.

A final point, which would take too long to develop here, is the whole question of the struggle for "autonomous and democratic unions", which was certainly an important element in the struggles of Korean workers during the 1970s and 80s. In our view, the idea that it is possible to create such unions is an illusion - natural and understandable under the conditions prevailing at the time, but an illusion nonetheless. We think that militants in Korea need to ask themselves the question how it is that 20 years of struggle for "democratic and autonomous unions" has led to the creation of nothing but the bureaucratised unions, saboteurs of the class struggle, that the workers are facing today in Korea and the world over. To do so they need to draw not only on the experience of the class in Korea, but also on the experience of workers in other countries, notably in Poland after the massive strikes of 1980. For our part, we will do our best to participate positively in this debate.

ICC, July 2008

PS: After sending the comrades of LCG our presentation we received the following reply. We hope to publish the continuation of this correspondence as soon as possible. 

Dear comrades of the ICC

We deeply appreciate your English translation of our article. Concerning your introductory remarks, especially the second point on patriotism, we think there should be more clarification and explanation about the sentence you disagree. That means the possibility of transforming the attitudes of petit-bourgeois participants in the candlelight demonstrations towards bourgeois democracy into working class-based interests.

Demonstrations are continuing more than 70 days now. Demands and slogans are extending to opposition to neo-liberal policies of Lee government and fundamental issues of capitalism itself (...) We recognized the changing attitudes of petit-bourgeois participants toward class interests during one and half month. We expect the candlelight demonstrations persist until the clash between the mass and Lee government develop more violent mass movement. After observing the ongoing process of that movement, we will discuss the evaluation of the whole process.

Warmest communist greetings, LCG

Korea, 14th June,  2008. 


The June struggle led by the working class

Let's develop it into the great July, August, September workers' struggles, following the first ones in July, August, and September in 1987!!!

Let's heat this summer with the struggles of the working class which overcome the bourgeois democratic struggles

On the street of the 4.19 struggle in 1960, of the June struggle in 1987 and of the June 2008

With thousands of people demonstrating near the entrance of the Blue House I was on the street from 11 o'clock PM on May 31st to 6 o'clock AM on June 1st. I had participated already in many demonstrations but the experience at that time made me reflect on our history of the previous 50 years. It became also a measuring point for the orientation of the necessary gigantic struggles of the Korean working class in the future. On 19th April 1960 I had marched as an 18 years old high school student with other demonstrating people to Kyungmudae, the presidential residence at that time, shouting for the destruction of the dictatorship of president Seongman Lee. I was a Marxist teaching in the university when the streets struggles of June 1987 took place. After 48 years since my first demonstration I stood as a socialist activist all night long with the masses shouting for the retreat of the present president Myungbak Lee. 

The candle light mass meeting on May 31st differed from the previous ones in some points: the organized participation not only of thousands of university students but also the workers of the public sector; the participation of the precarious workers including the E-land trade union of precarious workers; the unified slogan of the meeting, "Myungbak Lee, retreat!" after such previous slogans as USA]!" and "negotiations are void!". The persistent attempt to break through and withdraw the announcement [of the beef contract with the toward the Blue House, the presidential residence enabled the demonstrating people to have control over that area near the House for 8 hours.

Incredibly 100 days after the start of the Lee government, a real capitalist one, the demonstrating masses are shouting on the streets for "the retreat of Myungbak Lee". The more incredible is the diversity and initiative of the masses engaged in the demonstrations. But that experience gave me also a precious chance to recognize the limits of the streets struggles and of the political struggles against bourgeois political power, which has not changed for almost 50 years.      

Streets struggle and the class character of the masses

The slogans of the April 19th Struggles in 1960, of the June Struggle in 1987 and of the struggles in June 2008 are the same ones: "destroy dictatorship!" and "government, retreat!". They contain the following demands: the destruction of Lee Sungman government which manipulated elections; the change of the indirect voting system into a direct one; and the retreat of  president Lee who is responsible to sign up the beef contract without gathering and considering the public opinions. All of the demands are elementary ones considering whether the government keeps the formality and procedures of the bourgeois democracy. Of course the demand of the masses in the candlelight protest is not limited only to the bourgeois democratic procedures. Health matters, the interests of stock farming capital in the USA, and class inequality related to meat consumption are connected in a complicated manner. But it is also real, that the people remain with such viewpoints as the nationalist one focusing only on the problem of the sovereignty, the humanist one considering it as only a problem of health, and the democratic one with the emphasis on the communication problem.

The heat of candlelight may come down, if the Lee government grants the masses decisive measures to relieve life including re-negotiation of the beef contract. These are the very fundamental limits of the street struggles of the masses from various social strata. 

Further, another limit of the bourgeois democratic struggles concentrated on the streets struggles is the fact that it is not based thoroughly on the class struggle on the level of the place of production. The April 19th revolution mainly made by the student movements enabled the bourgeois political forces to rise to power. But those revolutionary forces without being led by the working class were condemned to be deprived of power by force by the generals of the May 16th coup d'état. Even the June Struggles of 1987 were to be a painful historical experience of surrender through achieving direct voting, an illusion of bourgeois democracy and dropping the masses' explosive demands for struggles. This surrender was sealed with the deceptive June 29th declaration.

The candlelight protests too, which began in May and are still heating in June, are not based on the working class struggle on the workplaces. Even though hundreds of thousands of people of the masses express their demands in various ways, it is very possible for these expressions to be dissolved into streets festivals or bourgeois politics as long as they are contained in the form of shaking the Korean flag and singing "the first act of the constitution" or the songs from the 1980' movements. For the very reason we are now at an important turning point where we should instead of turning our history backward to 20 years or even 50 years ago overcome the limits of the June Struggles in 1987 and revive the sprits of the great July, August, September working class struggles. 

Capitalist developments in Korea and working class struggles

The government of the Democratic Party following the retreated Lee Sung-man government under the influence of the April 19th struggles was to be replaced by the Park Joeng-hee military fascist regime after the May 16th coup d'état. The regime led the Korean capitalist development into a developmental dictatorship. Such a military fascism was not a phenomenon unique in Korea but one of strategies for the accumulation of capital in the third world in the process of the capitalist reorganization of the world. During 60's the accumulation of capital was made mainly in the export industries and those needing a high degree of concentration of labour force. The representative examples were textile and electronics and the other axis  consisted in developing very polluting industry such as fertilizers, chemicals and oil refineries. The strategy of the Park regime for the economic development, the so called ‘miracle of the Han river' was based on the anti-working class strategy with the bloody exploitation and suppression of the working class. The class suffered from the long working time of 12 - 16 hours and inhumane working conditions. But the number of workers was doubled from 2 million in 1960 to 4 million in 1971.

Even under the repression against of workers' movements trade unions were built in Chung-Gye Clothing, Won-Pung wool spinning, and Dong-Il wool weaving etc. They became a base for the pro-democracy workers' movements in 1970's, in which female workers played a key role.

Like the general tendency of the process of the state capitalist development the priority was changed in the Korean capitalist development from light industries to heavy industries increasing the ratio of production sectors in the industry from 43.9% in 1972 to 55.2% in 1978. Even under deadly exploitation und repression male workers in heavy industry developed strong struggles against their exploitation: the workers struggle in Han-Jin trade and the burning of KAL by 400 workers in September 1971; the struggle of 2,500 workers of Hyundae Heavy Industry in Ulsan in September 1974; the struggles of mine workers in Sabuk, of Dong-Guk Steel Works and of In-Choen Iron Works in April 1980; the strike struggle of Daewoo Motors in 1985 and the great struggle of workers in July, August and September in 1987. The number of workers strikes increased strongly from 130 in 1969 to 1656 in 1971, and then 666 in 1974. Under the influence of You-Sin regime the working class struggles of 1970's could not avoid having reformist and trade unionist limits of struggling only for the increase of wages or the improvement of working conditions.

Under conditions of the world crisis after the oil shock in the middle of 1970's the Korean economy grew more and more slowly since 1978 with the sinking capacity utilisation rates of plants and big price increases. Against such situations workers developed struggles for the improvement of working conditions, the payment of delayed wages, the construction of the democratic trade unions and the democratizing of trade unions. After the protest movement in Kwang-Ju in 1980 the number of workers' strikes was 2.168, ten times bigger than that of 1979. Even under the government of Choen Du-Whan such struggles as Taxi drivers struggle in Daegu and the successful struggle of Daewoo Apparel workers for the construction of trade unions in 1984 appeared continuously and were followed by the Gu-Ro allied strike. It was the first solidarity strike of workers in the same area and marked a new turning point in the local solidarity strike. 

Limits of the June struggle, and the great July, August and September struggles of workers in 1987

Historically no revolution has ever been successful without the class struggle - never only with the struggles of the citizens and the masses. When we speak of the year of 1987, we speak of the triumph of bourgeois democracy which had been repressed under military fascism. The slogan, "destroy military dictatorship!", for which many sacrificed their lives, did not mean just to achieve  political democracy through direct voting rights. Rather, it implied the possibility of destroying the very basis of the military dictatorship, that is, the state capitalist system which had permitted the birth of the immense [number] of working class  However, it was not aware enough that even the bourgeois democratic procedure could be accomplished only when the working class would play a key role as the subject to cut the chains of terrible exploitation and repression. The street struggles with the political reforms for bourgeois election preceded to find themselves at their highest point in the June Protest Struggle. So despite of their explosive combativity the meetings and demonstrations on the streets all over the country in June 1987 were condemned to get absorbed overnight in the scene of bourgeois elections. An illusion was dominant that the way which the bourgeois politicians chose would be the very way toward political democratization.   

Through out the history of the class struggle we know that only when the economical struggles of the working class precede political struggles then the letter can achieve their goals really. In fact the June Protest Struggle as a nationalist movement led by petit bourgeoisie was very limited from the point of view of the class. It is also true that the struggle didn't open a revolutionary way led by the working class toward the destruction of the capitalist system. But it opened a political space to the class and planted the confidence in and hope of struggles.

From July to September in 1987 there was a big wave of strikes all over the country with 40 strikes per day totalling a number of 3.327 strikes. Striking workers amounted to 1,22 million: 37% of 3.33million workers hired in small or middle-size companies with more than 10 employees and 75,5% of workers in large companies with more than 1000 employees. The number of strikes during these three months was more than twice higher than the sum of strikes during the preceding 10 years. In 55% of companies which had experienced strikes at that time trade unions were built. All over the country a  total of 1.162 trade unions were built and the popularisation of autonomous and democratic trade unions took place.

Such a great struggle of workers was an inevitable product of the capitalist development in Korea. Regarding subjects of struggles there was a characteristic change from female workers employed in the small or middle-size companies of the light industries to male workers employed in the large companies of heavy chemical industries. Their demands included the humane dealing with workers, the increase of wages, and the achievement of democratic trade unions. In these struggles workers went on ‘illegal strikes' through occupying and sitting in their workplaces without paying attention to legitimate procedures mentioned in the labour law and developed powerful street struggles. Further, workers during these struggles established the general assembly democracy in which decisions were made in participation of normal workers as members of trade unions and according to their decisions. However there was no revolutionary political force which would be together with and give orientations to the struggles. But also the gains of the June Protest Struggle were condemned to be stolen by the bourgeois political forces. So the struggle failed in rising to a higher level only to be disarmed by capital and state power. 

The present political situation and the orientation of the great struggle of the working class  

As we have seen above, the street struggles which have appeared and the demands put forward for the achievement of bourgeois democracy in the April 19th struggle in 1960, the June struggle in 1987 and in the struggle in June 2008 are very similar and have the same structure: They appeared at first as bourgeois political struggles which precede the massive struggles of the working class at workplaces. And they enabled the replacement of a bourgeois government by the other, through which the seizing power by the rising working class was to be delayed. The class was to be subjected to the bourgeoisie in the capitalist system which was developing to a higher level than the previous one. After the April 19th ended up as an uncompleted revolution because of the May 15th coup d'état, and then the June Protest Struggle in 1987 enabled the conservative political forces of the bourgeoisie to keep power over workers for more than 20 years, now we are witnessing once again unexpected street struggles of the masses.

Despite of all these similarities now in 2008 we can see the explosive potential of the class struggle in totally different objective and subjective political situations.

Firstly, the present political situation is different from that of the 40 year long history of the underdeveloped countries or the third world countries with a priority of achieving bourgeois democracy. Now it is the period just around the corner of the big crisis facing the destructive danger of the decadent capitalism. The worldwide working class including Korean workers is becoming victim of a terrible repression and exploitation, subjected to barbarism. A little bit lagging behind but with some remaining achievements of struggles for the advancement of bourgeois nationalism the Korean society had to confront head-on a government with the  capitalist, Myungbak Lee as the president. Now Korean society has separated from nationalism and radical nationalism which had diluted the class struggle between capital und labour and entered into the historical period for struggles for the survival and victory of the working class. The price increase of raw materials including oil, the explosive price rises, the weakness of the dollar, the bubble of real estates etc are symptoms of the crisis of the world capitalism.  The privatization of the public sectors, the rationalization of structures, the polarisation between classes represent the last, desperate attempts of capital to retrieve the fall of profit rate. From this point of view the present political situation concerning the beef import problem is not a simple agenda. But it is a complicated political situation, in which the general crisis of capitalism influences in a determining manner all spheres of the life of workers.

Secondly, in fact the masses participating in the candlelight meetings can be regarded neither as a clearly defined proletarian subject nor as a petit bourgeois one. The students of middle school and high school or university students are future workers produced by Korean capitalism. The petit bourgeoisie of the self-employed which are discontent with the president Myungbak Lee in a wide sense can be included in the reserve troops of the unemployed. It is highly possible for the demands of the masses of the candlelight meetings to be combined with the demands for survival of the working class. Their street struggles have already pushed the Lee government into the corner and been achieving some concessions. Through the general demands for the defence of living conditions of the working class even pure patriotism represented by Tae-gk-gi and Ae-guk-ga, the Korean national flag and anthem , could possibly be welded together and transformed into demands of the class.

What is then in this political situation to be done by the working class and socialists?

First, all of the organized workers must not only organize from shop floor level at their workplaces up to the struggle of a general strike against capital and all measures of the state which devastate workers' life but they must also make the general strike successful which is already planned by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and other trade unions. With the occupation of the workplaces the general strike struggle must paralyse the capitalist production and circulation as well as make itself wide spread amongst the unorganized workers and develop through powerful street struggles into an offensive mass struggle.                     

Second, all of the unorganized workers, unemployed workers, precarious workers and future workers including students must with the demands of the class at workplaces actively take part in the candlelight meetings. And at the candlelight meetings they must prepare actively places to discuss with one another and argue that the pains of workers reside not only in the health or educational problems but are related also to the entire living conditions of workers. Together with the organized workers struggling on the streets after the general strike they must raise the demands of the class at workplaces up to the demands of the whole class.

Third, in order that a general strike and the working class and struggles of the masses can be realized powerfully from root basis up, all socialists must devote themselves fully in propagating and agitating contradictions of capitalism and socialist perspectives and alternatives for the overcoming of the capitalist system. Reminding themselves of the historical lessons which we drew from the problems caused by the absence of political centre for leading the class struggle, they also should not neglect to get prepared to build a minimum leading centre  for struggles.

We must do our best to make the struggles of this summer 2008 be such an example to the worldwide working class as the 68' revolution in France or the "hot summer" of 1969 in Italy. Let's criticize in front of the masses the limits of the bourgeoisie trying to make the summer struggle in 2008 turn back to the June struggle in 1987 thoroughly. Let's declare proudly to the working class in the world that confronting and struggling against capitalism and capitalist governments is a duty of the working class for the opening of the new world of the emancipated labour.