From Dialectic of Nature to the Asian Mode a Pre-History of North Korean Environmental Approach

This is the submission version of this paper. The final published version for Capitalism Nature Socialism can be found at and will eventually form part of Capitalism Nature Socialism 27 (3)

Robert Winstanley-Chesters[1]**

From Dialectic of Nature to the Asian Mode a Pre-History of North Korean Environmental Approach


North Korea is not a nation or field that attracts a great deal of critically minded analysis which addresses the processes and moments of its ideological history. This is especially true when it comes to matters of North Korea’s relationship with nature and the environment, and the ideologies which underpin developmental and productive strategies within that nation. The routes which Marxist analysis in general took to connect to the Korean Peninsula are themselves fairly obscure and rarely considered.

This paper therefore seeks an examination of the generation of Marxist analysis of nature and of those modes of production which encounter, transform and interact with natural and environmental forms. It considers the work of both Engels and Marx on the subject before tracing the journey those theorisations took into the practices and articulations of later Marxists, Communists and Socialists tasked with applying Marxist principles more widely in the processes of nation building and governance. It analyses in particular notions of an Asian Mode of Production and the debate in Marxist circles as to that mode’s veracity and utility. It also encounters briefly the work of counter-Marxist theoretician, Karl Wittfogel and his notion of Hydraulic Economy. Finally the paper traces the journey made by these theoretical structures into the intellectual world of the Korean Peninsula, navigating the debates it generated amongst early Korean Marxist intellectuals and their embedding or otherwise within the ideological structures and processes of North Korea.

Keywords: North Korea, Dialectic of Nature, Asian Mode of Production, Hydraulic Economy, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Karl Wittfogel.

[1] Dr. Robert Winstanley-Chesters is a Research Fellow of the Australian National University, College of Asia and the Pacific, School of Culture History and Language and a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, School of Geography.

The research for this paper has received generous support from the Australian Research Council project FL120100155 “Informal Life Politics in the Remaking of Northeast Asia: From Cold War to Post-Cold War” and the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS-2010-DZZ-3104) during Dr Robert Winstanley-Chesters Post-Doctoral Fellowship with the Beyond the Korean War Project (University of Cambridge).

From Dialectic of Nature to the Asian Mode a Pre-History of North Korean Environmental Approach

“The basis of the Juché idea is that man is the master of all things and the decisive factor in everything” (Kim Il Sung[1] 1964, 258).

North Korea is not a nation renowned for its environmental focus or commitment, neither does writing and scholarship focused upon it address in analytical terms the history or context for its developmental strategy. Contemporary geo-politics of course has a great deal to say about North Korean politics and ideology, as does the great phalanx of Liberal consensus which is committed to its isolation and de-legitimisation. Writing that is critically minded to both North Korea and of the Cold War and post-Cold War structures of politics deployed in opposition to it and tasked with maintaining the quasi-colonial relationships of power and control that beset East Asian politics is much rarer. Even more rarely seen however is writing which considers the ideological frame from which North Korea draws its approach to the more practical elements of its development. A quick reading of media and political narratives produced by Pyongyang’s institutions will demonstrate the key place played by projects and plans which impact directly upon environmental matters and natural spaces. Such an intense focus on forestry and hydrological matters can surprise readers who anticipate an encounter primarily with North Korea’s undoubted concern for military capacities and capabilities. Accordingly this paper seeks a consideration of the philosophical and ideological background for Korean and North Korean relationships with nature and environmental connection, a background which has roots relevant to the focus of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. The paper will trace the connections between early analyses of environmental issues by writers important to the wider ideological frameworks of Socialism, the advent and development of a local Korean Marxism and the later strictures and structures of North Korean developmental practice.

Engels and the Dialectic of Nature

“Man alone has succeeded in impressing his stamp on nature, not only by shifting the plant and animal world from one place to another, but also by altering the aspect and climate of his dwelling place, and even the plants and animals themselves, that the consequences of his activity can disappear only with the general extinction of the terrestrial globe…” (Engels 1883, 211)

Aside from the unexpected echoes of the currently fashionable Geographic notion of the Anthropocene, it is this paper’s contention that it is initially through the work of Friedrich Engels that philosophical terrain of Marxism and dialectics first interacts with the realm of nature. It is Engels’ re-envisioning of Marx’s dialectical approach to the passage of historical time that generates the development of an approach to the environment recognisable later on within the practical policy outcomes of those nations inspired and governed by principles derived from Marxism.

In “The Dialectics of Nature” (1883), Engels utilises the dialectical principles of a derived from readings of Marx and Hegel to argue that the history of human development should be seen within a framework of positivism. Engels holds that the struggle between the classes of humanity for the ownership and control of the means and modes of production resembles that found within the natural world, a struggle for simple existence. Plants and animals may exist or relate at different levels of combat, cooperation or symbiosis, but ultimately their struggles and relations surround the simple facts of life and death.

However, Engels asserted that humans had “risen above the animal struggle for existence to the struggle for production” (Engels as quoted in Ziegler 1987, 12). As Engels saw it, production, or control over the mode and means of that production necessarily involves the potential utilisation and exploitation of the environment and nature, including those plants and animals within it. While Marxist analysis asserts that through and with revolution, the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the advent of socialism, human existence and enterprise would be free of the irrationality and interference of class dialectics, and free of the inefficient exploitation of natural resources by capitalist and bourgeois actors as a result of adopting the purely rational approach of Socialism, Engels is less positive. Counter to this optimism, in the “Dialectics of Nature” Engels expresses elements of a determinedly realistic pessimism considering humanities position in relation to the wider Earth and the forces of nature to be a more precarious than Marx. For example, Engels sees the natural world as absolutely capable of overcoming ordered and rational humanity, in its efforts to maximise its extractive and productive output. As he says: “Let us not, however, be very hopeful about our human conquest over nature. For each such victory [nature] manages to take her revenge” (Engels as quoted in Ziegler 1987, 12).

Given all of this how therefore is it possible that those processes of development inspired in the later history of nations inspired by Marxist theory have tended towards practical positivistic optimism? Perhaps the fact that Engels’ approach to environmental matters was fated to arrive into the wider frame of Marxist economic and political theory through the interpretation of Marx himself, is part of the reason for the level of dialectical tension between the notions present in Kim Il Sung’s quote which begins this article and Engels’ rather more subtle and pessimistic philosophical position.

Marx and the Asian Mode of Production  

This paper of course does not simply mean to consider the relations between the root source of Socialist notions of nature and its progenitors Engels and Marx, but to trace the routes of those notions into the political and philosophical backgrounds of North Korea. As much as Marxist theory demands that it can be applied universally across the globe, local or regional cultural processes influence its application within different sovereign territories. This section encounters past embedding of that sense of local or regional application within Marx’s own thought on matters of development

Marx himself incorporated some of the structural elements of Engel’s theorisation surrounding nature and environmental relations within his work on modes of production, codifying this within the “Grundrisse” (1858). Within this text Marx wrestled with his theorisation of those modes, especially the articulation of ‘universal’ modes, distinct from regional or local possibilities, common to all civilisations. Marx of course identifies seven different phases of production which should be regarded as universal, moving from ‘Primitive’ through ‘Feudalism’ to ‘Capitalism’ manifest in both its early and late varieties, before arriving ultimately at the ‘Communist’ mode of production. However despite his later theoretical commitment to universality, within “Grundrisse” and important to the later practical philosophically driven manifestations in the context of North Korea Marx holds that the ‘Primitive’ mode of production, in which tribal societies share ownership and consumptive rights over productive capacity, is initially ante-ceded east and south of the Ural mountains by what becomes known as the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’.

Of course the fact that Marx’s analysis within the “Grundrisse” is based on the regional productive histories coloured by the early colonial and colonising periods should be borne in mind. Readers should perhaps also bear in mind that Marx’s commitment to his concept of an Asiatic Mode of Production ebbed and flowed through his theorising and writing career, at times almost vanishing completely. Marx’s personal theoretical development in this instance can also not be disconnected from the context of his collaborative working with Engels. Later analysis of Marx’s body of writing and theory from within those ideological committed to its tenets and structures holds that as far as the Asiatic Mode of Production is concerned, following the publication of the “Grundrisse” Marx lets the conception lapse and does not return to it. The analyst of Marxist theoretical interventions in Asia Melotti (1977), asserts however that it is referenced at a number of moments within the later writing of Marx and of Engels. In particular the Asiatic Mode makes an appearance within the third volume of Capital, in Engel’s preparation of Marx’s notes for the volume left incomplete at his death , and by Engels himself within his work “Origins of the Family” in 1884. Given these facts, Melotti asserts that it cannot therefore realistically be claimed that the Asiatic Mode of Production for Marx and others was a brief or transient phase, but one struggled with for much of his career and by those tasked with forming a later canon of Marxist writing and theory.

Marx’s initial conception of an Asiatic Mode of Production insists that there exists historically within the sovereign polities, cultures and societies of Asia, a form of production, not based on private property but instead on the exploitation and ownership of infrastructural and agricultural property by a small ruling theocratic elite through the means of corvée labour. Such rule and the accompanying relationship between consumers and producers resulted in the creation of massive infrastructural development primarily focussing on hydrological or irrigation projects. As Marx saw it: “This prime necessity of an economical and common use of water … necessitated, in the Orient where civilization was too low and the territorial extent too vast to call into life voluntary association, the interference of the centralizing power of Government” (Marx 1853, 125). This need for irrigation and hydrological development in light of problematic climactic conditions, enjoined with the development and power of an organising and demanding central authority, discounts and prevents the development of private property, as such property and attendant relations are often subjected to the negative impacts of such development, such as the need for the inundation of particular areas to prevent flooding or the revitalisation of agricultural areas through the dumping of alluvial material during when fields are flooded.

Setting aside the theoretical validity or otherwise of Marx’s central argument surrounding the Asiatic Mode the concept is subject to dispute simply on the grounds of geographical relevance. Seeking to explain the existence of complex and large infrastructural projects within areas of weak or unexplained institutional development, such as the large and ancient canal network and Great Wall in China, Egypt’s irrigation system or the number of Pyramid’s or Ziggurats in Mesopotamia, Marx may well have included many geographical areas and states within the term Asiatic for whom such a designation may well not be valid. A counter, though no more successful analysis is provided by the highly contested work of Karl Wittfogel. Within the much disputed and critiqued work “Oriental Despotism – a Comparative Study of Total Power” (1957), Wittfogel essentially contests Marx and Engel’s notions that modes of production are rooted in the dialectics of class and economic control, suggesting instead that in Asia the nature of government and society develop as a result of the historical development of property holding and ownership within a nation or region. For Wittfogel, the key factor in the development of such property holding and its influence upon economic modes of production in the framework of states and state sovereignty was the relationship between humans, nature, their political organisation and the supply and utilisation of water resources (Wittfogel 1957).

Accordingly he asserted that the potential and actual use of water resources and their availability has been a crucial factor throughout the history for an innumerable variety of human actors at various levels of societal, political and institutional development; and with a few exceptions such as hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and fisherman, humanity has generally acted in a similar way. When it comes to more generally to Asia or specifically to North Korea Wittfogel identifies in that geography a hydraulic mode he names ‘Oriental’. Institutions in this imagined section of globe, which develop to form a sovereign state assert a level of leadership and organisational capacity which cannot be countered by the actions of the population subjected to their leadership. Unlike the Medieval European context, in which the Church held an important role in the construction and management of society and institutional statehood, in this ‘Oriental’ context, religious institutions did not achieve a level of independent authority. The power of the oriental spiritual or theocratic realm was held and exercised by institutions that also held property and made laws, as well as the responsibility of technological and agricultural development: “As a rule, the operations of time keeping and scientific measuring and counting were performed by official dignitaries or by priestly …specialists attached to the hydraulic regime.” Therefore, “wrapped in a cloak of magic and astrology…these mathematical and astronomical operations became the means both for improving hydraulic production and bulwarking the superior power of the hydraulic leader” (Wittfogel 1957, 30).

Similar to Engels and Marx, Wittfogel is tasked with deploying his analysis across the topographic and political scope of the region he considers to be the ‘Orient.’ Since Wittfogel in fact regards an even wider geographic area than Engels to be ‘Asia’ (including the whole of Russia and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire within that designation), this deployment is much harder and less successful. To cope with the strains within his analysis of such a large and disparate are, Wittfogel even determines there are three distinct types of Oriental and Hydrologic state: the Egyptian, the Japanese and the Indian. It is apparent that even to Wittfogel, the East Asian or Japanese typology is difficult to say the least: “The Japanese type lacks ‘extensive spatial sphere’ of irrigation and drainage construction; the river areas could be handled locally. Thus one finds many isolated centres of production with military superstructures, many classical examples of military-feudal forms” (Wittfogel 1929, 36). Given the difficulty in the East Asian sphere Wittfogel offers a ‘hydro-agricultural distinction’ through which Japanese development might be understood, and which might include Korean or North Korean history. Of course even an extensive review of Korean history suggests that while there may well have been early examples of comprehensive and well-structured bureaucracies on the Peninsula who asserted political and institutional power in the most feudal or concrete of ways, there is little evidence of those bureaucracies manifesting power and control over their population through means of the control of hydrology or technological development (Winstanley-Chesters 2014). As such Korean history and even North Korean historiography has never been required to address or deconstruct the legacies of past tyrannies of a hydrological or productive nature which have impacted on local theorisations either focused on modes of production or on relations between human/developmental and natural worlds.

This paper leaves Karl Wittfogel at this point, as entirely successful or not, North Korea’s historical narrative dictates that due to the assumption of power in 1945 by Kim Il Sung and those North Korean’s who obtained the support of the Soviet Union and whom conventional historiography records has having been hosted and trained for some years in institutions in the Russian Far East. Thus those structures of government which assumed sovereignty and responsibility for the northern half of the Korean Peninsula were steeped in the ideologies and practices of Marxist-derived analysis. Accordingly aside from the initial development of Marxist conceptions of nature and the place of the non-human within theorisation of modes of production, Korean Marxists and Communists (and later North Korean Marxists) were directly connected to the process of later developments, conflicts and contests within the field. Given the difficulty of both the progenitors of Marxist analysis and those who sought to counter its theoretical productions and later political manifestations in articulating a coherent structure and place for Asiatic or Oriental modes and the role of nature within them, the debate and conflict surrounding them in later Marxist, Socialist or Communist circles should not surprise the reader.

Internal conflicts within Marxist circles surrounding the Asian Mode of Production

   “Five main aspects of relations of production are known to history: primitive commune, slave, feudal, capitalist and socialist…” (Stalin 1951).

Stalin in his pamphlet “Dialectical and Historical Materialism” outlines a classical Marxist model of economic, social and political development, what has been called ‘the uni-linear model’. This model asserts an inevitability to the progression of social construction and development within history from early societal structures ultimately to a Communist society based on the dictatorship of the proletariat, and is very much in evidence in the ideology of the post-revolutionary Soviet Union. In Stalin’s analysis Marx’s conception of an Asiatic mode of production and its relationship with the natural world is completely absent. This omission was of course not the result of a sudden ideological whim on the part of Stalin or of other theoreticians within the Soviet Union, but part of a reductive process towards a functional uni-linear model that had been in development since the time of Marx and Engels.

Ultimately the problem for those committed to the development and analysis of Marxist politics was that following the foundation of the Soviet Union in 1917, for the first time a sovereign state had been organised according to its principles, but that state was within the realm of what Marx had once considered the Asiatic. This was problematic when it came to assessing the authenticity and form of the Russian revolution itself, but in also in applying the appropriate ideological structures and approach within the state that was the product of that revolution. Whether historically pre-revolutionary Tsarist Russian state displaying the hallmarks of an Asiatic or Oriental state had been much debated, but the centralisation of its institutions, feudal structures of land ownership and tenure, growth of a bourgeoisie and capitalistic class as well as the emergence of an industrial economy all bear some imprint of what Marx would classify as the Asiatic mode. An example of this imprint might be seen, following the Mongol invasions and period of Tatar control in the development in Russia of the ‘obshchina’ system of agricultural organisation (Pipes 1974). Some of the defining features of Asiatic state governance for Marx focused upon the longevity of governmental systems. The development of this system of land tenure and ownership within Russia for example, can be traced back to the creation of a unified Russia with the defeat of the forces of Novgorod in 1478 by Ivan III and the feudalism this unleashed would not end until the emancipation of serfs in 1861. For those committed to the conception of the Asiatic Mode of Production such a long-lived, centralising and implacable system suggests an Asiatic element.

In the light therefore of Russia’s apparent Asiatic status, how would it be possible to achieve a revolutionary event to which pure socialism was the outcome? Marx had theorised that it was a fundamental necessity for societies and states in their historical development to undertake paradigmatic shifts in the modes of production during revolutionary periods according to a specific historical formula. What is not possible or at the very least difficult is for societies to achieve are revolutions that bypass entire modes of production, or in fact derive from an entirely different and un or under theorised mode, disconnected from European political forms or structures.

Georgi Plekhanov, the Russian theorist later associated with Julius Martov’s ‘Menshevik’ faction during Russia’s revolutionary period, offers a potential solution to Russia’s Asiatic modal issue. Plekhanov’s later work, not concerning the combat of more virulent revolutionary factions within Russia focuses on the extrapolation and interpretation of Marx’s theoretical approach to historical materialism, especially the application of historical materialist notions to the conditions present in Russia itself. Within his work “Fundamental Problems of Marxism” (1907), Plekhanov develops an analysis of the political conditionality of Russia building upon Marx and Engels’ Asiatic Mode of Production and including geography, topography, nature and location as an influence upon the development of modes of production: “The logic of the economic development of China or ancient Egypt, for example, did not at all lead to the appearance of the antique mode of production. In the former instance we are speaking of two phases of development, one of which follows the other, and is engendered by it. The second instance, on the other hand, represents rather two coexisting types of economic development. The society of antiquity took the place of the clan social organisation, the latter also preceding the appearance of the oriental social system. If these two types differed considerably from each other, their chief distinctive features were evolved under the influence of the geographic environment” (Plekhanov 1907, 117-183). With these distinctions in mind Plekhanov asserted the importance, if socialist revolution were to be achieved within Russia, of a paradigmatic shift between modes to be engendered and experience of the ‘Capitalistic’ or bourgeois mode of production gained, before such a revolution could be achieved.

The Asian Mode of Production debate within Asia – ‘Aziatchiki’ vs ‘Pyatchiki’

Plekhanov’s approach to notions of the Asiatic Mode and its influence within Russia on the development of revolutionary principle and strategy was also highly contested. His multi-linear theoretical strategy was not helpful to those revolutionaries such as Lenin, deeply involved in the practical business of revolution in Russia, for whom the prospect of having to agitate first for bourgeois revolution in order to achieve the ultimate goal of socialism was not at all welcome. Nor was it helpful to those involved in the debate within the Comintern as to the direction revolutionary activity in China should take. Fogel for example provides a useful summary of the nature of the debate surrounding China with the statement that, “If Chinese society could be characterised as feudal or semi-feudal (utilising the uni-linear model of development}, then a ‘bourgeois-democratic revolution’ was the order of the day… If however, China could be described as Asiatic, that meant China had a weak underdeveloped bourgeoisie on which the revolutionary leadership could not safely rely” (Fogel 1988, 58). Building upon Plekhanov’s analysis of the Russian context, the Hungarian Comintern economist Evgenii Varga (later declared by the Soviet Union to be a “bourgeois economist”) is reported by Fogel to have claimed in 1925 that “power in China was a consequence of control over massive public works… In other words, the Asiatic mode of production had existed” (Fogel 1988, 59). Karl Wittfogel, writing as scholar in his youth inspired by Marxist theory before his later anti-Marxist direction, writing in a paper entitled “The Stages of Development in Chinese Economic and Social History” even developed a sophisticated analysis of the developmental process within Chinese history which claimed that Asiatic Mode actually developed from the ‘Feudal Mode’, and thus was multi-linearity of a different sort: “The original form of the Asiatic system of production in China … had a feudal point of departure which complicates the picture. The bureaucratic centralized state developed in China on the foundation of an agrarian community which disintegrated in proportion to the growth of the new society” (Wittfogel 1935, 121).

Whether directed at the study or application of theory, within the Soviet Union the debate soon polarised. On the one side, the proponents of the multi-linear models of development (including the Asiatic), became known as the ‘Aziatchiki’ and were subject to severe intellectual attacks from the proponents of ‘uni-linearity’ known later as ‘Pyatchiki’. Sergei Dubrovskii’s paper of 1929 “On the Question of the Essence of the ‘Asiatic’ Mode of Production, Feudalism, Serfdom and Trade Capital” is said by Fogel to have “posited ten modes of production through world history, but the Asiatic was not one of them” (Fogel 1988, 60 ). By the early 1930s the polarisation was further crystallised by a series of conferences in Tbilisi, Baku and Leningrad at which it was claimed that “the Asiatic mode of production was dangerous to the Comintern’s efforts to spur revolutionary movements among the world’s colonial peoples, because a geographically distinct mode of production could arguably render Comintern leadership necessary” (Fogel 1988, 61). The conference in Leningrad in 1931 settled the matter with virulent denunciations of the “multi-linearists” present from the Latvian academic Evenegii Iolk; “We consider the struggle against the theory as a deviation from Marxist-Leninist methodology, infused with mistaken political principles, particularly crucial…”(Iolk 1931, 98) and from Godes, an academic reporting on the conference : “The theory of the Asiatic Mode of Production … not only cannot serve as a key to the oriental heavens. Today it has become a serious obstacle to further growth. It destines all who fall under its influence to utter futility. The theory, politically harmful and methodologically incorrect, must be discarded” (Godes, quoted in Iolk, 98). Stalin’s highly restrictive unilinear vision of the ‘Five Historical Phases’ of modal development was asserted in the conclusion of the conference, leading to his 1938 publication “Dialectical and Historical Materialism” and the disappearance within the Soviet realm of the “Asiatic mode of production” as a theory as well as the literal purging of its proponents.

Given the monolithic nature of Stalinist ideology and the necessity of adherence to it for those engaged within Marxist revolutionary struggle elsewhere in the world during this time it would be surprising to find divergent views within the Marxist/Communist community. If we examine the situation of Marxist theorists in China or elsewhere in East Asia it may be less surprising. Fogel asserts that the debate within China in some senses followed a similar direction to that in the Soviet Union: “As was the case in Russia, the Chinese debate on the history of society was closely entwined with revolutionary strategy” (Wittfgel as quoted in Fogel 1988, 62). Much of the literature that informed and drove the debate within the Soviet Union, such as that of Varga and Wittfogel was available quickly in Chinese, however its reception was subtly different – particularly in the light of Stalin’s prohibition of the principle of the existence of the Asiatic Mode. Marxist intellectuals and theoreticians within China and East Asia had the benefit of actually having been born within the Asian context and thus had first-hand experience of the social, political and economic historical development that they were analysing. In spite of this fact these theoreticians were compelled by the need for loyalty to their international and specifically Soviet intellectual community to, as Fogel describes it, “pay lip service to the victors of Leningrad” (Fogel 1988, 64).

Chinese scholars of the period thus travel an interesting intellectual line acknowledging the fact that Stalin had decreed there only to be five modes of production, and that the Chinese Communist Party had declared the Asiatic Mode an irrelevance as early as 1928 (Tan,1994), but also attempting a skilful theorisation around this political and intellectual stumbling block. Fogel notes that “Chinese debaters soon proposed elaborate schemes and periodisations for Chinese history” (Fogel 1988, 62). These theorists attempted the reclassification of the Asiatic Mode as a particular sub class or precursor of one or other of the legitimate Stalinist five. Kuo Mo-Jo, one of the Chinese translators of Marx, in 1930 envisaged the Asiatic as part of the ‘primitive’ mode and Hu Ch’iu-yuan in 1932 according to Fogel argued that “if the Asiatic mode of production was anything, it was despotism, and despotism was grounded in feudalism” (Fogel 1988, 63).

The debate within Chinese intellectual circles continued for some time after Stalin’s proclamation in 1938, intriguingly utilising the work of the obscure classical scholar Sergei Kovalev, who while discussing the nature of the development of slavery within a Marxist context apparently inadvertently theorised a loophole through which revolutionaries concerned to avoid the Capitalist mode might journey. Stephen Dunn determined that Kovalev, “seems to be saying … that the … social order as Marx and Engels conceived of it is a specialized phenomenon of limited spatial and temporal distribution, and that particular and quite rare historical and geographical conditions are needed to bring its characteristic contradictions to full expression”(Dunn, 1982). Thus if elements of social ordering such as slavery could develop in the classical era related to their spatial and geographic positionality or conditionality, so within an Asian context, alternative social ordering in the guise of the Asiatic Mode could well develop given a particular geographic or topographic environment. Fogel designates the scholar Lu Chen-Yu as having best made use of Kovalev’s exception, even managing to side step the prohibition of any external Modes of Production through the argument that “since Marx and Engels wrote of the Asiatic mode, it could not lie outside Stalin’s five (even though it clearly was not there)” and that “where Stalin had written ‘slavery’, Lu argues that one should read ‘Asiatic mode of production as a variant of slavery’ in the case of China” (Fogel, 1988,66).

The Asian Mode of Production and Korean Marxists

Given the complicated journey the Asiatic Mode has made through the development and articulation of Marxist theory and political application in the context of both Russia and China the reader can surely imagine that its arrival in the political and cultural context of the Korean Peninsula proved similarly contested. Before describing the landscape of that contestation it is necessary to note the context of the initial contact between Koreans and Korean culture and Marxist ideas. Korea as history records had an extraordinarily difficult encounter with modernity. Having been governed by the Yi dynasty since 1392 according primarily to the tenets of bureaucratic and scholarly Confucianism the Peninsula was overwhelmed by colonial powers in the later 19th century and then annexed by an Imperialistic and Militaristic Japanese Empire in 1910. Korea would not emerge as a sovereign power again until Japan’s defeat at the end of the Pacific War in 1945, although it would emerge as separate nations as a result of the outcome of that defeat. European political theory intriguingly was first encountered by Korean intellectuals at the beginning of ancient Korea’s collapse through the work of Roman Catholic missionaries, both within Korea and in the wide spread diasporic communities in China and Russia (Duus 1995). Marxism was encountered in a similarly diffuse manner during this difficult period by Korean intellectuals, but it proved very challenging to establish intellectual or political groupings founded on Marxist, Socialist or Communist theory both at the death of the Yi dynasty or during the restrictive period of Japanese colonisation (Suh 1988).

In spite of the difficulties and diffusions however a group of Korean intellectuals focused on encountering and engaging with Marxist concepts did emerge and there was debate surrounding structure of modes of production and their connection with the Asiatic Mode and its attendant connections with nature or environmental themes. However it must also be said that the core group of Korean Marxist intellectuals and theoreticians involved in this debate derive their ideas from the debate on the Asian Mode that had occurred within the nation frame of Japanese Marxism (Palais 1995), and thus are not really representative of the grouping that formed the basis for the first government of the North Korea. Within colonial Korea the debate surrounding the efficacy or acceptability of the Asiatic Mode of Production in a sense starts from the opposite position to that within China or Russia. Whereas in those countries the debate had been directed in opposition to those espousing the Asiatic Mode from scholars and theoreticians who owed allegiance to Stalin and the ‘five stages’ theorisation, in Korea however it was the advent of a historiography utilising Stalin’s ‘five stages’ that sparked the debate. Paek Namun’s “Socio-economic History of Choson” from 1933 is identified by Owen Miller as the source of the controversy (Miller 2010). Paek’s work is essentially the first historical analysis of Korean history from a Marxist perspective and was heavily critiqued. Miller notes that “he was accused of being a ‘formalist’ and his application of the ‘universal laws of history’ was seen as ignoring the particularities of Korean history and East Asian societies more generally”(Miller 2010, 3). The ripostes came from scholars such as Yi Ch’ongwon, Yi Pungman, Kim Kwangjin and Moriya Katsumi. Yi seems to incorporate the analysis of Sergei Kovalev in identifying stages within Korean historiography of both slavery and feudalism, both distinctly “Asiatic” in outlook in terms that the slave or “serf” relationship was rooted within a paradigm of centralised state control of land ownership. Yi Pungman, Kim and Moriya on the other hand interpreted Korean historical development as having been devoid of a period of slavery owing to its Asiatic nature. In the words of Moriya Kastumi, “Ancient Korea developed directly from the primitive communist stage to a backward form of feudalism based on ‘oriental despotism’ and small peasant serfdom” (Katsumi quoted in Miller 2010, 5).

The Asian Mode, Development and North Korea: Conclusion

These academic and scholarly debates among Korean Marxists during the Japanese colonial period are of course intriguing in their accessibility to us, in spite of the extraordinary difficulties encountered by Korean political theoreticians and activists during this period. We might presume that such debates occurred amongst those activists and revolutionaries who formed part of the supportive group around Kim Il Sung and the United North East Anti-Japanese Army which fought a low level insurgency against the infrastructures and forces of Japan on the border between Chosen (the colonial name for the Korean Peninsula) and Manchukuo (the briefly existing Japanese proxy state which occupied Manchuria during the 1930s) and who later formed the core founding group around which the first North Korean government was constituted (Suh). However these debates are obscure and made inaccessible by the vagaries of North Korean politics and historiography as well as the destruction wrought by the Korean War. When it comes to form of ideological analysis and theorising under Pyongyang’s sovereignty of course what we do have are the empheralities of Kim Il Sung’s ‘great idea’, Juché thought or Juché thinking.

What actually constitutes the primary articulation of North Korea’s ideology is of course subject to intense levels of contest and dispute and those contests and disputes become ever more heated and assertive as time passes. Western scholars and the wider community of academics from Socialist or Communist nations were once convinced it seems of the depth and individuality of North Korea’s local ideological form. Scholars such as Bruce Cumings, Han S. Park and many other have sought to unpick and translate its tenets for external audiences at length (Cumings 1997 and Park, 2007). However in recent years analysts such BR Myers have asserted that Juche and local North Korean ideology was in fact a myth, a ‘smokescreen’ as Myers puts it to befuddle foreign audiences, and that much of the published work from North Korea addressing the detail of its ideology was in fact only available and directed externally (Myers, 2012). Myers even asserts that the real ideology of North Korea is an ethnic nationalism, heavily xenophobic in tone which owes more to the blood-focused fascism of Japanese Imperialism than anything derived from Marx (Myers, 2015).

The author of this paper while by no means dismissing Myers energetic polemics, would not go that far in negating the ideological content of Kim Il Sung’s publications or their provision of some sort of functional philosophical superstructure. What is clear however, not simply from those publications, but also the actions of North Korea at most points in its history since foundation is both the overt nationalism and fuzziness of its ideology, as the renowned conservative American scholar Robert Scalapino would later comment; “Kim had found the appeal to racial, cultural and national sentiments infinitely more effective during the darkest hours of the war than any exhortation to be good Marxist-Leninists” (Scalapino 1972, 459). Kim Il Sung and North Korean theoreticians were certainly not as concerned with the details of Marxist theory or its later reconfigurations through the work of Lenin, Stalin or other Socialists or Communists, as they were with utilising the narratives of revolution and independence to underpin North Korea’s own claim to political legitimacy and their own political authority.

If we then look for details from North Korean literatures and narratives as to a local authentic approach connecting to scholarship on the Asiatic Mode or the engagement of nature or the environment at the behest of revolutionary politics or development we will be sorely disappointed. Kim Il Sung and the institutions of North Korean theory and development could be characterised as functioning very much by what Bakunin might have called ‘the propaganda of the deed’, or later American commentators ‘facts on the ground.’ The quotation which begins this paper outlining a determinedly ‘humanocentric’ relationship between production or development and nature governed North Korean notions of productivity from very early on the nation’s history.

Following a brief period of development between 1945 and 1950 in which Pyongyang engaged actively with technicians and bureaucrats from the Soviet Union in a process of both state building and in the deconstruction of developmental and productive modes undertaken within the framework of colonial capitalism, North Korea’s landscape and natural environment was subjected to enormous level of degradation and destruction during the Korean War of 1950-1953 (Cumings 1987). When the conflict was concluded (though of course the peace was never and has never been formally established), the institutions and bureaucracies surrounding Kim Il Sung sought to consolidate power amongst a single cohesive political and ideological grouping, purging some of the alternative loci of power such as those groups of Korean Communists who had relocated to North Korea from elsewhere in East Asia. The Kim Il Sung group was therefore free to undertake politics and development as it wished from that point on (marked by the purging of the Yenan faction in 1956), to adopt reconfigure North Korea’s productive modes in its own curious image (Suh 1988).

This article could of course continue at this point to give a comprehensive history of North Korean developmental productivity and its relationship with the natural world. In a sense this would mirror the development of other nations following the path of Marxist inspired Socialist or Communist theory and social development. Pyongyang during the Cold War always sought to triangulate its geo-political and diplomatic position between the twin poles of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China (Kuark 1963). Thus North Korea’s developmental strategy pitched between paradigms of imposition, transformation and technocracy so far as its productive mode was concerned depending on the political weather (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014). History records North Korea’s apparent success in the construction of monolithic developmental architecture such as dams, river gates and the reconfiguration of mountainscapes (Winstanley-Chesters, 2014). However it also records Pyongyangs’ desire for what is later called the ‘chemicalisation’ of agricultural production, a dramatically unsuccessful strategy which eventually led to the application of some two tonnes of fertiliser per hectare on agricultural land and the near term virtual nutritional death of the nation’s soil (Woo-Cumings 2002).

Whether of course any of Pyongyang’s later strategies could have been envisaged By Engels as he theorised his work on the dialectics of nature, or Marx has he struggled with notions of alternative mode of production which in some way better articulated cultural and social relationships with the natural world in the nations of Asia is of course not at all clear. It is not clear whether any of those committed theoreticians who were to spend many years teasing out the debate surrounding Marx’s brief later work on the subject or even those Koreans who would later become influenced by Marxist analysis while living in colonial Chosen or in the diaspora could ever imagine a nation such as now exists in North Korea. For of course when we read back the nation contemporaneously manifest north of the 38th parallel and the demilitarised zone (paradoxically the most heavily militarised space on earth), into the historical record we are engaging in a counter intuitive work of post-facto narrative reconstruction. None of those theoreticians or revolutionaries, not even Kim Il Sung and his small guerrilla band in the northern forests of the Korean Peninsula envisaged the nation that now exists as North Korea, nor its relations to Marxist analysis of nature or modes of production. While North Korea is neither historical aberration nor a-historical as much of contemporary commentary would hope, it is the creation of a contrary and difficult history, still in motion. Its relationship with Marxist thought on nature and those conceptual modes of production long contested and fought over by later theorists of revolutionary politics which are impacted or generated by human-environmental relations is equally difficult and at times oblique. It is certainly the hope of the author of this paper, that within its pages at least some of the traces of those contests and journeys are a little less opaque, a little less, as much of North Korean historiography can appear like the morning mist, quick to lift at the break of day.












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[1] Romanization strategies are considerably different between the two Korean nations. For ease of use and objectivity, the author uses the current North Korean Romanization style when referring to quotations and places sourced from within North Korea. The author also uses the current South Korean Romanization style when it used in direct quotation by other authors.


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