Seeking a definition of socialism

Posted on May 11, 2012


Is North Korea socialist? Is the sort of society that exists there the sort of society that we, in South Africa, should wish to emulate? Is it the sort of regime that workers the world over should support?

These may seem strange questions to ask in South Africa. Or even of workers generally, despite the fact that “socialism” is often touted as a panacea for our global economic woes.

But these questions were put squarely on the labour movement agenda last week by Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the SA Communist Party (SACP) and higher education minister in the government. In the wake of the May Day rallies, Nzimande urged Cosatu to affiliate to the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) in order to “advance the cause of national liberation and socialism in the world today”.

This implies that organised workers support the causes of “national liberation and socialism”, whatever may be meant by this. However, Cosatu does support the concept of an ill-defined socialism. Nzimande has now, obliquely, supplied a definition with his mention of the WFTU as a route to the goal of a socialist society.

Because the WFTU has among its leading members unions from proclaimed “socialist” states that are apparently accepted as such by the SACP and several local unions. Prominent among these is the the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea (GFTUK) the state-sponsored union movement of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea).

Now, whatever else it may be, the DPRK is an example of hereditary personality cultism. Since December 28 last year, the declared “supreme leader” has been Kim Jong-Un. Jong-Un succeeded his father, Kim Jong-Il who, in turn, succeeded his father, Kim Il-Sung who died in 1994 and was then designated the “eternal president” of the country. His son and grandson who followed him are merely “supreme leaders”.

Arguments about dynasty apart, what concerns many labour movement activists is that there is no freedom of association in the DPRK. The only authorised trade union organisation is controlled by the country’s only political party, the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP).

This is an example of what has been termed “political conveyor-belt” unionism where organised workers act merely as a support base for the ruling party. It is a form of trade unionism associated with the model developed in eastern Europe under the former Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin.

According to this model, the party controls the government that, in turn, controls the most basic aspects of employer-worker relations, so workers do not have the right to bargain collectively and government ministries set wages. The state, as a monopoly employer in a competitive global environment, also assigns all jobs.

The party leadership that is indistinguishable from the government and therefore, the state, makes all decisions in much the same way that any board of a transnational corporation does. Today, however, even states such as North Korea that proclaim a policy of Junche (self reliance) find themselves part of a global economic community and have to deal with enterprises outside of the state’s immediate control.

As a result, joint venture and South Korean-based companies operate in the “self-reliant socialist state” of North Korea. But one condition of their operating in such a state is that they have to hire their employees from lists of workers supplied by the authorities. They apparently have no problem in complying with this requirement, despite the fact that there is evidence that these lists are drawn up by the KWP on the basis of the “ideological purity” of the workers.

Private enterprise also does not seem to be overly bothered by other abuses of labour and human rights. So, in about 90 factories in the Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIC) some 33 000 North Korean workers make clothes, shoes, watches and other light goods for global export – and the private sector owners turn a blind eye to the abuses.
It is clear that these private sector companies in the KIC are aware of the abuses, but, as the International Trade Union Confederation has discovered, they choose to hide behind a veneer of legitimacy provided by the North Korean regime. Article 21 of the Foreign Enterprise Law, for example, guarantees the right of workers in foreign-owned companies to establish trade unions and negotiate working conditions.
Article 32 of the KIC Labour Law also states that workers should paid directly, in cash. But both articles are observed in the breach. KIC employers have admitted that unions do not exist and that they acceded to a North Korean request that all salaries be paid to the government. The government, in turn, and without oversight, pays the workers their salaries after “deductions”.
This behaviour, in a South African context, could see the North Korean state classified as an unscrupulous labour broker, a “modern-day slave trader”. Yet these actions are being conducted under the label of “socialism” and self reliance, goals that are certainly espoused by Nzimande and the SACP, while Cosatu and a host of other groups and individuals classify themselves as “socialist”.
And anyone questioning the slogan mongering that poses as a definition of socialism or the claim that “really existing socialism” existed in the former Soviet empire is also all too often labelled “counter-revolutionary”. The implication being that there are only two choices: support the currently crisis-wracked private enterprise system or call for the resurrection of the collapsed fusion of state and capital that still clings on in countries such as North Korea and China.
Yet, to support a return to the state-centred, “Stalinist” system amounts to advocating a policy of back to the future, to a system where, as the late SACP chairman Joe Slovo put it, “the element of democracy was missing”. However, by raising this issue, Nzimande may have done everyone a favour: sensible debate could lead to some clarity about what various unions, politicians and parties mean when they talk about socialism.