When the New Left Shilled for North Korea

For two hours, Scheer regaled me about the nature of the paradise North Korea had created under the great Kim, and how juche was the ideology necessary for the building of socialism. He had successfully one-upped his other American comrades, who were still touting Fidel Castro and Cuba as the homeland for revolution.

Much to my surprise, though, I did learn from the newly released documents just how much Scheer was involved with North Korea.

Living in California, Scheer -- like other New Leftists in the Bay Area -- was drawn to the communist Black Panther Party and its volatile leader, the late Eldridge Cleaver. The movement’s newspaper, The Black Panther, always portrayed North Korea as an “earthly paradise,” and viewed it as the first nation “to bring the U.S. imperialists trembling to their knees.” They were the very first group, as Benjamin Young points out, to make a formal connection with North Korea -- called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

When Eldridge Cleaver was facing arrest, he eventually fled to the isolated communist state and was given sanctuary there by Kim Il-Sung.

Scheer visited Cleaver in North Korea, and in a documentary film about Cleaver, is shown talking to the Black Panther Party leader about the paradise they were privileged to be in. In 1970, Cleaver invited Scheer to an “anti-imperialist” conference for journalists to be held in Pyongyang. Writing to the DPRK authorities, Cleaver told them: “I regard him as a Comrade.” He continued: “It would be advantageous to the struggle against fascism and imperialism, particularly U.S. imperialism, for him to visit … and to write about what he sees and learns and thinks.”

To put it bluntly, Cleaver told Kim Il-Sung’s cadre that Scheer could be depended upon to say how wonderful North Korea was, and to spread their propaganda line once he returned home. My interview with Scheer -- which even the left-wing Pacifica network thought too strange and sectarian to broadcast -- proved that Cleaver’s promise was fulfilled.

Cleaver informed the DPRK leaders that Scheer “is a very influential voice for the New Left Movement inside the U.S.,” whose “writings are widely known and read inside the U.S. and in England and Europe.” Here, he stressed Scheer’s previous writings after his return from South Vietnam in 1965 and 1966. He was, he noted, “selected as the spokesman for the anti-war forces in California” and was running for Congress in a “Progressive campaign.”

There was one problem Cleaver felt he had to note: Scheer was then not opposed to Israel. He hoped, however, that he would be capable of “articulating a Progressive political position on the question of Palestine.”

To the Bay Area left, North Korea was more of a model for the revolution they sought and for the path to destroying the American imperialist hegemon than Soviet Russia or Mao’s China. Using the papers of Eldridge Cleaver, which include memos, letters, and diaries, the fascination of Cleaver and his followers with Kim Il-Sung’s regime can be fleshed out as never before. The regime, Cleaver wrote after going to North Korea in 1969 and 1970, was “a beacon in the vanguard of the struggling masses of the world.”

Cleaver hoped to adopt Kim’s theory of juche as a tool for the revolution he hoped to lead in the United States. He wrote:

The revolutionary forces inside the United States must be supported by the revolutionary peoples of the whole world because the people outside of the United States will slice the tentacles of the hideous octopus of U.S. oppression. The revolutionaries inside the United States will cut out its imperialist heart and give the decisive death blow to U.S. fascism and imperialism. … Comrade Kim Il Sung is the most relevant strategist in the struggle against U.S. fascism and imperialism in the world today and he has put the correct tactical line for the universal destruction of fascism and imperialism in our time.

While the people in North Korea are suffering under the greatest hardship, and are near starvation -- which today is well-known -- Cleaver believed that the people “have no worries about food, clothing, lodging, education, medicine” and work to their “heart’s content leading a happy life.”

To herald North Korea to the wider public, Cleaver sponsored two different conferences for journalists. In the call to one of them, the sponsors who would attend included a writer for the major American radical magazine Ramparts, of which Scheer had been an editor; two members of the radical film collective Newsreel (including one woman who was a classmate of mine at the left-wing high school I attended in New York City); and Elaine Brown of the Black Panther Party.

The documents make clear that the American New Left -- like its predecessors in the old Communist Party, U.S.A. -- were not indigenous American radicals seeking to build their own movement in response to the needs of the American people, which is what they claimed at the time. Rather, they too were seeking the leadership and inspiration from foreign revolutionary leaders whose forces had already taken control of other nations, and had begun to create totalitarian monstrosities that often exceeded that created in Russia by Lenin, Stalin, and their successors.

Like the radicals of yesteryear, the New Left issued false positive reports about the nature of life in the revolutionary country of North Korea, using their own outlets to spread the propaganda of Kim Il-Sung’s Communist country. And the North Koreans not only got the New Left to spread their propaganda abroad, it is suspected that they sought, as Young’s article suggests, “to reach, develop, penetrate, and influence dissident groups in the United States” by placing agents in the U.S. and Canada who used phony South Korean and Japanese identities.

In addition, reading through Eldridge Cleaver’s fascinating notes and diary entries, one has new evidence about how his time in North Korea effectively, if we can use a 1950s term, brainwashed him. Cleaver came to believe that Kim Il-Sung was the leader of the world revolution and that the New Left had to take orders from him. There are many entries about how Comrade Kim taught him to pick up the gun against oppressors, and fight to the end until victory. One fascinating diary entry from 1969 starts with a discussion of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg:

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for giving Soviet Union atomic bomb secrets of imperialist U.S.A. In the name of the blood of the Rosenbergs, in the name of the blood of the Vietnamese people, in the name of humanity, I demand that the Soviet Union use its hydrogen bombs to force the United States out of Vietnam. Now is the time, while the American people are sick and tired of the War. If Stalin were in control of the Soviet Union he would do it. If there were Marxist-Leninists in the Soviet Union they would do it.

The H-bombs, he added, belonged not to the U.S. but “to the International Proletariat.”