When the New Left Shilled for North Korea
The DPRK is beautiful, Clean, honest, free, and totally revolutionary. It is a new civilization called Socialism. … A new potent force is beginning to emerge in the Third World -- The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea under the leadership of Comrade Kim Il-Sung [who is] refocusing the perspective of the Revolutionary Peoples of the Whole World who are not already liberated, powerful and secure. This is a historic development and the revolutionary peoples … must take heed of it.
-- Eldridge Cleaver diary entry, 1970.
When North Korea was still being led by its original founder, Kim Il-Sung, the visitors from the United States to the horrendous Communist regime were not the likes of Dennis Rodman. Today, the founder’s grandson, Kim Jong-Un, has inherited the mantle of leadership, thereby carrying on the dynasty that rules in the name of Marxism-Leninism, as modified by the founder’s philosophy of juche, or self-reliance, autonomy, and independence.
How far the North Korean Communists have fallen. Back in the day of the old fellow-travelers’ tours to the various communist paradises, the regimes had their praises sung by the likes of the African-American baritone Paul Robeson, who regularly went to the USSR and told the world how great Comrade Stalin was and how the Soviet Union had the only real democracy on Earth. At least Robeson was an All-American football quarterback and the most well-known black American actor and singer in the 1930s and 40s. He also received a law degree at Columbia University. That a man so intelligent could function as a dupe for Stalin was far more worrisome than seeing Rodman do the same today. No one would call Rodman intelligent. He is both a useful idiot as well as a real one; Robeson only filled the first category.
Bruce Bawer hits it squarely on the head when he notes that Rodman gives an impression of “utter foolishness and ignorance,” so much so that Bawer wonders if he ever has read any book at all. Bawer also points out that the attention given his view of North Korea is an indication of how the modern cult of celebrity “has taken root even in the presidential palace in Pyongyang.” And how many of our fellow countrymen might be influenced by the hosannas to both the late Hugo Chavez and the soon to be late Fidel Castro by showbiz stars like Sean Penn, Danny Glover, Tim Robbins, Harry Belafonte, and of course, Oliver Stone. The list goes on.
So let us turn to the reign of the founder of the hermit kingdom, Kim Il-Sung, who one thinks would never have welcomed Dennis Rodman to his lair. That Rodman is welcome there today is the result of Kim wanting a good education for his children and grandchildren, with the result that the current ruler learned to love basketball and Rodman while a student in one of the most elite schools in Switzerland. When a Red ruler sends his kids for a good education out of the homeland, one never knows what might be the result.
We now know, thanks to the enterprising scholarship of a young M.A. student at The College at Brockport, Benjamin R. Young, about the hitherto unknown ties of the American New Left with Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea, which it seems these major New Left activists hoped to have replace both the Soviet Union and Communist China as the model for socialism in their own day and age.
Now, Young’s findings and documents are online for all to see at the website of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and its division, the Cold War International History Project.
From the autumn of 1969 to the winter of 1971, the Panthers identified Kim Il Sung’s Juche Idea, rather than the teachings of Mao Zedong, as the most effective application of Marxism-Leninism. The Panthers utilized the slipperiness of Juche as a way to evade the Chinese and Soviet lines of Marxism-Leninism -- much in the same way, some argue, the North Koreans used Juche.
So infatuated was Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther Party’s minister of information, that he sent his wife Kathleen to North Korea when she was pregnant so that she could receive “the proper rest and medical care necessary at the time.” She gave birth to their daughter on July 31, 1970, in Pyongyang, which fortunately means that she can never be president of the United States. They named the baby Juju Younghi, to make her name sound Korean. Later, Cleaver claimed that in North Korea she got “the most excellent and thorough medical attention in my life,” as well as “the most pleasant and comfortable living conditions for myself and my family.”
And you thought Cuba was the favorite place for health care among New Leftists -- I anxiously await a Michael Moore film about how wonderful North Korea is.
The delusionary view of North Korea was also stated by Panther leader Elaine Brown, who wrote that North Korean farmers “live at a much higher standard than the average person in the United States who would be involved in farming work, or even a worker.” The average North Korean had good health care, medical facilities, a housing and clothing allotment, and free education through college.
As for South Korea, the Panthers called it an oppressive puppet regime of the United States, led by a “running dog of U.S. imperialism” in a country in which the people lived in poverty and near starvation. “In North Korea,” she wrote, “ … the people are getting everything they need, while … in the South, people who speak the same language are starving.”
I was not unaware of the fascination of the New Left with North Korea. Those of you who have read my memoir, Commies, A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, might recall a few pages on the left-wing journalist Robert Scheer, who now edits his own webzine (Truthdig.com).
In the summer of 1970 on a trip to San Francisco, I went to see Scheer, who was then living in the Red Family Commune and working at its kindergarten: the Blue Fairyland. During the visit, I taped Scheer for a weekly radio program that my friend Louis Menashe and I had on New York’s WBAI, the flagship station of the leftist and counter-culture Pacifica radio network. I wanted to talk to him about the state of the Left, the nature of the radical movement, and his work in journalism.
All Scheer agreed to talk about, however, was his recent visit to North Korea, and his view of its leader, Kim-Il Sung.
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.”
In an official statement addressed to “Esteemed Mr. Eldridge Cleaver and Madame” and “Esteemed Mr. Robert Scheer,” an unnamed North Korean official -- most likely Kim Il-Sung himself -- wrote to his “Comrades,” greeting the “Anti-Imperialist Delegation of the American People.” The statement thanked them for their solidarity “in the struggle against U.S. imperialism, the common enemy.” The American system, it continued, was “headed by war-maniac Nixon” and was “running amuck to find a way out of their acute crisis” by waging a war “for aggression and war externally,” and carrying out “plunder and repression of the people internally.”
It ended with a toast “to the health of Eldridge Cleaver and his wife” and “to the health of Mr. Robert Scheer.”
No wonder they received such a toast. Cleaver and Scheer came back filled with enthusiasm, and dedicated to spreading North Korea propaganda back home in the United States. As a lengthy statement says, perhaps written by either of the two:
It will be with the greatest joy that we will tell the American people of the glorious victories of your socialist revolution, of the miraculous economic construction that has built a paradise … In the capitalist United States, technology is highly advanced, but serves only to exploit and murder people … But in [North] Korea we have seen and felt how socialist technology works for the liberation of people.
The statement ends quoting the “brilliant, iron-willed commander, Marshal Kim Il Sung,” who told them that his country was not afraid of war, should the imperialists unleash it against them.
Today, the New York Times reports that Korean officials have said:
Now that the U.S. is set to light a fuse for a nuclear war, the revolutionary armed forces of the DPRK will exercise the right to a pre-emptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors and to defend the supreme interests of the country.
With Kim Jong-Un threatening a nuclear attack against the United States if the new UN sanctions against North Korea are put into effect, and with his announcement that his regime will abrogate the 1953 truce with South Korea, the grandson is following in his ancestor’s footsteps.
What new-generation Robert Scheer and Eldridge Cleaver will follow their example and organize a new trip to defend the socialist paradise against American imperialism?
Will Michael Moore rush to North Korea to make a new film telling the truth about their wonderful medical care?
Or will even Dennis Rodman prove he knows how to read, look over Eldridge Cleaver’s diary entries and letters, and realize he is providing the evil regime with a post-modern version of Cleaver’s earlier homage?
What really would be wonderful: if, at Truthdig.com Mr. Scheer would own up to his embarrassing past and apologize publicly for his foolish early years of revolutionary bravado. I look forward to such an article.