South Korean Marxist Economics after Soohaeng Kim

Seongjin Jeong, who is Professor of Economics at Gyeongsang National University, pays tribute to Soohaeng Kim, the “Godfather of Marxist economics” in South Korea.

Soohaeng Kim photo by Sungouk Chong

Soohaeng Kim photo by Sungouk Chong

Professor Soohaeng Kim, South Korea’s most well-known Marxist economist, died of a heart attack on 1 August at the age of 72. He is survived by his wife and two sons. Over two hundred people attended a memorial ceremony for Kim on 7 August at SungKongHoe University, where he taught until his death and a Soohaeng Kim Memorial Society was recently launched by his students, alongside activists from major Korean progressive organizations.

Kim played a central role in winning “civil rights” for Marxism in South Korea, where it had been severely repressed since the 1950s. Kim achieved that in academia through translating, studying and teaching Marx’s Capital. Kim’s most important achievement was the translation of all three volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital into Korean. Although Korea had seen previous translations of Marx’s Capital, Soohaeng Kim’s 1989-90 translation was the first complete Korean version of all three volumes of Marx’s Capital to be published in South Korea. This was a crucial moment for Marxism in South Korea, after almost half a century of prohibition following the Korean War. Another scholar, Tae-gyung Kim, had been jailed for publishing a translation of the first volume of Marx’s Capital in 1987, under South Korea’s anticommunist State Security Law – he was released in 1988 after pressure from civil society.

Soohaeng Kim’s translation was based on English edition of Capital and was soon followed by a complete translation of all three volumes from the German original by Shin-jun Kang. But it was Kim’s translation that turned out to be more successful. Presumably this was partly due to Soohaeng Kim’s prestige as a prominent professor at Korea’s leading university, Seoul National University (SNU). However, it was also due to Kim’s continuous efforts to improve the quality of his translation. Indeed, Kim’s final work prior to his sudden death was to complete his proofreading of the third revised translation of Marx’s Capital.

Besides the translation of Marx’s Capital, Kim played a key role in the formation of Marxist economics in South Korean academia by training dozens of bright Marxist economists between 1987 and 2008, when he held the position of economics professor at SNU. Kim supervised more than 20 PhD theses and over 30 MA dissertations during his time at the university. He also played a central role in founding and leading the Korean Association for Political Economy, the principal heterodox economics association in Korea. Indeed, Kim has been regarded as the “Godfather” of Marxist economics in Korea. Kim’s academic practice, centered upon Marxist economics and education, continued after he retired from SNU in 2008 and was appointed as distinguished professor at SeongKongHoe University.

Kim’s central research topic was the Marxist theory of economic crisis. Indeed, Kim submitted his PhD thesis titled Theories of Economic Crises: A Critical Appraisal of Some Japanese and European Reformulations, at Birkbeck College, London, in 1982, under the supervision of Laurence Harris. In this 522-page thesis Kim adopted Ben Fine’s interpretation of Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit as his standpoint and critically assessed the diverse Marxist crisis theories, including Japanese versions, such as the crisis theories of Kozo Uno and his school. Like Ben Fine, Kim put equal importance on the falling tendency of the rate of profit and on counteracting forces, and found the main cause of crisis in the contradiction between the tendency and the counteracting forces. In 2006 Kim updated and expanded his PhD Dissertation as Capitalist Crises and Panics. After the outbreak of global economic crisis in 2008, Kim judiciously chronicled its development and published the results as The Global Depression in 2011. While Kim faithfully followed Marx’s text in his theory of crisis, he seems to have been open to non-Marxist approaches, like Keynesian economics, in his empirical analysis of actual crisis.

After the start of the global economic crisis Kim extended his research interests to constructing the economic principles of a post-capitalist alternative society. They were published as Post-capitalist Society in 2007 and Marx’s Vision of a Future Society in 2012. The latter is especially significant in that it explicitly advocated the Marxist concept of the “association of free individuals”, while classifying “actually existing socialism”, such as that of the former USSR, China, or North Korea, as “state capitalism”. In his final years, Kim explicitly identified himself with Marx’s ideas of socialism from below. Regarding his change of view on the nature of socialist society, Kim acknowledged the influences of the Japanese Marxist economist, Otani Teinosuke.

From the start of his career as a Marxist economist Kim was always more interested in writing and lecturing on Marxism for workers and ordinary citizens than indulging in pedantic Marxological debates. Kim’s Principles of Political Economy, published in 1988, was a quietly well-written Marxist economics textbook, widely read among progressive students and activists at the time. This book was especially refreshing in that it reflected contemporary Western Marxist research, while consciously distancing itself from the dogmatic Stalinist textbooks that were popular then. Kim even deployed Trotsky’s concept of “uneven and combined development” in explaining the movement of capital in this book, though he never identified himself with Trotskyism. In his later years, Kim continued to publish introductory books on Marx’s Capital, such as Capital for Young People (2010), Economics for a New Society (2011), and A Study Guide to Capital (2014). The popularization of Marx’s Capital was the key focus for Kim in his final years.

Prof. Soohaeng Kim's translation of Marx's Capital.

Prof. Soohaeng Kim’s translation of Marx’s Capital.

Besides Marxist research and education, Kim also contributed to the development of the socialist movement in Korea. He served as president of the Workers’ Cyber University and co-representative of Marxcommunnale, the biannual festival of Marxist researchers and activists in Korea. Although Kim never joined any far left political organization, he also passionately defended socialist activists in court when they were charged under South Korea’s anticommunist laws. It was wonderful to see how Kim defied the so-called “rule of ageing” to become more and more radicalized in his final years.

Soohaeng Kim was a towering figure among Korean progressives and Marxist academics and his sudden death has been a great loss for us. It is all the more so because Kim had just begun to launch his final project for the renewal of Marxism and Marxist economics researchers in Korea. The crisis of South Korean Marxism began with the crumbling of the Soviet Union in 1991, only a few years after its “spring time” in the democratic uprising of 1987. Dozens of SNU graduate students, whose PhD theses or MA dissertations Kim had supervised, converted to post-Marxist or non-Marxist economics during the 1990s, finding it almost impossible to get university positions with a Marxist economics PhD. As a result, Kim failed to have own his professorship filled with a Marxist economist when he retired from SNU in 2008 at the age of 65. The Economics Department of SNU was by then so biased towards neoliberal mainstream economics that it completely disregarded the fact that Kim had supervised the largest number of PhDs and MAs in the Department and decided to replace him with yet another US-trained mainstream economist. Indeed, the Economics Department of SNU managed to surpass its model – American Ivy League university economics departments – in eradicating academic diversity and threatening the existence of heterodox economics itself.

Now however, the ultra-neoclassical credo of mainstream Korean economists is in conflict with the global trend of economics, which has begun to question the adequacy of market fundamentalism. There is a new consensus forming that this market fundamentalism is what lies behind the unprecedented deepening of inequality as well as the global economic crisis that began in 2008. Some prominent economists, such as Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Thomas Piketty have criticized mainstream economics and admitted the validity of the historical and institutional approaches of heterodox economics, including Marxism. In this light, it would be natural for Korean mainstream economists to admit that Marxist economics is a legitimate field within the economics profession, if they want remain loyal followers of US trends. Above all, they need to listen to Kim’s Marxist economics, which placed central importance on analyzing capitalist crises and imagining a new post-capitalist society. Indeed, Kim’s Marxist economics seem increasingly relevant with the deepening crisis of global capitalism and the bankruptcy of mainstream economics. Mainstream economists may well find there is something they can learn from Marxist economics even when it comes to understanding and managing capitalism.

However, the conditions for the renewal of Marxism are still not as good in South Korea as they are in other countries. The main obstacle to Marxism and socialism in Korea used to be the anticommunist authoritarian regimes. Even simply carrying a copy of Marx’s Capital was punished by more than two years in prison prior to 1987. It is true that Marxist researchers are allowed some degree of academic freedom now thanks to the democratisation of the Korean society since 1987. But the anticommunist National Security Law is still on the books today in Korea and can be applied at any time, even to Marxist academics if they are linked to socialist political organizations.

Nevertheless, what makes the renewal of Marxism difficult in Korea is not so much political repression by the state as the retreat of mass progressive movements and the marginalization of Marxist academics. In order to break with this situation and revive Marxist research in Korea, the current monopolization of major university positions by US-trained neoliberal mainstream economists must first be challenged. In addition, at least the “simple reproduction” of Marxist economists in the universities needs to be secured. Instead of indulging in endless debates on the “transformation problem”, Marxist economists need to directly tackle mainstream neoliberal economics and try to ally with workers and students, who are beginning to be radicalized in the conditions of global economic crisis. Indeed, Marxist economists need to engage with young, casualised, low-income workers, and the people who came onto the streets for the wave of candlelight demonstrations against Korea’s conservative governments in the last five years.

This is what Soohaeng Kim’s last project really meant. The main task for Marxist economists after Kim is to develop Marxist economics as an attractive and persuasive alternative for workers and students, who are being radicalized in the age of economic crisis. Only by engaging with radical movements created by workers and students can Marxist economics have its long-awaited renaissance. This is also the best way to follow and develop Kim’s legacy. We should not forget that the reason Kim could be appointed Professor of Economics at SNU back in 1987 was the strength of the student movement and the high tide of the Korean struggle for democratisation.

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