Gwangju 518 and the Future of Global Democracy
This is the acceptance speech George gave for the 2016 Kim Dae Jung Scholar's Prize for Contributions to Peace, Democracy and Human Rights on the Korean Peninsula
By George Katsiaficas
Acceptance Speech for the 2016 Kim Dae Jung Scholar’s Prize for Democracy, Peace, and Human Rights, Chonnam National University, Gwangju, South Korea, June 8, 2016.
CNU has been my home away from home since 2001. I feel greatly honored that my scholarly work has been recognized for helping to realize democracy, peace and human rights on the Korean peninsula. Ever since my first visit to Gwangju in 1999, I have felt myself to be at home. During my visit the next year, I was happily surprised by an invitation to meet President Kim Dae Jung shortly before his visit to Pyongyang.
In this world, money rules, and scholarly endeavors are seldom recognized, let alone rewarded. My everyday experiences at CNU have been continual sources of surprise, happily so, and this award is part of that pattern. I recall another such incident that I would like to share with you. Some years ago, a German colleague was invited to Gwangju for the annual 518 Institute conference. As I showed him around campus, we happened upon the statue of 최상채 총장, Choi Sang-jae, the first president of CNU. My colleague laughed heartily as soon as he saw the statue of a man holding a book and wearing a modern western suit. So accustomed was he to see statues of men on horses with military regalia and weapons, that to him, the sight of a man with a book was a funny and exotic sight. I immediately challenged his laughter, and he quickly agreed that the portrayal of a scholar was a much better sight that any glorification of war. I am proud to consider myself a scholar from CNU.
Of the many professors here who have guided and accompanied me as I journeyed through the experiences of 518 and Korea’s minjung movement, I must name two: Na Kahn-chae, whose own work on the Gwangju Uprising has expanded our understanding through his insight that it was at least a 17-year project. Professor Na has been an indispensable intellectual colleague as well as a good friend. Together we edited an anthology about 518 published by Routledge. Prof. Park Hae-Kwang, current director of the 518 Institute, has nurtured our friendship in Boston and Gwangju and encouraged me intellectually and personally.
I first came to Korea in 1999 after my book on 1968 was translated. It quickly sold through more than 5 printings, and the publisher brought me to Seoul, where multiple interviews and reviews afforded me access to Korean public opinion. My wish ever since 1980, however, when I had seen news reports on 518 while living in Germany, was to visit Gwangju, and I did so in 1999 for one night—enough to fall in love with the city.
My book on the global imagination of 1968, 신좌파의 상상력, showed how internationalism and self-management were the twin aspirations that united a global New Left. From Czechoslovakia (invaded by the Soviet Union) to Vietnam (invaded by the US) to Paris, New York and Mexico City, the grassroots movements were practically and intuitively tied together even though no organization united them. I developed the concept of the eros effect to explain how this unity emerged in the absence of organization and extensive personal contact. In my second book (translated into Korean as정치의 전복), The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life, I illustrated how "consciously spontaneous" movements in Europe challenged contemporary norms and values while integrating categories of existence often thought to be mutually exclusive: eros and politics; opposing the government and working for justice; breaking the law and acting properly; and being in solidarity with the Third World rather than enjoying their exploitation.
My books grew out of my life experiences. In 1969, when I first became active, it was not easy for me to participate in the anti-war movement. My father was a career military man, a highly decorated war hero, who didn't want to see his "only son throw his life away." He would come to demonstrations and physically try to make me leave. I was twenty years old, a senior at MIT, and had more than one physical altercation with him. It was very embarrassing, and he sometimes hurt me. Nonetheless I persisted. When I was put in jail, my mother stood up as I was being sentenced for "disturbing a school" and said in Greek to the Greek -American judge: "My son is not a criminal." The atmosphere in the courtroom was tense, but I exploded when the judge ordered the bailiffs to "arrest that woman!" Needless to say, I felt incredibly guilty as my mom spent a week in the notorious Charles Street Prison in Boston, but she rebounded and was elected three times to the New Hampshire House of Representatives, where she introduced the nuclear freeze initiative and other progressive measures.
My own project begins with a very simple proposition: ordinary people, acting together, can profoundly change the patterns of everyday life. In more than 40 years of scholarly work, I seek to give voice to the actions of hundreds of thousands of people. The oft-repeated phrase, “the people make history,” cannot be comprehended without focusing on popular uprisings, when the deeds of hundreds of thousands speak for themselves and portray freedom’s meaning in history.
Besides being based upon scholarly sources, my portrayal of recent Korean history is also based upon dozens of interviews with individuals central to its unfolding. With the help of the 518 Institute and Na Il-sung, I interviewed dozens of former 시민군 (members of the Citizens Army), and in 2003, the 518 Institute published two volumes of transcriptions in Korean. During my interviews, several militia members recalled releasing unharmed soldiers they had overpowered. One case in particular remains in my memory. A captured young soldier began to cry when people told him he would be released. The militia members asked him why he cried. He insisted that if he returned to his unit without his M-16, he would be severely beaten. The fighters deliberated and then returned his gun—but not his ammunition. The militia picked up guns to fight, but people considered them nonviolent— or even anti-violent—since they stopped the brutality of the paratroopers. They hurt no one, and protected the people. The noble attributes of the Gwangju Uprising, what Choi Jungwoon called the “absolute community,” is diametrically opposed to US government reports of people’s tribunals and executions in liberated Gwangju.
In the aftermath of the uprising, Gwangju became the watchword for democracy—the primary symbol of and inspiration for Korean freedom struggles. Gwangju has a meaning in Korean history that can only be compared to that of the Paris Commune in French history and of the battleship Potemkin in Russian history. Like the Paris Commune, the people of Gwangju rose up and governed themselves until they were brutally suppressed by indigenous military forces abetted by an outside power. And like the battleship Potemkin, the people of Gwangju have repeatedly signaled the advent of revolution in Korea—from the 1894 Farmers’ War and the 1929 student revolt to the 1980 uprising. Independent of Cold War divisions, both the DPRK and ROK praise the people’s uprising. In this sense, Gwangju provides a point of unity across what often appears to be an unbridgeable political divide.
The 1980 Gwangju People’s Uprising is a significant indication of the capacity of people to govern themselves far more wisely than military dictatorships, corporate elites, or “democratically” sanctioned governments. People’s global capacity for direct self-government (as well as the deadly absurdity of elite rule) is all too evident in the wake of Gwangju. In 1980, Human Rights Watch estimated as many as 3,000 people had been killed; yet, people’s “community of love” brought hundreds of thousands of people closer together than ever. Solidarity sustained their struggle for seventeen years until finally dictators Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo were convicted and sent to prison. Gwangju is a shining example of people’s contemporary capacity to live together with Eros at their side while death stands at their doorstep. Moreover, in my subsequent perusal of thousands of pages of US government documents released to the city of Gwangju, it became apparent that the US rushed to overpower the uprising in order to impose a neoliberal economic regime on Korea in much the same fashion as they bloodily imposed neoliberalism in Chile in 1973; Thailand, Argentina and Sri Lanka 1976; Turkey in 1980, and elsewhere.
As opposed to the actions of governments, which when analyzed in the light of day reveal sinister criminality at work, empirical analysis of the emergence of the Gwangju Uprising provides a glimpse of humanity’s evolving collective wisdom. Like the 1871 Paris Commune, the people of Gwangju in 1980 battled against overwhelming forces arrayed against them. In both cities, citizens, in opposition to their own governments, effectively gained control of urban space. Hundreds of thousands of people created popular organs of political power that effectively and efficiently replaced traditional forms of government; crime rates plummeted during the period of liberation; and, people embraced new forms of kinship with each other.
A significant difference, however, is that in Gwangju, no preexisting insurgent armed force like the Parisian National Guard led the assault on power. Gwangju was liberated without the government’s defeat by a foreign power or planning by political parties; rather, a spontaneous process of resistance to the brutality of thousands of paratroopers threw forward men and women who rose to the occasion. At the decisive moment in the armed struggle, the city’s transportation workers heroically assembled a column of buses and more than 100 taxis that led a victorious assault by more than 100,000 people against flamethrowers and machine guns. Many key activists in this struggle had no previous political experience.
Not only did people rise up against horrendous violence and defeat thousands of elite paratroopers (pulled off the front lines with North Korea with US approval), the citizenry governed the liberated city through daily direct-democratic rallies. There was no internecine violence nor any looting or crime in what became known as the “absolute community.” To illustrate people’s superior capacity for self-government at the end of the twentieth century, we can compare the republican democracy of the Paris Commune (its election of leaders) with Gwangju’s direct democracy (where daily meetings of hundreds of thousands of people were its highest governing body). We can contemplate the enormous difference between the events of March 18, 1871 (when the uniformed, armed Parisian National Guard seized power amid drum rolls) with those of May 18, 1980 (when Gwangju’s people began their heroic resistance to more than 50,000 South Korean paratroopers and elite soldiers). We can observe the internal discipline imposed from above on Parisians (posters called for “Death to Looters”) with Gwangju’s absolute community.
518 helped inspire East Asia’s regional string of uprisings that had a huge political impact. In the US, exiled political leaders from Korea (Kim Dae Jung) and the Philippines (Benigno Aquino) got acquainted and returned to lead vibrant social movements. “People Power” became activists’ common global identity—cutting across religious, national, and economic divides as uprisings unfolded in the Philippines (1986), South Korea (1987), Burma (1988), Tibet (1989), China (1989), Taiwan (1990), Nepal (1990), Bangladesh (1990), and Thailand (1992). These grassroots uprisings overthrew eight entrenched local dictatorships: Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos was forced into exile; South Korea’s Chun Doo-hwan was disgraced and compelled to grant direct presidential elections before being imprisoned; Taiwan’s 40-year martial law regime was overturned; Burma’s mobilized citizenry overthrew two dictators only to see their successors massacre thousands; Nepal’s monarchy was made constitutional; military ruler Hussain Muhammad Ershad in Bangladesh was forced to step down and eventually sent to prison; and, Army Commander Suchinda Kraprayoon in Thailand was forced to vacate the office of prime minister.
Leading up to the 1980s, East Asian dictatorships had been in power for decades and seemed unshakable, yet the wave of revolts transmogrified the region. These insurgencies threw to the wind the common notion that Asians are happier with authoritarian governments than democracy, that “Asian despotism” continues to define regimes here. They ushered in greater liberties and new opportunities for citizen participation—as well as for international capital.
If these Asian movements had erupted within months of each other rather than years, as did the 2011 Arab Spring, no doubt more recognition would have been given to their meaningful coincidence. Another reason that the Asian Wave is unknown can be found in Westerners’ mistaken belief that civil society did not exist here before Euro-American penetration. Idealizing European social history as their only model, Eurocentrists do not find replicas of the indigenous emergence of a bourgeoisie and the autonomous individual in Asia. They conclude that “civil society” is nonexistent, or at best insignificant, here. It is still said that civil societies had manifestly failed to appear. Instead of locating Asia’s heritage of values and relations as a resource, observers point to the dearth of American-style voluntary groups and conclude that there is no civil society.
My book Asia’s Unknown Uprisings focuses on people’s forms of interaction with each other during moments of confrontations with the forces of order. In the first volume (translated as 한국 민중봉기), I provided a view of Korean history through the prism of social movements. Korea’s long twentieth century produced an unmatched richness of uprisings and upheavals. From the 1894 Farmers’ Movement against Japanese colonialism to the 2008 candlelight protests against U.S. “mad cow” beef, insurgencies continually built upon each other. Popular movements assimilated lessons from previous protest episodes, and people improvised tactics and targets from their own assessments of past accomplishments and failures. Volume 2 (translated as 아시아 민중봉기) is international in scope and deals with uprisings in nine places, where I found connections between popular insurgencies, revealing their capacities to learn from each other, to expand upon preceding examples, and to borrow each other’s identities, vocabulary, tactics, and aspirations.
Cultural, religious, ethnic and national differences, while appearing to constitute tremendous discrepancies between various social movements, obscure the essential similarities of movements all over the world today. The forging of a global culture of resistance to corporate capitalism since 1968 is nothing less than a world-historical force that is elevating humanity from nationalities, races and religions into a species-being that includes all humans. Whatever their specific identity today, people increasingly recognize that their ties to each other in insurgent movements are far more important than their ties to the rulers of their societies. More than at any other time in modern history, people reject the world capitalist system and seek to replace rule by the 1% with direct-democratic forms of self-government that respect all human life and protect the planet from predatory corporations and militarized nation-states.
Far more than we realize, the world we live in has been created by revolutionary insurgencies. From the American Revolution in 1776 to the Russian in 1917, from the Gwangju Uprising and Asian Wave to the Arab Spring, uprisings occur with astonishing regularity. If we look at history, we can find moments in every country when the activated population changes governments and economic structures—even the way time and space are measured and understood. In these moments of the eros effect, love ties exist between people that are some of the most exhilarating feelings imaginable. I am not talking simply about sexual ties when I say love ties. Love has many forms: love of parents for their children and vice versa; love for brothers, sisters and other family members; love for a significant other; and most socially, love for one's fellow human beings.
Uprisings are terrible, beautiful events. They break out so unexpectedly that they surprise their partisans as much as they bewilder their opponents. No one relishes the task of counting the dead and wounded, of remembering the brutality of militaries and blood in the streets. Those who participate have difficulty overcoming the guilt they feel for injuries and deaths, while people who do not rise to the occasion cannot easily overcome the shame they feel for staying home (or fleeing).
In my view, humanity’s unending need for freedom constitutes the planet’s most powerful natural resource. In the struggle to create free human beings, political movements play paramount roles. Uprisings accelerate social transformation, change governments, and revolutionize individual consciousness and social relationships. Lifelong friendships are formed amid new values for everyday life. Even among nonparticipants, bonds are created through powerful erotic energies unleashed in these exhilarating moments. These instances of what Marcuse called “political eros” are profoundly important in rekindling imaginations and nurturing hope.
Cycles of revolt develop in relation to each other. From the global eruption of 1968 to the string of Asian uprisings, from Eastern Europe in 1989 to the alterglobalization confrontations of elite summits, ordinary people glean the lessons of history. Today, not only is there global motion from the grassroots, but the grammar of insurgency is everywhere similar. Since World War II, humanity’s increasingly awareness of our own power and strategic capacities has become manifest in sudden and simultaneous contestation of power by hundreds of thousands of people, a significant new tactic in the arsenal of popular movements that I have named the eros effect.
During moments of the eros effect, universal interests become generalized at the same time as dominant values of society (national chauvinism, hierarchy, and domination) are negated. As Herbert Marcuse so clearly formulated it, humans have an instinctual need for freedom—something that we grasp intuitively, and it is this instinctual need that is sublimated into a collective phenomenon during moments of the eros effect. Dimensions of the eros effect include: the sudden and synchronous emergence of hundreds of thousands of people occupying public space; the simultaneous appearance of revolts in many places; the intuitive identification of hundreds of thousands of people with each other; their common belief in new values; and suspension of normal daily routines like competitive business practices, criminal behavior, and acquisitiveness. During the Vietnam War, for example, many Americans' patriotism was superseded by solidarity with the people of Vietnam; in place of racism, many white Americans insisted a Vietnamese life was worth the same as an American (defying the continual media barrage to the contrary). On American college campuses, mainstream polls indicated that Ho Chi Minh was more popular than President Richard Nixon. People’s intuition and self-organization—not the dictates of any party—are key to the emergence of such moments. Actualized in the actions of millions of people since 1968, the eros effect continues to be a weapon of enormous future potential.
The eros effect is not simply a general strike, armed insurrection, or massive mobilization. Rather it can be all of these and more. It is not an act of mind, nor can it be willed by a “conscious element” (or revolutionary party). Rather it involves popular movements emerging in their own right as ordinary people take history into their hands. The concept of the eros effect is a means of rescuing the revolutionary value of spontaneity, a way to stimulate a reevaluation of the unconscious. Rather than portraying emotions as linked to reaction, the notion of the eros effect seeks to bring them into the realm of positive revolutionary resources whose mobilization can result in significant social transformation. As Marcuse understood, Nature is an ally in the revolutionary process, including internal, human nature.
Furthermore, in the actions of the activated millions, the aspirations and visions of the movement are revealed more significantly than in statements of leaders, organizations, or parties.
Contemporary instances of the simultaneous appearance of movements without regard for national borders involve a process of mutual amplification and synergy. In the period after 1968, as the global movement’s capacity for decentralized international coordination developed, five other waves of international insurgencies can be discerned:
1. The European and American disarmament movement of the early 1980s
2. The wave of Asian uprisings from 1986-1992
3. The revolts against Soviet regimes in East Europe
4. The alterglobalization wave from Seattle 1999 to antiwar mobilizations on February 15, 2003
5. The Arab Spring, the Greek rebellion, and the Occupy movement in 2011
In my view, such globally synchronized waves of protest are significant precursors of future events. Wherever we look today, from Taksim to Tahrir Squares, from Indignados to Occupy Wall Street, people seize public space where they can speak freely, they challenge their government’s policies, and they build forms of organization based upon direct democracy. Creatively synthesizing direct-democratic forms of decision-making and militant popular resistance, people’s movements will continue to develop along the historical lines revealed in previous global waves: within a grammar of autonomy, “conscious spontaneity,” and the eros effect. This global grammar of insurgency includes rejection of control by political parties in favor of autonomous modes of decision-making. These three qualities—autonomy, eros (international solidarity), and direct democracy—globally tie together movements that appear to be vastly different on the surface. This grammar of insurgency reaches beneath and above insurgencies’ specific demands, aims and ideologies. Their formulation of direct democracy—governance through discussion and consensus of those for whom the decisions will have an impact—reveals the contours of a far superior form of governance to the current system of nation-states in which voters choose their leaders every four or five years through contrived elections in which money plays a key role.
Today, a global revolution with pluralist and decentralized forms is underway. Visible in global waves of uprisings, ordinary citizens’ aspirations for people power and more democracy continue to emerge everywhere. While now seemingly marginalized, the international movement today involves more activists opposing global capitalism than at any other point in the history of our species. While the mass media broadcast a version of history that emphasizes the need for central authorities and social conformity, beneath the radar, people’s understanding and self-guided actions constitute a powerful undercurrent. As we become increasingly aware of our own power and strategic capacities, our future impact can become more focused and synchronized. One tendency we can project into the future is the continual activation of a global eros effect of synchronous actions unifying people across the world.
Simultaneously today, men and women in all cultures yearn for love and freedom—and they actualize the struggle in their daily lives. Our erotic passions for freedom and justice are sublimated into political movements that unite us. These passions grow from the tender feeling for ourselves and the extension of that kindness to the partners of our unconscious in others. The life-forces within us bring us together and make us strong. To the extent we are fond of others—including other species—even when they appear more and more different from us, we grow freer.
The real axis of evil—the IMF, World Bank, and WTO, abetted by nation-states bristling with weapons of mass destruction in the service of a few hundred billionaires—will not willingly relinquish their grip on humanity’s vast wealth. Globally synchronized struggles by hundreds of millions of people are needed to transform the global system. As Immanuel Wallerstein has long insisted, capitalism is undermining itself as it condemns a billion people at its periphery to semi-starvation and ravages our planet, while compelling all of us to work harder for more years with less money and diminished security.
518 will help inform future uprisings—which, however reluctantly undertaken, will be necessitated by the crisis tendencies of the existing world system. Sad and joyous, full of suffering while bringing forth tears of happiness, uprisings are moments of extreme desperation, during which human hearts act according to people’s fondest dreams. By understanding these dreams and remaining true to them, we become more capable of a future of freedom.
In the 21st century, Korea has moved from the periphery to the center of the world’s culture and politics. Like the role of Battleship Potemkin in Russian social movements, Gwangju had national, then regional impacts with enduring resonance. In the future, 518 and Gwangju could have an important international role. I hope this great city’s people will remain a beacon for freedom and embrace responsibility for transforming the world into one of freedom and prosperity for all.
George Katsiaficas is the author of Asia's Unknown Uprisings Volume 1: South Korean Social Movements in the 20th Century and Asia's Unknown Uprisings Volume 2: People Power in the Philippines, Burma, Tibet, China, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, and Indonesia, 1947–2009