Marxism was introduced to Korea during the Japanese colonial period of the early 1920s. From then until the present day, it has given many the inspiration to theoretically critique capitalism and practically move towards socialism. However, it has been subject to strong suppression by multiple regimes, especially the military dictatorship governments. Thus, the reception of Marxism was determined by the dynamics of two main forces, power and movement. In other words, it was a history of “suppression and resistance”.
Sibok Chang is a professor at Mokpo National University, South Korea. This article is based on his presentation at “Rosa Luxemburg at 150: Revisiting Her Radical Life and Legacy”, a conference hosted by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung and the International Rosa Luxemburg Society on 4–5 March 2021.
Since the introduction of Marxism to Korea in the early 1920s, its reception has been characterized by ebbs and flows that reflect the specific political and economic conditions of each period. Therefore, periodization can be easily discerned from the evolution of Marxism in Korea. For example, the (1) implantation of Marxism under the domination of Japanese imperialism; (2) the “First Spring of Marxism” after the liberation from Japanese colonial rule during 1945 and 1948; (3) the suppression and concealment between the Korean War and the 1970s; (4) the “Second Spring of Marxism” during the late 1980s.
Implantation of Marxism under the Domination of Japanese Imperialism
From the early 1920s, during the Japanese colonial period, Marxism was accepted along with various other socialist theories. At that time, Marxism was introduced via major daily newspapers, such as Dong-A Ilbo and Chosun Ilbo. For example, Dong-A Ilbo published “The Outline of Marx’s Thought” which was serialized and printed 37 times between 11 May 1922 and June 1923. Marxism was also introduced in socialist magazines and pamphlets.
Furthermore, some works of Marx and Engels were translated. The first translation of Marx’s work was The Handbook of Historical Materialism, the preface of Zur Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie, in 1921. The first translation of Engels’s work, The Development of Socialism from Utopia to Science was published in 1925.
Korean intellectuals and activists under the rule of Japanese imperialism encountered Marxism. Socialist activists in particular held many open lectures and organized reading clubs and, during the 1930s, Korean researchers analyzed the economic history of the Chosun dynasty through the lens of historical materialism. The researcher representative at that time was Paik Namwoon, who published Socioeconomic History of Chosun in 1933 and Socioeconomic History of Chosun’s Feudalism in 1937.
It was into this receptive climate that Rosa Luxemburg’s thoughts were introduced. It is not known exactly when the content related to her appeared in Korea but, on 1 April 1924, in issue 46 of Gae-byuk there was an article entitled “The Life of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg”. This article introduced in detail the life of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, pays homage to their struggle against imperialism, and argues that the youth under Japanese colonial rule should honour their spirit. Furthermore, in 1925, a lecture was held in honour of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Considering these facts, Luxemburg seems to have been a major figure in the Korean Communist movement.
Korean researchers attempted to study the theories of Luxemburg. For example, in 1929, Park Mun Gyu wrote his graduation thesis, entitled a “Brief Study of Capital Accumulation”. In this thesis, he theoretically analyzed the capital accumulation theory of Luxemburg and Nikolai Bukharin and explored the prerequisites necessary to explore Chosun’s problems at that time. Moreover, Paik Namwoon discussed Luxemburg. He understood that imperialism during the Great Depression of 1929 entered the stage of a general crisis, and analyzed it based on the theory of overproduction, denying Luxemburg’s underconsumption theory.
The reception of Marxism and Luxemburg’s thought in the Japanese colonial period focused on a theoretical and practical analysis of the capitalism and imperialism of the time as a means to combat Japanese imperialism. Japanese colonial authorities continued to suppress Marxism: they enacted censorship, as well as searching for, seizing, and destroying pro-Marxist daily newspapers or magazines, and cancelled Marxist lectures or meetings. In addition, they hunted down those in possession of socialist books and persuaded intellectuals to reject Marxism. In the face of Japanese repression, Marxism developed fields of theory and practice but was not able to become mainstream.
The “First Spring of Marxism” after Liberation from Japanese Colonial rule, 1945 to 1948
After liberation from Japanese imperialism, Marxism was openly discussed and translations of Marxist texts were produced in large quantities. That period was referred to as “the golden age of socialist books”. For example, from 1945–49, a total of 178 publications related to Marxism and socialism were printed.
The most important book published was the first translation of Marx’s Capital. The first two volumes of Capital were translated by Young-Cheol Choi, Seok-Dam Jeon, and Dong Heo, between 1947–48. Young-Cheol, Seok-Dam, and Heo’s translations were published by a Seoul publisher as four and two serialized installments for Volume I and Volume II, respectively. It is estimated that around 20,000 copies of Volume I were printed and sold. However, Young-Cheol, Seok-Dam, and Heo’s translation failed to include Volume III, as the translators fled to North Korea when the anti-communist government of Syngman Rhee was established in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula in 1948. Despite being incomplete, Young-Cheol, Seok-Dam, and Heo’s translation was significant in that it was the first Korean translation of Capital.
At that time, however, Luxemburg’s works did not attract much attention. Perhaps the main reason for this was that, while post-liberation Marxist thought was in abundance and works necessary to solve the problems of the time were intensively published, the Korean Communist Party (the Workers’ Party of South Korea) was greatly influenced by Leninism and Stalinism. Moreover, the first spring of Marxism was short-lived, lasting only three years, meaning there was not much time for Luxemburg’s works to be introduced and disseminated.
Suppression and Concealment between the Korean War and the 1970s
Marxism in Korea was almost exterminated by the Korean War. Throughout the division and war, most Marxists fled to North Korea for political reasons. Marxism was one of the biggest taboos during the long period of military dictatorship and had been perverted by strong anti-communists. Nonetheless, Marxism had been accepted by some during this period.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Sasanggye was the most famous monthly magazine that discussed Marxism. However, the discussion was critical of Marxism and socialism. Student activists paid attention to Marxism. Those who were based in ideological circles resisted the military dictatorship and launched movements to resolve contradictions in Korean society. In the course of this, they introduced Marxism but it became individualized and fragmented. One reason for fragmentation was a strong suppression of Marxism under the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee.
Luxemburg’s thought was also introduced fragmentally. From the liberation to the 1970s, there were barely any articles or books that introduced her theories. Luxemburg’s theories were out of favour or suppressed due the confrontations between the Left and the Right after liberation, the Korean War, and the emergence of military dictatorship.
Nevertheless, some of Luxemburg’s ideas were introduced. For example, Luxemburg’s theories were introduced in 1952, in a translation of Joan Robinson’s book The Generalisation of the General Theory and other Essays and in 1964, when Luxemburg’s life was discussed in a book edited by Lee Heong-gu and Kim Seong-geun.
In summation, the acceptance of Marxism between the Korean War and the 1970s was followed by the absence of Marxism. In response to the challenge of Marxism, Korean intellectuals deconstructed it in the 1950s, criticized it in the 1960s, and ignored it in the 1970s. As a result, the introduction of Marxism became marginalized, which was unfortunate. However, many student activists who were active in the 1970s participated in various movements in the 1980s, and because of this Marxism lay dormant and did not disappear.
The “Second Spring of Marxism” during the Late 1980s
Beginning in the 1980s, the people’s suppressed anger exploded and various movements formed, with many people participating in the democratization movement and the labour movement. Also, this period was that of resistance and struggle against thought. Marxism played an important role in this process. In the history of Marxism’s reception in Korea, after the rule of Japanese imperialism, this period is considered the “Marxist Renaissance” or “the Second Spring of Marxism”.
In the 1980s, Marxism was discussed by members of the student movement rather than in the academic world. Student activists took the initiative and read Marx’s original texts, organizing seminars and even translating many Marxist works to be used as weapons of democratization.
One feature of the 1980s resurgence of Marxism was the translation of original texts by Marx and Engels, particularly Capital. In the late 1980s, an outpouring of Marxist literature in the “Second Spring of Marxism” culminated in the translation and publication of Capital in 1989–90. Between 1987–90, the publisher EeRonGwaSilCheon consecutively issued whole volumes of Capital translated by Young-Min Kim (a group pseudonym of the translators’ collective), Shin-Joon Gang, and a third unnamed author. This was the first complete Korean version of all three volumes of Capital to be published in South Korea and was translated from the German original.
One of the most important events for Marxists at the time was the appointment of a Marxian researcher to a professorship at a university. Marxism-related lectures were offered at major universities and Marxist lectures were particularly popular with Korean students. Moreover, a subsequent research generation could have followed, but strong suppression by the military dictatorship continued. Marxism’s 1980s renaissance was a historical event and even though it had its limitations, Marxism gained a following and was introduced to many people.
In the 1980s, when anti-dictatorship struggles intensified, demands for democratization intensified too, with the June Democracy Movement taking place in 1987. Luxemburg’s ideas were actively promoted during the 1980s renaissance of Marxism, and at that time discussion of her work focused on three areas. Firstly, the life and figure of Luxemburg was introduced with texts that include Women of the Wind and Flame and Eternal Woman Rosa Luxemburg. All in all, these works focused on organizing Luxemburg’s life chronologically and portrayed her as a tragic female revolutionary. Secondly, there was an attempt to emphasize the political struggle in Luxemburg. The introduction of texts including Rosa Luxemburg’s Thought and Practice, Popular Movement Seminar, and Socialism and Nationalismwere intended to introduce her political ideas theoretically and to draw out practical implications necessary to the struggle for democratization. Thirdly, there was a study that analyzed Luxemburg’s economic theory. In 1983, an article introducing The Accumulation of Capital was published in Shin Dong-A. It was a translation of books by foreign scholars: Tony Cliff described Luxemburg’s expanded reproduction scheme, Anthony Brewerdealt with her theory of imperialism, and F. R. Hansen criticized her theory of automatic collapse. In addition, research papers were also published: for example, Kim Sam-soo published a paper comparing Luxemburg’s reproduction scheme with Joan Robinson, while Kim Soo Haeng published an article criticizing the theory of under-consumption.
Luxemburg’s reception in the 1980s focused on introducing her life, highlighting her as a revolutionary who fought against the mainstream of imperialism and the Social Democratic Party, and applying lessons learned from her fight practically to the situation in Korea in the 1980s. Furthermore, with regard to her economic theory, her major theories were reviewed but the discourse remained at the level of introducing and criticizing the discussion of her theories as a whole.
After the 1990s, intellectuals became more receptive to the work of Luxemburg and research on her ideas gradually increased. Works focused on the life of Luxemburg began to be published in the 1990s. For example, Helmut Hirsch and Max Gallo documented the life and thought of Luxemburg in biographies, and through this a rich understanding of her life developed which had previously only been understood in fragments.
Above all, what is important in Luxemburg’s critical reception since the 1990s is that her original texts have been translated. After the publication of Russian Revolution in 1989, which contained views on Luxemburg’s Russian Revolution, The Mass Strike was translated in 1995, and Social Reform or Revolution in 2002, which criticized Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism. Finally, in 2013, her main work, The Accumulation of Capital, was translated using the original German text.
In the academic world, various studies on Luxemburg have been presented. In 1991, Lee Gab-Young completed his doctorate on “Rosa Luxemburg’s Theory of Capital Accumulation” and subsequently submitted various papers on her political and economic theory. Gab-Young also published a variety of papers on subjects including Luxemburg’s political philosophy, democracy and socialist issues, national issues, revolutionary practice, views on the Russian Revolution, and the council movement. Regarding her economic theory, in-depth discussions were held on her theory of imperialism, theory of capital accumulation, the problem of the enlarged reproduction scheme, and her theory of under-consumption and crisis.
Since the 1990s, research on Luxemburg has expanded and deepened beyond comparison with the 1980s. Although the majority of articles related to the life of Luxemburg still focus on the tragedy of her life as a female revolutionary, studies have been submitted that illuminate the entirety of her work. Moreover, the translation of Luxemburg’s major works laid the foundation for an in-depth study of her thought. In particular, the publication of the Korean translation of Luxemburg’s magnum opus, The Accumulation of Capital, can be seen as a historical event related to the reception of Luxemburg in Korea.
The Reception of Luxemburg’s Thought in Korea
The history of the reception of Luxemburg’s thought has gone hand in hand with the history of Marxism in Korea. However, when compared to the works of Marx and Engels, Lenin, or Stalin, her theories did not occupy a central place in the development of Marxism in Korea. The reasons are as follows: firstly, the reception of Marxism in Korea was focused on imports of major theories needed to escape the reality of the situation facing Korea in accordance with the circumstances of the times, and so Luxemburg’s thought was marginalized; secondly, mainstream Marxism in Korea placed importance on the ideas of Marx and Lenin, and Luxemburg’s theories tended to be regarded as a departure from orthodox Marxism, with her discussion using Marx’s scheme of reproduction facing particular criticism for being an error; and thirdly, Marxist crisis theory in Korea has formed a mainstream position, emphasizing the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Accordingly, Luxemburg’s crisis theory was criticized as a theory of under-consumption, because the idea—that the theory of under-consumption was different from Marx’s view—has not received much attention.
In addition, Luxemburg’s theory of imperialism was not a focus of Marxist discourse in Korea. As Korea experienced colonialism under Japanese imperialism, Luxemburg’s theory might have received attention, but instead was interpreted as the theory of automatic breakdown. However, this interpretation needs to be corrected in the future. Furthermore, as we saw earlier, Luxemburg’s works were only translated after the 1980s and even her magnum opus, The Accumulation of Capital, was first translated only in 2013. Due to the delay in translation, Luxemburg’s ideas were not fully communicated to the general public or academics, and active discussions on her work were not held. It can be said that the delay in reception hindered active researchers.
Despite many limitations, Luxemburg’s theories have made an important contribution to the history of Korean Marxism. This article emphasized that the reception of Marxism and Luxemburg’s thought was linked to theoretical and practical tasks in overcoming the contemporary situation. The significance of Luxemburg’s thought was that it inspired many people to overcome the contradictions of capitalism through theory and practice.
In addition, Luxemburg’s unique interpretation of Marx’s reproduction scheme inspires us to apply it to the reality of capitalism today. Luxemburg revived the second and third volumes of Capital, which remained dead capital to contemporary theorists, and discarded the toolbox of those theorists who learned only letters, tables, and schematics, but did not learn Marx’s spirit. Furthermore, in her own way, she emphasized the globality of capital, that is, that capitalism presupposes the world market, and used it to strongly argue for the expansion of the international socialist movement.
In this respect, Luxemburg needs to be highly appreciated as she developed theories and tried to intervene in the reality of the day in the unification of theory and practice. Thus, what Lenin said in memory of Luxemburg still has an important meaning. In other words, despite numerous errors, she is an eternal eagle. An eagle can fly low like a chicken, but a chicken cannot fly high like an eagle. What we need to learn from Luxemburg is that the task that this eternal eagle undertook, which appeared in the history of Marxist development, was to encounter the reality of lived experience and try to improve it. This will be the inspiration we can take from Luxemburg, in the ongoing process of overcoming capitalism and transforming the reality we face today.
Brewer, A., Imperialism and New-Imperialism, Sageaygeol, 1980 (in Korean).
Chang, Sibok, “The Historical Acceptance of Rosa Luxemburg in Korea and Die Akkumulation des Kapitals”,Marxism 21, vol. 11, no. 1, 2014 (in Korean).
Chang, Sibok, “The Reception and Translation of Das Kapital in Korea”, Marxism 21, vol. 13, no. 1, 2016 (in Korean).
Chung, Moon-Gil, Contours of Marxology in Korea, Seoul: Munhak kwa chisŏngsa, 2004 (in Korean).
Cliff, T., Rosa Luxemburg, Bookmarks, 1992 (in Korean, original published London, 1959).
Gallo, M., Rosa Luxemburg, Seoul: Puleunsup, 2002 (in Korean).
Hansen, F. R., “Rosa Luxemburg’s Criticism of the Theory of Automatic Breakdown”, Debating the Theory of Automatic Breakdown, Science and Thought, 1989 (in Korean).
Hirsch, H., Rosa Luxemburg, Paju: Hangilsa, 1997 (in Korean).
Jeong, Seongjin and Chang Sibok, “Korea”, The Routledge Handbook of Marx’s ‘Capital’: A Global History of Translation, Dissemination and Reception, Abingdon: Routledge, 2021 (forthcoming).
Kim, Sam-soo, “Reproduction Scheme by Two Women Economists, Rosa Luxemburg and Joan Robinson”, Political Economy Review, no. 11, Sookmyung Women's University, 1982 (in Korean).
Kim, Soo Haeng, “On Under-Consumption of Rosa Luxemburg”, Economic Review, vol. 29, no. 4, Economic Research Institute, Seoul National University, 1990 (in Korean).
Lee, Gab-Young, For Rosa Luxemburg’s Recognition, Hanu, 1993 (in Korean).
Lukács, G., Geschichte und Klassenbewußtsein, Darmstadt und Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1970.
Luxemburg, R., Die Akkumulation des Kapitals, Berlin: Dietz, 1913.
Park, Jong-rin, “The Translations of Marxist Texts and the Chosŏn chwaik sŏjŏk ch’ulp’an hyŏpŭihoe after Liberation”, Journal of History and Culture, vol. 61, 2017, pp. 205–36 (in Korean).
 Sibok Chang, “The Reception and Translation of Das Kapital in Korea”, Marxism 21, vol. 13, no. 1, 2016 (in Korean).
 This idea will be expanded upon in a forthcoming work by Seongjin Jeong and Sibok Chang.
 For more details, see: Park Jong-rin, “The Translations of Marxist Texts and the Chosŏn chwaik sŏjŏk ch’ulp’an hyŏpŭihoe after Liberation”, Journal of History and Culture, vol. 61, 2017, pp. 205–36 (in Korean); and Chang, “The Reception and Translation of Das Kapital”.
 Park, “The Translations of Marxist Texts”.
 Sibok Chang, “The Historical Acceptance of Rosa Luxemburg in Korea and Die Akkumulation des Kapitals”, Marxism 21, vol. 11, no. 1, 2014 (in Korean).
 Sibok Chang, “The Historical Acceptance of Rosa Luxemburg in Korea and Die Akkumulation des Kapitals”, Marxism 21, vol. 11, no. 1, 2014 (in Korean).
 See Jeong and Chang, forthcoming.
 The translators asserted that the translation was based on the German edition, the so-called “Adoratski edition”, while referring to the Japanese editions, especially Motoyuki Takabatake’s translation, published by KaizoSha during 1927–28, and Fumio Hasebe’s translation, published by NipponHyronSha in 1937–48. For more information, see Chang, “The Reception and Translation of Das Kapital”.
 See Jeong and Chang, forthcoming.
 Moon-Gil Chung, Contours of Marxology in Korea, Seoul: Munhak kwa chisŏngsa, 2004 (in Korean).
 See Jeong and Chang, forthcoming.
 Rosa Luxemburg, Die Akkumulation des Kapitals, Berlin: Dietz, 1913.
 T. Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg, Bookmarks, 1992 (in Korean, original published London, 1959).
 A. Brewer, Imperialism and New-Imperialism, Sageaygeol, 1980 (in Korean).
 F. R. Hansen, “Rosa Luxemburg’s Criticism of the Theory of Automatic Breakdown”, Debating the Theory of Automatic Breakdown, Science and Thought, 1989 (in Korean).
 Kim Sam-soo “Reproduction Scheme by Two Women Economists, Rosa Luxemburg and Joan Robinson”, Political Economy Review, no. 11, Sookmyung Women's University, 1982 (in Korean).
 Kim Soo Haeng, “On Under-Consumption of Rosa Luxemburg”, Economic Review, vol. 29, no. 4, Economic Research Institute, Seoul National University, 1990 (in Korean).
 Lee Gab Young, For Rosa Luxemburg’s Recognition, Hanu, 1993 (in Korean).
 Luxemburg, Die Akkumulation des Kapitals.
 G. Lukács, Geschichte und Klassenbewußtsein, Darmstadt und Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1970.