It’s been a bit quiet around here lately, but hopefully that will improve with the new year. To kick things off this year I thought I’d gather together the various thoughts and abandoned posts that have been knocking around for the last few months and do a series rounding up recent history news that has caught my attention.
There was much talk of ‘revisionism’ in Korea a couple of months ago. It’s a word that fascinates me purely because its meaning is so completely dependent on context. First President Roh Moo-hyun was accused of this crime for referring to the Korean war as a civil war during a visit to Cambodia. This is significant for Roh’s rightwing detractors because it appears to reflect the ‘progressive’ view of the Korean war that owes much to Bruce Cumings’ masterwork, The Origins of the Korean War. So, setting aside for the moment the fact that it would be perfectly feasible to call the war a civil war (ie two parts of a country going to war against one another), Roh’s statement was revisionist in the sense that it appeared to ‘revise’ the standard South Korean government position that the Korean War was simply a war of aggression initiated by Stalin. As the Chosun Ilbo put it in its usual blunt style:
“The Korean civil war” is a term coined to glorify the invasion by North Korea. It does not appear in our elementary, middle and high school textbooks. Yet it comes out of the mouth of the president, who symbolizes the legitimacy of the republic, and who doesn’t mean anything by it.
After Roh, his candidate for Unification Minister, Lee Jae-young joined in, in his confirmation hearing, apparently causing general apoplexy among GNP politicians.
Irrespective of which side one agrees with in this dispute,* what we learn from this is that in the specific context of South Korean society, the term revisionism (수정주의 修正主義) means questioning the orthodox view of history created and maintained by successive rightwing governments in the postwar decades. But as Wikipedia shows rather nicely, revisionism means many other things elsewhere. In the UK for example, it has been used to refer to the (now orthodox) historical view that attempted to overthrow Christopher Hill’s earlier Marxist interpretation of the English Revolution. In the Soviet Union, it was constantly used as a term of abuse for anyone straying from the orthodox Marxist-Leninist line (ie the ideology of the Soviet regime), while in Maoist China it became a term of abuse for the Soviets under Krushchev. Most notoriously, the term revisionism is used to refer to people like David Irving (recently out of an Austrian jail cell) who attempt to deny or minimise the Holocaust. In other words, just about anyone can be a revisionist.
So, my advice is that any time you need an all-purpose but suitably intellectual-sounding piece of invective with which to assail your opponent, calling them a revisionist will probably fit the job. Unless of course you have something better up your sleeve.
*My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that most people outside of Korea would rightly view the position of the South Korean right as somewhat absurd – there was no doubt an element of civil war in the Korean War, whatever way you look at it. On the other hand, I don’t agree either with the view that the war was simply some sort of ‘revolutionary civil war’ in which the imperialists interfered to prevent the unification of the Korean people under a glorious socialist government, as the DPRK and its supporters in the South would like to paint it. The Korean War seems to show that wars can be both civil and international (perhaps they often are?); can have elements of social war and elements of senseless fratricidal bloodshed; can be both inter-imperialist wars for territory and influence and personal squabbles among rival aspirants to the leadership of a country.
On that rather depressing note…
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