Assassinations and Scientific Anarchism by Woo-Jae Kim

Assassinations and Scientific Anarchism / Woo-Jae Kim

The anti-Japanese movement during the Occupation (1909-1945) can be divided into three major currents. The nationalists and the communists have continuously had conflict with each other and are the basis of ideological conflict between the left and the right. Additionally, there were anarchists who often expressed their views in a very romantic sense in various films. People who understand modern Korean history as the struggle between the ideological conflict between the left and right, try to ignore the anarchists as painfully as possible. However, modern Korean history is based on the sacrifice of the anarchists. They have been stigmatized and ostracized as ‘mutineers’ in the south and ‘bourgeois-socialists’ in the north. They are remembered as people who seek to destroy the status quo through terrorism or mutiny. The film <Anarchist> is typical of the warped historical understanding concerning the anarchists.

Barring Christianity, Herbert Spencer’s social evolutionism was the most influential of all western ideas that East Asia first encountered in the nineteenth century. Social evolutionism is a sociological theory which simplifies Darwin’s concept of natural selection of the survival of the fittest; it also simultaneously stretches the concept to justify Western imperialism. To the intelligentsia of the time who were struck in awe of the mighty Western civilization, social evolution was deemed critical for East Asia in order to survive. Ironically, East Asia, while being subordinated by Western Europe, sought out other victims.

Not all members of the East Asian intelligentsia of the time agreed with Spencer. Socialism, which seeped into East Asia together with social evolutionism, became an ideology representing freedom for the proletariat, oppressed by royal authority and authoritarianism. Whereas we understand this ‘socialism’ as Marxism until the 1920s, the socialists of East Asia were divided into two major camps, the socialists and the anarchists. The ‘Red Flag’ incident of the 3.1 Movement, the ‘Civil Rights Equality and Anarchist Movement’ led by Do-won Jang in North Korea in the 1920s, and the incident where Han-Seol Jeong (a silent film narrator) instigated people with anarchist ideas, all signify the underlying influence of anarchism. These incidents were not only limited in Joseon, but also in China through Sun Wen and in Japan through the “Japanese Emperor Assassination Plot”.

The East Asian intelligentsia and activists generally accepted the mutualist theory by Kropotkin, who was a zoologist dubbed as ‘the Prince of Anarchism’, and later on created the concept of “Scientific Anarchism”. Mutualism, at the time, was the only ideology against social evolutionism and is a theory that encompasses not only the society but also the nature. Chae-Ho Shin, who is remembered only as a nationalist, was ‘baptized’ by Kropotkin and reborn as an anarchist. The nationalist historian Chae-Ho Shin developed into an internationalist who corresponded with Japanese intellectuals after the encounter with Kropotkin. The most famous anarchists of Korean independence activists who made up more than half of the Anti-Japanese movement during the Occupation, such as Chae-Ho Shin, Hoe-Young Lee, Won-Bong Kim, Rim Yu, and Ja-Myeong Yu, were heavily influenced by the theory of scientific anarchism. In a society where Confucianism and western ideology were heavily interconnected, they embraced anarchism based on their Confucian sophistication, thus showing that the ideals of scientific anarchism were not too deviated from those of Confucianism.

Perhaps anarchism will still be associated with assassinations; however, the development of grassroots democracy, civil rights movements, and direct democracy through the internet owes its existence to anarchism. To quote Kropotkin, it is because “Anarchism is an attempt to apply the synthesis made through natural science with the inductive and the deductive to the assessment of various institutions of men.” Thus, anarchism is beyond mere assassinations.


Woo-Jae Kim, Drosophila geneticist.

Translated by David Heo
This text was originally published on 08/03/2015 in the column section of a daily newspaper called 한겨레  or Hangyorae. Original URL: http://



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