Category Archives: Communism/Marxism/Maoism

The Peace Question and Imperialism

The war in Ukraine is a propaganda war, with all of the belligerents, sponsors, and their allies churning out — through an abjectly subservient media — masses of lies and disinformation. In this regard, they resemble other wars, but with an added dose of shamelessness.

For that reason, it is difficult to discern how the war is being conducted or who has the military advantage at any time. Like all modern wars, atrocity stories abound and losses are wildly exaggerated.

But what separates this war from wars in the recent and not-so-recent past is the near-absence of an organized anti-war movement. It is more than a curious oddity that there are few actions in the streets or campaigns of influence or resistance to stop the mayhem of this brutal war. Sure, there are generic appeals to cut military budgets or oppose war philosophically, but little action to stop this particular war. In spite of the so-called “fog” of war, everyone knows that soldiers and civilians alike are dying in significant numbers, that bodies are ripped apart, homes destroyed, and people dislodged from their homes. No amount of “fog” can hide this.

Of course, there are a few prominent voices — Pope Francis, even Henry Kissinger — who have called for a cessation of fighting and negotiations. And Communists and trade unionists in Italy, Greece, and Turkey have blocked NATO weapons shipments, staged demonstrations, and picketed embassies.

But in most cities, states, and countries, there are few actions directed against the war in Ukraine. And most surprisingly, the leftists in Europe and the Americas, usually leading the way against war, are largely silent. They haven’t even minimally demanded that their own countries stay out of this war.

Instead, they have tacitly or openly sided with one belligerent or another. I have written and spoken on different occasions against taking sides in the conflict. Moreover, I have sought to place the war in the context of classical imperialism and suggested that the left’s support of either belligerent or its sponsors is misplaced, akin to the collapse of left opposition at the beginning of World War I. In that case, the left succumbed to narrow nationalist appeals. In this case, the left is succumbing to a muddled concept of imperialism and anti-imperialism.

Rather than repeat the argument, it might be useful to look at how and why leftists justify their support for one side or the other and refrain from adding their voice to the cause of peace in Ukraine.

It is easy to dismiss those who uncritically support Ukraine.
Apart from the rabid nationalists of the “Glory to Ukraine” crowd, who welcome the conflict and hope to draw the Western capitalist countries into a crusade against Russia, there are those who simplistically see the war as a naked aggression with no back story. From ignorance of the post-Soviet Ukrainian history of corruption, reaction, Western meddling and aggression, or from willful collaboration with US and NATO intrigue, these new Cold Warriors seek a Russian defeat and have no interest in an immediate peaceful settlement or concern about the mayhem.

Against them are the more measured comrades who, remembering the Cold War standoff between the US and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies, conflate today’s Russia with the Soviet Union. They recognize how the Soviet Union constituted a pole of resistance that countered and sometimes reversed the Cold War imperialist alliance’s designs on the world. US imperialism, the dominant imperialist power at the time, was effectively checked by the Soviet Union from 1945 until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. These anti-imperialists see Russia, in its war on Ukraine, as a similar emerging pole against US imperialism and see Russia’s invasion as an expression of a break-up of the absolute military and economic US dominance of the world established after the departure of the Soviet Union. For them, a multipolar world is in birth.

There are shards of truth in this view, but Russia is not the Soviet Union. It does not share its ideology; rather, its motives replace Soviet internationalism with an aspiring great power nationalism. While it exploits cracks in US global hegemony, it does not offer an alternative vision or unconditional assistance to the victims of capitalism and imperialism. In that regard, Russia is no Cuba, either.

Russia’s foreign policy is capitalist opportunism: friends with Turkey or Israel one moment, in conflict the next moment. Russia aligns with Saudi Arabia when it’s economically profitable, while fighting Saudi proxies in Syria. There are no consistent principles guiding it. Nor can there be for a country that rejected socialism for capitalism. Those who see Russian foreign policy and alliances as progressive are very selective in their examples.

Russia’s leaders readily embrace the capitalist ethos and reject the Soviet project, though they appeal, when needed, to Soviet symbols and traditions when useful.

It may be true that the Russian invasion ultimately will achieve the goals sought by its ruling class. And it may be true that these gains will come at the expense of US imperialism and its ruling class, but how does that move us any closer to a world of peace and social justice? The rivalries remain, the goals of the respective ruling classes remain uncertain and unstable, despite their claims of peace-loving and democracy-seeking; and the danger of conflict remains high or even higher.

There are others who envision the war — insofar as Russia is challenging US power — as a blow for those on the bottom of what we might envision as the imperialist “pyramid” — the developing countries. Jenny Clegg, for example, writing in the Morning Star, sees the development of “competitors” to US dominance as establishing the first steps toward a multipolar world. She correctly notes that multipolarity “is not a policy but an emerging objective trend…”

Further, she sees unequal exchange between the highly developed countries and the developing countries as the principal contradiction — the contradiction defining imperialism and anti-imperialism.

While this center-periphery distinction was popular and influential among independent Western “Marxists” in the era when the working classes in the center — the West — were generally tamed by social democratic opportunism, it was neither particularly insightful nor of continued relevance. Marx went to great lengths to show that exchange, under capitalist relations of production, was not generally unequal — values exchange for values. But those same relations of production always produce and reproduce inequality. The locus of inequality — capitalist exploitation — is embedded in the capitalist system, not in the thievery of unequal exchange.

As Lenin elaborated, uneven development is a feature of relations between people, social institutions, firms in the same industry, between industries, and between countries, and even continents. It is not unequal exchange that accounts for the uneven development, but differences in the pace of development, cultural and social practices, political and other institutions, and most importantly, especially in the epoch of imperialism, the stunting effects of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and their legacy.

In the last half-century, technological developments have freed capitalists to move, access, and service the material productive forces — factories, transportation networks, resources — in order to gain access to formerly inaccessible labor markets, cheapening labor in general. At the same time, this development created rising living standards in some developing countries, while lowering them in some advanced capitalist countries.

Consequently, some capitalist countries — like India, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia — have become powerful rivals to the late-twentieth-century great powers.

The concept of “unequal” exchange as an explanation for the inequality between developed and developing countries (and for the difference between imperialism and anti-imperialism) fails because it implies that should exchanges become equal, that same inequality between states would evaporate. Even more importantly, it suggests that equal exchange — and not an end of capitalism — would signal the demise of imperialism.

To understand imperialism as a conflict between advancing and lagging development based upon the unequal terms of economic activity — a kind of organized thievery — is to misunderstand the nature of exploitation under capitalism. Intense competition between players — big and small — for markets, resources, labor, and capital are the essence of capitalism and imperialism. There is no sharp line between this competition and war.

Clegg wants us to believe that in a multipolar world, with US power diminished, establishing equal exchange will bring forth a period of civil, well-behaved, respectful competition. She insists that this contrast with today’s dangerous world is captured by the distinction between competition and rivalry, a distinction that I think few will find satisfying. In an aside, she explains: “competition is not the same as rivalry — think competing in a race as opposed to deliberately tripping over your rival in that race.” To think that sporting competition doesn’t evolve commonly into no-holds-barred conflict and into violence is surely out of touch with the history of both sports and international politics in the twentieth century.

From the reliance on the now intellectually fashionable and prominent rational choice or game theory to the behavior of capitalist enterprises, from the constant haggling over borders, sea lanes and territorial waters to establishment of military and economic alliances, there is little evidence that capitalist countries are striving for a fair economic playing field with fixed, transparent, and respected rules. “Win-win” is not part of the capitalist vocabulary.

Clegg writes of “the old — US hegemonic power” as having “been in relative decline” and the “new — a more equal distribution of wealth and power” as developing, albeit slowly. While one might happily concede that aspects of US power and influence have been challenged and dampened, while one might add that the US shows many signs of economic, political, and social decline, it does not follow, nor is it likely, that any “new distribution of wealth and power” will be more equitable or just. And most importantly, even if wealth and power were more equitably distributed between countries, there is little reason to believe it would be more equitably distributed within those countries. Clegg’s multipolarity can make no such promises to the working classes.

Finally, there are those on the left who have carried on a lifelong struggle against US imperialism and can only see an enemy of our enemy as our friend. There are few people on the righteous left now alive who can remember a time when the US was not the leading great power and the anchor for the capitalist alliance against socialism, socialism as a legitimate political current, as a rival to global capitalism, and as a pole rallying the forces of anti-imperialism.

Therefore, it is hard to envision the world not benefitting from the defanging of US imperialism, from its fall as a great power. No great power in our time has caused more deadly mischief. But that surely displays a weak understanding of capitalism and its stages of development.

There were nationalist leaders in various countries under the boot of British imperialism in the interwar period who welcomed the rise of Hitler and Tojo, greeting them as possible saviors from hundreds of years of suppression by the British Empire, the leading imperialist of the time.

Subhas Chandra Bose, for example, an Indian nationalist leader who was once president of the Indian National Congress, was so deeply committed to overthrowing British rule in India that he actively and unapologetically collaborated with the Nazis and Japanese in World War II. This myopia is an extreme version of the blinders worn by many anti-imperialists who fail to understand the logic of imperialism and its unbreakable link to capitalism.

Chandra Bose demonstrates the hollowness of narrow nationalism and obsessive self-regard over viewing the world through the lens of class and class solidarity.

The struggle against US imperialism, like the struggle against its predecessor, the British Empire, will ultimately be resolved at home when the people finally refuse to continue paying the price for their rulers’ grand designs. Of course, those oppressed by imperialism play an equally important role, that of resisters; though imperialism like rust, never sleeps. It is an imperative, a demand made by capitalist accumulation — if it is defeated in one place, it will surely find another place to satisfy its lust. This dynamic only finally ends when our world finds socialism. The wishful thinking of a benign capitalism with all participants peacefully on an even playing field is just that — a wishful thought.

Multipolarity — a notion first discussed by bourgeois academics looking for tools to understand the dynamics of global relations — has been adopted by a segment of the anti-imperialist left. While it assuredly describes an actual trend emerging, as Jenny Clegg acknowledges, it has often been presented as an anti-imperialist stage shifting the world balance of forces in the direction of a better world.

I have argued that this is a retreat from classical imperialism as understood by VI Lenin and his followers. In the context of an unstable world in ideological disorder and suffering untold crises, there are no guarantees that the poles that emerge or challenge the post-Cold War super-pole are a step forward or a step back simply because they are alternative poles. Undoubtedly, any resistance that weakens the asymmetry of power that the US holds should be welcome. But we should not presume that every opponent will become a force for stability, justice, and peace. Knowing what we know about the history of capitalism from its first expansionist era accumulating involuntary human capital to exploit the riches of the new world should chasten our expectations about new rivals to US imperialism.

With the fall of the Soviet Union as a backdrop and the uncertainty left in its wake, we should be cautious about anointing any new candidates for the role of arch-rival not only to US imperialism, but to all imperialism as well as its genesis, capitalism.

While the left futilely disputes the victim and the victimizer, working people are dying unnecessarily, suffering horrific wounds, homelessness, and despair — all the products of modern war. Working class lives should not be proxies in ideological debates. Events will decide who has the correct understanding of imperialism, but history will not be kind to those who failed, in the meantime, to oppose the war and to seek a peaceful solution.

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Common Sense in the Form of Theory

In the ideological disciplines—the humanities and social sciences—it is rare to come across a theoretical work that doesn’t seem to fetishize verbiage and jargonizing for their own sake. From the relatively lucid analytical Marxism of an Erik Olin Wright1 to the turgid cultural theory of a Stuart Hall, pretentious prolixity is, apparently, seen as an end in itself. In such an academic context, one of the highest services an intellectual can perform is simply to return to the basics of theoretic common sense, stated clearly and concisely. Society is very complex, but, as Noam Chomsky likes to say, insofar as we understand it at all, our understanding can in principle be expressed rather simply and straightforwardly. Not only is such expression more democratic and accessible, thus permitting a broader diffusion of critical understanding of the world; it also has the merit of showing that, once you shed the paraphernalia of most academic writing, nothing particularly profound is being said. Vivek Chibber’s The Class Matrix: Social Theory after the Cultural Turn (Harvard University Press, 2022) constitutes an exemplary demonstration of this fact, and of these virtues.

Chibber has been waging a war against postmodern theory for some time now, ably defending Marxian common sense against generations of carping “culturalist” critics. His Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (2013) brilliantly showed that the Marxian “metanarrative” that has come under sustained attack by poststructuralists and postmodernists retains its value as an explanation of the modern world, and that many of the (often highly obscure) alternative conceptualizations of postcolonial theorists are deeply flawed. More recently, in an article published in 2020 in the journal Catalyst (“Orientalism and Its Afterlives”), Chibber has persuasively criticized Edward Said’s classic Orientalism for its idealistic interpretation of modern imperialism as emanating in large part from an age-old European Orientalist discourse, rather than from a capitalist political economy that—as materialists argue—merely used such a discourse to rationalize its global expansion. In more popular venues too, notably Jacobin, Chibber has argued for the centrality of materialism to the projects of both interpreting and changing the world.

The Class Matrix continues his engagement with these issues, this time in the form of a systematic critique of cultural theory, specifically of its inability to explain the sources of stability and conflict in modern society. Materialism, in contrast—i.e., a primary emphasis on such concepts as class structures and objective economic interests rather than “discourses,” “cultures,” “identities,” and “meanings”—is quite capable of explaining society, and can rather easily be defended against the criticisms of (some) culturalists. The book’s admirable lucidity serves several functions: first, Chibber is able to present the arguments of a variety of “culturalisms,” from Gramscians’ to the Frankfurt School’s to those of the post-1970s cultural turn, very clearly and in a way that illuminates the stakes of the debate; second, his eloquent reconstruction of (aspects of) cultural theory lays the ground for an equally eloquent, and much more thorough, exposition of structural class theory, which is shown to have no difficulty (contrary to the claims of culturalists) in explaining the longevity and stability of capitalism; third, the discarding of all unnecessary verbiage and jargon makes it clear just how intellectually trivial these long-running “theoretical” debates are in the first place. One can have a perfectly defensible and sophisticated understanding of the modern world on the basis of a little critical common sense and knowledge of history.

Chibber starts by presenting the culturalist case. Why didn’t the West become socialist in the twentieth century, as Marxists predicted? Evidently Marx had gotten something wrong. In fact, it was argued (in the postwar era), he neglected the role of culture in forming the consciousness of the working class. Mass culture and the diffusion of dominant ideologies were able to reconcile the working class to capitalism, indeed to generate active popular consent for it. This analysis amounted to a demotion of the classical Marxist emphasis on the conflictual dynamics of the class structure—which supposedly would naturally lead to proletarian class consciousness and thereby revolution—in favor of the cohesive functions of mid-twentieth-century culture. Later culturalists took this argument a step further by rejecting the Marxian theory altogether, arguing that culture is actually prior to structure: what people are really presented with are not unmediated structures or objective material interests but “constellations of meaning” (p. 6), social identities, local cultures, contingent processes of socialization that shape how actors understand the many structures they are located in. One cannot (pace classical Marxism) predict behavior from people’s structural locations and the interests they supposedly define, because people first have to interpret structures, a process that is highly contingent and variable. Subjectivity, therefore, is primary, and the objectivity of class structures tends to evaporate.

Chibber’s response to this postmodernist argument, in effect, is that while it is perfectly true every structure is steeped in culture and agents’ subjectivity, this hardly implies the causal inertness of class location. Capitalist institutions don’t exactly impose high interpretive requirements: everyone is capable of understanding “what it means” to be a worker or a capitalist. If you lack ownership of the means of production, you either submit to wage labor or you starve. The economic structures force themselves on you. “[T]he proletarian’s meaning orientation is [therefore] the effect of his structural location” (p. 34). Similarly, the capitalist has to obey market pressures (structures) in order to survive as a capitalist, so he, too, is compelled to subordinate his normative orientation to objectively existing capitalist institutions. In fact, it is the postmodern culturalists who are in the weaker position: how can they explain “the indubitable fact of capitalism’s expansion across the globe and the obvious similarity in its macrodynamics across these regions” without accepting materialist assumptions (p. 45)?

Having dispatched this particular objection to materialism, Chibber moves on to other difficulties. Given the antagonistic relations between worker and capitalist (which Chibber elaborates on in detail), why hasn’t collective resistance, and ultimately revolution, been more common? The obvious answer, contrary to cultural theory, is that the asymmetry of power between worker and capitalist is so great that workers find it quite difficult to fight successfully for their collective interests. The insecurity of the worker’s position (for example, he can be fired for union activity) makes it easier and safer to pursue individualized modes of advancement or resistance. Moreover, the intrinsic problems of collective action—free rider problems, difficulty in securing agreement among large numbers of workers, etc.—militate against class consciousness and collective resistance. Classical Marxists were wrong to assume that the most rational path for workers would always be the “collective” path. In fact, contingent cultural considerations play an important role in the formation (in any given case) of class consciousness—although culture always remains constrained by material factors.

Having successfully and eloquently deployed common sense in his first two chapters, Chibber now turns, in the lengthy third chapter, to an explanation of how capitalism has endured. Here, too, he prefers common sense to the idealistic arguments of many Gramscians and New Left theorists, who pointed to bourgeois “cultural hegemony” and ideological indoctrination as having manufactured consent among the working class. One problem with this theory is its dim view of workers: “Culturalists are in the embarrassing position of claiming implicitly that while they can discern the exploitative—and hence unjust—character of the employment relation, the actors who are, in fact, being exploited, who are experiencing its brute facts, are not capable of doing so” (p. 91). There are, admittedly, other possible understandings of the basis of mass consent, more materialistic understandings, but in the end Chibber rejects these as the primary explanation for capitalist stability. Instead, he argues that workers simply resign themselves to capitalism—they “accept their location in the class structure because they see no other viable option” (p. 106). What Marx called “the dull compulsion of economic relations” keeps the gears of capitalism grinding on, generation after generation, including in the absence of workers’ “consent” to their subordination.2 In short, the class structure itself—the enormous power asymmetry between employer and employee—underwrites its own stability, and there is no need to invoke “consent” at all (even if such consent does, perhaps, exist in certain periods).

There remain a couple of other issues Chibber has to address in order for his defense of materialism to be really systematic. First, what about the old, E. P. Thompsonian charge that “structural theories bury social agency” (p. 122)? Is this necessarily the case, this conflict between structure and agency? No, as long as one acknowledges the role of reasons in motivating people’s actions. “The structure is not reproduced because it turns agents into automatons but because it generates good reasons for them to play by its rules” (p. 123). A structural process may be rather deterministic in its outcome, but it “is generated by the active intervention of social agency” (p. 126). Given the structures of capitalism, people rationally adapt to them, regulating their behavior in accord with them. Structure thus exerts its causal force precisely through agency.

Of course, agency also exists in tension with structure insofar as agents can flout institutional norms or even rebel against particular structures. This point brings us to another question Chibber considers, namely the relation between structural “determinism” and contingency, another favorite concept—along with agency—of the postmodern cultural turn. His argument here is quite rich and nuanced, much too subtle, in fact, to be summarized in a short book review. (It goes without saying that I have merely been outlining his arguments, hardly doing justice to their richness.) One might think that such an austere structuralism as Chibber defends would be unable to account for the contingency of social processes, but through a fairly ingenious analysis he is able to answer this objection, too. Even prima facie, however, the objection doesn’t hold much water, because capitalist relations are evidently compatible with an immense variety of social structures, such that between nations and even within a nation there can be great heterogeneity of local cultures. In a world of infinitely many structures and cultures interacting and overlapping, all of them being activated and enlivened by countless individual free wills, there is clearly a place for contingency on both small and large scales. Materialism can therefore accommodate the “argument from contingency.”

The Class Matrix, in short, is a quite thorough and impressive work, not only a compelling defense of materialism but also a fair-minded if highly critical engagement with cultural theory. It isn’t clear how culturalists—especially the anti-Marxist ones—can effectively respond to this broadside, tightly and cogently argued as it is. They might, perhaps, be able to make the case that there is a greater role for culture than Chibber allows (although he does grant the importance of cultural considerations at many points in his arguments), but they certainly can no longer sustain the claim that materialism is deeply flawed.

In fact, that claim could never have been sustained anyway, because, in the end, materialism—the causal primacy of class structures (and the theoretical implications of this doctrine)—is little more than common sense. The average member of the working class, more insightful (realistic) in many ways than most intellectuals, could tell you about the overwhelming importance of economic institutions. If classical Marxism got certain predictions wrong, that wasn’t because of any inherent flaws in historical materialism; as Chibber shows, it was because the original theorists misunderstood the implications of their own theory. There was never a good reason to think socialist revolution would “naturally” happen as workers “naturally” achieved greater class consciousness. These predictions were but a projection of the hopes of Marxists, not logical entailments of materialism. In our own day, when the historic achievements of Western labor movements have been or are in the process of being destroyed, it is unclear what the way forward is—except, as ever, for working-class self-organization and critical materialist understanding of society. Toward the latter task, at least, The Class Matrix makes a valuable contribution.

  1. See Russell Jacoby’s savage review of Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias entitled “Real Men Find Real Utopias,” Dissent, Winter 2011, for an exposure of the intellectual emptiness of a certain type of “theoretical” sociology.
  2. This argument, indeed much of the book, is anticipated not only, as it were, by common sense (most workers could tell you they don’t embrace their position but simply find it inescapable), but also by a brilliant book Chibber doesn’t cite: The Dominant Ideology Thesis, by Nicholas Abercrombie et al. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1980). Incidentally, I myself have grappled with the question of why socialism hasn’t happened yet and have offered a quite different, and perhaps more original, explanation than Chibber. See my paper “Marxism and the Solidarity Economy: Toward a New Theory of Revolution,” Class, Race and Corporate Power 9, no. 1 (2021), as well as the shorter articles “Revolution in the Twenty-First Century: A Reconsideration of Marxism,” New Politics, May 5, 2020; and “Eleven Theses on Socialist Revolution,” Socialist Forum (Summer 2021).

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Art Is a Dream in Which We Imagine Our Future

On 11 May 2022, an Israeli sniper fired at the head of the veteran Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh as she reported on an Israeli military raid on a refugee settlement in Jenin (part of the Occupied Palestine Territories). The snipers continued to fire at the journalists who were with her, preventing them from aiding her. When she finally arrived at Ibn Sina Hospital, she was pronounced dead.

After Abu Aqleh’s death, the Israeli military raided her home in occupied East Jerusalem, where they confiscated Palestinian flags and attempted to prevent mourners from playing Palestinian songs. At her funeral on 13 May, the Israel Defence Forces attacked the massive turnout of family and supporters – including her pallbearers – and grabbed Palestinian flags held by the crowd. The murder of Abu Aqleh, who had been a highly respected journalist for Al Jazeera since 1997, and the violence by the Israeli forces at her funeral reinforce the apartheid nature of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Palestinian leader Dr Hanan Ashrawi tweeted that the attack on Palestinian flags, posters, and slogans exposes ‘the insecurity of the oppressor’. The assault on these cultural icons, Ashwari went on to explain, shows Israelis’ ‘fear of our symbols, fear of our grief & anger, fear of our existence’.

The raid that Abu Aqleh was covering when she was killed took place in Jenin, the home of Palestine’s remarkable Freedom Theatre. On 4 April 2011, Juliano Mer-Khamis, one of the theatre’s founders, was shot dead not far from where Abu Aqleh was killed. ‘Israel is destroying the neurological system of [Palestinian] society’, Mer-Khamis said, and this neurological system ‘is culture, identity, communication … We have to stand up again on our feet’, he said. ‘We are now living on our knees’.

Front: Actors of a Beijing opera troupe perform. Back: Drama students of the Lu Xun Academy of Arts rehearse a play in a structure they built themselves.
Credit: Yan’an Red Cloud Platform [延安红云平台]

Eight decades ago, in the heart of China, hundreds of Chinese intellectuals and artists from cities such as Shanghai gathered in Yan’an, which had become a red base for the Communist Party of China (CPC). In 1942, in and around the caves of this city, a serious discussion took place about the paralysis of Chinese culture in the face of three serious challenges: the sclerotic nature of the Chinese feudal system, the viciousness of Western-led imperialism, and the harshness of the Japanese fascist occupation. Cultural workers had to confront these facts of history as well as the historical tasks that they presented. In Yan’an, the debate circled around the confounding assertion that artists could work without confronting the major historical processes of our time. Imagine, for example, a Palestinian artist who works today without being gripped by the force of Israeli apartheid.

The CPC’s head of the propaganda department, Kai Feng, invited artists to gather in the central Party office for three weeks to debate the state of art and culture during the revolutionary war. Mao Zedong, a leader of the CPC, listened to the interventions, made his own commentary, and the following year published Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art. Our dossier no. 52 (May 2022), Go to Yan’an: Culture and National Liberation, is an assessment of the Yan’an debate and its implication for our times. The dossier, illustrated by Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research’s art department, looks back at the debates in Yan’an in order to illuminate our conjuncture and insist on the centrality of cultural work for our movements today.

Top: A singing troupe performs the Yangge opera, Brother and Sister Reclaiming the Wasteland. Bottom: Fine arts students take sketching lessons.
Credit: Yan’an Literature and Art Memorial Hall [延安文艺纪念馆] and Yan’an Red Cloud Platform [延安红云平台]

Artists root their imagination in their lived experiences. The Freedom Theatre in Jenin does not perform plays that are a mirror of café life in Tel Aviv or New York; their plays go deep into the imagination of occupied Palestine. In Yan’an, our dossier explains, ‘urban intellectuals … had to go through their own transformation in order to close the gap between themselves and the peasant masses. This transformation was at the heart of the Yan’an Forum … together, they could turn into an effective political force’.

On 23 May 1942, Mao took the floor at the Yan’an Forum to offer his concluding remarks to the artists and intellectuals that had left cities such as Shanghai and made their way into the interior. Here, Mao said, new forms of life were being created, a new buoyancy that straightened the spines of the people and produced new forms of social life. ‘To arrive in a base area’, Mao said, ‘is to arrive in a period of rule unprecedented in the several thousand years of Chinese history, one where workers, peasants, and soldiers, and the popular masses hold power … the eras of the past are gone forever and will never return’. He meant that the imagination must be stretched to tell stories of and for the newly upright Chinese people. The purpose of art, the intellectuals at Yan’an argued, is to be relevant to these major historical events.

To make his point, Mao quoted the writer Lu Xun (1881–1936), who understood these changes and reflected on them in his poetry:

Fierce-browed, I coolly defy a thousand pointing fingers,
Head-bowed, like a willing ox I serve the children.

Mao described the enemy, these ‘thousand pointing fingers’, as the vampirish imperialists and cadaverous feudal landlords. The ‘children’ were the working classes, the peasantry, and the popular masses. Lu Xun’s words show that the artist – the ‘willing ox’ – must never submit to the old granite block of oppression, Mao explained; he or she must be willing to accompany the people in their struggle for freedom.

It is the struggle that enabled the popular masses to stand upright, to refuse to bow down to the centuries of humiliation of seeing their labour subordinated to the accumulation of wealth by the elites. Artistic practice and intellectual activity must reflect these broad changes which are present today in China’s mass campaign to abolish absolute poverty, in Indian farmers’ refusal to submit to the Uberisation of their livelihoods, in South African shack dwellers’ bravery to stand firm against political killings, and in the massive mobilisation of Palestinians at the funeral of Shireen Abu Aqleh.

Yangge singing troupes perform for the people at the 1943 Spring Festival celebration.
Credit: Yan’an Red Cloud Platform [延安红云平台] and China Youth Daily [中国青年报]

The debates at Yan’an cleared the way for artists and writers to germinate intense cultural activity, to disseminate new ideas into the cultural domain, to lift the conversation from the day-to-day to new horizons, and to create new political spaces and epochs. This cultural work called upon intellectuals and artists to focus on the future, no longer merely concerned with their own temperament (‘art for art’s sake’), to work for a new horizon, and to inaugurate a new humanity. There was no obligation to collapse their work solely into a political project, since that would reduce their capacity to go beyond the dilemmas posed by the present. Artists and intellectuals needed to support movements, but also to retain the space to create a passionate fervour in society that could fuel a new culture.

Mao’s interventions at Yan’an made it clear that intellectual and artistic activity would not by themselves change the world. Artists and intellectuals allude to reality, draw attention to certain problems, and provide an understanding of them. But art alone cannot remedy all problems. For that, it is necessary to turn to the organisations and movements that churn society into something new. If art forms must carry the enormous burden of political theory and praxis, they are often diminished. Art must breathe in the sensibilities of the working class and the peasantry and breathe out new cultural propositions. Alongside the tide of humanity that refuses to submit to oppression, this leads us into new possibilities.

Malak Mattar (Palestine), Last Scene Before Flying with the Dove to Paradise, 2019.

Asma Naghnaghiye, a young girl who participated in a Freedom Theatre camp, spoke of the beauty of cultural work ‘In one of the exercises in the theatre I imitated a bird who flies above my neighbourhood and then above Jenin and then above the sea. It was a like a dream’. That dream of the future converts the present into a place of struggle.

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Tectonic Shifts in the World Economy: A World Systems Perspective


One of the main problems with Western media (other than their non-stop anti-Russian propaganda), is the narrow and parochial manner in which they conceive world events. Like realists and liberals of international relations theory, they analyze world events two countries at a time, for example, the U.S. vs Russia. They appear to have little conception of interdependence, like Russia, China, and Iran as a single block. Or the U.S., England, and Israel as another block. No state can make any moves without considering the causes and consequences of their actions for their interdependent states. Secondly, these talking heads fail miserably in understanding that conflicts between states are inseparable from the evolution of global capitalism which, in many respects, is stronger than any state. Thirdly, their “analysis” fails to consider that the world capitalist system has evolved over the last 500 years, as I will soon present. We will see that what is going on in Ukraine is part of a much larger tectonic struggle between Eastern China, Russia, and Iran to create a multipolar world while being desperately opposed by a declining West, headed by the United States and its minions.

A Brief History of Modern Capitalism

According to world systems theory, the global capitalist system has gone through four phases. In each phase, there was a dominant hegemon. First, there was the merchant capital of Italy that lasted from 1450-1640. This was followed by the great Dutch seafaring age from 1610-1740. Next, there was the British industrial system from 1776 to World War I. Lastly, the Yankee system which lasted from 1870 to 1970. Note that over these 500 years the pace of change quickened. In the Italian phase, the city states of Venice and Genoa rose and fell over 220 years. By the time we get to the United States, the time of rise and decline is 100 years. All this has been laid out by Giovanni Arrighi in The Long 20th century. In Adam Smith in Beijing, Arrighi also lays out the reasons he is convinced that China will be the leading hegemon in the next phase of capitalism.

Five Types of Capitalism   

Historically there have been five types of capitalism. The first is merchant capital in which profits are made by trade, selling cheap and buying dear. This is what Venice and Genoa did, as did Dutch seafarers on a grander scale. Next, is agricultural capitalism, including the slave system of the United States, Britain, and parts of the Caribbean, South America, and Africa. Then, the British invented the industrial capitalism system in which profit was made by investing the infrastructure of society: railroads, factories, and surplus labor from the wage labor system. Lastly, especially in the 20th century, we have two other forms of capitalism. In addition to being an industrial power after World War II, the United States used its industrial power to invest in the military arms industry and relied on finance capital (stocks and bonds).

Destructive Forms of Capitalism

In the later stage of all four systems, making money from commodities or technologies becomes problematic because it becomes unpredictable what people will buy. For example, after the Depression from 1929-1941, the United States got out of the depression by investing in the military. This was so successful that after World War II, capitalists began investing in the military even during peacetime (Melman, After Capitalism). It provided a much more predictable profit as long as countries continued to go to war. This encourages arming your own country or supplying the whole world, which is what the United States does today. There is also finance capital, where banks invest in stocks, bonds and financial instruments rather than infrastructure (as industrial capitalists did). For the past 50 years military and finance capital are primarily where the ruling class in Yankeedom has made its profits.

In the early phases of capitalism, in all four cycles, commodities were produced which required money as mediation, but the purpose was to produce more commodities and technologies. In the decaying part of the cycle, capitalists would rather invest in finance capital than industrial capital because of the quick turn-around in profits. Investing in building bridges, repairing roads, or building schools will surely benefit capitalists in the long run. Smooth supply chains for capitalist profit and a sound education in high school and college would ensure that workers not only know how to do their jobs but that they would be creative-thinkers and innovators. Capitalists these days don’t want to invest in these things, and this is why the infrastructure in Yankeedom is falling apart and the Yankee population cannot compete with students from other countries with better educational systems.

What is World Systems Theory?

World systems theory is a macro-sociological theory of long-term social change which includes economic theory and world history. It is provocative in at least three ways. One, its basic unit of analysis is the entire world-system of capitalism rather than nation-states. Second, it argues that the so-called socialist societies were not really socialist, but rather state-capitalist. Third, global capitalism organizes itself into a transnational division of labor which ignores the boundaries of nation-states. World-systems theory has been used by historians, international relations theorists, and international political economists to explain the rise and fall of nation-states, the increase and decrease in stratification patterns, as well as rise and decline of imperialism. Christopher Chase-Dunn and Terry Boswell have specialized in understanding social movements and the timing and placing of revolutions from a world-systems perspective.

Economic Zones Within the World-system

Overview of the core, periphery                                                 

World-systems are divided into three zones: the core, the semi-peripheral, and the peripheral countries. Economically and politically, core countries dominate other countries without being dominated. Semi-periphery countries are dominated by the core, and, in turn, dominate the periphery. The periphery are dominated by both. Part of the wealth of core countries comes from their exploitation of the peripheral countries’ land and labor through colonization.

Core and periphery

The core countries control most of the wealth in the world capitalist system. Workers are highly specialized, high technology is used. It has an industrial-electronic base. They extract raw materials from the peripheral countries and sell peripheral countries finished products. Core countries have the most highly specialized workers and a relatively small agricultural base, whereas peripheral countries have strong agricultural or horticultural bases and have a semi-skilled urban working class. The peripheral countries have relatively unspecialized labor whose work is labor-intensive with low wages. Much of the work done in peripheral countries is commercial agriculture—the production of coffee, sugar, and cotton.

The core countries are the home of the transnational corporations who control the world. Additionally, the core countries control the major banking institutions that provide international loans, such as the IMF and the World Bank. Finally, the core countries have the most powerful militaries. Paradoxically, when core countries are at their peak, their militaries are not very active. They only become more active as a core country goes into decline, as in the United States. Core countries typically have the most highly trained workers. In their heyday, core countries have strong centralized states that provide for pensions, unemployment, and road construction. In their weak stage, states withdraw these benefits and invest in their military to protect their assets abroad as their own territory falls apart. Core countries have large tax bases and, at their best, support infrastructural development.

The periphery nations own very little of the world’s means of production. In the case of African states or tribes, they have great amounts of natural resources, including diamonds and minerals, but these are extracted by the core countries. Furthermore, core states are usually able to purchase raw materials and cheap labor from non-core states at low prices and yet demand higher prices for their exports to non-core states. Core states have access to cheap skilled professional labor through migration (brain drain) from semi-peripheral states . Peripheral countries don’t have a solid tax base because their states have to contend with rival ethnic and tribal forces who are hardly convinced that taxes are good for them and their sub-national identities.

Peripheral countries often do not have a diversified economic base and are forced by the world market to produce one product. A good example of this is Venezuela and its oil. Peripheral countries have relatively steeper stratification patterns because there are no middle classes for the wealth to spread across. A tiny landed elite at the top sells off most of the land to transnational corporations. The state tends to be both weak and strong. States in the periphery have difficulty forming and sustaining their own national economic policy because foreign corporations want to come and go as they please. On the other hand, if a nationalist or a socialist rise to power, the state will be very strong and dictatorial. This is because they are constantly at war with transnational corporations who seek to overthrow them. Since transnational corporations often do this through oppositional parties, those in power are extremely suspicious of oppositional parties. Hence their label as “authoritarian”. In contemporary world systems, peripheries are found in parts of Latin America and in the most extreme form in Sub-Saharan Africa.


The semi-periphery contains countries that as a result of national liberation movements and class struggles have risen out of the periphery and have some characteristics of the core. They can also be composed of formerly core countries that have declined. For example, Spain and Portugal were once core countries in Early Modern Europe. Semi-peripheral countries often take over industries the core no longer wants such as second-generation computers, appliances, or transportation systems. Semi-peripheral states enter the world systems with some degree of autonomy rather than simply a subordinate country. These industries are not strong enough to compete with core countries in “free trade”. Therefore, they tend to apply protectionist policies towards their industry. They tend to export more to peripheral states and import more from core states in trade. In the 21st century, states like Brazil, Argentina, Russia, India, Israel, China, South Korea and South Africa (BRICS) are usually considered semi peripheral.

As I said above, the world capitalist system has changed four times in the last 500 years and each time not only have the configurations of the core countries changed but so have the semi peripheral countries in the world systems. For at least half of capitalist world systems, there were some countries that were outside the periphery, including the United States. Semi-peripheral countries are not fully industrialized countries, but they have scientists and engineers which can lead to some wealth.

Which countries are in the core periphery and semi periphery countries today?

The core countries in the world today are the United States, Germany, Japan, and the Scandinavian social democratic countries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland. Minor core countries are England, France, Italy, and Spain. Eastern European countries are in the semi-periphery. South of the border, there are four semi-periphery countries: Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. More powerful up and coming semi-peripheral states include Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia, China, and India. Most of Africa is in the periphery of the world systems with the exception of South Africa (semi-periphery).

Where did world systems theory come from?

Immanuel Wallerstein was a sociologist who specialized in African studies, so he had first-hand knowledge of the reality of exploitation by colonists. He was influenced by the work of Ferdinand Braudel who wrote a great three-volume history of capitalism. Wallerstein was also influenced by Marx and Engels, but he thought their history of capitalism was too Eurocentric. He emphasized that the core countries did not just exploit their own workers, but they have made great profits through the systematic exploitation of the peripheral countries for hundreds of years.

Modernization theory

World systems theory was in part a reaction against the anti-communist, modernization theory of international politics that prevailed after World War II into the 1960’s. Please see the table below which compares world systems theory to modernization theory.

Dependency theory of Andre Gunder Frank

Around the same time as world systems theory developed, Andre Gunder Frank developed what came to be called “dependency theory”. This theory also challenged modernization theory’s assumption that countries that were called “traditional societies” were improved by contact with the core countries. He claimed that they were systematically exploited by the core countries, made worse than they were before they had any contact with them. As long ago as 1998, Gunder Frank predicted the rise of China. See his book ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age.

Karl Polyani

Other influences on the world-systems theory come from a scholar of comparative economic systems, Karl Polyani. His major contribution is to show that there was no capitalism in tribal or agricultural civilizations and that the “self-subsisting” economy of capitalism was a relatively recent development. Wallerstein reframed this in world systems terms, with the tribal as “mini-systems”, agricultural civilization as “empires” and the capitalist system as “world economies”. Nikolai Kondratiev introduced patterns he saw in the capitalist world economy that centered around cycles of crisis and wars within very specific time periods.

Interstate System

As I said earlier, in international relations theory, realist and neo-conservative theory and neoliberal theories of the state treat each state as if they were separate units. Applied to today, that would formulate world conflict as a battle between, say, the United States and Russia. Neo-conservative and neoliberal theory treat any alliance between states as secondary epiphenomenon that can be dissolved without too much trouble. Secondly, both these theories operate as if interstate politics are relatively autonomous from economics. To the extent to which these theories mention capitalism, it is the domestic economy of nation-states. Each tries to hide the international nature of capitalism and the extent to which transnational corporations can, and do, override national interests. The ideology of the interstate system is sovereign equality, but this is practically overridden as states are treated as neither sovereign nor equal, especially in Africa.

World systems theory sees states differently. For one thing, nation-states are not like Hobbes atoms which crash against each other in a war of all against all. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, fresh after the Thirty Years’ War, was an attempt to move beyond dynastic empires to nation-states. In core capitalist countries there were never single nation states. The Treaty created a system of nation-states which had rules of engagement, treaties, do’s and don’ts.

Today, between the core, periphery, and semi-periphery countries lies a system of interconnected state relationships. This interstate system arose either as a concomitant process or as a consequence of the development of the capitalist world-system over the course of the “long” 16th century as states began to recognize each other’s sovereignty.

Between these economic zones there were no enforceable rules about how nation-states should act, outside of not impeding the flow of capital between zones. Political domestic elites, international elites, and corporations competed and cooperated with each other, the results of which no one intended. Unsuccessful attempts have been made by the League of Nations and later the United Nations to create an international state. However, nation-states have been unwilling to give up their weapons. Therefore, the international anarchy of capitalist production is still unchecked. The function of the state is to regulate the flow of capital, labor, and commodities across borders and to enforce the structure of market rates. Not only do strong states impose their will on weak states. Strong states also impose limitations on other strong states, as we are seeing with US sanctions against Russia.

Who Will Be the Next World-Economy Hegemon?

Situation in Ukraine

Everything about Ukraine needs to be understood as the desperate clawing of a Yankee empire terrified of being left behind. The U.S. has so far convinced Europe to stay away from Russia and China, but it has nothing to offer. As Gary Olsen said, the Europeans may slowly make deals with Russia and China because they have some sense of where the future lies. So, Western hydra-headed totalitarian media all speak with the same voice: RUSSIA, RUSSIA, EVIL RUSSIA. EVIL PUTIN. Putin certainly had nerve wanting a national economy with its own economic policy. God forbid! But the time is up for Yankeedom and no terrorist police, no military drones, no Republicrats, and no stock exchange jingling with the trappings of divine honor can stop it.

The weakness of Europe

 So, if Yankeedom is in decline (and even Brzezinski admitted this) who are the new contenders? Up until maybe five years ago, I thought Germany might be, with its industrial base and its strong working class. But in the last five years German standards of living have declined. It seems that the EU is in the midst of cracking up. There is no leadership with the departure of Angela Merkel. Macron is on the way out in France. All the other countries in Europe, including Italy, are under water with debt. England is the puppy dog of the United States and hasn’t been a global power in over 100 years. Germany, Spain, Italy, and Greece could be helped enormously by allaying themselves with Russia and China, but at this point most Europeans have been bullied and complicit in myopically siding with a collapsing United States. There is a good chance the US will drag most of Europe down with them.

Collapse of the core zones?

As we have seen, according to world systems theory, the history of capitalism has had three zones: core, periphery, and semi-periphery. The countries that have inhabited the three zones have changed along with the dominant hegemon over the last 500 years, and we are now in unprecedented territory. There is a good chance that the entire batch of formerly core states, the United States, Britain, France, and the west will collapse and that the core capitalist system will be without a hegemon (with the possible exception of the Scandinavian countries). China seems to be about ten years away from assuming that position.

2022-2030 the reign of the semi-periphery?

So, is it fair to say there is a huge tectonic shift where most of the core countries will collapse and the world system will have no core for maybe 20 years? It seems clear that the new hegemon is going to be China. Arrighi and Gunder Frank both thought this. But China is still a semi-periphery country and it might take 10-15 years to enter the core. Meanwhile its allies, Russia and Iran, are also semi-periphery countries. In South America, Argentina had the foresight to sign on the Chinese Belt Road Initiative. Brazil and Chile are still uncommitted to China and occupy a semi-peripheral status. The big country in Asia is India. It is very important to the Yankees not to lose control of India, and they have all the reason in the world to beat war drums in an attempt to demonize China. If a right winger such as Modi can refuse to side against Russia in the current events in Ukraine, will a more moderate or social democratic president of India have the vision to see the future lies in aligning with China? I wouldn’t count on it given the behavior of green-social democrat leadership in Germany.

The only European countries who seem to have made their way through 40 years of Neoliberal austerity, the collapse of Yugoslavia, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of fascist parties in Europe are the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland. There is no reason why they could not maintain core status, though China would be the leading power.

The new hegemon China and the world-system in 2030  

I can imagine the world-system in 2030 could consist of China and the Scandinavian countries in the core, with Russia, Iran, and maybe Brazil, Argentina and Chile on the semi-periphery along with possibly India. I don’t know where to place the US and Europe. Since they are drunk with finance capital, it is unfair to put them in the semi-periphery, which is usually involved in productive scientific endeavors. Yet they are more productive than the peripheral countries. Africa could be the last battleground between the decadent Yankee and European imperialists who live on as neo-colonial crypto-imperialists attempting to either sell arms to Africans or directly set up regimes and enslave Africans to work the mines.

If China is able to develop African productive forces with the Belt Road Initiative, it might be an incentive to calm down the ethnic warfare there. It would be a wonderful thing if the African states could finally control the enormous wealth of their country. We cannot expect too much from China. The best they could do would be to invest in cultivating scientists and engineers to build up Africa as a fully industrialized continent. To me, what matters about China is not arguing whether or not it is really socialist, but that it is doing what Marx liked best about capitalism: developing the productive forces.

The prospects for a world state?

We cannot expect the Yankee state to decline peacefully and not start World War III. Is it possible to have a global capitalist realignment without starting World War III? As Chris Chase-Dunn has advocated for decades, we need a world state that has the capability to enforce a ban on interstate warfare. That is not likely now. The only attempts at this: the League of Nations and the United Nations happened after the misery of two world wars. Both attempts at world state have failed because nation-states would not agree to give up their weapons.

What about world ecology?                                                                              

But as world systems theorist Chris Chase Dunn points out, a Chinese-centered world still inherits the increasing ecological destruction that has been an inherent part of the world system since the industrial revolution and now the global pandemic. This includes extreme weather (hot and cold), pollution of land and oceans with plastics and the products of industrialization like carbon, flooding from global warming, and desertification of lands due to droughts and monocropping.

What about Marx’s dream of shrinking the ratio between freedom and necessity in the light of ecological disaster?

For Marx and Engels, the dream of socialism was based on abundance. Unfortunately, because socialism first took place in what Wallerstein would call peripheral or semi-peripheral countries, socialism has come to be associated with poverty. An implication that could be drawn under socialism is that people should expect to be poor and share the poverty equally. That is the opposite of how Marx and Engels saw things. They hoped that socialism would first break out in the west in an industrialized country, with an organized working-class party taking the lead. They hoped that the revolution of overthrowing capitalism would preserve its material abundance, technology, and scientific achievements, not tear them to the ground. They wanted to develop the forces of production that capitalism unleashed while abolishing the political economy of private property over means of production. As socialism developed, the collective creativity of workers would shrink the ratio between necessary work and freedom. What does this mean?

This meant that workers would either:

  1. a) work less and produce the same amount
  2. b) work the same amount but produce more
  3. c) work more and produce much more

In other words, workers would have an increase in the number of choices of what to do with their free time because of an increase in the technology and collective creativity to produce more with less. My question is, given the irreversible ecological situation we are in, is it still realistic to expect socialism will continue to be based on abundance? I can imagine that the way China is going, in that part of the world it may still be possible. I also suspect that in the Scandinavian countries it might be possible. The problem is that global pandemics, extreme weather, flooding, desertification, and pollution cannot easily, if at all, be contained within countries that are capitalist or socialist.

How Reliable is World-systems Theory?

I will limit criticisms of world systems theory to those of a political and economic nature. One common criticism is the struggle to do empirical research with a unit of analysis being the entire world system. This is not to say world systems theorists do not do empirical work, because they do. It is more a matter of how to derive meaningful relationships between variables at such a complex level of abstraction. Statistics for individual nation states are easier to manage, although nation-states are not autonomous actors.

Another criticism is that the successes of existing socialist states are in danger of being given the short shrift. Like many in the West, the first line of criticism by world systems theorists of socialist countries is that they are one-party dictatorships. While this may be true, there is good reason why communist parties in power are nervous about the prospect of oppositional parties being used by foreign capitalists to overthrow them. In addition, socialist countries have better records than capitalist countries on the periphery in the fields of literacy (reading and writing), low-cost housing, healthcare, and free education. Please see Michael Parenti, Black Shirts and Reds for more on this.

The third major criticism comes from orthodox Marxist, Robert Brenner. Brenner claims that the emphasis by world systems theorists on the relationship between economic zones comes at a cost to understanding the class structure within and between nation-states. I think world systems theorists are well aware of class relationships, but they choose to focus on the capitalist relationships between states. Lastly, Theda Skocpol argues that world systems theory understates the power of the state in international affairs. The state is not just the creature of transnational capital. States engage in military competition which long s capitalism. State structures compete with each other.

On a positive note, as I said earlier, Christopher Chase-Dunn has done some creative work with Terry Boswell in tracking the timing and location of rebellions and revolutions in the 500 years of the world systems in Spirals of Capitalism and Socialism. In addition, he wrote a very groundbreaking book with Tom Hall Rise and Demise, which challenges Wallerstein by suggesting that there were precapitalist world systems that go all the way back to hunter-gatherers. Also see my book with him, Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present.

• First published in Socialist Planning Beyond Socialism

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What Red Book Will You Read This Year on Red Books Day (21 February)?

On 16 February 2015, Govind and Uma Pansare went for a morning walk near their home in Kolhapur, in the western state of Maharashtra, India. Two men on a motorcycle stopped them and asked for directions, but the Pansares could not help them. One of the men laughed, pulled out a gun, and shot the two Pansares. Uma Pansare was hit but survived the attack. Her husband, Govind Pansare, died in a hospital shortly thereafter on 20 February at age 82.

Raised in poverty, Govind Pansare was fortunate to go to school, where he encountered Marxist ideas. In 1952, at the age of 19, Pansare joined the Communist Party of India (CPI). While in college in Kolhapur, Pansare could often be found at the Republic Book Stall, where he devoured Marxist classics and Soviet novels that came to India through the CPI’s People’s Publishing House. When he became a lawyer, Pansare worked with trade unions and organisations rooted in poor neighbourhoods. He read avidly, researching the history of Maharashtra to better understand how to get rid of wretched customs such as the caste system and religious fundamentalism.

Out of his world of struggle and his world of books emerged Pansare’s commitment to culture and to intellectual liberation. Along with his comrades, he set up the Shramik Pratishthan (Workers’ Trust), which not only published books but also held seminars and lectures. One of the most popular programmes organised by the Trust was the annual literary festival in honour of the Marathi writer Annabhau Sathe. In 1987, Pansare wrote a book called Shivaji Kon Hota? (Who Was Shivaji? in the LeftWord Books English edition). He freed the 17th-century warrior Shivaji from the manipulations of the far right in India, which had falsely portrayed him in their books as a Hindu warrior who battled Muslims. In fact, Shivaji was reported to have been benevolent to Muslims, which is why Pansare rescued him from their clutches.

Pansare’s assassination is one among many left-wing writers and political figures. No country is immune to this, with left bookstores being attacked and left publishers being threatened across the world. As Héctor Béjar, the former foreign minister of Peru told us in our most recent dossier, right-wing intellectuals simply do not have the intellectual weight to debate the key issues of our time. They do not have the facts or the theory to make a coherent argument for bigotry or for climate destruction, for social inequality or for their interpretation of history. Intellectuals of the right instead promote obscurantist and irrational thought alongside their other weapons: open intimidation and violence. The rise of neo-fascistic politicians and parties provides a veneer of respectability to the scum who take up guns and rods to attack and kill people like Pansare.

Justice for people such as Govind Pansare is elusive, just as it is for Chokri Belaïd (Tunisia), Chris Hani (South Africa), Gauri Lankesh (India), Marielle Franco (Brazil), Nahed Hattar (Jordan), and far too many others. These were all sensitive people who took the dangerous step to fight for something greater than our present world.

Pansare’s daughter-in-law, Dr. Megha Pansare, sent a message to Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research: ‘The space for free expression is shrinking in our country. There have been regular attacks on journalists and artists, intellectuals and farmers. We have been compelled to fight to expand the public sphere. It is extremely worrying to see the state patronise religious fundamentalist forces. We must raise our voices to stop the silencing of our voices by guns’.

The International Union of Left Publishers released a strong statement calling for justice for Govind Pansare: ‘Seven years have gone by and yet the police have not gathered hard facts’, they write. ‘The entire world is witness to the rising trend of hate crimes in India and crimes against Indian culture (including the murder of writers). We, the International Union of Left Publishers, stand in solidarity with the families of the victims and we raise our voice in defense of the progressive and humane values of secularism, social progress, and social justice’.

A few years after the murder of Govind Pansare, LeftWord Books in New Delhi began to float the idea of Red Books Day. This would be a celebration of radical books and the people and institutions that make them. Knowing Pansare, he would have been aware that the day after his death was a significant anniversary. On 21 February 1848, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto just months before revolutions swept across Europe, which would later be called the Springtime of the Peoples (Printemps des peuples). The manifesto is not only one of the most read books in our time, but in 2013, the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) adopted this book in its Memory of the World Programme. This initiative by UNESCO is intended to preserve humanity’s heritage against the ‘ravages of time’ and ‘collective amnesia’. So, LeftWord Books – along with the Indian Society of Left Publishers – decided to issue a global call for Red Books Day to be held each year on 21 February.

When the first Red Books Day was held on 21 February 2020, thirty thousand people from South Korea to Venezuela joined the public reading of the manifesto. It turns out that the United Nations had also designated 21 February as International Mother Language Day. The manifesto was read in the language of the people who were reading it – in Korean when the day began and in Spanish when the day ended. Without question, the largest number of readers of the manifesto on that day were in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where the publishing house Bharathi Puthakalayam and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) included ten thousand people in the festivities. The readings began under the Triumph of Labour statue, erected in 1959 on Chennai’s Marina Beach at the precise spot where May Day was first celebrated in India in 1923. The book was read aloud in the fields by communist peasant organisers in Nepal and in the Landless Workers’ Movement’s (MST) occupied settlements in Brazil; it was read in study circles in Havana (Cuba) and read out aloud for the first time in Sesotho (one of South Africa’s eleven official languages). It was read in Gaelic at Connolly Books (Dublin, Ireland) and in Arabic in a café in Beirut (Lebanon). Bharathi Puthakalayam published a new translation into Tamil by M. Sivalingam for the occasion, while Prajasakti and Nava Telangana published a new translation into Telugu by A. Gandhi.

In the aftermath of Red Books Day, a group of publishers – invited by the Indian Society of Left Publishers – began to form the International Union of Left Publishers (IULP). Over the course of the past two years, the IULP has produced four joint books: Lenin 150, Mariátegui, Che, and Paris Commune 150. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, twenty-seven publishing houses released a book on the same day, 28 May 2021, in almost as many languages – an unparalleled feat in the history of publishing. This year, the IULP will publish two more books which collect key texts of Alexandra Kollontai (May) and Ruth First (August). The Union is meanwhile developing its principles of exchanging books between publishers and standing together against the attacks against authors, publishers, printers, and bookshops.

Red Books Day is an initiative of the IULP, but we hope that it will become part of the broader global calendar of annual cultural activities. The Red Books Day website allows anyone to post information about their activities for the day this year and includes an art exhibit of Red Books Day posters from around the world organised by Young Socialist Artists. Rather than insist that everyone read the same book, the idea this year is for people to read any red book in public or online. For example, in Tamil Nadu this year’s reading will be Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880). Others will read the manifesto or poetry about the human spirit in search of emancipation.

Up in the Sierra Maestra, Fidel Castro and his comrades spent long periods in the evenings reading whatever they could find. When they boarded the Granma from Mexico, they brought guns, food, and medicine, but not many books. They had to circulate what they had: Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin (1949) about the Nazi occupation of Naples and Émile Zola’s terrifying thriller, The Beast Within (1890). They even had a copy of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), which was almost the cause of Che Guevara being killed during an air raid.

One of the guerrillas, Salustiano de la Cruz Enríquez (also known as Crucito), composed ballads in the old Cuban guajira style. He would sit by the campfire and sing his poems as he played the guitar. ‘This magnificent comrade had written the whole history of the Revolution in ballads which he composed at every rest stop as he puffed on his pipe’, wrote Che Guevara in his Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War (1968). ‘Since there was very little paper in the Sierra, he composed the ballads in his head, so none of them remained when a bullet put an end to his life in the battle of Pino del Agua’ in September 1957. Crucito called himself el Ruiseñor de la Sierra Maestra – ‘the nightingale of the Sierra Maestra’. This Red Books Day, I am going to imagine his ballads and hum his forgotten tune in honour of people like Crucito and Govind Pansare, who keep trying to make the world a better place for humans and for nature.



PS: my red book to read this year is Võ Nguyên Giáp’s Unforgettable Days (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1975).

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A Short History of the US-Pakistan Relationship

On January 10, 2022, National Security Advisor (NSA) Moeed Yusuf said, “It [Pakistan] is still not [free from US influence] and I doubt that there is any country which is free from it.” He added that the country does not have any financial independence, being dependent on loans from International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other foreign organizations. “When we cannot [fulfill] the demands, we seek foreign loans. When you procure loans, your economic sovereignty is compromised.” These comments are not entirely stunning; they encapsulate the ambivalent essence of the US-Pakistan relationship. While the Pakistani elite greatly enjoys its self-imposed subservience to the American empire, it never just sits back and rest on its laurels. It continuously tries to exploit what little room for maneuver it has within the bond of servility to further more selfish, regional interests – ones which either demand too much from the patron or don’t neatly align with the US’ hegemonic ambitions.


Unlike the many postcolonial nations of the time which exuded a great degree of interest in the development of an independent project, Pakistan was totally craven; its creators displayed a surprising lack of enthusiasm in the paraphernalia of sovereignty. They were only interested in somehow securing money, regardless of the consequences which the people would have to face later. Every option was on the table. In The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, Tariq Ali notes that “the new rulers of Pakistan developed an early communal awareness that to survive they had to rent their country.” Washington was approached as a possible buyer but it rejected the offer to buy Pakistan “as it was busy securing Western Europe and Japan, as well as keeping an eye on China, where the Eighth Route Army was beginning to threaten a Communist victory.” However, this did not stop Pakistan from trying to sell itself.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, continued to consistently market his country as an important ally against Soviet expansionism. Ali remarks that he hysterically “insisted that Soviet agents were present in Kalat and Gilgit in search of a base in Baluchistan.” These same sentiments were shared in a more sophisticated manner by then foreign minister Zafarullah Khan. “[H]e pleaded with the United States to shore up Pakistan, whose people were genetically anticommunist, since this was the best way to protect India against the Soviet Union, which would send its armies through the Khyber Pass.” Pakistan’s persistence in peddling threats about USSR paid off in May 1954 when it signed the Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement, through which the US provided resources and training to the Pakistani army, with the general aim of turning the new nation into a pliant Third World state. In September 1954, Pakistan was officially anointed as a crusader against the godless Communists, joining the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization together with Thailand and the Philippines.

Exactly one year later, in September 1955, Pakistan joined another pro-Western organization known as the Baghdad Pact, which included King Faisal’s Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Britain. As Pakistan chummed up with its anti-Soviet friends, the inflows of money into the ruling class’ pockets increased. From 1953 to 1961, Pakistan received around $2 billion in assistance from the US. These wads of cash, however, did not signify a thoroughgoing bilateral camaraderie, one in which the imperialist benefactor would come to the help of its junior partner at all cost. Apart from acting as another chess piece in the anticommunist game, Pakistan served no other significant function for USA. Therefore, the latter felt no need for fulfilling all the demands of the former. In fact, what happened during the initial years of 1960s was the opposite. In United States and Pakistan in the 21st Century: Geostrategy and Geopolitics in South Asia, Syed Tahseen Raza writes:

The Sino-Indian Border struggle in 1962 paved the way for closer US-India ties because neutral India, desperate to have weapons in the immediate aftermath of Chinese aggression, made a frantic plea for US help. The US was pleased because this was an opportunity to wean India off the influence of the Soviet Union by offering help in a time of crisis. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s inching closer with China was not liked by the United States. When American finally decided to give arms aid to India in November 1962, Pakistan was not consulted before as was promised to them and this deeply offended the leaders of Pakistan. The [John F.] Kennedy administration, on the whole, tried to balance the American relationship with South Asia on equal footing and therefore did not view Pakistan as more important than India.

Feeling threatened by USA’s growing closeness with India, Pakistan extracted from the former, on November 5, 1962, a pledge “that it will come to Pakistan’s assistance in the event of aggression from India.” This pledge, nonetheless, did not help Pakistan during the Second Kashmir War (1965) when it undertook dangerous military adventures (Operation Gibraltar and Operation Grand Slam) against India. When the war started, the US cut aid to both Pakistan and India. A similar situation developed six years later. When New Delhi decisively intervened in East Pakistan’s civil war in late 1971, Washington was unwilling to directly support the Pakistani army’s Operation Searchlight against Bengali insurgents (though it did send part of its Seventh Fleet in the Bay of Bengal). The country’s eastern wing seceded to form the state of Bangladesh, dismembering Pakistan in a humiliating way. Spurred by this defeat, Pakistan’s governing caste realized that the continued existence of the nation was dependent on nuclear parity with India.

The development of nuclear weapons was smoothed by conjunctural reasons. In neighboring Afghanistan, the communists, who had backed the 1973 military coup by Prince Daoud after which a republic was proclaimed, withdrew their support from him. In April 1978, the Shah of Iran convinced Daoud to turn against the communist factions in his army and administration. In response to increasingly harsh state repression, left-wing officers in the military stormed the Presidential Palace in Kabul. The government was turned over to Noor Mohammed Taraki, a communist professor who became the President of the Revolutionary Council of Afghanistan. These developments – which were extensively supported by the USSR – came to be known as the Saur (April) Revolution. The US was terrified. It crafted a subversive plan that made General Zia’s dictatorship in Pakistan a principal node for sending jihadists to Afghanistan. Singularly focused on destabilizing Afghanistan’s communist regime, and, by extension, Soviet Union, USA cared less about Pakistan developing its nuclear programme in the 1980s.

War on Terror

America’s benign attitude toward Pakistan changed with the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the ultimate end of the Cold war. “[S]ans the American aim of defeating communism as their top priority,” comments Raza, “Pakistan was not given any extra consideration.” The “US Intelligence Report,” which had been indicting Pakistan for its nuclear quest, came to be invoked more frequently. When India conducted its Nuclear Test in March 1998, the Bill Clinton administration tried to prevent Pakistan from following suit, offering the resumption of the sale of F-16 aircraft (which had been frozen by George H.W. Bush when he did not certify Pakistan’s non-possession of nuclear devices) and economic and military aid. But Pakistan demanded more. Raza remarks: “Pakistan wanted tough punitive action against India. When the G-8 meeting on 17-18 May 1998 didn’t take very harsh measures against India in accordance with Pakistan’s expectations, bowing to public pressure, Pakistan decided to go for the Nuclear Test, which it ultimately carried out on 28 May, 1998.”

In response to Pakistan’s nuclear test, the US imposed sanctions, which included restriction of the provision of credits, military sales, economic assistance, and loans. These were, nevertheless, limited in scope and were not sustained. US-Pakistan relations exited this period of downturn in an explosive manner after 2001, thanks to the murky dynamics cultivated by imperialism in Afghanistan. After the USSR left in 1988, Pakistan maintained a strong footprint in Afghanistan to gain “strategic depth” against India, continuing to nurture the Islamist extremism that was earlier used to mobilize jihadist fighters from all over the world against USSR. These actions had severe repercussions. When hardhats of jihadism attacked New York in 2001 to express their disgruntlement with America’s bases in Saudi Arabia, the destruction of Iraq and support for Israel, Pakistan was caught in a dilemma. Networks of battle-hardened fighters that it had built along with the USA were now on the attack radar of its imperialist sponsor.

With limited options, Pakistan decided to join the US War on Terror, declaring support for the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul. “By providing the USA with help in the invasion of Afghanistan,” Justin Podur clarifies, “Pakistan was able to save its clients and its own personnel from destruction, as much of the Taliban and al-Qaeda crossed the border to Pakistan or went to ground and Afghanistan was taken over by US-friendly warlords.” This tactical move had its own disruptive consequences for Pakistan’s social osmosis. General Pervez Musharraf came to be accused of treason for supporting the USA against fellow Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This political effect complicated military operations. As the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) made the Pakistan army take action against insurgents operating in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, casualties increased, eroding the state’s legitimacy in the region. When Pakistan cooperated with the insurgents on the sly, it faced US threats.


The convoluted workings of the War on Terror have had a destructive impact on Pakistan’s economy. It has lost $150 billion – 41% or two-fifths of the country’s total economy size, more than the $13 billion that it received from the US between 1999 and 2013. Since the US invasion of Afghanistan, more than 80,000 Pakistani civilians, security forces personnel and women and children have been killed in gun, bomb and suicide attacks. On average, every year Pakistan suffered losses of $7.7 billion – more than the country’s total expenditures on education, health and other social safety schemes. With the growing advance of the Taliban in Afghanistan, current Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in September 2021, saying: “Since 2001, I have repeatedly warned that the Afghan war was unwinnable. Given their history, Afghans would never accept a protracted foreign military presence, and no outsider, including Pakistan, could change this reality. Unfortunately, successive Pakistani governments after 9/11 sought to please the United States instead of pointing out the error of a military-dominated approach.”

Scarred by the War on Terror, Pakistan has been frustrated to see USA establish an alliance with India as part of an anti-China containment strategy. The US and Indian elites have found a common interest in countering China; India is embroiled in disputes on its land borders with China and the US and its allies are contesting China’s claim to maritime territories across shipping routes in the Indo-Pacific region. It is against this background that Pakistan has returned to China’s “all-weather friendship,” initiated in the 1960s by General Ayub Khan who felt betrayed by Washington’s overtures to India in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian border conflict. China has become Pakistan’s closest strategic ally, supplying it with modern defense equipment. Pakistan supports China’s stance on Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, and China backs Pakistan on its Kashmir issue with India. Over the past five years, this cooperation has been further cemented by China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its local cognate China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), entailing over $60 billion worth of Chinese investments in infrastructure consisting mostly of loans.

Despite the economic heft of China, Pakistan still needs Washington’s support, both to get disbursements of its $6 billion bailout package from the IMF and to be removed from the terror-financing and money-laundering watchdog Financial Action Task Force’s “grey list,” a designation that encumbers Islamabad’s global financial operations. War on Terror cooperation had converted Pakistan into a major non-NATO ally of the US in 2004, granting it various military and financial privileges. The designation had also eased Pakistan’s access to IMF facilities. With the deterioration of Pakistan’s relationship with USA, accessing funds has become difficult. In October-November 2021, IMF withheld the release of a $1 billion tranche under an Extended Fund Facility (EFF) to Pakistan until the government agreed to close commercial bank accounts held by the armed forces and other state entities and remitted $17 billion worth of public funds into a single treasury account. It is believed that USA, the single largest financial contributor to the IMF, had a hand in the reform demands.

In a June 2021 interview on HBO’s documentary news series Axios, Khan had said, “Pakistan will “absolutely not” allow the CIA to use bases on its soil for cross-border counterterrorism missions after American forces withdraw from Afghanistan.” To change this policy decision, USA started using IMF monetary policy as a bargaining chip to force cash-strapped Islamabad to agree to Joe Biden administration’s counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. These events highlight the conflictual nature of the contemporary US-Pakistan relationship. And it seems that both the parties have failed to arrive at a proper resolution till now. Yusuf’s criticism is significant in this regard as he was the one chosen for mending ties with the US. He has spent a decade or more in the think tank and security policy circle in the US capital as associate vice president for Asia at the Institute of Peace, a US government-backed institution. The Pakistani government had recently elevated him from the position of Special Assistant to the Prime Minister to NSA to signal seriousness in creating a new rapport with the US. It seems that Pakistan will have to wait longer for such a reset in relationships.

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The Uprising of Peasants and Workers in Naxalbari

The words were red. And the rifles were red too. It was a time to win back everything that belonged to the people. A flame of rebellion raging against tyranny of the exploiting classes in remote Naxalbari in north-eastern India spread to different parts of the vast land of India, and in its neighboring countries. The uprising in Naxalbari that eventually embattled peasants and workers throughout the subcontinent against onslaught of moneyed classes still reverberates across decades.

The Naxalbari uprising and ensuing rebellion, led by Charu Majumdar, a simple man, had always been either consciously ignored or besmirched in the history of the subcontinent by the bourgeois and a faction of “left” historians. While unapproving bourgeois historians begrudge the apparent “failure” and “ferocity” of the Naxalites, the movement remains a beacon of hope across the sub-continent.

With 2017 marking the 50th anniversary of Naxalbari Uprising, as a tribute of remembrance to the martyrs of the movement, Frontier, the famous independent socialist weekly from Kolkata, has published an anthology of 26 articles and two interviews titled The Age of Rage and Rebellion: Fifty Years After the Spring Thunder. The articles in the collection are presented chronologically. The 239-page anthology is edited by Timir Basu, editor of Frontier, and Tarun Basu.

The authors, many of whom were veterans of the rebellion, recollect and analyze facts, untold truths, challenges, and human emotions that culminated into the movement and continue to fuel such movements across the sub-continent.

The contributors include Bernerd D’Mello, deputy editor of Economic and Political Weekly, Timir Basu, Lawrence Lifschultz, US journalist and South Asia correspondent of Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review in the 1970s, and Varvara Rao, eminent Telegu poet and one of the leading social rights activists.

Published in July 2021 by Frontier Publication, the anthology is an ode to an age of rage and rebellion; an age that shaped the form of political struggle for people in the sub-continent. It is not just a collection of reminiscences but depicts a tale of revolutionary ardor, vigor, and absolute dedication that was quite unmatched in the sub-continent’s history of political struggle.

How the Steel was Tempered

“Against incredible odds,” the Editors’ Note reads, “the peasant rebellion in Naxalbari inspired hope and motivated a generation. Hundreds of students and youth threw themselves into building a new society, free from exploitation. But in the end the movement failed to decisively break with the prevailing leftist model of struggle. People, including revolutionaries make mistakes. But they can be corrected, if revolutionary movements including their leaderships, promote the capacity for sober self-reflection and flexibility and avoid dogma. Fifty years later the flame lit by the historic ‘Naxalbari Peasant Uprising’ burns bright. Even though there is an unprecedented right-wing swing in political arena, the spirit of ‘Naxalbari’ reverberates still as one of the greatest social changing events of 20th century. It is the task of communist revolutionaries to analyse it and learn the lessons of both its achievements and its shortcomings for the revolution of the future.”

The Naxalbari Uprising imbued into the then political left and progressive youth a radical way of worldview. It carved out a path that challenged the then existing ideologues and presented a revolutionary way out of the shackles of capitalist and semi-feudal system expropriating profit out of the masses throughout the sub-continent.

As Timir Basu recollects:

It is not enough to call that period a turbulent one; it was a period of tremendous restlessness. After entering the Presidency College, I quite naturally got involved in the student movement. I got attached with the left student movement, although in the campuses of the College and the University of Calcutta, the rightists were holding sway. When we were endeavoring to build up a leftist student organization in the Presidency College, ‘Naxalbari’ was yet to happen. Yet we earned the stigma of ultra-left because we had become vocal against the bureaucratic central leadership.

In the beginning I, like many others, had only a limited conception about revolution, and although I studied much about the Russian, the Chinese and the Cuban Revolutions, my knowledge of Marxism was extremely poor. ‘Naxalbari’ provided the opportunity for fresh thinking. [“In Search of Maoist Revolution”]

While it has been branded by the bourgeois academia and media as a rebellion ‘lost’, the Naxalbari Uprising with its ideology and practices forged by many frays in both philosophical and practical fronts, has held true to its utmost cause: the ultimate economic and political emancipation of the peasantry and the workers.

After Naxalbari, nothing remained the same as before. What may broadly be called the Naxalite movement went through many trials and tribulations, committed many mistakes and even blunders with tragic consequences in some cases, faced many setbacks and fragmentations, but was not wiped out despite severe state repression. Over time, new thoughts regarding lines of action, and new understanding of the national and international situations emerged within the movement. One fact is, however, certain. No section of Naxalites has become defenders of status quo or of communal polarisation. (Preface)

Even, as contemporary bourgeois history likes to record it as a rebellion ‘snuffed out’, the flame of Naxalbari still burns bright. It burns in the Dandakaranya Forest, it burns in Jharkhand; its philosophy of activism is still vibrant.

Bernerd D’Mello analyzes in his article “Whither Maoist Movement”:

The second phase of the Naxalite movement, from 1977 to 2003, was marked by mass organizations and mass struggles, especially in North Telangana and other parts of the then-province of Andhra Pradesh, and in what was then central and south Bihar (the latter now the province of Jharkhand), as also in parts of what is called Dandakaranya, the forest area situated in the border and adjoining tribal districts of the states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, and Orissa. The Bastar region in southern Chhattisgarh slowly began to emerge as a stronghold. Armed squads and village-level militias were organized in self-defense. ‘Land to the Tiller’ and ‘Full Rights to the Forest’ were the core demands, and within the movement, emphasis came to be placed on sensitivity to issues of gender and caste. Especially in Bihar, the Maoist movement, with the backing of its armed squads, combated the upper-caste landlord senas (armed gangs) with considerable success.

Since 2004, with two remarkable mass organizations already in place, the Dandakaranya Adivasi Kisan Mazdoor Sanghatan and the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangh — one of tribal peasants and workers, the other, of tribal women — and a Bhoomkal Militia (its name derives from a 1910 tribal rebellion) that feeds into the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, the Bastar region has become a bastion of Maoist resilience. It has successfully prevailed over a state-backed, state-armed private vigilante force called Salwa Judum (translated as “purification hunt”) and has even kept a major armed offensive of the paramilitary and armed police, called Operation Green Hunt, at bay. It has also managed to engage in ‘construction in the midst of destruction’, putting in place Janathana Sarkars, or people’s governments, albeit in embryonic forms, within its guerrilla bases.

People’s struggle, class struggle to be specific in the Indian sub-continent, is now haunted by looming lumpen characteristics of a section of the left and constant onslaught by imperialism. Standing apart from the malpractice of mere adventurism and slogan-mongering, the vanguard trailblazers of the Naxalbari Uprising still continue a political and armed struggle based on a concrete ideology that represents excellence of humane values, honesty and dedication to the greater proletarian causes.

A Class Question

The uprising, in its essence was one of the most radical forms of class struggle led by the masses the sub-continent had ever experienced since Telengana. It forced into fore class questions and equations that were never-before dealt with such ferocity in the history of the sub-continent. The Naxalbari Uprising was also a testament to people’s leadership and dedication to the Marxist-Leninist way of work in its true essence.

The broad strategic objective of the Communist revolutionaries who launched the Naxalbari struggle [was] to liberate the countryside by waging a protracted people’s war and then encircle the cities. … Charu Majumdar further elaborated on the problem of mobilising the backward sections of the peasantry. While insisting on the necessity of secret political propaganda by the party so as not to prematurely expose it to repression, he, however, pointed out that backward peasants would be late in grasping politics under this method. ‘And for this reason’, he wrote, ‘it is and will be necessary to launch economic struggles against the feudal classes. For this reason it is necessary to lead movements for the seizure of crops, the form of the struggle depending on the political consciousness and organisation of the area.’ He further stated that ‘without widespread mass struggle of the peasants and without the participation of large sections of the masses in the movement, the politics of seizure of power would take time in striking roots in the consciousness of the peasants’.1

Reflecting on tactical and class questions Farooque Chowdhury writes [“The Historic May 25, 1967”]:

Naxalbari is part of a people’s journey to organize a radical change of the society, of the property relations, of the position the exploited the poor-the powerless are pressed down into. A lofty, noble, humane aim it is. It never confused the questions of position and role of the propertied classes and their political power. And, it never attempted to compromise interests of the exploited, and never appeased the exploiting classes. The sacrifice Naxalbari made is the evidence of its courageous and dignified stand it took to defend the exploited. Strategic and/or tactical errors/flaws don’t invalidate significance and contribution of Naxalbari in the political struggle people wage although efforts are there to demean the initiative by condemning only the errors/flaws. The quarter fails to look at the perspective of the initiative and the initiative’s errors/flaws – a wrong way to evaluate any political initiative.

It must be understood that Naxalbari played a defining role in shaping the form and nature of class struggle in the sub-continent. Without considering the underlying class questions, the class-relations and assessing the then and current state of class antagonism in the sub-continent, evaluations of the Uprising will only be incomplete and can often be misleading.

And Quiet Flows the Brahmaputra

From the banks of murmuring Jahnavi to the flood plains of expansive Brahmaputra, the fighting masses of this sub-continent, braving discrimination by moneyed classes for centuries, against extreme expropriation and extortion of people-owned resources, have always held true, true to their spirit of rebellion, progress, and love. The Naxalbari Uprising, in its truest form, not only embraced unequivocally those purest of human values, but sought a radical way toward achieving a functional recognition of those. Not only was the rebellion unique in its way of redefining equations of proprietorship, it forced to surface the evident class struggle that always raged behind the apparent dissociation of the peasants and the proletariat from mainstream politics of the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie.

And, while contemporary bourgeoisie history continues to forget and forsake the rising of the exploited, the Naxalbari Uprising still resounds across ages. The tortured, decapitated, cruelly murdered martyrs of Naxalbari still stand in the sub-continent’s history as heroes who challenged a juggernaut, bestial system running on profit and expropriation of masses. The resplendent red of Naxalbari still sings triumphantly of a new age to come, a new age led by people, workers, and peasants.

Omar Rashid Chowdhury, a civil engineering graduate from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and a learner, writes from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

  1. Abhijnan Sen, “The Naxalite Tactical Line”, Naxalbari and After, Vol-2, edited by Samar Sen, Debabrata Pande, Ashish Lahiri, Dec. 1978.
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China Eradicates Absolute Poverty While Billionaires Go for a Joyride to Space

Women who migrated to the Wangjia community participate in local activities at the community centre in Tongren City, Guizhou Province, April 2021.

Confounding news comes from the flagship World Economic Outlook report of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The report highlights many of the pressing issues facing our planet: disruptions in the global supply chain, rising shipping costs, shortages of intermediate goods, rising commodity prices, and inflationary pressures in many economies. Global growth rates are expected to touch 6% in 2021 and 4.9% in 2022, driven by higher global government debt. According to the report, this debt ‘reached an unprecedented level of close to 100% of the global GDP in 2020 and is projected to remain around that level in 2021 and 2022’. Developing countries’ external debt will remain high, with little expectation of relief.

Each year, IMF Chief Economist Gita Gopinath highlights the main themes of the report in her blog. This year, her blog has a clear headline: ‘Drawing Further Apart: Widening Gaps in the Global Recovery’. The rift runs along North-South lines, with the poorer nations unable to find an easy path out of the pandemic-induced global slowdown. A range of reasons cause this rift, such as the penalty of relying upon labour-intensive production, the overall poverty of the populations, and the long-standing problems of debt. But Gopinath focuses on one aspect: vaccine apartheid. ‘Close to 40 percent of the population in advanced economies has been fully vaccinated, compared with 11 percent in emerging market economies, and a tiny fraction in low-income developing countries’, she writes. The lack of vaccines, she argues, is the principal cause of the ‘widening gaps in the global recovery’.

Peasant workers till the land in an organic bamboo fungus company, which was established to help lift Longmenao, a village that is officially registered as poor, out of poverty in Wanshan District, Guizhou Province, April 2021. Credit: Xiang Wang

Peasant workers till the land in an organic bamboo fungus company, which was established to help lift Longmenao, a village that is officially registered as poor, out of poverty in Wanshan District, Guizhou Province, April 2021.

These widening gaps have an immediate social impact. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation’s 2021 report, The State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World, notes that ‘nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have access to adequate food in 2020 – an increase of almost 320 million people in just one year’. Hunger is intolerable. Food riots are now in evidence, most dramatically in South Africa. ‘They are just killing us with hunger here’, said one Durban resident who was motivated to join the unrest. These protests, as well as the new data released by the IMF and UN, have put hunger back on the global agenda.

In late July, the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council held a high-level political forum on sustainable development. The forum’s ministerial declaration recognised that ‘the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare and exacerbated our world’s vulnerabilities and inequalities within and among countries, accentuated systemic weaknesses, challenges, and risks and threatens to halt or damage progress made in realising the Sustainable Development Goals’. Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by the UN member states in 2015. These goals include poverty alleviation, an end to hunger, good health, and gender equality. Before the pandemic, it was already clear that the world would not meet these goals by 2030 as projected, certainly not even the most basic goal of eradicating hunger.

During this bleak period, in late February 2021, China’s president Xi Jinping announced that – counter to this general global downturn – China had eradicated extreme poverty. What does this announcement mean? As our team at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research reported last month, it means that 850 million people had climbed out of absolute poverty (the culmination of a seven-decade-long process that began with the Chinese Revolution of 1949), that their per capita income had increased to US$10,000 (a ten-fold increase in the last twenty years), and that life expectancy had increased to 77.3 years on average (compared to 35 years in 1949). Having met the poverty reduction SDGs ten years in advance, China contributed to more than 70% of the world’s total poverty reduction. In March 2021, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres celebrated this achievement as a ‘reason for hope and inspiration to the entire community of nations’.

First Secretary Liu Yuanxue speaks with a local villager during routine home visits in the village of Danyang, Wanshan District, Guizhou Province, April 2021.

Our July studyServe the People: The Eradication of Extreme Poverty in China, inaugurated a new series called Studies on Socialist Construction, through which we aim to study experiments in the construction of socialist practices from Cuba to Kerala, Bolivia to China. Serve the People is based on ground-level studies of poverty eradication schemes in different parts of China and on interviews with experts who participated in this long-term project. For instance, Wang Sangui, dean of the National Poverty Alleviation Research Institute of Renmin University, told us how the concept of multidimensional poverty is central to the Chinese approach. The concept became a policy through the Communist Party of China’s programme of ‘three guarantees’ (safe housing, healthcare, and education) and ‘two assurances’ (being fed and being clothed). But even here, the essence of this policy is in the details. As Wang put it in terms of drinking water:

How do you classify drinking water as safe? First, the basic requirement is that there must be no shortages in the water supply. Second, the source of water must not be too far, no more than twenty minutes round-trip for water retrieval. Last, the water quality must be safe, without any harmful substances. We require test reports that confirm the water quality is safe. Only then can we say that the standard is met.

Once a policy is crafted, the real work of implementation begins. The Communist Party (CPC) sent out 800,000 cadre to help local authorities survey households to understand the depth of poverty in the countryside. Then, the CPC delegated 3 million cadre out of the Party’s 95.1 million members to be part of 255,000 teams that spent years living in poor villages working towards the eradication of poverty and the social conditions it created. One team was assigned to a village, one cadre to each family.

The studies of poverty and the experience of the cadre resulted in five core methods for eradicating poverty: developing industry; relocating people; incentivising ecological compensation; guaranteeing free, quality, and compulsory education; and providing social assistance. The most powerful lever of these five methods was industrial development, which created capital-intensive agricultural production (including crop processing and animal breeding); restored farmlands; and grew forests as part of the ecological compensation schemes, reviving areas that had become prey to resource over-exploitation. In addition, an emphasis was placed on educating minority populations and women. As a result, by 2020, China ranked first in the world in the enrolment of women in tertiary education, according to the World Economic Forum.

Less than 10% of the people who lifted themselves out of poverty did so because of relocation, which was often the most dramatic instance of the programme. One relocated resident, Mou’se, told us about Atule’er, a village on the edge of a mountain, where he lived before relocating. ‘It took me half a day to climb down the cliff to buy a packet of salt’, he recalled. He would go down the cliff on a rattan ‘sky ladder’, which dangled perilously from the edge of the cliff. His relocation – along with the eighty-three other families who lived there – has allowed him to access better facilities and live a less precarious life.

The eradication of extreme poverty is significant, but it does not solve all problems. Social inequality in China remains a serious problem. These are not China’s problems alone but pressing problems facing humanity in our time. As we move to capital-intensive agriculture that requires fewer farmers, what kinds of habitations will we produce that are neither in rural nor urban areas? What kinds of employment can be generated for people who are no longer needed in the fields? Can we begin to think about a shorter work week, allowing more time to be civic and social?

A local food vendor and user of the Yishizhifu short video platform showcases her cooking in the village of Danyang, Wanshan District, Guizhou Province, April 2021.

Eradicating poverty is not a Chinese project. It is humanity’s goal. That is why movements and governments committed to this goal look carefully at the achievement of the Chinese people. Many of the projects in motion, however, take a dramatically different approach, seeking to address poverty by transferring income (as several South African research institutes advocate). But cash transfer schemes are not enough. Multidimensional poverty requires more than this. For example, Brazil’s Bolsa Familia programme, implemented by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, made an enormous dent in hunger in that country, but it was not designed to eradicate poverty.

Meanwhile, in the Indian state of Kerala, absolute poverty fell from 59.79% of the population in 1973-74 to 7.05% in 2011-2012 under the governance of the Left Democratic Front. The mechanisms that led to this dramatic decline were agrarian reform, establishing public health and education, creating a public distribution system for food, decentralising political authority to local self-governments, providing social security and welfare, and promoting public action (such as through the Kudumbashree cooperative projects). Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said recently that his government is committed to eradicating extreme poverty in the state. The next study in our series on socialist construction will concentrate on Kerala’s cooperative movement, focusing on its role in the eradication of poverty, hunger, and patriarchy.

From the countryside to Tongren City, Guizhou Province, April 2021.

In March, the UN Environment Programme released its Food Waste Index Report, which showed that an estimated 931 million tonnes of food went into waste bins across the world. The weight of this food roughly equals that of 23 million fully loaded 40-tonne trucks. If we let these trucks stand bumper-to-bumper at the earth’s circumference, they would make a ring long enough to circle the earth seven times, or to go deep into space, where billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson decided to go. The $5.5 billion Bezos spent on a four-minute trip into space could have fed 37.5 million people or fully funded the COVAX programme that would vaccinate two billion people.

The ambitions of Bezos and Branson are not life. Life is the abolition of the harshness of necessity.

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