July 10, 2022

On Marxism and Decolonisation

Vijay Prashad

IN 1959, one of the revolutionary leaders in Cuba, Haydée Santamaria, a hundred years old this year, arrived at a cultural centre in the heart of Havana, Cuba. This building, the revolutionaries decided, would be committed to the promotion of Latin American art and culture and it would become – eventually – a beacon for the progressive transformation of the hemisphere’s cultural world. Renamed the Casa de las Américas, the home of the Americas, it would become the heartbeat of cultural developments from Chile to Mexico. Art saturates the walls of the house and in an adjacent building sits the massive archive of correspondence and drafts from the most significant writers of the past century. The current director – Abel Prieto – is a novelist, a cultural critic, and a former minister of culture. His mandate is to stimulate discussion and debate in the country. 

Over the course of the past few years, Cuba’s intellectuals have been gripped by the debate over decolonisation and culture. The Cuban revolutionary process since 1959 has established – at great cost – the island’s political sovereignty and has struggled against centuries of poverty to cement its economic sovereignty. From 1959 onwards, under the leadership of the revolutionary forces, Cuba has tried to generate a cultural process that allows the island’s eleven million people to break with the cultural suffocation which is the legacy of both Spanish and US imperialism. Is Cuba, six decades since 1959, able to say that it is sovereign in cultural terms? The balance sheet suggests that the answer is complex since the onslaught of US cultural and intellectual production continues to hit the island like its annual summer hurricanes.

To that end, Casa has been holding a series of encounters on the issue of decolonisation, in which I participated and gave a talk on the theme of Marxism and decolonisation, which was as follows:

In the decade of weakness after the collapse of the USSR, the 1990s, as globalisation and US imperialism thundered with the certainty that history has ended, our own Left-wing traditions experienced self-doubt and could not advance our clarities around the world. The penalty inflicted upon the Left by the surrender of the last Soviet leadership was heavy and it led not only to the shutting down of many Left parties, but it weakened the confidence that millions of people had in Marxist thought.

In this period, Cuban President Fidel Castro called upon his fellow Cubans and others to engage in a “battle of ideas,” a phrase borrowed from The German Ideology by Marx and Engels. What Castro meant by this phrase is that people of the Left must not cower before the rising tide of neoliberal ideology but must confidently engage with the fact that neoliberalism is incapable of solving the basic dilemmas of humanity. For instance, neo-liberalism has no answer to the obstinate fact of hunger; 7.9 billion people live on a planet with food enough for 15 billion, and yet about 3 billion people struggle to eat – an obstinate fact that can only be addressed by socialism and not by the charity industry. As Castro put the “battle of ideas” on the table, the Left was confronted by two tendencies that continue to create problems for revolutionary clarity.

a.   Post-Marxism. An idea flourished that Marxism was too focused on “grand narratives” (such as the importance of transcending capitalism for socialism) and that fragmentary politics of the NGO variety was more feasible. This argument for going beyond Marx was really, as Aijaz Ahmad pointed out, an argument to return to the period before Marx, to neglect the facts of historical materialism and the zig-zag possibility of building socialism as the historical negation of capitalist brutality and decadence. Post-Marxism was a return to idealism and to perfectionism.

b.  Post-colonialism. Sections of the Left began to argue that the impact of colonialism was so great that no amount of transformation would be possible and that the only answer to colonialism was a return to the past. They treated the past, as the Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui argued, a destination and not as a resource. Afro-pessimism suggested a desolate landscape with no possibility of change; decolonial thinking remained trapped by European thought, returning again and again to European philosophy. The necessity of change was suspended.

Our tradition of National Liberation Marxism felt flattened, not able to answer the doubts sown by post-Marxism and post-colonial theory. And our traditions did not any longer have the kind of institutional support provided in an earlier period when revolutionary movements and governments assisted each other and when even the UN institutions would work to advance some of our ideas. It is telling that the slogan of the World Social Forum was another world is possible, not socialism is necessary, but just another world – even perhaps fascism.

It is time that we recover and return to our tradition, which has its origins in Marxist-Leninism, but it is a Marxist-Leninist tradition that was widened and deepened by José Carlos Mariátegui, by Ho Chi Minh, by Fidel Castro, by EMS Namboodiripad, and by hundreds of millions of others of the working-class and peasantry that developed this tradition in our struggles.

There are two aspects to this tradition:

a.   From the words ‘National Liberation’ we get the key concept of sovereignty.

b.  From the tradition of Marxism, we get the key concept of dignity. The fight for dignity implies a fight against the degradation of the wage system and against the old social hierarchies that we have inherited (including along the lines of race, gender, and sexual orientation).

Our tradition, therefore, is a tradition that fights for sovereignty against imperialist domination and that fights for human dignity against the wretchedness of our social hierarchies and of capitalist theft of social wealth.

Frantz Fanon said that Marxism was ‘slightly stretched’ when it went out of the European context. How did we stretch it? There are five elements that are visible in the writings of Lenin and the Communist International and then expanded outside by a range of political forces:

i.Liberalism cannot solve the dilemmas of humanity, the obstinate facts of life (hunger, ill-health). To transcend these dilemmas is to establish human rights.

ii. Colonialism did not permit the development of productive forces in the colonised world. The modern form of industrial production creates social wealth that can be socialised.

iii. The socialist project in the colonies had to fight against both colonialism (therefore, for sovereignty) and capitalism and its social hierarchies (therefore, for dignity).

iv. In the colonies, the peasantry and agricultural workers had to be part of the key classes.

 v. Tradition of boundless, National Liberation Marxism won in the poorer parts of the world – Russia, Vietnam, China, Cuba. The dual-task of building the productive forces and socialising the means of production was placed before the revolutionary governments.

Take the case of Zambia. About 60 per cent of the children in the Copperbelt cannot read. That’s the region that produces much of the world’s copper, which is essential to our electronics. The parents of the children bring the copper to the world market, but their children cannot read. But reading for them is an obstinate fact. They want to read. Neither post-Marxism nor post-colonialism addresses the fact of illiteracy and the obstinacy of the children and their parents. The theory of national liberation Marxism, rooted in sovereignty and dignity, however, addresses these questions: demands Zambia’s control over copper and for higher royalty payments (sovereignty) and demands that the Zambian working class can take a greater share of the surplus-value (dignity).

We need to recover our tradition of National Liberation Marxism, but also elaborate the theory of our tradition from the work of our movements. We need more attention to the theory of Ho Chi Minh and the theory of Fidel, and the theory of EMS. They did not only do, but they also produced innovative theories. These need to be developed.

We need to test these theories in our own contemporary reality, building our Marxism not out of the classics alone – which are useful – but out of the facts of our present. Lenin’s ‘concrete analysis of the concrete conditions’ requires close attention to the concrete, the real, and the historical facts. We need a more factual assessment of our times, a closer rendition of the actual imperialism that is imposing its military and political might to prevent the necessity of a socialist world.

The only real decolonisation is anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. You cannot decolonise your mind unless you also decolonise the conditions of social production that reinforce the colonial mentality. Post-Marxism ignores the fact of social production, the need to build social wealth that must be socialised. Afro-pessimism suggests that such a task cannot be accomplished because of permanent racism. Decolonial thought goes beyond Afro-pessimism but cannot go beyond post-Marxism, failing to see the necessity of decolonising the conditions of social production.