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Marxism And Anticolonialism: A Conversation With Vijay Prashad

Above Photo: El Diario/Spain.

Vijay Prashad (Calcutta, 1967) is above all a militant. His intellectual work is an attempt to understand and respond to some of the great challenges of our time. Of Indian origin, this Marxist historian has deployed an intense vital activity that has taken him to many countries, always in defense of the cause of humanity.

He currently serves as executive director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, a task he alternates with his work as a teacher and researcher at several universities, as well as with a prolific body of work in which we can highlight texts such as The Darker Nations, The Poorer Nations and the most recent The Retreat, written in conjunction with Noam Chomsky.

Close to Cuba and Casa de las Américas, he is frank and open, a great conversationalist and of a broad cultural background. I had the pleasure of meeting him personally on a flight back to Havana and from those talks came the idea of this interview that, at last, we were able to materialize virtually.

J.E.N.- There is a lot of talk about colonialism and neocolonialism in the contemporary left. However, there does not seem to be a consensus on what to understand under these terms and, in practice, many leftist and progressive movements end up reproducing attitudes that are far from being decolonizing. What do we understand by colonialism and neocolonialism in the contemporary world? Are their forms of expression and development the same as those of the old colonialism of the twentieth century and before?

V.P.– One of the great social processes of our time has been the process of decolonization. Hundreds of millions of people in the continents of Africa, Asia and Latin America struggled for centuries against the imposition of colonial rule against their sovereignty and dignity. These struggles came from a variety of political positions, including those led by forces that wanted to restore earlier forms of political sovereignty (including monarchies) and by political forces that wanted to establish modern forms of nation-states and membership. In 1960, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution on decolonization that captures the spirit of these times: “the process of liberation is irresistible and irreversible”. But, at the same time, in this post-World War II period, it was clear that the imperialist powers did not want to allow the former colonized peoples to establish national sovereignty and various gains in human dignity. The imperialists waged a “hybrid war” against the new nations, including through coups and assassinations, through economic blockades and sanctions, as well as through cultural and information warfare that diminished the peoples’ confidence in the new states. In 1965, a year before he was removed by a coup, Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah wrote a powerful book called Neocolonialism, in which he described the neocolonial structures of the post-colonial period – structures that included the maintenance of the old colonial economy (impoverishment of the new states, dependence on external, largely Western funding, permanent debt crises and dependence on Western powers – former metropolises – for their destiny). The struggle of the Non-Aligned Movement (established in 1961) was to overthrow this neocolonial structure. That struggle is still alive today, but not with the kind of solidity it had in the early decades of the Third World project.

Indeed, much has changed since the 1960s and 1970s, largely due to new technological developments – such as satellites, online databases, container shipping – global commodity chains supplanted the old Fordist forms of factory production, weakening both trade union movements and the necessary strategy of nationalization (key to the attempted overthrow of neocolonial structures). Despite these dramatic changes in the global economy, neocolonial structures remained intact, structures that included imperialist control over five areas of human life: finance, resources, science and technology, weapons systems and information. These five controls remained in the hands of the imperialist countries, despite the contradictions that arose through the new global system of commodity chains that was constructed during the neoliberal phase of capitalism. In many ways, the structure of neocolonialism, therefore, remains intact.

J.E.N.- What answers does the Marxist tradition contain for the colonial problem in the contemporary world?

V.P.– Marxism is the most adequate critique of capitalism in all its forms, whether in the classical period of the 19th century or in the neoliberal-globalized period of our time. This is for two reasons. First, Marxism-from Marx’s own writings and the later elaborations of other authors-provides the best assessment of why social inequality is widening despite immense advances in social production. The answer lies in the whole range of analysis that begins with the mechanisms for extracting surplus value and leads to the decisive private control over the appropriation of surplus value. Second, because Marxism – unlike many other traditions – is a science of society that continues to learn from its main object of investigation, namely capitalism. As capitalism changes, so does Marxism, following – scientifically – the new developments. From its origins, Marxism has been aware of the role of colonialism and neocolonial structures, both in the writings of Marx and in the work of the national liberation or Leninist tradition that includes the work of Mariátegui, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Cabral. There is a strong anti-colonial root in Marxism, which emerges fundamentally in this Leninist or national liberation tradition. We must build on this tradition and revive it in our time.

In his writings, Mariátegui pointed out that the past should be a resource and not a destiny. I believe this formula is fundamental to a Marxist approach to the histories of former colonized peoples. To believe that we must return to the past as destiny is a fundamental error of analysis and a refusal to understand the dynamics of human histories. Restorationism often leads to deeply conservative cultural habits, as is clear in the example of India, where the Hindu right believes that a “return to the past” is essential. This is also there in many currents of ‘decolonial thought’. We are not interested in a ‘return to the past’, but want to ‘go back to the source’ to move history forward, drawing – above all – on the various emancipatory traditions of the world, including the European working class (such as the Paris Commune of 1871). What passes itself off as European traditions of freedom, for example, is not always “European,” but is based on traditions established in Asia and Africa (as Zhu Qianzhi, The Influence of Chinese Philosophy on Europe [中国哲学对欧洲的影响], Hebei People’s Publishing House, 1999), has shown.

J.E.N.- We are facing a scenario in which the traditional elites of capitalism do not seem to know how to contain the various crises afflicting the system and as a product of these same crises we see the emergence of social and political movements with approaches of more radical confrontation to capitalism and its consequences, even in the countries of the hard core of capitalism. How do you assess these processes, seeing them from a historical and global approach?

V.P.– There has been a significant degradation of the intellectual vision of the traditional capitalist elites, whose mediocre representatives (Biden, Macron, Schulz) are a sign of this degradation. None of these leaders has any project to respond to the pressing problems of our time, such as the dangers of climate catastrophe and the deepening abyss of social inequality. Rather, we hear from them the worn-out ideas of privatization and reliance on private capital – which is organized to benefit itself – as formulas for solving universal problems. Instead of bringing new ideas to the table to address the dangers of our time, the leaders of the traditional capitalist class in the West – at the very least – are eager to accelerate conflicts with China and Russia as a way to compensate for their inability to succeed commercially against China, for example. China has advanced in several key areas of social production, such as robotics, 5G, artificial intelligence and green technology, and Chinese companies can outperform Western companies in many of these areas. Unable to raise the public funds needed to respond to the Chinese social production challenge and reluctant to sequester these funds from the private sector, Western warring states now move a dangerous agenda of conflict against China and Russia. That is the limit of their intellectual contribution to the problems of our time: confrontation rather than collaboration.

The habitual turn to confrontation by the Western warring states and the traditional capitalist elites in these states is a great disappointment to the emerging capitalist elites in the Global South, who are therefore urging their own governments not to fall into the trap of polarization and global confrontation. The emergence of a new ‘non-alignment’ is not driven by mass mobilization and new social movements, which – to some extent – had been the case in the 20th century, but is mainly driven by these new capitalist elites who are wary about being subordinated to the confrontational agenda of the Western warring states. This new “non-alignment” creates both challenges and contradictions for mass political and social movements in the Global South and for the Southern Left. What should be the position of the Southern Left vis-à-vis these movements of the Southern capitalist elite? This question raises a debate on the strategy for our time, which is being answered in different ways in different countries, raising new ways of understanding the united front for this moment.

J.E.N.- In your most recent book you talk with Noam Chomsky about diverse processes in the hegemonic crisis that North American imperialism is going through. Particularly on the implications of the disastrous withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2021. What are the implications for Western and especially American hegemony, as we have known it, of the growing strength and interconnection of powers such as Russia and China and related processes, such as the war in Ukraine and the withdrawal itself that I have already mentioned?

V.P.– There is no doubt that the Western warring states have exhausted their resources and will to lead a world order built around advantages for imperialism. This became clear after the Great Depression of 2007-08, which led Western capital to withdraw further from any responsibility to Western states, and it became clear after the failure of the US wars since 2001 (Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya) and the US Hybrid Wars of the recent period (against Cuba, Iran and Venezuela). The new language of “non-alignment” that has emerged in the Global South, regardless of its non-socialist character, is a symptom of the decline of Western authority. Now, it is clear that the situation is not simply about the decline of U.S. and Western authority, but about the change in the balance of forces in the world. First, since 2008 there has been growth in the Chinese economy, which has been guided by state control (under the leadership of the Communist Party of China). Second, this growth enabled the Chinese state, as well as economic forces within China, to build a regional and then global project called the Belt and Road Initiative starting in 2013. Third, along with the development of the Belt and Road Initiative in Asia and parts of Europe – in the initial years – we saw the revival of the Russian state and its economic forces through the reestablishment of state power over the energy sector and over the oligarchy, as well as the growing importance of Russian energy sales to Europe. These processes, along with the rise of the economies of the Global South (from Indonesia to Mexico), came along with the assertion of the ideas of South-South sovereignty and economic development. What we see as a result of these maneuvers is the integration of Eurasia that is not dominated by the United States, and it is this integration of both Eurasia and other parts of the world independent of Washington that provoked the U.S. conflicts against China and Russia, with epicenters in Ukraine and Taiwan. The conflict in Ukraine – which began more than ten years ago – is part of the Western warring states’ attempt to isolate Russia and subjugate it; the conflict over Taiwan and Chinese economic forces mimics that conflict, but so far – thanks to the prudent behavior of Chinese leaders – an armed confrontation has not broken out.

J.E.N.- Can it be said that we are at a crossroads where the possibility opens up, with the emergence of a multipolar world, of transforming the world that capitalism shaped in the last century for the benefit of humanity or is it only a reordering of forces in which the old imperial powers are replaced by emerging powers, but in essence the world capitalist order remains? In other words, is there in Russia and China, the main emerging powers, a radically transforming potential for the established order?

V.P.– I believe that we are near the end of the era of American supremacy, that the autumn crisis due to the fall of American power is evident. This is a long process, as the US continues to dominate military affairs and information warfare. It will take a long time for US power to erode. However, the new forces that are emerging are not interested in establishing a multipolar world. This is clear from the public statements coming out of Beijing, as well as other capitals in the advanced sections of the Global South. Instead, the appetite in these sectors is for a two-pronged development. First, that as the United States withdraws its tentacles from interfering in world affairs, a stronger regionalism should develop. This is already evident through forums such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Countries (CELAC) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Second, that countries whose influence is growing in the world – such as the BRICS states – have made it clear that they would like to establish the authority of multilateral organizations as the primary authority in global discussions. These include the UN agencies as well as the various non-UN platforms for global dialogue and action. These two concepts of regionalism and multilateralism prevail in discussions in the Global South, not questions of new hegemony or multipolarity. Neither China nor Russia have expressed any interest in a new Beijing or Moscow Consensus, nor are they shaping the world order in such a way that ‘one master’ is needed (the quote is from Putin, when he said at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 that the world does not need ‘one master’).

J.E.N.- With the crisis of Western hegemony we see the emergence of voices and positions in what you usually call the Global South that contradict and confront the discourse and positions of the old metropolises and big capital. How do you see the situation of the revolutionary forces in Asia, Africa, Latin America and even in Europe?

V.P.– The reserves of the forces of the working class – including the precarious workers and the peasantry – have been exhausted worldwide by the process of globalization. The main revolutionary parties have found it difficult to maintain and extend their strength in the context of democratic systems that have been taken over by the power of money. The weakness of the left in our time must be registered. That is why it is incumbent upon revolutionary forces to be very smart in developing strategies and tactics to build our own strength and to gather whatever forces we need to push into an agenda. Building united front and popular front agendas, therefore, is key. In addition, it is very important for us to build our own ranks through political education, the battle of ideas and the battle of emotions, and through the sustained building of organizations and the precise mobilization of the masses.

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