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Black Box East: The role of “the East” in the West’s radical imagination

Originally published: Mediapart on September 6, 2021 by Max Haiven interviewing (more by Mediapart)  |

The potential of the BLACK BOX EAST as a common space of transnational struggles is a matter of ongoing inquiry. Contributing to this cooperative process, social thinker Max Haiven and historian Vijay Prashad discuss about the role of “the East” in the Western radical imagination. An interview.

MAX HAIVEN (MH): I want to begin with the role of “the East” in Marx’s imagination. On the one hand, Marx was a German exile (some might say refugee) living in London and anticipating what he imagined to be the likely or inevitable proletarian revolution in Western capitalist countries, imagining this would lead to a worldwide revolution. On the other, he is studying The East very closely, some argue with some degree of prejudice or Orientalism.

VIJAY PRASHAD (VP): Marx was trying to understand the contradictions in capitalism that couldn’t not be resolved inside that system. He argued, for instance, that, under capitalism, productive forces get developed very rapidly: better technology, better science and agriculture, enormous social wealth is produced. But at the same time this development runs up against private property, which means great suffering among large numbers of people. This disparity is distracting to the liberal imagination, as Charles Dickens illustrates, and others. Marx says: look, there’s no solution in the system and therefore we need to advance to a different system.

But this poses the question of eternity. Many people say: the system we have is eternal because it’s based on greed and inequality is natural. But Marx argues that history shows there have been great epochal shifts, and if he can demonstrate the epochal shift between something called feudalism and something called capitalism then why can’t there be another epochal shift to something else? So his method of historical materialism is about tracking the development of human society from a past to the future, it has the future within it. It’s not futurology but merely suggests that if there are epochal changes in the past there could be more in the future.

Now, Marx initially best understood the European material. Even in Europe there’s a great diversity of feudal regimes in Germany and France and Italy and Spain and so on. Hungary was one of the most wretchedly feudal societies of that period right up to um the end of World War II: wretched feudalism, a brutal vicious anti-semitic kind of feudalism. No wonder the counter-revolution in 1956: brutal fascists were coming back to power.

But Marx is not only interested in the European experience. In the last part of Marx’s Capital I he goes into great detail in the enclosure movement in Britain and the way in which imperialism brings vast wealth to British industry, and he shows the great transformation of agricultural relations. But he is interested in world revolution. That’s already signaled in the communist manifesto in 1848. So Marx is very interested in understanding: what were the pre-capitalist dynamics around the world? What kinds of modes of production existed?

But the material was limited for Marx. He had to read largely the British record on places like India and so on. Now, Indian feudalism obviously had a different history than European feudalism. But the first truly universal mode of production was capitalism because it universalizes certain tendencies: the tendency for accumulating profit through the production process, primarily. Under capitalism there’s a certain homogenization of the economy and of politics that starts taking place all over the modern world. By contrast, there is a huge variation of pre-capitalist economies and in order to understand the variation he looks at the Asian material and argues there’s an Asiatic pre-capitalist mode of production.

But I never took that seriously because he’s trying to figure out the pre-capitalist thing mostly to better understand capitalism. You have better historians after Marx–maybe even Marx’s contemporaries in Asia– who have a more granular sense of pre-capitalist variations. I find it silly when people say: well Marx is an Orientalist, Marx is a racist. He’s none of those things. He’s trying to understand the capacity of the world to create a revolution. The fact that Marx theorizes the East at all demonstrates that. He doesn’t say that Easterners are not human. He says they are human: it’s an anti-racist gesture.

Now, whether he’s able to accurately represent the economies of the East is a separate question. I don’t find the concept of the asiatic mode production very useful in our time. Samir Amin came up with the tributary mode of production. Hamza Alawi talked about the colonial mode of production. These are all interesting ways to theorize or systematize these relations. Early in his career Perry Anderson wrote two immense books– Passages From Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State–where he also tried to understand the development of statecraft over time. In these texts you get a much clearer historical picture of the East.

That gives you a sense of the role of the East for Marx. Of course, Marx was incredible because, remarkably for his time, he backed every single insurrection: the uprising of the Indian peasantry, the Fenians… The man did not have a racist bone in his body, frankly. You just don’t see it in the record. I find this whole debate about Marx’s Orientalism or Eurocentrism absurd. People who say this don’t read enough Marxist writing from outside of Europe. It’s true that lots of Marxists are Eurocentric, but they don’t get that from Marx.

MH: Many Marixts in the early 20th century expected a communist revolution to succeed in a “developed” Western Capitalist economy like England or Germany, but the first revolution was in Russia, in the East. What were and are the implications of this for radical thought?

VP: This is very important question for all the work that I do at the TriContinental Institute for Social Research.

So on the one hand, we have the development of productive forces. Over the last hundred odd years. We’re talking now on Zoom and it’s incredible: I can see your face and where you’re sitting. It’s amazing. At the same time, inequality rates now are incredibly high. Why isn’t social wealth shared?

Well, for Marx, the clash between private property and the advance of productive forces leads to revolutionary tensions so his focus on Germany or Britain made sense as these were places where the tension was highest. By the way, in his late letters with the Russian Marxist Vera Zasulich and others, Marx says: you don’t have to wait for the forces of production to advance. You can accelerate the contradictions and revolution without waiting. Marx doesn’t fully theorize these marginal comments, It’s Lenin that does so because he, after all, grew up inside the Russian empire.

Now our notion of empires is overshadowed by the British or French empires with overseas colonies, but the Tsarist regime was a mostly contiguous empire, just like the United States: a vast territory, most of it in Asia, made up of colonized peoples held as second-class citizens, including the serfs very much like the slaves in the US. Slavery in the U.S. was abolished (sort of) in 1865, the Tsar emancipated the serfs in 1861. These are actually very similar histories. Lenin grew up in this wretched imperial setup. His brother died trying to assassinate the Tsar. There was an uprising in 1905 which was crushed. Lenin asks: do we have to wait around for the productive forces to advance before having a Revolution?

Lenin made three observations which are key. First, he said that in the colonial world productive forces are simply not going to become advanced on their own, so demanding that they be advanced in order to allow a revolution means you are condemning hundreds of millions of people to the possibility that they will never ever be able to emancipate themselves. That means India, China, Russia, Mexico and so on will always be at low levels of production, basically consigned to producing raw materials for Europe. This is not acceptable. Therefore, point two: socialists must defend national liberation struggles. So, unlike Trotsky and others, Lenin backed the Easter rising of 1916: he said the national question must be solved. Marx didn’t write much about this, although he backed all the national struggles intuitively. But Lenin theorized it, arguing that national liberation struggles could have a relationship with socialism.

Third, Lenin argued that, in the advanced industrial countries, the nature of imperialism means that even though productive forces advance, and even though the working class matures as a political instrument, imperialism dulls the capacity of the working class to fight for revolutionary goals. One section of that working class becomes the creme de la creme, the labor aristocracy and so become the vanguard of reaction within the working class on behalf of the capitalists. They will lead the working class in a distorted direction. For instance, in Germany you get Bernstein and Kautsky basically saying: there’s no point in revolution because eventually society will naturally evolve to socialism. In Britain you’ll get the labor party. In France you’ll get the socialist party.

It would have been convenient for the Bolsheviks to return to Russia after the overthrow of the Tsar in January/February 1917 and back the liberal government of Alexander Kerensky, hoping he, representing the capitalists, would develop the productive forces. But Lenin predicted that Karensky would betray the revolution because he would not be able to advance the productive forces. He’d maintain Tsarist Russia as a massive second-order internal empire, subordinated to the European empires. Therefore, the Bolsheviks had to overthrow Karensky.

Now, this idea that national liberation and socialism could be achieved simultaneously was the lesson that colonized countries learned: we, too, in China, in India, can overthrow colonialism and advance to socialism even though the productive forces aren’t yet fully developed. We have to accelerate the development of productive forces within socialism. That’s actually the heart of Leninism. It’s not just about the revolution against the Tsar or another tyrant. Give that any number of names, Bakuninism, even. Leninism is a richer theoretical tradition which says, first, that colonized countries will not be able to develop the productive forces, second, that colonized people have aspirations for national liberation that has to be supported, and that, thirdly, when a revolution happens in a colony it will be led by the national liberation forces, who will in turn be supported and led by the communists and they will, together, overthrow the colonial masters and then accelerate the productive forces to move towards socialism as fast as possible. Leninism was hugely influential like China and Vietnam. It was a huge inspiration to Ho Chi Minh who didn’t come to Marxism through Marx but through the Bolshevik revolution and Lenin.

Now, the Chinese revolution and Maoism also emerged in very different ways than Western Marxists imagined to be the proper road to revolution, inspired by but different from Leninism. Here I’m not just talking about Mao and his ideas in the Chinese Revolution but how these forced a reshaping of western Marxist imaginations of how to create revolutionary social change. Let me take us on three different itineraries.

First: Sometime after the failure of the German Revolution in 1918 (and the consequent failure of the Hungarian revolution of 1919) a kind of hopelessness sets in among Marxists in the western world. Perry Anderson calls it a politics of defeat. It led to a tendency to move from considerations of political economy and politics towards philosophy. You see this in the Frankfurt School, In Althusser… today there is this idea of the “Communist Horizon” at a level of philosophical abstraction that doesn’t engage with the nature of the working class or the question of productive capacity. The financialization of the economy becomes metaphorical. There is no engagement with the empirical details of historical matter and materialism. In this first itinerary there is a journey from the ashes of Berlin, from the bodies of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht thrown in the canal, and a direct line to high philosophical engagement you can see Alain Badiou, to some extent in Slavoj Žižek. You’re not sure what the Marxism is here, friends! Marxism is the philosophy of class struggle and eventual revolution. It’s not a philosophy to better understand the world. There are lots of liberal philosophies that might help you understand the world, and yes if Marxism helps you better understand the world that’s fine. But the point isn’t just to understand the world; the point is to change it. And Max’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach says: when you’re trying to change the world you will understand the “ribs” of power better, more clearly.

The second itinerary is the Chinese Revolution, which is no different than the Vietnamese revolution or the Cuban revolution in that in all these cases they had to innovate advances in the productive forces at the same time as socializing the means of production. These were extraordinarily poor countries. In 1949 China was an extraordinarily poor country broken by 12 years of war, from 1937 to 1949: the longest World War Two of any country, and it was devastating. You know, the Nationalist government at one point bombed a dam and flooded an entire district, creating mass starvation and famine. People talk about the Great Leap Forward but, my god, let’s look at what Chiang Kai Shek did during World War Two: vicious destruction of infrastructure which caused millions of people to suffer. So in 1949 the communists inherited a situation of great chaos. Similarly, in 1945 Ho Chi Minh observed the situation in Vietnam: A divided country, a 30 year war imposed on them from ‘45 to ‘75… How do you build socialism?

In contrast to a politics of defeat, these revolutions were a politics of socialist construction. They had to deal with the facts of history, to pick up the dirty laundry and try to wash it without soap and water. So the Marxism that develops there has its nose in history. I edited a volume of the selected writings of Lenin and half of it is writings and speeches after 1917. Making the revolution? Lenin was fantastic at this. But what do you do after the revolution? That’s a different kind of Marxism. Marx didn’t have to theorize! I’m editing a volume now of Ho Chi Minh’s writing and speeches and most of the book is from after 1945 as he’s talking to different committees and trying to get people to understand how to shift the law of value from an analysis of capitalism to a tool of socialism, It’s very complicated work, and also dangerous work, under physical and ideological attack. Here, Western Marxism loses the plot. It doesn’t see what these people are doing as Marxist; it just sees them as people writing manuals. People know Che Guevara’s manual for a revolutionary war, but he also wrote about economics when he was the head of Cuba’s central bank when he was the minister of industry. Until Helen Yaffi wrote a book on it, people didn’t outside Cuba didn’t care about it.

Che innovated thinking about how to manage the post-capitalist economy. Mao wrote and spoke a lot about how to build socialism. The armed struggle is just a tactic. General Giap’s writings on Vietnam? Those are tactical books, he’d be the last to say they are great theoretical innovations. No, the great theoretical innovation was the praxis of building socialism in a poor country. They refused Pol Pot’s solution, which is socialized poverty. Instead, they wanted to build the productive forces. This is why a lot of people in many parts of the world just don’t understand China. They don’t understand the imperative of abolishing hunger, abolishing poverty, creating mass literacy. They’re human beings, of course: China has its own internal problems, they make mistakes. There are errors that are true of all large organizations: Information errors, the errors that come from junior members fearing to tell their seniors when a problem occurs… but this happens in all societies. You have to factor this out and look at the broad issue. How did Chian abolish poverty when India has not?

Now, the third itinerary is one of romanticism. When the cultural revolution took place in China, European Marxists who felt that the Soviet Union was too boring or gray began to fantasize. You get all these books exaggerating what’s happening in China based on a very little understanding. There is a story from the late 1960s that Ho Chi Minh met an Italian Communist Party delegation. They’re sitting in his secret house, a very modest place; he’s sitting there, characteristically, with a cigarette in his hand and the Italians ask him how they can help Vietnam, a very honest and sincere question as there are American planes above bombing the crap out of Vietnam. Biut Ho Chi Minh doesn’t say: send us this or that; he says “go home and make a revolution.” He’s saying: sure, we need solidarity, we need tons of it, but we don’t need romanticism. We are making our revolution. We are going to die and sacrifice and yes, we need you out there fighting against the lies that they tell about us. But go home make your revolution. What’s the point of fantasizing about Cuba? Cuba of course needs solidarity today more than ever. Venezuela needs solidarity today more than ever. But go home and make your revolution.

This itinerary of romanticism comes from a situation of defeat in Europe and in the United States, a feeling that we can only demand modest reforms that are doomed to cooptation. We can’t advance anything, so let’s fantasize about something somewhere else. But that fantasy will inevitably disappoint you because, remember, they are on itinerary number two: they are innovating, struggling and failing to build socialism. When faced with the messy reality, you’ll turn against it.

MH: Yes, the flip side of romanticization is always contempt! So we find ourselves thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the the market-oriented transformations of the Chinese economy and the East has once again become a catalyst for the western imagination, but this time in a very negative light. We started the millennium with a War on Terror built on Orientalist fears of the East. Today we are seeing “Western” powers sound the alarm about the rise of China. Where does this leave the Left?

VP: The Chinese Revolution’s project was to emancipate people from all kinds of blights, including poverty, and illiteracy. Life expectancy actually rose by over a decade during the Mao period, that’s amazing when you compare this to the decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, when life expectancy in Russia collapsed. That’s how it is when capitalism returns! (these are factual things–I’m not making them up! How do you explain this, Mr President Biden? How do you explain this, Justin Trudeau, you with your glib fascination with your own liberal superiority, trying to overthrow the government in Venezuela on behalf of mining companies but pretending it’s for human rights?). But in 1978 China decided to go into a reform era. Now, I consider this the zigzag of history: you loosen things up in order to advance the productive forces and then, when inequalities emerge, you move in a different direction. We’ve seen, since 1978, a lot of zigzags taking place in China. But you know, socialist construction is a dirty business: it’s not easy and there’s no blueprint. In their over 100 hours of interviews, Fidel Castro told Ignacio Ramonette that they had no blueprint for revolution in 1959, they had to innovate. That’s what’s been happening in China. The nature and level of innovation and error acceptance in China is very interesting. For instance, in the 90s China opened up and privatized health care, then the SARS epidemic hit and that was a wake-up call and they rebuilt a more robust public health care system.

I don’t accept the view of capitalist restoration in China. It’s a very delicate dance because lots of the important sectors of the economy are in public hands, including significant parts of the banking sector. One lesson they learned from earlier socialist experiments is that you don’t have to nationalize everything, including the barber shops. The question is not “market versus state.” That’s how the bourgeois logic sees it. The question is how are we able to use social wealth to advance the cause of humanity? In some areas of life markets might be useful for a long period of time to prevent distorted pricing. That’s totally acceptable because the question isn’t “market or state,” the question is: are we using immense productivity so that it produces social wealth to advance the cause of humanity, and not the cause of people who buy islands in the Caribbean. What’s the goal of your project? In the 1990s the Chinese understood that you have to enhance your science and technology or you’ll always be the coolies of the world order, you’ll always be workers for German or British companies. So the Chinese put a lot of social wealth into building up science and technology and in the last five or six years they have surged ahead of Western companies in robotics, telecommunications… that’s the real nature of today’s Cold War.

It’s actually not like the War on Terror because, in fact, Al Qaeda didn’t existentially threaten Western corporate entities. Maybe it threatened to disrupt them and hurt them, but it wouldn’t over supersede them. But Chinese firms can. Now you get Obama in 2009 pivoting to Asia, trying to put the Chinese development genie back in the bottle, and the Chinese refuse: they now have their own agenda and can’t be told what to do. The U.S. says China is violating privacy with the 5g but, seriously, Edward Snowden already revealed that all the tech companies were already giving user data to the NSA. But this is the way the information war works: the public is gullible and there’s an element of racism to it all. Somehow people are fine giving their data to you know a bunch of white guys sitting at the NSA headquarters but they don’t want to give it to the Chinese? Underneath this is yellow peril racism and a parallel anti-communism, and beneath them is a bewildering amnesia so that when Mike Pompeo says we have to protect our privacy we forget he used to be the head of the CIA. Unlike the targets of the War on Terror, the Chinese have actually produced an existential threat to Western capitalism.

MH: The Tri-continental Institute, which you direct, takes its name and inspiration from a conference hosted by Cuba in 1966 that tried to create lines of connection and solidarity between Asia, Africa and Latin America. I’m interested in how this legacy inspires the Institute’s desire to move beyond the binary of West and Wast that has been so useful; to the imperialist narrative, but clearly quite dangerous for those who struggle for a better world.

VP: In 2015 there was a meeting held in Brazil called The Dilemmas of Humanity organized principally but not only by the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST, Landless Workers Movement) and there was a decision to launch a platform of people’s movements and political parties around the world. This became the International People’s Assembly and topday we have 200 members, ranging from big political parties (The Workers party of Tunisia, the Socialist Party of Zambia, The Communist Party of Nepal) to ALBA social movements (perhaps the largest consortium of movements in the world). At that meeting it was determined that we are in the middle of a period where the battle of ideas is considerable and that the assembly needed a think tank or research institute, and I was asked to help construct it. We discussed the name with many people and combined two traditions. One was the tri-continental, which you mentioned, which sought to foster solidarity between national liberation and decolonization struggles in a Marxist and socialist context. It was in some ways a response to the Non-Aligned Movement, which was not explicitly socialist and only open to nation states. The TriVContinental was also open to national liberation movements that hadn’t won state power yet, like the movement in Guinea-Bissau, represented there by Amilkar Cabral. We too wanted to combine national liberation struggles, Marxism and movements.

Now, the second part of the name is the Institute for Social Research, a direct nod to the Frankfurt School which formed in the 1930s amidst the rise of fascism and the collapse of capitalism. There, Max Horkheimer, who was the most important director, raised the question of the need to study the culture and why fascism was triumphing. Today, we are in a similar moment: capitalism is in a grave crisis and neo-fascist movements are rising, including in the heart of the capitalist bloc in the United States and so on. Now, the Frankfurt School tradition went bonkers, but the original questions they posed in 1937 are of great interest to me personally and to our team.

MH: Are there any particular struggles that you find particularly inspiring today outside of the west?

VP: Absolutely. First, on the 26th of November [2020] 250 million Indian workers and peasants went on strike and recently, seven months later [June 2021], tens of millions of Indian farmers have been in a non-stop struggle against the government. We did a superb dossier which is available on our website where we explain the nature of this struggle because part of our work is to amplify and uplift the theory of struggles. We talked to farm leaders and we built a text which bakes in it the opinions and views of the farmers movement itself. I find this to be one of the focal points today and. The second thing I want to highlight are the struggles of health care workers around the world, whether it’s nurses in South Africa or the health care professionals in Brazil. I mean, they are both helping the people get out of this pandemic and they are fighting for their rights as workers. It’s very inspiring.

Of course, I am also inspired by the Abdala vaccine made by the Cubans, which they named after a José Martí poem about a freedom fighter in a fictional country. What an amazing achievement for an island of 11 million people. It has a 92.5% efficacy rate, almost the same as Pfizer and Moderna. They’ve made another nasal drip vaccine, which is incredible for countries where syringes will not be available. The Cubans are in another league. I think of Cubans as Jedi Knights of the highest order. There’s a certain glow. I don’t want to romanticize Cuba. It’s got a lot of problems, and the blockade has created a lot of distortion, but there is something about that island that I highly admire

This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST text series; its German translation is available on Berliner Gazette.