Above: Gamal Abdel Nassar
I’ve long thought Jacobin is at its best when it is moving the conversation on what it means to be a leftist ahead in the post-Soviet era, as opposed to commenting on the issues of the day. It’s certainly my long-standing contention that the way to a viable left in the 21st century is not romanticizing the left of the 20th century and instead figuring out what they did wrong, either adjusting or rejecting those mistakes entirely, and rethinking what a more egalitarian and democratic future might look like. Only when that happens can an articulate, meaningful, powerful, and long-standing challenge to capitalism can exist.
I was reminded of this when reading Bhaskar Sunkara’s excellent interview with sociologist Vivek Chibber, much of which had to do with two fundamental mistakes on the left in the late 20th century and today. The first was the widespread belief that newly developed states would ally with local capitalists. The problem of course was that Brazilian and Indian and Mexican capitalists are as evil as those of the United States and Britain and France. Capitalists exist strictly to profit. In other words, the idea of the globally brown nations uniting against the globally white nations failed because it did not take into account the fact that class would trump race. The second is the belief in top-down national development as the ultimate solution in a post-imperialist world. The problem with this of course is that these frequently abused the power, engaged in wholesale corruption, and otherwise did not do much if anything to improve the lives of the population as a whole. An excerpt:
Q: This calls for a project driven by workers — something radically different than many of the postcolonial projects of the twentieth century. And yet, there is this kind of nostalgia of academics like Vijay Prashad and others who pose that those newly independent nations, the “darker nations,” formed a new bloc with some sort of emancipatory potential.
A: I think that’s a distorted view of the era. There’s something to it in that there was something called a Non-Aligned Movement, and they did try to rest some degree of autonomy for developing countries in the global economy. Nevertheless, we have to be careful about calling it a “project” as Prashad does.
The implication there is that things like the Bandung Conference had some kind of mass support, and there was a vision that differed in some important way from the vision of its domestic ruling classes, and that description, I think, is wrong.
First of all, this Non-Aligned Movement, the effort to bring together developing countries through things like the Bandung Conference, was essentially an elite project. It was really something that catered to particular designs that local industrialists had and went down to some parts of the intelligentsia and the middle classes. It wasn’t something that resonated with most workers and peasants, so to characterize it as a movement is misleading.
Secondly, because of its narrow base, it was something that was entirely servant to, and constrained by the visions of, the domestic elites. And so it was right from the start very limited in its ability to project an alternative project to what postwar capitalism globally was representing.
I think it rests on a very romanticized view of the national bourgeoisie. It attributes to it a broader vision and progressive intention that it didn’t have. What it was trying to do was to carve out a bigger space for its interests in the global economy, not anything that we might call national interests, much less the interests of working people.
Q: There are others who seem to even resist the idea that Brazilian capitalists can be just as bad as American capitalists and Indian capitalists just as bad as Canadian ones.
A: I think the problem goes even deeper. On the intellectual left, in the United States over the past fifteen years, there’s a very pronounced discomfort in thinking in class terms at all. And this kind of romanticism about the Third World and the Third World nations is actually not the first time we’ve seen it.
It actually was first around in the 1970s in a certain part of the Left, and it was called Third Worldism. At the time, the critics of Third Worldism were mostly Marxists.
Q: Though much of this Third Worldism had Maoist roots.
A: Sure, it came out of Maoism, but the critics of that were also Marxists. Why is it resurfacing now? Certainly not because Maoists have suddenly become dominant on the Left. It’s part of an inclination, a desire, to think of the world in racial terms and national terms rather than in class terms.
And that’s why it makes it easy to think in terms of nations of darker people in the South versus the white North, rather than acknowledging and recognizing that those nations themselves are racked with class divisions where their ruling classes are as vicious as the ones in the North.
Q: And that’s why you get narratives where people like Nehru are champions of progress.
A: Yes, I’ve seen Nehru and Nasser represented as visionaries of social justice and national self-determination. Nehru, under whom India unfolded one of the longest military occupations of the postwar era, in the northeast states of India; Nehru who went back on every promise he made to the Kashmiris for local autonomy, and whose daughter and grandson imposed a brutal military occupation there; Nasser, who was virulently and unrelentingly anti-communist and hostile to the Left, and had expansionist plans of his own in the Middle East.
These are basically representatives of local ruling classes who had some progressive thrusts, not because they had a different vision, but because in all these countries, workers and peasants had some real strength, which created a more forward-looking ethos within the ruling classes for a brief period, which was reflected, and had echoes, in conferences like Bandung.
But we must understand that the agenda of people like these leaders was to contain and to roll back the power of the laboring classes, not to represent them in some way. And nostalgia towards that is, I think, entirely misplaced.
Forgive the length of the excerpt, but I thought it highly instructive and valuable. Read the whole thing if you are avoiding family and watching the Eagles-Lions. Now back to tending my roasted vegetables.