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You have to be able to risk your identity for a bigger future than the present you are living. Fernando Flores
In February 2019, an Egyptian soccer team was scheduled to play a Tanzanian team for an Africa-wide championship. In the lead up to the match, the headlines in our papers declared: We will teach these Arabs a lesson. I wondered: Is Egypt not in Africa? Or, is only a person with a black skin truly African? In the 1970s, it was unthinkable for a Tanzanian newspaper to display such a racialist stand. Today, with the vibrant spirit of Pan Africanism of those days a distant memory, it is quite acceptable.
The year 2015 saw extensive eruption of xenophobic violence in the cities and towns of South Africa. Immigrants from other African nations, especially those running small shops, faced violent attacks, and their properties were looted. Many died. As it made front-page news, the rest of Africa stood in shock. Tanzania had, for decades, supported politically and materially the struggle of the South African people for liberation. Even its citizens were not spared the vicious mob attacks. Such attacks continue to this day (Editorial 2019b).
In March 2019, a heavily armed white supremacist stormed two Islamic mosques in New Zealand, killing 50 worshippers and injuring 41 others. As the perpetrator’s online manifesto indicated, he was driven by a hatred of Muslims and immigrants. The gruesome incident made headlines internationally.
People everywhere have historically located themselves, socially and psychologically, within distinct social groups. In this era of globalisation, the practice has reached a higher level. Other than race or colour of skin, people are divided in terms of gender, religion, ethnicity, language, community, politics, nation, and even things like profession, sports team and favourite cold drink. The pervasive electronic social media multiplies and entrenches such identities.
That persons with similar characteristics cluster is not a disconcerting outcome. Due to shared beliefs and practice, a Muslim or a Christian will generally associate with persons of his or her own faith. But when these clusters turn into arenas for hostility and conflict like and when hostile divisions prevail, it becomes a serious issue. All aspects of life are then framed in terms of us (the good ones) versus them (the bad ones). The desire to find common ground and compromise is constricted as people are embroiled in continuous conflicts over the rights, role and social status of their identity groups. When not checked, antagonisms of this sort boil over into violent conflict with deadly outcomes.
This paper aims to clarify the idea of identity politics, explore the varied justifications behind it, discuss the criticisms voiced against it and promote a socialistic perspective on the matter.
Besides specific biologic features, a human is marked by features like ability to reason, create and talk, name, ancestry, community, language, personality, educational and work trajectories, political affiliation, among many other features, which in their totality distinguish him or her as a unique person. Your personal identity is constituted by this complex totality.
Personal identity has both subjective and objective aspects. It is not just what you actually are but also what you think you are and what others think you are. It has aspects you inherited and aspects that emerged from the social and physical environment in which you grew up and live. It has aspects that are beyond your control and those that are, at least partly, under your control. It has elements of authenticity as well as elements you display to others to create an impression. And it is not a fixed, rigid entity but subject to change over time.
Individuals at the same time have another form of identity. Called collective identity and social in form, it is manifested when people sharing features of their personal identities congregate for a particular purpose. Such identity groups are active, not passive entities with roots in history, social and economic structure and politics. When women organised and began to struggle for equality and the right to vote, they constituted an identity group. And so did people with disabilities when they joined up to demand better access to services and facilities. Many identity groups emerge from long, genuine histories of exclusion, domination and discrimination in society. People from these groups unite to struggle for their rights and removal of social barriers they face. Yet, it is not just the victims of domination but those on the other side, the dominant groups, as well who can and do form identity groups. The latter groups are usually omitted from the current discussions of identity groups. Overall, we note that modern identity groups are a product of the history and the nature of politics and social divisions within the national and global capitalist systems.
Consider the case of Tanzania. Decades of exploitative and unjust colonial rule led the people to unite and organise the struggle for independence. Asserting their national identity, they demanded the actualisation of their right to self-determination. There were complexities in this process as well. British colonialism, which utilised the policy of divide and rule, had generated significant social and economic divisions within the Tanzanian society. These divisions, based on race, ethnicity, region, gender and religion, persisted after colonial rule ended. Much progress was made at the outset, yet the divisions persist to this day.
A particularly egregious case is that of African-Americans in the United States. From the days of slavery to the present times, they have been, and still are, victimised by varied forms of discrimination, overt and institutional, that leave the majority among them at the bottom rung of the social ladder, lagging far behind the white majority in terms of income, jobs, education, health services, political rights, fair treatment under the justice system and quality of residential life. Both African Americans who demonstrate for equality and those among the white majority who openly or subtly seek to retain the status quo constitute identity groups.
An identity group designation that has come to the fore in the recent decades is that of People of Colour. Striving to unite the dominated racial groups, it, though, is more of a conceptual construct that a practical reality.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines identity politicsas:
politics in which groups of people having a particular racial, religious, ethnic, social, or cultural identity tend to promote their own specific interests or concerns without regard to the interests or concerns of any larger political group.
Accordingly, identity politics is contrasted with traditional party-based politics and is stated to have attained its present form after the 1950s. I deem this formulation of identity politics to be unduly narrow in terms of scope and history. The same dictionary quotes a broader definition of identity politics presented by Catherine R Stimpson:
Identity politics is contemporary shorthand for a group's assertion that it is a meaningful group; that it differs significantly from other groups; that its members share a history of injustice and grievance; and that its psychological and political mission is to explore, act out, act on and act up its group identity
Identity politics plays a prominent role in the political arena, particularly in the Western nations. Identity groups based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and immigration status have become more vocal and assertive. They hold public protest marches to voice specific grievances, demand their rights and official recognition of their status as equal to those of the others, and restrict their electoral support to politicians who explicitly declare sympathy with their cause. And the same holds for the majoritarian identity groups that are opposed to these set of identities, such as fundamentalist Christians and white nationalists in the USA.
The conservative critique
As it began to achieve a degree of prominence, identity politics came under attack from the left and right sides of the political spectrum. For now, I consider the latter, as it is the one that features predominantly in the media and political landscape. The conservative take on identity politics declares that demands made by minority groups have become unreasonable and stray into the realm of absurdity and social confusion. For instance, they demand the rewriting of history. The purveyors of identity politics are accused of rejecting compromise, even when it is reasonable to do so. They want their stand to prevail. In the process, they divide society into tiny enclaves, shatter cultural cohesiveness, pit ordinary people against one another and set the stage for unending social instability.
Aram Bakshnian, an American conservative, declares that his nation faces “an identity crisis” as a result of “identity politics run amok.” He laments:
It’s all very divisive, and a shameful attempt to separate Americans by identifying them primarily by where their ancestors came from, their color or creed, or their behavior in bed—none of which is anybody’s business or is what goes into making an American (Bakshnian 2019).
Ramnik Shah’s recent piece in the Awaaz Magazine is an extended, conservative attack on identity politics (Shah 2019). While focusing on the situation in the United Kingdom, he also makes comments relating to Africa. Declaring that we live in Bleak Times, he decries four instances of such politics. These are: (i) restrictions on freedom of speech arising from concerns about hate speech and offending some social group, (ii) vexing practical problems resulting from the fluid official definition of gender identity, (iii) the demands for the removal of historic monuments and statues deemed offensive to some particular group, and (iv) the calls by all identity groups for representation in the “whole spectrum” of societal endeavours. He also decries the importation of Western identity politics to African countries.
I think aspects of the conservative arguments against identity politics have a degree of validity. On the issue of monuments, minority groups and students from the USA to the UK, from South Africa to Ghana, have demanded the pulling down of statues and historical monuments, which they feel celebrate historic injustice, insensitivity and oppression. Yet, a plain removal simply erases memory; it does not more accurately present the past. And it indicates the lack of confidence in the ability of your own people to make valid judgements about the past. I say: Let even the most egregious monument remain in place. Then rectify its message by placing a prominent plaque stating the misdeeds of the person or event in question and erect other prominent monuments that serve to give a balanced picture.
At times, the calls to demolish historic items stray into the realm of disbelief. Thus, in Ghana there have been demands for the removal of a statue of the Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi because he held negative attitudes towards Africans in his early days in South Africa. I can understand calls for the removal of the statute of the unrepentant imperialist Cecil Rhodes in South Africa but those for the removal of the Gandhi’s statue are beyond me.
Gandhi was respected by the leaders of the independence struggles in Africa. He inspired the American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King. But he had faults in his early days that he later overcame. No leader or person is born with the mature stand he/she later promotes; their views evolve over time. At times, a person with a retrogressive vision becomes a proponent of a solidly progressive vision; at other times, the opposite transpires. And even within his/her mature perspective, we find ideas that will justifiably offend someone somewhere.
Charles Dickens, the British novelist whose books elegantly and starkly brought to life the dark side of capitalism and the plight of those at the bottom at the same time held racist views towards colonised people. Should school children not read his books because of that fact? It came to light in the 1980s that one of the best textbooks on human anatomy being used for medical training had utilised the findings from the abominable research done by Nazi doctors on concentration camp inmates during World War II. Should that book be banned? In both cases, the best option seems to be to continue using the books but to also highlight their negative aspects in a prominent manner in the new printing or editions of the book and through other means.
In a similar vein, I disfavour denying a public platform to anyone, unless that person directly promotes inflicting harm on others, which is a criminal offense. Restrictions on speech simply rigidify extremist views, attract others to these offensive views, drive the adherents underground and encourage violent action. Let them say what they want to say, but then counter it effectively through education and debate. State officials, main media and prominent personalities should take a lead in that effort. Instead, what happens in the Western mainstream media is that the hatemongers get more space than they deserve while the other side is restricted to a soundbite (Malik 2019).
Limitations of the conservative critique
Despite having elements of validity, the conservative critique of identity politics has four major shortfalls.
One: It fails to adequately acknowledge the historical legitimacy of the claims being made and the generationally harmful effects of exclusion and under privilege on minority groups. As noted earlier, the type of identity politics it decries emerged from decades, if not centuries, of domination and discrimination. Even when the discriminatory practices are proscribed by law, they often continue in hidden forms and have a similar negative effect on the group. It is this reality that generates anger and protest. The automatic hostility towards their claims expressed by the dominant groups and the state compounds the problem.
Survey after survey, in the USA and UK, indicates that institutionalised discrimination in education, health service, employment, housing, etc., is an ingrained facet of life. In the UK, it adversely affects the quality of life of British citizens of African, Indian and Pakistani descent. Conservatives and majoritarian groups ignore such facts. They declare the nation to be a “liberal democracy” where such discrimination is prohibited by law and where there is equal opportunity for advancement. Thus, if some people are left behind it is their own fault. Pointing to “model minorities” to bolster their case, they depict the “complainers” as lazy persons who are seeking entitlements from the state.
Reactions of this type are not borne out by studies of various sectors of the society and the play of the economic forces therein. Visiting elementary and high public schools in the greater Los Angeles area, for example, it is hard not to conclude that it is an apartheid type system. Schools in affluent and predominantly white neighbourhoods and cities are well maintained, have state of the art facilities and good teachers who provide quality education to their students. The overcrowded, run-down schools in inner city African American and Latino areas, on the other hand, have management problems, and shortage of key items like books, photocopy supplies and teaching aids. The teachers stick to a minimalist routine and are less inclined to challenge the students, who are dealt with harshly even for minor infractions of the rules. Dropout rates are high, grades are low and fewer students proceed to undergraduate level studies, especially at the nation’s elite universities.
The dismissal of the problems that are faced on a daily basis by the disadvantaged groups only serves to fan further discontent from them and leads to an intensification of their demands.
Two: The conceptualisation of identity politics utilised by the right is too restrictive. In their view, and as reflected in the dictionary definition of the term cited above, only the strivings of African Americans, Latinos, women and people of alternate sexual orientation qualify as identity politics. Identity based political activities of the dominant or majoritarian groups are excluded from consideration.
Assertion of religious identity is a widespread form of identity politics. While conservatives rally against violent extremism of the Islamic variety, Christian, Hindu and Jewish religious fanaticisms do not elicit equivalent opprobrium or calls for combative action. Islamophobia prevails, overtly and covertly and in some cases in a virulent form, in all Western nations. Right wing politicians rally against Islam and Islamic culture. The ban or calls for the ban of the head gear worn by Muslim women is a typical example. At the same time, the manner of coverage accorded to Islam in the main media fans the flames of aversion. No wonder then that a survey reported in February 2019 indicated that about a third of Britons felt that Islam is a threat to their way of life. Such xenophobic attitudes, which emanate from an illogical attachment to European identity, are however excluded from the rightist discourse on identity politics (Editorial 2019a).
The anti-Islamic discourse and politics at the same time ignore the legitimate historic grievances of the people among whom fundamentalist extremism takes root and the central role played by the West in exploiting and destabilising Islamic nations. On the contrary, the victims are blamed.
The conservatives are quick to condemn any act or speech they deem anti-Semitic. However, more often such a stance is used to silence legitimate and valid criticism of the brutal actions of the State of Israel against the Palestinians. Since its inception, Israel has in reality been an apartheid-colonial state. The recent declaration by the Israeli parliament that Israel is a state of the Jewish people and not of its citizens, has only elicited silence from the “civilised” Western nations and their political establishments. Yet, it is an extreme manifestation of religious identity. Instead, the Palestinians, who are forced to live in the world’s largest prison camp, continue to be seen as inherently violent and anti-Jewish thus justifying any measure taken against them.
Extremist white-race identity movements have a long history, the KKK [Ku Klux Klan] in the US and the Skinheads in the UK being among them. With the rise of anti-immigrant hysteria, Islamophobia and fascistic political tendencies, such movements have increased in strength and influence, leading now and then to deadly consequences. And they often use the term identity or identitarian to depict themselves. In his manifesto entitled General Identity, the New Zealand killer described himself as a person with a European identity and European blood. The two pillars of his staunchly white nationalism were hatred of immigrants and Muslims. For him, they were invaders who had to be eradicated.
Though the demands of the minorities and their rationale are opposed to those made by the majoritarian groups, philosophically they have the same basis: an exclusive loyalty to a particular group in society. By omitting the latter from the discourse, the conservative vision is clearly based on a double standard. In particular, Bakshnian (2019) and Shah (2019) exhibit this deficiency.
Three: It is inaccurate to accuse the conservatives of being against the notion of identity as such. The truth is that they glorify and champion a specific form of identity, the identity based on loyalty to the nation-state. Bakshnian (2019) openly endorses being an American as the primary form of identity and Shah (2019) implicitly ascribes to the British identity.
Yet, loyalty to the nation is not just a benign form of identity calling for living in harmony with everyone in the nation. Historically, and especially in the imperial states, it has been the most malignant form of identity that has served as a justification for the slaughter of millions upon millions of people beyond their boundaries.
In my view, the most horrific versions of identities are those in whose name people inflict massive violence and death on “others.” While the conservatives decry extremist Islamic violence, they not just ignore but indirectly promote the extreme forms of nationalism exhibited by the imperial, mostly Western nations. In this setting, the USA is the main perpetrator. Thus, in the name of American national security, nearly five million lives were sacrificed in Vietnam and adjoining countries.
The USA sees itself as an exceptional nation in the global community of nations. Laws and rules that apply to others do not apply to it. Whatever it does anywhere on the planet is always justified in the name of national security. It has over 800 military bases spread throughout the world, its military forces roam everywhere, it has a larger military budget that the five nations that follow it combined, it is the largest producer and exporter of military weapons, yet it is a nation that proclaims itself as the prime champion of peace and diplomacy.
I was in the USA when it invaded two tiny countries in the region, Grenada and Panama. The invasions were justified through projecting absolute lies in the mass media. To the point of hysteria, Americans were led to believe these militarily insignificant nations posed a massive and imminent threat to their nation. Any person in the right state of mind would have automatically rejected such claims as patently ridiculous. Yet, most American people, even as they had the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, swallowed them hook, line and sinker. You saw yellow flags “supporting our troops” on many lawns in the cities. A similar situation prevailed for the invasions of Iraq and Yugoslavia.
Yet, rabid nationalism of this variety is absent from the conservative critique of identity politics. Thus, only at the end and just in a word does Ramnik Shah note the matters of Brexit and the politics of Trump. These matters should have been a key aspect of his critique. How can one ignore that form of identity politics which is based on dividing humanity into us and them, and which has the power and historic record of spreading mayhem across the world? Under it is the belief that we are a special people, we do not need to cooperate with anyone, and we can and will do what we want. When the people in a mighty nation are regularly fed this message, the results can be grim, as the reign of Adolf Hitler in Germany and the two decades of relentless American attacks on Iraq showed.
Jingoistic nationalism also leads to glorification of morally depraved leaders. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his successor were key players in the illegitimate destruction of Iraq and Libya. They bear major responsibility for the deaths and suffering imposed on the peoples of these nations. Yet, instead of being tried as war criminals, they did not get even a slap on the wrist. When the UK government strives to revoke the citizenship of British nationals who have joined extremist movements like ISIS, you wonder about the Royal Air Force pilots who dropped bombs on civilian areas in Iraq and Libya. They knew well that civilians would die and civilian facilities like hospitals would be damaged. In the first place, these deaths are not counted and when they are, they are justified in morally repugnant terms like “collateral damage.” Such national-identity based imperial double standards over the value of human life and the rule of law serve to further the claims of the minority groups in that nation who identify with the affected peoples.
Four: The conservative tirade against identity politics does not provide an alternative. It seems to say that having made sufficient noise, these cantankerous groups should shut their mouth and learn to co-exist with the majority and progress in the context of a liberal democracy.
Yet, these “liberal democracies” are in reality corporatised, plutocratic, imperial nations in which the institutions of the state serve the interests of the one percent. The nature of civic education provided to the young, and the quality and extent of information provided by the main media is highly constrained by pro-capitalist, pro-imperial biases. Electoral choice is subject to these biases also. How can a genuine democracy prevail in such circumstances?
When I was in the US, I came across manifestation of identity politics on several occasions. Switching to the present tense, I recount three.
In 1994, when teaching at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), I go with a group of students to stay for ten days on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. The Navajo people are fighting to retain their rights over a crucial piece of their land against the strong pressure exerted by a mining conglomerate, which is backed by the US government. The company is employing all devices at its deposal to have the land divested from them. The purpose of our trip is to express our solidarity with Navajos in a direct and concrete manner.
Two of the students and I stay with Phillip Lee Attakai, a man who has a broad grin on his face all the time. Besides enjoying the traditional Navajo fried bread, we learn much about Navajo culture and history from him. Seeing a photo on the wall of a man in military uniform and with numerous medals on his chest, I ask who he is. With obvious pride, Phillip says that it is his elder brother who had fought with the US military in Vietnam.
Is that not strange?
He is puzzled:
What is strange about it?
You have told us how the US military was used to brutalise and control your people. But your brother joined the same military to slaughter millions of people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Is that something to be proud of?
He is taken back by my forthright response. Taking his time, he says:
You are right, Karim. But we are jobless here. In war time, the military provides our only opportunity to improve our lives. Yes, they know well how to divide us and rule us.
Back at UCLA, I am at a lecture by a feminist on how the US military discriminates against women, people of colour and people with an alternative sexual orientation. She makes a strong case that such exclusions have no social, scientific, military or constitutional basis and should be lifted forthwith.
Commenting on her talk ,I wonder how seeking participation in an institution that has a sordid record of engaging in the destruction of entire nations and killing millions (see William Blum’s illuminating book, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II for the cases) is consistent with feminist ideals. I pose a blunt question:
Would you have been content if the person who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki was a woman, a person of colour, or a gay or lesbian person?
The great US civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, did not harbour such constricted views. For him, the struggle against injustice within the US was intrinsically connected to the struggle against America’s imperial crimes abroad.
And here we are ten thousand miles away from home fighting for the so-called freedom of the Vietnamese people when we have not even put our own house in order. And we force young black men and young white men to fight and kill in brutal solidarity. Yet when they come home, they can’t hardly live on the same block together. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There is another lecture at UCLA given by a feminist who has done research on the plight of women of working class families in Kenya. She has focused on the wives of the workers employed by a sugar factory in that country. Her paper is based on a three-month stay in the area and visiting and interviewing about 250 women. The results are startling: every month, their husbands bring home only a small portion of the earnings. What the men retain is spent on drink and entertainment for themselves. The wives tend to their small shamba [piece of land] to grow the food to feed the family and work here and there to get the money for children’s clothes and other expenses. Further, the husbands generally treat their wives in a harsh manner. It is a ghastly situation.
Yet, there is a fundamental omission in her presentation. She does not say a word about the wages the company pays to its workers and their working conditions. These highly profitable enterprises do not pay anything like a living wage, do little to provide safe work conditions, and suppress (with the help of the state) independent unions. Though there is no justification for the men’s behaviour towards their wives, one key point is that even if the men bring all their earnings home, it would not in any case provide a decent life for the family. After making this point, I posit a stark analogy:
Suppose the men and their wives are lined up in front of a firing squad, but the men manage to place themselves behind their wives. They will get the bullet, but it will be a few seconds after their wives.
I then ask the researcher:
How can you complain about the unfair nature of the line-up but ignore the firing squad?
Exclusive adherence to specific identity issues and groups blinds us to crucial issues and problems in society.
A socialistic perspective
A different critique of identity politics derives from a progressive, socialistic vision of society (Gray 2018; Haider 2018; Lancaster 2017). What I write from this point on is based on the socialist framework.
Our primary identity is the human identity. First and foremost, we are members of the great human family and should behave as such. One can as well go a step further:
Our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life. Joseph Campbell
The fundamental root of the major problems people everywhere face is neoliberal, imperial capitalism, a system characterised by corporate domination of the economy and society, a vast wealth gap between those at the top and the broad majority, the division of the world between affluent and poverty stricken nations, a plutocratic or symbolic form of democracy and, of recent, trends towards fascism. Integral to it are imperialistic conduct by the rich nations and entrenchment of social and economic dependency in the poor nations. (The term imperialism denotes the economic domination and exploitation of poor nation by large multinational corporations and its associated military, diplomatic, political and cultural dimensions.)
The socialist perspective firmly opposes in theory and practice racist, misogynistic, jingoistic, homophobic, fundamentalist and anti-immigrant ideas and movements. And it recognises the merits of and supports the claims for redress and reform made by historically discriminated groups in the industrialised and underdeveloped nations.
The socialist transformative strategy is a systemic one, namely, to organise to overturn, nationally and globally, the capitalist, imperial domination and work towards attaining a society based on social and economic equality, genuine grassroots democracy, social justice, mutual trust and cooperation, full accountability and total non-violence. It seeks a society based on respect for the dignity and rights of all minority and majority groups and strives to integrate their struggles within the overall transformative strategy. Thus, it is not a question of fighting capitalism first and then dealing with racism but of recognising the two problems as two sides of the same coin and confronting both simultaneously.
The socialist perspective states that the struggles against capitalism and imperialism need a broad-based united front of the commoners, the working people, the exploited and the disadvantaged, that is, the 99 percent who at present are divided into disparate groups and subgroups. It says that the process of attaining a peaceful and just coalition between these groups and the majority should be a democratic, consultative process based on mutual respect.
Taking a long historic view, the socialist perspective recognises that formation of political identities is not a fixed but a dynamic phenomenon. A once discriminated group may no longer be so marginalised later on, as the cases of Irish Americans and Jewish Americans illustrate. Once upon a time they were excluded from renting apartments in “respectable” neighbourhoods but that is no longer the case. Identities are a social and historic construct and not an immutable fact of nature.
Thereby, the socialist view recognises the difference between appearance or rhetoric and actuality. The problems faced by minority groups do not just derive from cultural issues or skin colour, but have an economic basis as well. Immigrants are attacked not just because their cultural practices differ from that of the majority, but also due being the most exploited segment of the labour force. The locals are made to believe these immigrants have “stolen their jobs.” The real culprits, the corporations that benefit from immigrant labour, are absolved of blame. When there is an economic downturn, these foreign workers become a politically demonised and readily expendable part of the labour force.
The socialistic critique
While accepting the just basis of their cause, the socialist perspective on identity politics questions the narrow vision and the divisive tactics of the dominated groups who currently struggle within its framework. It says that single-minded identity politics pursued in a disjointed manner can and does have counterproductive and harmful consequences. Take the case of the US. African Americans and Latinos generally live in deprived neighbourhoods with poor educational, health, commercial, transport and other services. Institutionalised discrimination in housing, jobs and work promotion affects their quality of life. Yet, when African Americans march against police brutality, you do not see many brown faces; and when Latinos march in relation to immigration issues, you do not see many black faces. Viewing each other as adversaries, they fail to benefit from the fact that unity is strength.
The stand of some influential African American leaders has been: Fight racism first and deal with capitalism later. It is a self-defeating strategy that not only plays into the hands of capitalist oriented (liberal and conservative) politicians but also creates sharp divisions between the different identity groups each of whom wants to place its cause at the top of the political agenda.
Hence, when a political candidate with relatively progressive policies emerges, challenges the hold of corporate power on the political system and advocates wide ranging changes in health, education, investment and taxation of benefit to the majority, white or black, male or female, not just the major politicians, but also the leaders of the dominated identity groups rally against him or her because he or she does not adequately articulate their demands.
Identity politics then effectively functions as a protector of the capitalist system. Progressive candidates for presidency in the US like Ralph Nader and Bernie Sanders were opposed by African Americans for similar reasons. And when Martin Luther King extended his agenda to fighting for poor people and opposing the US aggression on Vietnam, he was accused by some African American leaders of betraying the civil rights struggle.
Narrow policies emerging from identity agitation lead to stop-gap remedies that backfire in the long run. Affirmative action in the field of higher education in the US illustrates the down side. This policy was applied to women and minority groups, especially African Americans, so as to remedy historical exclusion and increase their representation in professions like law, medicine, engineering, and academia.
There is no doubt that women benefited from this policy; the numbers and proportion of women in these professions is higher today than it was in the 1960s. But for African Americans, the policy had marginal results, and has generated hostility from White and Asian Americans. The main reason for the disparate outcomes is clear: while varied social and economic trends in US society improved the position of women in many aspects of their lives, that of African Americans remained stagnant in terms of jobs, housing, health care, basic education and social security. Tampering with the system at the top produced more black doctors, lawyers and engineers, but the vast majority of their younger brothers and sisters continued to receive substandard basic education under a hostile learning environment. And that is where it stands to this day because the dominant political and economic forces are pitted against a genuine transformation of the conditions of African Americans in that society.
It is difficult to imagine a substantive improvement in the conditions of Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, immigrants and other oppressed minorities in the US without a fundamental change of the social, political and economic system (Sunkara 2019). The problems they face span all areas of life: education, health care, jobs, housing, law enforcement and courts, voting rights and cultural domination. Such problems are reinforced by the corporate domination of American politics and society. Imperial actions by the US also factor into this conundrum. White Americans at the bottom rung of the economic ladder are affected by similar economic problems. The mainstream US political system and the contemporary pursuance of identity politics operate in the context of this system. Instead of uniting together to fight for a comprehensively just society, those at the bottom (white and black) perpetually remain pitted against each other.
Consider the gender question in relation to Tanzania. Education for Africans was not a priority under colonial rule. Within this limited setup, the representation of women was abysmally low. It underwent a major change after independence. Thus, by the 1970s, some 20 percent of university students in the nation were female. Though gender parity is a ways off, today there are proportionately and numerically more women doctors, engineers, lawyers, business and state executives and political personalities, including members of parliament. And that is the direction along which further progress is essential.
But there are two not-that-laudatory aspects of this trend. First, there is no evidence that the greater presence of women in the professions, business, high state office and politics has in any way affected the basic dependent, inefficient, unaccountable and politically authoritarian neo-liberal system in the nation and the poverty mired, disempowered state of the majority, including the millions of women at the bottom. The institutions where the elite women operate run as before. The hostility of some women politicians of the ruling party to political pluralism and the opposition parties, for example, matches that of their male colleagues.
Gender parity at the top does not, in itself, promote efficiency, economic justice or democracy. Second, the issue of gender parity (mostly at an elitist level) is championed by the politicians, the Western embassies and the “donor” agencies at the expense of serious effort to empower the people, uplift their social and economic conditions and place onto the nation of the path of reducing external dependency and instituting substantial, sustainable progress in the economy and social services. Many foreign funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs) promote gender balance and combat violence against women; most funding agencies place promotion of gender parity as a condition for securing their funds. Yet, no NGO deals with why multinational firms and the big local businesses do not pay a living wage to their workers, how the workers can organise to secure a better deal for themselves or why the banks charge exorbitant interest to the customers. Yet, women too are affected by the latter set of problems (O’Hagan 2019).
At the international level, the election of women to the highest office in nations like Sri Lanka, Israel, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Liberia did not make the politics of those nations more humane, just or change the economic setup favouring corporations and the very wealthy. It is hard to discern how the 12- year reign of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf changed the conditions of the ordinary people of Liberia. The first female president in Africa had a pro-capitalist education and work history, the World Bank and Citibank being among her former employers. And her policies did not deviate from the neoliberal paradigm that rules the other African nations.
In the USA, the first female Secretary of State was an avid imperialist; the first African American female Secretary of State was not just that but also an extreme right-wing pro-business and conservative politician, and the first female presidential candidate was also a fervent imperialist with strong pro-business leanings. Yet, women celebrated them. And how did the first African American president, who was also as pro-business and imperialistic as his Republican predecessor, alter the day to day conditions of African Americans or promote better American policies towards Africa? No much or not at all. Yet, African Americans and Africans rejoiced when he was elected (Cohen 2019; Stoller 2017).
Narrowly defined identity politics endangers the wellbeing of other people elsewhere. Members of one minority group are enrolled in the service of dominating other people, within the nation or abroad.
Modern identity politics has led to emergence of successive identities within identities, as exemplified by the notion of intersectionality. A person with multiple discriminated identities faces discrimination arising each of these identities, and in a compounded form (Crenshaw 2015). A black, Muslim woman in the US is subjected to social biases arising from being black, a Muslim and a woman. An Albion woman in Tanzania faces gender bias as well as the prevalent prejudice against Albinos. There is no doubt that such persons encounter quite daunting obstacles in life. Yet, the practical effect of treating them as a separate group is to say, these people are special, their problems have first priority. Instead of unifying the identities, it turns into a divisive process that exacerbates existing divisions among the people at the bottom. What is needed is an overall, unified struggle against all forms of prejudice and discrimination (Anonymous 2013).
Utilising an identity based framework for social and historical analysis is the academic counterpart to identity politics. It employs social identity as the key conceptual unit, side-lines or disjointedly considers economic factors and ignores primary matters like imperialism and neo-liberalism. Having displaced the socialist and Marxist modes of social analysis, it is now the dominant framework in African, Western and other universities. Even progressive scholars employ race, ethnicity, gender and cultural factors as pillars of their explications of society and history. The rich heritage of the former forms of scholarship from the 1960s and 1970s is treated as if it never existed. Modern scholars know that if your research proposal is based on a Marxist framework, you will have a hard time securing funds. Instead, they construct proposals based on a market friendly, identity based framework in which human rights are conceptualised in a stultified bourgeois fashion. Their vision is limited to poverty alleviation and not elimination of poverty and inequality.
The capitalist system at its foundation is a class based system. Those at the bottom, the 99 percent, are dominated and exploited for the benefit of the owners of wealth and capital, the one percent. What is not well recognised is that the presence of socially divided and politically adversarial identity groups is also a basic feature of the system (Gerard 2019; Kumar 2018; O’Hagan 2019).Identity based political and social affiliation (and identity based social analysis) mask its actual nature, divert attention away from economic relations to other issues and present superficial choices to the electorate. Electoral choice becomes a seesaw swinging from one neoliberal, pro-corporate party to another as the politicians fan the flames of cultural hostility between the groups at the bottom. The differences among the 99 percent are highlighted while what they share, which covers almost all aspects of life, is ignored. This money-run democracy has no room for those who seek to unify the people at the bottom against corporate power and the ruling elite. Disjointed identity politics complements the capitalist tendency to divided and rule and, in the long run, harms the wellbeing of the very groups that practices it.
The year 2007 presidential election in Kenya was, according to many observers, a patently flawed process. Widespread frustrations about the outcome subsequently generated gruesome violence along ethnic lines. About a thousand died, more were injured, and about a quarter of a million people were internally displaced.
Yet, to simply ascribe the violence to “tribal hatred,” as the media did, is misleading. Besides benefitting multinational firms, the economic policies of the government have produced a wealthy internal elite that strives to monopolise state power. While this elite is predominantly from one ethnic group, the vast majority of that ethnic group live under the same conditions and share the same problems as the rest of the people of Kenya. But astute and persistent manipulations of ethnic identity and handing out a few crumbs now and then by the elite leadership has made them regard other ethnicities as their political and social enemies. And the neo-liberally inclined politicians in the opposition groups have as well played the ethnicity game to drum up support. Ultimately, as Susskind (2007) cogently argued, “it’s the inequality, not the tribal identity”that drives conflict and violence.
In Tanzania, the schism between Christians and Muslims tends to manifest itself in the public arena now and then. The spokesmen for the Muslims complain that people of their faith are not accorded equal opportunities in education, jobs and higher office appointments. While there is a modicum of truth to this charge, these spokesmen tend to distort history, exaggerate the situation and ignore the numerous serious problems afflicting the bulk of the members both faiths (Hirji 2014).
The foreign funded NGO system in African nations consists of a large number of uncoordinated, short term projects directed to address the problems of different social groups and projects for good governance, transparency, media freedom etc. By fragmenting the process of attaining fairness and justice, making people dependent on foreign hand-outs over which they have no control, it disempowers and disunites the people, and depoliticises the issue of national development. In that regard, it fits into the politics of divide and rule that protect the status quo (Hirji 2019).
African nations not only need cohesive internal strategies but the struggle for equality, justice and progress there has of necessity to be a Pan African struggle. Contemporary African leaders at best pay lip service to the idea. In practice, they focus on cultivating economic ties with Europe, America and Asia. In the 1960s, Pan Africanism was viewed not only as a continent wide unifying force, but was at the same time the basis for solidarity with oppressed people everywhere. African people need to combat and look beyond narrow nationalism. Else, the imperial tendency to divide and rule will keep them at the bottom in perpetuity.
Dare to dream
Obsession with narrowly construed social identities is driving humanity towards divisiveness and mutual antipathies. As people at the bottom bicker about their grievances in restricted ways, the local and global economic, political and military overlords continue to rule over humanity. Perpetually peddling exclusive identity politics will convert our struggles into a grand illusion. Like the frog that burnt to death as the water in which it floated was heated gradually, humanity will remain unperturbed as the planet burns up politically, socially, economically, militarily and physically. Our narrow-mindedness will render us clueless and powerless to confront the mighty corporations and governments that control the world for the benefit of a few billionaires. This is as true in Africa as it is in Asia, Latin America and the Western nations.
Justice and equality for the minorities and the majority will not come from relying on the illusions of liberal democracy. For human liberation, what is needed is a solid grounding in the universal human identity. This identity should be the primary basis for political and social endeavour. The fight of the rights of the discriminated identity groups, which reflects real problems on the ground, is not to be abandoned, but has to be conducted within a universal framework that will unite hitherto conflicting identities. As people work within specific identities, they must also transcend such identities and organise a broad coalition to conduct their struggles.
In sum, our fundamental operating principle for political and social action ought to be that embedded in the universalistic ethic espoused by Che Guevara.
Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world. Ernesto Che Guevara
* Karim F Hirji is a retired professor of medical statistics and fellow at Tanzania Academy of Sciences.
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Editorial (2019a) The Guardian view on Tory Islamophobia: inaction speaks volumes, The Guardian (UK), 28 March 2019, www.theguardian.com/profile/editorial/2019/mar/28/
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“California is a state of geographical extremes: the deserts, the sierras, the long ocean coast, and the central valleys. It is a critical agricultural state, and every visitor ought to travel through the San Joaquin, Imperial, or Sacramento Valleys to see the sources of the food we eat. Go during a harvest and watch the brown-skinned men, women, and children pick the crops, the people who so many in the United States now fear and hate though without them they wouldn’t have such cheap food, or any at all.” Thus begins the last chapter of Can the Working Class Change the World?, the recently released book by Michael D. Yates.
With a reference to Tom Joad, the central character in The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s world- famous novel, chapter 6 continues as Michael Yates tells of a journey his wife and he made across California:
“My wife and I drove north and west through parts of the San Joaquin Valley, along the irrigation ditches that help subsidise the growers. As we choked on the pesticides, we lamented that the air was so fouled we couldn’t see the mountains not far to the east. The farms and ranches are enormous and highly mechanised. The research that made the machines possible is carried out at public expense in our great state universities […], another subsidy for the growers. The labour is still cheap, too, a subsidy extorted from the government by the growers’ money, which is large enough to prevent better laws and keep those on the books inadequately enforced. Also large enough to bribe and intimidate the local police, who still harass and persecute the immigrant farm labourers […]”
The chapter tells a fact hidden in the brain of capitalism:
“Capitalism is a system of stark individualism. For the capitalist system to reproduce itself, for its outcomes to become its suppositions, people must behave in a self-interested way. Mainstream economists assume that every social actor is a maximiser of something – profits or individual satisfaction from consuming and supplying labour. They spread this view to millions of students in nearly every introductory economics class taught in universities. There is some evidence suggesting that both economics professors and students are less compassionate than others who have neither taught nor taken economics classes. The primary institutions of capitalist society work in concert to inculcate the ‘I’ in everyone, with the corollary that the ‘We’ is detrimental to human welfare. It doesn’t matter why we take self-centred actions; desire or fear serve equally well in terms of the needs of the dominant class, the imperative being the accumulation of capital.
“For capitalism to end, the ‘I’ must be suppressed and the ‘We’ must come to the fore. This would sound strange to the gatherers and hunters who inhabited the earth for almost the entirety of human existence. They had no word for ‘I’ and saw no difference between themselves and the natural world around them. Their lives hinged on cooperation and sharing, and their rituals and institutions helped to ensure that these were maintained. For them, the earth was a commons, the property of all. They managed their existence in ways harmonious with nature and kept the earth’s metabolism in balance with their own. [….]
“What the exploitation and expropriation central to capitalism meant historically was a war, waged by law and by violence, against common ownership and customary group rights. The ‘I’ was never natural and therefore had to be imposed. If the working class is to radically change the world, it must wage its own war against the ‘I’ and for the ‘We’, learning about and building on the struggles of the past.” (emphasis added except in the last paragraph cited here, which is in the original)
It’s like the saying young Marx made:
“[H]appiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy [….]
“If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then […] our happiness will belong to millions […]” (“Reflections of a young man on the choice of a profession”, Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works, vol. 1, Progress Publishers, Moscow, erstwhile USSR, 1975)
The professor not only mentions the “I” and “we” facts hidden by not only capitalists and their allies, but also identifies an area of struggle. It’s in the area of education, in the area of curriculum, in the area of syllabus. It has to be organised by intellectuals, especially teachers and student activists upholding the interests of the exploited.
In the section “What does changing the world mean?”, Michael Yates writes:
“To transform the world, we first must have at least a general idea of the world we want to inhabit, and second, we need to know how to go about bringing such a place into existence. We can start by stating that, if capitalism is the source of the multiple woes facing the working class and its peasant comrades-in-arms, then what we desire is the antithesis of capitalist society.”
The labour educator, then, points out the following things, central to capitalism, that must end:
Ideologies and political programmes of the capitalists, and of the medieval age stand in sharp contrast to the above tasks. The same goes with all the classes but the working class. The tasks act like a touchstone of any ideology and political programme: Whether it aims to end exploitation or not. What is the utility of an ideology or political programme to the exploited masses, if it doesn’t stand for eliminating exploitation? Today, many followers of backward/supremacist ideology raise their voices condemning imperialism in a certain number of areas, but they shy away from condemning imperialism’s economy, its root, and exploitation.
The same pattern is found among a group of rights activists claiming to be upholding rights of the marginalised/aborigines/children/women/under-privileged. They keep their mouths shut on the questions of the system based on exploitation, which pushes down all working people, all the weaker parts of society. Private ownership of the means of production, exploitation of wage labour, profit hunger, etc. are at the root of all marginalisation. These critics are also silent on these questions of exploitative relations in human society based on private property. Consequently, the questions of class, class struggle and imperialism are not included in their political agenda. The working class has to raise these issues persistently as these help identify friend and foe.
So, Michael Yates tells us unequivocally:
“To put matters bluntly, the rule of capital must be terminated. Because everything that must end is central to the unceasing accumulation of capital, it is impossible to abolish any of these within the confines of this system.”
He points out with respect to reformism:
“There can be […] some lessening of exploitation and expropriation, won through various forms of struggle. Wage labourers can win safer workplaces; civil rights laws can improve the lives of women and people of colour; imperial wars can sometimes be averted, or poor nations can win a bit of economic independence; peasants can at least temporarily deny capital their land; a few decent politicians might win office; schools might improve some; and media might occasionally serve the public. But none of this subverts the ultimate power of the capitalist class, namely its monopoly of ownership of the world’s productive property.”
The question is “the ultimate power of the capitalist class, namely its monopoly of ownership of the world’s productive property.” Today, the working class has to confront this power; and to successfully confront this power; there should be intense discussions, as part of political education, among the working class, and among the political forces standing with the working class.
To begin with the radical tasks, the economics professor proposes minimum demands, which can build up broader alliances:
“A sustainable environment. [….] All economic decisions should be made with sustainable environment a central determining factor.”
“A planned economy. The anarchy of the marketplace should be replaced by conscious planning of what is produced. [….] Corporations plan, so why can’t society as a whole plan?”
“Socialisation of as much consumption as possible, especially transportation and childcare. Living arrangements could be more collective as well. [….]”
“Democratic worker-community control of workplaces [….] The abolition of wage labour.”
“Public ownership of all the social institutions that help a society reproduce itself, from schools to media. [….]”
“A radically egalitarian society, with equality in all spheres of life – between men and women, among all racial and ethnic groups, among all people irrespective of their gender identity or sexual preference, among and within every country with respect to work, region, and access to all social services and amenities.”
Michael Yates, then, raises a fundamental issue, a lofty goal: Liberation. He writes:
“What the working class must be against is a society built upon individualism and the rule of the many by the few. No social system with inequality of power and multiple hierarchies touching most of life can be liberating, if liberation means living unalienated lives, lives in which we are not artificially and intentionally separated from one another, from what we produce, from our natures as thinking, purposive beings, and from the natural world. By contrast, the working class must be for whatever is social, collective, sharing, and unalienating.”
The fundamental element in the cited proposals and the goal – liberation – is the organising and leading capacity required for realising these. It’s basically a class question: Which class to organise and lead these endeavours? Which class has the capacity to organise and lead these? It’s the working class. And, this – the capacity to organise and lead – is the strength and power of the working class. This capacity is neither self-declared nor a boasting self, but within the class interests the working class has and does not have. The working class shall not lose anything but gain while implementing these; and on the contrary, classes opposed to the working class fear of losing at least “something” in the process of realising these, which, among a few other reasons, make them incapable of leading and organising. Ideologues with a middle-class orientation, theoreticians formulating theories without anchoring them in the reality of class conflict/interest ridden societies, and the bourgeois theoreticians with the task of confusing people’s struggle for a democratic life deliver this “manna”: Forget the issues of class and leadership. Thus, they propose/propagate the idea of subordinating the working class to other classes although those classes don’t have the capacity. The incapacity of these classes is moored within their interests.
So, it’s found that the sporadic fights and skirmishes of different forces, often a group of non-governmental organisations and the so-called civil society, initiate, provoke and/or organise ultimately lend credibility to and strengthen the existing system of exploitation. It’s a political question, and these organisations have no capacity to deal with these political questions as only the political organisations have the capacity to deal with political questions. Moreover, forgetting the leadership question ultimately ignores the question of organisation, the basic and most powerful requirement in any journey in the socio-economic-political sphere, the question anarchists ignore, and the exploiters try their best to let the working class forget. It’s one of the reasons for the absence of efforts to build up organisations that operate during high and low tides.
The last chapter of the book moves on to the section “The multiple terrains of struggle”: “There are many arenas of class struggle. In each, there are both matters to fight against and to fight for.”
It says: “Statements and commitments [of principles] are rare today, but that makes them all the more important. People naturally gravitate toward organisations and leaders who have standards from which they do not deviate.” This rarity is a reflection of immaturity, unpreparedness, in cases dishonesty, and lack of sense about its importance among a group of organisers and leaders involved with the working class. They can’t move a millimetre forward with their initiative without commitment and a statement declaring their principles on issues to be dealt with.
The section discusses the issue of radical education: “Radical, critical, and continued education is needed. It will not only help to put our lives and actions into context, but it also will give us a better understanding of what needs to be done in the future.”
In countries, irrespective of hemisphere, hundreds and thousands of organisations claiming to be of the working class are ignoring the task of radical education. Michael Yates finds the same fact: “Most unions in the United States have little or no member education, much less radical education.” A strange reality with contradictory elements: an economy gripping highest achievements in the areas of natural and social sciences while its workforce is forced into ignorance related to their life! It’s a powerful act by capital!
However, the US is not an exceptional case. Hundreds of Bangladesh unions, many associated with political parties propagating revolution and, claiming to be standing for radical change have not organised a single class for political education over the years. Politicians with postures of radical-change are of the same category – no effort to carry on political education, neither for self nor for the members of the organisations the persons lead. What’s found: These persons turn busy with self-promotion, posting those photos with messages “Now, I’m on a Moscow avenue”, “I’m riding a car rushing to the Red Square”, “We’re sitting in a five-star hotel lounge in [a city in Europe]” while enjoying foreign tours in the name of international conferences. It’s almost impossible to find a single discussion meeting for briefing fellow members about the conference or debate held or declaration and resolutions adopted in the conference the “comrade” attended.
But, news and photos of “labour” leaders making statements in hearings of House/Senate sub-committees are there. This is going on for years, and the story is long. How many copies of a May Day 13-page Baanglaa booklet – an interview of Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, and his comrades, Fred Magdoff and Michael D. Yates, on three questions important in today’s labour struggle – did unions ask for in Bangladesh? The publisher of the booklet with a price tag of Taka 10 (around Taka 80 now makes a US dollar) for general buyers and Taka 5 for workers, peasants, students, and their organisers, knows best. It’s not even a thousand copies.
The other facts are Bangladesh is a country with more than 160 million persons; with private banks making profits in the year of the Great Financial Crisis, when their big brothers in Europe and the US were collapsing, and were begging for bailing them out with tax payers’ money; with the 2nd largest foreign reserve in South Asia, the result of labour appropriated in home and abroad; with an increasing number of workers now numbering millions in factories, in the manufacturing, processing and construction sectors.
Consequently, there are propagation of ideas upholding exploiters’ interests, serving imperialist designs, entering into alliance with political forces equipped with medieval ideas, the shameful and despicable acts from the standpoint of the working class. The results of these acts are in the open: These “crusaders” find friends among oppositionists serving medieval-imperialist design while imperialism and medieval forces build up an axis of exploitation/intervention; all acts of “opposition” appear “crusades for democracy”, with space given to medieval forces while ideas upholding working class interests are denied space. This, a forceful trend, is shamefully happening after the working class gained experiences over long years of struggle, and Marx, Lenin and their comrades scientifically theorised the struggles of the working class.
So, the labour educator writes: “[E]very entity seeking radical change must have an education component integral to its operation. Labour unions and peasant organisations need to set aside time and resources for this.”
Why no initiative for political education? A group of “union officers”, borrowing from Michael Yates, “fear an educated membership […] might decide to replace them.”
Michael Yates mentions specifically: “Political parties and formations, Occupy Wall Street-types of movements, anti-war organisations, anti-racist and anti-patriarchy movements need education efforts as well, ones that become permanently built into their structures.”
The professor taking political classes for labour suggests:
“Planning actions, carrying them out, assessing successes and failures – all are vital subjects of education for members and participants.”
On the question of the education of workers, Kalinin’s words are worthy to recall. Kalinin, a factory worker turned communist revolutionary turned president of the Soviet Union, referred to their studies in underground circles: “[W]hile we studied the basic principles of Marxism we also covered a course of general education, beginning with the Russian classics – fiction writers, historians, critics – in a word, the whole range of knowledge to be found in books. While working in a plant, we at the same time got an all-round education in literature, science, etc.” (On Communist Education, Selected Speeches and Articles, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1950, Moscow, erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the speech was delivered in 1926) He suggested acquiring political knowledge “based on those branches of general education and knowledge that are considered the necessary attributes of every more or less developed person. This development, this knowledge, should not be ignored.” (ibid.)
The chapter, longest in the book, covers issues of relation between agriculture, peasants, farm workers, the environment, and class struggle around agriculture. It also discusses food. But, it again makes a statement, not endearing to slogan-mongers: “If unions mirror corporations in their structures, which all too many do, there isn’t much hope that they will confront capital. And this is all the more the case if they have entered into a compact with employers that views the two sides as co-operators interested primarily in the profitability of the owners’ businesses.”
Michael Yates writes: “Since it is unlikely that current leaders will seek to do either of these things, the only way forward is to get rid of the leadership.”
He informs about the US: There “have been frequent attempts by rank-and-file activists to take control of their unions and put them on a democratic and militant path.”
However, he writes, “[a] few have been successful, most have not. [….] Those in power seldom want to relinquish control, and they will be as ruthless as necessary to beat back rivals. Still, labour rebellions have been successful, at all levels of unions.”
The Niyogi-example, discussed in part 6 of this series, is there in India. There are similar examples in other countries. This fact demands dissection and analysis if similar future attempts are to be made successful.
Michael Yates emphasises education if democratisation of unions is to be achieved: “[E]ducation must be a priority. Compulsory classes should greet new members, teaching them about the union’s history and that of the labour movement as a whole. And regular short courses, summer schools, and longer learning experiences should be made available, with at least some courses required to maintain membership. In these classes, the construction of a broader array of principles and aspirations can be developed.”
He mentions a few cases from the global South, which the working class has to resolve:
“There, wage labourers need to consider the needs and actions of peasants. In Brazil, for example, unions felt they should lead the way in land reform issues, rather than the Landless Workers Movement. However, ‘Many in large Brazilian labour unions believed the fight for agrarian reform should take place within union ranks – but unions didn’t accept landless farmers as members.’ Even if one were to argue that this was short-sighted, it still didn’t preclude active union support for what the farmers and peasants were doing. In India, labour unions have failed to offer full-throated support for the Maoist rebellions in the countryside. A worker-peasant alliance is essential for the working class to change the world, and until wage labourers embrace it, such change will not happen.”
He brings to notice another aspect missing in many countries, but present in the US – union-like groups that take up the cause of the working class. He proposes: “[c]o-operation between unions and worker centres could be a strategy to rebuild labour movements.” Such cooperation not only broadens the scope for organising struggle of the working class, but also unites allies, helps fight out bourgeois ideas and bad elements – ruffians, hoodlums, hirelings, and NGO- and capitalist-employees engaged to take away initiative from the revolutionary working class leadership in favour of capitalists.
On the question of labour and politics, Michael Yates, the economist with working class origin, says:
“What has been said about unions can be applied with equal force to labour’s political path, so just a few points can be made here. First, substantive equality must prevail in political entities, just as it must in labour unions. This means that social democratic parties will have to be replaced by democratic working-class parties. Here too, democracy is more than voting. Those in the party must run it. It must have radical principles and have radical goals. It must be built from the ground up, with those at the top responsible to those at the bottom. [….] Local assemblies seize the political initiative and then the assemblies begin to consolidate in larger geographical areas, culminating in a national party. These could then ally themselves with similar parties in other countries. At each level, the forming groups would commit to a set of principles. Second, working-class political parties can contend for state power, but in most cases this isn’t likely to result in electoral victory. Education could then be the modus operandi of the party. In any case, radical pressure on the existing state should be exerted at all times. If special circumstances allow electoral victory, radical goals should be enunciated and movement toward achieving them should begin immediately.
“The collective power of the working class should be the weapon employed to do this – mass demonstrations and strikes, for example. The military must be challenged and most of its officers must be demobilised. There could be cases in which a party has a military wing, in parts of the global South, for example, and then revolutionary warfare can be considered, as in Nepal in the early part of this century or in the Indian countryside, which has been happening over the past several decades. [….] [T]here is no reason for a working-class political project to exist unless its aim is the defeat of capital. Demands should be radical and principled, and they should be adhered to. Tactical compromise might sometimes be necessary, but this can never be a strategy.”
The paragraph cited above is significant, especially in terms of politics. It also challenges many existences with a red flag.
As an example of political moves by the working class, Michael Yates cites Venezuela and the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a labour-community coalition in the city of Richmond, California.
The chapter makes significant statements challenging many ideas in vogue:
“It is an unworthy argument that says race and gender are mere identities, whereas class is a social relationship. [….] ‘Class is a social relationship that is structured by race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and a whole range of other determinations.’ [….] With respect to social policies, a narrow class-first approach will be similarly unable to dismantle racist and patriarchal structures.”
Michael Yates writes:
“It takes boldness and courage to attack capital. But attack we must. [….]
“If unions, peasant associations, and political entities are to work together to change the world, to bring an unalienating society into existence, then the motto of Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement must become the rallying cry for everyone: ‘Occupy, Resist, Produce.’ [….]
“Rather than waste time voting for traditional political parties, believing that they can be pressured to the left, workers must confront the state directly. [….]
“Occupation is a direct action that can take various forms, but it typically involves efforts to retake the commons or convert private property into common property.”
“The unstated implication of everything said in this book is that the working class must change the world. There is really no choice. The long rule of capital has created profoundly alienated conditions for nearly all of humanity.” (emphasis in the original)
He calls on us to:
“Fight landlords, disrupt classrooms, take on bosses, write, nothing is unimportant. And as we do this, remember that those who have suffered the most – workers and peasants in the global South, minorities in the global North, working-class women everywhere – are going to lead struggles or they are likely to fail.”
He cites Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary leader in India executed by the British colonialists in 1931 when he was twenty-three years old: “The real revolutionary armies are in the villages and in factories, the peasantry and the labourers.”
He says Bhagat Singh’s hope on the peasantry and labourers is still true today. Michael Yates concludes the book by saying: “With humility, I offer them my solidarity. I hope we all do.”
* Farooque Chowdhury, writing from Dhaka, Bangladesh, thankfully acknowledges the editing of the series by Professor Michael D. Yates.
* Note: This is the concluding part of a seven-part series review of Can the Working Class Change the World?.
“Learn from life, learn from our people, learn from books, learn from the experience of others. Never stop learning. ” – Amilcar Cabral, freedom fighter.
Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa had a profound influence on my ideological development growing up in Sierra Leone. It exposed neo-colonialism as a process of active, on-going underdevelopment, a process with an historical starting point and an end, i.e. a motive, which is the theft of Africa’s labour and material resources for the development of Europe and North America. Although I have re-read it on many occasions since then, I must admit that I have not paid this great teacher the proper attention he deserves.
So when I learned of a one-day conference on the work of the slain Marxist and Pan-Africanist, I knew that I would be there, if for no other reason than to plug the gaps in my knowledge about Rodney. I recalled the words of that other great African freedom-fighter, Amilcar Cabral, who implored us to “never stop learning”.
The conference, which took place earlier in March at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS, was billed as “Walter Rodney: Pan-Afrikanism, Marxism and the Next Generation”. It was organised by Decolonising Our Minds of SOAS, in association with Kingston University Politics.
A press statement from Donald Rodney, Walter’s brother, was read out before the commencement of proceedings. Donald Rodney reiterated that his wrongful conviction for the explosion that caused the death of his brother in 1980, was based on a “fictitious confession” – a fact, which has been reported by even the state-owned national newspaper. His appeal and the campaign to seek the truth about Walter’s assassination will continue, he said.
The welcome address was given by Nima Mudey of Decolonising Our Minds. She thanked the organisers, participants and attendees, before launching into what became my first lesson of the day – the fact that Walter Rodney, who incidentally was an alumnus of SOAS, is not even on the university reading list.
Mudey, a student at SOAS, said: “For an institution that prides itself on being experts on Africa, Asia and the Middle East, it was disappointing to see the lack of black and brown voices in the reading lists and in the lecturers themselves.
“So it is so important to have events like these where we can celebrate the voices from the global South. Walter Rodney was an alumnus of this university, but sadly you won’t see him on any reading lists here. However we can try to reclaim this space by hosting such events and subverting that stale and pale narrative”.
The passion and the steely determination in the voice, demeanour and bearing of Mudey were so powerful and infectious that all in the hall gave her a resounding applause. Promising start!
“Rodney’s short, sharp, succinct method of analysis”
The keynote address, titled “Remembering Rodney”, was delivered by Selma James, the well-known feminist activist and author of Sex, Race & Class – the Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011. She was also a friend and comrade of Rodney’s. Walter, she said, “is the kind of person we need to learn about at this point in time, when we are under threat in all the ways we know about – and ways that we don’t even know about”.
You only have to look at the life he led, she said, for you to realise that we need to know and learn more about him. This is because the turbulent times in which he lived have not gone away, but remain with us, and have even intensified. One of the things that she remembers most vividly about the slain Guyanese revolutionary was his clarity: “We were in awe of his clarity. Walter was very clear about who the enemy was”.
She recalled a meeting on the Vietnam War, when they were discussing the “enemy’s” proposal that the Vietnamese should negotiate with Uncle Sam. Walter, she said, went right to the heart of the matter when he likened the situation to someone sitting in their house, and then a troublemaker comes and causes trouble; he said the only solution was to kick the troublemaker out. Rodney, she said, asked rhetorically: “And they say I have to talk to you?”
“That’s the kind of short, sharp, succinct method of analysis that Walter was good at”, James said.
Rodney’s working class activism was all about inter-racial solidarity between the African, Indian and other sections of the Guyanese people. The antagonism of race was the creation of the British from the early days, she said, and it exists to this day. She recalled how Rodney had defended an Indian man who had been wrongly accused of killing an African. He had said to the black people: “He is my class. I am with him, and he is with me”.
Selma James’s opening address was followed by contributions from a three-member panel on the theme, “Red Threads of Rodney’s Thought”; the chair was Sidi Abale, a recent Masters graduate from Kingston University. The first contribution was by Alissa Trotz, an associate professor of Women and Gender Studies, and Caribbean Studies at the University of Toronto, from where she spoke via a web link. Her subject was: “How Will We Organise to Live? On Caring Work, Groundings and Movements in the Caribbean Today”.
Trotz, a member of the Red Thread Women’s Organisation in Guyana, began by noting the commitment of Rodney to racial unity, of the essential coming together of black and brown workers, which she said was the source of the strength of Rodney’s Working Peoples Alliance (WPA). The Red Thread Organisation, she said, was in turn founded by women in the WPA.
The “red thread” of Rodney’s thought was running through their organisation, which, she said, was a testament to multi-racial unity, not just between African and Indian women, but also including indigenous women. She recalled how these women became actively involved in miners’ strikes in Guyana: “Women were very visible in organising against this oppression; facing armed police to release bauxite workers. They were making connections between everyday struggles and women’s lives”.
“Ordinary people make revolutions, not angels”
Trotz said this was a clear reflection of the truth in Rodney’s words about ordinary people as the catalysts of revolution. “The revolution”, she said, “ is not made by angels, but by ordinary people, by all whose labour help communities survive, by the working class – and women are an essential part of the working class”.
The Red Thread Organisation, she said, engages in research not for its own sake: “The knowledge production is the base of our organising activity. We are active in pensions, domestic violence, reproductive health and reproductive rights, compensation for floods, cancellation of international debt, racism, regional solidarity work with Haiti, the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, with Jamaican women, etc.”.
She concluded as she had begun by making the connection between what their organisation is doing and what Rodney taught: “Knowing who your enemy is – that’s very important. We need to make these connections in our work”.
Next to speak was Amanda Latimer, an anthropologist and lecturer in political economy at Kingston University. Latimer is also an indefatigable campaigner against the neo-colonial oil exploration deal Guyana has signed with a multinational consortium led by ExxonMobil. It was not surprising that her subject was: “Hit-and-run Capitalism in Guyana’s Oil Sector”.
Rodney’s contribution, Latimer said, was important in the context of what is happening now, precisely because he saw that “briefcase independence” – when the former colonies gained formal independence – was the beginning of neo-colonialism.
“He insisted on putting class formation on an international plane,” she said. “He insisted that capitalist development in the age of imperialism was a continuation of what had gone on before independence…National capital allies with imperialism”. This continuing imperialist exploitation, she maintained, can be seen in the oil deal, which the neo-colonial leaders of Guyana have signed with ExxonMobil.
“Rodney was a specific kind of Marxist, a Pan-Africanist”
Twelve off-shore oil fields, estimated to hold three to four billion barrels of oil, had been discovered, she said, but the “neo-colonial profit-sharing agreement shows that the vast majority of the profits will go to the Exxon consortium”. Some estimates say close to 90 percent of the value of crude oil sold will go to the multinationals.
“Rodney was a specific kind of Marxist, a Pan-Africanist,” Latimer added. “And as Rodney asked, is development even possible for Guyana within the present global system?…All we see is divide and conquer between the African and the Indian in Guyana, and between regional partners, such as Guyana and Venezuela”.
Latimer said: “The easiest way to show that neo-colonialism is in operation [in this oil deal] is to look at the neo-colonial profit-sharing arrangement, at the figures, which the government did not want to reveal. It was the IMF [International Monetary Fund] that shamed the government into revealing the true nature of the deal.”
Perhaps we should note in passing this dialectic of imperialist exploitation whereby the IMF – the premier neo-colonial appendage for siphoning-off wealth from the “poor” to the “rich” nations – are the very ones who forced the so-called nationalist government to divulge the dirty little secret that they had sold their own people down a river chockfull of kickbacks!
The third and final panellist to speak during this first part of the conference was Andy Higginbottom, an international solidarity campaigner for movements in Colombia, South Africa and Tamil Eelam. His contribution was an introduction to Rodney’s most famous work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
Higginbottom, who also teaches politics at Kingston University, began by defining neo-colonialism as “a relation between the oppressed and the oppressors of the world”, adding that anti-imperialist unity was necessary if that relation is to be shattered.
“How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is a master-class in the study of the colonial roots of contemporary colonialism”, he said. “Rodney says that Africa is poor because Europe is rich… They don’t teach that in Development Studies. Development Studies should be called Underdevelopment Studies. The world is the result of the process of the underdevelopment of Africa.”
Like Nima Mudey earlier in the proceedings, the Kingston University lecturer also commented on the fact that Rodney was not on any university reading list in the United Kingdom: “SOAS is the most left-wing university and yet Walter is not on a reading list there, a man who was invited all over the world to speak in universities on his general critique of neo-colonialism…He was delivering blows against the Eurocentric orthodoxy of the time.”
“Slavery was a consequence of European capitalist expansion”
In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Higginbottom went on, Rodney demolished several myths, among which was the fabrication that slavery was endemic in African societies and that Europeans did not benefit from late colonialism. Rodney, he said, showed that the “slavery” that was practiced in parts of Africa was essentially different to European chattel slavery, which was “a direct consequence of European capitalist expansion”.
Summing up his critique of alleged “non-beneficial colonialism”, he said: “Every crime has a motive. The motive for the crime of European colonialism was economic”. “Rodney’s analysis is Black Nationalist”, he said, “a position which a lot of the British left do not agree with. Let me introduce you to the British Left”.
Wow! Intriguing, I said to myself. As someone who has had interminable “discussions” with “non-African” comrades on both sides of the Atlantic about their, shall we say “unhelpful”, positions on Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism, Higginbottom’s last remark was definitely a bolt from the red. Definitely another learning experience! It was refreshing to come across a white member of the British Left who did not subscribe to their general position on Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism.
After a short break of around 30 minutes for everyone to refresh themselves, the second and final session of the conference commenced, with contributions from a student panel chaired by Kevin Okoth, who recently completed a Masters at Oxford. The theme was “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa & Youth Today”.
In his introduction Okoth posited that history is a political and intellectual battleground on which the present generation of students and young people need to struggle, in order to take forward the political practice of Walter Rodney: “We need to go where Rodney was positioning us, and use How Europe Underdeveloped Africa as the basis for future struggle”.
Okoth mentioned that Rodney was also an author of children’s books. It is just possible that this information may have gone missing in the recesses of my subconscious, but I am positive it was “new knowledge”. Anyhow, it makes no difference if I ever knew it, for I re-learned it at that conference that very day. However, back to Okoth: “Late in his life he published children’s books, to enable children to understand themselves and others. It showed the importance he attached to teaching kids early about their origins, presenting historical knowledge in a way even a child could understand”. Here, again, we come across Rodney’s ability to render the most abstruse issues into terms everyone can grasp.
“Immigration problem created by neo-colonial exploitation”
The first speaker from the student panel was Sidi Abale, who had chaired the earlier session. Her topic was “Reflecting on Neo-colonialism in Nigeria and the Criminalisation of Migrants in the UK”. She defined neo-colonialism as the situation where nominally independent former colonies like Nigeria celebrate their “independence” every year, but their policies are nevertheless formulated by Western countries. On the scapegoating of migrants in Britain, she said that the whole situation was caused by the neo-colonial system Britain itself created, which has impoverished our countries and resulted in migrants coming to the UK. “It is the consequence of their own policies,” Abale charged, to rapturous applause. This was sublime stuff, neo-colonialism and migration expressed as opposite poles of the same relation. Dang, this is one event we are happy we attended. Next!
That was Kevon Jones, of Kings College London, on “Walter and the Question of Power”. Jones argued that the next generation of Pan-Africanists must study the works of Walter Rodney and “develop it for our times”, just as he built on the works of those who came before him, like Marx, Lenin, CLR James, Nkrumah and other fighters. That, Jones maintained, was the only way Pan-Africanists can win power and develop the African homeland. “Young people should study revolutions, from the Russian Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, etc… Walter said the masses of the people are the backbone and they alone can make a revolution successful”.
Hamza Hadji of Kingston University spoke on “The Unrecognised Collective Power of the African People”. He said that African countries were not really independent, as they were controlled by the multinational corporations and the governments of the West. He said: “Power does not reside with the leaders, but with the people. And the people can win, if we can come together as one and fight oppression”.
The final speaker on the student panel was Lavinya Stennet, a SOAS undergraduate who reads Development and African Studies. She is the founder of The Black Curriculum, an activist group seeking to teach black history to black kids. And that was precisely her topic. She argued forcefully – and persuasively – that the structure of formal education in the UK is colonial and neo-colonial. Her group, she said, will be researching and spearheading initiatives to enable black pupils and students to “renew” their minds: “We need to give students the practical tools to re-imagine our future, and to go out and change the world”. That was another rallying cry, which did not fail to raise temperatures in the hall.
Here again, we will mention in passing, we were able to learn something: that the neo-colonial system of education imposed on African kids in the UK has incensed young people to the extent that some of them are organising to do something about it. And, while we’re at it, we might also observe that the current curriculum could also be sowing “unhelpful attitudes” in white students, which could be “reinforced” in later years – along the lines of a self-perpetuating system. But we digress!
The closing address of the day was delivered by David Austin, a youth worker in Canada and author of, among other titles, Moving against the System: the 1968 Congress of Black Writers and the Making of Global Consciousness. Austin said he almost enrolled at SOAS, but was deterred by the fact that Rodney was not on their reading lists: “They said Rodney was too biased to be considered serious intellectual work”.
On that score, as is our wont to note in passing, the very learned professors of SOAS had no reason putting good old Karl on any God-forsaken reading list, for the simple reason that the eminent progenitor of Marxism remains arguably the most “biased” writer that ever lived! But let us return to the interrupted contributor.
Austin also maintained that the importance of Rodney should be seen not only in the context of the seminal How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, but also in “his call for us to look at the convergence of race and class”, and his position on the role of the revolutionary intellectual in the struggle for liberation.
“Tanzania was a ‘finishing school’ for Rodney”
He said: “The role of the revolutionary intellectual comes to the fore when you think of Rodney. He took his research seriously because he was in the service of African liberation. He also understood that there was a relationship to be developed between the intellectual and the people – a mutual enlightenment and enrichment. We need to learn from the people.”
The conference, needless to say, was very illuminating and enjoyable, meeting all our expectations. We learnt a few valuable lessons, which we will summarise as follows:
We will also take the opportunity to rectify for the record one claim made at the conference that Rodney was a believer in Tanzania leader Julius Nyerere’s “African socialism”. It is well-known that Rodney spent time in Tanzania in the late 1960s and 1970s, both as a University teacher and as an activist.
I would agree that Tanzania was indeed a sort of “finishing school” for Rodney, but not because he subscribed to Nyerere’s so-called “African socialism”, self-reliance or self-help as embodied in the President’s “Ujaama” ideology. This was the essentially “naïve” position of Nyerere and his fellow travellers that Africa, or Tanzania at any rate, could – because of a communalist past – “bypass capitalism and move straight to socialism”. But it was precisely because Walter Rodney disagreed with this ahistorical, unscientific position that Tanzania became his finishing school. It is my position that the practice and experience of Tanzania served to reinforce his belief that Pan-Africanism was the only way forward for Africa – that individual African countries could not achieve development as neo-colonial mini-states and, further, that the class struggle was the locomotive on which we would arrive at the socialist Union of African States.
That position was diametrically opposite to Nyerere’s. The latter believed that Tanzania could achieve socialism in his mini-state fiefdom in top-down fashion, through abolishing the class struggle by fiat! That is where he and Rodney part company. The scope of this article will not allow us to further develop this theme, but we hope to return to it at some point.
*Julian Lahai Samboma is a Pan-Africanist and the author of The Dialectic and the Detective: The Arab Spring and Regime Change in Libya, which is available on Amazon. His website is eBeefs.com.
Like maggots crawling out of a decaying carcass, authoritarian populist parties and politicians have emerged in many parts of the world over the last few years. All of these parties and politicians practice a vile form of politics based on hatred, crass stereotypes, blatant lying, spectacle, bigotry, anti-democracy, misogyny, racism, and militarism.
This brew of toxic politics has been served up as “anti-establishment” and in the interest of the common people by the strongmen that are at the heart of these authoritarian populist movements. In reality such politics are profoundly frightening – they point to the possibility of a future not of hope and greater egalitarianism, but decay, intolerance, enforced inequality through extreme violence and ethnic cleansing. They are, in many ways, the frightening side of identity politics.
Prime examples of hatred
The prime examples of such authoritarian populist politicians, in Europe and North America include the likes of far right wing fanatics such Donald Trump in the United States (US), Marine Le Pen of Front Nationale in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Danish People’s Party, Alternative for Germany, Golden Dawn in Greece and the League in Italy. All of these parties and politicians share a platform of white supremacy and islamophobia.
Their “anti-establishment” politics goes no further than blaming immigrants or minority groups for all problems. They claim to oppose the unfairness of free trade, yet deny that internal class rule lies at the heart of economic inequalities that are driving discontent. Likewise, few of these right-wing fanatics identify capitalism as the cause of people’s misery. Given their deliberately shallow and crude analyses, for these politicians the solution is the ridiculous and racist notion of keeping immigrants out and for the return to some mythological past – which never existed – of a white Europe or North America in which prosperity reigns under capitalism.
While sharing racism, nationalism and a commitment to some form of capitalism, not all of the authoritarian populist parties and politicians in Europe and North America share exactly the same economic policies, at least on the surface. While all rail against the “establishment” and claim to be for the “common” people and even to be “anti-globalisation”, some like Trump on a domestic front follow a rabid form of neoliberalism that has involved huge tax cuts for corporations, which he falsely sells as a stimulus to encourage investment in production and to create jobs, along with slashing welfare for the working class. Yet others like the openly fascist Golden Dawn in Greece (who are not in power), rhetorically are proponents of bringing back welfare capitalism for ethnic Greeks.
Such politicians and parties are not just present in the heartlands of imperialism; they are also to be found in parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East (this does not even include the long established authoritarian regimes in places such as Russia and China). In India there is Narendra Modi. He harks back to a mythical golden age when only Hindus were supposedly citizens and seeks to ultimately ethnically cleanse India of people that are part of religious minorities – such as Christians and Muslims – who he blames for the country’s ills. In Brazil, the far right misogynist Jair Bolsonaro has vowed to kill progressive activists from the Landless People’s Movement. He is also fanatically anti-immigrants having called people from Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean coming to Brazil the “the scum of humanity”.
During his rise to power, Recep Erdogan in Turkey – an authoritarian Muslim fundamentalist and right wing nationalist – railed against the Kurdish minority blaming them for all tribulations in Turkey; while claiming that he would provide welfare for ethnic Turks should he become president. Once in power, however, he imposed further neoliberalism. But the one frightening promise he did keep was to ethnically cleanse hundreds of Kurdish villages. As the economy declined, far from moving away from neoliberal policies that were driving the crisis, he began to blame unnamed foreign powers for Turkey’s economic woes. In this Erdogan followed the long history of far right, authoritarian populist and fascist politicians scapegoating specific ethnic/race groups or immigrants.
In the Middle East and parts of Africa we have also seen the rise of the authoritarian Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This is a fascist movement based on religion that is misogynistic to its core. Thousands of people have been killed and raped by this movement on the basis of not fitting into ISIS’s view of religion. ISIS, like all of the above authoritarian politicians, grew out of a crisis – in its case it was birthed in the chaos of war and economic collapse in which the US played a central role.
Why the rise of authoritarian populists globally?
The reality is that the rise of authoritarian populist politicians can largely be traced back to the worldwide crisis of capitalism that erupted in 2008. In the prelude to the crisis, established political parties around the world had imposed neoliberal policies that set the stage for the crisis. In Europe, it was mostly the established social democratic parties that had imposed these policies. In the US it was both the Republicans and Democrats; and in many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America it was former liberation movements.
It is these policies that freed up financial capital, which then set the crisis off: through unregulated financial institutions and speculation on debt derivatives on a massive scale. Along with this, in most countries, neoliberal policies that allowed corporations to shift to regions of the globe where wages were lower caused discontent amongst the working class who lost their jobs in the process. Sections of the ruling classes in such cases did not blame themselves or neoliberalism; they blamed the “other” and turned to racism to deflect attention – for example, against the “Chinese” or “Mexicans”. Adding to the working class’s misery, established parties then bailed out the very same corporations that were central to the crisis and made the poorest pay for it by ransacking social benefits. Since then, such established parties have been unable to resolve the capitalist crisis – all they have done is to protect the interests of their class, the ruling class, and shift the burden to the poor and workers.
The attack of neoliberalism also restructured the working class on a global scale. There has been a weakening of the traditional organisations of the working class, such as trade unions. The working class has become more fragmented. Permanent lifelong jobs have largely disappeared, and there has been a rise in low paid and precarious work. In many countries unemployment has grown and the share of wages to gross domestic product has declined. Coupled to this, the ruling classes around the world have pushed the ideology of individualism and large sections of the working class have inculcated this. The consequences have been that progressive working class struggles have been weakened and it is in this context that authoritarian populism has been arising.
Since 2008, voters in numerous countries have been electing authoritarian populist politicians and have rejected established parties. Social democratic parties across Europe have shrunk; numerous established parties in countries like India have been ousted, and even in South Africa an established party such as the African National Congress (ANC) has lost significant support. Many voters are voting for so-called “anti-establishment” authoritarian parties and politicians to punish the established parties with some hope that such politicians will be messiahs that bring back a mythical golden age, fix the economy or at least keep out immigrants that they see as taking their jobs or encroaching on social benefits.
This has posed a problem for the ruling classes in countries such as France, Italy, Hungary, India, Philippines, Brazil, and to a lesser extent the US. This is because the established parties were the traditional parties of the ruling classes. Through these parties the ruling classes could govern through consent and push through their agenda whilst still getting sizeable sections of the working class to vote for these parties. With established parties collapsing, sections of the ruling classes have now turned to politically and financially supporting authoritarian populist politicians such as Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte.
Sections of the ruling classes are now backing these authoritarian parties and politicians precisely because they scapegoat minorities and immigrants; while keeping class rule, capitalism and the state’s coercive power firmly in place. They are now seen by some within the ruling classes as the only means to keep capitalism going under its permanent conditions of crisis. The primary means of this is violence or the threat of violence. As such, they guarantee that they will violently maintain the interests of the ruling classes under the notion of defending tradition and order. It is precisely why authoritarian parties strengthen the repressive arms of the state, shut down debate and it is why sections of the ruling class are funding, backing, joining and founding such parties.
Authoritarianism in South Africa?
South Africa has not been fully spared the rise in the popularity of authoritarianism. A study in 2017 by the University of Stellenbosch found although a minority of people felt some form or another of authoritarian government in South Africa could be a good way to run the country, the data showed that that minority is growing. In fact, it more than doubled from 1995 to 2013 and such sentiments were expressed by 46 percent of the sampled respondents in 2013. The legacy of apartheid has also ensured that racial and ethnic identities – rather than class and non-racialism – remain a dominant lens through which much of South African politics is practiced. The space is, therefore, unfortunately ripening for authoritarian populist politics to grow, and signs are it is already happening.
With capitalism ailing in South Africa, numerous small political parties have arisen on overtly authoritarian populist, xenophobic and/or racist platforms. These include the likes of the African Basic Movement, the People’s Revolutionary Movement, and Black First Land First. There are also a number of far right wing parties that are still based on the notion of white supremacy, including the ludicrous Cape Party that wants independence for the Western Cape in the name of protecting white and “coloured” interests.
While there is need to battle such parties, if an authoritarian populist party or politician ends up gaining very wide popularity or even power, their rise will probably not come from the quarters of these fringe parties (although this should not be ruled out). Rather it would most likely come from one or the other of the two competing sections of the ruling class – one section being an aspirant black elite tied to the Jacob Zuma [former president] faction in the ANC and leaders of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF); the other section being white capitalists, their allies in the Democratic Alliance (DA) and a section of the ANC leadership opposed to Zuma and his cohorts. If it does, neither one of these broad factions would in the end claim to be far-right (to do so would be their political death knell in South Africa), but authoritarian populist they could most certainly be.
Part of the reason why the possibility exists of an authoritarian form of politics gaining dominance in South Africa lies in the deal that led to the 1994 elections. This deal saw the established capitalist class (a small section of the white population) dump the National Party and enter into an alliance with sections of the ANC leadership. In exchange for gaining state power, the capital of the largest corporations was left untouched and a few of the [black] elite in the ANC were incorporated through Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and heading the state. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, the ANC then drove through policies that favoured corporations and the wealthiest individuals (i.e., neoliberalism), all whilst maintaining the majority of the working class’ vote. That began to change gradually with the rise of the global capitalist crisis and the emergence of the Zuma faction (which included the likes of Julius Malema of the EFF), who were a part of the ANC leadership that had not benefitted from the BEE of the 1990s and early 2000s.
The rise of the Zuma faction, therefore, represented an aspirant black section of the ruling class that intended, and did, use its rise to power within the state to accumulate wealth. In the process it began stepping on the toes of the white section of the ruling class and their business interests. As a consequence, two sides of the ruling class have been engaged in a battle over the wealth and the future of the country. One of the results of the fallout however, was a decline in the ANC’s popularity at the polls.
This posed a major threat to established white capital and their allies – now spearheaded by Cyril Ramaphosa – in the ANC leadership. In the process, they chose to back Ramaphosa’s rise to the top of the ANC and the state, in the hope that this would revive the ANC’s fortunes and deal a deathblow to the rival faction of the ruling class that backed Zuma. White capital, however, was and is not opposed to the Zuma faction because of corruption; white capitalists have a very long history of corruption, as it was key to colonialism and apartheid. Rather, white capital found Zuma’s corruption too blatant and it was leading to the decline of the ANC’s popularity. The Zuma faction – while not fundamentally opposing white capital – did to a degree also favour handing out contracts to black capitalists. This was beginning to impact on white capital’s business interests with the state.
These are the reasons white capitalists generally backed Ramaphosa’s faction to oust the Zuma and return to a status in which established companies were favoured when tenders were handed out. Along with this, it was a ploy to try and revive the ANC’s popularity at the polls under a new leadership that would supposedly deal with blatant corruption. If this fails, however, white capital in alliance with sections of the ANC could turn to more overt authoritarian means to maintain power – in fact, signs of how this could happen have already been seen in events such as Marikana.
The scapegoating of immigrants frighteningly already forms part of the politics of this faction of the ruling class (it also forms part the politics of Zuma’s faction too). Indeed, the largest parties in South Africa in the form of the ANC and DA already have significant numbers of members who have targeted immigrants, and both parties have leaders that have made overtly xenophobic statements blaming “foreigners” for unemployment and calling for greater control. In late March 2019 such forms of xenophobic electioneering by politicians in KwaZulu-Natal saw immigrants being attacked and their shops and houses looted. In parties such as the ANC, violent forms of authoritarianism already are a problem at the lower levels of the organisation, with rivals for positions being assassinated rather than engaged in debate.
The possible threat of full-blown authoritarianism does not just come from that section of the ruling class based around established capitalists, but also from remnants of the original Zuma faction within and outside the ANC. The faction fights within the ANC are far from over. Those backed by white capital currently have the upper hand; but this could easily change. When the Zuma faction gained control of the ANC there was already a creeping authoritarianism; should they (re)gain state power there is no reason to believe that their authoritarian politics would not continue. If challenged electorally and faced with the prospect of again losing their grip on power, this faction could easily turn to a renewed and even more virulent form of authoritarianism.
There are also the remnants of the Zuma faction that are outside of the ANC, most notably in the form of the EFF. While the EFF likes to claim economic freedom for the majority as its key objective, despite what many people believe it is not anti-capitalist nor opposed to rule by an elite –even according to its own documents. It rather favours a combination of private and state capitalism.
The reason for this is that the group of aspirant black elites that head the EFF wish to use state power to free up economic opportunities for themselves to accumulate wealth. As was clear from the conduct of EFF leader Julius Malema before the EFF was formed, this group were already engaged in this approach at the provincial and local levels within the ANC before their expulsion.
What the EFF does, however, do is that they opportunistically tap into the very justified frustration of the black working class (defined here as workers and the unemployed) – including their on-going experiences of racism and exploitation – to gain votes and a following. The fact that in South Africa the full liberation of the black working class was not achieved in 1994 as a result of the institutional (state) and economic (ownership) status quo being kept intact, meant the continuation of their impoverishment. The reality is that if the EFF came to state power, it would probably throw some crumbs to the black working class as its own form of populism, but it won’t mean liberation.
At the heart of this is the fact that the EFF does not seek to genuinely end capitalism or expand democracy – it only wants another form of capitalism in which its leadership has power. This can be seen in the plans, contained in its 2019 election manifesto, to provide billions in support to black industrialists/capitalists and to make R2 trillion (about US$143 billion) available for black asset managers to gain shares within companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
Indeed, authoritarianism already defines the politics of the party; it fetishes millenarianism and a militarised and male dominated hierarchy, all summed up by the title of Commander in Chief. In other words the EFF is defined by a personality cult. In state power, those authoritarian tendencies and the tendencies to violently silence any opponents would be amplified. Their overt nationalism and race baiting of all Indians and all whites – often defined by crass stereotypes – is South Africa’s own version of authoritarian populism; it is dangerous and needs to be combatted.
Given all of the above it is not beyond the realms of possibility that in some form or another, South Africa too could easily drift towards a fully-fledged authoritarianism; the warning signs are there. This would be especially the case if the capitalist crisis continues to deepen, since ruling classes and factions therein, have a history of turning towards authoritarian populist politicians during such crises.
The question though is how to combat it.
Resistance to authoritarianism
In most countries resistance to the rise of authoritarian populism has occurred. For example, Antifa (Antifaschistische Aktion) in Europe and North America has resisted the rise of the far right and fascism. In Brazil, formations such as the Landless People’s Movement have protested and mobilised against Bolsonaro. These, however, have mostly been defensive; a reality that is directly related to the weakness of progressive working class struggles as a result of the onslaught of neoliberalism. One area in the world where there has been an offensive struggle against authoritarian politics has been in the north of Syria. There activists – mainly, but not exclusively Kurdish people – have successfully fought against the authoritarian Assad regime and the fascist ISIS. These struggles though have not been to defend a parliamentary system, but rather to create a new and more directly democratic, egalitarian and feminist society under the name of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.
Through this, a new system of direct democracy based around federated communes and councils has been created to run society from the bottom up – in other words to expand democracy into all spheres of life to combat the threat of authoritarianism. Much of the economy too has been socialised and democratised and is now largely based around democratic workers’ co-operatives that produce to meet people’s needs.
If we are going to successfully fight and defeat the rise of authoritarian populist politics, we are going to need a vision of creating a new society beyond the state, class rule and capitalism. It is these systems that authoritarian populism ultimately defends. The struggle in the north of Syria, while not without its own contradictions, is important as it give us a glimpse of what can be done. It also shows that South Africa too could follow another path beyond the state and capitalist systems; a path that holds the promise of an egalitarian future as opposed to the current situation, or even worse a future of authoritarian populism.
* Shawn Hattingh is a researcher and educator for the International Labour Research Information Group, South Africa.
200 years since Marx’s birth and 150 years after he wrote Das Kapital, capitalism is in deep crisis. We are seeing the re-intensification of inter-imperialist rivalries in the context of waning United States hegemony and the unravelling of the neoliberal paradigm. The world remains addicted to extractivism and the destruction of our natural environment. In this context, we are seeing a transfer of the costs of this crisis onto the working class. While these issues may seem removed from the global political economy, they are intrinsically linked.
As these crises deepen, people find it more difficult to accept modes of thought, which rationalise the system that is unravelling. Begging us to be critical of the role of the education system and dominant ideologies in society, which in effect are used to perpetuate the class structure of society.
It is in this context that we desperately need to find anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal and eco-socialist alternatives, particularly when capitalism uses ideology, including bourgeois economics to distort our perceptions of how the world works.
It is here that we should ask the question is Marxism still relevant as an emancipatory framework of analysis that can potentially help us to understand the changes in the global, African and South African economy? Not to understand, as an end in itself but toward shifting the balance of power towards the marginalised people in society in fostering and bringing into being alternatives.
Is Marxism still relevant?
Why ask this question? I think this question arises in the context where there is an argument that Marxism is an old idea that is no longer relevant. In response to this, I think that it is useful to begin by asking ourselves whether changes in time and place make a difference to whether Marxism is relevant or not? Or to what extent does Marx’s method extend across time and place? To ask the question more directly – is a Marxist method valid for black people, women and gender non-conforming people in the twenty-first century? To be able to answer this question we need to turn to Marx’s methodology.
Marx set out to develop a scientific approach to understanding the history of human beings. For Marx, the way people are cannot be separated from the society in which they live, so to understand how people behave, we must first analyse the historically changing totality of social relations.
Thus, in a sense Marx rejects the idea of an unchanging human nature; nonetheless, he argued that human beings in very different societies share certain things in common. For him, it is precisely these common characteristics that can help us understand why societies change including the core beliefs, wants and capacities of the people who make up these societies.
For Marx, labour is the essence of human beings and the basis of society. What does this mean? Human beings are a part of nature, and like the rest of nature we are motivated by the need to survive and reproduce ourselves. But we are different from other animals in that there are many different ways in which people can meet their needs. This is because human beings are conscious and self-aware beings and have been able to change the way in which we produce over time. As human beings, we can do this because of our ability to reflect on what we have done and think about how we can do it better.
Consequently, Marx considered productive labour to be fundamental to what human beings are, but the labour of human beings is not independent from the objective reality (or natural environment) in which they find themselves. This results in a dynamic interchange between nature, which influences people and people through their labour transforms the natural environment in this robust way. This process does not end here – in the process of transforming nature – human beings also transform themselves.
This means that if we agree that production is the essence of human activity, then it follows that in trying to make sense of society we have to pay attention to the way in which production is organised. The implications of this is that if production is a social activity, then it means that changes in the way production is organised will result in changes in society. Marx thus concentrated on the social relations of production. Forming the underlying basis of his method – this is the core of a materialist conception of history – known as historical materialism – immersing his analysis in a concrete reality.
There is another dimension to Marx’s method and that is the dialectic – or the movement of contradictions. There is no end to contradictions; it is contradictions that lead to change. The dialectic thus becomes intertwined in the theory of historical development. Each form of social organisation contains within it the contradictions that provide the potential for change.
Therefore, Marxist thought begins by developing an understanding of people’s relation with the material world in which they are located. And so, Marx’s method conceives of society as a whole that is driven by the unity and struggle of opposites. Given this, it is fair to conclude that Marx’s method can be applied anywhere and anytime the only difference will be the conclusions drawn from applying historical materialism.
We can see this in practice after Marx’s death in the way that different people have seen how the Marxist method is a tool of analysis not a blueprint that can be copied and pasted for any time and place; henceforth Marx’s method needs to be adapted to the given context. Historically, we have seen this applying to many thinkers, and activists around the world. From Lenin, Luxembourg, Gramsci, Walter Rodney, Huey. P Newton and the list goes on.
In the African context, Amilcar Cabral is a concrete example of this in his attempt to record the history of the people of Guinea-Bissau. Cabral began by looking at people in the process of production and the modes of production over time in his country and through this he showed the relevance of applying the Marxist method to African society, by discerning how Guinea-Bissau’s society evolved, over time.
This is useful in response to those who posit that Marxism is a Eurocentric phenomenon and that consequently black people are alienated from this thought. What proponents of this argument do not account for is the fact that the Marxist methodology has been taken on, taken further and indigenised in many parts of the world outside of Europe, in Asia, South America and not least in Africa. Besides Cabral, the same framework was adopted and adapted by Samora Machel, Thomas Sankara, and many others in their determination to underscore the need to construct alternative societies. Thus, Marxism cannot be Eurocentric, it is universal, manifesting itself in different Marxisms depending on when and where the methodology is applied.
Rethinking emancipation and the role of Marxism – is Marx enough?
A scientific socialist approach is relevant and critical because it is deliberately aimed at undermining the current system of production and the social and political relations that stem from it. Therefore, I would argue that the marginalised people of the world should have a collective and self-interest in Scientific Socialism as a theoretical instrument that can be a means to critique and dismantle the capitalist imperialist structure of society.
At the same time, no one can claim to have all the answers in the search for new imaginations and perspectives toward developing emancipatory politics for today. It is this generation’s collective task to develop and build new politics that can adequately help us bring into being the world we need today. In forging new politics I think that:
*Dominic Brown is the co-ordinator of the Economic Justice Programme at the Alternative Information and Development Centre.