José Ernesto Novaez: Marxism and Colonialism – An Interview with Vijay Prashad

An interesting interview with one of India’s most important marxist intellectuals about neoocolonialism and the crisis of western hegemony

José Ernesto Novaez is a journalist and poet. He is the coordinator of the Cuban chapter of the Network in Defense of Humanity.

Cross-posted from Counterpunch

Vijay Prashad  is above all a militant. His intellectual work is an attempt to understand and respond to some of the great challenges of our time. Of Indian origin, this Marxist historian has displayed an intense vital activity that has taken him to numerous countries, always in defense of the cause of humanity.He currently works as executive director of the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, a task that alternates with his work as a teacher and researcher at various universities, as well as with a prolific work in which we can highlight texts such as The Darker NationsThe Poorer Nations and the most recent The Withdrawal, together with Noam Chomsky.Close to Cuba and Casa de las América, he has a frank and open character, a great conversationalist and a wide culture. I had the pleasure of meeting him personally on a flight back to Havana and from those talks, the idea for this interview arose, which we finally managed to carry out virtually.

There is a lot of talk about colonialism and neocolonialism on the contemporary left. However, there does not seem to be a consensus on what to understand under these terms and in practice many left and progressive movements end up reproducing practices that are far from being decolonizing. What to understand by colonialism and neocolonialism in the contemporary world? Are its forms of expression and development the same as those of the old colonialism of the 20th century and earlier?

One of the great social processes of our time has been the process of decolonisation. Hundreds of millions of people in the continents of Africa, Asia, and Latin America fought for centuries against the imposition of colonial rule against their sovereignty and their dignity. These struggles come from a range of political positions, such as those led by political forces that wanted to restore earlier forms of political sovereignty (including monarchies) and by political forces that wanted to establish modern forms of national states and belonging. In 1960, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution on decolonisation that captures the spirit of these times: ‘the process of liberation is irresistible and irreversible’. But, at the same time, in this period after World War II, it was apparent that the imperialist powers did not want to permit the formerly colonised peoples to establish national sovereignty and various processes of human dignity. The imperialists fought a ‘hybrid war’ against the new nations, including through coups and assassinations, through economic blockades and sanctions, as well as through an information and cultural war that diminished the confidence of the peoples of the new states. In 1965, a year before he was removed in a coup, Ghana’s president Kwame Nkrumah wrote a powerful book called Neocolonialism, in which he described the neo-colonial structures of the post-colonial period – structures that included the maintenance of the old colonial economic patterns (impoverishment of the new states, reliance upon external – largely Western – financing, permanent debt crises, and dependency on the Western – formerly colonial – powers for their destiny). The fight by the Non-Aligned Movement (established in 1961) was to overturn this neo-colonial structure. That fight remains alive and well today, but not with the kind of robustness that was there in the early decades of the Third World project.

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

What answers does the Marxist tradition contain for the colonial problem in the contemporary world?

Marxism is the most adequate critique of capitalism in all its forms, whether in the classical period of the 19th century or the neoliberal-globalised period of our times. This is for two reasons. First, Marxism – from Marx’s own writings but then elaborated by others – provides the best assessment of why social inequality widens despite the immense advances of social production. The answer lies in the entire range of analysis that begins with the mechanisms to extract surplus value and leads on to the decisive private control over the appropriation of the surplus. Second, because Marxism – unlike many other traditions – is a science of society that continues to learn from its main object of inquiry, namely capitalism. As capitalism changes, so does Marxism, keeping track – scientifically – with the new developments. From its origins, Marxism has been aware of the role of colonialism and the neo-colonial structures, both in the writings of Marx and in the work of the national liberation or Leninist tradition that includes the work of Maríategui, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Cabral. There is a strong anti-colonial root in Marxism, which emerges fundamentally in this Leninist or national liberation tradition. We must build on this tradition and enliven it in our times.

In his writings, Maríategui pointed out that the past must be a resource and not a destination. I believe this formula is fundamental to a Marxist approach towards the histories of the formerly colonised peoples. To believe that we must return to the past as a destination is a fundamental error of analysis and a refusal to understand the dynamic of human histories. Restorationism often leads to deeply conservative cultural habits, as is clear from the example of India, where the Hindu Right believes that a ‘return to the past’ is essential. This is also there in many current of ‘decolonial thought’. We are not interested in a ‘return to the past’, but we want to ‘return to the source’ to advance history forward, drawing – as much as anything – from the various emancipatory traditions in the world, including that of the European working class (such as the Paris Commune of 1871). What masquerades as European traditions of liberty, for instance, are not always ‘European’, but draw from traditions established in Asia and Africa (as has been shown by Zhu Qianzhi, The Influence of Chinese Philosophy on Europe [中国哲学对欧洲的影响], Hebei People’s Publishing House, 1999).

We are facing a scenario in which the traditional elites of capitalism do not seem to know how to contain the various crises that afflict the system and as a result of these same crises we see the emergence of social and political movements with more radical approaches to confront capitalism and its consequences, even in the countries of the hard core of capitalism. How do you value these processes, seeing them from a historical and global perspective?

There has been a significant degradation of the intellectual vision of the traditional capitalist elites, whose mediocre representatives (Biden, Macron, Schulz) are a sign of this degradation. None of these leaders have any project to answer the compelling problems of our times, such as the perils of the climate catastrophe and the deepening gulf of social inequality. Rather, we hear from them the shop-worn ideas of privatisation and reliance upon private capital – which is organised to benefit itself – to solve universal problems. Instead of putting any new ideas to tackle the perils of our time on the table, the leaders of the traditional capitalist class in the West – at least – are eager to hasten conflicts with China and Russia as a way to compensate for their inability to succeed commercially against China, for example. China has advanced in several key areas of social production, such as in robotics, 5G, artificial intelligence, and green tech, and Chinese firms are able to outflank Western firms in many of these areas. Unable to raise the necessary public funds to respond to the challenge of Chinese social production and unwilling to sequester these funds from the private sector, the Western warrior states now move a dangerous agenda of conflict against China and Russia. That is the limit of their intellectual contribution to the problems of our time: confrontation rather than collaboration.

The habitual turn to confrontation from the Western warrior states and the traditional capitalist elites in these states is a great disappointment to the emerging capitalist elites in the Global South, who are therefore urging their own governments not to fall into the trap of global polarisation and confrontation. The emergence of a new ‘non-alignment’ is not driven by mass mobilisation and new social movements, which – to some extent – had been the case in the 20thcentury, but it is driven principally by these new capitalist elites who are cautious about being subordinate to the confrontation agenda of the Western warrior states. This new ‘non-alignment’ creates both challenges and contradictions for the political and social mass movements in the Global South, and for the Southern Left. What should be the stance of the Left in the South regarding these moves by the Southern capitalist elite? This question poses a debate about the strategy for our times, which is being answered in different ways in different countries, posing new ways to understand the united front for this moment.

In your most recent book, you talk with Noam Chomsky about various processes in the hegemonic crisis that US imperialism is experiencing. Particularly in the implications of the disastrous troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. What are the implications for Western and especially American hegemony, as we have known it, the growing strength and interconnectedness of powers like Russia and China and related processes, such as the war in Ukraine and the withdrawal itself that I already mentioned?

There is no doubt that the Western warrior states have exhausted their resources and will to lead a world order built around the advantages of imperialism. This was clear after the Great Depression of 2007-08, which led Western capital to further retreat from any responsibility to Western states, and it was clear after the failure of the US wars since 2001 (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya) and of the US hybrid wars of the recent period (against Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela). The new language of ‘non-alignment’ which has emerged in the Global South, regardless of its non-socialist character, is a symptom of the decline of Western authority. Now, it is clear that the situation is not merely about the decline of US and Western authority but about the changing balance of forces in the world. First, since 2008, there has been the growth of the Chinese economy, which has been guided by state control (under the leadership of the Communist Party of China). Second, this growth enabled the Chinese state as well as the economic forces inside China to build a regional and then global project called the Belt and Road Initiative from 2013. Third, alongside the development of the Belt and Road Initiative across Asia and parts of Europe – in the initial years – we saw the revival of the Russian state and its economic forces through the re-establishment of state power over the energy sector and over the oligarchy as well as the increasing importance of Russian energy sales to Europe. These processes – alongside the buoyancy of the economies of the Global South (from Indonesia to Mexico) – came alongside the assertion of ideas of sovereignty and South-South economic development. What we see as a result of these manoeuvres is the integration of Eurasia that is not dominated by the United States, and it is this integration of both Eurasia and other parts of the world independent of Washington that provoked the US conflicts against China and Russia, with the epicentres at Ukraine and Taiwan. The conflict in Ukraine – which began over ten years ago – is part of the attempt by the Western warrior states to isolate Russia and to bring it to heel; the conflict over Taiwan and Chinese economic forces mimics that conflict, but it has thus far – thanks to the prudent behaviour of the Chinese leadership – not broken out into a shooting war.

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

I believe that we are near the end of the era of US supremacy, that the autumnal crisis for the decline of US power is evident. This is a long process, since the US continues to have dominance in military affairs and in the information war. It will take a long time for US power to erode. The new forces that are emerging are not keen on establishing a multipolar world, however. This is clear from public statements that come from Beijing, as well as from other capitals in the advanced sections of the Global South. Instead, the appetite in these quarters is for a two-pronged development. First, that as the US withdraw its tentacles from interference in world affairs, more robust regionalism must be developed. This is already evident through such forums as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Countries (CELAC) and in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Second, that the countries whose influence is growing in the world – such as the BRICS states – have made it clear that they would like to establish the authority of multilateral organisations as primary in global discussions. These include the United Nations agencies as well as the various non-UN platforms for global dialogue and action. These two concepts of regionalism and multilateralism prevail in the discussions in the Global South, and not matters of new hegemony or of multipolarity. Neither China nor Russia have indicated any interest in a new Beijing or Moscow Consensus and neither are shaping the world order in such a way as to necessitate ‘one single master’ (the quote is from Putin, when he said at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 that the world does not need ‘one single master’).

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

The reservoirs of the working-class forces – including precarious workers and the peasantry – globally have been depleted by the process of globalisation. Leading revolutionary parties have found it difficult to maintain and to extend their strength in the context of democratic systems that have been taken over by money power. The weakness of the Left in our times must be registered. That is why it is incumbent upon revolutionary forces to be very smart in developing strategies and tactics to build our own strength and to marshal whatever strength we must drive forward an agenda. Building united front and popular front agendas, therefore, is key. Additionally, it is very important for us to build our own ranks through political education, the battle of ideas and the battle of emotions, and through sustained building of organisations and through precise mobilisation of the masses.

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