A Critique of Gerald Horne’s ‘The Counterrevolution of 1776’: A case study of the US left’s retreat from materialist history By: Marius TrotterRead Now
(I want to credit Fred Schelger for his excellent analysis of Horne’s book posted on the World Socialist Website 17 March 2021. A lot of his critiques that I get into here are ones he pointed out in his own article. For the sake of coherence and completeness, I go over some of the same ground that he covers in his article, while adding a number of observations of my own)
The New York Times 1619 Project, unveiled in 2019, was a watershed in the woke cultural revolution during the Trump years. Supposedly a clear eyed interrogation of the continuing legacy of slavery in American economics, politics and culture, the project was mired in controversy. One of the most incendiary claims made in the pages of the newspaper of record was the introductory essay by NY Times columnist Hannah Nicole Jones, who made the inflammatory assertion that the American Revolution was waged to preserve the institution of slavery for fear that the British were about to abolish it:
“Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South…In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue”
This claim aroused furious indignation on the right and passionate defense of this position on the left. After being pressured to provide a source for this claim, Jones said in a tweet that was later deleted that the source was the book ‘The Counter Revolution of 1776’ by University of Houston history professor Gerald Horne.
In this book, published by the New York University Press in 2014, Horne makes four central claims: First, Horne argues that the British Empire in the late 18th century was moving in the direction of the abolition of slavery. Horne places special emphasis on the Somerset court decision in London on June 22, 1772 (more on this later), as well as the Lord Dunmore proclamation of November 7, 1775.
Second, Horne contends that the British were pressured in this direction by a wave of violent slave rebellions, both in the Caribbean and North American colonies as well as free maroon communities in the Spanish colonies, particularly Spanish ruled Florida. Thus Horne argues, the British decided peaceful emancipation was preferable to the violent overthrow of the institution.
Third, Horne contends the British Empire’s move towards abolition provoked a violent backlash from the white colonists, who opted towards independence in order to preserve the institution. In essence, what happened in 1776 was little different from the secession of the Confederacy in 1861, the difference being that the insurgents in 1776 succeeded.
Fourth, this therefore means that the American Revolution of 1776 was not a progressive step forward in world history, but a reactionary event. The logical inference that results from this line is that people of African descent (as well as Native Americans) would have been better off had British rule continued, or perhaps could have maneuvered into a position where they could have thrown off white domination entirely. The bourgeois democratic revolutions of America as well as France were not only distinct from, but directly antagonistic to the liberation movements of the enslaved and colonized, and remain so to this day, Horne argues.
How do these claims stand up to factual scrutiny? Let us examine each in turn.
1. The British Empire in the late 18th century was moving in the direction of the abolition of slavery
Horne spills a considerable amount of ink on detailing the Somerset case, a 1772 court decision which ruled the practice of chattel slavery illegal in England or Wales. This law did not apply to Britain’s overseas empire, where nearly all of the nearly one million Africans enslaved by the British actually resided. Nonetheless, Horne insists that the colonists in the 13 colonies saw the ruling as a bellwether for eventual abolition in North America, and this spurred them to rebellion.
As evidence that this court ruling was infuriating to the pro slavery colonials, Horne starts off by quoting a Virginia newspaper supposedly opposing the ruling:
“Is it in the power of Parliament to make such a Law? Can any human law abrogate the divine? The laws of Nature are the laws of God”
The source cited, a 1772 issue of the Virginia Gazette, available online in its original text, says something quite different:
“It has been said that Lord Mansfield has advised a law respecting the property of Negroes in England. Is it in the power of Parliament to make such a Law? Can any human law abrogate the divine? The Laws of Nature are the laws of God. By those laws a Negro cannot be less free than a man of any other complexion. If Negroes are to be slaves on account of their colour, the next step will be to enslave every Mulatto in the Kingdom, than every Portuguese, next the French, then the brown complexioned English, and so on till there be only one free man left, which will be the man of the palest complexions in the three kingdoms!”
What Horne presents as a pro slavery argument is in fact an anti slavery one, and an anti racist one at that. And this is only on the very first page of the book.
This is only the beginning of the problems with Horne’s assertions about the importance of the 1772 Somerset trial as an instigating event. There is no reference to this trial in any of the vital documents of the American Revolution, not the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitutional Convention, not the Articles of Confederation, nowhere.
None of the Founding Fathers- not George Washington, nor Thomas Jefferson, nor Alexander Hamilton, nor James Madison, nor Patrick Henry, made any statement in their voluminous public statements or private correspondence about the Somerset court ruling being a motivating factor in desiring independence, or that they felt slavery as an institution was under threat.
The 1770’s was not a politically correct era. If preserving the institution of chattel slavery was at issue, men like the Founders would have had no problem declaring so. By analogy, every one of the Southern states which broke from the Union in 1861 to preserve slavery when they considered it under threat openly and proudly gave that as the reason in their documents of secession.
The only Founding Father who had anything at all to say about the Somerset ruling was Benjamin Franklin, well known as a prominent abolitionist. His remarks on it, published in the London Chronicle, were:
“It is said that some generous humane persons subscribed to the expence of obtaining liberty by law for Somerset the Negro.2 It is to be wished that the same humanity may extend itself among numbers; if not to the procuring liberty for those that remain in our Colonies, at least to obtain a law for abolishing the African commerce in Slaves, and declaring the children of present Slaves free after they become of age…Pharisaical Britain! to pride thyself in setting free a single Slave that happens to land on thy coasts, while thy Merchants in all thy ports are encouraged by thy laws to continue a commerce whereby so many hundreds of thousands are dragged into a slavery that can scarce be said to end with their lives, since it is entailed on their posterity!”
Thus, the only Founder to have a recorded opinion on the case disparaged it as meaningless symbolism, not to mention hypocrisy. In his 252 page book, Horne only briefly mentions Franklin four times, and nowhere does he mention this quote.
The other event that Horne emphasizes as an indication that the British Empire was on the cusp of abolishing slavery is the Proclamation of Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, in November 1775, offering freedom to slaves who volunteered to fight for the British Crown.
Again, this can simply be refuted by basic chronology alone. Dunmore’s proclamation couldn’t have incited the rebellion of the colonists for the very simple reason that the rebellion had already started. In November 1775, the war had already been going on for six or seven months. The opening skirmishes of Lexington and Concord were on April 19, 1775, the siege of Boston by Patriot militias began two days later, the Battle of Bunker Hill was on June 17, 1775, King George III officially declared the 13 North American colonies to be in rebellion on August 23, 1775. Dunmore’s proclamation was responding to events as a war measure, not instigating them.
Horne presents this order as evidence that the British were an abolitionist force, yet he himself admits that George Washington also made offers to free slaves in exchange for military service, yet “observers should view with skeptical restraint the crassly pragmatic post 1776 attempt by rebels to recruit and assuage Africans- as suggested by Washington’s orders to free Negroes- a solicitude that virtually disintegrated on cue after London was ousted from the 13 colonies”. How can this exact same logic not be applied to the British? Why is it a bold abolitionist move when London did it, but only ‘crassly pragmatic’ when the Patriots offered it? Both sides were leveraging support from Africans for an advantage on the battlefield, neither was interested in abolishing slavery as an institution.
The reliability of Horne’s citations aside, another problem with this narrative of the late 18th century British Empire moving in the direction of abolition is that it is at odds with the well documented imperial policy of London in that time period. For the second half of the 1700’s and into the early 19th century, the Crown was not only not drawing down the slave trade, it was actively using armed force to expand and accelerate the practice.
For example, Horne discusses the British conquest of Havana, Cuba, in 1762 several times in the course of his text. Yet he omits a crucial aspect of the ten month British occupation of Havana. During that brief time period, the British imported 4,000 additional slaves, a huge increase given that a total of 60,000 slaves had been brought into Havana over the previous 243 years of Spanish rule, an average of only 250 a year. In this one year, the British imported 8-10% of ALL slaves sent to Cuba up to that point. The British authorities also expanded the plantation system focused on the export of sugar, which came to dominate Cuba’s economy well into the 20th century. Even after the city was returned to the Spanish, the British merchants continued to traffick slaves to Havana on a large scale. This occupation, although brief, is widely believed to have locked Cuba into a dependant relationship on the northern Atlantic British free trade system- including their slave trade.
At variance with these facts, Horne asserts, incredibly, that “there was so much anger on the [North American] mainland about London’s decision to limit the slave trade to Cuba during its brief rule”!
Thirty years later, the British undertook another aggressive military expedition to strengthen the slave trade, also in the Caribbean. In August 1793, the revolutionary French republic, in the face of the Haitian slave rebellion, issued a proclamation declaring slavery abolished in the northern half of its colony. The very next month (September 1793), the British invaded Haiti and were welcomed as liberators by the French slave owners, who were monarchists that despised the new French republic. Everywhere the British soldiers went, they put the slaves back in bondage. They were driven back and defeated by a combined French/black rebel army led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, but only after five years of brutal fighting, 60,000 of their men dead, and millions of pounds of the British treasury wasted- one of the most costly defeats the British Empire suffered in its history.
Is this the behavior of an empire that was anywhere near abolishing slavery? Hardly.
It also presents a problem for Horne’s thesis of a divergence of interests between overseas colonial merchants passionately believing in the free market, and the British Crown attempting to restrain them. The reality is that classical liberal economics and the iron fist of the Royal Navy went hand in hand- the raw power of the British military forcefully broke open any societies that had the temerity to attempt to close their ports to British commerce.
When the British finally did abolish slavery in all their colonies for good by 1838, it was a full 62 years after the American colonies had declared their independence. Every one of the Founding Fathers (unless you count John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams) was dead and buried by that point. In an era when much of humanity still didn’t live beyond the age of 40, this was almost two entire generations after 1776.
But that’s not the end of the story. Even when slavery was abolished in Britain’s formal colonies, slavery was still integral to the British economy. Their textile industry was highly dependant on cotton imported from the American South, picked by slaves.
When the American Civil War broke out, the British elite was heavily predisposed to favoring the Confederacy. For the first two years of the war, despite being officially neutral, Britain acted as an unofficial ally of the South, actively assisting their war effort. Confederate blockade runners and warships were built in the shipyards of Liverpool, a city which had prospered for centuries from the slave trade.
What deterred Britain from overtly intervening on the side of the South was mass opposition from the British working class, which identified with the democratic and egalitarian values of the Union cause. As recounted by WEB Dubois in ‘Black Reconstruction’:
“The [Emancipation] Proclamation had an undoubted and immediate effect upon England. The upper classes were strongly in favor of the Confederacy, and sure that the Yankees were fighting only for a high tariff and hurt vanity. Free trade England was repelled by this program, and attracted by the free trade which the Confederacy offered…Notwithstanding this, the English workers stood up for the abolition of Negro slavery, and protested against the intervention of the English…During the winter of 1862-63, meeting after meeting in favor of emancipation was held. The reaction in England to the Emancipation Proclamation was too enthusiastic for the government to take any radical step. Great meetings in Manchester and London stirred the nation…In the monster meeting of English workingmen at St. James Hall, London, March 26, 1863, John Bight spoke, and John Stuart Mill declared that ‘Higher political and social freedom has been established in the United States’. Karl Marx testified that this meeting held in 1863 kept Lord Palmerston from declaring war on the United States”
Thus, nearly a century after Horne declares that Britain was moving rapidly towards slave emancipation, the British government was seriously considering going to war to defend slavery, and their hand was only stayed by their own working class.
2. The British were pressured in the direction of abolition by a wave of violent slave rebellions, both in the Caribbean and North American colonies.
Horne makes a convoluted and contradictory argument in this regard. He spends six chapters building a case that the system of slavery in the colonial British ruled American South was under constant threat from slave revolt, especially emanating from free ‘maroon’ communities of runaway slaves operating in French and Spanish territories, especially Spanish ruled Florida. Chapter 4 of Horne’s book goes into great detail about how Georgia was originally founded as an all white colony in 1735 to function as a ‘white wall’ to protect the institution of slavery in South Carolina, a colony where enslaved Africans outnumbered whites. By forbidding the presence of Africans in Georgia, there was a physical buffer against both slaves escaping South Carolina and maroon insurgents sowing discord from Spanish Florida. Horne spends Chapter 5 on the Stono slave rebellion in 1739 South Carolina, in which 24 whites were killed, indicating the fragility of the slave system there at the time.
The problem with Horne’s contention is that the threat of successful slave insurrection rapidly receded from that point onwards in the decades leading up to the American Revolution. This was due to a series of British military victories which pushed both the Spanish and the French out of North America, depriving rebellious slaves of their safe havens, first in the so-called War of Jenkins Ear from 1739 to 1748 (a subset of the War of Austrian Succession), and finally the French and Indian War of 1756 to 1763 (a subset of the global Seven Years War). Spain lost its colony of Florida in 1763, which passed to British control for twenty years(1763-1783).
Losing their safe havens, rebellious activity amongst the slaves went into marked decline in the latter half of the 18th century in North America. After the 1739 Stono revolt and the (alleged) slave conspiracy in New York in 1741, there are no significant slave rebellions or conspiracies on record until the 1800 Gabriel Prosser conspiracy in Virginia(after the American Revolution succeeded). In his classic work ‘American Negro Slave Revolts’, Herbert Aptheker notes that after 1741: “So far as available records go the next generation is one during which there was a marked decline of organized rebellious activity on the part of the Negro slaves”
After expending close to 100 pages talking about how mortified colonists were at the prospects of slave revolution emanating from Spanish Florida, Horne does a baffling about face. He claims -incredibly- that the destruction of the rebellious havens of maroons and the retreat of foreign powers who could aid slave revolts gave the colonists more confidence to rebel against the Crown!:
“The apparent eradication of the threat from both France and Spain to the mainland set the stage for the North American colonies to follow up aggressively on their wartime intimate dealings with London’s European antagonists and forge what amounted to a de facto alliance against Britain, as was reflected in 1776.”
But why? Why would the extirpation of the threats that bedeviled the colonists for decades make them rebel against Britain? Wouldn’t the British triumph in North America make the institution of slavery more secure than ever? And as already demonstrated previously, London wasn’t in any hurry to abolish slavery contrary to Horne’s claims, so what was the impetus for this explosion of rebellion in the 1770’s, except for reasons unrelated to slavery?
Seemingly to distract the reader from this dilemma, Horne spends a lot of time going into great detail about slave rebellions in the Caribbean, especially Jamaica and Antigua, which remained constant even in the period when they were in decline in North America. But this simply raises more questions. If the rebellion of the 13 colonies was motivated by a desire to preserve slavery from a supposedly abolitionist British Empire, why was there no movement for independence in the West Indies? Why didn’t the Founding Fathers of the United States make an alliance with their fellow planters in Jamaica and elsewhere against London? The white population was far smaller, and more vulnerable to the menace of slave insurrection then it was anywhere in the 13 colonies. Yet the white settlers in Britain’s Caribbean colonies remained staunchly loyal to the Crown. These islands did not become independent until the 1950’s and 60’s. Horne simply ignores this gaping hole in his thesis.
3. The British Empire’s move towards abolition provoked a violent backlash from the white colonists, who opted towards independence in order to preserve the institution.
A prime example of supposed colonial backlash to London’s moves towards abolition put forward by Horne contains one of his books most blatant fabrications- his account of the so called ‘Gaspee’ incident of 1772:
“June 1772 proved to be a watershed, clarifying- in the eyes of many settlers- that London was moving towards abolition, which could jeopardize fortunes, if not lives…This was the import of the Somerset’s case, but, likewise, the same could be said of the Gaspee Affair…A climax was reached on 10 June 1772 in the wee hours of the morning, when a brig arriving from Africa, the Gaspee, entered Newport and was boarded by officers of the Crown. In response, a mob of about five hundred male settlers rioted, burning the British ship”
Nothing written here about this incident is factual. The ‘Gaspee’ was a British customs vessel attempting to prevent illegal smuggling out of Rhode Island. It was pursuing an American vessel ‘The Hannah’, which escaped the British when the ‘Gaspee’ vessel ran aground. Neither ship was arriving from Africa, none of the primary sources on this incident make any mention of this fact, as the Gaspee had been patrolling the Narragansett bay for months. It appears Horne simply invented this detail to imply the American vessel(actually the British one), had some sort of connection with slavery. In this vital section, two entire pages of this lengthy description of the Gaspee incident don’t have any footnote whatsoever, without even a hint of a source for this claim.
Another major problem with Horne’s argument is that if the American colonists were motivated to fight against the Crown to preserve slavery, then logically speaking the colonies where slavery was the most predominant economically would be hotbeds of Patriot sentiment.
Unfortunately for Horne’s thesis, the main strongholds of Loyalist, pro British sentiment amongst the colonists were in two places where slavery was the most widespread. New York City, where as many as one in five residents in the 18th century were slaves, was a hotbed of Loyalist sentiment. New York saw over 23,000 white colonists sign up to fight for the Crown, more than any other single state. The Southern states, particularly the Carolinas, also had large numbers of Loyalists, which was a large part of the reason why the British military strategy focused on those areas under the commands of Clinton and Cornwallis, hoping that operating in regions with a more friendly population would bring about a British victory. In South Carolina, a heavily slave dependent state Horne’s book puts so much emphasis on, approximately 25% of the white male colonist state population actively fought for the Crown or resisted the Patriots in some way, with many more passively refusing to obey Whig authority. New England, where slavery was least predominant as an institution, was where Loyalist sentiment was the weakest.
Horne completely ignores the fact that after the American rebels expelled the British, slavery was abolished in every colony north of Maryland in the thirty years after the Declaration of Independence. Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1780, in 1783 Massachusetts and New Hampshire abolished slavery, in Rhode Island and Connecticut it was abolished in 1784. New York abolished the practice in 1799, and in New Jersey slavery was abolished in 1804. Why did they go through all the trouble of expelling the British to preserve an institution they immediately made illegal? Horne often likes to point to the fact that the British abolished slavery in their empire thirty years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, yet the northern US states got rid of the practice thirty years before that.
4. The American Revolution of 1776 was not a progressive step forward in world history, but a reactionary event.
First, a word of clarification is in order. When Marxists use the term ‘progressive’, it is at odds with how the millennial American left nowadays employs it. When the latter use the term, they mean that a historical or current development, movement, or leader is ‘progressive’ in line with contemporary US progressive conceptions of racial or gender justice. In other words, the yardstick it uses is largely cultural and social. But this is not what Marxists mean when they use the term ‘progressive’. For an event, movement or leader to be ‘progressive’, that means it represents a transition to, or at least a movement towards, a more advanced economic mode of production. From hunter-gatherer societies to slave systems, from feudalism to capitalism, from capitalism to socialism.
By that criteria, the American Revolution of 1776 was certainly a progressive event- it represented the transition from the colonial, aristocratic monarchical system imposed on the 13 colonies by Britain to an independent bourgeois republic which allowed for the rise of American capitalism and the unleashing of its free market and industrial productive forces, which ushered in the modern era not only in America but the entire world. That many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves, did not see woman as equals, and considered those without property unworthy of the vote does not at all change the progressive nature of this event under this definition. The process that they set in motion was objectively of world historic importance, with consequences and implications far beyond even their subjective intentions.
Horne contends otherwise, claiming that the continuation of British rule would have been somehow to the benefit of people of African and indigenous descent:
“It is not self evident the aristocracy of class and ancestry that obtained in London was less humane and more retrograde than the aristocracy of ‘race’ that emerged in the aftermath of 1776…Canada, this massive nation is a kind of a control group allowing for a measurement of the fruits of 1776: is it the case that those groups- for example, Africans and the indigenous in the first place- who have been disfavored south of the St. Lawrence Seaway have fared worse than who of like ancestry north of this artery, notably in a way that would justify and sacralize the bloodletting that created the republic?…it is quite telling that Australia, so similar to the US in so many ways, has endured a raging controversy about its origins as a violently implanted redoubt of white supremacy in a way that dwarfs and overshadows any such conversation in the presumed revolutionary republic”
Canada didn’t have the climate or agriculture to sustain the sort of slave economy that the American South or the Caribbean did, thus the lack of a history of slavery there is due more to geography than anything else. As for the fate of the indigenous, this is simply a bizarre point to make. Indigenous people were subjected to the same genocide and land theft in Canada that they were in the United States. To this very day new mass graves of Native American children in residential schools are discovered in Canada- exactly like those in the United States. The record of the American republic towards Native Americans is a disgrace and a horror, yet the example of Canada shows that the defeat of the American Revolution would have made little difference in that regard.
The other example of Australia is dumbfounding- were not the Aborigines exterminated and massacred in the so called ‘Black Wars’? Why does it matter to the survivors that there is a ‘raging controversy’ amongst guilty liberals centuries after the fact? Have there not been countless ‘raging controversies’ in the United States about the legacy of slavery and indigenous genocide as well?
For Horne to contend that aristocratic and monarchial privilege was perhaps not as bad as, or even preferable to the racialized caste slave system that existed in the antebellum United States is to present a false dichotomy. The latter grew quite naturally out of the former, and once the first was overthrown, justifying the abolition of the latter became much more conceivable and justifiable. To quote historian of the American Revolution Gordon Wood:
“For a century or more the colonists had taken slavery more or less for granted as the most base and dependent status in a hierarchy of dependencies…Rarely had they felt the need to criticize black slavery or defend it. Now, however, the republican attack on dependency compelled Americans to see the deviant character of slavery and confront the institution as they never had before. It was no accident that Americans in Philadelphia in 1775 formed the first anti slavery society in the world. As long as most people had to work merely out of poverty…slavery and other forms of enforced labor did not seem all that different from free labor. But the growing recognition that labor was not simply a common necessity of the poor but was in fact a source of increased wealth and prosperity for ordinary workers made slavery seem more and more anomalous.
Americans now recognized that slavery in a republic of workers was an aberration, a ‘peculiar institution’, and that if any Americans were to retain it…they would have to explain or justify it in new racial and anthropological ways that their former monarchial society had never needed. The Revolution in effect set in motion ideological and social forces that doomed the institution in the North and led inexorably to the Civil War”
It is worth remarking on the fact that Horne considers himself to be coming out of the Marxist and Marxian tradition. Yet Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and many other socialist and Communist revolutionaries praised the 1776 American Revolution as a progressive event in its time, and a source of inspiration for their own revolutionary projects.
Lenin declared in his 1918 ‘Letter to American Workers’ that: “The history of modern, civilised America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few…That was the war the American people waged against the British robbers who oppressed America and held her in colonial slavery, in the same way as these ‘civilised’ bloodsuckers are still oppressing and holding in colonial slavery hundreds of millions of people in India, Egypt, and all parts of the world”. Mao Zedong said in a 1965 interview that “The United States…had first fought a progressive war of independence from British imperialism, and then fought a civil war to establish a free labor market. Washington and Lincoln were progressive men of their time. When the United States first established a republic it was hated and dreaded by all the crowned heads of Europe. That showed that the Americans were then revolutionaries”. Ho Chi Minh used words from the American Declaration of Independence when declaring Vietnam independent of French colonial rule on September 2, 1945.
Horne briefly acknowledges this, but tries to glibly explain it away, by saying that Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and other revolutionaries were merely being motivated ‘more by diplomatic niceties and protocol than anything else’. The notion that leaders of revolutionary projects which were literally at war with US imperialism would be primarily motivated by diplomatic niceties is, again, something that is very difficult to believe.
What’s also rather stunning about Horne’s treatment of the American Revolution is the lack of engagement with previous Marxist scholarship on the subject, odd for someone who claims to come from that tradition. In ‘The Counter Revolution of 1776’, there is not even a passing acknowledgement of the foundational work of WEB Dubois, Herbert Aptheker [especially his classic work ‘Negro Slave Rebellions’], Eugene Genovese and so many others who had written on the American Revolution and slavery while applying a Marxist class analysis. The notion that all these sharp scholars, famed for training their laser eyes on aspects of history buried or obscured by the ruling class, would have failed to uncover a historical fact as enormous as the American colonial rebellion of 1776 being motivated by slavery, strains credulity to a breaking point.
In addition to being shoddy scholarship, ‘The Counter Revolution of 1776’ has a quite reactionary message- it presents the British Empire as a politically progressive historical force, at the very least more progressive than the anti monarchical, anti aristocratic revolutions which challenged it. Given the known historical record of British imperialism in India, Ireland, Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, China and countless other places, to anyone with even a passing knowledge of history this is a bizarre position to advance, not to mention hideous for anyone that's a proponent of left wing politics. The fact that it has been smuggled into liberal/left discourse inside the Trojan horse of anti-racism is all the more alarming.
There are many more factual errors, contradictory arguments, and questionable citations that abound in Horne’s tome. It was quite a labor to try to concisely fit the most egregious examples into a single article. In light of the problems with the book, the more important question is why has this woke Anglophile narrative of history acquired such currency amongst the American liberal/leftist intelligentsia? That is what the next article will attempt to address.
 Shelger, Fred. ‘Gerald Horne’s Counter Revolution Against 1776’, World Socialist Website, 17 March 2021. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2021/03/18/horn-m18.html
 Jones, Nikole-Hannah. ‘Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans fought to make them true’. New York Times, published August 14, 2019.
 Nikole Hannah-Jones (@nhannahjones), Twitter, December 21, 2019: ‘Sure, you can start with the texts cited in our response. Also, Gerald Horne’s Counter Revolution of 1776. Sylvia Frey, Water from the Rock. All these should be helpful. Thank you for the respectful exchange.’
 Horne, Gerald. ‘The Counter Revolution of 1776, NYU Press, 2014. P. 1
 Virginia Gazette, August 20, 1772, Rockefeller Library Collections: https://research.colonialwilliamsburg.org/DigitalLibrary/va-gazettes/VGSinglePage.cfm?IssueIDNo=72.PD.37
 Horne, pages 19, 209, 230, 234
 Horne, p. 239.
 The 1762 British siege of Havana is discussed on eleven separate occasions in Horne’s book, as listed in the index
 Childs, Matt D. 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle against Atlantic Slavery, University of North Carolina Press, 2006, p. 24.
 Horne, p. 193
 Dubois, Laurent (2005). Avengers of the New World. Harvard University Press, p. 167.
‘Liverpool’s Abercromby Square and the Confederacy during the US Civil War’, website of the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, Charleston College
 Dubois, WEB. ‘Black Reconstruction’, pp. 87-89.
 Aptheker, Herbert. ‘American Negro Slave Rebellions”, Columbia University Press, 2008 edition, p.196
 Horne, p. 182
 Horne, pages 203-204.
 Horne, p.250
 Wood, Gordon. ‘The Radicalism of the American Revolution’, Vintage Books(Random House), 1991., pages 186-87.
 Lenin, Vladimir I. ‘Letter to American Workers’, Pravda, 20 August 1918. https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/aug/20.htm
 Zedong, Mao. ‘South of the Mountains To North of the Seas’, Interview with Edgar Snow, 9 January 1965.
 ‘Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’ http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5139/
 Horne, p. 250.
Since 1975, thousands of Sahrawi people have lived in five refugee camps in the Algerian Sahara. They named these camps after cities in Western Sahara: Ausserd, Boujdour, Dakhla, Laayoune, and Smara. In a straight line, Smara the camp is some 400 kilometers from Smara the city. But a sand berm, built in the 1980s by Morocco, makes the distance unassailable. At 2,700 kilometers, the berm is the second-longest military fortification in the world, after the Great Wall of China. Reinforced with ditches and barbed wire fences, artillery and tanks, guarded outposts, and millions of land mines, the sand berm partitions Western Sahara—separating 80 percent of Western Sahara controlled by Morocco from the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic—which is recognized by the United Nations as the last “non-self-governing territory” in Africa. In 1991, MINURSO, the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, announced a plebiscite that would give the Sahrawi people a choice: independence or integration with Morocco. In April 1991, the Sahrawi people packed their belongings in boxes, choosing the former.
Seeking access to Western Sahara’s rich coastline, Spain first seized the territory after European colonizers partitioned Africa at the West African Conference of Berlin that took place from November 1884 to February 1885. By the 1970s, facing resistance from the Sahrawi people and increasing internal pressures, the regime of Francisco Franco in Spain agreed to hold a referendum on independence, which never took place. Spain eventually pulled out from Western Sahara. Meanwhile, to the south and the north, Mauritania and Morocco had set their sights on Western Sahara’s resources. In November 1975, despite a judgment from the International Court of Justice that neither Mauritania nor Morocco had territorial sovereignty over the land, Morocco sent 25,000 troops and 350,000 settlers to Western Sahara. On November 14, Spain signed the tripartite Madrid Accords with Morocco and Mauritania, effectively ceding Western Sahara to its invaders.
The Polisario Front, a national liberation movement formed in 1973 to oppose Spanish colonialism, now fought on two fronts. Supported by Algeria, it defeated the Mauritanians in 1978. But Morocco retained its control over Western Sahara—with significant backing from Western powers, including the United States and members of NATO. At the Museum of Resistance in the camps, the Polisario keeps weapons of war captured during its struggle—tanks, airplanes, artillery, and armored vehicles from Austria, Germany, France, Spain, the U.S., Belgium, and apartheid South Africa.
Morocco controls 80 percent of Western Sahara. In the other 20 percent, the Polisario Front governs the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, a state battling for recognition. Armed conflict continued until Morocco and the Polisario agreed to a ceasefire in September 1991 overseen by MINURSO. “I was just coming back from Syria, a young graduate, having lived my entire life within this liberation process,” Oubi Bachir, a diplomat for the Polisario Front, told me. “I discovered not just hope, but jubilation. Finally, we were going home.” The Sahrawi people packed boxes to take their belongings back to Western Sahara. But as the boxes gathered dust, jubilation turned to frustration. The independence referendum has failed to take place—and the possibilities for armed struggle only reemerged when Morocco broke the ceasefire in 2020. The Sahrawi liberation movement, Bachir said, was “built on the armed struggle as the dominating pillar of action. That was taken away with no practical process in its place.”
Imperialism in Western Sahara
Western Sahara is a rich land. It has some 72 percent of the world’s phosphate deposits, which are used to manufacture fertilizers. By the end of November 2021, Morocco reported revenues of $6.45 billion from phosphates, an amount that increases each year. Western Sahara’s fishing grounds accounted for 77.65 percent of Moroccan catches in 2018, representing the majority of its income from fishing that year. The European Union, too, operates a fleet in these waters. In 2018, a judgment of the Court of Justice of the EU struck down the 2000 Euro-Mediterranean Agreement between Morocco and the EU as “incompatible with the principles of self-determination.” But the EU continues to act in violation of the judgment, funding highly destructive fishing practices in the occupied territory. Scientists warn that overfishing in Western Sahara is rapidly destroying a critical biodiversity hotspot.
Morocco and its international backers have their sights on two other resources abundant in the territory: wind and sunlight. In 2018, using German technology, the UK firm Windhoist built the 200 MW Aftissat wind farm in Western Sahara. Vigeo Eiris, a UK-French company that has been “investigating companies operating in occupied Palestine,” certified Moroccan energy investments on Sahrawi land. General Electric signed a contract to build a 200 MW wind farm in Western Sahara. Greenwashing its occupation in Western Sahara, Morocco uses the infrastructure in reporting toward its climate targets. Western Sahara Resource Watch estimates that the wind power plants in the territory could account for 47.2 percent of Morocco’s wind capacity and up to 32.64 percent of its solar capacity by 2030.
The People Bloom
“We call this the desert within the desert,” Mohamed El Mamun, a Polisario Front representative, told me on a drive between two camps. The sand is so salty, the water so scarce, that few things can grow. Yet in the five decades since the five camps have existed, the Sahrawi people have made great strides toward building a dignified society in them. They eliminated illiteracy. They built universal education and the infrastructure to extract and distribute water to the people. Mass movements ensure the participation of women, workers, and the youth in the project of liberation. Health care is free, and a small experiment in aquaponic farming promises to grow food in one of the most arid places on Earth.
The camps depend almost entirely on foreign aid, a resource that is rapidly depleting. As of November 10, 2022, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Algeria mission, a key source of humanitarian assistance to the Sahrawis, was only 39 percent funded. The UN has warned that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict risks further eroding that support. Here, socialist internationalism plays an important role. In the Smara camp, Venezuela and Cuba built a school. The Simón Bolívar School is staffed by Cuban teachers. More than 100 Sahrawis have graduated from the school since it opened in 2011. Some of the alumni went on to study in Cuba, returning as doctors, engineers, and teachers. Nearby, a man who calls himself Castro established the Center for Education and Integration, which prepares children with severe disabilities to live a dignified life. Above its entrance, a sign reads: “Neither plants nor trees grow here, but people bloom.”
Paweł Wargan is an organizer and researcher based in Berlin and the coordinator of the secretariat of the Progressive International.
This article was produced by Globetrotter.
“Founding Father” George Washington was a rich slave owner who owed his fortune to the stolen labor of kidnapped Africans. Image: Popular Graphic Arts. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Contrary to the mythology we learn in school, the founding fathers feared and hated the concept of democracy—which they derisively referred to as “tyranny of the majority.” The constitution that they wrote reflects this, and seeks to restrict and prohibit involvement of the masses of people in key areas of decision making. The following article, originally written in 2008, reviews the true history of the constitution and its role in the political life of the country.
The ruling class of today—the political and social successors to the “founding fathers”—continues to have a fundamental disdain for popular participation in government. The right wing of the elite is engaged in an all-out offensive against basic democratic rights and democracy itself. This offensive relies heavily on the Supreme Court and the legal doctrine of constitutional “originalism”. Originalism means that the only rights and policies that are protected are ones that are explicitly laid out in the constitution, conforming with the “original” intentions of the founders. As the article explores, this was a thoroughly anti-democratic set up that sought to guarantee the power and wealth of the elite.
In history and civics classrooms all over the United States, students are taught from an early age to revere the “Founding Fathers” for drafting a document that is the bulwark of democracy and freedom—the U.S. Constitution. We are taught that the Constitution is a work of genius that established a representative government, safeguarded by the system of “checks and balances,” and guarantees fundamental rights such as the freedom of speech, religion and assembly. According to this mythology, the Constitution embodies and promotes the spirit and power of the people.
Why, then, if the country’s founding document is so perfect, has the immense suffering of the majority of its people—as a result of exploitation and oppression—been a central feature of the U.S.? How could almost half of the population be designated poor or low income? Why would the U.S. have the world’s largest and most extensive prison system? If the Constitution, the supreme law of this country, was written to protect and promote the interests of the people, why didn’t it include any guarantees to the most basic necessities of life?
This contradiction between reality and rhetoric can be understood by examining the conditions under which the U.S. Constitution was drafted, including the class background of the drafters. Although it is touted today as a document enshrining “democratic values,” it was widely hated by the lower classes that had participated in the 1776-1783 Revolutionary War. Popular opposition was so great, in fact, that the drafting of the Constitution had to be done in secret in a closed-door conference.
The purpose of the Constitution was to reorganize the form of government so as to enhance the centralized power of the state. It allowed for national taxation that provided the funds for a national standing army. Local militias were considered inadequate to battle the various Native American nations whose lands were coveted by land speculators. A national army was explicitly created to suppress slave rebellions, insurgent small farmers and the newly emerging landless working class that was employed for wages.
The goal of the Constitution and the form of government was to defend the minority class of affluent property owners against the anticipated “tyranny of the majority.” As James Madison, a principal author of the Constitution, wrote: “But the most common and durable source of factions [dissenting groups] has been the various and unequal distribution of property” .
The newly centralized state set forth in the Constitution was also designed to regulate interstate trade. This was necessary since cutthroat competition between different regions and states was degenerating into trade wars, boycotts and outright military conflict.
The U.S. Congress was created as a forum where commercial and political conflicts between merchants, manufacturers and big farmers could be debated and resolved without resort to economic and military war.
Conditions leading to the U.S. Revolution
To understand the class interests reflected in the Constitution, it is necessary to examine the social and economic conditions of the time. In the decades leading up to the U.S. revolutionary period, colonial society was marked by extreme oppression and class disparities.
The economies of the colonies were originally organized in the interests of the British merchant capitalists who profited by trade with the colonies. These interests were guaranteed by the British monarchy headed by King George III. In the southern colonies like Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas, a settler class of slave-owning big planters grew rich providing the cotton that fed Britain’s massive textile manufacturing industry.
In the northern colonies, merchant economies in the port cities and associated small manufacturing industries formed the basis for the division between rich and poor. In the countryside, huge landowners who owed their holdings to privilege in Europe squeezed the limited opportunities of small farmers.
In 1700, for example, 75 percent of land in colonial New York state belonged to fewer than 12 individuals. In Virginia, seven individuals owned over 1.7 million acres . By 1767, the richest 10 percent of Boston taxpayers held about 66 percent of Boston’s taxable wealth, while the poorest 30 percent of taxpayers had no property at all . Similar conditions could be found throughout the colonies. Clearly, there was an established ruling class within the colonies, although this grouping was ultimately subordinate to the British crown.
On the other hand, the majority of society—Black slaves, Native Americans, indentured servants and poor farmers—experienced super-exploitation and oppression. Women of all classes had, like their peers in Europe, no formal political rights.
With these growing class antagonisms, the 18th century was characterized by mass discontent, which led to frequent demonstrations and even uprisings by those on the bottom rung of colonial society.
Between 1676 and 1760, there were at least 18 uprisings aimed at overthrowing a colonial government. There were six slave rebellions as well as 40 riots like the numerous tenant uprisings in New Jersey and New York directed against landlords . Many of these uprisings were directed at the local elite and not the British Empire.
This local elite in colonial society found itself squeezed between the wrath of the lower working classes, on one side, and the British Empire, on the other.
Following the 1763 British victory in the Seven Years’ War in Europe, which included the so-called French and Indian War in North America, the French position as a colonial power competing with Britain was seriously downgraded as a result of their defeat. The French did send troops and military aid to support the colonists in their war for independence from Britain a decade later.
Following the defeat of the French in 1763, George III attempted to stabilize relations with Native Americans, who had fought primarily alongside the defeated French, by issuing the Proclamation of 1763. This decree declared Indian lands beyond the Appalachians out of bounds for colonial settlers, thereby limiting vast amounts of wealth the settlers could steal from the indigenous people. Chauvinist expansionism thus became fuel for anti-British sentiment in the colonies.
Making matters worse for the colonists, the British Empire began demanding more resources from the colonies to pay for the war. In 1765, the British Parliament passed the fourth Stamp Act, basically increasing taxes on the colonists. The Stamp Act of 1765 incited anger across all class strata, including British merchants, and was ultimately repealed in 1766.
The struggle around the Stamp Act demonstrated a shift in power relations between the colonists and the British Empire. While the local American elites were in less and less need of Britain’s assistance, the British Empire was in ever growing need of the wealth and resources of the colonies.
In summary, there were at least four factors that would motivate the American “new rich” to seek independence from the British crown. First, the anger of the poor and oppressed against the rich could be deflected from the local elite and channeled into hatred of the British crown—developing a new sense of patriotism. Second, the wealth produced and extracted in the colonies would remain in the pockets of the local ruling class rather than being transferred to the British Empire. Third, the local ruling class would greatly increase its wealth through the confiscation of property of those loyal to Britain. And lastly, independence would nullify the Proclamation of 1763, opening up vast amounts of Native land.
Two points qualified the drive to independence, which ultimately manifested itself in the sizable “Loyalist” or pro-British population during the revolution. First, despite the conflict between the colonists and the British government over wealth, colonists and colonizers were united against the Native American population, whom both tried to massacre and loot. The revolutionary struggle was not against exploitation, but to determine who would do the exploiting.
Secondly, in spite of the disputes over who got how much of the wealth generated by the colonies, this wealth primarily depended on the integration of the economy with British merchant capitalism. While the revolutionists wanted political distance from the empire, they could not afford a complete break.
The leaders of the U.S. Revolution
Revolutionary sentiment among the lowest classes of colonial society was largely spontaneous and unorganized. Leadership of the anti-British rebellion, groups like the Sons of Liberty, originated from the middle and upper classes. Some poor workers and farmers did join their ranks, allowing their leadership to garner popular support.
These leaders were conscious of the fact that only one class would be really liberated through independence from Britain: the local ruling class. However, in order to carry this out, they would have to create a façade of liberating the masses.
This is why the 1776 Declaration of Independence—the document used to inspire colonists to fight against Britain—includes language that was so much more radical than that of the 1787 U.S. Constitution. In fact, Thomas Jefferson had originally drafted a paragraph in the Declaration of Independence condemning George III for transporting slaves from Africa to the colonies and “suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce” . Jefferson himself personally owned hundreds of slaves until the day he died, but he understood the appeal such a statement would have.
Instead, the final draft of the Declaration accused the British monarchy of inciting slave rebellions and supporting Indian land claims against the settlers. “He [the king] has incited domestic insurrection amongst us,” the final version read, “and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages.”
Sixty-nine percent of the signers of the Declaration of Independence held colonial office under England. When the document was read in Boston, the Boston Committee of Correspondence ordered the townsmen to show up for a draft to fight the British. The rich avoided the draft by paying for substitutes, while the poor had no choice but to fight.
Slavery existed in all 13 British colonies, but it was the anchor for the economic system in the mid-Atlantic and southern states.
Thousands of slaves fought on both sides of the War of Independence. The British governor of Virginia had issued a proclamation promising freedom to any slave who could make it to the British lines—as long as their owner was not loyal to the British Crown. Tens of thousands of enslaved Africans did just that. Thousands managed to leave with the British when they were defeated, but tens of thousands more were returned to enslavement after the colonies won their “freedom” in 1783.
Following the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which established the independence of the colonies, vast amounts of wealth and land were confiscated from Loyalists. Some of this land was parceled out to small farmers to draw support for the new government.
While most Loyalists left the United States, some were protected. For instance, Lord Fairfax of Virginia, who owned over 5 million acres of land across 21 counties, was protected because he was a friend of George Washington—at that time, among the richest men in America .
The drafting of the Constitution
In May 1787, 55 men—now known as the “Founding Fathers”—gathered in Philadelphia at the Constitutional Convention to draft the new country’s legal principles and establish the new government. Alexander Hamilton—a delegate of New York, George Washington’s closest advisor and the first secretary of the treasury—summed up their task: “All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people… Give therefore to the first class a distinct permanent share in the government” . Indeed, the task of the 55 men was to draft a document that would guarantee the power and privileges of the new ruling class while making just enough concessions to deflect dissent from other classes in society.
Who were the Founding Fathers? It goes without saying that all the delegates were white, property-owning men. Citing the work of Charles Beard, Howard Zinn wrote, “A majority of them were lawyers by profession, most of them were men of wealth, in land, slaves, manufacturing or shipping, half of them had money loaned out at interest, and 40 of the 55 held government bonds” .
The vast majority of the population was not represented at the Constitutional Convention: There were no women, African Americans, Native Americans or poor whites. The U.S. Constitution was written by property-owning white men to give political power, including voting rights, exclusively to property-owning white men, who made up about 10 percent of the population.
Alexander Hamilton advocated for monarchical-style government with a president and senate chosen for life. The Constitutional Convention opted, rather, for a “popularly” elected House of Representatives, a Senate chosen by state legislators, a president elected by electors chosen by state legislators, and Supreme Court justices appointed by the president.
Democracy was intended as a cover. In the 10th article of the “Federalist Papers”—85 newspaper articles written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay advocating ratification of the U.S. Constitution—Madison wrote that the establishment of the government set forth by the Constitution would control “domestic faction and insurrection” deriving from “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal distribution of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.” During the convention, Alexander Hamilton delivered a speech advocating a strong centralized state power to “check the imprudence of democracy.”
It is quite telling that the Constitution took the famous phrase of the Declaration of Independence “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and changed it to “life, liberty and property.” The debates of the Constitutional Convention were largely over competing economic interests of the wealthy, not a debate between haves and have-nots.
The new Constitution legalized slavery. Article 4, Section 2 required that escaped slaves be delivered back to their masters. Slaves would count as three-fifths of a human being for purposes of deciding representation in Congress. The “three-fifths compromise” was between southern slave-holding delegates who wanted to count slaves in the population to increase their representation, while delegates from the northern states wanted to limit their influence and so not count slaves as people at all.
Furthermore, some of the most important constitutional rights, such as the right to free speech, the right to bear arms and the right to assembly were not intended to be included in the Constitution at all. The Bill of Rights was amended to the Constitution four years after the Constitutional Convention had adjourned so that the document could get enough support for ratification.
As a counter to the Bill of Rights, the Constitution gave Congress the power to limit these rights to varying degrees. For example, seven years after the Constitution was amended to provide the right to free speech, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it a crime to say or write anything “false, scandalous or malicious” against the government, Congress or president with the intent to defame or build popular hatred of these entities.
Today, many people look to the Constitution—and especially to the Bill of Rights—as the only guarantor of basic political rights. And while the Constitution has never protected striking workers from being beaten over the heads by police clubs while exercising their right to assemble outside plant gates, or protected revolutionaries’ right to freedom of speech as they are jailed or gunned down, the legal gains for those without property do need to be defended.
But defending those rights has to be done with the knowledge that the founding document of the United States has allowed the scourge of unemployment, poverty and exploitation to carry on unabated because it was a document meant to enshrine class oppression. A constitution for a socialist United States would begin with the rights of working and oppressed people.
During the period leading to the second U.S. Revolution, commonly known as the Civil War, militant opponents of slavery traveled the country to expose the criminal institution that was a bedrock of U.S. society. On July 4, 1854, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison burned a copy of the Constitution before thousands of supporters of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. He called it a “covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” referring to its enshrining of slavery.
The crowd shouted back, “Amen” .
Although slavery has been abolished, the property that is central to the Constitution—private property, the right to exploit the majority for the benefit of the tiny minority—remains. In that sense, Garrison’s words still ring true.
References James Madison, Federalist Papers, No. 10. Available here.
 Michael Parenti, Democracy for the Few, 9th ed. (Boston: Wadsworth, 1974/2011), 5.
 Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: Longman, 1980), 65.
 Ibid., 59.
 Ibid., 72.
 Ibid., 84.
 Cited in Howard Zinn, Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology (New York: Harper Collins, 1990), 152.
 Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 89.
 Zinn, Declarations of Independence, 231.
This article was republished from Liberation school.
Human Prehistory—Why New Discoveries About Human Origins Open Up Revolutionary Possibilities By: Jan Ritch-FrelRead Now
Discoveries in the fields of human origins, paleoanthropology, cognitive science, and behavioral biology have accelerated in the past few decades. We occasionally bump into news reports that new findings have revolutionary implications for how humanity lives today—but the information for the most part is still packed obscurely in the worlds of science and academia.
Some experts have tried to make the work more accessible, but Deborah Barsky’s new book, Human Prehistory: Exploring the Past to Understand the Future (Cambridge University Press, 2022), is one of the most authoritative yet. The breadth and synthesis of the work are impressive, and Barsky’s highly original analysis on the subject—from the beginnings of culture to how humanity began to be alienated from the natural world—keeps the reader engaged throughout.
Long before Jane Goodall began telling the world we would do well to study our evolutionary origins and genetic cousins, it was a well-established philosophical creed that things go better for humanity the more we try to know ourselves.
Barsky, a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution and associate professor at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) and Rovira i Virgili University in Tarragona, Spain, who came to this field through her decades of studying ancient stone tool technologies, writes early in her book that lessons learned from the remote past could guide our species toward a brighter future, but “that so much of the information that is amassed by prehistoric archeologists remains inaccessible to many people” and “appears far removed from our daily lives.” I reached out to Barsky in the early stage of her book launch to learn more.
Jan Ritch-Frel: What would you suggest a person consider as they hold a 450,000-year-old handaxe for the first time?
Deborah Barsky: I think everyone feels a deep-seated reverence when touching or holding such an ancient tool. Handaxes in particular carry so many powerful implications, including on the symbolic level. You have to imagine that these tear-shaped tools—the ultimate symbol of the Acheulian—appeared in Africa some 1.75 million years ago and that our ancestors continued creating and re-creating this same shape from that point onwards for more than a million and a half years!
These tools are the first ones recognized as having been made in accordance with a planned mental image. And they have an aesthetic quality, in that they present both bilateral and bifacial symmetry. Some handaxes were made in precious or even visually pleasing rock matrices and were shaped with great care and dexterity according to techniques developed in the longest-enduring cultural norm known to humankind.
And yet, in spite of so many years of studying handaxes, we still understand little about what they were used for, how they were used, and, perhaps most importantly, whether or not they carry with them some kind of symbolic significance that escapes us. There is no doubt that the human capacity to communicate through symbolism has been hugely transformative for our species.
Today we live in a world totally dependent on shared symbolic thought processes, where such constructs as national identity, monetary value, religion, and tradition, for example, have become essential to our survival. Complex educational systems have been created to initiate our children into mastering these constructed realities, integrating them as fully as possible into this system to favor their survival within the masses of our globalized world. In the handaxe we can see the first manifestations of this adaptive choice: to invest in developing symbolic thought. That choice has led us into the digital revolution that contemporary society is now undergoing. Yet, where all of this will lead us remains uncertain.
JRF: Your book shows that it is more helpful to us if we consider the human story and evolution as less of a straight line and more so as one that branches in different ways across time and geography. How can we explain the past to ourselves in a clear and useful way to understand the present?
DB: One of the first things I tell my students is that in the field of human prehistory, one must grow accustomed to information that is in a constant state of flux, as it changes in pace with new discoveries that are being made on nearly a daily basis.
It is also important to recognize that the pieces composing the puzzle of the human story are fragmentary, so that information is constantly changing as we fill in the gaps and ameliorate our capacity to interpret it. Although we favor scientific interpretations in all cases, we cannot escape the fact that our ideas are shaped by our own historical context—a situation that has impeded correct explanations of the archeological record in the past.
One example of this is our knowledge of the human family that has grown exponentially in the last quarter of a century thanks to new discoveries being made throughout the world. Our own genus, Homo, for example, now includes at least five new species, discovered only in this interim.
Meanwhile, genetic studies are taking major steps in advancing the ways we study ancient humans, helping to establish reliable reconstructions of the (now very bushy) family tree, and concretizing the fact that over millions of years multiple hominin species shared the same territories. This situation continued up until the later Paleolithic, when our own species interacted and even reproduced together with other hominins, as in the case of our encounters with the Neandertals in Eurasia, for example.
While there is much conjecture about this situation, we actually know little about the nature of these encounters: whether they were peaceful or violent; whether different hominins transmitted their technological know-how, shared territorial resources together, or decimated one another, perhaps engendering the first warlike behaviors.
One thing is sure: Homo sapiens remains the last representative of this long line of hominin ancestors and now demonstrates unprecedented planetary domination. Is this a Darwinian success story? Or is it a one-way ticket to the sixth extinction event—the first to be caused by humans—as we move into the Anthropocene Epoch?
In my book, I try to communicate this knowledge to readers so that they can better understand how past events have shaped not only our physical beings but also our inner worlds and the symbolic worlds we share with each other. It is only if we can understand when and how these important events took place—actually identify the tendencies and put them into perspective for what they truly are—that we will finally be the masters of our own destiny. Then we will be able to make choices on the levels that really count—not only for ourselves, but also for all life on the planet. Our technologies have undoubtedly alienated us from these realities, and it may be our destiny to continue to pursue life on digital and globalized levels. We can’t undo the present, but we can most certainly use this accumulated knowledge and technological capacity to create far more sustainable and “humane” lifeways.
JRF: How did you come to believe that stone toolmaking was the culprit for how we became alienated from the world we live in?
DB: My PhD research at Perpignan University in France was on the lithic assemblages from the Caune de l’Arago cave site in southern France, a site with numerous Acheulian habitation floors that have been dated to between 690,000 and 90,000 years ago. During the course of my doctoral research, I was given the exceptional opportunity to work on some older African and Eurasian sites. I began to actively collaborate in international and multidisciplinary teamwork (in the field and in the laboratory) and to study some of the oldest stone tool kits known to humankind in different areas of the world. This experience was an important turning point for me that subsequently shaped my career as I oriented my research more and more towards understanding these “first technologies.”
More recently, as a researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES-CERCA) in Tarragona, Spain, I continue to investigate the emergence of ancient human culture, in particular through the study of a number of major archeological sites attributed to the so-called “Oldowan” technocomplex (after the eponymous Olduvai Gorge Bed I sites in Tanzania). My teaching experience at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) and Rovira i Virgili University (Tarragona) helped me to articulate my findings through discussions and to further my research with students and colleagues.
Such ancient tool kits, some of which date to more than 2 million years ago, were made by the hands of hominins who were very different from ourselves, in a world that was very distinct from our own. They provide a window of opportunity through which to observe some of the cognitive processes employed by the early humans who made and used them. As I expanded my research, I discovered the surprising complexity of ancient stone toolmaking, eventually concluding that it was at the root of a major behavioral bifurcation that would utterly alter the evolutionary pathways taken by humankind.
Early hominins recognizing the advantages provided by toolmaking made the unconscious choice to invest more heavily in it, even as they gained time for more inventiveness. Oldowan tool kits are poorly standardized and contain large pounding implements, alongside small sharp-edged flakes that were certainly useful, among other things, for obtaining viscera and meat resources from animals that were scavenged as hominins competed with other large carnivores present in the paleolandscapes in which they lived. As hominins began to expand their technological know-how, successful resourcing of such protein-rich food was ideal for feeding the developing and energy-expensive brain.
Meanwhile, increased leisure time fueled human inventiveness, and stone tool production—and its associated behaviors—grew ever more complex, eventually requiring relatively heavy investments into teaching these technologies to enable them to pass onwards into each successive generation. This, in turn, established the foundations for the highly beneficial process of cumulative learning that was later coupled with symbolic thought processes such as language that would ultimately favor our capacity for exponential development. This also had huge implications, for example, in terms of the first inklings of what we call “tradition”—ways to make and do things—that are indeed the very building blocks of culture. In addition, neuroscientific experiments undertaken to study the brain synapses involved during toolmaking processes show that at least some basic forms of language were likely needed in order to communicate the technologies required to manufacture the more complex tools of the Acheulian (for example, handaxes).
Moreover, researchers have demonstrated that the areas of the brain activated during toolmaking are the same as those employed during abstract thought processes, including language and volumetric planning. I think that it is clear from this that the Oldowan can be seen as the start of a process that would eventually lead to the massive technosocial database that humanity now embraces and that continues to expand ever further in each successive generation, in a spiral of exponential technological and social creativity.
JRF: Did something indicate to you at the outset of your career that archeology and the study of human origins have a vital message for humanity now? You describe a conceptual process in your book whereby through studying our past, humanity can learn to “build up more viable and durable structural entities and behaviors in harmony with the environment and innocuous to other life forms.”
DB: I think most people who pursue a career in archeology do so because they feel passionate about exploring the human story in a tangible, scientific way. The first step, described in the introductory chapters of my book, is choosing from an ever-widening array of disciplines that contribute to the field today. From the onset, I was fascinated by the emergence and subsequent transformation of early technologies into culture. The first 3 million years of the human archeological record are almost exclusively represented by stone tools. These stone artifacts are complemented by other kinds of tools—especially in the later periods of the Paleolithic, when bone, antler, and ivory artifacts were common—alongside art and relatively clear habitational structures.
It is one thing to analyze a given set of stone tools made by long-extinct hominin cousins and quite another to ask what their transposed significance to contemporary society might be.
As I began to explore these questions more profoundly, numerous concrete applications did finally come to the fore, thus underpinning how data obtained from the prehistoric register is applicable when considering issues such as racism, climate change, and social inequality that plague the modern globalized world.
In my opinion, the invention and subsequent development of technology was the inflection point from which humanity was to diverge towards an alternative pathway from all other life forms on Earth. We now hold the responsibility to wield this power in ways that will be beneficial and sustainable to all life.
This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.
Niall Ferguson teaches history at Harvard. He has a very conservative world outlook which, when applied to the analysis of current social reality, has a tendency to so warp his perceptions that the situation he writes about becomes an imaginary inverted world where truth becomes falsity and falsity truth. But don't take my word for it. Just look at his article in the Wall Street Journal for 10/10-11/2015: "The Real Obama Doctrine." Ferguson's take on Obama can only be the result of a profound ignorance of the historical reality he professes to understand.
He opens his article by referring to ideas expressed by the revered, but morally reprehensible, Henry Kissinger in 1968. Kissinger expressed the opinion that America didn't really have a foreign policy. He might have noted the U.S. was too busy butchering Vietnamese peasants to pay attention to much else.
Be that as it may, there was no real coherent strategic thinking going on and this for two reasons according to Kissinger. First, the president was not selected for his strategic thinking but his "will" to get elected, and second, there are just too many lawyers working for the government. Now lawyers are clever but they don't know enough about history and this deficiency has led to the adoption of a "minimum risk" attitude when it comes to policy. Well, Ferguson teaches history at Harvard; what better guide could we have to lead us to understand Obama's plans for the U.S. of A.
Seeing that Obama was elected due to his will to win, has a passel of lawyers at work in his administration, and doesn't support a "maximum risk" policy, he seems to exemplify just what Henry K was complaining about to a tee. Ferguson tells us, in fact, that he himself has "spent much of the last seven years trying to work out" just what strategy Obama was following. Here is what he found out.
He read Obama’s 2009 Cairo Speech but wasn’t clear on how it would result in practical actions. The speech was full of good intentions and was met positively by those friendly to the U.S. and either negatively or skeptically by those hostile to it. The criticisms basically were that actions speak louder than words and that upbeat speeches were no substitute for a change in policies. Ferguson doesn’t go into much detail on the speech, but needless to say he should have known that Obama would not be able to quickly reverse fifty years of cold war policies and the fact that the Bush administration had left the entire Middle East entirely in flames or on the verge erupting into chaos.
Obama’s attempt to disengage U.S. ground forces in Iraq and strengthen Iraqi security forces is called by Ferguson “precipitate withdrawal.” The fact is that the damage done to Iraq by the Bush policies are almost irreversible and the sectarian Shia government the U.S. created is both corrupt and unwilling, or unable, to reconcile with the Sunni minority. Obama must either try to wind down American involvement or hunker down and prepare for an open ended American occupation. The American people definitely want to get out of Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, and they don’t want to get involved in Syria either. Obama cannot, no president could, put the Middle East back together again after the Bush folks so thoroughly smashed it up. The best he can do is respond to the will of the American people and try and limit the damage caused by the Bush gang.
Besides not having a clue to the complexities in Afghanistan, Ferguson thinks Obama has become “indifferent” to Europe as a result of the attempted “reset” with Russia. It’s true the reset failed but only because it was predicated on Russia following American dictates against its own interests and there is no evidence that Obama has become indifferent to Europe.
But Ferguson also discovered something more troubling than Obama’s failure to clean up the mess left behind by Bush. It is one thing to reject Bush’s policies, but the 2012 debate with Mitt Romney revealed, horror of horrors, that Obama was also “turning away from Ronald Reagan.” Romney held that enemy numero uno to our world wide hegemony was Russia and Obama dismissed this. And what happened? In March 2014 [as a result of the U.S. and E.U. intervention in the internal affairs of Ukraine] Russia annexed Crimea returning it to Russian administration after it had been assigned by the Soviet Union to Ukraine in the 1950s. Historian that he is, Ferguson thinks Romney “prescient” in spotting that, in his words, Russia is “our number one geopolitical foe.” We had better move the Seventh Fleet to the Bering Strait in case Putin decides to reverse the Alaska Purchase.
Ferguson also discovered, by reading articles and interviews given by Obama in the popular press, that it was his intention to “create a new balance of power in the Middle East.” Obama said that he wanted to end the conflicts between the Shia and Sunni by trying to get Iran to abandon its (in his opinion) negative policies and to work with the mostly Sunni Gulf states in a common effort to build a positive future in the region.
Obama hopes an international coalition, which could include Iran, might work together to solve the problems of Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. Unmentioned is the fact that the crises in all these countries are the results of Saudi and American actions and interference. It would be the U.S. and not Iran that would have to abandon its negative policies. It is unlikely to do so since it profits from arms sales to the region.
Ferguson, however, has other reasons for objecting to Obama’s Middle East policies which he says are based on the president’s “fuzzy thinking.” In his recent U.N. speech Obama indicated he was willing to work with other nations “under the mantle of international norms and principles” and with both Russia and Iran (as long as they agreed to eventually dump Assad) in solving the Syrian problem. Obama is “fuzzy” because, Ferguson says, neither Russia nor Iran are “famed” for operating under the “mantle of international norms and principles.”
One would expect a Harvard history professor to be aware of the fact that the U.S. is also not “famed” for operating under this mantle. In fact, even a slight acquaintance with modern history would show U.S. behavior is more egregious in this respect than that of either Russia or Iran. In fact, almost every crisis in world diplomacy since (and most of them before) the collapse of the Soviet Union has been the result of the U.S. flouting international norms. To blame Obama for trying to improve this dismal record doesn’t say much in favor of Ferguson’s bona fides.
Ferguson thinks Obama's policies are failing because, since 2010, terrorism and violence in the Middle East from North Africa (Libya) to Pakistan and Afghanistan have dramatically increased and we can expect even more violence to come “as the Sunni powers of the region seek to prevent Iran from establishing itself as the post American hegemon.”
It’s true that American policies are not working out if peace is the goal. If, however, the goal is to sell billions of dollars worth of new weapons systems to the governments in the area as well as to ramp up military spending at home, these policies at least make some sense.
After Bush/Cheney destroyed Iraq in the east and the Obama/ U.S. supported NATO intervention in Libya (pushed by Secretary of State Clinton) effectively destroyed that country in the west the growth of terrorism was bound to increase as outside governments and their proxies moved in to take advantage of the chaos the U.S. created.
It was the Sunni governments that moved to take advantage of the situation. The U.S. destroyed two major secular governments and both the Saudi Arabians, and Gulf Sunni states, representing the most backward “Islamic” radical ideology, funded Sunni terrorist groups, as well as Pakistan’s covert support of the Taliban, that has led to the impotence of U.S. policy on the ground. The U.S. still sends billions of dollars in military aid (much of it actually spent at home to support the military industrial complex behind our domestic deep state) to countries who pass some of it along to the very terrorist groups the U.S. is fighting.
The truth is that Iran is not trying to become a hegemon. It was the Shah, installed as a result of a CIA coup against a democratically elected government and backed by the U.S., who was moving to both develop nuclear weapons and establish hegemony, as a U.S. client state, in the region until he was overthrown in 1979. The U.S. has been trying to get rid of the new Iranian government ever since.
Iran’s actions have been purely defensive in nature. It supports its Shia allies in Iraq against the Sunni Islamic State, it supports its ally Assad in Syria against the Islamic state and the Sunni jihadists supported by the Saudis and indirectly by the U.S. under the covering myth of supporting “moderates.” All this puts the lie to Ferguson’s pseudo-historical analysis of “Obama’s failures.” Obama’s problem, such as it is, has been his inability to reverse the movement of Middle Eastern disintegration initiated by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. But he has succeeded in preventing the implosion of half the Mediterranean world by keeping boots off the ground in Libya and Syria, and thus not compounding the Bush/Chenny Iraq folly. Nevertheless his interventionist actions in these two countries threaten to create a wider area of war and destabilization which the next president will have to defuse unless he takes actions towards withdrawal and cooperation with the Iranians and Russians to limit Saudi and Pakistani sponsored jihadists.
Finally, Ferguson concludes there are three major problems facing U.S. foreign policy; the Middle East, Russia’s meddling, and China’s ambitions. Obama, he says, is failing to properly address these problems. The reason for this failure is that he does not have advisors of the caliber of Zbigniew Brzezinski (whose Afghan policies gave us both Osama ben Laden and the Taliban) and Henry Kissinger (whose war crimes against humanity gave us fascism in Chile and Pol Pot in Cambodia, among achievements of similar note). Both of these stalwarts, Furgeson says, have made intellectual contributions to strategic doctrine far greater than the advisors surrounding Obama. Perhaps, but more people around the world have died meaningless deaths and suffered injuries and loss of loved ones due to the strategic doctrines of Brzezinski and Kissinger than due to the policies of Obama (but he is running a close second with his Syrian policies).
U.S. policy does have problems. In the Middle East it supports dictators and tyrants and its blanket support of Israel and Israel’s truly barbaric treatment of the Palestinians prevents it from having a policy that the majority of Middle Eastern people can live with. We create the very terrorists we seek to fight. Russian meddling is nothing more than its advancing policies that protect its interests and are usually just reactions to overt or covert U.S. provocations. There will be no reset of relations with Russia as long as the U.S. acts in bad faith. China’s ambitions are perfectly normal. They want to play a role in their part of the world commensurate with their growing economic and political strength. As long as the U.S. seeks to challenge them in this respect (such as U.S. air and naval provocations in the South China Sea) there will be no real cooperation possible nor any incentive for Chinese to trust the U.S.
The above comments are just a reflection of the current Zeitgeist and it appears that the role of the U.S. is contrary to the movement that spirit is taking — a movement that is pointing us towards a world of better cooperation and understanding and is not subject to the negative destructive will of one rogue superpower. This, and not the views of Henry Kissinger, is what the next president must keep in mind.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism.
Are the contradictions described by Marx in the capitalist mode of production only overcome by the establishment of socialism as a higher form of production? Many Marxists have always believed that the answer to this question is "yes."
Does this mean, then, that socialism is inevitable? This, I think, is a different question entirely, and the answer to this question is " no." Many critics of Marxism have, however, confused these two questions and have maintained that Marxists hold that socialism is "inevitable."
There are certainly quotes to be found in Marx, Engels and Lenin which could lead one to that conclusion. In the Communist Manifesto, for example, we are told "the victory of the proletariat" is "inevitable." Also, in the preface to the first German edition of Capital Marx says, regarding the laws of capitalist production, that they work "with iron necessity towards inevitable results." And Capitalism may inevitably break down-but the question is - is socialism the inevitable result of the capitalist breakdown? Engels, in his 1886 preface to the English edition of Capital, wrote, "at least in Europe, England is the only country where the inevitable social revolution might be affected entirely by peaceful and legal means." So we have here mention of inevitable victory, inevitable results, and an inevitable social revolution.
Lenin also seems to subscribe to the notion of inevitability. In an article he wrote in 1914 on Karl Marx for The Granat Encyclopedia (Collected Works. vol. 21) he wrote that Marx deduces the inevitability of the transformation of capitalist society into socialist society wholly and exclusively from the economic law of the development of contemporary society. And further. "The proletariat's struggle against the bourgeoisie... inevitably becomes a political struggle directed towards the conquest of political power by the proletariat ('the dictatorship of the proletariat').
This same notion of "Inevitability" pops up six years later in 1920 (Left Wing' Communism an Infantile Disorder, Collected Works vol. 31) where Lenin writes apropos of the Russian Revolution; "At the present moment in history, however, it is the Russian model that reveals to all countries something - and something highly significant - of their near and inevitable future."
Ninety-three years down the road, and in a new century, if not a new historical epoch, we may be permitted to have a different outlook on what the "near future" bodes and perhaps doubt the accuracy of Lenin's words. Ninety-three years is a long time considered from the point of view of an individual, but from an historical perspective we may, nevertheless, still be waiting for that "near future." But what we are interested in determining is if we are talking about an "inevitable" future.
In an attempt to answer this question, I will rely on the speculations of Istvan Meszaros, an Anglo-Hungarian philosopher, who deals with this issue in his Beyond Capital: Towards a Theory of Transition.
Within the system of capitalism there are inevitabilities it makes sense to talk about. For example, as capital expands globally it seeks out the cheapest possible labor market and attempts to reduce as much as possible the necessary labor time it takes to create its products.
These actions result in a redundancy of workers - an increase in the numbers of the unemployed, because of unnecessary workers. Thus the growth of a surplus population Is an inevitable result (all things being equal) of the inner workings of the capitalist system. The system also leads to monopoly and imperial rivalries and war. This is just how the system works.
It is not this type of inevitability we are seeking to determine. Capitalism may inevitably break down - but the question is - is socialism the inevitable result of the capitalist breakdown? It is one thing to say that socialism is the inevitable logical solution to the problems of capitalism, but quite another to hold that it is the historically inevitable solution - that is, that it will really come about.
Meszaros quotes the late Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs who wrote “The objective economic evolution could do no more than create the position of the proletariat in the production process. It was this position that determined its point of view. But the objective evolution could only give the proletariat the opportunity and the necessity to change society. Any transformation can only come about as the product of the free-action of the proletariat itself." The workers have the opportunity to move towards socialism - but there is no guarantee they will take it.
Meszaros also quotes Marx's remark from his famous preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. In this work Marx maintains that humanity only confronts the task it can solve (or must solve), "when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the process of formation."
But to "confront" a task is not the same as "solving" it. According to Meszaros this means that Marx realized that socialism is not inevitable. He concludes that deducing from this preface, as some have, the "vulgar-fatalist view that Marx was maintaining that socialism was therefore inevitable "is nothing short of preposterous."
Meszaros claims that the best Marxists can hope for is to analyze economic reality and state the case for the workers being the only agency or social force capable of "eradicating capital." But, "if that agency proves to be unequal to the task there can be no hope for the socialist project."
Therefore, the use of the term "inevitability" with respect to the establishment of socialism by Marx, Engels and Lenin should, I conclude, be seen as hyperbole, or more as an optimistic assessment of the future than as an absolute claim of an historically necessary outcome. There is always the possibility put forth in the Communist Manifesto of "the common ruin of the contending classes."
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism.
After All the Pomp and Pageantry for Queen Elizabeth II: The Apology That Never Came By: Prabir PurkayasthaRead Now
Led by the royals, British colonialists committed every form of cruelty imaginable—those who suffered under the empire and fought it are angry over the homage paid to Elizabeth II.
How should we remember Queen Elizabeth II and her 70 years on the British throne? It’s perhaps better to consider after the media parade about her funeral is in the rearview mirror.
A number of people have reacted to the glorification of her rule, pointing out the British Royals’ direct connection to the slave trade, Britain’s colonial massacres, mass famines and its loot from the colonies. Britain’s wealth--$45 trillion at current prices from India alone—was built on the blood and sweat of people who lost their land and homes and are today poor countries. Lest we forget, the slave trade was a monopoly of the British throne: first, as the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa in 1660, later converted to the Royal African Company of England. The battle over “free trade” fought by British merchant capital was against this highly lucrative Royal monopoly so that they could participate in it as well: enslaving people in Africa and selling them to plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean.
According to western legends of the European Age of Discovery, co-terminus with Enlightenment, was what started it all in the 16th century. Explorers such as Vasco de Gama, Columbus, and Magellan went across the world, discovering new lands. The Enlightenment led to the development of reason and science, the basis of the industrial revolution in England. The Industrial Revolution then reached Europe and the United States, creating the difference between the wealthy West and the poverty-stricken rest. Slavery, genocide, land expropriation from “natives” and colonial loot do not enter this sanitized picture of the development of capitalism. Or, if mentioned, only as marginal to the larger story of the rise of the west.
Actual history is quite different. Chronologically, the Industrial Revolution takes place in the second half of the 18th century. The 16th-17th centuries is when a small handful of western countries reached the Americas, followed by the genocide of its indigenous population and enslaving of the rest. The 16th-17th centuries also see the rise of the slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas. It destroys African society and its economy, what Walter Rodney calls How Europe Undeveloped Africa. The plantation economy--based on slavery in the Caribbean and Continental America—created large-scale commodity production and global markets.
While sugar, the product of the plantations, was the first global commodity, it was followed by tobacco, coffee and coca, and later cotton. While the plantation economy provided commodities for the world market, let us not forget that slaves were still the most important “commodity”. The slave trade was the major source of European—British, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese—capital. Gerald Horne writes, “The enslaved, a peculiar form of capital encased in labor, represented simultaneously the barbarism of the emerging capitalism, along with its productive force” (The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism, Monthly Review, April 1, 2018).
Marx characterized it as so-called Primitive Accumulation and as “expropriation,” not accumulation. Capital from the beginning was based on expropriation—robbery, plunder and enslaving of people by the use of force; there was no accumulation in this process. As Marx writes, capital was born “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
The British Royals played a key role in this history of slavery and the so-called primitive accumulation. Britain was a second-class power at the beginning of the 17th century. Britain’s transformation was initially based on the slave trade and, later, the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Its ships and traders emerged as the major power in the slave trade and, by the 1680s, held three-fourths of this “market” in human beings. Out of this, the Royal African Company, owned by the British Crown, held a 90% share: the charge for Britain’s domination of the slave trade was led by the British Royals.
Interestingly, the slogan of “free trade,” under which slogan the World Trade Organization (WTO) was created, was the British merchant capital wanting the abolition of the Royal Monopoly over slave trade. It was, in other words, the freedom of capital to enslave human beings and trade in them, free of the royal monopoly. It is this capital, created out of slave trade and outright piracy and loot, that funded the industrial revolution.
While slavery was finally abolished, in Britain it was not the slaves but the slave owners that were paid compensation for losing their “property.” The amount paid in 1833 was 40% of its national budget, and since it was paid by borrowings, the UK citizens paid off this “loan” only in 2015. For the people of India, there is another part to the story. As the ex-slaves refused to work on the plantations they had served as slaves, they were replaced by indentured labor from India.
To go back to the British Royalty. The Crown’s property and portfolio investments are currently worth 28 billion pounds, making King Charles III one of the richest persons in the UK. Charles III personal property itself is more than a billion pounds. Even by today’s standards of obscene personal wealth, these are big numbers, particularly as its income is virtually tax-free. The royals are also exempt from death duties.
In the three hundred years of the history of British colonialism, brutal wars, genocide, slavery, and expropriation were carried out in its name and under its leadership. After the industrial revolution, Britain wanted only raw materials from its colonies and not any industrial products: the slogan was “not even a nail from the colonies.” All trade from the colonies to other countries had to pass through Britain and pay taxes there before being re-exported. The complement of the industrial revolution in Britain was de-industrializing its colonies, confining them to be a producer of raw materials and agricultural products.
Why are we talking about Britain’s colonial past on the occasion of the death of Queen Elizabeth II? After all, she only saw the last 70 years when the British colonial empire was liquidated. This is not simply about the past, but that neither the British Crown nor its rulers have ever expressed any guilt over the brutality of its empire, and its foundation based on slavery and genocide. No apology for the empire’s gory history: not even for the massacres and mass incarcerations that took place. In Jallianawala Bagh, which Elizabeth II visited in 1997, she called the massacre a “distressing episode” and a “difficult episode”; not even a simple “We are sorry.” Prince Phillip even questioned the number of martyrs.
How do we reconcile the anger that people who suffered from Britain’s colonial empire feel about their leaders making a bee-line to pay homage to the Queen? Does it not shame the memory of those who laid down their lives in the freedom struggle against the British Crown that India lowered the national flag to half-mast to honor the Queen?
One can argue that this happened long before Elizabeth II took over the Crown, and we cannot hold her personally responsible for Britain’s colonial history. We should: she as Queen represented the British state: it is not Elizabeth, the person that people want an apology from, but the titular head of the British state. That is why Mukoma Wa Ngugi, the son of Kenya’s world-renowned writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o said, “If the queen had apologized for slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism and urged the crown to offer reparations for the millions of lives taken in her/their names, then perhaps I would do the human thing and feel bad,” he wrote. “As a Kenyan, I feel nothing. This theater is absurd.”
Mukoma Ngugi was referring to the Mau Mau revolt for land and freedom in which thousands of Kenyans were massacred, and 1.5 million were held in brutal concentration camps.
This was 1952-1960; Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952, very much in her lifetime!
Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.
Violeta Parra (Chile), Untitled (unfinished), 1966. Embroidery on sackcloth, 136 x 200 cm.
The works of art in this dossier belong to Casa de las Américas’ Haydee Santamaría Art of Our America (Nuestra América) collection. Since its founding, Casa de las Américas has established close ties with a significant number of internationally renowned contemporary artists who have set visual arts trends in the region. Casa’s galleries have hosted temporary exhibitions including different artistic genres, expressions, and techniques by several generations of mainly Latin American and Caribbean artists. Many of these works, initially exhibited in Casa’s galleries, awarded prizes in its contests, and donated by the artists, have become part of the Haydee Santamaría Art of Our America collection, representing an exceptional artistic heritage.
Roberto Matta (Chile), Cuba es la capital (‘Cuba Is the Capital’), 1963. Soil and plaster on Masonite (mural), 188 x 340 cm. Located at the entrance to Casa de las Américas.
Cultural Policy and Decolonisation in the Cuban Socialist ProjectAbel Prieto, director of Casa de las Américas
The Cuban Revolution came about in a country subordinated to the US from all points of view. Although we had the façade of a republic, we were a perfect colony, exemplary in economic, commercial, diplomatic, and political terms, and almost in cultural terms.
Our bourgeoisie was constantly looking towards the North: from there, they imported dreams, hopes, fetishes, models of life. They sent their children to study in the North, hoping that they would assimilate the admirable competitive spirit of the Yankee ‘winners’, their style, their unique and superior way of settling in this world and subjugating the ‘losers’.
This ‘vice-bourgeoisie’, as Roberto Fernández Retamar baptised them, were not limited to avidly consuming whatever product of the US cultural industry fell into their hands. Not only that – at the same time, they collaborated in disseminating the ‘American way of life’ in the Ibero-American sphere and kept part of the profits for themselves. Cuba was an effective cultural laboratory at the service of the Empire, conceived to multiply the exaltation of the Chosen Nation and its world domination. Cuban actresses and actors dubbed the most popular American television series into Spanish, which would later flood the continent. In fact, we were among the first countries in the region to have television in 1950. It seemed like a leap forward, towards so-called ‘progress’, but it turned out to be poisoned. Very commercial Cuban television programming functioned as a replica of the ‘made in the USA’ pseudo-culture, with soap operas, Major League and National League baseball games, competition and participation programmes copied from American reality shows, and constant advertising. In 1940, the magazine Selections of the Reader’s Digest, published by a company of the same name, began to appear in Spanish in Havana with all of its poison. This symbol of the idealisation of the Yankee model and the demonisation of the USSR and of any idea close to emancipation was translated and printed on the island and distributed from here to all of Latin America and Spain.
The very image of Cuba that was spread internationally was reduced to a tropical ‘paradise’ manufactured by the Yankee mafia and its Cuban accomplices. Drugs, gambling, and prostitution were all put at the service of VIP tourism from the North. Remember that the Las Vegas project had been designed for our country and failed because of the revolution.
Fanon spoke of the sad role of the ‘national bourgeoisie’ – already formally independent from colonialism – before the elites of the old metropolis, ‘who happen to be tourists enamoured of exoticism, hunting, and casinos’. He added:
We only have to look at what has happened in Latin America if we want proof of the way the ex-colonised bourgeoisie can be transformed into ‘party’ organiser. The casinos in Havana and Mexico City, the beaches of Rio, Copacabana, and Acapulco, the young Brazilian and Mexican girls, the thirteen-year-old mestizas, are the scars of this depravation of the national bourgeoisie.1
Our bourgeoisie, submissive ‘party organisers’ of the Yankees, did everything possible for Cuba to be culturally absorbed by their masters during the neocolonial republic. However, there were three factors that slowed down this process: the work of intellectual minorities that defended, against all odds, the memory and values of the nation; the sowing of Martí’s principles and patriotism among teachers in Cuban public schools; and the resistance of our powerful, mestizo, haughty, and ungovernable popular culture, nurtured by the rich spiritual heritage of African origin.
In his speech ‘History Will Absolve Me’, Fidel listed the six main problems facing Cuba. Among them, he highlighted ‘the problem of education’ and referred to ‘comprehensive education reform’ as one of the most urgent missions that the future liberated republic would have to undertake.2 Hence, the educational and cultural revolution began practically from the triumph of 1 January 1959. On the 29th of that same month, summoned by Fidel, a first detachment of three hundred teachers alongside one hundred doctors and other professionals left for the Sierra Maestra to bring education and health to the most remote areas. Around those same days, Camilo and Che launched a campaign to eradicate illiteracy among the Rebel Army troops since more than 80% of the combatants were illiterate.
On 14 September, the former Columbia Military Camp was handed over to the Ministry of Education so that it could build a large school complex there. The promise of turning barracks into schools was beginning to be fulfilled, and sixty-nine military fortresses became educational centres. On 18 September, Law No. 561 was enacted, creating ten thousand classrooms and accrediting four thousand new teachers. The same year, cultural institutions of great importance were created: the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), the National Publishing House, the Casa de las Américas, and the National Theatre of Cuba, which has a department of folklore and an unprejudiced and anti-racist vision unprecedented in the country. All of these new revolutionary institutions were oriented towards a decolonised understanding of Cuban and universal culture.
But 1961 was the key year in which a profound educational and cultural revolution began in Cuba. This was the year when Eisenhower ruptured diplomatic relations with our country. This was the year when our foreign minister, Raúl Roa, condemned ‘the policy of harassment, retaliation, aggression, subversion, isolation, and imminent attack by the US against the Cuban government and people’ at the UN.3 This was the year of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the relentless fight against the armed gangs financed by the CIA. This was the year when the US government, with Kennedy already at the helm, intensified its offensive to suffocate Cuba economically and isolate it from Nuestra América – Our America – and from the entire Western world.4 1961 was also the year when Fidel proclaimed the socialist character of the revolution on 16 April, the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion, as Roa exposed the plan that was set to play out the following day. This is something that – considering the influence of the Cold War climate and the McCarthyite, anti-Soviet, and anti-communist crusade on the island – showed that the young revolutionary process had been shaping, at incredible speed, cultural hegemony around anti-imperialism, sovereignty, social justice, and the struggle to build a radically different country. But it was also the year of the epic of the literacy campaign; of the creation of the National School of Art Instructors; of Fidel’s meetings with intellectuals and his founding speech on our cultural policy, ‘Words to the Intellectuals’; of the birth of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) and the National Institute of Ethnology and Folklore.5
In 1999 in Venezuela – almost four decades later – Fidel summed up his thinking regarding the cultural and educational component in any true revolutionary process: ‘A revolution can only be the child of culture and ideas’.6 Even if it makes radical changes, even if it hands over land to the peasants and eliminates large estates, even if it builds houses for those who survive in unhealthy neighbourhoods, even if it puts public health at the service of all, even if it nationalises the country’s resources and defends its sovereignty, a revolution will never be complete or lasting if it does not give a decisive role to education and culture. It is necessary to change human beings’ conditions of material life, and it is necessary to simultaneously change the human being, their conscience, paradigms, and values.
For Fidel, culture was never something ornamental or a propaganda tool – a mistake commonly made throughout history by leaders of the left. Rather, he saw culture as a transformative energy of exceptional scope, which is intimately linked to conduct, to ethics, and is capable of decisively contributing to the ‘human improvement’ in which Martí had so much faith. But Fidel saw culture, above all, as the only imaginable way to achieve the full emancipation of the people: it is what offers them the possibility of defending their freedom, their memory, their origins, and of undoing the vast web of manipulations that limit the steps they take every day. The educated and free citizen who is at the centre of Martí’s and Fidel’s utopia must be prepared to fully understand the national and international environment and to decipher and circumvent the traps of the machinery of cultural domination.
In 1998, at the 6th Congress of the UNEAC, Fidel focused on the topic ‘related to globalisation and culture’. So-called ‘neoliberal globalisation’, he said, is ‘the greatest threat to culture – not only ours, but the world’s’. He explained how we must defend our traditions, our heritage, our creation, against ‘imperialism’s most powerful instrument of domination’. And, he concluded, ‘everything is at stake here: national identity, homeland, social justice, revolution, everything is at stake. These are the battles we have to fight now’.7 This is, of course, about ‘battles’ against cultural colonisation, against what Frei Betto calls ‘globo-colonisation’, against a wave that can liquidate our identity and the revolution itself.
Enrique Tábara (Ecuador), Coloquio de frívolos (‘Colloquium of the Frivolous’), 1982. Acrylic on canvas,140.5 x 140.5 cm.
Fidel was already convinced that, in education, in culture, in ideology, there are advances and setbacks. No conquest can be considered definitive. That is why he returns to the subject of culture in his shocking speech on 17 November 2005 at the University of Havana.8 The media machinery, together with incessant commercial propaganda, Fidel warns us, come to generate ‘conditioned responses’. ‘The lie’, he says, ‘affects one’s knowledge’, but ‘the conditioned response affects the ability to think’.9 In this way, Fidel continued, if the Empire says ‘Cuba is bad’, then ‘all the exploited people around the world, all the illiterate people, and all those who don’t receive medical care or education or have any guarantee of a job or of anything’ repeat that ‘the Cuban Revolution is bad’.10 Hence, the diabolical sum of ignorance and manipulation engenders a pathetic creature: the poor right-winger, that unhappy person who gives his opinion and votes and supports his exploiters.
‘Without culture’, Fidel repeated, ‘no freedom is possible’.11 We revolutionaries, according to him, are obliged to study, to inform ourselves, to nurture our critical thinking day by day. This cultural education, together with essential ethical values, will allow us to liberate ourselves definitively in a world where the enslavement of minds and consciences predominates. His call to ‘emancipat[e] ourselves by ourselves and with our own efforts’ is equivalent to saying that we must decolonise ourselves with our own efforts.12 And culture is, of course, the main instrument of that decolonising process of self-learning and self-emancipation.
In Cuba, we are currently more contaminated by the symbols and fetishes of ‘globo-colonisation’ than we have been at other times in our revolutionary history. We must combat the tendency to underestimate these processes, and we must work in two fundamental directions: intentionally promoting genuine cultural options and fostering a critical view of the products of the hegemonic entertainment industry. It is essential to strengthen the effective coordination of institutions and organisations, communicators, teachers, instructors, intellectuals, artists, and other actors who contribute directly or indirectly to the cultural education of our people. All revolutionary forces of culture must work together more coherently. We must turn the meaning of anti-colonial into an instinct.
In 1959, the Cuban revolutionary leader Haydee Santamaría (1923–1980) arrived at a cultural centre in the heart of Havana. This building, the revolutionaries decided, would be committed to promoting Latin American art and culture, eventually becoming a beacon for the progressive transformation of the hemisphere’s cultural world. Renamed Casa de las Américas (‘Home of the Americas’), it would become the heartbeat of cultural developments from Chile to Mexico. Art saturates the walls of the house, and in an adjacent building sits the massive archive of correspondence and drafts from the most significant writers of the past century. The art from Casa adorns this dossier. The current director of Casa, Abel Prieto – whose words open this dossier – is a novelist, a cultural critic, and a former minister of culture. His mandate is to stimulate discussion and debate in the country.
Over the course of the past decade, Cuba’s intellectuals have been gripped by the debate over decolonisation and culture. Since 1959, the Cuban revolutionary process has – at great cost – established the island’s political sovereignty and has struggled against centuries of poverty to cement its economic sovereignty. From 1959 onwards, under the leadership of the revolutionary forces, Cuba has sought to generate a cultural process that allows the island’s eleven million people to break with the cultural suffocation which is the legacy of both Spanish and US imperialism. Is Cuba, six decades since 1959, able to say that it is sovereign in cultural terms? The balance sheet suggests that the answer is complex since the onslaught of US cultural and intellectual production continues to hit the island like its annual hurricanes.
To that end, Casa de las Américas has been holding a series of encounters on the issue of decolonisation. In July 2022, Vijay Prashad, the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, delivered a lecture there that built upon the work being produced by the institute. Dossier no. 56, Ten Theses on Marxism and Decolonisation, draws from and expands upon the themes of that talk.
Antonio Seguí (Argentina), Untitled, 1965. Oil on canvas, 200 x 249 cm.
Ten Theses on Marxism and Decolonisation
Thesis One: The End of History. The collapse of the USSR and the communist state system in Eastern Europe in 1991 came alongside a terrible debt crisis in the Global South that began with Mexico’s default in 1982. These two events – the demise of the USSR and the weakness of the Third World Project – were met with the onslaught of US imperialism and a US-driven globalisation project in the 1990s. For the left, this was a decade of weakness as our left-wing traditions and organisations experienced self-doubt and could not easily advance our clarities around the world. History had ended, said the ideologues of US imperialism, with the only possibility forward being the advance of the US project. The penalty inflicted upon the left by the surrender of Soviet leadership was heavy and led not only to the shutting down of many left parties, but also to the weakened confidence of millions of people with the clarities of Marxist thought.
Thesis Two: The Battle of Ideas. During the 1990s, Cuban President Fidel Castro called upon his fellow Cubans to engage in a ‘battle of ideas’, a phrase borrowed from The German Ideology (1846) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.1 What Castro meant by this phrase is that people of the left must not cower before the rising tide of neoliberal ideology but must confidently engage with the fact that neoliberalism is incapable of solving the basic dilemmas of humanity. For instance, neoliberalism has no answer to the obstinate fact of hunger: 7.9 billion people live on a planet with food enough for 15 billion, and yet roughly 3 billion people struggle to eat. This fact can only be addressed by socialism and not by the charity industry.2 The Battle of Ideas refers to the struggle to prevent the conundrums of our time – and the solutions put forth to address them – from being defined by the bourgeoisie. Instead, the political forces for socialism must seek to offer an assessment and solutions far more realistic and credible. For instance, Castro spoke at the United Nations in 1979 with great feeling about the ideas of ‘human rights’ and ‘humanity’:
There is often talk of human rights, but it is also necessary to speak of the rights of humanity. Why should some people walk around barefoot so that others can travel in luxurious automobiles? Why should some live for 35 years so that others can live for 70? Why should some be miserably poor so that others can be overly rich? I speak in the name of the children in the world who do not have a piece of bread. I speak in the name of the sick who do not have medicine. I speak on behalf of those whose right to life and human dignity has been denied.3
When Castro returned to the Battle of Ideas in the 1990s, the left was confronted by two related tendencies that continue to create ideological problems in our time:
The only real decolonisation is anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. You cannot decolonise your mind unless you also decolonise the conditions of social production that reinforce the colonial mentality. Post-Marxism ignores the fact of social production as well as the need to build social wealth that must be socialised. Afro-pessimism suggests that such a task cannot be accomplished because of permanent racism. Decolonial thought goes beyond Afro-pessimism but cannot go beyond post-Marxism, failing to see the necessity of decolonising the conditions of social production.
Antonio Martorell (Puerto Rico), Silla (‘Chair’), n.d., edition unknown. Woodcut. 100 x 62 cm.
Thesis Three: A Failure of Imagination. In the period from 1991 to the early 2000s, the broad tradition of national liberation Marxism felt flattened, unable to answer the doubts sown by post-Marxism and post-colonial theory. This tradition of Marxism no longer had the kind of institutional support provided in an earlier period, when revolutionary movements and Third World governments assisted each other and when even the United Nations’ institutions worked to advance some of these ideas. Platforms that developed to germinate left forms of internationalism – such as the World Social Forum – seemed to be unwilling to be clear about the intentions of peoples’ movements. The slogan of the World Social Forum, for instance, was ‘another world is possible’, which is a weak statement, since that other world could just as well be defined by fascism. There was little appetite to advance a slogan of precision, such as ‘socialism is necessary’.
One of the great maladies of post-Marxist thought – which derived much of its ammunition from forms of anarchism – has been the purist anxiety about state power. Instead of using the limitations of state power to argue for better management of the state, post-Marxist thought has argued against any attempt to secure power over the state. This is an argument made from privilege by those who do not have to suffer the obstinate facts of hunger and illiteracy, who claim that small-scale forms of mutual aid or charity are not ‘authoritarian’, like state projects to eradicate hunger. This is an argument of purity that ends up renouncing any possibility of abolishing the obstinate facts of hunger and other assaults on human dignity and well-being. In the poorer countries, where small-scale forms of charity and mutual aid have a negligible impact on the enormous challenges before society, nothing less than the seizure of state power and the use of that power to fundamentally eradicate the obstinate facts of inequality and wretchedness is warranted.
To approach the question of socialism requires close consideration of the political forces that must be amassed in order to contest the bourgeoisie for ideological hegemony and for control over the state. These forces experienced a pivotal setback when neoliberal globalisation reorganised production along a global assembly line beginning in the 1970s, fragmenting industrial production across the globe. This weakened trade unions in the most important, high-density sectors and invalidated nationalisation as a possible strategy to build proletarian power. Disorganised, without unions, and with long commute times and workdays, the entire international working class found itself in a situation of precariousness.4 The International Labour Organisation refers to this sector as the precariat – the precarious proletariat. Disorganised forces of the working class and the peasantry, of the unemployed and the barely employed, find it virtually impossible to build the kind of theory and confidence out of their struggles needed to directly confront the forces of capital.
One of the key lessons for working-class and peasant movements comes from the struggles being incubated in India. For the past decade, there have been general strikes that have included up to 300 million workers annually. In 2020–2021, millions of farmers went on a year-long strike that forced the government to retreat from its new laws to uberise agricultural work. How were the farmers’ movement and the trade union movement able to do this in a context in which there is very low union density and over 90% of the workers are in the informal sector?5 Because of the fights led by informal workers – primarily women workers in the care sector – trade unions began to take up the issues of informal workers – again, mainly women workers – as issues of the entire trade union movement over the course of the past two decades. Fights for permanency of tenure, proper wage contracts, dignity for women workers, and so on produced a strong unity between all the different fractions of workers. The main struggles that we have seen in India are led by these informal workers, whose militancy is now channelled through the organised power of the trade union structures. More than half of the global workforce is made up of women – women who do not see issues that pertain to them as women’s issues, but as issues that all workers must fight for and win. This is much the same for issues pertaining to workers’ dignity along the lines of race, caste, and other social distinctions. Furthermore, unions have been taking up issues that impact social life and community welfare outside of the workplace, arguing for the right to water, sewage connections, education for children, and to be free from intolerance of all kinds. These ‘community’ struggles are an integral part of workers’ and peasants’ lives; by entering them, unions are rooting themselves in the project of rescuing collective life, building the social fabric necessary for the advance towards socialism.
Alirio Palacios (Venezuela), Muro público (‘Public Wall’), 1978. Oil on canvas, 180 x 200 cm.
Thesis Four: Return to the Source. It is time to recover and return to the best of the national liberation Marxist tradition. This tradition has its origins in Marxism-Leninism, one that was always widened and deepened by the struggles of hundreds of millions of workers and peasants in the poorer nations. The theories of these struggles were elaborated by people such as José Carlos Mariátegui, Ho Chi Minh, EMS Namboodiripad, Claudia Jones, and Fidel Castro. There are two core aspects to this tradition:
Thesis Five: ‘Slightly Stretched’ Marxism. Marxism entered the anti-colonial struggles not through Marx directly, but more accurately through the important developments that Vladimir Lenin and the Communist International made to the Marxist tradition. When Fanon said that Marxism was ‘slightly stretched’ when it went out of its European context, it was this stretching that he had in mind.6 Five key elements define the character of this ‘slightly stretched’ Marxism across a broad range of political forces:
Thesis Six: Dilemmas of Humanity. Reports come regularly about the terrible situation facing the world, from hunger and illiteracy to the ever more frequent outcomes of the climate catastrophe. Social wealth that could be spent to address these deep dilemmas of humanity is squandered on weapons and tax havens. The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end hunger and promote peace would require an infusion of $4.2 trillion per year, but, as it stands, an infinitesimal fraction of this amount is spent to address these goals.7 With the pandemic and galloping inflation, even less money will go towards SDGs, and benchmarks measuring human well-being, sovereignty, and dignity will slip further and further away. Hunger, the greatest dilemma of humanity, is no longer within sight of being eradicated (except in China, where absolute poverty was ended in 2021).8 It is estimated that around 3 billion people now struggle with various forms of daily hunger.9
Take the case of Zambia and the fourth SDG to eradicate illiteracy, for example. Approximately 60% of the children in classes 1 to 4 in the Copperbelt cannot read.10 This is a region that produces much of the world’s copper, which is essential to our electronics. The parents of these children bring the copper to the world market, but their children cannot read. Neither post-Marxism nor post-colonialism addresses the fact of illiteracy or these parents’ determination for their children to be able to read. The theory of national liberation Marxism, rooted in sovereignty and dignity, however, does address these questions: it demands that Zambia control copper production and receive higher royalty payments (sovereignty), and it demands that the Zambian working class take a greater share of the surplus value (dignity). Greater sovereignty and dignity are pathways to address the dilemmas facing humanity. But rather than spend social wealth on these elementary advances, those who own property and exercise privilege and power spend over $2 trillion per year on weapons and many trillions on security forces (from the military to the police).11
Hervé Télémaque (Haiti), Fait divers, 1962. Oil on canvas, 130 x 195 cm.
Thesis Seven: The Rationality of Racism and Patriarchy. It is important to note that, under the conditions of capitalism, the structures of racism and patriarchy remain rational. Why is this the case? In Capital (1867), Marx detailed two forms for the extraction of surplus value and hinted at a third form. The first two forms (absolute surplus value and relative surplus value) were described and analysed in detail, pointing out how the theft of time over the course of the working day extracts absolute surplus value from the waged worker and how productivity gains both shorten the time needed for workers to produce their wages and increase the amount of surplus produced by them (relative surplus value). Marx also suggested a third form of extraction, writing that, in some situations, workers are paid less than would be justified by any civilised understanding of wages at that historical juncture. He noted that capitalists try to push ‘the wage of the worker down below the value of his labour power’, but he did not discuss this form further because of the importance for his analysis that labour power must be bought and sold at full value.12
This third consideration, which we call super-exploitation, is not immaterial for our analysis since it is central to the discussion of imperialism. How are the suppression of wages and the refusal to increase royalty payments for raw material extraction justified? By a colonial argument that, in certain parts of the world, people have lower expectations for life and therefore their social development can be neglected. This colonial argument applies equally to the theft of wages from women who perform care work, which is either unpaid or grossly underpaid on the grounds that it is ‘women’s work’.13 A socialist project is not trapped by the structures of racism and patriarchy since it does not require these structures to increase the capitalist’s share of surplus value. However, the existence of these structures over centuries, deepened by the capitalist system, has created habits that are difficult to overturn merely by legislation. For that reason, a political, cultural, and ideological struggle must be waged against the structures of racism and patriarchy and must be treated with as much importance as the class struggle.
Thesis Eight: Rescue Collective Life. Neoliberal globalisation vanquished the sense of collective life and deepened the despair of atomisation through two connected processes:
The breakdown of social collectivity and the rise of consumerism harden despair, which morphs into various kinds of retreat. Two examples of this are: a) a retreat into family networks that cannot sustain the pressures placed upon them by the withdrawal of social services, the increasing burden of care work on the family, and ever longer commute times and workdays; b) a move towards forms of social toxicity through avenues such as religion or xenophobia. Though these avenues provide opportunities to organise collective life, they are organised not for human advancement, but for the narrowing of social possibility.
How does one rescue collective life? Forms of public action rooted in social relief and cultural joy are an essential antidote to this bleakness. Imagine days of public action rooted in left traditions taking place each week and each month, drawing more and more people to carry out activities together that rescue collective life. One such activity is Red Books Day, which was inaugurated on 21 February 2020 by the International Union of Left Publishers, the same day that Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848. In 2020, the first Red Books Day, a few hundred thousand people around the world went into public places and read the manifesto in their different languages, from Korean to Spanish. In 2021, due to the pandemic, most of the events went online and we cannot really say how many people participated in Red Books Day, but, in 2022, nearly three-quarters of a million people joined in the various activities.
Part of rescuing collective life was vividly displayed during the pandemic when trade unions, youth organisations, women’s organisations, and student unions took to the public domain in Kerala (India) to build sinks, sew masks, establish community kitchens, deliver food, and conduct house-to-house surveys so that each person’s needs could be taken into account.14
Antonio Berni (Argentina), Juanito Laguna, n.d. Painted wood and metal collage (triptych), 220 x 300 cm.
Thesis Nine: The Battle of Emotions. Fidel Castro provoked a debate in the 1990s around the concept of the Battle of Ideas, the class struggle in thought against the banalities of neoliberal conceptions of human life. A key part of Fidel’s speeches from this period was not just what he said but how he said it, each word suffused with the great compassion of a man committed to the liberation of humanity from the tentacles of property, privilege, and power. In fact, the Battle of Ideas was not merely about the ideas themselves, but also about a ‘battle of emotions’, an attempt to shift the palate of emotions from a fixation on greed to considerations of empathy and hope.
One of the true challenges of our time is the bourgeoisie’s use of the culture industries and the institutions of education and faith to divert attention away from any substantial discussion about real problems – and about finding common solutions to social dilemmas – and towards an obsession with fantasy problems. In 1935, the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch called this the ‘swindle of fulfilment’, the seeding of a range of fantasies to mask their impossible realisation. The benefit of social production, Bloch wrote, ‘is reaped by the big capitalist upper stratum, which employs gothic dreams against proletarian realities’.15 The entertainment industry erodes proletarian culture with the acid of aspirations that cannot be fulfilled under the capitalist system. But these aspirations are enough to weaken any working-class project.
A degraded society under capitalism produces a social life that is suffused with atomisation and alienation, desolation and fear, anger and hate, resentment and failure. These are ugly emotions that are shaped and promoted by the culture industries (‘you can have it too!’), educational establishments (‘greed is the prime mover’), and neo-fascists (‘hate immigrants, sexual minorities, and anyone else who denies you your dreams’). The grip of these emotions on society is almost absolute, and the rise of neo-fascists is premised upon this fact. Meaning feels emptied, perhaps the result of a society of spectacles that has now run its course.
From a Marxist perspective, culture is not seen as an isolated and timeless aspect of human reality, nor are emotions seen as a world of their own or as being outside of the developments of history. Since human experiences are defined by the conditions of material life, ideas of fate will linger on as long as poverty is a feature of human life. If poverty is transcended, then fatalism will have a less secure ideological foundation, but it does not automatically get displaced. Cultures are contradictory, bringing together a range of elements in uneven ways out of the social fabric of an unequal society that oscillates between reproducing class hierarchy and resisting elements of social hierarchy. Dominant ideologies suffuse culture through the tentacles of ideological apparatuses like a tidal wave, overwhelming the actual experiences of the working class and the peasantry. It is, after all, through class struggle and through the new social formations created by socialist projects that new cultures will be created – not merely by wishful thinking.
Tilsa Tsuchiya (Peru), Pintura N° 1 (‘Painting N° 1’), 1972. Oil on canvas, 90 x 122 cm.
It is important to recall that, in the early years of each of the revolutionary processes – from Russia in 1917 to Cuba in 1959 – cultural efflorescence was saturated with the emotions of joy and possibility, of intense creativity and experimentation. It is this sensibility that offers a window into something other than the ghoulish emotions of greed and hatred.
Thesis Ten: Dare to Imagine the Future. One of the enduring myths of the post-Soviet era is that there is no possibility of a post-capitalist future. This myth came to us from within the triumphalist US intellectual class, whose ‘end of history’ sensibility helped to strengthen orthodoxy in such fields as economics and political theory, preventing open discussions about post-capitalism. Even when orthodox economics could not explain the prevalence of crises, including the total economic collapse in 2007–08, the field itself retained its legitimacy. These myths were made popular by Hollywood films and television shows, where disaster and dystopian films suggested planetary destruction rather than socialist transformation. It is easier to imagine the end of the earth than a socialist world.
During the economic collapse, the phrase ‘too big to fail’ settled on the public consciousness, reinforcing the eternal nature of capitalism and the dangers of even trying to shake its foundations. The system stood at a standstill. Austerity growled at the precarious. Small businesses crumpled for lack of credit. And yet, there was no mass consideration of going beyond capitalism. World revolution was not seen on the immediate horizon. This partial reality suffocated so much hope in the possibility of going beyond this system, a system – too big to fail – that now seems eternal. Our traditions argue against pessimism, making the point that hope must structure our interventions from start to finish. But what is the material basis for this hope? This basis can be found on three levels:
Capitalism has already failed. It cannot address the basic questions of our times, these obstinate facts – such as hunger and illiteracy – that stare us in the face. It is not enough to be alive. One must be able to live and to flourish. That is the mood that demands a revolutionary transformation.
We need to recover our tradition of national liberation Marxism but also elaborate the theory of our tradition from the work of our movements. We need to draw more attention to the theories of Ho Chi Minh and Fidel, EMS Namboodiripad and Claudia Jones. They did not only do, but they also produced innovative theories. These theories need to be developed and tested in our own contemporary reality, building our Marxism not out of the classics alone – which are useful – but out of the facts of our present. Lenin’s ‘concrete analysis of the concrete conditions’ requires close attention to the concrete, the real, the historical facts. We need more factual assessments of our times, a closer rendition of contemporary imperialism that is imposing its military and political might to prevent the necessity of a socialist world. This is precisely the agenda of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, of the almost thirty research institutes with which we work closely through the Network of Research Institute, and of the more than 200 political movements whose mass lines inform the development of Tricontinental’s research agenda through the International Peoples’ Assembly.
Certainly, socialism is not going to appear magically. It must be fought for and built, our struggles deepened, our social connections tightened, our cultures enriched. Now is the time for a united front, to bring together the working class and the peasantry as well as allied classes, to increase the confidence of workers, and to clarify our theory. To unite the working class and the peasantry as well as allied classes requires the unity of all left and progressive forces. Our divides in this time of great danger must not be central; our unity is essential. Humanity demands it.
Osmond Watson (Jamaica), Spirit of Festival, 1972. Watercolor and varnished oil on paper, 104 x 78 cm.
1 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 101.2 Fidel Castro, La historia me absolverá [History Will Absolve Me] (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2007).3 Raúl Roa, ‘Fundamentos, cargos y pruebas de la denuncia de Cuba’, In Raúl Roa: Canciller de la dignidad (La Habana: Ediciones Políticas, 1986 ).
4 Translator’s note: Nuestra América is a concept stemming from Cuban national hero Jose Martí’s 1891 essay on Latin American nationalism calling for unity among nations to foment a Pan-Latin American identity opposed to the cultural values of Europe and the United States.
5 Fidel Castro, ‘Word to the Intellectuals’, Speech at the conclusion of meetings with Cuban intellectuals held at the National Library on 16, 23, and 30 June 1961, http://www.fidelcastro.cu/es/audio/palabras-los-intelectuales.
6 Fidel Castro, A Revolution Can Only Be the Child of Culture and Ideas (Havana: Editora Política, 1999), http://www.fidelcastro.cu/en/libros/revolution-can-only-be-child-culture-and-ideas.
7 Abel Prieto, ‘Sin cultura no hay libertad posible’. Notas sobre las ideas de Fidel en torno a la cultura’ [‘Without Culture There Is No Possible Freedom’: Notes on Fidel’s Ideas About Culture], La Ventana, 12 August 2021, http://laventana.casa.cult.cu/index.php/2022/08/12/sin-cultura-no-hay-libertad-posible-notas-sobre-las-ideas-de-fidel-en-torno-a-la-cultura/.
8 Fidel Castro, Speech delivered at the Commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of his admission to University of Havana, Aula Magna, University of Havana, 17 November 2005, http://www.fidelcastro.cu/en/discursos/speech-delivered-commemoration-60th-anniversary-his-admission-university-havana-aula-magna.
9 Today, with the use of social networks in electoral campaigns and in subversive projects, this very acute observation by Fidel about ‘conditioned responses’ carries significant weight.
10 Castro, Speech at the Commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of his admission to University of Havana.
11 Fidel Castro, ‘Without Culture There Is No Freedom Possible’, Key address at the opening ceremony of the 18th Havana International Ballet Festival, 19 October 2002, http://www.fidelcastro.cu/en/fragmento-portada/october-19-2002-0.
12 Fidel Castro, ‘Concept of Revolution’, Speech at the mass rally on International Workers’ Day at Revolution Square, 1 May 2000, http://www.cuba.cu/gobierno/discursos/2000/ing/f010500i.html.
Ten Theses on Marxism and Decolonisation
1 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968), 38.2 Food and Agriculture Organisation, Building a Common Vision for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Principles and Approaches (Rome: FAO, 2014); FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022: Repurposing Food and Agricultural Policies To Make Healthy Diets More Affordable (Rome: FAO, 2022), vi.3 Fidel Castro, Statement at the UN General Assembly, in capacity of NAM President, 12 October 1979, https://misiones.cubaminrex.cu/en/articulo/fidel-castro-human-rights-statement-un-general-assembly-capacity-nam-president-12-october.
4 Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, In the Ruins of the Present, working document no. 1, 1 March 2018, https://thetricontinental.org/working-document-1/.
5 Govindan Raveendran and Joann Vanek, ‘Informal Workers in India: A Statistical Profile’, Statistical Brief 24 (Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising, August 2020), 1; Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, The Farmers’ Revolt in India, dossier 41, 14 June 2021, https://thetricontinental.org/dossier-41-india-agriculture/.
6 Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press), 5.
7 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, ‘Global Outlook on Financing for Sustainable Development 2021’, 9 November 2020, https://www.oecd.org/newsroom/covid-19-crisis-threatens-sustainable-development-goals-financing.htm.
8 Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, Serve the People: The Eradication of Extreme Poverty in China, 23 July 2021, https://thetricontinental.org/studies-1-socialist-construction/.
9 FAO et al., The State of Food Security, vi.
10 Lusaka Times, ‘Over 60% Copperbelt Province Lower Primary Pupils Can’t Read and Write – PEO’, Lusaka Times, 18 January 2018, https://www.lusakatimes.com/2018/01/27/60-copperbelt-province-lower-primary-pupils-cant-read-write-peo/.
11 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, ‘World Military Expenditure Passes $2 Trillion for First Time’, SIPRI, 25 April 2022, https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2022/world-military-expenditure-passes-2-trillion-first-time.
12 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy – Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 670.
13 Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, Uncovering the Crisis: Care Work in the Time of Coronavirus, dossier no. 38, 7 March 2021, https://thetricontinental.org/dossier-38-carework/.
14 Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, CoronaShock and Socialism, CoronaShock no. 3, https://thetricontinental.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/20200701_Coronashock-3_EN_Web.pdf.
15 Ernst Bloch, Heritage of Our Times, trans. Neville and Stephen Plaice (Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991), 103.
This article was republished from the Tricontinental Institute.
No institution helps obscure the crimes of empire and buttress class rule and white supremacy as effectively as the British monarchy.
“Off With Her Head.” [Illustration by Mr. Fish]
he fawning adulation of Queen Elizabeth in the United States, which fought a revolution to get rid of the monarchy, and in Great Britain, is in direct proportion to the fear gripping a discredited, incompetent and corrupt global ruling elite.
The global oligarchs are not sure the next generation of royal sock puppets – mediocrities that include a pedophile prince and his brother, a cranky and eccentric king who accepted suitcases and bags stuffed with $3.2 million in cash from the former prime minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, and who has millions stashed in offshore accounts – are up to the job. Let’s hope they are right.
“Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories,” Patrick Freyne wrote last year in The Irish Times. “More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.”
Monarchy obscures the crimes of empire and wraps them in nostalgia. It exalts white supremacy and racial hierarchy. It justifies class rule. It buttresses an economic and social system that callously discards and often consigns to death those considered the lesser breeds, most of whom are people of color. The queen’s husband Prince Phillip, who died in 2021, was notorious for making racist and sexist remarks, politely explained away in the British press as “gaffes.” He described Beijing, for example, as “ghastly” during a 1986 visit and told British students: “If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed.”
The cries of the millions of victims of empire; the thousands killed, tortured, raped and imprisoned during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya; the 13 Irish civilians gunned down in “Bloody Sunday;” the more than 4,100 First Nations children who died or went missing in Canada’s residential schools, government-sponsored institutions established to “assimilate” indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture, and the hundreds of thousands killed during the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan are drowned out by cheers for royal processions and the sacral aura an obsequious press weaves around the aristocracy. The coverage of the queen’s death is so mind-numbingly vapid — the BBC sent out a news alert on Saturday when Prince Harry and Prince William, accompanied by their wives, surveyed the floral tributes to their grandmother displayed outside Windsor Castle — that the press might as well turn over the coverage to the mythmakers and publicists employed by the royal family.
The royals are oligarchs. They are guardians of their class. The world’s largest landowners include King Mohammed VI of Morocco with 176 million acres, the Holy Roman Catholic Church with 177 million acres, the heirs of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with 531 million acres and now, King Charles III with 6.6 billion acres of land. British monarchs are worth almost $28 billion. The British public will provide a $33 million subsidy to the Royal Family over the next two years, although the average household in the U.K. saw its income fall for the longest period since records began in 1955 and 227,000 households experience homelessness in Britain.
Royals, to the ruling class, are worth the expense. They are effective tools of subjugation. British postal and rail workers canceled planned strikes over pay and working conditions after the queen’s death. The Trade Union Congress (TUC) postponed its congress. Labour Party members poured out heartfelt tributes. Even Extinction Rebellion, which should know better, indefinitely canceled its planned “Festival of Resistance.” The BBC’s Clive Myrie dismissed Britain’s energy crisis — caused by the war in Ukraine — that has thrown millions of people into severe financial distress as “insignificant” compared with concerns over the queen’s health. The climate emergency, pandemic, the deadly folly of the U.S. and NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine, soaring inflation, the rise of neo-fascist movements and deepening social inequality will be ignored as the press spews florid encomiums to class rule. There will be 10 days of official mourning.
In 1953, Her Majesty’s Government sent three warships, along with 700 troops, to its colony British Guiana, suspended the constitution and overthrew the democratically elected government of Cheddi Jagan. Her Majesty’s Government helped to build and long supported the apartheid government in South Africa. Her Majesty’s Government savagely crushed the Mau Mau independence movement in Kenya from 1952 to 1960, herding 1.5 million Kenyans into concentration camps where many were tortured. British soldiers castrated suspected rebels and sympathizers, often with pliers, and raped girls and women. Her Majesty’s Government inherited staggering wealth from the $ 45 trillion Great Britain looted from India, wealth accumulated by violently crushing a series of uprisings, including the First War of Independence in 1857. Her Majesty’s Government carried out a dirty war to break the Greek Cypriot War of Independence from 1955 to 1959 and later in Yemen from 1962 to 1969. Torture, extrajudicial assassinations, public hangings and mass executions by the British were routine. Following a protracted lawsuit, the British government agreed to pay nearly £20 million in damages to over 5,000 victims of British abuse during war in Kenya, and in 2019 another payout was made to survivors of torture from the conflict in Cyprus. The British state attempts to obstruct lawsuits stemming from its colonial history. Its settlements are a tiny fraction of the compensation paid to British slave owners in 1835, once it — at least formally — abolished slavery.
During her 70-year reign, the queen never offered an apology or called for reparations.
The point of social hierarchy and aristocracy is to sustain a class system that makes the rest of us feel inferior. Those at the top of the social hierarchy hand out tokens for loyal service, including the Order of the British Empire (OBE). The monarchy is the bedrock of hereditary rule and inherited wealth. This caste system filters down from the Nazi-loving House of Windsor to the organs of state security and the military. It regiments society and keeps people, especially the poor and the working class, in their “proper” place.
The British ruling class clings to the mystique of royalty and fading cultural icons as James Bond, the Beatles and the BBC, along with television shows such as “Downton Abbey” — where in the 2019 film version the aristocrats and servants are convulsed in fevered anticipation when King George V and Queen Mary schedule a visit — to project a global presence. Winston Churchill’s bust remains on loan to the White House. These myth machines sustain Great Britain’s “special” relationship with the United States. Watch the satirical film “In the Loop” to get a sense of what this “special” relationship looks like on the inside.
It was not until the 1960s that “coloured immigrants or foreigners” were permitted to work in clerical roles in the royal household, although they had been hired as domestic servants. The royal household and its heads are legally exempt from laws that prevent race and sex discrimination, what Jonathan Cook calls “an apartheid system benefitting the Royal Family alone.” Meghan Markle, who is of mixed race and who contemplated suicide during her time as a working royal, said that an unnamed royal expressed concern about the skin color of her unborn son.
I got a taste of this suffocating snobbery in 2014 when I participated in an Oxford Union debate asking whether Edward Snowden was a hero or a traitor. I went a day early to be prepped for the debate by Julian Assange, then seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy and currently in His Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh. At a lugubrious black-tie dinner preceding the event, I sat next to a former MP who asked me two questions I had never been asked before in succession. “When did your family come to America?” he said, followed by “What schools did you attend?” My ancestors, on both sides of my family, arrived from England in the 1630s. My graduate degree is from Harvard. If I had failed to meet his litmus test, he would have acted as if I did not exist.
Those who took part in the debate – my side arguing that Snowden was a hero narrowly won – signed a leather-bound guest book. Taking the pen, I scrawled in large letters that filled an entire page: “Never Forget that your greatest political philosopher, Thomas Paine, never went to Oxford or Cambridge.”
Paine, the author of the most widely read political essays of the 18th century, Rights of Man, The Age of Reason and Common Sense, blasted the monarchy as a con. “A French bastard landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself as King of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original…The plain truth is that the antiquity of the English monarchy will not bear looking into,” he wrote of William the Conqueror. He ridiculed hereditary rule. “Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.” He went on: “One of the strangest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings is that nature disproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule, by giving mankind an ass for a lion.” He called the monarch “the royal brute of England.”
When the British ruling class tried to arrest Paine, he fled to France where he was one of two foreigners elected to serve as a delegate in the National Convention set up after the French Revolution. He denounced the calls to execute Louis XVI. “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression,” Paine said. “For if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” Unchecked legislatures, he warned, could be as despotic as unchecked monarchs. When he returned to America from France, he condemned slavery and the wealth and privilege accumulated by the new ruling class, including George Washington, who had become the richest man in the country. Even though Paine had done more than any single figure to rouse the country to overthrow the British monarchy, he was turned into a pariah, especially by the press, and forgotten. He had served his usefulness. Six mourners attended his funeral, two of whom were Black.
You can watch my talk with Cornel West and Richard Wolff on Thomas Paine here.
There is a pathetic yearning among many in the U.S. and Britain to be linked in some tangential way to royalty. White British friends often have stories about ancestors that tie them to some obscure aristocrat. Donald Trump, who fashioned his own heraldic coat of arms, was obsessed with obtaining a state visit with the queen. This desire to be part of the club, or validated by the club, is a potent force the ruling class has no intention of giving up, even if hapless King Charles III, who along with his family treated his first wife Diana with contempt, makes a mess of it.
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Chris Hedges is a Truthdig columnist, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a New York Times best-selling author, a professor in the college degree program offered to New Jersey state prisoners by Rutgers University, and an ordained Presbyterian minister. He has written 12 books, including the New York Times best-seller “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” (2012), which he co-authored with the cartoonist Joe Sacco. His other books include "Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt," (2015) “Death of the Liberal Class” (2010), “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” (2009), “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” (2008) and the best-selling “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America” (2008). His latest book is "America: The Farewell Tour" (2018). His book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” (2003) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and has sold over 400,000 copies. He writes a weekly column for the website Truthdig and hosts a show, "On Contact," on RT America.
This article was republished from SheerPost.
"A reverse-glass export painting of the Thirteen Factories in Guangzhou." By: Unknown Chinese artist. Source: Wikimedia.
" This article was originally published on Liberation School on September 15, 2022."
Throughout most of recorded history, Asia has been the wealthiest region in the world. The riches of Asia attracted people from around the Old World, as exemplified by the travels of figures like the Venetian Marco Polo or the North African Ibn Battuta, who ventured to Asia in the 13th and 14th centuries and brought word of the lands and peoples he encountered, information which helped spark the age of Western exploration that began to establish ongoing interactions between Europe, India, China, and other parts of the continent. The rise of European capitalism drove the creation of commercial exchanges with Asia, as Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English traders built up networks of trade. With the Industrial Revolution the European powers, first the British and then others, were able to exert direct military power over Asian countries, and launched a period of imperialist domination which would persist until they were driven out in the middle years of the 20th century. The extraction of wealth from Asia created, for a while, a global economy in which the West held the levers of power based on the exploitation of labor both in the factories of the metropole and in the workshops, commercial farms, and plantations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
In the course of the 19th century, a radical critique of capitalism emerged, primarily in the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which was further elaborated and extended in analyses of imperialism by revolutionaries like V.I. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. These efforts were naturally focused first and foremost on Europe and its colonial extensions. This was the battleground on which the developing class struggle was taking its course. The dynamics of capitalist production, the imperatives of accumulation, and the social and cultural effects of exploitation and oppression were the critical arenas of the investigation and interpretation of the contemporary world.
The analysis of the organization and functioning of capitalism, as well as its historical origins and development, remain the dynamic core of Marxist political economy. From the broad overview presented in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 through the exploration and elaboration of ideas and arguments in the notebooks he kept, including the Grundrisse from 1857-58 and the drafts of 1864-65, the Preface and Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in 1859, and his published magnum opus, Capital in three volumes (the second and third edited by Engels posthumously), Marx produced a careful and precise explanation and understanding of the capitalist system. He was clear that his subject was primarily capitalism as it had developed in Britain, but with relevance to the geographically adjacent economies of France or Germany, and the historically antecedent formations of northern Italy and the Netherlands.
The “Asiatic mode of production”
Marx was also interested in and concerned with questions of the economic history of the rest of the world, both in terms of how European capitalism was reshaping global relations in his own time, and in how non-European societies had developed economically. He never produced a comprehensive exposition of his views on these topics, but there are scattered comments throughout his economic writings. One area about which Marx made numerous observations was Asia. Some of these gave rise to later debates and discussions about what has been called the Asiatic Mode of Production . This, in turn, became part of the elaboration of a theory of the sequential development of modes of production, though in the official orthodoxy of the Soviet Communist Party in the 1930s, the Asiatic mode itself was no longer invoked, with the sequence rather beginning with a stage of primitive communal ownership (and it’s worth noting that “primitive” was not a value judgment but a descriptive category) .
The question of “Asia” is more than a matter of historical-materialist theory. In the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, and with the failure of revolutionary uprisings in Hungary and Germany after the end of World War I, the Communist International (The “Comintern” or the “Third International”) became a vital force for supporting and coordinating communist movements around the world. The question of revolution in the colonial world, in countries that were not part of the industrialized capitalist core of Western Europe and North America, became central to the work of the International. Some of the most dynamic movements emerged in places like China, the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina, and British India. There were intense debates about how these revolutions should be organized, about the nature of the political struggle in these societies, about what class forces were involved . Marx’s ideas about “Asia” were important in these discussions, as Marxists tried to assimilate the social economies of Asian countries into their understanding of the development of capitalism and its place in the contemporary world dominated by Western imperialism . These debates were also embroiled in the internal struggles for leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, with Stalin and Trotsky sharply disagreeing. In the end, of course, Stalin consolidated his position as the dominant figure in the Soviet system, and his view of the five-stage sequence of the historical development of modes of production became the only acceptable theoretical position by the late 1930s, as noted above.
The influence of this model has remained significant in Marxist historical thought ever since. As scholars like Harry Harootunian have noted, a model like this was not intended by Marx to be a rigid, empirical description of a system, but more of a methodological device for abstracting an understanding of historical and economic dynamics . In other words, the Asiatic Mode of Production was not an anthropological claim but rather a theoretical tool that allowed Marx to distinguish the particularities of capitalism from other social formations and modes of production.
All of this leaves open the question of what Marx actually thought about Asia and how Asian societies related to the historical development of modes of production and the eventual emergence of capitalism in Europe. The idea that capitalism is a uniquely European development, that the rest of the world remained in some “pre-capitalist” stage and would only be incorporated into capitalism through direct encounters with European, or later American, capitalist imperialism, has shaped both Marxist and bourgeois understandings of history. Whether this is an accurate assessment of global economic history is perhaps not so simple a question to resolve. Recent scholarship on questions of “early modernity” have suggested that there were many aspects of economic and cultural life in Asian countries that were quite similar to features normally associated with the rise of capitalism in Europe . Other studies have raised questions about the degree to which commercial capitalism may have developed in some non-European economies, and about Marx’s own views of the nature of some non-European societies . Scholars in the “post-colonial” tradition, for example, often misread or selectively read Marx’s comments while neglecting to read his writings on colonialism and non-European social formations to portray him as Eurocentric or an advocate of colonialism .
It is in this context that I want to explore Marx’s economic writings to see how he portrayed and understood Asia— particularly India and China—and to raise the question of how Marxists today might apply Marx’s historical-materialist methodology to the analysis of the historical political economies of Asia as we have come to know them through more recent studies, with a breadth and depth of knowledge not available to Marx in the middle years of the 19th century. I will argue that, while Marx’s understanding of Asia was certainly flawed—especially in light of more recent evidence—this was the result of the information with which he was able to work. However, Marx’s method of historical-materialist inquiry provides the path to a very different understanding of the economic history of China that has been prevalent in both Marxist and bourgeois scholarship.
Before considering Marx’s statements regarding Asia, it will be useful to consider what the term means. The name originates in European antiquity and was used by the Greeks to refer to everything to their east, often with overtones of barbarism and otherness. Asia, though only vaguely understood, remained a realm of great interest to Europeans through the Middle Ages, with a trickle of commerce linking the West to the wealth of China or India via trans-Eurasian trade routes, both overland and maritime. By the early modern period, there was a heightened engagement with Asia as first the Portuguese and Spanish, and later the Dutch and English launched their voyages in search of access to the riches brought to their attention by Marco Polo and others .
In modern geography, Asia refers to a huge space encompassing the territory from the Ural Mountains in Russia, the Caspian Sea, and the Anatolian Peninsula across to the Pacific Ocean and extending down through the Malay Peninsula and across the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagoes. It includes countries ranging from Russia to Turkey, Iran and India to Pakistan, China, and the Central Asian states, Korea to Japan, the countries of mainland Southeast Asia to Indonesia, and others. Nearly 5 billion people live in what is called Asia, with a hugely complex range of variation in languages and cultures, and, of course, in economic conditions. In many ways, it designates a space that is not Europe, an otherness beyond the Eurocentric core.
Marx’s deeper inquiry into Asia can be traced to his earliest economic writings, by which I especially mean his notebooks of 1857-58, known as the Grundrisse, the economic notebooks of 1864-65 (recently published in English for the first time), the three volumes of Capital (the third of which was edited by Engels from the material in the 1864-65 notebooks), and some additional comments in texts including the 1848 Communist Manifesto and the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy from 1859. These works include two basic kinds of comments about Asia. Some of these refer to Asia generically, while others refer more specifically to India and/or China. One kind of comment refers to developments taking place in the contemporary world, in the ongoing dynamic of the relationship between Europe and Asia which was unfolding in Marx’s own times. The other type, which are the main focus of my consideration here, are descriptions or characterizations of the political and economic features of Asia throughout history, a delineation of a social economic order which was outside the narrative of capitalist development Marx articulated for Europe.
Marx was, of course, a creature of his own time, operating within a particular knowledge economy, an intellectual environment with specific contents and limitations. He was literate in several languages, both modern and classical, but not in any Asian language. The serious study of Asian history was in its infancy in Europe in the mid-19th century. More was known about India because of the activities of the East India Company and its merchants and administrators up to 1857, and a good deal of information about China had been accumulated from the two centuries of reports sent back by Jesuit missionaries and others (although these were strongly shaped by the specific contexts in which they were produced). But the bulk of information about Asia to which Marx had ready access was concerned with trade and with the challenges of colonial administration and control. Merchants, military leaders, and colonial or diplomatic officials, while perhaps personally intrigued by the customs or cultures of the lands they were exploiting, for the most part, did not devote themselves to acquiring the linguistic or historical knowledge which would have deepened their understanding of Asia’s long and complex past.
Marx’s statements on Asia
Perhaps the most famous of Marx’s pronouncements about an Asian topic came early, in the Communist Manifesto, which he published along with Friedrich Engels in 1848. In a long discussion of the rise of the bourgeois economic system and its spread around the world Marx wrote, “The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate” . This passage, while not a serious analysis of the functions of the capitalist system, nonetheless invokes some key concepts which recur throughout Marx’s observations about Asia. The use of the image of the “Chinese wall” which must be broken down, and the characterization of a “barbarian” other, highlight the idea that Asia is a place apart from, and different from, Europe, the birthplace of the bourgeois order. It’s important to note, however, that Marx used “civilization” in a derisive manner and never equated it with “progress” or “advancement.” Just after writing about how capital would break down the “Chinese walls,” for example, Marx and Engels state that capitalism forces “all nations, on the pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst” .
These basic motifs are elaborated in more substantive ways in Marx’s specifically economic writings, to which we will now turn. I will present these in chronological order from the succession of texts in which they appear, and then draw some overall conclusions about the essential features of Marx’s view of Asia and its political-economic history.
After the tumultuous years of revolutionary activity in the late 1840s and the trauma of the post-revolutionary retreat of communist activities across Europe, Marx moved to London, where he would live for the rest of his life. The first half of the 1850s was a difficult period, during which Marx struggled to maintain his family and to work with many of the other continental political refugees that wound up in Britain. But by the second half of the decade, he was able to settle into the period of deep study of political economy which would culminate in the writing of Capital. He spent long hours in the Reading Room of the British Library and in his makeshift study at home. He took copious notes on a wide range of primary and secondary sources, keeping massive notebooks and drafting and re-working versions of what would become the three volumes of his masterwork, Capital. Some of Marx’s writings reached published form in his lifetime or shortly thereafter, as with the final two volumes of Capital. Others, especially the notebooks he kept in the late 1850s and early-to-mid 1860s, were long neglected and not published until the mid-20th or early 21st centuries.
The first set of notebooks, published under the title Grundrisse (ground plan/outline/rough sketch), were compiled in 1857-58, although only the “Introduction” was released and translated before 1939. The Grundrisse contains numerous comments on trade with India or China, including information about exchange rates for silver and gold and other materials dealing with the contemporary development of relations between Europe and Asia. These are beyond the scope of this study, which is concerned with Marx’s understanding of the historical nature of Asian economies. Much of this material is presented in Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins, where he also engages with Marx’s journalistic writings about China, India, and other Asian questions .
In these notebooks, Marx makes several comments on what he calls the “Asiatic form” of economic society, as well as other observations about Asia or the Orient. Many of these are found in the section on “Forms which precede capitalist production” at the end of Notebook IV and in Notebook V. In a section on property Marx writes:
Amidst Oriental despotism and the propertylessness which seems legally to exist there, this clan or communal property exists in fact as the foundation, created mostly by a combination of manufactures and agriculture within the small commune, which thus becomes altogether self-sustaining, and contains all the conditions of reproduction and surplus production within itself .
Shortly after this, while reflecting on the nature of cities in pre-capitalist societies, he comments that “Asiatic history is a kind of indifferent unity of town and countryside (the really large cities must be regarded here merely as royal camps, as works of artifice erected over the economic construction proper)” . This is followed over the next few pages by two statements on the “Asiatic form:”
In the Asiatic form (at least, predominantly) the individual has no property, but only possession; the real proprietor, proper, is the commune—hence property only as communal property in land… The Asiatic form necessarily hangs on most tenaciously and for the longest time. This is due to its presupposition that the individual does not become independent vis-à-vis the commune; that there is a self-sustaining circle of production; unity of agriculture and manufactures, etc. .
Marx adds a further reference to common property in India, writing that “common property in the older, simpler form, such as is found in India and among the Slavs” .
He continues this discussion and looks forward to the development of subsequent modes of production in the slave and feudal forms, while noting that the Asiatic form is particularly resistant to historical change:
Slavery and serfdom as thus only further developments in the form of property resting on the clan system. They necessarily modify all of the latter’s forms. They can do this least of all in the Asiatic form. In the self-sustaining unity of manufacture and agriculture, on which this form rests, conquest [of neighboring territories] is not so necessary a condition as where landed property, agriculture, are exclusively predominant .
Marx elaborates that in these new modes of production the individual loses the organic integration in a community which gave them the dual status of being a member of the group and a proprietor of a share of the communal resources:
In the oriental form this loss is hardly possible, except by means of altogether external influences, since the individual member of the commune never enters into the relation of freedom towards it in which he could lose his (objective, economic) bond with it…Slavery, bondage etc., where the worker himself appears among the natural conditions of production for a third individual or community (this is not the case e.g. with the general slavery of the orient, only from the European point of view) .
In summarizing his thoughts on pre-capitalist forms, he returns to his basic characterization of historical Asiatic or oriental social economies, where “the original form of this property is therefore itself direct common property (oriental form)” .
The Grundrisse includes one additional comment which relates the general nature of the Asiatic form to a supposed specific practical feature, particularly, but not solely, associated with India: “In the original, self-sustaining communes of Asia, on one side no need for roads; on the other side the lack of them locks them into their closed-off isolation and thus forms an essential moment of their survival without alteration (as in India)” .
Two years after his compilation of the Grundrisse, Marx wrote a preface A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, a project which included a modified form of the first three chapters of Capital. In the preface, he outlined a sequence of the historical development of modes of production. “In broad outline,” as he writes, “the Asian, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as progressive epochs of the socio-economic order .
This concept of a step-by-step succession of forms, with the Asian form as the starting point, is not developed further here, but it gave rise to a tradition of thought among certain later writers, such as Karl Kautsky, of taking this sequence as a universal template that could be applied to any given society around the world. Yet it’s important to note that Marx’s presentation here is didactic and schematic in nature and can’t be isolated to imply that Marx held a “stageist” approach to history. Early in the mid-1840s, Marx wrote that “to hold that every nation goes through this development internally would be as absurd as the idea of that every nation is bound to go through the political development of France” . Nonetheless, Kautsky’s interpretation dominated many Marxist debates in the early-mid 20th century.
The specification of the Asian form gave way to the invocation of a “primitive” or “primitive communal” form in later versions. This was ultimately enshrined, with effects which will concern us further, in Stalin’s proclamation of the stages of historical development set out in his essay “Dialectical and Historical Materialism” and in the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Short Course). Thus, it’s worth restating that Marx was presenting a didactic model that was necessarily rough and schematic, rather than articulating a fully fleshed-out theory of development.
Marx made several further statements of his ideas about historical Asian economies and societies in the notebooks which he kept in 1864-1865—which were the basis of the second and third volumes of Capital as edited by Engels—and in the first volume, which was the only one published (and republished) by Marx starting in 1867. In the 1864-1865 notebooks, Marx returns to the topic of property:
The legal conception [of landed private property] itself means nothing more than that the landowner can behave in relation to the land just as any commodity owner can with his commodities; and this idea—the legal notion of free private landed property—arises in the ancient world only at the time of the dissolution of the organic bonds of society, and in the modern world only with the development of the capitalist mode of production. In Asia it has simply been imported here and there by Europeans.
He also gives a basic description of the organization of production in Asian economies, specifically referring to India in one instance, and to Asia more broadly in another, and invoking the idea of a “natural economy:”
The existence of domestic handicrafts and manufacture as an ancillary pursuit to agriculture, which is the basic activity, is the condition for the mode of production on which this natural economy rests, both in European antiquity and medieval times…
The first volume of Capital, which is devoted to the analysis of the capitalist mode of production using England as a “chief ground” to elaborate an abstract model of capitalist production in general, includes a number of comments on trade with India, China, or Asia more broadly. Neither Marx nor Engels considered England to be a “closed national economy” and, from the 1840s onwards, analyzed England as a colonial power. Yet in Capital Marx has little to say about what he thought of as “pre-capitalist” economics, save for one important characterization of the nature of political economy in Asian history:
The simplicity of the productive organism in these self-sufficing communities which constantly reproduce themselves in the same form and, when accidentally destroyed, spring up again on the same spot and with the same name—this simplicity supplies the key to the riddle of the unchangeability of Asiatic societies, which is in such striking contrast with the constant dissolution and refounding of Asiatic states, and their never-ceasing changes of dynasty. The structure of the fundamental economic elements of society remains untouched by the storms which blow up in the cloudy regions of politics .
These passages yield a number of defining features that Marx felt characterized Asian societies and economies over the long sweep of history . These can be summarized as follows:
This model of an Asian form of political economy, with the geographic extent of its applicability left ill-defined but expansive, along with the concept of history as a set succession of modes of production in a sequence that was universal for human societies around the planet, became fixed in some later forms Marxist thought. As noted above, the German Social Democratic leader Karl Kautsky wrote about China and Asia in 1886 using exactly this model of an “Asiatic” form of political economy and of the successive stages of social development . Indeed, these same concepts featured in non-Marxist portrayals of Asia as autarkic and unchanging by such influential thinkers as Max Weber as well .
Asia and Chinese Marxism in the 21st centuryNot all Marxist students of Chinese history accepted these defining features. In 1926-1927, the Bolshevik Karl Radek, at that time the Director of the Sun Yat-sen University for the Toilers of China in Moscow, gave a series of lectures on China in which he challenged both the characterization of China as static and unchanging and the effort to assimilate Chinese history to the European-derived model of successive stages. Working with recent scholarship on China that had not been available to Marx, Radek rejected the idea that China remained in a feudal stage until the arrival of European imperialism in the 19th century, and argued instead for an understanding of China’s historical political economy which was dynamic and featured elements of mercantile capital and highly commercialized agricultural production .
Radek’s views, however, did not become widely accepted among Marxists in the Soviet Union or beyond. Radek was embroiled in the political controversies within the Soviet leadership, being closely associated with Trotsky, in opposition to the rising power of Stalin in the later 1920s . As Stalin consolidated his dominance and Trotsky went into exile, Radek was largely silenced and came to conform to the orthodox version of historical materialism, including the view of successive stages of development applicable to all societies. Given the leading, guiding role of the Soviet Union in the world Marxist movement through the middle of the 20th century, Stalin’s version of a universal template of historical development through successive modes of production, and the characterization of Asia, especially China, as a static, feudal, pre-capitalist system, came to be accepted by Marxist scholars in both the socialist states and in the capitalist world.
The question remains, then, how well this representation fits the actual history of Asian, especially Chinese, political economies. Modern studies of Chinese economic history especially have yielded radically different understandings, beginning with Naitō Torajiro’s work on the commercial revolution of the Tang-Song period in the 1920s through recent works like William Liu’s study of the Chinese market economy from 1500-1800, or Richard von Glahn’s comprehensive economic history of China. Even these works, however, refrain from referring to China’s historical economy as capitalist, let alone applying that definition to Asia more broadly. Scholars such as Kenneth Pomeranz and Prasannan Parthasarathi, cited above, have argued that the economies of China and India in fact were equivalent to those of Western Europe on the threshold of the Industrial Revolution in many important ways. It is beyond the scope of this essay to set out a full investigation of how China’s economy, especially over the last millennium of imperial history, may have accorded with Marx’s own descriptions of the essential features of capitalist production. Further work must be done on this matter.
For the moment, I want to simply conclude with a reminder and a suggestion. The reminder is that throughout Marx’s development, he moved beyond associating the “Asiatic Mode of Production” with “oriental despotism” precisely because he “was very concerned about the question of sources, and criticised the poverty of the empirical data on which British writers based their arguments, which were often dictated by colonial interests” . The suggestion is that a critical task for Marxists is to apply the historical-materialist methodology embodied in Capital and other texts of political economy to the understanding of Asia and China in order to reach a new appreciation of the complex global history of capital and the rich diversity of economic forms and developmental trajectories that preceded, accompanied, and followed the transformative expansion of European and American imperialism and the consolidation, for a brief period, of a Western-dominated global capitalist system. Contemporary struggles against imperialism and for building a socialist future will be strengthened by a more accurate understanding of the dynamics of Asian history and its implications for the path ahead.
Marxist historical materialism has played a central role in the Chinese revolution since its introduction there in the early twentieth century. Chinese scholars and activists, perhaps most prominently Mao Zedong, have used this creatively and adapted Marxist theory to the concrete material realities of China. Applying this methodology to China’s historical political economy extends and deepens this work, and will provide not only a greater understanding of the past, but also insights into the contemporary development of socialism in China.
 Timothy Brook, The Asiatic Mode of Production in China (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1989).
 Central Committee of the CPSU, History of CPSU (Short Course) (New York: International Publishers, 1939); and Joseph Stalin, Dialectical and Historical Materialism and Other Writings (New York: International Publishers, 2020).
 E.H.Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution (Vol. 3) (London: Pelican Books, 1966).
 V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1976).
 Harry Harootunian, Marx After Marx: History and Time in the Expansion of Capitalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).
 See the “Early Modernities” special issue of Daedalus 127, no. 3 (1998); Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021); Prasannan Parthasarathi, Why Europe Became Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600-1850 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Ken Hammond, “Beyond the Sprouts of Capitalism: China’s Early Capitalist Development and Contemporary Socialist Project,” Liberation School, 13 September 2021. Available here.
 Jairus Bannajee, A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2020); and Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: on Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
 Lucia Pradella, “Marx and the Global South: Connecting History and Value Theory,” Sociology 51, no. 1 (2017): 147.
 An overview of the historical awareness and understanding of Asia by Europeans down to the 18 century is found in Jürgen Osterhammel, Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018). More critical analyses of the construction of European conceptions of Asia by the beginning of the 19th century and down to Marx’s time are in Geoffrey C. Gunn, First Globalization: The Eurasian Exchange, 1500-1800 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003); and Andre Gunder Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 8-34.
 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: International Publishers, 1948/2021), 13.
 Anderson, Marx at the Margins.
 Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of a Critique of Political Economy, trans. M. Nicolaus (London: Penguin Books, 1939/1973), 473.
 Ibid., 484.
 Ibid., 484, 486.
 Ibid., 490.
 Ibid., 493.
 Ibid., 494, 495-496.
 Ibid., 497.
 Ibid., 525.
 Karl Marx, Preface and Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1959/1976), 4.
 Karl Marx, “Draft of an Article of Friedrich List’s book Das Nationale System der Politischen: Draft of an Article on Friedrich List’s Book Das Nationale Oekonomie,” in Marx-Engels Collected Works (Vol. 4) (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 281.
 Karl Marx, Marx’s Economic Manuscript of 1864-1865, trans. B. Fowkes and ed. F. Moseley (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 715, 778.
 Ibid., 774, 782.
 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. B. Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1867/1976), 479.
 In his introduction to the edited volume The Asiatic Mode of Production in China, Timothy Brook sets out a set of such characteristics as defined by scholars in the People’s Republic in the 1970s and ‘80s. These are similar to those in this essay, but include a focus on the hydraulic thesis of oriental despotism, which is absent from the texts considered here.
 Karl Kautsky, “Die Chinesischen Eisenbahnen und das Europäische Proletariat,” Die Neue Zeit 4 (1886): 515-549.
 Max Weber, The Religion of China (New York: Free Press, 1968).
 Alexander V. Pantsov, ed., Karl Radek on China: Documents from the Former Secret Soviet Archives (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2020), 22-78, 208-225.
 These controversies and policy disputes, especially as related to China, are delineated in fine detail in Carr,The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923 (Vol. 3), 484-540; and Carr, Socialism in One Country, 1924-1926, (Vol. 3) (London: Pelican Books, 1972), 693-830.
 Lucia Pradella, “Beijing between Smith and Marx,” Historical Materialism 18, no. 1 (2010): 94.
After the death of Queen Elizebeth, some attempt to silence discussion of colonialism while others effectively limit it to the past
In the aftermath of the announcement of the death of the British Queen Elizabeth, Uju Anya tweeted: “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.”
(Anya is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, my alma mater, though the phrase literally means “nourishing mother” and I can’t say I got that from Carnegie Mellon. Some seem to feel that they somehow got that from the late monarch, and I can’t say that I see that either.)
Twitter deleted the tweet and Carnegie Mellon put out a statement effectively condemning Anya’s remarks, each of which I think are absurd and dubious as others have noted.
But then Anya retweeted a tweet from Eugene Scott, national political reporter at the Washington Post:
The answer to Scott’s question, “When is the appropriate time to talk about the negative impact of colonialism?” is everyday. You’re swimming in it.
Today, 9/11, is a good day to talk about the negative impacts of colonialism: How the U.S., British and French governments cut up the Mideast leading to the rise of a colonial Israel and oppressive monarchies; how the U.S. undermining the Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s and then attacking Iraq beginning in 1990 led inevitably to impoverishment, suffering and increasing instability in the region, including what is euphemistically called “blowback”.
The massive propaganda campaign that effectively began 20 years ago to invade Iraq should now be the focus of sustained attention if we had a cultural and media environment wanting to finally come to terms with its imperialist mindset, waging wars of aggression, occupying entire countries and employing systematic torture for those ends in the 21st Century.
In July, Michael Langley was tapped to become head of the United States Africa Command. Scott, over at the Washington Post, took this occasion to effectively celebrate him:
The Black Alliance for Peace meanwhile has been running a campaign against AFRICOM to the silence of many: “The purpose of AFRICOM is to use U.S. military power to impose U.S. control of African land, resources and labor to service the needs of U.S. multi-national corporations and the wealthy in the United States.”
The Black Alliance for Peace reports that African countries initially rejected AFRICOM, but with a more sophisticated approach by the Obama administration “corrupt African leaders began to allow AFRICOM forces to operate in their countries and establish military-to-military relations with the United States.”
Bringing up colonialism only in the context of the death of the nearly 100-year-old British monarch is actually functional at a certain level for the establishment. It pretends it’s a relic of the past rather than a force that continues to maliciously mold the world today.
Postings relating the late monarch and colonialism on various lefty, progressive and even mainstream websites have good information about horrific British oppression in Kenya, India and Yemen and elsewhere. Yet, they have a tendency to drop off in the 1960s or 1970s, as if various U.S. and British invasions and bombings since then have not been an effective continuation of the imperial project.
What is needed is the hard work of scrutinizing the mechanisms of power. Colonialism may not today provide the photo-op of a brazen sword in hand of a monarch, but there are entire military and economic systems as well as “soft power” mechanisms that have allowed colonialism to effectively mutate into more effective but deadly strains.
Consider for example that with the invasion of Iraq, the main U.S. government partner in crime was Britain. But in the case of bombing Syria and intervention there, the main U.S. government collaborator was France. Then consider that Iraq was a British colony and Syria was a French colony. Then consider that virtually no one in the U.S. pointed this out. (I attempted to do so repeatedly.)
Colonialism continues to not only cast a massive shadow, but to actively mold the world around us.
At times this is done by shallow rebranding, at times such tendencies are manifested through more subtle instruments.
The Kenyan activist Njoki Njoroge Njehû once told me: “After slavery and colonialism, the latest tool for imposing foreign interests on us is the lethal combination of debt and the economic conditions of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.”
Sometimes it’s somewhat more brazen. Consider Hillary Clinton’s remarks on the Iran nuclear deal: "I don't see Iran as the partner in this agreement, I see Iran as the subject of this agreement."
Israel is a main continuation of actual settler colonialism. A critical point that even Queen Elizabeth, according to one recent report, seemed capable of seeing.
The Bank of England in 2018 announced a policy of refusing to release hundreds of millions of dollars of Venezuelan gold.
Currently, as Afghans face starvation, Biden is withholding $7 billion of their money.
Colonialism, or at least its rebranded oppressive offspring, is all around us and should be talked about Every. Single. Day.
Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News
Anyone in the UK who imagined they lived in a representative democracy – one in which leaders are elected and accountable to the people – will be in for a rude awakening over the next days and weeks.
TV schedules have been swept aside. Presenters must wear black and talk in hushed tones. Front pages are uniformly somber. Britain’s media speak with a single, respectful voice about the Queen and her unimpeachable legacy.
Westminster, meanwhile, has been stripped of left and right. The Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties have set aside politics to grieve as one. Even the Scottish nationalists – supposedly trying to rid themselves of the yoke of centuries of English rule presided over by the monarch – appear to be in effusive mourning.
The world’s urgent problems – from the war in Europe to a looming climate catastrophe – are no longer of interest or relevance. They can wait till Britons emerge from a more pressing national trauma.
Domestically, the BBC has told those facing a long winter in which they will not be able to afford to heat their homes that their suffering is “insignificant” compared to that of the family of a 96-year-old woman who died peacefully in the lap of luxury. They can wait too.
In this moment there is no public room for ambivalence or indifference, for reticence, for critical thinking – and most certainly not for Republicanism, even if nearly a third of the public, mostly the young, desire the monarchy’s abolition. The British establishment expects every man, woman, and child to do their duty by lowering their head.
Twenty-first-century Britain never felt so medieval.
There are reasons a critical gaze is needed right now, as the British public is corralled into reverential mourning.
The wall-to-wall eulogies are intended to fill our nostrils with the perfume of nostalgia to cover the stench of a rotting institution, one at the heart of the very establishment doing the eulogising.
The demand is that everyone shows respect for the Queen and her family and that now is not the time for criticism or even analysis.
Indeed, the Royal Family have every right to be left in peace to grieve. But privacy is not what they, or the establishment they belong to, crave.
The Royals’ loss is public in every sense. There will be a lavish state funeral, paid for by the taxpayer. There will be an equally lavish coronation of her son, Charles, also paid for by the taxpayer.
And in the meantime, the British public will be force-fed the same official messages by every TV channel – not neutrally, impartially or objectively, but as state propaganda – paid for, once again, by the British taxpayer.
Reverence and veneration are the only types of coverage of the Queen and her family that is now allowed.
But there is a deeper sense in which the Royals are public figures – more so even than those thrust into the spotlight by their celebrity or talent for accumulating money.
The British public has entirely footed the bill for the Royals’ lives of privilege and pampered luxury. Like the kings of old, they have given themselves the right to enclose vast tracts of the British Isles as their private dominion. The Queen’s death, for example, means the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have just added the whole of Cornwall to their estate.
If anyone is public property, it is the British Royals. They have no right to claim an exemption from scrutiny just when scrutiny is most needed – as the anti-democratic privileges of monarchy pass from one set of hands to another.
The demand for silence is not a politically neutral act. It is a demand that we collude in a corrupt system of establishment rule and hierarchical privilege.
The establishment has a vested interest in enforcing silence and obedience until the public’s attention has moved on to other matters. Anyone who complies leaves the terrain open over the coming weeks for the establishment to reinforce and deepen the public’s deference to elite privilege.
CONTINUITY OF RULE
Undoubtedly, the Queen carried out her duties supremely well during her 70 years on the throne. As BBC pundits keep telling us, she helped maintain social “stability” and ensured “continuity” of rule.
The start of her reign in 1952 coincided with her government ordering the suppression of the Mau Mau independence uprising in Kenya. Much of the population were put in concentration camps and used as slave labour – if they weren’t murdered by British soldiers.
At the height of her rule, 20 years later, British troops were given a green light to massacre 14 civilians in Northern Ireland on a protest march against Britain’s policy of jailing Catholics without trial. Those shot and killed were fleeing or tending the wounded. The British establishment oversaw cover-up inquiries into what became known as “Bloody Sunday”.
And in the twilight years of her rule, her government rode roughshod over international law, invading Iraq on the pretext of destroying non-existent weapons of mass destruction. During the long years of a joint British and US occupation, it is likely that more than a million Iraqis died and millions more were driven from their homes.
The Queen, of course, was not personally responsible for any of those events – nor the many others that occurred while she maintained a dignified silence.
But she did provide regal cover for those crimes – in life, just as she is now being recruited to do in death.
It was her Royal Armed Forces that killed Johnny Foreigner.
It was her Commonwealth that repackaged the jackbooted British empire as a new, more media-savvy form of colonialism.
It was the Union Jacks, Beefeaters, black cabs, bowler hats – the ludicrous paraphernalia somehow associated with the Royals in the rest of the world’s mind – that the new power across the Atlantic regularly relied on from its sidekick to add a veneer of supposed civility to its ugly imperial designs.
Paradoxically, given US history, the special-ness of the special relationship hinged on having a much-beloved, esteemed Queen providing “continuity” as the British and US governments went about tearing up the rulebook on the laws of war in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
And therein lies the rub. The Queen is dead. Long live the King!
But King Charles III is not Queen Elizabeth II.
The Queen had the advantage of ascending to the throne in a very different era, when the media avoided Royal scandals unless they were entirely unavoidable, such as when Edward VIII caused a constitutional crisis in 1936 by announcing his plan to marry an American “commoner”.
With the arrival of 24-hour rolling news in the 1980s and the later advent of digital media, the Royals became just another celebrity family like the Kardashians. They were fair game for the paparazzi. Their scandals sold newspapers. Their indiscretions and feuds chimed with the period’s ever more salacious and incendiary soap opera plots on TV.
But none of that dirt stuck to the Queen, even when recently it was revealed – to no consequence – that her officials had secretly and regularly rigged legislation to exempt her from the rules that applied to everyone else, under a principle known as Queen’s Consent. An apartheid system benefiting the Royal Family alone.
By remaining above the fray, she offered “continuity”. Even the recent revelation that her son, Prince Andrew, consorted with young girls alongside the late Jeffrey Epstein, and kept up the friendship even after Epstein was convicted of paedophilia, did nothing to harm the Teflon Monarch.
Charles III, by contrast, is best remembered – at least by the older half of the population – for screwing up his marriage to a fairy-tale princess, Diana, killed in tragic circumstances. In preferring Camilla, Charles traded Cinderella for the evil stepmother, Lady Tremaine.
If the monarch is the narrative glue holding society and empire together, Charles could represent the moment when that project starts to come unstuck.
Which is why the black suits, hushed tones, and air of reverence are needed so desperately right now. The establishment is in frantic holding mode as they prepare to begin the difficult task of reinventing Charles and Camilla in the public imagination. Charles must now do the heavy lifting for the establishment that the Queen managed for so long, even as she grew increasingly frail physically.
The outlines of that plan have been visible for a while. Charles will be rechristened the King of the Green New Deal. He will symbolise Britain’s global leadership against the climate crisis.
If the Queen’s job was to rebrand empire as Commonwealth, transmuting the Mau Mau massacre into gold medals for Kenyan long-distance runners, Charles’ job will be to rebrand as a Green Renewal the death march led by transnational corporations.
Which is why now is no time for silence or obedience. Now is precisely the moment – as the mask slips, as the establishment needs time to refortify its claim to deference – to go on the attack.
Jonathan Cook is a MintPress contributor. Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.
This article was republished from MintPress News.
Saint Domingue, the territory that is today known as Haiti, was a French colony from 1659 to 1804. Known as the “Pearl of the Antilles”, this colony was a source of enormous wealth, producing 40% of all the sugar and 60% of all the coffee consumed in Europe. These riches were produced on the backs of brutally exploited African slaves.
The colonial society of Saint Domingue had four different class strata:
(a) The “grand blancs”(Big Whites), the wealthy white plantation owners
(b) The “petit blancs”(Small Whites), smaller white landowners, merchants and artisans
(c ) The “coloreds”, mixed race, many of whom were plantation owners themselves
(d) On the bottom, the masses of African slaves
By 1789, the total white population was around 50,000, while the black slaves numbered half a million, outnumbering whites by a factor of ten to one.
Such a system could only be held together through extreme violence and terror. Many slaves were literally worked to death. Conditions were so brutal that roughly every 20 years, nearly the entire black population was replaced, it being cheaper to import new slaves directly from Africa than to keep the current ones alive. The colony was essentially an open air concentration camp.
In 1789, the French Revolution upended the aristocratic order in France, and eventually, all of Europe. The shock waves rolled outward across the Atlantic and upset the rigid racial colonial hierarchy. The proclamations of Liberty, Equality and the Brotherhood of all mankind were picked up by the colonies’ subjects and interpreted to mean that it applied to them too.
The first to make a move were the so called ‘Coloreds’. A number of them had been educated in France itself, had been exposed to the Enlightenment ideas of Rousseau and Voltaire and others preaching natural rights of men, and were also men of wealth. They came to believe that they were entitled to the new rights the white Frenchmen had won for themselves. Vincent Oge, a mixed race aristocrat and himself a slave owner, was in Paris on business when the French Revolution broke out. He unsuccessfully petitioned the new government to give mixed race men full citizenship rights, but was stonewalled. The gains of the revolution were for whites only.
In frustration, Oge returned to Saint Domingue and began an armed rebellion against the white planters in 1790. He and his followers were quickly defeated, and he was brutally tortured to death in public.
The plantation owners extinguished a small fire, yet a volcanic eruption was coming.
One August 14, 1791, thousands of slaves gathered in secret at Bois Caman for a voodoo religious ceremony. This mass meeting, headed by a shaman known as Dutty Boukman, was used as a cover for planning a revolt.
A week later on August 22, the revolution began. The northern plains of Saint Domingue, around the port of Le Cap, exploded in a cataclysm of violence. Using fires to give the signal to revolt, tens of thousands of slaves rose up. Avenging centuries of oppression, the Africans killed every white person they could find. In just the first two months of the rebellion 4,000 whites were killed and 180 sugar plantations were destroyed. Eyewitness accounts said that you could read your letters at night from the light of the burning plantations.
Initially, the rebelling slaves were not fighting for independence from France. They believed (falsely) that the French King Louis XVI had issued a proclamation abolishing slavery, which the colonial governor had suppressed. Nonetheless, the French government recognized the seriousness of the situation, fearing losing their most valuable colony. In 1792, they passed a law giving full citizenship rights to free blacks and mixed race people. They also dispatched Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, a Girondin and an abolitionist, to be the colony’s new governor and enforce the new policies.
Meanwhile, a new leader of the rebellion was emerging to prominence- Toussaint L’Ouverture. Boukman, the original instigator of the rebellion, was captured and beheaded by the French. Into the leadership vacuum stepped Toussaint, who unlike the other slaves was literate and educated. He had had an unusually enlightened master who encouraged him to learn to read and write. He had read all the great Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the military tactics of Julius Caesar.
Toussaint approached the Spanish, who controlled the other two thirds of the same island Saint Domingue was on, to make a tactical alliance. Spain wanted to take advantage of the chaos to seize the French colony for themselves. With Spanish weapons and supplies, Toussaint turned the rowdy mobs of rebelling slaves into a disciplined army capable of waging regular battles.
With Toussaint’s forces making steady gains and one third of the colony already in rebel hands, Sonthonax realized he had to take more radical measures to save the colony for France. In August 1793 he declared slavery abolished in the northern part of the colony.
This blew up in his face. The French plantation owners, overwhelmingly monarchists who hated Sonthonax for his republican views anyway, exploded with rage. They welcomed and assisted a British invasion of Saint Domingue, in September 1793. British troops put the slaves back in chains everywhere they went.
Toussaint’s forces kept advancing from the east, while British troops closed in from the west. France, fighting its enemies on all sides back in Europe, did not have sufficient troops available in Saint Domingue to both repel the British and suppress the slave revolt at the same time. Toussaint presented Paris with an offer- he would switch his allegiance to France, but only in exchange for the emancipation of all the slaves, no exceptions.
In February 1794, the French National Assembly passed a law declaring all one million of the slaves in France’s colonies free.
Now that the cause of France and the cause of liberty were one and the same, Toussaint turned his back on the Spanish and allied with the French in May 1794. His forces fought alongside regular French troops to push the British off the island.
After four years of protracted, brutal fighting, the British were completely defeated. Toussaint entered the colonial capital of Port Au Prince in triumph in 1798. The British lost a total of 100,000 soldiers in Saint Domingue- both from the fighting and yellow fever.
Almost as soon as the British were expelled, a civil war broke out in the colony. Two mixed race generals, Rigaud and Petion, challenged Toussaint’s authority. They rebelled in the south of Saint Domingue, alarmed that the emancipation of black people would threaten their (relative) privileges. They massacred both blacks and whites. Toussaint crushed this revolt in the so-called “War of the Knives”. By 1800 he was completely in control, although still officially running things on behalf of France.
Toussaint declared to the Directory, the ruling body of France: “We have known how to face dangers to achieve our liberty, we shall know how to brave death to attain it”. Slave owners throughout the Caribbean quaked in terror.
In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte took power in France in a military coup. His rise represented the consolidation of the bourgeois state in France and thus, the curtailing of its more radical egalitarianism. The displaced plantation owners petitioned Napoleon in Paris to restore their properties and wealth in Saint Domingue, and he heeded their advice.
In 1802, Napoleon assembled a massive invasion force of 30,000 soldiers aboard 60 warships to reconquer the colony. He put his brother in law, Charles Leclerc, in charge of the expedition. Officially the purpose of the expedition was only to oust Toussaint, who was accused of overstepping his bounds as the governor of Saint Domingue and illegally usurping power. But the secret instructions were also to restore slavery.
Outnumbered and outgunned by the invaders when they made landfall, Toussaint retreated from the coast into the interior. He intended to wear the French down in the forests and mountains. A major battle unfolded in La Crete a Pierrot in March 1802, a fortress guarding a strategic mountain pass into the center of the island. The black forces holding the fort, numbering 2,000 men and women, repelled successive attacks by 15,000 of Napoleon's best troops for almost a month. The French prevailed but with heavy losses- over 1,500 dead and wounded. They massacred the black prisoners after they surrendered.
Two of Toussaint’s key commanders, Henri Cristophe and Jean Jacques Dessalines, concluded that the rebel cause was doomed. They switched sides to the French after they were told they could keep their military commands. Toussaint agreed to negotiations with the French. In May 1802, he was betrayed and taken prisoner at the site of the peace conference. Toussaint’s wife and children were sold back into slavery. The proud leader was shackled and put on a ship back to Europe, where he was imprisoned in a fortress in the Swiss Alps. He died in prison a year later.
Toussaint told his captors: “In overthrowing me you have cut down only the trunk of the tree of liberty; it will spring up again from its roots, for they are many and they are deep”
Shortly after Toussaint’s capture, word reached Saint Domingue that slavery had been restored in the French colony of Guadeloupe. Fearing (accurately) that Saint Domingue was next, armed resistance to the French spread like wildfire everywhere. The French were no longer fighting only rebels but an entire population- men, women and children.
General Leclerc died of yellow fever in November 1802 and his succeeding commander General Rochambeau used unprecedented terror to put down the revolt. Man eating dogs were brought in from Cuba to maul black prisoners. Prisoners were packed into the hulls of French ships and were mass murdered with burning sulfur. But all these barbarities failed.
Leading the rebels in this final phase of the war was Jean Jacques Dessalines, who had once again turned against the French. Dessalines was not in any way sentimental. He knew that this was a war of annihilation- one that would either result in the extermination of the whites or the re enslavement of the blacks. He fought fire with fire, answering Rochambeau’s massacres with his own.
Napoleon had brought over regiments of Poles to fight in Saint Domingue, dubbed the Polish Legion. Once there, the Poles realized they sympathized with the black rebels, who were fighting for their independence just like their compatriots back in Poland were struggling for independence from Tsarist Russia. In an inspiring display of internationalism, the Poles switched sides and fought with the slave revolution. Dessalines praised these men as the “white Negroes of Haiti”.
Dying like flies from incessant rebel attacks and yellow fever, the French position in Saint Domingue was increasingly hopeless. The final great battle was at Vertieres in November 1803, where Dessalines military forces overwhelmed a major French stronghold.
In December 1803 the last regular French military units left the island. The only successful slave rebellion in human history had occurred. The French had lost somewhere around 75,000 of their soldiers in total, and the black rebellion had sacrificed 200,000 of their people-nearly half of the entire population- for their freedom.
In January 1804, Dessalines officially declared the independence of the Republic of Haiti, after the indigenous Arawak name for the island. All the remaining white French plantation owners and their families were massacred- three to five thousand people. The white of the French flag was ripped out so that only the red and blue remained in the flag of the new republic.
Dessalines declared “I have avenged America”
Unfortunately, Dessalines was less able as a ruler than he was as a war leader. He abandoned republicanism quickly and turned to monarchy, crowning himself Emperor. He ordered the black population back to the plantations to get sugar exports back up and running, making people feel little had changed since slavery.
Resentment of his autocratic rule grew and he was assassinated by his own soldiers in 1806. This began a long, sad tradition of military dictatorships and coups in Haiti, one which continues to the present day.
Dessaline's successor, Henri Cristophe, ordered the construction of a massive mountain fortress to deter any possible future French invasion, which became known as the Citadelle Laferriere. It took 20,000 laborers 15 years to build, and was completed in 1820. On top of a 3,000 foot mountain, this fortress had over 300 cannons and enough provisions to feed 5,000 soldiers for over a year. This fortress still stands to this day, surviving Haiti’s numerous earthquakes.
The independent black state was economically strangled. It had no allies. None of the white colonial powers would recognize the government or trade with them. Haiti was subjected to international isolation and a harsh trade embargo for 20 years.
Facing starvation, Haiti entered into a humiliating agreement with France in 1825 where they were agreed to pay reparations for the lost property of the French slave owners. For over a century, Haiti paid France the equivalent of 21 billion dollars in today’s currency. They didn’t fully pay off the last of this debt until 1947- 120 years later. At times, 80% of Haiti’s entire budget was consumed with paying this debt. One of the main creditors of this debt was the National City Bank of New York, which later became Citibank.
This permanently crippled Haiti’s ability to develop economically, and played a decisive role in making Haiti the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere to this day. Imperialism has a long and vindictive memory, and will make a harsh example out of any people who dares to resist them.
May the world never forget the heroes of Haiti who struck a blow for liberty that reverberates across centuries, terrifying tyrants, slavers and imperialists everywhere.
CLR James, The Black Jacobins (Vintage Press, 1989).
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press, 1995).
It’s a momentous day! Not for the world—for which it’s nothing special. But for me! Just seventy years ago, in nervous panic, I took off my U.S. Army jacket, shoes and sleeve insignia and stepped into the swift Danube River which, at Linz in still-occupied Austria, divided the USA Zone from the USSR Zone. Although very wet at this short sector, it was part of the long Iron Curtain. And I was swimming across it in what most Americans would consider a very wrong direction!
It was not really my free choice! In 1950 the McCarran Act ruled that all members of a long list of “Communist Front” organizations must immediately register as foreign agents. I had been in a dozen; American Youth for Democracy, the Anti-Fascist Spanish Refugee Committee, the Southern Negro Youth Congress (I gave them a dollar in solidarity), the Sam Adams School, the American Labor Party, Young Progressives and—most heinous of all, the Communist Party. The maximum penalty for not registering could be $10,000 and—PER DAY!—5 years in prison!! Neither I nor anyone else bowed to this monstrosity!
But in January 1951, during the Korean War, I was drafted—and required to sign that I was never in any of those on that long, long list. Should I risk years in prison by admitting my infamy? Or sign and, by staying mum, hope to survive two army years with no one checking up? I signed.
However, they did check up! Decades later, thanks to the FOIA, 1100 pages (!) of FBI files aboutme (at 10c/page) revealed that J. Edgar Hoover’s boys had watched me closely, as a leftist Harvard student (the names of seven informants were redacted) and as a worker in Buffalo, where I had hoped to help in saving the fighting 1930s character of the CIO unions.
In August 1952 a Pentagon letter listed seven of my memberships and ordered me to “report on Monday to HQ”. The threatened penalty for my perjury: up to 5 years, perhaps in Leavenworth. By then dozens of Communists had been indicted; many were sent to prison. I had luckily been sent not to Korea but to Bavaria, next to Austria. With no-one to advise me, I chose the Danube.
Across the river, in a surprisingly quiet landscape, in no way like an Iron Curtain, the Soviets kept me two weeks in a barred but polite lock-up, then sent me north to the German Democratic Republic, East Germany. I was lucky again; the GDR was the most successful, most untroubled of all in the “East Bloc.” For the next 38 years, as an American, raised with a broad, varied education (six public schools, Bronx Science, Dalton, Fieldston, Harvard), I watched, with left-leaning but not dogmatically limited eyes, the rise, then fall of this western outpost of socialism (or Communism, “state socialism”, “totalitarianism,” or whatever).
I found neither Utopia nor, back then or ever, the hunger, poverty and general misery the American media might have led me to expect. Even in the crucial, difficult year 1952-1953, less than eight years after the war, while shop offerings were limited, lacking variety, style, and often just that very item you were looking for, they were stocked well enough with the basics. East Germany was much smaller and in terms of industry and natural resources far poorer than West Germany. It had borne over 90% of the war reparations burden; the heavily-destroyed USSR did not drop these until 1953. The GDR lacked the huge investment possibilities of war criminal monopolies like Krupp, Siemens, Bayer or BASF, whose factories it nationalized, as well as the politically-aimed assistance of the Marshall Plan. Large numbers of its scientific, management and academic staffs, mostly pro-Nazi, had fled from the occupying Red Army and the leftist, mostly Communist administrators who came with it—and got jobs with their former bosses who were soon prospering again along the Rhine and Ruhr. This seriously weakened the economic revival, but I felt happy that the war criminals were gone.
As an ardent (and Jewish) anti-fascist, I rejoiced to find that the entire atmosphere was anti-Nazi! Unlike West Germany, the schools, universities, courts, police departments, all were cleansed of the swastika crowd, even when at first this meant new, barely-trained replacements, like my father-in-law, a pro-union carpenter, as village mayor or my two brothers-in-law as teachers. My wife trembled when she was reminded of her brutal teachers before 1945. Then, in the altered East German schools, corporal punishment was immediately forbidden.
Of course there were countless problems in a country ruled by Hitler & Co. for twelve years, where cynicism was widespread and Stalin’s cultural views and anti-Semitism exerted undue influence until his death in 1953. Luckily, the aged Communist leader Wilhelm Pieck was able to shield the GDR to a large degree in this regard. And from the start anti-Nazi leftists, often returned Jewish exiles, became leaders in the entire cultural scene; theater, music, opera, literature, journalism and film, where true masterpieces were created, often against fascism, but boycotted and hence unknown in West Germany and the USA. In the all-powerful Politburo of the ruling party Hermann Axen had barely survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald (his brother and parents did not). Albert Norden had escaped to the USA; the Nazis killed his father, a rabbi, in Theresienstadt. In the GDR, except for 3 or 4 mild word-clichés, I met no anti-Semitism in all those 38 years. Those still infected with fascist ideology were careful, except with family or buddies, to keep their mouths shut. Which was OK with me!
Step by step our living standard—of my very dear wife, who saved me from homesickness, our two sons, and myself, kept improving, like that of nearly everyone in the GDR, as it pulled itself up by its own thin bootstraps. Impressing me most as an American: no layoffs, no unemployment; there were jobs for everyone. Rents averaged less than 10% of most incomes; evictions were forbidden by law. In the early years large apartments were divided up when needed; no-one slept in the streets or went begging. Food pantries were unneeded, even the word was unknown. So was student debt. All education was free and monthly stipends covered basic costs, making all jobbing while at college unnecessary.
A monthly medical tax on wages or fees (max. 10%) covered everything: in my case, nine (free) hospital weeks with hepatitis plus four weeks at a health spa to recuperate and four more a year later in Karlsbad. My wife had three rheumatism cures, four weeks each, in the Polish and Harz mountains. All costs were covered and we also got 90% of our salaries. Prescribed drugs were fully covered, also dental care, glasses, hearing aids; I had no need of my wallet or checkbook to pay for my daily insulin shots or my ten-year active pace-maker. Nor for my wife’s two maternal leaves (six months paid, the rest, if wanted, with guaranteed job ). No charge for full child care, participation in sports, summer camps, not for contraception aid nor for free abortions after a new law was passed in 1982. So many fears were gone—so many were totally unknown!
I participated fully in the generally very normal life. First as a factory worker, an apprentice lathe operator, then a student, editor, director of a new Paul/Eslanda Robeson archive, finally as a free lance journalist, lecturer and author. I was not treated as a privileged “American,” as some assume, but my last three occupations meant that—in my series of four little two-stroke Trabant cars I really “got around”—to nearly all areas, with all age levels, in all possible milieus.
A monthly tax (max. 10%) on wages or fees covered everything: my nine hospital weeks with hepatitis, four weeks in a curative spa and four more a year later in Karlsbad, plus my wife’s four-week rheumatism spa cures in the Polish and Harz mountains, again all expenses covered plus 90% of our salaries. All prescribed drugs were covered 100%, so were dental care, glasses, hearing aids—nor did I need wallet, purse or checkbook for my daily insulin shots or my later pace-maker. A year’s maternal leave (six months paid, the rest, if wanted, with guaranteed job) could be followed by full cost-free child care, sports participation, summer camps, free contraception aid or (if neglected)—ever since the breakthrough in 1982—free abortions. So many fears were gone—in fact unknown!
This may really seem almost Utopian. Then why did some risk their lives to leave? Why was a wall built to keep them in? Why did they vote to join West Germany—and ditch the GDR? Why did it fail?
There were all too many reasons. East Germany was occupied by a country it had been taught to hate, whose soldiers had fought it hardest, were often violent in the first weeks, and were poorer and more difficult to love than prosperous, hence generous, gum-chewing GI’s, who came from a wealthy, undamaged homeland. Many but certainly not all East Germans appreciated the Soviets’ major role in defeating the Nazis and their pressure and guidance in confiscating major industry and breaking the power of those worst enemies of the world and theGermans, the Krupps, Siemens and IG Farbens, and the ousting of giant Prussian landowners, the Junkers, who so often officered Germany into mass bloodshed and disaster.
The Russians offered lots of good culture, such as Tolstoy and Dostoevski, top quality dancing, to “Peter and the Wolf” and “The Cranes Are Flying”. But these could rarely compete in mass popularity with the Beatles and Stones, Elvin Presley and suspense-laden Hollywood B-films.
Such enticements, which included some of high quality, based on an unusual American mix of Anglo-Scot, Irish, Jewish, Italian and especially Black cultures, were cleverly misused to increase political and economic influence and power in the world, especially in the East Bloc. They were paired, above all in Germany, with clever propaganda adapted from both Goebbels and that master peddler-publicist of anything from toothpaste to capitalism, Edward L. Bernays. They threaten the great old cultures of France, Italy, India, even China. While GDR leaders, in full power, did aim at noble goals, how could such elderly men, hardened by years of life-and-death struggle against Nazi murderers but usually trained with Stalinist clichés, grow flexible enough to find rapport in printed or spoken word with the average, changeable citizen? There were indeed successes—but too few and far between.
In the 1980s difficulties increased, upward trends slowed and slipped downward. The USSR, with its own problems, offered no assistance. Such problems were difficult but, in a changing world, hardly rare or insurmountable—except that here every problem was utilized in the unceasing attempts to retake East Germany, use its skilled but exploitable working class and move eastwards from there. The State Security or “Stasi,” created to oppose such doings, was crude enough to make the situation worse.
And yet the GDR had probably come closer than any country in the world to achieving that legendary goal of abolishing poverty, while sharply decreasing the frightful, growing rich-poor gap based on an obscene profit system. But it could not afford the immense assortment of goods—foods, apparel, appliances, electronics, vehicles and travel which the West offered, above all the USA and West Germany. The GDR citizenry took all its amazing social advantages for granted and dreamt of scarce bananas and unavailable VWs, of Golden Arch and Golden Gate—without realizing that these are largely available and affordable due to the poverty of children in West Africa or Brazil, of exploited pickers in Andalusian or Californian fields and orchards. Some are just now beginning to realize that those billionaire giants, after cheating so many people of color, wrecking world climate and wielding ever deadlier weapons of annihilation, may soon feel impelled to squeeze and break the comfortable middle classes in their own countries. The start is already felt by many families.
I look back at my seventy years as an ex-pat, and still consider myself a patriotic American—never for the USA of Morgan or Rockefeller but for that of John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Eugene Debs and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, DuBois, Robeson, Malcolm and Martin.
I also love and admire great Germans: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Karl Liebknecht, the great Polish-German Rosa Luxemburg—or great writers: Lessing, Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht. And I respect and empathize with people from all lands, my brothers and sisters, from Guam to Guatemala—and Gaza.
I can only hope that new generations learn from the GDR, and not only from its blunders, nasty habits and limitations, born of its history and all too realistic fears of being overthrown.
It was finally overthrown and stands no longer as a barrier to renewed billionaire expansion—economic, political and military—to the south and east. It is still being belittled or maligned—largely out of fear that it has not yet been sufficiently erased and forgotten. Despite my sometime feelings in those years of despair, even anger at mistaken paths or missed opportunities, I still look back with a mixture of nostalgia, regret and also pride at its many hard-won achievements, in culture, in living together, in partly overcoming the cult of greed and rivalry, in unflinching GDR support for the Mandelas, the Allendes and Ho Chi Minhs, for Angela Davis, too—and not, like its ultimately stronger and victorious opponents in Bonn, for the Pinochets, Francos, racists and apartheid tyrants. I recall our achievements in avoiding war and striving for lives without fear or hatred. By and large they were good years. I am glad I lived through them.
Victor Grossman, born in NYC, fled McCarthy-era menaces as a young draftee, landed in East Germany where he observed the rise and fall of its German Democratic Republic (GDR). He has described his own life in his autobiography Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), and analyzed the GDR and questions of capitalism and socialism in Germany and the USA, with his provocative conclusions, along with humor, irony and occasional sarcasm in all directions, in A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee (New York: Monthly Review Press). His address is wechsler_grossman [at] yahoo.de (also for a free sub to the Berlin Bulletins sent out by MR Online).
This article was republished from Monthly Review.
Since the end of the Second World War, the bourgeois historiography has tried to distort various incidents in order to vilify Socialism and the USSR. One of these incidents- which has been a "banner" of imperialism's apologists and other anticommunists- is the so-called “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact” which was signed in 1939. In it's unscientific, unhistorical effort to equate Communism with Nazism, the bourgeois propaganda presents the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as a medium of expansive policy by the USSR and Hitler's Germany. The distortion of historical events, the amalgamation of lies and the half-truths by the Imperialists and their collaborators aim in defaming the huge role of the Soviet Union in the anti-fascist struggle of WW2.
However, the reality is different than the one presented by the bourgeois historiography. Here, we will examine the circumstances and the events which led to the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, in an effort to debunk the anti-communist propaganda on this matter.
Having the financial and technical support of US and European monopolies, Hitler's Germany began to strengthen its armed forces in the mid-1930s. In 1936, the Nazis proceeded to the militarization of Rhineland, helped Mussolini in capturing Abyssinia (Ethiopia) while they played a crucial role in the imposition of Franco's fascist dictatorship in Spain. The strengthening of Nazi Germany and the beginning of fascism's expansion in Europe took place under the tolerance of the then powerful “democratic” imperialist powers; Britain, France and the US.
After the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in March 1938, the Allies (Britain, France) proceed to the Munich Agreement (30 September 1938). The apologists of Imperialism usually try to downgrade the importance of this agreement between Britain, France, Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany. However, the impact of the Munich agreement- an act of appeasement towards the Nazis- was definitely significant. With the signatures of the then British and French Prime Ministers, Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier, the Nazis annexed Czechoslovakia and intensified their expansionist aggressiveness towards Eastern Europe.
A few months later, on April 7, 1939 the fascist regime of Italy invaded and captured Albania. On March 31, 1939, the governments of Britain and France guaranteed the protection of Poland in case of a Nazi attack- Both London and Paris signed bilateral agreements of mutual aid with Poland. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, Britain and France declared war against Hitler but without taking any military action until next year! From their side, the United States declared their neutrality.
The participants of Munich Conference, 1938. From left to right:
Neville Chamberlain, Eduard Daladier, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini.
Before the invasion of the Nazi army in Poland, the government in Warsaw had tried to negotiate with Hitler a possible joint attack against the Soviet Union. The negotiations failed, as long as the Polish bourgeoisie preferred instead to sign defense agreements with Britain and France. What is important here is that Poland had rejected an agreement of mutual defense (against Nazis) offered by the Soviet Union.
The Imperialist propaganda tries to obfuscate Britain and France's stance of appeasement towards the Nazis and hides the reasons behind the US “neutrality”. The words of US Senator Robert A. Taft are characteristic: “A victory of communism would be much more dangerous for the United States than a victory for fascism” (CBS, 25 June 1941). According to historian John Snell, the western powers regarded the Third Reich as a “barrier” against the Soviet Union in central Europe. The strategic aim of the “democratic” imperialist states was to turn Hitler against the Soviet Union; in a few words, to use the Nazis as a weapon against the construction of Socialism in the USSR. That was the initial aim of the so-called “allies”.
On that point, we must remind that, before the war and while Hitler's regime was building a powerful military, the Soviet Union took numerous initiatives in order to deal a defensive agreement with the European capitalist states. Despite the Soviet calls for the preparation of a common front against the Nazis, the western European “allies” declined such a perspective. For example, before the 1938 Munich Agreement, when Hitler annexed Austria, the Soviet Union proposed an International conference (March 1938) which would deal with the confrontation of Nazi aggressiveness.
On July 23, 1939, the Soviet Union proposed to Britain and French the beginning of negotiations for the formation of a defense plan in case of a German attack. However, the British government had other priorities: to secretly negotiate a non-aggression pact with Hitler's representatives in London. Indeed, while the Soviet Union was proposing to the capitalist states an anti-fascist front, the British government was secretly negotiating with the Nazis the “spheres of influence” in Europe!
What the bourgeois historiography deliberately hides is the fact that the Soviet Union was the only state that had not an aggressive, expansionist policy. Both the two sides of international imperialism (the “democratic” capitalist allies and, on the other hand, the Nazi-fascist Axis) were aiming at the elimination of the Soviet Union. The real enemy of both sides was the Socialist construction in the USSR and for that they didn't hesitate to use each other against Moscow.
The temporary non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany came after numerous efforts by the Soviets to deal a defense agreement with Britain and France. Therefore, being under the continuous threat of the expanding Nazi army and in order to prepare itself for an extensive war, the Soviet state forced to sign the non-aggression pact with Berlin. What bourgeois historians and apologists of Imperialism call an “alliance between Hitler and Stalin” was in fact a necessary diplomatic maneuver by the Soviet Union in order to gain time and prepare effectively for a full-scale war. Even bourgeois historians admit that the Soviet policy was complete realistic, given the then circumstances and the danger of a German attack (F.Dulles, The road to Tehran, New York, 1944, p.203-207).
According to the imperialist propaganda, the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact led to the Soviet “capture” of a part of Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. Such arguments- about the supposed “Soviet occupation”- have fostered the rise of fascist, neo-Nazi groups in these countries after the counter-revolution in the USSR. However, the truth is also quite different. Poland had participated actively in the allied imperialist attack which was launched against the newly-founded Soviet state in 1918. With the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (3 March 1918) the Bolshevik leadership had renounced Tsarist claims to Poland. The Polish government kept under it's control a number of areas in the Baltic region, including western Belarus, western Ukraine and a part of Lithuania). After the Nazi invasion in Poland in 1939, the Red Army moved towards the Soviet-Polish borders and liberated the above-mentioned areas.
The imperialist propaganda regarding the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact consists one of the numerous cases of blatant anticommunist lies. Through bourgeois historiography, Imperialism tries to equate communism and fascism, to vilify Socialism and the Soviet Union. In order to do this, Imperialism's apologists distort history and invent the most hideous slanders against the Soviet Union and the socialist states; from the “Moscow trials” and the “gulags” to the supposed “Stalin-Hitler alliance” and the “Soviet invasion” in Afghanistan. What the Imperialists want to hide is the fact that fascism is just another kind of bourgeois authority- the simple fact that, as Bertolt Brecht said, fascism is the “most naked, brazen, oppressive and deceitful form of capitalism”.
*The Soviet-German non-Aggression Pact took it's name from the surnames of the two Ministers of Foreign Affairs who signed it: Soviet diplomat Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov (1891-1986) and Nazi Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893-1946).
Nikos Mottas is the Editor-in-Chief of In Defense of Communism.
This article was republished from In Defense of Communism.