I recently wrote and presented to the people of Mount Desert Island on the delimitation of lighthouses and spaces islanded literally and physically from the “outside” world. The essential premise was on how lighthouses and more broadly spaces islanded from the rest of the world could represent existences that were more isolated by their own volition. Spaces, where we can ultimately see our own Covid19-dictated lives mirrored more satisfyingly. But this also presents a larger question on delimitation in Marxist Revolutions. Immediately we think of the island of Cuba, the relatively small country of Burkina Faso, or the big mass of the Soviet Union. How does an area’s delimitation affect its revolutionary aspirations? And if we look at this from a Marxist perspective we unquestionably have to include the legacy of imperialism. How do countries delimited by their physical boundaries in addition to their economic and social brutalization from imperialism shape out compared to a country not affected by this violence?
To break this down let’s look at delimitation narrowed into two different categories. The first one being the physical, geographic delimitation of a place: its global location, if it is islanded, its indigenous history, and its ability for natural resources. The second form of delimitation that I want to look at is its delimitation in the eyes of imperialism: how a place’s boundaries and limits were forced by the imperialism of a western country.
For the purpose of this examination I will not be looking at the Marxist Revolutions of all countries and places but rather focus on a few: Thomas Sankara’s work in Burkina Faso, the work of Castro and Guevara in Cuba, the huge impact of the Soviet Union, and more abstractly the Black Panthers in the United States.
Thomas Sankara and Burkina Faso:
Burkina Faso’s global location is important. Located in the western part of Africa, it has a dry and tropical climate. (Burkina Faso National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) Official Document (French) - November 2007) More broadly Burkina Faso’s legacy sits among the colonization of the African continent, along with being an example of US military intervention. Importantly, it is landlocked, with no access to the sea, although the country enjoys a rich history of farming which Sankara helped to expand among his vast reforms. The first people to settle in the area were the Mossi people in the 11th and 13th centuries. Their expansive kingdoms were important in the Sub-Saharan trade. In 1890, it was colonized by the French who would start their process of exploitation. (SAHO) Currently, the gold mining sector has colonized and exploited the country and its people in post-Sankara society. Much like other countries on the African content, Burkina Faso is extremely diverse in its peoples, languages, cultures, and traditions. The French forcibly created these non-contextual borders, languages, religions, and economies that had no relationship with the existence of the peoples on the land before. The brutalization of the people of Burkina Faso is a prime example of just how long-lasting the violence from imperialism reaches beyond its effects on people but on boundaries as well.
We can see some inherent delimitations in the country. Its borders and resources make it vital for relationships with other nations; other nations who could (and did) choose to exploit and brutalize the country for its self-determination and bold commitment to liberation through Marxism. Those who took Sankara down were bribed by western interests (or the literal interests themselves), his demise can be seen as a product of the inherent and forced delimitation of the country. Sankara was not in the position to shut out the entirety of the world, erase the lasting effects and people from the nation’s origin in colonization, and/or refuse foreign aid. The natural delimitation of the country’s geographic position in West Africa also reveals delimitation through imperialism. The Western powers (France) that colonized the land were ultimately the ones that had control of the boundaries and foundations of the country.
Yet in some ways, delimitation helped Burkina Faso even have some sort of Marxist revolution. Its smaller geographic area enabled Sankara to communicate better with the entirety of his people. The long tradition of farming and farmers in the area helped to push Sankara’s reforms. And lastly, if we see delimitation as the action of fixing a limit, we could say that Burkina Faso was more open to delimitation beyond borders and boundaries but among new ideas and political ideals. The historical legacy of imperialism created a need for a revolution in the first place, which is why we see examples of left-wing revolutions in countries brutalized by imperialism so often.
Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in Cuba:
This leads us to another example of a smaller country whose people were forced to endure colonization and imperialism by Western powers. Cuba’s geographic delimitation though is a little different. In some ways its position as an island helped the country: one small reason why the Soviet Union allied with the country was the Soviet Union’s affinity for water access. Another element is the lasting effect the tourism industry would have on Cuba pre and post-revolution. Cuba was exploited by imperial powers for its warm climate through the tourism industry before Castro led the proletariat to fight against the imperial powers. Or even before in the climate’s ability to produce sugar. And tragically we can see how the physical delimitation of an island would be hurtful to a revolution unpopular by the global-capitalist powers: after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba would struggle to feed its people because of the inherent inability to be completely self-sufficient in its food production (which should not be, and is not, expected in any other countries).
Yet any young Marxist first learns about Castro and Guevara who in the Sierra Maestras quite literally fought hand and tooth for Cuba’s independence. The ruralness of the island allowed the comrades to ally themselves with farmers spread out from the city center of Havana. We can see then how Cuba’s geographic delimitation first enabled its revolution to happen. Without the cover of the Sierra Maestra and that guerilla warfare, the revolution possibly wouldn’t have happened. But as I mentioned before, in a world where those who reject global capitalism are isolated, inhumanely ostracized, and invaded, an island’s inherent smallness and singular climate made the revolution hard to sustain. If our global picture wasn’t delimited by the constraints of capitalism perhaps Cuba wouldn’t have run into the problems that it was forced to confront in its extremely limited boundaries.
(Map from Nations Online)
The Soviet Union:
Along with the vastness of the Soviet Union’s geographic territory comes even more delimited history; therefore only a few examples will be examined here. As I mentioned before: one of the favorite topics of any high school history teacher is undoubtedly the lack of sea access that the Soviets had. This forced the dynamic of many of its expansion efforts, policies, and relationships with other countries (oftentimes those countries had been brutalized by Western, capitalist powers). Water would also encourage boundaries to expand; the soviets used the power of natural water resources to further their industrial development. (Tolmazin). In fact, there is a longstanding history of the Soviet’s appropriation of natural water resources which unfortunately hurt a lot of natural water climates, although the Soviets have added invaluable scientific research in understanding the impact of harnessing water likewise.
Water is not the only resource the Soviet Union used in its delimitation. I find it important to reflect on not only the geographic position but its size. Geographically its located centrally quite literally between two huge continents: Europe and Asia. Among conflicts and wars, its boundaries and borders were challenged physically, forcing the Soviet Union to henceforth physically respond. This also added to different cultural, social, and linguistic barriers. One specific tidbit that exemplifies this is that in 1914 Vladimir Lenin ruled against a compulsory or official state language after the October Revolution (Comrie, Bernard (1981). The Languages of the Soviet Union. Cambridge University Press). Perhaps it is in understanding the delimitation (or lack thereof) of the Soviet Union where we can best observe these crowning moments. I will though say that a country with less delimitation in the form of extensive boundaries with less physical land area definitely helped the Soviets. Not to mention the Soviet Union’s legacy with imperialism and colonization is obviously way different than places such as Cuba or Burkina Faso. In this way, we can see that the legacy of delimitation from western imperialism in the form of colonizing an independent group of people is less evident and that undoubtedly helped the Revolution to at least exist on a bigger global scale. And lastly, the sheer amount of people under the Soviet Union is the biggest example of delimited space in a Revolution. Although countries like the United States were undoubtedly scared of the Marxist tendencies of mainly Cuba but also Burkina Faso, the threat the Soviet Union would pose in the neoliberal eyes of the Americans was enormously grand.
(Map from Library of Congress)
Black Panther Party in the United States:
Lastly, I wanted to include the effects of delimited spaces in the Black Panther Party. Like the expanses of the Soviet Union, the United States is bigger than the two other countries we previously looked at. No matter how talented the revolutionary, the distance between say Fred Hampton in Chicago and the headquarters in Oakland was immense. This idea of delimitation was something Hampton invariably battled with before he was murdered: how can one focus so closely on the dynamics and lives of their community while also fighting for country-wide, revolutionary change? Malcolm X in much of his autobiography talks extensively about the travel required in his work, and how that changed his overall message. He would assign positions to specific leaders already embedded in their communities because he understood the importance of that local understanding. Tyner writes in “Defend the Ghetto”: Space and the Urban Politics of the Black Panther Party:
“Black communities in the North, far from being in disarray and plagued by dysfunction, waged a protracted fight for justice and equity but constantly had to contend with theories and policies that blamed them for their condition (Theoharis 2003, 7). Theoharis explains that rural, southern African Americans were seen as emblematic of long-suffering struggles, whereas the urban-based African Americans were portrayed- in the media, in academia- as pathological…”
So then not only the delimitation of state-created geography is important to acknowledge but the actual cultural differences between our cardinal directions. The Black Panthers had to contend with not only the systemic racism under capitalism that they were fighting against but the geographic and boundary-based realities of that same system: capitalism.
It is hard for me to see how the inherent delimitation of the United States helped the Panthers. I guess the beauty of unique and niche communities comes from their ability to grow optimistic revolutionaries: not yet scarred from the realities of far-reaching suppression. Perhaps then, that was the one way in which delimitation helped the Panthers: it created the ability for sanguine leaders to at least, attempt to rise void of the suffocating reality that a state with all the power and money in the world would simply continue to suppress through every means necessary.
(Map from Black Panther Party
History and Geography)
There are a vast array of other countries with left-wing revolutions that we could talk about in terms of the role of delimitation in their fight. Equally, there are heaps of small lessons we can see in those countries: is Uruguay’s current left-leaning government more successful because of the lack of indigenous people to be exploited; the country couldn’t be built on that original sin of exploitation and is therefore built on a system of less bloodshed? How has the exploitation of the global south by Nordic countries created systems less pure in their supposed left-leaning morality? How has the legacy of the United States-caused wars created the ability for socialist continuations in the Vietnamese government? The point of course is that we can see moments where delimited spaces gravely impacted Marxist Revolutions on all global levels. So much like how we analyze small spaces of urban planning in our cities and communities, I wonder what the impact of looking at the role of delimitation in larger and more abstract processes of Marxist Revolutions could reveal. From Graduate Hospital, Kensington, and Fairmount in my local Philly, to these larger spaces such as Cuba and Burkina Faso that I analyzed before, the role of white supremacy, neoliberalism, and global capitalism is ginormous. From gentrification to lack of land to farm, the space, boundaries, and borders of an area can divulge telling lessons on some of the biggest Marxist Revolutions.
Black Panther Party History and Geography - Mapping American Social Movements. https://depts.washington.edu/moves/BPP_intro.shtml. Accessed 18 Aug. 2021.
Burkina Faso | South African History Online. https://www.sahistory.org.za/place/burkina-faso. Accessed 18 Aug. 2021.
Burkina Faso | UNDP Climate Change Adaptation. https://www.adaptation-undp.org/explore/western-africa/burkina-faso. Accessed 18 Aug. 2021.
“Republics of the Soviet Union.” Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, https://www.loc.gov/resource/g7001f.ct001610/. Accessed 18 Aug. 2021.
“---.” Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, https://www.loc.gov/item/2005626536/. Accessed 18 Aug. 2021.
The Languages of the Soviet Union (Cambridge Language Surveys) by Bernard Comrie: Very Good Paperback (1981) | Fireside Bookshop. https://www.abebooks.com/Languages-Soviet-Union-Cambridge-Language-Surveys/30368345240/bd. Accessed 18 Aug. 2021.
Tolmazin, David. “Trends in the USSR Water Resources Development Policies.” GeoJournal, vol. 17, no. 3, Springer, 1988, pp. 389–400.
Tyner, James A. “‘Defend the Ghetto’: Space and the Urban Politics of the Black Panther Party.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 96, no. 1, [Association of American Geographers, Taylor & Francis, Ltd.], 2006, pp. 105–18.
Your Guide to the World :: Nations Online Project. https://www.nationsonline.org/index.html. Accessed 18 Aug. 2021.
Ella Kotsen is an undergraduate student at Bryn Mawr College. She is majoring in English and double minoring in History and Growth & Structure of Cities. She plays Division III women’s basketball and has received Centennial Conference Academic Honors. Her main subject of interest is in geopolitics and understanding the historical implications of colonization in Latin American countries. She is interested in Marxist literary theory and enjoys the work of Fanon, Eagleton, and Althusser. Ella also writes for her own independent blog where she produces opinion pieces, book reviews, and audio-based interviews.
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