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A fighting tradition that stands for international solidarity
Is Marxism relevant in the Third World?

May 3, 2002 | Page 8

CRITICS OF Karl Marx often dismiss him as a "dead, white, European man" whose ideas don't apply to--or are even at odds with--the majority of people around the world who are nonwhite. PHIL GASPER explains why the opposite is true--that Marxism offers a solution for ending poverty and suffering around the world that's even more relevant today.

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THE MOVEMENT for global justice, which has organized demonstrations against international bodies like the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund and World Bank, has exposed a global economy characterized by poverty, environmental destruction and war. This raises the question of how we are to understand, and ultimately to change, this system of global exploitation.

In the 19th century, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels provided an analysis of capitalism--and a strategy for defeating it--that gave a central role to the working class. Today, however, critics of Marxism sometimes argue that while the theory may apply to the historical experience of Europe (and Europeans in North America), it doesn't provide a model for understanding events in other parts of the world. Sometimes the critics go further, arguing that Marxism is committed to the view that Western imperialism is historically progressive--and that Western culture and society are superior to their non-Western counterparts.

The claim that Marxism is "Eurocentric" is, in fact, virtually the defining assumption of a whole area of academic study called "postcolonial studies." But these criticisms don't hold up.

It is certainly true that Marx and Engels devoted much of their attention to analyzing European history and society. But this was because Europe was the first area in the world in which capitalism emerged, not because they thought that there was anything inherently superior about European society.

Nor did they believe that every country in the world was destined to follow a path identical to the one that had led to capitalism in England and other parts of Europe. Marx in fact explicitly rejected attempts by others "to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of general development, imposed by fate on all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they are placed."

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MOREOVER, MARX and Engels pointed out how the development of European capitalism depended on conquest, genocide and slavery.

As Marx put it in Capital: "The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production."

The charge of Eurocentrism is often made on the basis of remarks made by Marx in articles that he wrote in the early 1850s about the role of British imperialism in India. In one article, Marx wrote that, although "England was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them," it nevertheless might have been "the unconscious tool of history in bringing about [a] revolution" in Indian society.

Despite Marx's qualifications, critics such as author Edward Said argue that Marx was justifying Western imperialism by pointing to its potentially progressive effects. But Said's argument ignores the fact that Marx repeatedly and explicitly condemned the brutal impact of colonialism. "The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked," wrote Marx.

Capitalist development brings progress in the sense that, by increasing material production, it provides the potential for all human beings to live decent and fulfilling lives. But it does so only at an enormous cost in terms of human suffering.

Marx recognized both sides of this process. Only when capitalism has been overthrown, he writes, "will human progress cease to resemble that hideous pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain." In the same article, he commented, "The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British people, until in Great Britain itself the now-ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether."

When mutinies and uprisings took place across northern India in 1857, Marx defended the rebellions, showing how it was a response to the barbarism of British colonial policy. Because the revolt drained Britain's military and financial resources, weakening the power of British capitalists, Marx declared that "India is now our best ally"--even though conditions were not yet ready for the rebellion to succeed.

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THE CONNECTIONS between struggles in different parts of the world are a constant theme in Marx's writings. Because they put the emergence of European capitalism in a global context, Marx and Engels were internationalists who believed in the necessity of world revolution.

Capitalism, they argued, creates its own gravediggers by bringing into existence the modern working class--which, because of its concentrated numbers and strategic position at the center of production, has the power to pose a challenge to the system as a whole.

At the same time, capitalism is an inherently expansionist system, which over time will impose itself on every portion of the globe, integrating the whole world into a single economic system. "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the surface of the whole globe," they wrote in the Communist Manifesto. "It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere."

When the Manifesto was published in 1848, most of the world's population were peasants engaged in agricultural production. Today, the spread of capitalism has created a huge working class in nearly every country in the world, from Asia to Africa to Latin America.

And around the world, working classes have demonstrated time and again that they have the capacity to bring capitalism to a halt with mass strikes and demonstrations. The past decade, for example, has seen mass revolts by workers in South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Egypt, South Korea, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina, among other countries.

This huge growth of the world working class makes Marx's writings more relevant than ever. And today, even in the poorest countries, the relative size of the working class is usually bigger, and improved methods of communication have greatly increased the possibility of building international solidarity.

Workers in more developed capitalist countries have common interests with workers and peasants in poorer countries to replace an economic system based on corporate greed with one based on production for human need. The key task for everyone who wishes to challenge the global capitalist system is to make those common interests clear--and to build an international movement based on working-class solidarity that can fight to achieve them.

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