by David Gilbert
“Imperialism is piracy […] reorganized, consolidated and adapted to the aim of exploiting the natural and human resources of our peoples.”
“[N]obody has yet made a successful revolution without a revolutionary theory.”
– Amilcar Cabral
One of my biggest joys and most valued activities is corresponding with younger-generation—by now it’s generations—white anti-racist activists. Most of them identify as anarchist or anti-authoritarian, but knowing my history, often ask what I think about Marxism. These activists have been mightily turned off by the examples of Marxist-Leninist (M-L) organizations in the U.S. which all too often have been characterized by dogmatism, sectarianism, and heavily top-down internal power dynamics. Political “debate” frequently devolved into each side plucking competing quotes from Marx or Lenin or Mao—as though that proved anything. Perhaps worst of all, many predominantly white and male “Marxists” used the powerful terminology to insist that fighting white and male supremacy was “secondary” to the class struggle and that opposing homo- and transphobia was irrelevant.
Those examples are rightly rejected by radicals rooted in love for and commitment to oppressed and exploited humanity. But what led many of my generation to embrace Marxism, in sharp contrast to the above misdirections, was the reality that most of the exciting revolutions that were sweeping the third world (what’s now called the Global South) were led by M-L parties—not Marxism as some musty catechism from 19th century Europe but rather as a living tradition being applied and developed by modern third world revolutionaries.
A blanket dismissal of Marxism runs the risk of losing some important building blocks for analyzing the nature and vulnerabilities of capitalism. In addition, my experience during more than 50 years in the struggle has shown that those who were able to sustain activism over the long and difficult haul often had some foundation in theory and in a sense of history.
What follows is not an argument for or against Marxism as the defining framework, and it certainly isn’t an attempt to provide an overall or in-depth explanation.[ii] Instead I want to talk about a few broad concepts which I found very useful and still seem very relevant today. Often these ideas are markedly different from the more visible versions put forward by various predominantly white and male Marxists. (For brevity’s sake I’ll refer to those whom I feel distort the analysis in this way with quotes: “Marxists.”) Before getting into the heart of this paper, I’ll briefly review the path that led me to study and then try to apply Marxism.
Letting in the Sunlight
Coming of age in the U.S. in the 1950s, I was reflexively anti-communist. The roar of the propaganda and “education” that engulfed us was reinforced by my distaste for the repressive East European regimes. Moving into the 1960s, my belief in U.S. democracy was shattered, first by the inspiring Civil Rights Movement, then by the inexcusable U.S. war on Vietnam. As I learned more, I became outraged that our government systematically crushed democratic movements in the third world in order to impose brutal dictatorships in league with U.S. business interests. By the time I started college in 1962, I was already on the road to committing my life to activism.
The political science classes that dealt with the basis and legitimacy of government relied on the myth that “men” (as they said) came together to agree on a social contract. Frustrated, I found a radical graduate student who recommended Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The German Ideology (1845). They started with real human needs and activities—to produce for survival under primitive conditions. Those challenges led to certain divisions of labor. The way people came together to do that in turn shaped social relations. Their analysis explicitly included reproductive labor (the bearing and rearing of children and all that goes into caring for people in what we would now refer to as “household work”). This book certainly didn’t resolve all the issues, but it was a real beginning.
My next reading was Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. There was a lot to love there, especially his concept of “species being.” A big part of my identity, and therefore my feelings about myself, is that I’m a member of a species. That connection means that anything that harms or degrades other people also diminishes my sense of myself, of who I am as a human being. (Our species’ relationship to the rest of nature is also crucial to how I see myself.) Having been surrounded by the darkness of the dominant ideology, these readings were like opening the shutters and letting in the sunshine.
Of course it’s an anomaly to name a school of thought based in historical development and collective struggle after an individual. But the word is used to stand for a specific, penetrating approach that looked at society from the standpoint of the oppressed majority, that saw class opposition and struggle as a central dynamic, that had an incisive critique of capitalism and that, very importantly, went beyond a Utopian vision to having an analysis of actual conditions and developments within capitalism that could lead to socialism becoming a real possibility.
The starting point for understanding society wasn’t some mythology about God’s will or pure reason or social contracts. First and foremost people had to engage in practical activities to ensure survival and build a basis for a way of life. Social relations, ideas and culture developed out of that primary experience. But Marx recognized that it wasn’t a one-way street—once those ideas and values arose they in turn influenced how we conducted our practical activities.
Mainstream social science usually works by breaking things down to their smallest elements and then examining those in isolation. Many things can be learned that way. Marxism usually reveals a lot more by looking at how the elements interact, with an emphasis on process, the development of the whole. Standard social science often projects the future by extending current trends on a straight line, with the same direction and slope. Marx saw that real world dynamics often involved oppositions and tensions that could, at certain key points, erupt into dramatic changes. For Marx, understanding the world was interactive; knowledge first and foremost was generated out of our efforts to live in the world. His method of starting with material reality but recognizing that ideas in turn could influence practical activity has been called “dialectical materialism,” which can sound (and I found) pretty imposing. For myself, I preferred the term “historical materialist” to stress the centrality of understanding current reality through looking at the process of historical development.
But it wasn’t the books alone that led me, that led many of us, to come to consider ourselves Marxists. In Students for a Democratic Society of the mid-1960s we flew both the black and the red flags. What tipped, what shifted the balance was what was happening in the world: revolutions. More than a dozen were raging, and they embodied the hope of reshaping the world in a humane way. Almost all of those which had a strong base in the oppressed of their countries and were pushing for fundamental change were led by M-L parties. It wasn’t an academic or ossified Marxism but rather a vibrant, evolving analysis providing guidance for real revolutions in progress. By the late 1960’s, perhaps in too rote a fashion, we too proclaimed ourselves to be Marxist-Leninists.
Relations of Production
A standard but misleading characterization of Marxism is that it’s all about class. Race or gender or LGBTQ concerns may (or may not) be seen as important, but at the heart of capitalism and central to overthrowing it is the opposition between wage labor and capital. Some social movement activists in turn have tried to argue for the crucial role of their struggles by saying, “race is class,” or “sexuality is class.”
To me, the best starting point for analyzing society is Marx’s “the totality of [the] relations of production,” (from the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859). He zeroed in on the relationship of wage labor and capital. Naturally, as insightful as Marx was, his perspective wasn’t magically untethered from being a European male. What’s even more relevant to his focus was the tremendously dynamic economic and social role industrialization was playing in mid-19th century Europe. But as I understand the sum total of the relations of production, they involve a lot more.
Patriarchy preceded capitalism and provided a big part of the foundation for it. Then capitalism incorporated the subordination of women to massively exploit their unpaid reproductive labor—a giant portion of the world’s work—and to impose lower pay in jobs. Homo- and transphobia have been key, often vicious, means of enforcing patriarchy along with the terribly pervasive violence against women.
Imperialism is also a fundamental relation of production with its super-exploitation—work at far lower wages—of the labor and the rip-off of the natural resources of entire nations and continents. At home, the U.S. was built on the foundation of white supremacy—with people of color in effect internal colonies—which is a totally central and defining relation of production.
And while I’m not sure exactly how to phrase it, imperialism’s rapacious plunder of humanity’s (along with that of all forms of life) common wealth in nature is also critical to defining today’s economic and social reality. (Because Marx emphasized the development of the forces of production, he is often caricatured as an advocate of unbridled industrialization. In reality, as John Bellamy Foster and others have shown, Marx had a penetrating and still useful critique of capitalism’s “metabolic rift with nature”—the way capitalist agriculture and industry have damaged and destroyed nature.)
All these gigantic structures of ruthless oppression are fundamental to how the ruling class both maintains its power and extracts the massive profits that are the Holy Grail and core necessity for capitalism. We can see these different forms converge in how the most exploited workers, often in toxic industries, are women in the Global South; for example those employed in the fire-trap garment factories of Bangladesh, working 70-hour weeks and getting paid $73 a month.
Even more than an astute textual analysis, this fuller and more applicable understanding of Marx was mainly a response to the world we live in. By far the leading, most revolutionary struggles of the day were the national liberation movements in the Global South. Within the U.S., genocide and slavery were the foundation of the society and continue to structure political developments. Those of us steeped in anti-racism became painfully aware of the history of promising radical movements within the U.S.—labor, populism, women’s suffrage—that got coopted with concessions to whites at the expense of excluding people of color. And we were living in a period when the Black struggle had cracked open the possibilities for a flowering of radical movements and changes within the U.S.
The system is like an airplane in that it fully needs wings and a body and an engine to be able to fly. Patriarchy, imperialism, white supremacy, class exploitation and environmental havoc intersect and reinforce each other in many ways, but cannot be reduced to any one of them. Such a reduction would lead us to miss the scope of demands and mobilizations needed to build toward revolution, to fail to grasp the importance and complications of putting together coalitions, and to deny the necessity of struggling against the ways we have internalized class/race/gender privilege and arrogance. On the other hand, recognizing the essential roles of all these areas can help us expand the number of people and range of struggles that can work together to overthrow this mega-destructive system.
Waged and Unwaged Labor
The advent of capitalism was marked by a change in the characteristic way the ruling class extracted value from those who do the work. Under feudalism wealth was based on the land, and serfs and peasants had to turn over a major portion of the product of their labor to the lords. The exploitation was very visible in the days of the week they worked on the lord’s estate and/or the portion of their product they turned over to him. Under capitalism that exploitation is masked in that workers “get paid for their labor” to produce commodities that are sold. But in reality the worker gets paid less than the value of what he or she produces; that difference is the surplus value kept by the capitalists, which is the basis for profits and can also be distributed for other non-work income such as rent and interest payments.
A basic way capitalism keeps wages low and undermines workers’ ability to fight onerous conditions is what Marx called “the reserve army of labor”: the unemployed and underemployed, as well as other potential pools of labor such as peasants (small farmers) being driven off the land. Thus, official unemployment figures way understate the number of potential job seekers. With so many looking for jobs, those who have them and need them to support their families are in a precarious position which severely weakens their bargaining power. The size of the reserve army will vary according to various economic and political conditions, but unemployment can never be eliminated under capitalism.
While the burgeoning role of wage labor characterized the emerging industrial production, the exploiters haven’t been at all purist in their relentless search for profits and have incorporated, on a vast scale, other forms of labor, including women’s domestic work, slavery, and peasants who produce commodities for the world market. Many of the “Marxists” saw the emblematic form—wage labor—as the whole story, the only one that creates surplus value. Marx understood that slavery and plunder were used by capitalism to extract a steep rate of exploitation and wrote (in Capital, Vol. I) that capitalism came into the world covered in blood and gore as it was born out of “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…”
In the 1960s, we read Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery, which showed that the slave plantations in the Caribbean were the greatest sources of the profits that financed England’s vaunted industrial revolution. (For a more recent and thorough description of that reality, see Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom.)
Similarly, Marx and Engels articulated, although didn’t develop, the role of reproductive labor. Contemporary authors like Angela Davis, Silvia Federici, and Selma James have shown the giant role that reproductive labor plays in generating surplus value. If those who did the domestic work were paid, even just at minimum wage, the cost of maintaining the current and raising the next generation of workers would go up astronomically, and the capitalists would have to pay out much higher wages to cover that. Women’s unwaged contribution to surplus value is cashed in at the point of lower wages to those in paid jobs. In addition, the oppression of women is a basis for much lower wages when in the job market, with the global average of wages only 52% of men’s.
Even the old form of peasant (small farmers in the Global South) labor is used by capitalism. They may not be paid in wages but their products enter the world market at very low prices for the benefit of the transnational corporations (TNCs) in the Global North—either to provide cheap raw materials or to be processed and then resold at much higher prices. These products from the Global South sell at much lower prices relative to the labor involved than high end products from the North; overall the exchange is highly unequal. (Because of the stark power differential in who runs the global economy, we sometimes refer to the imperial nations as the “centers” of the system and the Global South as the “peripheries.”) Those who considered peasant labor as extraneous to capitalism missed this major, very profitable transfer of value via unequal exchange. In addition, there are still some 45 million human beings in 167 countries held in the thrall of outright slavery.
The “Marxists” say that the workers in the Global North are the most exploited because they have such a high level of productivity—but that is largely a product of technology, a social product associated with the accumulation of capital that has come from many sources. In those instances where such technology is employed in the Global South, workers who typically make 1/10 the wages have similar levels of output. For example, a study of autoworkers showed that those in the U.S. are 18% more productive than their counterparts in Mexico, but are paid 14 times (1,400%) more.[iii] Similarly, if the differences were based on higher productivity in the North, then the prices on those advanced goods would have fallen relative to the Global South’s labor-intensive commodities. In reality, the long term trend in relative pricing has gone in the completely opposite direction.
In addition to these more traditional forms of labor, modern imperialism has engendered a burgeoning informal sector—those whose efforts to survive occur in areas totally outside of any government regulation or oversight. As subsistence agriculture has declined and poverty has risen in the rural areas of the Global South, hundreds of millions of people have migrated to the cities, often living in sprawling, makeshift slums, in their own slapped-together housing, with very little in the way of sanitation or other services. They become a source for completely unprotected and deleterious sweatshop labor. Even more of them live by scavenging in garbage dumps or abandoned buildings or by other recycling activities. They sell the items they find cheaply, thus lowering costs for industry or for consumers, which lowers the wage needed for survival of the workers’ families. Probably the most important function of the informal sector for capitalism is that their desperation means an additional and very deep layer of the reserve army of labor.
In short, slavery, peasant labor and women’s domestic work (and now along with aspects of the informal sector) are all invaluable—and completely essential for the survival of the system—sources of capitalist profits.
Contradictions of Capitalism
Marx is most noted for his penetrating analysis of capitalism, much of which is still relevant today. His standpoint is alongside the oppressed, eloquently expressed in his vivid description of how capitalism was born dripping in blood and gore and in his biting exposé of the hellish conditions—increasingly being imposed on women and children—in Europe’s factories.
His critique went beyond the brutal physical level with his explanation of alienation. Those whose labor produces society’s wealth are pitted against each other by how the system generates competition to get and hold the jobs desperately needed to feed their families. Then, they have no control or even say over what gets produced, regardless of their community’s needs. In fact, the more they produce the more they enhance capital’s power over them. Thus the workers are alienated from one another, from the product of their labor, and as we saw before from their species being.
I’ll resist the temptation to attempt—which would undoubtedly be unsuccessful—a brief explanation of Marxian economics, and instead try to offer a few broader points. Establishment economists, then and now, usually extol how well the system works. Marx elucidated how imbalances and instability were built into the system. And, in fact, many economic crises and upheavals have occurred. Most importantly, Marx saw these contradictions as driven by the class nature of society: the control by a small minority and their compulsion to accumulate capital can lead to all kinds of dislocations.
Some “Marxists” have reduced his analysis to a kind of iron law for a “falling rate of profit,” which would inexorably lead to depression and revolution. But for Marx that was a tendency with various possible countermeasures. The same goes for capitalism’s difficulty in selling all that it produces, at least at the expected prices. The measures to counteract these tendencies can lead to new problems.
Capital was not a work of narrow economic determinism. Instead, capitalism as an exploitative class system creates and intensifies many economic tensions which in turn can give rise to various arenas of class and social struggle. Of course since the 19th century, capitalism has developed new methods and structures—highly irrational and inhumane—such as a deepened and more integral penetration abroad and the mushrooming of waste sectors, like the sales effort, the military industrial complex, and finance at home. All of these create new or additional terrains for political struggle.
Capitalism was a global project from the beginning, with the plunder of the Americas, Africa, and Asia providing huge amounts of capital. But several qualitative structural changes developed at the end of the 19th century that were described by Marxists such as Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. Capitalism had become highly monopolized (or more accurately oligopolized, where a handful of giant firms dominate an industry) with finance capital playing a leading role. In addition to the long-standing plunder, imperialism now meant that capitalist production was more organized on a global level.
Investments in the peripheries became crucial for the centers to control the extractive industries that provided key raw materials. Many products of peasant labor were now exchanged on the world market, to be used in Northern industries. With Southern labor paid at a pittance compared to the North, these new investments were highly profitable. These exploitative terms also kept raw material prices low, thereby lowering capital costs for Northern industries. This way of organizing production and guaranteeing the sanctity of investments became so essential that imperial powers fought world wars, and many smaller ones, over who controlled various highly lucrative Southern territories. (Even after the demise of colonialism, the essential role of maintaining such exploitation is why the U.S. has systematically and viciously overthrown any government in the South, including those which were democratically elected, which tried to redirect their resources and labor for the needs of their own peoples instead of for the TNCs headquartered in the U.S.)
Reaping such vast riches, the imperialists were able to provide significant benefits to maintain the loyalty of their home working classes, such as the consumer society in the U.S. and the welfare states in Europe. In the U.S. these benefits piggybacked on top of the longstanding privileges most white workers had relative to Blacks and other people of color. For the 30 years following World War II there was a tacit pact that a large sector of white male workers could enjoy a rising “standard of living” as long as they supported the U.S. imperial mission. Now, since the late 1970s, real wages have not been rising, and that’s led to a change in the dominant politics from the old maintenance of passivity to more of a deflecting of white working class anger away from the ruling class and toward the racial “other”—immigrants (seen as Latino/a), “criminals” (seen as Black) and “welfare queens” (seen as Black women).
To me, the best term to name the current system is “imperialism.” That underscores the global organization of production, with its high rate of exploitation and the horrendous violence used to maintain that. A defining aspect of imperialism is a polarization of wealth and power, more precipitous than the Grand Canyon, with its main divide between a few controlling centers, the banks and the TNCs in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, and the 3/4 of humanity who live in the peripheries. In today’s world, the 62 richest individuals own as much wealth[iv] as the 3.6 billion people who constitute the poorest 1/2 of humanity. Additionally, the class polarization within each of these arenas is steep, with elites in the Global South who collaborate with and benefit from imperialism, and with many who are oppressed in the North. The oppression and exploitation of women, while the forms may vary, are central in both arenas.
Given these realities we can continue to look to the Global South for the fiercest battles and strongest leadership for change. At the same time, the center/periphery divide underscores the reasons that the struggles of people of color within the U.S., a country built on genocide and slavery and the theft of Northern Mexico, are so central. In addition, the very rapaciousness of the system is the driving force for a reckless and now extremely dangerous destruction of the environment.
While “imperialism” might be the best, it’s not an adequate way to name the system unless we’re explicit about how it’s been built on and incorporates patriarchy and class rule; how it’s defined by the sum total of the relations of production. We have to be clear about naming and fighting all the major forms of oppression.
The four decades that followed World War II were the most exciting and promising in world history—the era of national liberation. The imperial powers, exhausted by that cataclysmic war, could no longer maintain the dam holding back the flood waters of uprisings for independence in Africa and Asia. The weakened colonial powers regrouped with a strategy of neocolonialism, following the example of the U.S. in Latin America. They were willing to grant formal independence—a new flag and a native president—as long as they could continue to dominate the economy.
But many of the decolonization efforts, along with movements in Latin America, weren’t settling for that. They got to the root of their problems by fighting for their nations’ labor and resources to be redirected away from enriching the TNCs and back to the needs of the home populations. These national liberation movements faced fierce attacks. Usually the only way they had a chance against awesomely superior military technology was to fight a “people’s war,” making use of guerrilla tactics and developing an active base among the majority of their people—peasants, workers, women, youth, minorities.
From 1949–1979 such movements won in China, Ghana, Tanzania, North Korea, Algeria, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau/Cape Verde Islands, Zimbabwe, and Nicaragua. Similar struggles were raging in the Philippines, Eritrea, and several countries in Latin America, while others were emerging in Palestine, Namibia, South Africa, and Northern Ireland. This range, the number of people involved, the startling victories against superior military power were breathtaking; they also provided inspiration for a proliferation of radical movements within the U.S., Europe, and Japan.
What made this unprecedented wave all the more earth-shattering was the qualitative difference from all past revolutions where one elite replaced another (e.g., the bourgeoisie overthrowing the feudal lords). Now we had the “wretched of the earth,” the most direly oppressed and the vast majority of humankind, rising up and reshaping the world in a more equitable and humane way.
As opposed to simply formal independence, the revolutionary movements were characterized by 1) a goal of economic independence; 2) a commitment to ending illiteracy and poverty; 3) being prepared to wage guerrilla war; 4) mobilizing the oppressed majority; 5) having a formal commitment (although more limited in practice) to women’s emancipation; 6) expressing solidarity with other such struggles around the world; and 7) seeing the possibility for solidarity and radical movements within the imperial nations. Almost all the struggles with such programs were led by Marxist-Leninist parties.
Events in the real world seemed to contradict established theories. Traditional Marxists had held that socialist revolution could not happen in such economically backward countries. The prerequisites for socialism were seen to include advanced industry, an educated population, and a more or less unified working class that comprised the majority of the population. The countries in the peripheries were economically impoverished, with widespread illiteracy, and usually comprised of a small working class and a large peasant majority. So it wasn’t just Northern “Marxists” but also many communist parties in the Global South that asserted that socialism could not be on the agenda until these countries first had a bourgeois revolution led by the national capitalist class.
Some more realistic and creative Marxist-Leninists refuted the conventional wisdom because waiting for the bourgeois revolution was like waiting for hell to freeze over. As Che Guevara and others explained, the realities of imperialism had demolished the road to capitalist development in the Global South. Not only did imperialism extract vast wealth that these countries needed for development, but it also channeled economic activity away from building the home economy and instead toward exports that benefited the TNCs—the extraction of raw material and low-level, labor-intensive manufacture. Most of the local elites were closely tied to imperialism, so there was no strong national capitalist class to lead a bourgeois revolution. The unforgiving nature of this structure of exploitation was enforced by more than 50 U.S. interventions since the end of World War II to overthrow or block Southern regimes that tried to redirect economic activity toward domestic needs. (Monthly Review Press in New York became a major source for literature on how imperialism kept these countries impoverished—”the development of underdevelopment.”)
The Soviet Union was another important factor. Under incredible pressure, it had devolved, in my opinion, into more of a bureaucratic state than a socialist society. Nonetheless the U.S.S.R. opposed U.S. hegemony and provided significant military and economic aid to many national liberation movements.
The national liberation movements couldn’t wait for a bourgeois revolution that would never happen, but for all the earlier stated reasons they weren’t in a position to achieve socialism. Instead, their historic task was, as Mao Tse Tung put it, “New Democracy” (the Vietnamese called it “National Democracy”) to accomplish the progressive tasks of the bourgeois revolution: reclaim self-determination and a national direction for production, land to the tiller, emancipation of women, universal education, political experience and participation for the masses of people. Since these New Democratic revolutions were based in the lower classes, the reforms would be more thoroughgoing and entail giant social advances—and the changes would be structured to be most favorable to lead into the next stage, the transition to socialism.
How could impoverished peripheral countries feel that they had any chance at all against the imperial Goliaths? A strategy to win emerged out of the realities on the ground, Che’s “2, 3, many Vietnams.” Even the mighty imperial octopus couldn’t wage multiple simultaneous wars abroad against popularly-based revolutions. The very extent of its lucrative outreach was also its vulnerability because the arms could be chopped off, eventually draining the blood needed to sustain the head. This approach was having dramatic success. At the same time, Black and other people of color rebellions, along with a number of emerging radical movements, within the U.S. challenged the system with an additional and debilitating internal front.
National Liberation and Socialism
By 1980, a dozen revolutions had taken power, while similar struggles were raging in a dozen more. In contrast, even while there were some vital struggles, there hadn’t been a single working class revolution in Europe or the U.S. This overwhelming empirical reality didn’t deter Northern “Marxists” from insisting that the working classes in the advanced countries would make the revolution. While also calling themselves “Leninists,” they did not incorporate Lenin’s analysis of the impact of imperial profits on the home working class, an obstacle that had only grown, immensely, since Lenin’s day.
Those of us who understood the priority of solidarity with national liberation—not simply because they were just struggles but even more as the route to weakening imperialism enough to break open revolutionary potential at home—tended to be too facile about a direct road to socialism. Looking back in 2017, it’s clear that the promising strategy of “2, 3, many Vietnams” hasn’t defeated imperialism and that even the liberated countries are a far cry from socialism. On the most negative side, a few have devolved into dictatorships, most prominently North Korea, while Cambodia was taken over by genocidal criminals. (The U.S. had installed the unpopular dictator, Lon Nol; the rapid collapse of his regime meant the Khmer Rouge seized power without ever developing deep roots in the population.)
In almost all other cases, the victories meant dramatic advances for the people with the launching of successful mass literacy campaigns, establishing health clinics in rural areas, and advances for women’s rights and participation (some of which were eroded once the new regimes consolidated power).
China has become an economic powerhouse, something that would have been impossible if it had remained under the imperial thrall, but at the expense of intense exploitation of its working class and growing inequality. In many ways it seems to be a state capitalist regime. For the other liberated countries, while there have been important social advances, there’s been precious little in the way of achieving autonomous and thriving economies, or even having a conscious and mobilized majority playing a determining role in political and economic decisions. Assessing what happened merits a book, at least, in itself. Here I’ll just mention some of the factors, under two broad categories: the assaults by imperialism and underdevelopment’s legacy of damage and distortion.
Imperialism doesn’t just give up once the revolutionary movement seizes state power. As with any extortion racket, it exacts brutal and visible punishment on those who try to opt out in order to show they won’t achieve a better life for their people. That’s why long after the U.S. realized it would have to withdraw from Vietnam, it continued its unprecedentedly massive bombings and chemical ecocide. Some farmland there still can’t be used because of the danger of unexploded bombs that lie buried in the ground, even though these are just a tiny percentage of all the bombs dropped. And Vietnam still is dealing with the tragedy of babies being born with birth defects due to the residue of Agent Orange in the water supply.
Cuba has been perhaps the most promising example of mass participation, free education through graduate school, excellent medical care for all, and a magnificent internationalism that played a key role in defeating both Portuguese colonialism and the apartheid regime in southern Africa. But Cuba has had to deal with incessant CIA-sponsored invasion, assassination attempts, economic sabotage—all of which push the government to become more repressive—on top of a crippling economic blockade.
Nicaragua, Angola and Mozambique’s dramatic advances in literacy, health and women’s rights were soon beset and then severely set back by CIA-sponsored terrorists who, amid wholesale attacks on civilians, went after village health and educational workers in particular. In addition, imperialism will do anything in its power, with its bountiful assets, to promote internal antagonisms based on tribal or ethnic or religious differences. This basic divide and conquer strategy is used not only against revolutionary governments but also against any Southern regime (and also Yugoslavia in Europe) that doesn’t fall into line with the dictates of the world market and U.S. military domination.
If the only obstacles were sabotage and terrorist attacks, the mass-based revolutions would have prevailed, but the newly liberated nations were also being strangled by economic embargoes and the tyrannies of the world market. Embargoes can mean that these still poor countries can’t even get the spare parts needed to keep the limited machinery they do have up and running and that they can only access sorely needed medications at exorbitant prices. Small, poor countries can’t develop such technologically advanced sectors overnight. And in many ways they still have to function in a capitalist world market where the centuries-long trend has been for businesses in the centers to extract much higher prices for the advanced goods and services relative to raw materials and labor-intensive goods from the peripheries. The collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 ended it as a limited source of fairer aid and trade.
The inequities of the world market compound the ravages of underdevelopment, which not only constrict economic advances but are also reflected in society. While the revolution may have launched successful literacy campaigns, only a small elite have the level of technical skills key for organizing production and the state. Internal class divisions and patriarchy are still major forces. Despite some inspiring examples of solving problems through mass participation, the tremendous pressure to get the economy going leads to reliance on an elite with managerial skills.
Meanwhile the military attacks evoke a consolidation of the repressive capabilities of the state. Then in a situation where social and economic advances are being stymied, some formerly self-sacrificing cadres become susceptible to corruption from the blandishments of the TNCs seeking to re-implant their tentacles into these still juicy Southern morsels. This formidable series of barriers doesn’t mean that the road to socialism is impossible, but it sure is a hell of a complicated, contested, difficult route.
National liberation struggles, against all apparent odds, made dramatic advances and inspired a vision of potential world revolution, but we’re still a long, long way from socialism.
About the author: David Gilbert has been an activist since the early 1960s and a New York State political prisoner since 1981. David would love to hear your feedback. Feel free to write to him at:
David Gilbert 83-A-6158
Wende Correctional Facility
3040 Wende Road
Alden, New York 14004-1187
The photo of David is by Breno Altman.
With big thank yous to Dan Berger, Terry Bisson, Kathy Boudin, Chris Dixon, Sara Falconer, Laura Foner, Naomi Jaffe, Karl Kersplebedeb, Vicki Legion, Elana Levy, Rob McBride, Molly McClure, Hilary Moore, Alexis Shotwell, and Victor Wallis.
 Both quotes are from The Weapon of Theory (1966). Amilcar Cabral was the leader of the independence struggle in Guinea Bissau/Cape Verde Islands and was assassinated in 1973. While not necessarily calling himself a Marxist, he made brilliant use of the historical materialist method, along with his grounding in African traditions, to create an invaluable contribution to revolutionary theory on a world scale.
[ii] While I asked friends to send me the few passages I quote, I haven’t otherwise read the books in some 30 or more years.
[iii] Zak Cope, Divided World, Divided Class (2012) p. 241.
[iv] In addition to yearly income, wealth includes all assets, ranging from cars to stock holdings. The inequality of wealth is a lot greater than that of income and also more telling for life prospects.