Marxism’s Long March in the Global South

Arab Spring composite image, courtesy Middle East Eye ( and AFP, Reuters, Creative Commons)

It is interesting that though Marxism was born in Europe, it has found its most enduring habitat in the Global South, but this has meant very little in terms of its overall theoretical formation and structure. Thinking about this encounter of ‘Marxism’ and the ‘Global South’ – the continents of Africa, Asia and Latin America – is a daunting task for the sheer range of experiences and questions it has thrown up. It has thrown up fundamentally new concerns as well as produced, in practice, some of the most grotesque outcomes.  But the task is also daunting because despite the range of experiences that Marxism has gone through and has put us through, it has not so far given us any serious body of theoretical knowledge that reflects this experience. It has not given us anything like the way, say,  Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese and Sinhala Buddhism have produced their own versions of Buddhist philosophy. One could also perhaps say the same thing about Christianity in Europe, where – at least up to a point – its philosophy was elaborated and innovated or transformed by the best minds of their time.

Perhaps this comparison itself is wrong – for the development of Buddhism or Christianity happened over two millennia and here we are talking of just two centuries. But if we consider the huge range of experiences Marxism has taken us through in this short span of time, the virtual absence of theoretical reflection on those experiences is quite surprising.

This may have something to do with a conjunction of two separate circumstances. The first has to do with the linguistic-epistemic regime imposed by colonialism that instituted a fundamental break in the ways of thinking of colonized populations. Added to this was the fact that entire populations were suddenly made illiterate as the language of colonial powers perforce replaced the language of native people. To put it in the words of the Tunisian thinker Albert Memmi, the subjectivity of the colonized was negatively marked in one very fundamental respect: the cultural schizophrenia that is best seen in the colonized subject being forced to inhabit ‘two psychical and cultural realms’ – where a constitutive split defines her epistemic and linguistic  worlds. Frantz Fanon sees the same cultural-epistemic dispossession in that the native intellectual has, first and foremost, to ‘give proof that he has assimilated the culture of the occupying power…’. In a second moment, ‘the native is disturbed and decides to remember what he is’ but s/he is already by then, no longer a part of his people. His/ her relationship to her people is only an external relationship.

Much of what happens to Marxists of the colonies is marked by this condition. But to make matters worse, a second circumstance intervenes in the form of the Bolshevization of socialist and communist parties and their complete subordination to the Communist International, leaving virtually no scope for innovation and creative thinking.

Marxism and the ‘Working Class’

Looking back at the long history of Marxism, it now appears that its conjunction with the working class struggles in Europe was merely a historical and contingent one, even though over time ‘Marxism’ came to be seen as an ideology (or philosophy) of the working class in the sense of having a necessary and often ‘expressive’ relationship with it. That is to say, over time, it came to be seen as an ‘expression’ of ‘working class consciousness’. This is not the place to go into a discussion of the various acrobatics that this led to, with Kautsky and Lenin arrayed on one side, insisting that socialist theory is brought to the working class ‘from outside’, while others like Lukacs and Karl Korsch argued that it was the necessary expression of the working class. But it was the Stalinist legacy that, more perniciously, held not just Marxism in a necessary relationship with the working class but also the ‘Communist Party’ to be the party of the working class. This certainly is not there at all in the Communist Manifesto and many other later writings of Marx and Engels themselves. It simply could not have been so, for the simple reason that the Marxist ‘tendency’ was a marginal one, striving to establish itself within the working class movement – and that happened over a fairly long time.  In any case, the working class at the time of the 1848 revolutions was hardly the industrial working class that became entrenched in the orthodoxy as the agent of World History.

Much before the Russian revolution, Marxism was already grappling with a different set of issues in the Austro-Hungarian empire and the question of Polish independence from the Tsarist Russian empire. The question of nationalism and national self-determination had been squarely posed, even though leaders like Rosa Luxemburg found themselves on the wrong side of the divide with respect to Poland. This is not to say that the national self-determination position was correct but the precise relationship between the aspirations for self-determination and the fictive internationalism of the ‘working class’ are questions better looked at with a fresh eye today instead of regurgitating and re-staging old  debates endlessly. After all, the ‘national and colonial question’ did eventually displace the question of industrial working class very soon after the Russian revolution.

Peasantry, National Liberation and Economic Determinism

As Marxism moved from Europe and entered what we today would refer to as the Global South, one big theoretical question had to be resolved. This was the question of what can simply be called ‘economic determinism’. However much Marxists may protest that Marxism was never about economic determination, the fact remains that the idea of socialism – even today – continues to be seen by the last remaining Marxists as something that will supersede capitalism. This question wasn’t quite resolved in any theoretical fashion though but only taken as a practical fait accompli which pushed the theoretical debate aside. But because the theoretical question was never confronted head-on, every Marxist revolution from Russia under Stalin to contemporary China (Indian Marxists included) remain(ed) trapped in it to this day: eventually for them to build socialism they have to first build capitalism and industry, where the latter representing the ‘higher’ development of productive forces, represent the ‘higher’ form of the economy in relation to agriculture.

Indeed, the bitter theoretical debates about the ‘relative autonomy of the superstructure’ or ‘determination in the last instance’ that took place in European and Western Marxism notwithstanding, it was the economic that reigned supreme when it came to building socialism.  For as I have often argued, it was ultimately Marxism’s philosophy of history that under-girded this economic determinism. And that philosophy of history seems to have been an unwarranted Hegelian intrusion that provided the narrative – though it had little relationship – to the actual empirical investigations carried out by Marx.

If we look at the Global South, it was the political imperative that was critical all through – from the emergence of the agrarian and peasant question to the emergence of powerful national liberation movements inspired by Marxism, everything was ‘determined’ – if that is the category one wants to use – by the contingent and the political.

Increasingly, one sees in retrospect now (at least in the Global South) that the link between Marxism and the ‘working class’ remained tenuous all through, while it was the peasantry or the more recently, indigenous people’s struggles that have become linked most centrally to the struggle against Capital and even constitute its main social base in many part of Asia, Latin America and Africa. In Latin America, the new left formations, often dubbed part of the ‘Pink Tide’, have been closely linked to the indigenous people’s struggles – though strictly speaking, one should see the Chiapas rebellion of 1994 as part of the same phenomenon.

And of course, even though peasant struggles today are often in response to the corporate takeover of land or of agriculture as such, we need to look at the issue in a longer historical frame. In countries like India, if initial rebellions were against colonial policies regarding forests or forcible plantations of indigo for example, later struggles in the twentieth century were directed against local landed interests. Even the big struggles under communist leadership, like the Telangana peasants struggle to the Punnapra-Vayalar and the Tebhaga struggles in Travancore and Bengal respectively were all directed against landed interests and/or local authorities.  All through we have had far more militant and more determined struggles of the peasantry. In comparison, struggles of industrial labour have been few and far between.

A Marxism Beyond Marx

It is against this background that I have been thinking a lot lately about what I term Marxism 4.0.

Marxism 1.0 was the classical Marxism of Marx and Engels, born in the period of major struggles of the ‘modern working class’ in Europe. The massive ideological overlay that has come to define this slice of history is itself something that we need to revisit.

Manuel Castells remarks, in the context of the Paris Commune, that the Commune has come to be seen (despite the efforts of historians to the contrary) ‘as a proto-proletarian revolution in a city that at the time counted few industrial workers among its dwellers’. He argues: ‘Why a municipal revolution, sparked by a rent strike and partly led by women, came to be misrepresented has to do with the inaccuracy of Karl Marx’s sources in his writings about the Commune, mainly based on his correspondence with Elizabeth Dmitrieva, president of the Women’s Union, a committed socialist Communard who saw just what she and her mentor wanted to see.’

The mythicization of the ‘working class’, then is itself an important ‘episode’ that runs from the Communist Manifesto to the writings on the Paris Commune.

Marxism 2.0 was the Leninist Marxism of the post-Russian revolution world. This was the Marxism that we knew in the Global South – following the Comintern’s theses on the national and colonial question and which also produced the Chinese and Vietnamese revolution, the national liberation struggles of Africa as well as monstrosities like Pol Pot. Both Marxism 1.0 and 2.0 theorized the world of their times but in often seriously problematic ways. In the thought of Mao Tsetung we also saw the theorization of the revolutionary potential of the peasantry as well as of national liberation struggles but as I said earlier, they did not quite manage to escape the frame of economic determinism. Despite such serious limitations and problems, Marxism 2.0 did shift the ground from the working class-centric critiques of Capital and notions of revolutionary subjectivity emanating from there. There are, to be sure, in Mao’s writings certain important openings towards a ‘political’ Marxism, which still awaits more serious theoretical consideration.

In between Marxism 1.0 and Marxism 2.0, we have some interesting figures of thinkers like Rosa Luxembourg and Antonio Gramsci who perhaps need to be re-read from the vantage point of the Global South.

Marxism 3.0 was a more pathetic and defensive reaction to the collapse of actually existing socialism and the worldwide victory of neoliberalism. It was more a kind of reaction of the defensive kind that we see in millennarian sects, awaiting the Second Coming of Christ.

But it is precisely during this phase that another ‘Marxism’ was born, Marxism 4.0. This is the ‘Marxism’ that we can call the Marxism of the ‘real movement that challenges Capital’ that Marx so often talked of. We might recall that this expression appears first in The German Ideology in the mid-1840s and is repeated half a century later in the writings on the Paris Commune, where he says that ‘the workers had no ideals to realize, they had but to set free the forces of change that were being born in the womb of the old society’.

We could see its emergence at the very moment of the birth of the defeatist and reactionary Marxism 3.0 – it was born in the mountains of Chiapas, in the indigenous people’s struggles in Latin America, in La Via Campesina and the autonomous workers’ movements in Brazil and in some other parts of the world. This is a Marxism whose murmurs we can hear in many social movements and struggles against dispossession in some parts of India. ‘Marxism’ has always had this kind of disembodied ‘spiritual’ presence in many struggles and movements in India. This Marxism 4.0 is still to find its proper voice but it will certainly not be a repeat of Marxism 2 0.

It requires a different kind of theoretical imagination that will be able to, first and foremost, free Marxism and the working class from each other’s deathly grip. The working class movement too will certainly benefit from it. Whether it still remains ‘Marxism’ in any strict sense any longer, we do not know. It might be better to recognize it as a socialism of some kind rather than ‘Marxism’ – that is to say, as a doctrine attached to a proper name.

One thought on “Marxism’s Long March in the Global South”

  1. Well Said. Marxism need to free itself from the deathly grip o working class. The main problem is modern working class is divided into into small segments , divided not only by nations, race and caste but even by occupation. The homogenization that was expected by Marxists never happened and in the era of increasing automation will never happen. Main problem is to unite these infinitesimally divided working class for the socialist project.


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