The left must resolutely oppose the US-led New Cold War on China

This article first appeared in Ebb Magazine on 24 June 2021. Reproduced with permission.


Since the launch of Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ in 2012, the US has prioritised China containment over all other foreign policy commitments. This includes steadily increasing its presence in the South China Sea and encouraging China’s neighbours in their various territorial claims. Obama also initiated an expansion of US military, diplomatic and economic cooperation with other countries in the region. The overarching strategic goal of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was to isolate China and to draw East and Southeast Asia back into the US economic – and ideological – orbit.

The Trump administration, while dropping the TPP due to its domestic unpopularity, escalated the Pivot in other respects: launching a trade war in January 2018, imposing a ban on Huawei, attempting to ban TikTok and WeChat, spreading conspiracy theories about the origins of Covid-19, and turning ‘decoupling’ into a buzzword. Anti-China propaganda became – and has remained – pervasive in the West.

Alongside the economic and information warfare, there has been a rising militarisation of the Pacific and a deepening of a ‘China encirclement’ strategy that goes back to the arrival of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Straits in 1950, just a few months after the establishment of the People’s Republic. Recent years have witnessed ever more frequent US naval operations in the South China Sea; increased weapons sales to Taiwan; the encouraging of Japan’s re-armament; the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile defence system in South Korea and Guam; the establishment of a US marine base in northern Australia; and the bulking up of the Indo-Pacific Command.

Continue reading The left must resolutely oppose the US-led New Cold War on China

From Bristol to Boston to Hong Kong, the statues of colonisers and racists must fall

On 7 June, during an anti-racist rally in Bristol (part of the global wave of protests in the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd), a group of protestors ripped a statue of notorious slave trader Edward Colston from its plinth and rolled it into Bristol Harbour. This act, although widely condemned by establishment politicians (Home Secretary Priti Patel for example describing it as “sheer vandalism”), was justly celebrated by anti-racists and anti-colonialists worldwide. A prominent member of the Royal African Company, Colston is estimated to have been involved in the enslavement of at least 84,000 Africans, nearly a quarter of whom died on the journey between West Africa and the Americas. People in Bristol – particularly its black community – have long campaigned for the statue to be removed, and have endured nothing but endless prevarication from the local authorities.

Colston’s upending was quickly followed by similar actions around the world. In Boston, Christopher Columbus was decapitated. In Richmond, Virginia, Jefferson Davis was toppled. (Davis was president of the Confederate States from 1861 to 1865 and a pro-slavery activist). The long-running campaign to remove Oxford University’s statue of the white supremacist and imperialist Cecil Rhodes has gathered fresh momentum. In Antwerp, Belgium, the statue of King Leopold II has had to be pre-emptively removed, while in Brussels, protestors climbed on a statue of Leopold and defiantly flew a giant flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which country suffered so terribly under Leopold’s brutal colonial rule.

Slavery and colonialism created the foundations of modern capitalism

This struggle around statues is immensely important. In Britain, statues of people like Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes provide an uncomfortable reminder of just how much of Britain’s ‘greatness’ is built on a foundation of slavery, colonialism, plunder and genocide. The industrial revolution, which propelled Britain to domination in the early 19th century, started with the development of the steam engine. This scientific development was funded to no small degree with profits from the slave trade. Many of Britain’s cities blossomed as a result of “the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins”, as Karl Marx so memorably put it.

For those of us that live in countries that have benefitted from colonialism, it’s crucial that we assess and understand this history. The primary beneficiary of colonialism and the slave trade was of course the capitalist class. However, ordinary people also benefitted to some extent. Indeed the ruling classes sought to justify colonialism on the basis that the profits resulting from it could be used to improve conditions for the working class and thereby maintain social stability. It was none other than Cecil Rhodes who said: “The Empire is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid a civil war you must become imperialists.” Only by facing up to these uncomfortable facts can we hope to forge a path towards a united, non-racist and non-imperialist future.

The link between racism and imperialism

The tearing down of statues in the context of a global protest against white supremacy also reminds us just how closely linked racism and imperialism are. Columbus, Leopold, Rhodes, Colston and their ilk were racists and imperialists, and as representatives of a relentlessly expanding European capitalism couldn’t realistically be otherwise. Racism served as a justification for slavery and empire: “all men are created equal”, but that doesn’t apply to subhuman species. As capital spread into Africa, Asia and the Americas, so did a globalised racial hierarchy that continues to assert itself today on the streets of Minneapolis and elsewhere.

Just as racism in the colonial era served to prevent the working class in the imperialist countries from taking up the interests of the masses in the oppressed countries, racism in the modern era serves to divide the white working class in the imperialist countries from the masses of the developing world, and furthermore from minority communities originating in the developing world. The constant theme of racism is therefore its role in undermining solidarity between oppressed peoples.

So there is an inextricable link between racism and imperialism. Both are manifestations of national oppression, carried out by the ruling classes of the major colonialist countries (initially Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Holland, Belgium and Germany, and later the US and Japan) as a means of perpetuating capitalism. This link between racism and imperialism is paralleled by the equally inextricable link between anti-racism and anti-imperialism. One cannot meaningfully oppose one manifestation of national oppression without opposing all manifestations of national oppression. To oppose racist policing is also to oppose the legacy of slavery represented by the likes of Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes. It also means opposing imperialist wars, such as have been carried out against Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. It also means opposing imperialist destabilisation and coercion, such as is currently being carried out against Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Iran, Cuba, Syria, DPR Korea, Nicaragua and other countries. It also means opposing attempts to reassert US global hegemony, currently gathering steam in the form of a New Cold War against China.

What statues should fall in Hong Kong?

Which brings us to the contentious issue of the protests in Hong Kong, a source of much confusion in the West. As Ajit Singh and Danny Haiphong have recently noted, some of the protest leaders in Hong Kong have attempted to associate themselves with Black Lives Matter, claiming a common cause against oppression and police brutality in spite of their close ties to some of the most reactionary and racist elements in US politics. Student activist Joshua Wong has gone so far as to accuse basketball star LeBron James of hypocrisy over his active support for anti-racist protests in the US and his lack of support for anti-government protests in Hong Kong.

The anti-racist protests taking place around the world in response to the gruesome murder of George Floyd are protests against national oppression, as discussed above. The attacks on the statues of racists, slave-traders, colonisers and imperialists are deeply connected to this movement. If black lives matter, the adulation of colonial oppressors must end.

So are the anti-government protests in Hong Kong also directed at racism and imperialism? If they are, wouldn’t we expect the protestors to be toppling the statues of Queen Victoria, King George VI and Thomas Jackson? After all Hong Kong is practically the quintessential example of colonialism. Incorporated into China since 214 BCE, it was seized by Britain in 1842 following the First Opium War, converted into a colony, and used as a base from which to direct British commercial operations, the most important of which was pushing opium onto the Chinese people. In 155 years of colonial rule, there were 28 British governors, with not a single one elected by Chinese people; Hong Kong was run essentially as an apartheid colony in which white people led a highly privileged existence.

Hong Kong was only returned to Chinese control in 1997, and thus a great deal of its colonial legacy remains. And yet the Hong Kong protestors don’t attack this legacy; in fact they are nostalgic for the days of British rule – waving union jacks and singing God Save the Queen – and they work closely with imperialist anti-China hawks like Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio and Mike Pompeo (all of whom, incidentally, are violently opposed to Black Lives Matter).

The only action Joshua Wong and his group have taken in relation to statues was to cover the Golden Bauhinia statue in black cloth ahead of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the city in 2017. The Golden Bauhinia statue was built in 1997 to celebrate the handover of Hong Kong and the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. So it turns out the Hong Kong protestors attack anti-colonial symbols, not colonial symbols. This amply demonstrates the fundamental difference between the global anti-racist protests and the Hong Kong ‘pro-democracy’ protests.

Toppling the statues of colonialists and white supremacists is a matter of global resistance against oppression. From Bristol to Boston to Hong Kong, the statues of colonisers and racists must fall.

The Importance of Defending Venezuela

Most governments in the world enjoy precious little popular support. For example, when British prime minister Theresa May was forced to announce her resignation in May 2019, the masses didn’t rush out to the streets to declare their undying fealty; more like, the ground shook with the simultaneous muttering of the words “good riddance” from millions of homes and workplaces throughout the country.1 It may then have come as a surprise to some when, in early 2019, millions of ordinary Venezuelans – working people, peasants, students, barrio-dwellers – flocked to the streets to defend their elected government from an attempted coup.

Their appearance was a response to the little-known Venezuelan politician Juan Guaidó declaring, on 23 January, that he was the legitimate president of Venezuela.2 His announcement was particularly curious given that the Venezuelan presidential election had taken place just eight months previously and his name didn’t even appear on the ballot paper. Although Guaidó’s claim to the presidency had all the credibility of the average new-age mystic’s claims to divinity, the governments of the US, UK, Canada, Brazil, Colombia and the majority of the EU countries were quick to recognise his authority.

Guaidó had pinned his hopes on winning the support of key figures in the military and significant sections of the working classes. The latter in particular have suffered badly over the last few years, the result of sanctions, US-directed economic destabilisation and low oil prices. It was perhaps not total fantasy that they might lend their support to anyone that promised a way out of the current mess; to someone who had the ‘connections’ necessary to call off Washington’s attack dogs. Such blackmail tactics are nothing new. They’ve been used around the world, from Nicaragua to Zimbabwe, occasionally with some success. If you suffocate someone and then promise to let them breathe, there’s at least a decent chance they’ll accept whatever strings you attach.

However, the Venezuelan masses didn’t follow that script. Just as they did in April 2002 – when Venezuela’s business class joined forces with the yellow CTV union to seize power – the people of the barrios (shanty towns), the low-paid workers, the tenant farmers, the Afro-Venezuelans, the indigenous, the women, the LGBTQ+ coordinated with the military in order to defeat the coup and to defend their revolution.3

This says something important about the nature of the ongoing political struggle in Venezuela. It shows that the radical governments of the last two decades have achieved something very significant that goes beyond the economic benefits accrued to ordinary people, beyond the millions of homes built, beyond the provision of healthcare and education services. What has been created in Venezuela isn’t just a benevolent state; it’s a democratic revolutionary process that has given the working masses a voice, a stake in society. This process has politicised the millions, mobilised them, empowered them, drawn them for the first time into the running of their own society. It has taken up their interests and developed structures that allow them to take up their own interests. That’s why millions of Venezuelans defend their state even as it faces a level of systematic sabotage and destabilisation that’s creating widespread suffering.

This article explores the significance of the Venezuelan revolutionary process and the crucial importance of defending it for socialists around the world.

A path to socialism in the 21st century

Analysing the experiences of the Paris Commune of 1871, Marx started to develop his ideas around the political framework needed for building socialism, famously noting that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”.4 That is, the capitalist state is set up specifically to preserve capitalism; it is in essence just a “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”5, and therefore the working class and its allies will have to replace it with their own state, one designed to preserve and build socialism. This is precisely what the oppressed masses of Russia, Vietnam, Korea, China and Cuba did.

The advantages of stripping the capitalist class of its power are clear enough. Given a state set up to defend private property, capitalists can easily find ways to re-consolidate their power even when they find themselves occasionally having to cope with left-wing governments. The experience of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile (from 1970 to 1973) provides some of the strongest evidence in support of Marx’s theory of the state. Allende was a Marxist; his Popular Unity government aimed to build a society organised in the interests of workers and peasants. After several attempts, he won the presidential election in 1970, and the country was quickly swept up in an exciting and all-encompassing democratic process, nationalising the copper mines, tackling inequality and oppression, and inspiring millions of people to get involved in building a new Chile.

From the moment of Allende’s election, the US intelligence agencies worked with the Chilean elite to try and prevent his being inaugurated, and then worked systematically for three years to destabilise the country at every level. US president Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to “make the economy scream”6 in order to unseat Allende. The bulk of the leadership of the armed forces, inherited from 150 years of plutocratic rule (and colonial Spanish rule before that), aligned themselves with the old ruling classes and, with the backing of their friends in the US, conducted a coup against Allende. Thousands of leftists and trade unionists were murdered, and a brutal capitalist dictatorship was installed.

Many concluded from the Chilean experience that the only path to socialism was, after all, “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions”7 and the establishment of a workers’ state – a dictatorship of the proletariat. After all, Allende was overthrown by the capitalist state that he was putatively in charge of. The counterfactual, then, is that if Allende had led an armed revolutionary movement and had been able to “break up, smash the ready-made state machinery”,8 Chile could have remained on the socialist path.

Which would be all very well, but for the non-trivial problem of forcibly overthrowing capitalist states, which is harder than it sounds.

The period from the late 1960s to 1980 witnessed the victory of liberation movements in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau and Zimbabwe and elsewhere, as well as socialist-oriented revolutions in Nicaragua, Grenada, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Yemen and Ethiopia. The earlier part of that period also saw an upswing of radical activism in the west. Those years can reasonably be considered the end of the first wave of socialist advance. The ensuing two decades were characterised mainly by retreat: the decline and fall of the Soviet Union and its European allies;9 and the emergence of neoliberalism as the hegemonic global economic system. The socialist movement lost its first revolutionary base area. Unions and traditional networks of solidarity were broken down. Workers became ever more atomised. Even the limited social democracy constructed in much of the capitalist ‘west’ came under attack from deregulation, privatisation, de-unionisation and generalised marketisation.

The Global South meanwhile was subjected to abhorrent ‘structural adjustment’, putting an end to decades of slow but steady improvement in living standards.10 In the handful of socialist countries that survived the counter-revolutionary juggernaut of 1989-91, survival required tough choices that seemed to run against the natural trajectory of socialism: the expansion of market forces and foreign capital in China,11 and opening up to mass tourism and tourist-related small business in Cuba.

In the same period, imperialist states leveraged the technological revolution to bolster their defences against political revolution. Military and surveillance technologies advanced (and continue to advance) rapidly, and the techniques of political propaganda reached extraordinary new levels of sophistication, making Orwell’s cliched portrayal of a Soviet 1984 look positively quaint. In 1917, the Bolsheviks were able to win power because Russia was, in Lenin’s words, the wooden link in an iron chain.12 Today’s chain is made of hardened steel, and it’s the iron link that’s the weak one.

This is the context in which Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution should be understood. In a time of hopelessness, a time of neoliberal domination, a time of socialist defeat and the “end of history”13, a time of brazen military attacks on countries that refused to conform to the Washington Consensus, Venezuelan revolutionaries found a way to break the chain, to capture power – albeit partial and heavily contested – and to start along the road to socialism.

While they had finally arrived in government through similar means to Allende’s Popular Unity (with Hugo Chávez winning the 1998 presidential election), their initial hold on power was much less tenuous as a result of the government’s support by much of the military. Chávez often stressed that the revolution had the means to physically defend itself. “I warned the Venezuelan oligarchy and the counterrevolutionaries not to make the mistake of believing that this peaceful revolution is an unarmed revolution. We are peaceful, but we are armed.”14 Victor Figueroa Clark notes in his biography of Allende that while the progressive states of modern-day Latin America do face many of the same challenges Chile did, they’ve been able to analyse the weaknesses of that process: “Success in overcoming these challenges has owed much to lessons learned from Allende’s overthrow”.15

Another aspect of building self-defence capacity has been the work done by the Venezuelan government over the course of 20 years to democratise society; to engage people in politics, to construct organisations of popular power, and to develop a legal framework that privileges the needs of ordinary people. The recently deceased Chilean political scientist Marta Harnecker16 observes, for example: “It is probable that Venezuela is the only country which has a ministry devoted to participation: the Ministry of Popular Participation and Social Development, which was created in mid-2005. One of its principal objectives is to remove obstacles and make it easier for there to be popular participation from below throughout the country.”17

From around 2005 onwards, the Bolivarian Revolution has been explicitly socialist in its direction. Highlighting the significance of Hugo Chávez’s speech at the World Social Forum in January 2005, at which Chávez first announced that his goal was to build socialism, Iain Bruce writes: “All of a sudden, here was a process that openly and deliberately claimed it was aiming for socialism. And that was something nobody in a similar position had dreamed of saying since long before the collapse of the Soviet bloc a decade and a half earlier… As such Venezuela has become the laboratory for a new cycle of revolutionary theory and practice.”18

In forging this path, Venezuela’s revolutionaries have played a crucial role in kicking off the second wave of socialist advance. The Bolivarian Revolution was the first sustained experiment in the construction of working class power in several decades. Moreover, its journey towards socialism has been combined with an insistent internationalism that sought the broadest possible anti-imperialist unity on a global scale. Venezuela has thus moved from the capitalist periphery – as a supplier of petroleum and beauty queens – to the socialist centre – as a supplier of inspiration and essential experience.

Why Venezuela?

Venezuela in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a country on the edge. Known for the extravagant tastes of its upper classes – the “Saudis of Latin America”, soaking in the country’s abundant oil reserves – Venezuela was one of the most unequal societies on the planet, and this inequality was getting worse by the day as a result of ruthless neoliberal policies.

In early 1989, then president Carlos Andrés Pérez announced a series of harsh austerity measures, including a 100% increase in the price of gasoline, an end to food subsidies, and price increases for electricity, water and other basic services. A few days later, the powderkeg of profound poverty, inequality and alienation exploded in the Caracazo, a mass rebellion in which the capital’s barrios rose up in response to an overnight hike in bus fares.19 This was “the most spectacular demonstration of a series of ‘IMF riots’ or ‘bread riots’ of the 1980s and early 1990s”.20 US-based political scientist George Ciccariello-Maher, author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, writes that the Caracazo “was a full-scale insurrection whose participants stared revolution in the face only to suffer the crushing reply of the state’s iron heel.” Although it was violently repressed, “the Caracazo sounded the death knell of the old system, simultaneously reflecting and contributing to the inevitability of its collapse and thereby setting into motion the entire process that came after.”21

The Caracazo didn’t come out of nowhere. Spontaneous as it was, it was also connected to revolutionary networks of various kinds, some of which had operated for many decades.22 Some level of formal capitalist democracy had existed in Venezuela since 1958, when the military dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez (backed to the hilt by the US, of course) was overthrown. The democratic system that replaced the military dictatorship was, well, not very democratic. The two major parties, Acción Democrática and COPEI (Independent Political Electoral Organisation Committee), coordinated from the beginning to ensure the frictionless rule of big business, lubricated by the sharp repression of any forces of the left. Venezuela “increasingly became a showcase for a mildly reformist, yet stridently anticommunist government that served as a trusted US ally during the Cold War.”23

The repression against the Communist Party and the various organisations of radical workers and students led to armed insurrection. Throughout the 1960s, communist groups took up guerrilla warfare against the government, for a while united in a single organisation: the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN). The guerrilla movement didn’t succeed in its aim of overthrowing the state, although it did carry out some wonderfully audacious actions, including the kidnapping of United States Air Force lieutenant colonel Michael Smolen in an attempt to prevent the execution of the captured Vietnamese liberation fighter Nguyễn Văn Trỗi.24 By the end of the 1960s, the movement was “utterly divided, isolated from any serious mass support, and confronted a repressive state that enjoyed ever-increasing levels of legitimacy.”25 Apart from anything else, a China-inspired rural guerrilla struggle found it difficult to take root in what was already a highly urbanised society (more than 70 percent of Venezuelans were living in cities by 1970).

In spite of the near-comprehensive collapse of the guerrilla movement, its traditions and many of its participants didn’t vanish. Ciccariello-Maher notes: “Those radical energies from below that had generated the guerrilla struggle to begin with, those demands of the popular masses that the new democratic regime was either unwilling or unable to meet, did not simply disappear into thin air. Instead, the ostensible failure of the guerrilla struggle gave way to a dispersed multiplicity of revolutionary social movements, and former guerrillas themselves courted ‘legality’ in a variety of ways, with both sectors twirling helically around one another in a constant struggle to both revolutionise the state and avoid its tentacles.”26 These radical movements took root in poor urban communities and in industry, breaking the stranglehold of the pro-capitalist trade unions (which functioned essentially as branches of Acción Democrática).

So there was a diverse, experienced and creative left in Venezuela, with strong connections to the masses. With the emergence of Chávez as a nationally-known figure in the aftermath of his leadership of a failed military coup in 1992,27 many of these streams coalesced into a broad movement for change. After the election victory of 1999, many radical leaders – including several former guerrilla fighters – became key figures in the government.

Another important and surprising component of the Venezuelan left was to be found in the armed forces, which had several influential socialist and radical nationalist cells. Venezuelan academic Miguel Tinker Salas explains that “Venezuela’s military differs from similar institutions in Latin America that had been the sole domain of the landed or political elites: throughout much of its twentieth-century history, its officers and noncommissioned personnel have been drawn from diverse socioeconomic sectors of the population. The military provided many of these young officers a way to climb the social ladder. In the military they found like-minded colleagues who expressed concern about the direction of the country and the corruption evident in the political class.”28 Hugo Chávez himself, a man of decidedly humble origins, of mixed African and indigenous descent, reached the position of lieutenant colonel in the Venezuelan Army.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, recognising the unusual nature of the Venezuelan military, revolutionary groups thought of forming a ‘civic-military union’ to overthrow the existing order. This is the milieu in which Chávez developed his ideas. His older brother Adán was involved with the Party of Venezuelan Revolution (PRV), one of the parties that arose from the ashes of the guerrilla movement, led by Douglas Bravo.29 Chávez for a time held regular meetings with Bravo, who later became (as he is now) an ultra-left critic of the Bolivarian Revolution. As Richard Gott puts it, “Chávez did not emerge from a vacuum. He was the heir to the revolutionary traditions of the Venezuelan left.”30

These then were the key objective factors that contributed to Venezuela being able to take the lead in the second wave of socialist advance: stark poverty and widening inequality; the hegemony of neoliberal economics; widespread frustration at decades of corrupt, phoney democracy; the existence of a capable and experienced radical left; and the existence of a progressive trend within the military. Thus an environment existed in which a social transformation was possible. It then took the creative genius, courage, determination, energy and compassion of Hugo Chávez to develop a specific programme – rooted in pro-poor radical nationalism – that could win over a popular majority.

A society run in the interests of the masses

The struggle for dignity is called Bolivarianism in Venezuela; in Cuba, this struggle is called socialism. (Fidel Castro)31

Is Venezuela a socialist country? It’s a complex and contested question, since not everybody is agreed on what socialism is and there’s no accepted set of measures for defining a given society as officially ‘socialist’. Most people agree that Cuba is socialist and that the US isn’t; between those points lies debate and controversy. What we can usefully say is that Venezuela is moving in the direction of socialism; it is undergoing a process of democratisation, through which power is increasingly wielded by, and in the interests of, working people rather than the owners of capital. Definitional problems aside, this is surely the important thing: the direction of travel, towards “liberation from imperialist domination, the construction of the unity of the peoples of Latin America, and the establishment of genuine democracy that serves its workers.”32

The central focus of the Venezuelan state is to improve the lives of its people: to eliminate poverty, to improve access to education and healthcare, to engage people in the organisation of their own lives, to make dignified housing available to everybody, to tackle all forms of discrimination, and to position Venezuela within a rising multipolar system that rejects imperialism. Its government has broken with free market fundamentalism, and has supported public and cooperative ownership. It is friendly to trade unions and social movements, and it works to empower workers, peasants, indigenous people, Afro-Venezuelans, women and youth. It is, in short, a society run in the interests of the masses.

The major class base for the Venezuelan government is the poor majority, “hitherto disorganised, effectively out of reach of traditional politics”.33 The most numerous element is the non-privileged working class, typically living in barrios and working in the informal sector. This is the section of the population that had been persistently ignored by Venezuelan governments and indeed by the wider world. Prior to 1999, such workers had not been unionised, and had only limited access to basic services. In addressing itself primarily to this section of the working class, the Chávez government broke with Latin American Marxist orthodoxy, which had tended to focus on either the industrial working class or the peasantry (according to circumstances and/or ideology). Furthermore, the Venezuelan state has allied itself with all oppressed groups and popular struggles: for racial and gender justice, for indigenous rights, to end discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, to conserve the environment. As such, it has become a powerful political tool of all the oppressed.

The Chavista conception of socialism is, in the words of Marta Harnecker, “a new collective life in which equality, freedom, and real and deep democracy reign, and in which the people plays the role of protagonist; an economic system centred on human beings, not on profits; a pluralistic, anti-consumerist culture in which the act of living takes precedence over the act of owning.”34 This is what Venezuelans, in the face of great difficulty and resistance, are building.

As an aside, it’s worth discussing the fact that Chávez didn’t always present the Bolivarian Revolution as being ‘socialist’; the process was above all ‘Bolivarian’. For all the things he was, Simón Bolívar (the leader of Venezuela’s independence war of the early 1800s and an insistent proponent of Latin American unity) could not reasonably be described as a socialist. But Chávez recognised that, at least in the late 1990s, ‘socialism’ was a dirty word for most Venezuelans. “In those days even the left hid the socialist banner,” Chávez said. “Almost no movement on the left in the Americas, with the exception of Cuba, lifted this banner. The big parties of the left distanced themselves from the socialist project and the word itself disappeared from the political lexicon.”35 In the figure of Bolívar – Venezuela’s national hero – Chávez saw the opportunity to get people on board with a progressive project on the basis of continuing Bolivar’s work, that is, completing the national democratic revolution, shaking off the domination of foreign powers (Spain in Bolívar’s time, the US in Chávez’s time), and working towards continental solidarity and unity. Leveraging Bolívar’s legacy was controversial in some quarters. Veteran journalist and Latin Americanist Richard Gott writes that most Marxist writers perceived Bolívar as “a typically bourgeois figure whose actions had only served the interests of the emergent imperial power of the time… For years, this caricature portrait of Bolívar as an imperialist stooge effectively precluded the left from examining his more positive characteristics.”36 However, Chávez instinctively understood the value of Bolívar’s legacy for uniting the largest possible section of the population around progressive goals. Crucially, the bulk of the military were much more immediately favourable to Bolívar than to Marx.

In economic terms, Venezuela has developed an alternative model of a mixed economy that rejects neoliberalism and incorporates socialist concepts. From very early on in the Chávez presidency, Venezuela emphasised close coordination with other oil producers in order to raise global oil prices, which it then used to fund radical social programmes with unprecedented reach.

The poverty rate in 1999 was in the region of 50 percent.37 Extreme poverty was around 20 percent. Within a few years, overall poverty was halved, and extreme poverty reduced to 5 percent as a direct result of government interventions. Miguel Tinker Salas observes that the massive public social investment, much of it carried out via a series of misiones (missions), “has had a significant impact on the lives of millions of people in Venezuela. The missions have been funded with the profits generated from PdVSA [Petróleos de Venezuela, the Venezuelan state-owned oil and natural gas company]… The revenue the government allocates for social spending has increased dramatically in the last decade, upwards of sixty percent according to some estimates. The number of missions has increased significantly to over twenty-five different programs, addressing health, literacy, education, sports, identity, land reform, senior citizens, the indigenous, culture, music, children, pensions, and energy, among others.”38

As part of the Barrio Adentro mission, several thousand clinics and diagnostic centres have been built to provide medical services to poor communities that previously had no such access. (This programme has been constructed with the assistance of thousands of Cuban doctors, whose services are paid for with cut-price Venezuelan oil).39 In more recent years, Barrio Adentro has been expanded to provide a more integrated healthcare approach, including exercise facilities and nutrition classes. According to Richard Gott, “the scale of Barrio Adentro was something entirely new. I visited several of these Cuban-run health centres in 2003 and 2004, in both town and country, and the enthusiasm and commitment of the Cubans and their warm reception by local people were clear indications of the forward march of the revolution. Many of the Cubans had already had experience of working in Third World countries – in Haiti and Honduras, in the Gambia and Angola – and this was their first chance to see a Latin American society so dramatically divided between rich and poor. They provided a local health service twenty-four hours a day, week in week out, and had soon become a familiar institution in the localities.”40

Misión Robinson deployed a network of instructors to teach literacy to the over one million adults that were illiterate in 2003. Just two years later, Unesco declared Venezuela as a “territory free from illiteracy”.41 Per capita spending on education increased 51 percent between 2003 and 2007.42 Millions of children have been provided with free laptops, running a customised version of Linux developed by the Venezuelan government, in line with its embrace of open source software.43

The housing mission – Misión Vivienda – was launched in the early 2000s to address Venezuela’s housing crisis, building hundreds of thousands of housing units in integrated housing zones with education and healthcare facilities. According to the most recent estimates, 2.3 million homes have been built (Venezuela has a population of 32 million).44 These apartments are typically sold to families with long-term low-interest rates of credit.

An array of businesses have been nationalised,45 and there have been numerous experiments with worker management and collective ownership.46 PdVSA has been brought under strict government control. Grassroots communal councils have been set up across the country with a view to engaging the masses and building a more meaningful democracy.47 Ciccariello-Maher writes that local communal councils started to be established throughout Venezuela in 2006. “Within one year, 18,320 communal councils had been established, and that number has since exceeded 40,000. According to the 2006 law, these councils seek to ‘allow the organised people to directly manage public policy and projects oriented toward responding to the needs and aspirations of communities in the construction of a society of equity and social justice’”.48 The result has been a remarkable democratisation. “A whole section of Venezuelan society, the poor in general but in particular the urban poor of the Caracas hillsides, several millions of people who had been buried in silence, obscurity and neglect, have suddenly ‘emerged’ from the shadows and established themselves as actors, as protagonists both of their own individual stories and of the nation’s collective drama.”49

The Venezuelan state is in the process of becoming a workers’ state. Its leadership has not been in a position to dismantle the capitalist state, but it is gradually reducing its scope whilst building up a socialist alternative.

The Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin reflected on his trips to Venezuela and the differences between the pre-Bolivarian and Bolivarian eras:

I found a country that had nothing in common with the one I had known. A true social revolution — it is not excessive to say so — had occurred in the sense that, finally, we could see Indians, blacks, and mixed race people —the majority of the population — elsewhere than in the street! Until the arrival of Hugo Chávez, all the powers in the country were reserved for the whitest of the white, strictly European in origin. This change is not, in my opinion, of secondary significance. It is the proof that political power (but nothing more, understand) has passed to the representatives of the Venezuelan people as it really is. It is the proof that the Chávez government is not that of some soldier — one of mixed race, at that — but the result of a real mass movement… That is what I call a revolutionary advance.50

Nicolás Maduro, interviewed by the BBC, recently outlined his government’s key objectives: “We are in a battle … to reduce poverty, misery, to increase job capacity, to establish a social security system to protect 100% of our pensioners, to establish a public health system that reaches all the Venezuelan population… We have made a commitment between 2017 and 2025 to reach a state of zero poverty and we are going to accomplish it.”51

Reflecting on the Venezuelan state’s priorities, actions and support base, it’s clear that it is a socialist-oriented state, that is, it is moving in the direction of socialism. Its survival is therefore of obvious importance to socialists worldwide.

Integration in the global front against imperialism

Let’s save the human race – let’s finish off the empire (Hugo Chávez)52

The achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution in terms of the wellbeing of the Venezuelan people are impressive in their own right, but the revolutionary process in Venezuela also has a wider – global – significance that deserves attention. I have written in some detail on this subject,53 so I’ll stick to a brief overview here.

Hugo Chávez had a very clear and far-sighted worldview, informed by his rich knowledge of world history, his identification of US-led imperialism as the major obstacle to peace and development, and his own experiences of trying to exercise sovereignty and build Venezuelan socialism in the face of destabilisation and CIA-backed coup attempts. He saw Venezuela as part of a global movement challenging half a millennium of colonialism, imperialism and racism; a global movement that included China, Brazil, Russia, Zimbabwe, Libya, Syria, South Africa, Cuba, Belarus, Vietnam, Iran, Ecuador, Bolivia, DPR Korea, Nicaragua and elsewhere. This thinking is reflected in the internationalist outlook of the Venezuelan state from 1999 until the present day.

Venezuela is a leading proponent of multipolarity – “a pattern of multiple centres of power, all with a certain capacity to influence world affairs, shaping a negotiated order”.54 Chávez linked multipolarity to Simón Bolívar’s concept of regional unity: “Bolívar spoke of what today we call a multipolar world. He proposed the unification of South and Central America into what he called Greater Colombia, to enable negotiations on an equal basis with the other three quarters of the globe. This was his multipolar vision.”55

Recognising that maximum coordination is necessary in order to effectively stand up to US imperialist domination, the Venezuelan state has been at the forefront of the effort to build an organisational and economic structure for regional integration of Latin America and the Caribbean. This effort has included the creation of the anti-neoliberal trade agreement ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America),56 the regional bloc CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States)57 and the trade bloc UNASUR (Union of South American Nations). This cooperation reached its high point in the late 2000s and early 2010s, when progressive governments were in power in Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay; these governments achieved an unprecedented level of coordination and cooperation. Unfortunately, efforts to promote regional integration have suffered severe setbacks in the last few years, particularly with the judicial coup against the PT-led government in Brazil58 and the about-turn of the Lenín Moreno government in Ecuador,59 alongside electoral reverses in Argentina and Chile. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru have now left UNASUR and set up an alternative, PROSUR, an initiative led by the US-aligned reactionary governments of Chile and Colombia.60

For decades a client state of the US, Venezuela in the last 20 years has focused on developing strong relationships with countries around the world, particularly those states that are amenable to mutually beneficial cooperation. Miguel Tinker Salas notes that, “in the past Venezuelan politicians seldom ventured from travel between Caracas and Washington, occasionally visiting New York and the United Nations, but never including Beijing, Moscow, Brasilia, Buenos Aires, and much less Tehran or Luanda, Angola on their itinerary. Now they do so frequently. Although the United States is still an important market for its oil, Venezuela no longer privileges relations with Washington, and instead promotes ties and pursues investments from countries as distinct as Brazil, India, Iran, Russia, and China.”61

Chávez clearly saw China in particular as a crucial partner in the struggle for a new world, visiting six times over the course of his presidency and forging close economic, diplomatic and political relations. In China, the Venezuelan leadership has found an inspiring example of what it’s possible for a developing country to achieve when freed from the domination of imperialism. Visiting Beijing in 2006, Chávez praised China for having converted itself from a “practically feudal” society into a world-leading economy in the space of a few decades. “It’s an example for western leaders and governments that claim capitalism is the only alternative. We’ve been manipulated to believe that the first man on the moon was the most important event of the 20th century. But no, much more important things happened, and one of the greatest events of the 20th century was the Chinese revolution.”62 The burgeoning political relationship has been matched in the economic sphere, with China providing billions of dollars worth of oil-backed loans,63 thereby allowing Venezuela to diversify its buyers and China to diversify its suppliers – key strategic goals in both cases. The extensive Chinese loans have been crucial in terms of financing Venezuela’s social projects.

Tinker Salas writes: “Hoping to strike a balance in its international affairs, Caracas endorsed economic arrangements with China, Cuba, Iran, and Russia, especially in areas such as health, telecommunications, auto manufacturing, oil explorations, and the production of machinery. The Chinese constructed and launched into space Venezuela’s two orbiting telecommunication satellites. Iran operates a tractor and car factory in the country and the Russians have become one of the leading arms suppliers of the Venezuelan military… As part of a policy to promote South-South relations, the country expanded diplomatic relations with most countries in Africa and in 2009 hosted the Africa-South America summit.”64

Beyond mutually beneficial economic relations, Venezuela has also provided strong diplomatic and practical support to liberation movements worldwide (for example Palestine65 and Western Saraha66), and has stood firm with those states in the direct crosshairs of western imperialism, most prominently Syria67 and Libya.68 Additionally, it has sought to build good relations with progressive forces in the imperialist heartlands, including with the London Assembly during Ken Livingstone’s tenure as mayor.69

A friend in need

“They choke us and they ask us, why are we suffocating?” (Nicolás Maduro)70

The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela is currently facing its biggest challenge to date, one that poses a mortal danger. In 2013 it was hit with two major blows: the death of Hugo Chávez and the collapse of international oil prices. Those two factors combined to create a fragile situation which the Venezuelan elite and its US backers sought to take advantage of.

Chávez’s untimely death was a terrible setback. To millions of Venezuelans, he embodied the revolution, and the whole process was defined to a significant degree by his vision, determination, boldness and charisma. Thankfully there are many capable leaders in the Venezuelan state, and 15 years in power was sufficient to develop a strong cadre at all levels of government. Chavismo has survived. Unfortunately oil prices have yet to substantially recover. Oil provides 90% of Venezuela’s export income and 50% of government revenues. Reduced fiscal income means reduced service provision, which leads to popular dissatisfaction. Steve Ellner remarks that “oil prices under Maduro have not only been low since 2014 but nosedived, just the opposite of what happened under Chávez. This is particularly problematic because high prices create expectations and commitments that then get transformed into frustration and anger when they precipitously drop.”71

Of course, the continued heavy reliance on petroleum income highlights the failure to date of the Venezuelan socialist project to meaningfully diversify its economy. The fact is that Venezuela has been a petro-state ever since the discovery of massive oil reserves in the Maracaibo Basin a century ago. The government can probably be criticised for not investing more in diversification during the decade or so when oil revenues were unusually high. Kicking the oil habit is unquestionably difficult, and may well require several more decades, but it will be indispensable to the survival and advance of Venezuelan socialism.

With the economy in trouble, the US and its local allies didn’t waste any time driving the knife in. As Venezuelan Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jorge Arreaza, writes: “Imperialist actors have sought, by any means available to them, to overthrow and eliminate the Bolivarian Revolution, to retake political control of the country, so that the riches of Venezuelans can once again be used as tribute to benefit transnational capital.”72 Domestically, the opposition parties – wealthy, white, pro-US and fanatically anti-Chavista – stepped up their efforts to make the country ungovernable, organising violent demonstrations, spreading lies (through their domination of print and television media) and hoarding goods so as to create shortages and drive inflation. The US has added to this pressure with wide-ranging sanctions – “a savage and criminal financial and commercial blockade.”73

The sanctions are designed specifically to cause hardship among ordinary Venezuelans and to break their support for the Bolivarian Revolution. The calculation is, needless to say, that worsening conditions will lead to the downfall of the Chavista government and ultimately the rolling back of the socialist advances of the last two decades. Certainly the sanctions are already wreaking havoc. World-renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs states plainly that “American sanctions are deliberately aiming to wreck Venezuela’s economy and thereby lead to regime change. It’s a fruitless, heartless, illegal, and failed policy, causing grave harm to the Venezuelan people.” Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs published a report in April indicating that sanctions to date have led to 40,000 deaths as a result of food and medicine shortages.74

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of defending Venezuela. Defending Venezuela means supporting the second wave of socialist advance; it means defending the gains of two decades of hard-won progress; it means maintaining the trajectory towards a multipolar world; it means challenging the US’ attempt to reimpose the Monroe Doctrine.75 In 2015, the Argentinian sociologist Atilio Boron wrote powerfully about the critical importance of the Bolivarian Revolution: “The struggle being waged in Venezuela today is decisive not only for this South American country, but for all the emancipatory processes underway in Latin America and the Caribbean… What we are waging, in the homeland of Bolívar and of Chávez, is our battle of Stalingrad. If the oligarchic-imperialist reaction is successful in its efforts, all of Latin America will feel the heavy blows… It will be a terrible lesson against the countries whose governments had the audacity to defy the empire.”76 These words continue to resonate.

Those of us around the world who support socialism, who defend the right of nations to self-determination, who oppose imperialist domination, have a duty to stand up for Venezuela. The world needs more socialist-oriented states, not fewer! We must apply pressure to our governments not to participate in sanctions or other forms of economic destabilisation. We must resolutely oppose any threat of military intervention. Those whose governments have signed up to the US-led regime change agenda must demand those governments stop supporting Juan Guaidó’s attempted coup and that they limit their involvement to supporting peaceful dialogue. We should work hard to raise awareness, to refute the pervasive lies and slander that appear in the media (including the supposedly left-leaning press – The Guardian is among the worst offenders when it comes to Venezuela). We should support independent media groups such as Venezuela Analysis that are working to counter the relentless information warfare.

Let’s be inspired by the US activists who put themselves in the firing line in order to protect the Venezuelan embassy in Washington.77 Those in Britain should join and support the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign.78 Those in political parties should pass resolutions calling for an end to sanctions and destabilisation. The further the message spreads, the better. Let’s do everything we can to defend Venezuela.


  1. Even if this jubilation is tempered by the knowledge that her likely successor, Boris Johnson, is even more reactionary. 

  2. USA Today: U.S. recognizes Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido as president; Russia backs Maduro, 2019 

  3. Liberation News: Massive rallies for Maduro held in Venezuela, ignored by war-mongering corporate media, 2019 

  4. Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, 1871, Chapter 5 

  5. Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848, Chapter 1 

  6. Democracy Now: Secret Documents Show Nixon, Kissinger Role Backing 1973 Chile Coup, 2013 

  7. Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), Chapter 4 

  8. Lenin, State and Revolution, 1917, Chapter 3 

  9. See Carlos Martinez, The End of the Beginning: Lessons of the Soviet Collapse, LeftWord Books, 2019 

  10. See for example Ha-joon Chang: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Penguin, 2011 

  11. For further discussion on China, see Invent the Future: Is China Still Socialist?, 2018 

  12. Lenin, The Chain Is No Stronger Than Its Weakest Link, 1917 

  13. Wikipedia: The End of History and the Last Man 

  14. Chavez: Venezuela and the New Latin America: Venezuela and the New Latin America – Hugo Chavez Interviewed by Aleida Guevara, Ocean Press, 2005 

  15. Victor Figueroa Clark, Salvador Allende – Revolutionary Democracy, Pluto Press, 2013 

  16. Aporrea, Marta Harnecker: un tesoro de los pueblos, 2019 

  17. Marta Harnecker, Rebuilding the Left, Zed Books, 2007 

  18. Iain Bruce, The Real Venezuela: Making Socialism in the 21st Century, Pluto Press, 2008 

  19. Venezuela Analysis: Venezuela Marks 25 Years Since “Caracazo” Uprising Against Neoliberalism, 2014 

  20. Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, Verso, 2013 

  21. George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, Duke University Press, 2013 

  22. This story is told in detail in Ciccariello-Maher, ibid

  23. Miguel Tinker Salas, Venezuela What Everyone Needs to Know, Oxford University Press, 2015 

  24. New York Times: Venezuelan Terrorists Kidnap U.S. Colonel and Threaten Him (1964) 

  25. Ciccariello-Maher, op cit 

  26. ibid 

  27. Christian Science Monitor: Chávez celebrates failed coup that propelled him into office, 2012 

  28. Tinker Salas, op cit 

  29. New York Times: Venezuelan, Like Castro, Has Brother at the Ready, 2011 

  30. Richard Gott, Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Verso, 2005 

  31. Cited in Richard Gott, op cit 

  32. MR Online: Samir Amin: Chávez Has Died, But the Bolivarian Revolution Continues, 2013 

  33. Gott, op cit 

  34. Marta Harnecker, Chávez’s Chief Legacy: Building, with People, an Alternative Society to Capitalism, 2013 

  35. Cited in Bart Jones, Hugo!: The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution, Steerforth, 2008 

  36. Gott, op cit 

  37. World Bank poverty data: Venezuela 

  38. Tinker Salas, op cit 

  39. See for example Venezuela Analysis: A Look at the Venezuelan Healthcare System, 2009 

  40. Gott, op cit 

  41. Telesur: Venezuela: 10 Years Free of Illiteracy, 2015 

  42. Figures cited in Tinker Salas, op cit 

  43. Fox News: Venezuela’s Chavez Touts Linux as Microsoft Alternative, 2006 

  44. Telesur: Venezuelan Gov’t Delivers 2.3 M Houses Despite Economic War, 2018 

  45. BBC News: Nationalisation sweeps Venezuela, 2007 

  46. Venezuela Analysis: Venezuela, Worker Control, and Self-management, 2010 

  47. Venezuela Analysis: Cooperation, Co-operatives, & Revolution in Venezuela, 2012 

  48. Ciccariello-Maher, op cit 

  49. Iain Bruce, op cit 

  50. Samir Amin, The Long Revolution of the Global South, Monthly Review Press, 2019 

  51. BBC News: Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro interview: Full transcript, 2019 

  52. Washington Times: Losing Latin America, 2007 

  53. Invent the Future: Hugo Chávez – Revolutionary Internationalist, 2014 

  54. Jenny Clegg, China’s Global Strategy, Pluto Press, 2009 

  55. Cited in Bart Jones, op cit 

  56. ALBA info: What is ALBA? 

  57. CELAC International: About CELAC 

  58. The Intercept: Brazil Prosecutors Plotted Against Lula’s Party in 2018 Election, 2019 

  59. Jacobin: Lenín Moreno’s Betrayal, 2019 

  60. FT: Prosur risks joining the list of failed pan-South American institutions, 2019 

  61. Tinker Salas, op cit 

  62. Taipei Times: Chavez to triple oil sales to China, 2006 

  63. SCMP: China hits back at US criticism of oil-for-loan investments in Venezuela, 2018 

  64. Tinker Salas, op cit 

  65. Reuters: Venezuela’s Chavez accuses Israel of genocide, 2009 

  66. Venezuela Analysis: Venezuela’s President Chavez calls for liberation of the Sahrawi people, 2009 

  67. Fox News: Venezuela’s Chavez meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad, vows to fight US ‘imperialism’, 2010 

  68. Al Jazeera: Chavez proposes talks for Libya, 2011 

  69. FT: Livingstone secures cheap oil from Chávez, 2007 

  70. BBC News: Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro interview: Full transcript, 2019 

  71. Venezuela Analysis: How Much of Venezuela’s Crisis is Really Maduro’s Fault?, 2019 

  72. Jorge Arreaza: Venezuela, epicenter of the historic dispute, 2019 

  73. ibid 

  74. Counterpunch: War on Venezuela?, 2019 

  75. Washington Post: What is the Monroe Doctrine? John Bolton’s justification for Trump’s push against Maduro, 2019 

  76. Cuba and Venezuela Solidarity Committee: Dr Atilio Boron expresses solidarity with Venezuela, 2015 

  77. Sputnik: Activists Who Protected Venezuelan DC Embassy Call for Mass Mobilization, 2019 

  78. VSC 

Samir Amin: obituary

This article first appeared in issue 5 of Transform: A Journal of the Radical Left, November 2018.


On 12 August 2018, the global revolutionary movement lost one of its most outstanding thinkers. Born in Cairo in 1931, Samir Amin studied in Paris and received his early political education as a member of the French Communist Party. Moving back to Egypt in 1957, he worked as an economic advisor to the Nasser government before moving to Mali (1960) and then Senegal (1963). In 1975, he co-founded the Third World Forum, a network of intellectuals in Africa, Asia and Latin America, working to formulate models of development outside the context of imperialism.

Through his work and his writing, Samir Amin exercised significant influence on progressive governments and movements around the world, from China to Cuba, Venezuela to South Africa. The breadth of his influence is easily evidenced by the tributes that followed the announcement of his death, including from South Africa’s ANC, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro,1 and Bolivian President Evo Morales, who wrote that “the legacy of his ideals of social justice will be eternally acknowledged.”2

Overcoming Eurocentrism

Amin coined the term Eurocentrism in the mid-1970s to describe the ideology promoted by modern capitalism: a model that places Europe at the heart of global history and that considers (explicitly or implicitly) all human development to be of European origin, starting with the Greeks and Romans. Amin demonstrated, with great clarity and lucidity, how this ideology is leveraged to reinforce an actually existing global capitalism that consolidates wealth and power in Europe (and its Anglophone off-shoots) whilst perpetuating poverty and subjugation in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Amin ruthlessly deconstructs the Eurocentric view of history, pointing out for example that Ancient Greece wasn’t in the slightest bit ‘European’ in its outlook; it was engaged in intense exchange of ideas and goods with Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia (and to some extent China and India), at a time when Western Europe was “a backward and barbarous periphery”. It was only via the Crusades (in the 12th and 13th centuries AD) that the Italian towns were able to start asserting themselves as a global force, having won a monopoly on navigation in the Mediterranean.

Europe did not participate in the general development of the pre-modern system until very late, after the year 1000… At the dawn of the Christian era the population of Europe, including Italy, was about 20 million (8 per cent of the world population, less than 30 per cent of that of China, 50 per cent of that of the Middle East)… Until the year 1000 the productivity of European agriculture was greatly inferior to that of the civilised regions of China, India and the Middle East, and the continent still had no towns.3

By exposing the clear logical flaws of Eurocentric universalism, Amin was able to show that the dominance of modern global capitalism, far from being a permanent and pre-ordained set of affairs (or ‘end of history’), is the prodeuct of the very specific circumstances arising from Western Europe’s two major take-offs – at the end of the 15th century (the colonisation of the Americas) and the 19th century (the industrial revolution and the colonisation of much of the rest of the world). Once this ideology is challenged, it becomes far easier to visualise alternative political and economic systems to the Eurocentric nirvana of monopoly capitalism.

Critic of capitalism

Samir Amin made an in-depth analysis of modern wild-west capitalism – widely referred to these days as neoliberalism, but labelled more specifically by Amin as a “system of generalised monopolies based on an extreme centralisation of control over capital, accompanied by a generalisation of wage-labour”.4 This is different from the monopoly capitalism of a hundred years ago, in that “monopolies are now no longer islands in a sea of other still relatively autonomous companies, but are constitutive of an integrated system.” Even small and medium companies “are locked in a network of control put in place by the monopolies. Their degree of autonomy has shrunk to the point that they are nothing more than subcontractors of the monopolies.”5 Such a system is held in place throughout the globe via the monopolisation of technology, natural resources, finance, the media, and military capacity.

Although the capitalist class considers itself to be very modern and scientific, it has merely replaced a heavenly god with a metallic one. “‘Moneytheism’ has replaced monotheism. The ‘market’ rules like the ancient God.”6 This chimes with Marx’s biting observations about the ‘fetishisation’ of commodities under capitalism.

In the world of politics, this system of generalised monopolies is manifested as a “low-intensity democracy” in which people are encouraged to be passive, “devoid of authentic freedom, reduced to the status of passive consumers/spectators”. In essence Amin describes a plutocracy, with the nuance that “you are free to vote for whomever you want, because your choice has no importance”.7 This broadly correct assessment of course has its exceptions and caveats, and Amin was enthusiastic about the possibilities of Podemos and Syriza in terms of challenging the status quo in Europe.8

The long transition to socialism

In the same way that capitalism first developed within feudalism before breaking out of it, the long transition of world capitalism to world socialism is defined by the internal conflict of all the societies in the system between the trends and forces of the reproduction of capitalist relations and the (anti-systemic) trends and forces, whose logic has other aspirations – those, precisely, that can be defined as socialism.9

Although his analysis of capitalism makes for bleak reading, Samir Amin nonetheless remained a revolutionary optimist, a firm believer in a socialist future that will emerge – indeed is emerging – through the irreconcilable contradictions of capitalism. He vigorously rejected the idea that socialism has failed and that capitalist ‘liberal democracy’ has been permanently established as the pinnacle of social and economic organisation. As Vijay Prashad notes, “he was not interested in defeat”.10

In this framework, the retreats suffered by the socialist world – particularly the collapse of the European socialist states between 1989 and 1991 – should not be considered as the death of the socialist project, but rather as part of the inevitable ebb and flow of a complex historical trajectory that could take hundreds of years but which nonetheless has an inexorable tide. A similar idea was formulated by the Communist Party of China in response to the collapse of the USSR and the European people’s democracies. Deng Xiaoping famously observed in 1992: “Feudal society replaced slave society, capitalism supplanted feudalism, and, after a long time, socialism will necessarily supersede capitalism. This is an irreversible general trend of historical development, but the road has many twists and turns. Over the several centuries that it took for capitalism to replace feudalism, how many times were monarchies restored! Some countries have suffered major setbacks, and socialism appears to have been weakened. But the people have been tempered by the setbacks and have drawn lessons from them, and that will make socialism develop in a healthier direction. So don’t panic, don’t think that Marxism has disappeared, that it’s not useful any more and that it has been defeated. Nothing of the sort!”11

On the controversial subject of China and its role in the global transition to socialism, Amin displayed a clarity of understanding that is all too rare. In his recent writings, he spoke of China as “perhaps the only country in the world today which has a sovereign project.” That is: China is successfully pursuing its own development model, designed by its own government and not the institutions of international finance capital. “China is walking on two legs: following traditions and participating in globalisation. They accept foreign investments, but keep independence of their financial system. The Chinese bank system is exclusively state-controlled… That is the best model that we have today to respond to the challenge of globalist imperialism.”12 The results of China’s strategy have been “simply amazing. In a few decades, China has built a productive, industrial urbanisation that brings together 600 million human beings, two-thirds of whom were urbanised over the last two decades (almost equal to Europe’s population!). This is due to the plan and not to the market.”13

The indispensable nature of multipolarity

Samir Amin considered that, given the economic, political and ideological stranglehold imposed by western finance capitalism, the first step towards a globalised socialism was to encourage the development of a multipolar world: a world with multiple power bases; a set of geopolitical spaces in which political and economic control is exercised by the people of those spaces rather than by the European and North American elite; a world which will bring about “the defeat of Washington’s hegemonic project for military control of the planet”.14 Such an environment “makes possible the maximum development of anti-systemic forces.”15 Multipolarity is an increasingly popular concept, but Amin was a very early proponent, having first discussed it in his 1985 book Delinking: Towards a Polycentric World.

Amin witnessed and welcomed the left tide in Latin America, the rising cooperation between China and Russia, the establishment of BRICS, ALBA and other major projects of regional or south-south cooperation that are slowly breaking down hegemonism. However, he also recognised the possibility of a violent, unpredictable and irrational reaction to all this – such as the Make America Great Again lunacy of the current US administration. “The world now is in serious danger. The collective imperialism of the US, Western Europe and Japan are run by US leadership. In order to keep their exclusive control over the whole planet, they do not accept independence of other countries. They do not respect the independence of China and Russia. That is why we are about to face continuous wars all over the world. The radical Islamists are the allies of imperialism, because they are supported by the US in order to carry out destabilisation. This is permanent war.”

He went on to propose a clear strategic response: “Russia should unite with China, the Central Asian countries, Iran and Syria. This alliance could be also very attractive for Africa and good parts of Latin America. In such a case, imperialism would be isolated.”16

Taking Samir Amin’s work forward

Samir Amin was a brilliant and creative Marxist, an uncompromising anti-imperialist, a powerful voice for the oppressed, and a visionary of a socialist world. His work mapping the past, present and future of humanity is a weighty inheritance that the global progressive forces must now take forward.


  1. Via Twitter, 12 August 2018 

  2. Via Twitter, 12 August 2018 

  3. Samir Amin: Global History: A View from the South, Pambazuka Press, 2010 

  4. Samir Amin: The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, Monthly Review Press, 2013 

  5. Pambazuka: Audacity, more audacity, 2001 

  6. Global History: A View from the South, op cit 

  7. The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, op cit 

  8. MR Online: Glory to the Lucid Courage of the Greek People, Facing the European Crisis, 2015 

  9. Samir Amin, Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, Monthly Review Press, 2016 

  10. The Hindu: Death of a Marxist, 2018 

  11. Deng Xiaoping, Excerpts from Talks Given in Wuchang, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shanghai, 1992 

  12. Defend Democracy Press: Samir Amin: How to Defeat the Collective Imperialism of the Triad, 2016 

  13. Monthly Review: China 2013 

  14. Samir Amin, Beyond US Hegemony? Assessing the Prospects for a Multipolar World, Zed Books, 2013 

  15. Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, op cit 

  16. How to Defeat the Collective Imperialism of the Triad, op cit 

Is China the new imperialist force in Africa?

The recent high-profile summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), held in Beijing at the beginning of September, has inspired some familiar accusations in the North American and West European press: China is the new colonial power in Africa; China is attempting to dominate African land and resources; Africa is becoming entangled in a Beijing-devised debt trap; Chinese investment in Africa only benefits China; and so on.

This article addresses these accusations and concludes that they are based on shaky foundations; that China is by no means an imperialist power; that increasing Africa-China relations are of significant benefit to the people of Africa; that Chinese assistance and investment could well be the key factor in breaking the cycle of underdevelopment and poverty in Africa.

What is imperialism?

If we’re going to understand whether or not China is imperialist, it’s a good idea to agree what imperialism is, since the word suffers from fairly widespread misinterpretation. Based on the characteristics of imperialism outlined in Lenin’s classic study, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, many conclude that China is an imperialist country. After all, it has several enormous companies that could reasonably be described as monopolies; it has a handful of very large (state-owned) banks that have significant influence on investment; and it’s increasingly engaged in the ‘export of capital’, investing in business operations around the world.

However, it should be obvious enough that no definition of the word imperialism is useful if it doesn’t include the concept of domination. The word derives from the Latin imperium, meaning supreme authority, or empire. There is no imperialism without empire. Which is not to say that imperialism no longer exists now that the colonial era is (for the most part) finished; it’s perfectly possible to maintain a de facto empire, for example through participating in the domination of another country’s markets.

A reasonable, concise definition of imperialism is put forward by the political analyst Stephen Gowans: “imperialism is a process of domination guided by economic interests.”1 This process of domination can be characterised as “the activity, enterprise and methodology of building empires”. However, empires “can be declared and formal, or undeclared and informal, or both. Whatever form they take, empires are structures predicated on systems of domination, of one country or nation over another.” For example, the US has few actual colonies, but it unquestionably uses its enormous economic and political muscle to dominate other countries, with a view to creating conditions for its own capitalist class to more rapidly expand its capital.

The recently-deceased Egyptian economist Samir Amin describes how “the countries in the dominant capitalist centre” – by which he means the US, Europe and Japan – leverage “technological development, access to natural resources, the global financial system, dissemination of information, and weapons of mass destruction” in order to dominate the planet and prevent the emergence of any state or movement that could impede this domination. The vast accumulation of capital in the imperialist heartlands has its counterpart in a ‘lumpen-development’ in much of the rest of the world – “a dizzying growth of subsistence activities, called the informal sphere — otherwise called the pauperisation associated with the unilateral logic of accumulation of capital.”2

The US goes to considerable lengths to build a global economic order that suits its own interests, and in so doing it actively diminishes the sovereignty of other countries. The most extreme – but sadly not uncommon – example of this is imperialist war: using military means to secure economic and political outcomes, such as we have seen recently in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia.

We can perhaps then condense the idea of imperialism down to a fundamentally unequal relationship between countries (or blocs of countries) at differing levels of development, with the more developed countries using their military and financial power to produce outcomes that favour themselves and harm the less developed countries.

If we can prove that China is involved in this type of activity – that it seeks to dominate foreign markets and resources, that it uses its growing economic strength to affect political decisions in poorer countries, that it engages in wars (overt or covert) to secure its own interests – it would then be reasonable to conclude that China is indeed an imperialist country and that its engagement with Africa is an example of imperialism.

What imperialism in Africa looks like

At this point we’ll take a brief look at what imperialism in Africa has looked like in the past. Perhaps, in so doing, we’ll stumble upon some characteristics that can also be found in China’s relationship with Africa today.

In his classic 1972 study How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the Guyanese activist-scholar Walter Rodney catalogues Europe’s relationship with Africa from the early days of the transatlantic slave trade through to the post-colonial era. The story that emerges is one of systematic plunder and an active underdevelopment that helped to furnish European development.

Rodney notes that, in the 16th century, several areas of Africa were on a path of technical progress similar to, albeit slightly behind, Western Europe: “Several historians of Africa have pointed out that after surveying the developed areas of the continent in the 15th century and those within Europe at the same date, the difference between the two was in no way to Africa’s discredit. Indeed, the first Europeans to reach West and East Africa by sea were the ones who indicated that in most respects African development was comparable to that which they knew.”3

However, the European powers were able to use certain advances – most notably in the areas of shipbuilding and weapons manufacture – to establish a profoundly unequal trade relationship with Africa. This, along with the need to find a capable labour force for the new American colonies, laid the ground for the transatlantic slave trade, which is estimated to have denuded the African continent of up to half its population. Rodney poses the question: “What would have been Britain’s level of development had millions of its people been put to work as slaves outside of their homeland over a period of four centuries?”

The conversion of Africa into a resource pool for European capital was a powerful engine of European capitalist growth in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. As Marx famously wrote, “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, signalled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”4

The colonial occupation of Africa, which lasted from the 1880s until the wave of liberation in the second half of the 20th century, served to significantly deepen the economic subjugation of the continent. Enforced by a fascistic military repression – most notoriously in the Belgian colony of Congo, where natives’ failure to meet the rubber collection quota was punishable by death – European colonialism allowed for the most extravagant exploitation of African labour and natural resources, whilst offering practically nothing in terms of economic progress for the local population.

Empire apologists in Britain, France and Portugal occasionally insinuate a ‘good side’ onto their erstwhile empires – after all, were railways and schools not built? Yet the sum total of these things (which anyway were built specifically to meet the needs of the colonial masters) is vanishingly small – so much so that, “the figures at the end of the first decade of African independence in spheres such as health, housing and education are often several times higher than the figures inherited by the newly independent governments”. As Rodney observes, “it would be an act of the most brazen fraud to weigh the paltry social amenities provided during the colonial epoch against the exploitation, and to arrive at the conclusion that the good outweighed the bad.”

European colonialism contributed nothing to the technological or institutional development of Africa, because this would have created competition for European capitalism and impeded the far more important task of draining maximum possible wealth from the continent.

But imperialism in Africa is not just a thing of the past; it didn’t end with the independence of the former colonies. As Samir Amin writes: “The dominant capitalist centres do not seek to extend their political power through imperial conquest because they can, in fact, exercise their domination through economic means.”5 Since the 1980s, the principal mechanism of imperialist domination in Africa has been economic blackmail: international credit agencies obliging governments to sign up to harmful economic strategies. The most notorious (and typical) example of this is the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP); SAPs are loans from the IMF and World Bank, typically taken out in a crisis situation (in response to a drought, for example), and disbursed on the condition that the recipient country implement a packet of ‘neoliberal’ reforms – privatising key industries and resources, opening up markets to international competition, and liberalising prices.

The SAPs have been a disaster for Africa. Scarce resources such as water have been taken out of the public domain and placed in the hands of globalised privateers. Nascent industries, previously protected by governments trying to develop home-grown manufacturing, have been decimated, dreams of development dashed, and vast regions returned to a prostrate position in the global economy, supplying unimproved raw materials to a market they have no meaningful influence over.

This is imperialism, by any reasonable definition. Advanced western countries, often ganging up in order to achieve their aims vis-a-vis the poorer countries, force nominally independent states to undertake economic measures that are specifically designed to benefit those same advanced western countries. In the modern era, this is precisely what the underdeveloping of Africa looks like. And the results speak for themselves: “after nearly thirty years of using ‘better’ (that is, free-market) policies, Africa’s per capita income is basically at the same level as it was in 1980.”6

Mozambican independence leader Samora Machel, president from 1975 until his death (almost certainly at the hands of the apartheid South African security services) in 1986, spoke bitterly about the imperialist countries’ visions for post-colonial Africa: “They need Africa to have no industry, so that it will continue to provide raw materials. Not to have a steel industry. Since this would be a luxury for the African. They need Africa not to have dams, bridges, textile mills for clothing. A factory for shoes? No, the African doesn’t deserve it. No, that’s not for the Africans.”7

Various well-paid academics assert that western imperialism is a thing of the past, that Europe and North America have changed their ways, and that Africa is now treated as an equal. While it is palpably false that western imperialism is a thing of the past (is it not imperialism when Nato launches a war on Libya, plunging it into a state of chaos and desperate poverty, in order to remove a government that had consistently refused to adhere to the economic and political ‘rules’?), it’s true that Europe and North America are less reliant on the exploitation of Africa than they once were. This demonstrates only that imperialism can’t be separated from its historical context. Western Europe, North America and Japan have reached a level of productivity and technological advance such that outright plunder of other nations constitutes only a relatively small part of their economic activity; however, they reached this point to a significant degree owing to their ruthless oppression of less developed countries. Thus the designation of a given country as ‘imperialist’ necessarily includes a historical component.

Regardless of these subtleties, Euro-American imperialism maintains an active foothold in Africa today, via a combination of economic blackmail, political manoeuvring, military intervention, and military mobilisation.

A brief timeline of China’s engagement with Africa

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese leadership moved quickly to create bonds of solidarity between China and the African liberation movements. China was a leading supporter of the Algerian war of liberation and an early supporter of the South African struggle against white minority rule. Nelson Mandela recounts in Long Walk to Freedom that he encouraged Walter Sisulu, then secretary-general of the African National Congress, to visit China in 1953 in order to “discuss with the Chinese the possibility of supplying us with weapons for the armed struggle.”8 The links made during this trip laid the ground for the establishment in the early 1960s of a Chinese military training programme for the newly-founded uMkhonto we Sizwe – the ANC’s armed wing. (An interesting aside: two currently serving African heads of state received military training in China in the 1960s: Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki, and Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa.)

Chinese premier Zhou Enlai conducted a landmark tour of ten African nations between December 1963 and January 1964, during which he consolidated China’s anti-imperialist connection with some of the leading post-colonial African states. A few years later, China provided the financing and knowhow for the construction of the Tanzam Railway, which runs 1,860km from Dar es Salaam, the then Tanzanian capital and seaport, to central Zambia. Built with the primary purposes of fomenting economic development and helping Zambia to break its economic dependence on the apartheid states of Rhodesia and South Africa, the Tanzam has been described as “the first infrastructure project conceived on a pan-African scale”.9 It remains an enduring symbol of China’s friendship with independent Africa.

Well into the 1980s, dozens of large state farms were built in Africa as part of the Chinese aid programme – in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mali, Congo Brazzaville, Guinea and elsewhere. The US scholar Deborah Brautigam notes that, however, “during the 1970s and 1980s, the Chinese aid program shifted to emphasise much smaller demonstration farms, working with local farmers to teach rice farming and vegetable cultivation.”10

In the 1980s and 90s, partly reflecting shifting political priorities in China and partly in response to data indicating that many of the aid-constructed projects were no longer working very well (if at all), China started to put its engagement with Africa on a more commercial footing, focusing on mutually beneficial deals and joint ventures. China has since become Africa’s largest trading partner, with a total trade volume of $170 billion in 201711, well ahead of the US-Africa figure of $55 billion.12

In addition to trade, China also provides vast low-cost loans for infrastructure projects, with nearly $100 billion loaned to African states by Chinese state-owned banks between 2000 and 2015. A recent article in the Guardian notes that “some 40% of the Chinese loans paid for power projects, and another 30% went on modernising transport infrastructure. The loans were at comparatively low interest rates and with long repayment periods.” The article continues: “Chinese infrastructure projects stretch all the way to Angola and Nigeria, with ports planned along the coast from Dakar to Libreville and Lagos. Beijing has also signalled its support for the African Union’s proposal of a pan-African high-speed rail network.”13

Development, not underdevelopment

“We should jointly support Africa’s pursuit of stronger growth, accelerated integration and industrialisation, and help Africa become a new growth pole in the world economy.” (Xi Jinping)14

The most important point regarding China’s engagement with Africa is that it stimulates development rather than underdevelopment. In that crucial sense, it is profoundly different from the relationship that the US and the major European powers have had with Africa. China’s aid and investment packages promote host countries’ modernisation, technical knowhow and infrastructure. As it stands, manufacturing constitutes only 10 percent of value added in Africa. “Ghana sends cocoa beans to Switzerland, for instance, then imports chocolates. Angola exports crude oil and imports nearly 80 percent of its refined fuel.”15 This is an unsustainable situation that keeps Africa in a subservient position. Industrialisation is the indispensable next step, and this relies on infrastructure, technology and knowledge transfer.

As an aside: even if China’s ambitions were essentially predatory, its presence as an alternative source of investment is beneficial for African economies. Ha-joon Chang notes that, in the 1990s, China became a “major lender and investor in some African countries, giving the latter some leverage in negotiating with the Bretton Woods institutions and the traditional aid donors, such as the US and the European countries”.16

Beyond that, Chinese investment has made possible a fast-expanding infrastructure network that will underpin African economic development for generations to come. This includes railways, schools, hospitals, roads, ports, factories and airports, along with “new tarmac roads linking major regional hubs, including the various townships with proper connection to large cities”.17 By contrast, precious little US/British investment in Africa goes towards infrastructure.

In 2017, China funded over 6,200km of railway and over 5,000km of roads in Africa.18 Thanks in no small part to Chinese finance and expertise, Ethiopia last year celebrated the opening of the first metro train system in sub-Saharan Africa,19 along with Africa’s first fully electrified cross-border railway line, the Ethiopia-Djibouti electric railway.20

Lack of electrification is a major problem for most African countries. According to Deborah Brautigam, “the Latin American supply of electricity is 50 times higher, per rural worker, than sub-Saharan Africa’s”.21 Over 600 million people across the continent have no reliable access to electricity. Many of the biggest Chinese investment projects in Africa are focused on power generation – indeed, 40% of all Chinese loans to Africa last year went towards power generation and transmission.22 The bulk of this energy investment is in hydropower and other renewal technologies.23 For example, China’s Eximbank is providing 85% of the financing for Nigeria’s Mambila hydroelectric power project,24 which will constitute the country’s largest power plant, helping to get electricity to the approximately 40 percent of Nigerians that don’t currently have access.25 It was announced a few months ago that China Eximbank would also provide the bulk of the $1.5 billion funding for Zimbabwe’s largest ever power development project.26

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s finance minister from 2003 to 2006 and from 2011 to 2015, notes that “China worked with us to get a balanced package of assistance that has helped build the light rail system in Abuja and four new airport terminals in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano and Abuja, among other projects.”27 She reflects on the possibilities for extensive cooperation between Africa and China in the realm of sustainable development: “Together, China and Africa make up one third of the world’s population. Increasing ties between the two could have a vast positive impact for the world’s economy and climate. China’s experiences and expertise should go a long way in helping African countries develop their renewable resources.“

Do Chinese state banks make these investments for purely altruistic reasons? They do not. “China is poor in natural resources, the notable exception being rare minerals, and as a consequence has no choice but to look abroad. Africa, on the other hand, is extremely richly endowed with raw materials, and recent discoveries of oil and natural gas have only added to this.”28 Deals are negotiated on a case-by-case basis with the two sides as equal partners. The whole arrangement has nothing in common with the west’s historic relationship with Africa. As the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo writes, “the motivation for the host countries is not complicated: they need infrastructure, and they need to finance projects that can unlock economic growth… This is the genius of the China strategy: every country gets what it wants… China, of course, gains access to commodities, but host countries get the loans to finance infrastructure developmental programs in their economies, they get to trade (creating incomes for their domestic citizenry), and they get investments that can support much-needed job creation.”29

Many African countries are already benefiting greatly from their relations with China. As Martin Jacques puts it: “China’s impact on Africa has so far been overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, it is worth asking the question as to where Africa would be without Chinese involvement… China’s involvement has had the effect of boosting the strategic importance of Africa in the world economy.”

China is ploughing resources into educational cooperation with African countries, recently surpassing the US and UK to become the number one destination for anglophone African students (and second most popular destination overall, after France) – a dramatic increase that is explained in large part by “the Chinese government’s targeted focus on African human resource and education development”.30 In his speech to the recent FOCAC summit, Xi Jinping said China will “provide Africa with 50,000 government scholarships and 50,000 training opportunities” in the next three years.31 Even for students without scholarships, China is a popular destination for African students, because its tertiary education system is more affordable than the west’s, and is increasingly of comparable quality and prestige.

China also provides substantial medical aid to Africa, spending an estimated $150 million annually on malaria treatment, crisis response, medicine provision, and support for building hospitals and pharmaceutical factories. In response to the Ebola crisis in 2014, “China dispatched more than 1,000 medical professionals to West Africa, providing 750 million RMB ($120 million) in aid.”32

Non-interference

China has received no shortage of criticism owing to its willingness to work with states such as Zimbabwe and Sudan, which are subjected to boycotts and sanctions by the US-led ‘international community’. Such criticisms are hypocritical and vacuous. China has a long-standing position of non-interference in the political affairs of other countries. As far back as 1955, then-Premier Zhou Enlai sketched the Chinese vision of peaceful and cooperative development at the historic Afro–Asian Conference in Bandung: “By following the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, the peaceful coexistence of countries with different social systems can be realised.”33

Such a position is quite obviously superior to the US/European system of active interference – ie imperialism. China doesn’t participate in or sponsor wars in Africa; it doesn’t engineer coups, subvert elections or finance political campaigns. China has committed no massacres in Africa, nor does it control any private armies. China has no record of assassinating African leaders, encouraging separatist movements, or creating political instability. It doesn’t maintain lobbyists or advisers whose job is to pressure African politicians. China has not demanded ‘structural adjustment’ in any of the countries it invests in; no privatisation, no deregulation, no demands for hollowing out government. China doesn’t use coercion or blackmail. It bids for contracts, and often wins them, mainly because its prices are fair, its costs low, and its quality of work high. In summary, “China appears wholly uninterested in assuming sovereign responsibility and particularly in shaping h social and political infrastructure of host nations”.34

At the recent FOCAC summit, Xi Jinping summed up the Chinese approach to engagement with Africa as follows: “The Chinese people respect Africa, love Africa and support Africa. We follow a ‘five-no’ approach in our relations with Africa: no interference in African countries’ pursuit of development paths that fit their national conditions; no interference in African countries’ internal affairs; no imposition of our will on African countries; no attachment of political strings to assistance to Africa; and no seeking of selfish political gains in investment and financing cooperation with Africa.”

The “five-no” approach is an explicit rejection of imperialist strategy. Rather than criticise China for its policy of non-intervention, it would be much better if other countries could follow its example.

Some common criticisms

Chinese companies only employ Chinese workers

An oft-repeated criticism of Chinese economic activity in Africa is that Chinese companies only employ Chinese workers. This is simply not true. In fact, China creates more jobs in Africa than any other investor.35 Deborah Brautigam, one of the few western China experts to base their work on actual data, writes that “surveys of employment on Chinese projects in Africa repeatedly find that three-quarters or more of the workers are, in fact, local.”36 This is consistent with the findings of Giles Mohan, whose team undertook extensive on-the-ground research in West Africa. “Contrary to the dominant assertion that Chinese companies operating in Africa tend to rely on labour imported from China, in most of the eighty-five Chinese enterprises we studied in Ghana and Nigeria, a substantial proportion, and often the majority, of the workforce was African.”37

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa recently spoke of South Africa’s experience with Chinese companies: “When China invests, it sends key managers, but the bulk of the people who do the work are South Africans.”38 Similarly, Namibian president Hage Geingob stated earlier this year that “no country in the world has added so much value to our products as China has. China has done a lot of technology transfer and job creation.”39

Early-stage projects, particularly in countries where China has little experience, tend to be staffed primarily by Chinese employees, but the clearly emerging pattern is for this ratio to be reversed over time.

China has caught Africa in a debt trap

A recent article by John Pomfret in the Washington Post describes Chinese investment strategy as “imperialism with Chinese characteristics”, and claims that “China’s debt traps around the world are a trademark of its imperialist ambitions.”40 Grant Harris, Barack Obama’s former adviser on Africa, writes that “Chinese debt has become the methamphetamines of infrastructure finance: highly addictive, readily available, and with long-term negative effects that far outweigh any temporary high.”41 Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state until his recent replacement by the even more hawkish Mike Pompeo, commented in March that “China’s approach has led to mounting debt and few, if any, jobs in most countries.”42

Such scare-mongering statements ignore the rather important detail that, “from 2000 to 2016, China’s loans only accounted for 1.8 percent of Africa’s foreign debts, and most of them were invested in infrastructure.”43

Investment generally entails some level of debt; the question is whether African countries are getting a good deal. Chinese investment is welcomed across the continent, since it is overwhelmingly directed towards essential projects: developing infrastructure, building schools, building hospitals, cleaning water, supplying electricity, building factories. As a result, the needs of ordinary Africans are being met, and the debts are typically repaid in a sustainable (and fairly negotiated) way using the host countries’ natural resources.

Chinese loans tend to be significantly lower interest than the equivalents from the Bretton Woods institutions and the major western banks; many are interest-free. Furthermore, there have been several rounds of debt relief, where the debts of the poorest African countries have been written off. The recent FOCAC summit promised $60 billion worth of new investment, including $15 billion of grants, interest-free loans and concessional loans, as well as $5 billion specifically to support the importing of African produce to China. Cyril Ramaphosa noted that “if some African countries can’t keep up with their debt payments, the debt will be forgiven”.44 By no reasonable definition is this a “debt trap”.

China is grabbing African land

In recent years, numerous headline-grabbing articles have claimed that China is in the process of sending millions of peasants to Africa in order to grow food for China.45 China is, apparently, a “land grabber”, a rising colonial power. And yet, “no one has yet identified a village full of Chinese farmers anywhere on the continent. A careful review of Chinese policy shifts shows steadily rising support for outward investment of all kinds but no pattern of sponsoring the migration of Chinese peasants, funding large-scale land acquisitions in Africa, or investing ‘immense sums’ in African agriculture. Finally, according to the United Nations Commodity Trade database, it is China that has been sending food to Africa. While this could (and should) change, so far, the only significant food exports from Africa to China have been sesame seeds and cocoa, produced by African farmers.”46

A mutually beneficial friendship

Accusations of Chinese imperialism in Africa, typically levelled by apologists for western imperialism,47 are not substantiated by facts. China’s development model isn’t based on, and has never been based on, colonial exploitation. On the contrary, China is keen to see Africa emerge as a key player in a multipolar world in which a relatively even balance of forces acts to preserve global peace and stability. This explains, for example, China’s enthusiastic support for the African Union and its commitment to the AU’s development agenda.48 That China’s engagement is a positive thing for Africa is evidenced by the near-universal enthusiasm for it among African governments (it’s telling to note that twice as many African heads of state attended the FOCAC summit than the recent meeting of the UN General Assembly).49

It’s hardly surprising that the concept of multipolarity is not universally esteemed within the imperialist heartlands. In particular the US ruling class is struggling to come to terms with the end of its uncontested hegemony; hence the desperate bid to ‘Make America Great Again’, which really means re-asserting US global dominance and taking the Chinese down a peg or two. The last thing the western ruling classes want to see is a thriving multipolarity based on mutually beneficial cooperation between independent states, bypassing and perhaps even ignoring the mandate of Washington, London and Paris. When people issue slanders about Chinese colonialism, they are feeding a narrative that seeks to maintain the imperialist status quo, even though they generally take the form of ‘concerned advice’. Such slanders should be resolutely exposed.


  1. Stephen Gowans, Patriots, Traitors and Empires: The Story of Korea’s Struggle for Freedom, Baraka Books, 2018 

  2. Samir Amin, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, Monthly Review Press, 2013 

  3. Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Pambazuka Press, 2012 

  4. Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1 

  5. Samir Amin: Global History: A View from the South, Pambazuka Press, 2010 

  6. Ha-joon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism, Bloomsbury, 2010 

  7. Invent the Future: The Revolutionary Thought of Samora Machel, 2015 

  8. Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, Back Bay Books, 1995 

  9. The Guardian: China in Africa: win-win development, or a new colonialism?, 2018 

  10. Deborah Brautigam, Will Africa Feed China?, Oxford University Press, 2015 

  11. Ministry of Commerce, People’s Republic of China: Statistics on China-Africa Bilateral Trade in 2017 

  12. US Census Bureau: Trade in Goods with Africa 

  13. The Guardian, op cit 

  14. Xi Jinping, The Governance of China, Foreign Languages Press, 2014 

  15. Washington Post: Xi Jinping is visiting Africa this week. Here’s why China is such a popular development partner, 2018 

  16. Ha-joon Chang, Economics: The User’s Guide, Pelican, 2014 

  17. The Diplomat: China and Ethiopia, Part 1: The Light Railway System, 2018 

  18. SCMP: What to know about China’s ties with Africa, from aid to infrastructure, 2018 

  19. CNN: Ethiopia gets the first metro system in sub-Saharan Africa, 2015 

  20. BBC News: Ethiopia-Djibouti electric railway line opens, 2016 

  21. Brautigam, op cit 

  22. China Daily: Investment creates hope, not debt trap, 2018 

  23. China Africa Research Initiative: More Bad Data on Chinese Finance in Africa, 2018 

  24. CNN: Nigeria announces $5.8 billion deal for record-breaking power project, 2017 

  25. See World Bank Data: Access to electricity (as of 2016) 

  26. New Zimbabwe: Mnangagwa commissions $1.5bln power plant, project Chinese funded, 2018 

  27. FT: Africa needs China’s help to embrace a low-carbon future (paywall), 2018 

  28. Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, Penguin, 2012 

  29. Dambisa Moyo, Winner Take All: China’s Race For Resources and What It Means For Us, Penguin 2012 

  30. The Conversation: China tops US and UK as destination for anglophone African students, 2017 

  31. Xinhua: Full text of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at opening ceremony of 2018 FOCAC Beijing Summit 

  32. The Diplomat: China’s Medical Aid in Africa, 2018 

  33. Wilson Center Archive: Main Speech by Premier Zhou Enlai at the Plenary Session of the Asian-African Conference, 1955 

  34. Dambisa Moyo, op cit 

  35. Xinhua: China becomes top job creator in Africa, expert says, 2017 

  36. Washington Post: China in Africa is not ‘neocolonialism.’ Here are the numbers to prove it, 2018 

  37. Giles Mohan, Ben Lampert, Daphne Chang and May Tan-Mullins: Chinese Migrants and Africa’s Development: New Imperialists or Agents of Change?, Zed Books, 2014 

  38. IOL: Those who call China colonial are jealous: Ramaphosa, 2018 

  39. Reuters: Namibia president says China not colonizing Africa, 2018 

  40. Washington Post: China’s debt traps around the world are a trademark of its imperialist ambitions, 2018 

  41. Time: China Is Loaning Billions of Dollars to African Countries. Here’s Why the U.S. Should Be Worried, 2018 

  42. QZ: China is pushing Africa into debt, says America’s top diplomat, 2018 

  43. China Daily: Investment creates hope, not debt trap, 2018 

  44. Ramaphosa, op cit 

  45. See for example The Guardian, The food rush: Rising demand in China and west sparks African land grab, 2009 

  46. Brautigam, Will Africa Feed China, op cit 

  47. Hillary Clinton comes to mind, eg Reuters: Clinton warns against “new colonialism” in Africa, 2011 

  48. African Union: African Union and China renew commitment to advance multilateral cooperation, 2018 

  49. Quartz: Twice as many African presidents made it to China’s Africa summit than to the UN general assembly, 2018 

Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 4: Imperialist destabilisation and military pressure

Not for a moment since 1917 have the fascist and democratic Western powers abandoned the idea of defeating the Soviet Union.1

Full-court press against the USSR

Seeing the Soviet Union experiencing economic and political difficulties, and noting the deepening split within the socialist camp, it dawned on US strategists that there was potentially a historic opportunity to push the USSR off the cliff. Having identified this opening in the late 1970s, the US ruling class pursued it relentlessly: rolling back detente, expanding sanctions, massively increasing spending on military technology, and drawing the Soviet Union deeper and deeper into war in Afghanistan. As Yuri Andropov recognised in 1982: “The more warlike factions in the West have become very active, their class-based hatred of socialism prevailing over considerations of realism and sometimes over plain common sense… They are trying to win military superiority over the USSR, over all the countries of the socialist community.”2

Inaugurated as US president in January 1981, the ultra-conservative Ronald Reagan launched a “full-court press” against the Soviet Union: “a tough US global military strategy aimed at promoting internal Russian reforms and ‘dissolution or at least shrinkage’ of the Soviet empire.”3

Arms race

The arms race that the United States in the Reagan era forced upon the Soviet Union reached its desired objective: that the Soviet Union armed itself to death. The consequent economic burden for the USSR led to serious social dislocations in the country, which meant that the leading power of the socialist camp could hardly do justice to its domestic and foreign policy responsibilities.4

The Soviet Union had long stuck to a system of ‘strategic parity’ of nuclear weapons development, sparing no effort to keep up with (but not surpass) the US. As long as it had the ability to retaliate against any US-initiated nuclear strike, it could more-or-less guarantee that such a strike wouldn’t take place (such is the brutal but compelling logic of ‘mutually assured destruction’).

At the core of Reagan’s full-court press was a strategy to bankrupt the Soviet Union by vastly increasing military expenditure, forcing the USSR to follow suit. Sam Marcy observed that “the Reagan administration went all out and spent more than $2 trillion to overwhelm the USSR. Previous agreements on nuclear treaties, which seemed to have stabilised the situation, were undermined by the Reagan administration.”5

As discussed briefly in the second article in this series6, capitalism has a built-in advantage over socialism in areas of production that don’t directly benefit people. In a capitalist economy, an arms race creates demand (for high-tech weaponry), which stimulates investment, which creates profit, which keeps the ruling (capitalist) class happy, which in turn keeps its governments stable. In a socialist economy – oriented specifically to meeting people’s needs rather than generating profit for a small minority – an increased focus on military development requires divestment of resources from other areas of production – “diverting material and human resources from the civilian to the military economy, to meet the challenge of Western military pressure”.7 Given slowing economic growth, and given existing problems with food production, housing provision and light manufacturing, the arms race caused genuine difficulties. These served to make the ruling (working) class less happy and the domestic political situation less stable.

Although western propaganda predictably portrayed the Soviet Union as a hostile, aggressive power, the Soviet government was in fact desperate to put an end to the arms race and to agree a stable detente. The USSR unilaterally committed to a no-first-strike policy, and put forward a range of disarmament proposals, including a two-thirds reduction of medium-range weapons by both the USSR and Nato.

Boris Ponomarev summed up the Soviet attitude concisely: “The arms race has been imposed on the Soviet Union entirely by the US and other Nato countries. The US has taken the initiative all along in developing and perfecting nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles ever since the advent of the atom bomb. Each time the USSR was forced to respond to the challenge to strengthen its own defences, to protect the countries of the socialist community and to keep its armed forces adequately equipped with up-to-date weaponry. But the Soviet Union has been and remains the most consistent advocate of the limitation of the arms race, a champion of disarmament under effective international control. Since the end of World War II the USSR has tabled dozens of proposals in this area… The arms race being whipped up by imperialism has already produced giant arsenals of lethal weapons of unprecedented destructive capacity and has devoured colossal resources that could otherwise have been used for the benefit of mankind.”8

Contrast this with the leading representative of the US ruling class, Ronald Reagan, arguing in March 1983 for a ramping up of US nuclear arms production and for a permanent end to detente:

In your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride — the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil… The reality is that we must find peace through strength.9

Showing off the depth of his ideologically-driven idiocy, he added: “I would rather see my little girls die now, still believing in God, than have them grow up under communism and one day die no longer believing in God.”

The escalation in rhetoric was accompanied by an escalation in economic warfare and geostrategic manoeuvring. Keeran and Kenny point out that the US aimed to “deny high technology to the Soviet Union and reduce European imports of Soviet gas and oil. By 1983, American high-tech exports to the Soviet Union were valued at only $39 million compared to $219 million in 1975. This economic warfare did not stop with denying the Soviets access to high-tech; the US also sabotaged the goods the Soviets did receive.”10

Meanwhile, realising that the Soviets were heavily dependent on oil exports to generate hard currency with which they could pay for the imports they needed from the west (particularly grain and high-tech products), the US organised for its client states in the Persian Gulf to increase oil production, thereby reducing the price of oil on the world market. Added to all this was “an increased propaganda offensive, diplomatic moves to reduce Soviet access to Western technology, the disruption of the Soviet economy by exporting faulty equipment, and an effort to bankrupt the Soviets by initiating a military build-up”.11

The defining moment of the arms race was Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – ‘Star Wars’, an anti-ballistic missile system designed to prevent the possibility of nuclear missile attacks against the United States. Although not discussed in such blunt terms, its military objective was to disrupt the system of mutually assured destruction and strategic parity, allowing the US to freely engage in nuclear blackmail. An additional aim was to entice the USSR into developing a rival system, thereby further damaging the Soviet economy. In the end, Star Wars was abandoned – having had around $100 billion thrown at it. The US didn’t succeed in building a nuclear missile defence system on anywhere near the scale it had planned, but it did succeed in inspiring another round of frantic investment in military R&D in the USSR.

The cold war heats up

In the late 70s and early 80s, the global situation seemed quite favourable to the Soviet leaders, with the defeat of US imperialism in Vietnam12, the the first socialist revolution in the Caribbean (in Grenada)13, the victory of the revolutionary national liberation movements in Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau and Zimbabwe, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, along with revolutionary experiments in Ethiopia and Afghanistan. Ponomarev wrote in 1983 that “revolutionary processes are now at work in many developing countries. The national democratic revolution in Afghanistan under the leadership of the People’s Democratic Party has enabled the people of that country to topple the former reactionary anti-popular regime and to embark on the path of progressive socio-economic development. The victorious revolution in Ethiopia, the revolutionary liberation of the peoples of Angola, Mozambique and other former colonies of Portugal, the ending of the racialist regime and the gaining of independence by the people of Zimbabwe gave an inspiring impetus to the progressive forces of Africa. The victory of the popular revolution in Nicaragua, the rising tide of liberation struggles in Central America and the Caribbean have signified an expansion of the zone of freedom in the Western hemisphere. The peoples of South Yemen, the People’s Republic of the Congo and of some other countries are following the path of socialist development.”14

By this time, however, the western powers were engaged in a massive ‘rollback’ programme, supporting rebellions against progressive governments in Angola, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Cambodia and South Yemen. Vijay Prashad writes that the CIA and the Pentagon “abandoned the idea of the mere ‘containment’ of communism in favour of using military force to push back against its exertions — even when these were met with massive popular support”.15 All the states under attack had an urgent need for military and civilian aid, which the Soviet Union had little choice but to provide. In 1983 the US took advantage of the chaotic situation in Grenada’s ruling New Jewel Movement to overturn the Grenadian Revolution by means of military invasion. Meanwhile Vietnam and Cuba continued to be very reliant on Soviet generosity. The USSR was becoming over-extended. Keeran and Kenny note that “Soviet society never enjoyed the luxury of internal development free of the threat of outside aggression. The cost of defending itself and aiding its allies escalated yearly and drained resources away from socially useful domestic investments. By 1980, Soviet aid to its allies cost $44 billion a year, and arms spending consumed 25 to 30 percent of the economy.”16

Peaceful evolution

Combined with the military escalation, the US also pursued a ‘peaceful evolution’ strategy, stepping up its support for the dissident movement in the USSR and for assorted ‘pro-democracy’ (pro-capitalist) movements in Eastern/Central Europe. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty spearheaded a round of intense ideological warfare: “Both stations fomented nationalism, stirred up outrage over the Chernobyl disaster, encouraged opposition to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, provided a platform for pro-market advocates like Yeltsin, and aired unsubstantiated corruption charges against the Party leader, Yegor Ligachev, after he opposed Gorbachev.”17

Speaking in 1979, Andropov noted the pro-western orientation of, and imperialist support for, the dissident movement:

A few individuals have divorced themselves from Soviet society and engage in anti-Soviet activity, violate the law, supply the west with slanderous information, circulate false rumours, and attempt to provoke various antisocial incidents. These renegades have not and cannot have any support within the country. This is precisely why they do not dare to come out openly at a factory, on a collective farm or in an office. They would have to take to their heels from there, figuratively speaking. The existence of the so-called ‘dissidents’ has been made possible exclusively by the fact that the enemies of socialism have geared the western press, diplomatic, as well as intelligence and other special services to work in this field. It is no longer a secret to anyone that ‘dissidence’ has become a profession of its own kind, which is generously rewarded with foreign currency and other sops that differ but little, in effect, from what the imperialist special services pay to their agents.18

China expert David Shambaugh points out that ‘peaceful evolution’ figures prominently in the Chinese Communist Party’s post-mortem on European socialism. “Chinese analysts, and the CCP itself, have been obsessed with this subject and have alleged a US strategy for years – dating back to John Foster Dulles’s first use of the term in the 1950s. Peaceful evolution strategies are said to employ a variety of what today would be described as ‘soft power’ tools: shortwave radio broadcasts, the promotion of human rights and democracy, economic aid, support for nongovernmental organisations and autonomous trade unions, spreading the ideology of capitalism and freedom, supporting underground activists, infiltrating Western media publications into closed countries, academic and cultural exchanges, and so on. Peaceful evolution was said to be the ‘soft twin’ of ‘hard containment.'”19

Probably the most important element of the ‘full-court press’, however, was US support for the Mujahedin uprising in Afghanistan, which led to manifold economic and political difficulties in the Soviet Union.

Disaster in Afghanistan

Background

Making a considerable part of the Soviet Union’s southern border, Afghanistan had always been important to the USSR, and the first treaty of friendship between the two countries was signed in 1921 (indeed it was one of the first agreements signed between the Soviet Union and any country). The crucial nature of Soviet-Afghan relations is illustrated by the fact that, in his 1924 book Foundations of Leninism20 (a key text seeking to summarise Marxism-Leninism in a way that could be easily digested by the Soviet masses), Stalin discusses the ideological basis of Soviet support for Afghanistan in its struggle against British domination:

The revolutionary character of a national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or a republican programme of the movement, the existence of a democratic basis of the movement. The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism.

Good relations between the two countries survived the entire period of existence of the USSR. Although there were some ups-and-downs in the relationship – largely related to whether the Afghan administration under the extended rule of King Zahir Shah (lasting from 1933 through 1973) was leaning more towards the US or the USSR at any given moment – Afghanistan was generally considered a friendly neighbour, and its leaders had a vision of independence and national modernisation that the Soviet Union supported.

From the mid-1950s onwards, Afghanistan was the beneficiary of significant aid, investment and preferential loans from the Soviet Union. Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin announced the first major development loan – worth $100 million – on visiting Kabul in 1955. In the ensuing decades, hospitals, schools, roads, irrigation systems, plumbing systems, factories, power stations and more were built (and sometimes operated) with Soviet assistance. Tens of thousands of Afghans were educated in Soviet universities.

The first Afghan communist organisations were set up in the mid-1960s: Eternal Flame, which was strongly aligned with China, and the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which was closer to the Soviet Union. The PDPA split soon after its formation into two rival factions – the Khalq (‘masses’) and the Parcham (‘banner’) – whose murderous feud would be one of the defining problems of Afghan politics for the ensuing two decades.21

Faced with increasingly harsh repression by the state forces headed by President Mohammad Daoud (whom the PDPA had helped to seize power in 1973), the PDPA leadership made the decision to leverage its significant support base in the army to take power, in what became known as the Saur (April) Revolution. The Presidential Palace in Kabul was stormed on 28 April 1978, Daoud and his guards were killed, and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) was proclaimed, with veteran communists Nur Mohammad Taraki and Babrak Karmal as its president and vice-president.

The proclaimed objective of the new government was to break the centuries-old grip of feudalism and to establish Afghanistan as a progressive, modern country – a tall order for a country that faced infant mortality levels of 269 per thousand, an average life expectancy of 35, a literacy rate below 10 percent and a primary school attendance rate of 17 percent.22 Stephen Gowans points out that “half the population suffered from TB and one-quarter from malaria.”23 Women in the villages faced total subjugation, were forced to wear the chadri (veil) and were denied access to education. Forced marriage, child marriage and bride-price were pervasive in the countryside.

Therefore the essence of the PDPA’s programme was: “land to the peasants, food for the hungry, free education for all.” A PDPA militant reflected: “We knew that the mullahs in the villages would scheme against us, so we issued our decrees swiftly so that the masses could see where their real interests lay … For the first time in Afghanistan’s history women were to be given the right to education … We told them that they owned their bodies, they could marry whom they liked, they shouldn’t have to live shut up in houses like pets”.24

The PDPA government introduced laws cancelling all debt for poor peasants (thereby benefiting nearly two-thirds of the population) and initiating land reform. It made a clear commitment to gender equality, setting up public education for girls and abolishing bride-price, arranged marriage and child marriage. Michael Parenti writes that “the Taraki government proceeded to legalise labour unions, and set up a minimum wage, a progressive income tax, a literacy campaign, and programmes that gave ordinary people greater access to health care, housing, and public sanitation. Fledgling peasant cooperatives were started and price reductions on some key foods were imposed… The Taraki government moved to eradicate the cultivation of opium poppy. Until then Afghanistan had been producing more than 70 percent of the opium needed for the world’s heroin supply. The government also abolished all debts owed by farmers, and began developing a major land reform programme.”25

These changes weren’t to everybody’s taste. In the capital, Kabul, the PDPA’s initiatives won widespread support. The landlords in the countryside, however, were able to tap into a deep-rooted social conservatism in order to stoke up opposition to the government. Afghan central governments have always had limited control over the villages and tribes, and the more stable governments have enjoyed an uneasy accommodation with the countryside that consists largely of leaving it to its own devices. For a socialist government determined to break the back of feudalism, however, this wasn’t an acceptable option.

Land reform, debt cancellation and gender equality should have been popular among the masses of poor peasants, but the landowners and mullahs had better access to these people and were able to convince many of them that the PDPA’s programme was a ruthless attack on Islam by godless urban communists.

Writing just a few months after the PDPA’s capture of power, Fred Halliday described the early beginnings of the organised opposition to the DRA:

The forces of counter-revolution have, after initial hesitations, begun to reassemble. Most of the royal family itself is now either dead or complacently exiled, and is unlikely to lead a counter-revolution; but other forces that benefited from the old order are active. These include landowners, tribal chiefs, upper civil servants and mullahs, and there are reports of thousands fleeing to Pakistan where they have predictably appealed for help to Saudi Arabia and Iran… Taraki has made a point of inviting tribal delegations led by their khans to come to Kabul and meet him — in the historic traditions of Afghan rulers — and has repeatedly stressed the DRA’s respect for Islam. Nevertheless, the dangers of counter-revolutionary action, given the nature of Afghan society, the weakness of the PDPA and the ferocity of the DRA’s enemies, must be substantial… 26

He added, with remarkable prescience: “It is evident that a peasantry plagued by tribalism and religious mystification can, under certain circumstances, be temporarily mobilised to fight a new urban-based revolutionary regime. The United States, China, Iran and Pakistan could all exploit the DRA’s difficulties.”

The Soviet intervention

The US and Pakistan immediately started to assist anti-PDPA groups. As Halliday predicted, it wasn’t difficult to find Afghans willing to take up arms against the government, particularly when these (increasingly sophisticated) arms were accompanied by a steady income paid for by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The CIA and ISI (Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence) coordinated to launch “a large scale intervention into Afghanistan on the side of the ousted feudal lords, reactionary tribal chieftains, mullahs, and opium traffickers”.27

Zbigniew Brzezinski, then National Security Advisor to president Jimmy Carter, later admitted that the operation against the Afghan government started well before the arrival of the Soviet army: “According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujaheddin began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul”.28

Faced with major outbreaks of resistance to government authority – most prominently the Herat uprising of March 1979 – the PDPA was forced to defend itself through heavy repression against the insurgents. Braithwaite estimates that “by midsummer 1979 the government controlled perhaps no more than half the country”. To make matters worse, the longstanding split within the PDPA between the Khalq (led by president Taraki and his minister of national defence, Hafizullah Amin) and the Parcham (led by vice-president Karmal) had deteriorated again after a period of tense unity. The leading Parchamites were despatched as ambassadors to various far-flung countries, and many lower-ranking ones were shot.

Throughout 1979, the Afghan government made repeated requests to the Soviet Union to intervene militarily to save the Saur Revolution from a reactionary, US-backed uprising. Fearing a final collapse of their strategy of detente with the west – not to mention the possibility of upsetting their allies in the developing countries (“all the nonaligned countries will be against us”, predicted Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko29) – the Soviet leadership was not at all keen to get involved beyond providing weaponry, advice and economic support to the PDPA.

The turning point came when violent disagreements and recriminations, no doubt fuelled in part by the increasingly worrying and unstable situation in the country as a whole, led to an intense power struggle between the most prominent Khalq leaders, Taraki and Amin. Amin gained the upper hand, removing Taraki from power and ordering his death on 14 September 1979. This turn of events caused the Soviets to re-assess. They had considered Taraki more trustworthy than Amin, and were justifiably concerned that the murderous infighting within the PDPA was jeopardising the efforts to defeat the insurgency. “Step by step, with great reluctance, strongly suspecting that it would be a mistake, the Russians slithered towards a military intervention because they could not think of a better alternative.”30

The first Russian troops crossed the border into Afghanistan on 25 December 1979. The scope of their mission was limited: help their contacts in the PDPA to overthrow Amin and establish the Parcham leader Babrak Karmal as head of state; end the feuding in the PDPA; help the Afghan Army gain the upper hand against the uprising; and come home soon. “The aim was not to take over or occupy the country. It was to secure the towns and the roads between them, and to withdraw as soon as the Afghan government and its armed forces were in a state to take over the responsibility for themselves.”31

More than a little hypocritically, the US administration led a campaign of global outrage against the Soviet intervention, claiming it was a violation of international law and an example of imperialism. Sanctions against the Soviet Union were hurriedly put in place, as was a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. More importantly, “the Soviet intervention was a golden opportunity for the CIA to transform the tribal resistance into a holy war, an Islamic jihad to expel the godless communists from Afghanistan. Over the years the United States and Saudi Arabia expended about $40 billion on the war in Afghanistan. The CIA and its allies recruited, supplied, and trained almost 100,000 radical Mujahedin from forty Muslim countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, and Afghanistan itself. Among those who answered the call was Saudi-born millionaire right-winger Osama bin Laden and his cohorts.”32

In spite of their public displays of horror, the evidence indicates that the US was more than happy to see the Soviet Union intervene military in Afghanistan. Brzezinski was candid on this point:

We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would… That secret operation [support for the Mujahedin from mid-1979] was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.’ Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war that was unsustainable for the regime, a conflict that bought about the demoralisation and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.33

Vast quantities of money and weapons were channelled to the Afghan resistance via Pakistani military intelligence, who established training camps on the Afghan border, designed supply routes, and worked feverishly (albeit largely fruitlessly) to establish some unity between the seven major Islamist resistance groups.

Stalemate

For the Soviets, the intervention turned out to be much more difficult than they had imagined. Their Afghan allies were divided and often demoralised; meanwhile their enemies were armed with sophisticated weaponry, had significant support among the local population, were fuelled by a vehement hatred of the infidel communist invaders, and were able to leverage Afghanistan’s mountainous territory to their advantage. Meanwhile the Red Army was not trained for a counter-insurgency war. The last major war it had fought was World War II. The war it was trained to fight was a defensive operation against a large-scale Nato land invasion and aerial bombardment. Fighting mujahids in mountain hideouts was a long way outside the Soviet generals’ comfort zone.

Odd Arne Westad writes that “from 1981 onwards the war turned into a bloody stalemate, in which more than one million Afghans died and at least 25,000 Soviets. In spite of well-planned efforts, the Red Army simply could not control the areas that were within their operational zones — they advanced into rebel strongholds, kept them occupied for weeks or months, and then had to withdraw as the Mujahedin concentrated its forces or, more often, because its opponents attacked elsewhere.”34

While there were undoubtedly atrocities on both sides, the Soviets as a whole acted honourably, conceiving of their mission as an internationalist duty to aid a fraternal state that was being subjected to a US-sponsored war of regime change. In the areas they controlled, they built schools, wells, irrigation systems and power stations, and helped the local population to live something along the lines of a normal life. British journalist Jonathan Steele, an opponent of the Soviet intervention, writes: “What I saw in 1981, and on three other visits to several cities over the 14 years that the PDPA was in charge, convinced me that it was a much less bad option than the regime on offer from the western-supported Mujahedin.”35 Braithwaite concurs: “When I visited Afghanistan in September 2008 — a national of one of the foreign countries now fighting there — I was told by almost every Afghan I met that things were better under the Russians… The Russians, I was told, had built the elements of industry, whereas now most of the aid money simply ended up in the wrong pockets in the wrong countries. In the Russian time everyone had had work; now things were getting steadily worse. The last Communist president, Najibullah, had been one of the best of Afghanistan’s recent rulers: more popular than Daoud, the equal of Zahir Shah. Video recordings of Najibullah’s speeches were being sold round Kabul, with their warnings — which turned out to be true — that there would be civil war if he were overthrown.”36

The Red Army didn’t lose any of its major battles in Afghanistan; it won control of hundreds of towns, villages and roads, only to lose them again when its focus moved elsewhere. The US deployed increasingly sophisticated weaponry to the rebel groups at just the right rate so as to prevent the Soviet Union from either winning or withdrawing. Taking over as president in 1981, Reagan majorly stepped up US support for the Mujahedin, and from 1985 the weapons deliveries were increased by a factor of ten and came to include the famous FIM-92 Stinger infrared homing surface-to-air missiles.

Soviet withdrawal and its impact

After several rounds of negotiations and failed attempts to get assurances from Pakistan and the US that they wouldn’t continue to pursue regime change if the Red Army left, the Soviet Union began a phased withdrawal on 15 May 1988. It had not been defeated as such, but it had manifestly failed in the objective of cementing PDPA rule and suppressing the reactionary uprising. Meanwhile, it had expended vast economic, military and human resources. Thousands of young lives were lost. Soviet diplomatic clout had reached its nadir. As the Soviets had themselves predicted, the intervention in Afghanistan weakened their position among the developing nations: “The Soviet entry into Afghanistan divided the NAM states. It weakened their bloc in the UN, where eighteen countries (led by Algeria, India, and Iraq) refused to go along with the US resolution asking for the Soviet withdrawal.”37 Furthermore, the tens of thousands who came home badly injured from Afghanistan mostly found that they weren’t well cared for in terms of housing, pensions and psychological support; their fallen comrades were not, for the most part, given a status befitting their internationalist mission. This correlated with the expanding anticommunism and nihilism of the Gorbachev era.

Beyond the direct economic impact, the Afghanistan war served to further undermine Soviet self-confidence and the popular legitimacy of its government.

To the great majority of Soviets the involvement in Afghanistan had become a byword for an unloved and increasingly superfluous role that their government played in the Third World. To them, withdrawing from Kabul therefore meant the end of a failed intervention. By 1989 the common pride in the Soviet global role that had existed only a few years before was no longer there. It had been replaced not only by a lack of faith in the Soviet system, but also by a conviction that its leaders squandered their resources abroad while people at home lived in poverty… Since a substantial part of the CPSU regime’s overall legitimacy was based on its superpower role abroad, the failure in Afghanistan became a deadly challenge to the key concepts of its foreign policy: Soviet military power and the global advance of socialism.38

Some US hawks – and indeed some Mujahedin leaders – claimed that it was the failure in Afghanistan that brought about the end of the Soviet Union. Burhanuddin Rabbani, a prominent Mujahedin leader who would go on to become President of the Islamic State of Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996, proclaimed: “We forced the communists out of our country, we can force all invaders out of holy Afghanistan … Had it not been for the jihad, the whole world would still be in the communist grip. The Berlin Wall fell because of the wounds which we inflicted on the Soviet Union, and the inspiration we gave all oppressed people. We broke the Soviet Union up into fifteen parts. We liberated people from communism. Jihad led to a free world. We saved the world because communism met its grave here in Afghanistan!”39

The reality is, as ever, more complex. The Afghan war was just one of several factors in the Soviet collapse; after all, the US sustained a comprehensive and shameful defeat in Vietnam, but this didn’t come close to bringing about its collapse as a political entity. The economic decline, the leadership’s attack on Soviet ideology and history, the ongoing process of destabilisation and disinformation: these were all more important contributors to the disintegration of the USSR. But unquestionably the Afghan debacle played its part.

The next (fifth) article in the series will examine the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and the role that his policies of perestroika and glasnost played in weakening and ultimately destroying Soviet socialism.


  1. Samir Amin, Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, Monthly Review, 2017 

  2. T&F: Report by general secretary Yuri Andropov (excerpts) 21 December 1982 (paywall) 

  3. UPI: Reagan approves tough strategy with Soviets, 1982 

  4. Workers World: Interview with Margot Honecker, 2015 

  5. Sam Marcy, Perestroika: A Marxist Critique, 1987 

  6. Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 2: Economic stagnation 

  7. Stephen Gowans: Seven Myths about the USSR, 2013 

  8. Boris Ponomarev, Marxism-Leninism in Today’s World, Pergamon Press, 1983 

  9. New York Times: Reagan Denounces Ideology of Soviet as ‘Focus of Evil’, 1983 

  10. Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, 2004 

  11. ibid 

  12. See Fight to Win: How the Vietnamese people rose up and defeated imperialism, 2015 

  13. See The Legacy of the Grenadian Revolution Lives On, 2014 

  14. Ponomarev, op cit 

  15. Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, Verso, 2014 

  16. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  17. ibid 

  18. Yuri Andropov, Speeches and Writings, Pergamon Press, 1983 

  19. David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party – Atrophy and Adaptation, University of California Press, 2008 

  20. Stalin, Foundations of Leninism, 1924 

  21. The details of this split are beyond the scope of this article, but Fred Halliday’s article from 1978 gives a useful overview. 

  22. Figures from Halliday, op cit 

  23. Stephen Gowans: Women’s Rights in Afghanistan, 2010 

  24. Cited in Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy, Profile Books, 2011 

  25. Michael Parenti, Afghanistan, Another Untold Story, 2009 

  26. Fred Halliday, op cit 

  27. Parenti, op cit 

  28. Cited in David Gibbs: The Brzezinski Interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, (1998) 

  29. Cited in Vijay Prashad, op cit 

  30. Braithwaite, op cit 

  31. ibid 

  32. Parenti, op cit 

  33. Brzezinski interview, op cit 

  34. Arne Odd Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, Cambridge University Press, 2011 

  35. The Guardian: Red Kabul revisited, 2003 

  36. Braithwaite, op cit 

  37. Vijay Prashad, op cit 

  38. Westad, op cit 

  39. Cited in Braithwaite, op cit 

Jeremy Corbyn the “snivelling IRA fanboy”: empire nostalgia in the British general election

Theresa May must have thought that calling a snap general election was a political masterstroke. A landslide victory promised to give her government some legitimacy and shore up support for a hard Brexit that emphasised xenophobia over economic sense. Furthermore, a Tory landslide would make it very difficult for Jeremy Corbyn to continue as leader of the Labour Party, and therefore could well put an end to Corbyn’s project of turning Labour into a vehicle for the interests of ordinary people. Such an outcome could kill meaningful parliamentary opposition for a generation.

Unfortunately for May’s plan, Labour is waging an extremely effective campaign. A newly-invigorated party, with an engaged membership and the most progressive election manifesto Britain has seen in decades (if not ever), is campaigning up and down the country and getting its message out to millions of people.

Unable to answer the Labour resurgence with popular policies (unsurprisingly, the Tory manifesto offers a toxic cocktail of austerity, deregulation, attacks on the working class, and commitment to a foreign policy designed in Washington by Team Trump), the right-wing press has resorted to one of its favourite techniques: trying to smear Corbyn and his colleagues on the basis of being associated with the IRA, Hamas, Cuba, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Hugo Chávez or whatever other bogeyman.

Over the last couple of days, Corbyn’s longstanding support for the aims of Irish republicanism has been the subject of much scrutiny in the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Times and the Telegraph. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have been labelled as “snivelling IRA fanboys”. The same media outlets have also attempted to turn Diane Abbott’s comment of 30 years ago that “every defeat of the British state is a victory for all of us“ into a major scandal.

This sort of thing is comfortable home ground for the right-wing media. They can’t say much against renationalising the railways, or ending tuition fees, or building hundreds of thousands of homes, or implementing a £10 per hour minimum wage, or increasing funding to the NHS – so instead they repeat the tired narrative of Corbyn and his allies “siding with Britain’s enemies” and being “soft on terrorism”. The Tories meanwhile get to paint themselves as the patriotic party, the party the defends Britain’s foreign policy interests; the party that will Make Britain Great Again, if you will.

Corbyn’s longstanding support for Irish reunification and for the end of British domination over Ireland – along with his stand against imperialist wars, his opposition to NATO, his support for Palestinian self-determination, and his apparent unwillingness to kill millions of people in a nuclear strike – gets to the heart of a major cultural conflict that lies just beneath the surface of Britain’s collective political consciousness.

Britannia rule the waves

An awful lot of people continue to suffer under the delusions of a Rule-Britannia ideology that lets people believe in the inherent superiority of their nation, whilst diverting their attention from the fact that the economy is in a mess, communities across the country have been devastated by unemployment, de-industrialisation and inequality, the cost of housing is absurd, and the welfare state is being hollowed out.

This empire nostalgia is a problem of frightening dimensions; one that must be solved if Britain is going to find its place in a modern, multipolar world. Polls show that most British people still have a favourable view of empire. Former Prime Minister David Cameron famously said “we should be proud of our empire rule”. Last year, Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox called for an “Empire 2.0”. Therefore it’s not too difficult to weaponise this potent mix of ignorance and reactionary nationalism against Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott – awful people that want to take away the one thing that makes us feel good about ourselves: our natural superiority over other nations, religions and races.

A national discussion about the legacy of empire is long overdue. Just as we quite rightly expect that Germans today will acknowledge the extent of the crimes committed by the Nazi government in the 1930s and 1940s, we should also expect British people to understand and acknowledge the appalling crimes committed by the Empire. Britain was a major player in the conquest of the Americas and in the transatlantic slave trade, which generated much of the vast wealth that allowed Britain to conquer India and much of Africa. Millions died in India as a result of imperial policy-driven famines. Thousands of Kenyans were rounded up in concentration camps and tortured. Britain fought wars for its right to freely export opium (produced by forced labour in India) on the Chinese people. From South Africa to Kenya to Jamaica to India to Ireland to Iraq to Palestine, opponents of British colonial rule were imprisoned, tortured and killed.

The truth about British rule in Ireland

Among British people there is shocking ignorance in relation to British rule in Ireland. The Empire started in Ireland, with English rule going back to the 12th century. English/British rule in Ireland has been cruel, brutal and exploitative, and Irish people fought courageously against it from the beginning. Perhaps the episode that best encapsulates the nature of Britain’s treatment of Ireland is the Great Famine of the late 1840s, in which at least a million died and millions more were forced to emigrate. This was an artificial famine, in that there wasn’t an absolute shortage of food but rather a failure of the one crop that the local population subsisted on (potatoes constituted around 60% of Irish food consumption). Other crops that didn’t fail continued to be exported for the purpose of generating profits in London. The colonial authorities could have intervened to stop the famine but they chose not to do so, committed as they were to the idea that English money is worth more than Irish life.

It was clear by the early 20th century that British rule in Ireland couldn’t continue indefinitely. In the general election of 1918, Sinn Féin won by a landslide in Ireland. The Irish stepped up their armed struggle for independence, and in 1921 Britain was forced to grant partial independence to the southern 26 counties, which became known as the Irish Free State. However, Britain insisted on maintaining the six counties in the north – where it had established a pro-union majority – as part of the United Kingdom.

In the six counties, London continued to rule with a heavy hand, enforcing a system of privilege for the loyalist community and systematic oppression of the nationalist community. Those in the north that have fought against the injustice of British rule have been met with prison, torture, extra-judicial killings, human rights violations and massacres – most famously Bloody Sunday.

Towards a post-Empire identity

Such is the cold hard truth about the British Empire. It doesn’t sit very well with the British self-image of benevolence, dignity and ‘fair play’, but we must understand it and face up to it. Britain needs to find its place in the world and develop a new sense of identity built on justice, diversity and inclusiveness, along with a foreign policy that abhors war and colonialism and treats other nations as equals and partners. This chimes with the type of modern Britain that millions of decent people want to see.

It’s a big project that will take a long time to complete, but a government led by the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell would at least be an important step in the right direction.

Fifty years on the frontline: the revolutionary contributions of Ho Chi Minh

People of Ho Chi Minh’s calibre don’t come around often. One of the great revolutionaries of the twentieth century, he excelled as a leader, a teacher, a journalist, a strategist, an internationalist, a unifier, a guerrilla fighter, a negotiator, a creative thinker, a poet. He endured decades of exile and then decades of war. He suffered prison and torture in China in the early 1940s (by which time he was already in his fifties). As a guerrilla leader and then as the president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under attack from French colonialism, he lived with his comrades in the most basic possible conditions in the caves of Cao Bang, often having to forage for food. And yet, his dedication to the causes of Vietnamese independence, Vietnamese unification, and global socialism never faltered. With relentless energy, profound intelligence and undying passion, he led his people through every up and down over the course of half a century.

His most notable achievements include:

  • Providing the major inspiration and strategic vision for the Vietnamese Revolution from the early 1920s up until his death in 1969.
  • Connecting the Vietnamese independence struggle with the global socialist and anti-imperialist movement, and thereby providing it with a source of decisive support.
  • Uniting different political trends and backgrounds into a single, extremely effective fighting organisation.
  • Purposefully building and training a close-knit team of serious revolutionaries capable of providing leadership to the Vietnamese masses.
  • Promoting and building maximum national unity against imperialism, bringing the peasantry, working class, intellectuals and patriotic capitalist elements together in order to struggle against French, Japanese and US colonialism.
  • Along with the other top leaders of the Vietnamese resistance, consistently making a correct analysis of the prevailing balance of forces, enabling historic victories such as the capture of power in August 1945, the defeat of the French occupation in 1954, the building of socialism in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), and the Tet Offensive of 1968, which served as the major turning point in the war with the US.
  • Leading the work of inspiring, organising and educating the masses of the Vietnamese people for their long struggle against imperialism and for socialism.

With very good reason, ‘Uncle Ho’ continues to be revered, loved and studied in Vietnam, and his legacy remains a source of profound inspiration for anti-imperialists throughout the world. However, given how great a role he played, surprisingly few people know anything about him other than that he was the leader of the Vietnamese Revolution and that he once said “nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.” Therefore, in writing this article (which is published on the 125th anniversary of Ho’s birth), I try to give some insight into his legacy, focusing in particular on his first few decades of activity and on those events that served to shape his ideas and strategy – and in turn the course of the Vietnamese revolution.

The article is followed by a selection of quotes that I hope the reader will find useful.

ho flowersFor any reader looking for more detail, the best place to start is unquestionably Ho Chi Minh’s selected works, which tell the story of the Vietnamese Revolution better than any other book. The well-known biographies by western authors William Duiker and Jean Lacouture are both very useful, although they’re not written from a communist or anti-imperialist perspective. Duiker in particular has done a huge amount of painstaking work to dig out the details of Ho’s life – a job made very difficult by the fact that Ho operated for much of his life in conditions of strict secrecy, in many different countries, using dozens of pseudonyms. The biographies by Ho Chi Minh’s comrades-in-arms Pham Van Dong and Truong Chinh will strike most western readers as being overzealous in their praise, but they nonetheless contain useful insights and moving recollections, as does the collection of articles entitled ‘Reminiscences of Ho Chi Minh’.

Evolution of a revolutionary

Nguyen Sinh Cung, as he was then called, was born on 19 May 1890 in the tough mountain terrain of Nghe An. His father was a scholar, well-respected but penniless as a result of his opposition to French colonial rule. Ho Chi Minh was raised in a spirit of patriotism and with a deep respect for the Vietnamese heroes of past centuries who had waged long and bitter struggles against foreign domination. As a student in Hue in the first decade of the twentieth century, he became involved in the protest movement against the brutality of the French occupiers. In order to avoid arrest for his activism, he went south to Saigon – at that time the capital of the French colony of Cochin China – from where he decided to go abroad. Working on ships, he spent two years at sea. William Duiker, in his exhaustive biography ‘Ho Chi Minh: A Life’, writes:

Exposure to the world outside Vietnam had a major impact on his thinking and attitude toward life. Over a decade later, when he began to write articles for French publications, his descriptions of the harsh realities of life in the colonised port cities of Asia, Africa, and Latin America were often shocking, dealing with the abject misery in which many people lived and the brutality with which they were treated by their European oppressors. By the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the world had been placed under colonial rule, and the port cities of Africa and Asia teemed with dockworkers, rickshaw pullers, and manual labourers, all doing the bidding of the white man. It may have been during this period of travel abroad that the foundations of his later revolutionary career were first laid.

After working for some months in New York and Boston (including, in the latter city, at the same hotel at which Malcolm X worked some thirty years later!), Ho Chi Minh came to London, where he worked in various kitchen jobs and came into contact with Marxist ideas for the first time. Whilst in London, he found out about the Irish independence struggle and became an agitator for that cause. Writing in 1920 about the death on hunger strike of the Irish Republican leader Terence MacSwiney (in Brixton Prison), he wrote: “A nation that has such citizens will never surrender” (see Peter Berresford Ellis ‘A History of the Irish Working Class’). Ireland’s epic anti-colonial struggle became an inspiration, and helped to refine Ho Chi Minh’s strategic thought in relation to the situation in Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh arrived in France around the time of the end of the First World War and quickly established contact with the Vietnamese community there, as well as with French socialists and communists, and members of numerous exiled and immigrant communities from other colonies, including Korea, China, Algeria, Madagascar and the French colonies of West Africa. Adopting the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the patriot), he started to write passionately and copiously. As his reports and declarations seeped back into Indochina (under which name Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were collectively administered by France), the name Nguyen Ai Quoc increasingly inspired curiosity, then support, then loyalty from the people of Vietnam, suffering as they were under the heel of France’s “civilising mission” – a civilising mission that denied people the right to education, to land, to decent working conditions, to even the most basic forms of democracy; a civilising mission that promoted opium addiction as a means of pacifying the masses and enriching the colonisers.

Global struggle against imperialism and for socialism

In France, Ho Chi Minh was introduced by French communists to the key elements of revolutionary ideology. In a small library in Paris, he devoured Marx’s Capital and other classic texts. However, he soon came to see some of the problems and contradictions afflicting the French communist and socialist movement – problems that, a century later, continue to afflict the left in Western Europe and North America. Focused exclusively on the class struggle in France, they knew little of the anti-colonial struggle and didn’t have a consistent policy regarding liberation of the colonies.

This was around the time of the founding of the Communist International (variously known as the Third International and the Comintern), made necessary by the descent of its predecessor (the Second International) into what Lenin referred to as ‘social chauvinism’: a position of collaboration with, and support for, the various capitalist governments in pursuit of the First World War. This war was, after all, an imperialist war; a war based on competition between different imperialist powers for control of the colonies. The revolutionary position put forward by the Bolsheviks and a handful of others was: refuse to cooperate with the war, take advantage of the crisis to defeat capitalism in Europe, and help to bring about freedom for the colonies. In a short but profound and moving article called The Path Which Led Me To Leninism, Ho Chi Minh discusses his trajectory as a revolutionary and how he came to be totally aligned with the Third International.

What I wanted most to know was: which International sides with the peoples of colonial countries? I raised this question – the most important in my opinion – in a meeting. Some comrades answered: It is the Third, not the Second International. And a comrade gave me Lenin’s ‘Thesis on the national and colonial questions’ published by l’Humanite to read. There were political terms difficult to understand in this thesis. But by dint of reading it again and again, finally I could grasp the main part of it. What emotion, enthusiasm, clear-sightedness and confidence it instilled into me! I was overjoyed to tears. Though sitting alone in my room, I shouted out aloud as if addressing large crowds: ‘Dear martyrs, compatriots! This is what we need, this is the path to our liberation!’

After that, I had entire confidence in Lenin, in the Third International. Formerly, during the meetings of the Party branch, I only listened to the discussion; I had a vague belief that all were logical, and could not differentiate as to who were right and who were wrong. But from then on, I also plunged into the debates and discussed with fervour. Though I was still lacking French words to express all my thoughts, I smashed the allegations attacking Lenin and the Third International with no less vigour. My only argument was: ‘If you do not condemn colonialism, if you do not side with the colonial people, what kind of revolution are you waging?’

On the basis of his groundbreaking study of imperialism, and seeing how imperialist profits had allowed the European capitalists to ‘buy social peace’ and bribe much of the working class leadership, Lenin came to understand that the anti-colonial struggle was a crucial part of the global struggle for socialism. Armed with this understanding, the Soviet Union became a massive ‘liberated territory’ for the anti-colonial struggles, and the Third International updated Marx’s slogan “Workers of the world, unite” to read: “Workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite!”

Thus, in the age of imperialism, the liberatory ideas expressed in the Communist Manifesto had become relevant not just to the working class of Europe but also to the oppressed and downtrodden people of the entire world. Ho Chi Minh was the first Vietnamese, and one of the first globally, to fully understand the significance of this and to apply it to his own nation’s liberation struggle. For the remaining five decades of his life, he would stay true to the principle of the unity of the global struggle against imperialism and for socialism. With his uncanny ability to sum up political ideas in a simple way, he said:

Capitalism is a leech with one sucker on the working class in the imperialist countries and the other on the oppressed peoples of the colonies. To kill that leech, its two suckers must both be cut off. If only one sucker is removed, the other will continue bleeding the workers white and the leech will still be alive and grow a new sucker.

Internationalist

In France, Ho Chi Minh set up a journal called Le Paria (The Pariah), which from 1922 to 1926 was a leading voice for the anti-imperialist struggle. Copies were smuggled into Indochina, providing a first window into the world of global revolution for people whose access to information was severely limited by French censorship. One biographer of Ho Chi Minh, the French journalist Jean Lacouture, comments of Ho’s writing at the time that “the remarkable thing … is the global conception of the problem of the oppressed, the constant determination not to isolate what was only one of many colonial questions.”

Late in 1923, having earned a reputation for himself as a capable and fiery propagandist against colonialism, the young Nguyen Ai Quoc [Ho Chi Minh] had the chance to travel to the Soviet Union. Given work at the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern, he quickly became an important and popular figure in Moscow, providing valuable information about the situation of the Indochinese people and their sufferings under French colonialism. In Moscow he became friends with several key figures of the international movement, including Georgi Dimitrov (later the General Secretary of the Comintern and first leader of post-war Bulgaria) and Zhou Enlai (a top leader of the Chinese Revolution and first Premier of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 until his death in 1976).

Towards the end of 1923, Ho enrolled at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East, at which there were then over a thousand students from 62 different countries. “As Nguyen Ai Quoc described it in his article, the school was an idyllic place to study. There were two libraries containing over forty-seven thousand books, and each major nationality represented at the school possessed its own section with books and periodicals in its own national language. The students were ‘serious and full of enthusiasm’ and ‘passionately longed to acquire knowledge and to study.’ The staff and the instructors treated the foreign students ‘like brothers’ and even invited them to ‘participate in the political life of the country.’” (Duiker) The experiences studying, and later teaching, at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East undoubtedly helped to cement the ideas of the budding revolutionary Nguyen Ai Quoc.

In Moscow, Ho was disappointed to find that not all personalities and parties of the Comintern – including the party of which he was a founder member, the French Communist Party – were living up to Lenin’s demand to highlight and support the anti-colonial struggle. Taking the floor at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in June 1924, he reiterated the importance of workers in the ‘metropolis’ joining hands with oppressed peoples: “You all know that today the poison and life energy of the capitalist snake is concentrated more in the colonies than in the mother countries. The colonies supply the raw materials for industry. The colonies supply soldiers for the armies. In the future, the colonies will be bastions of the counterrevolution. Yet in your discussions of the revolution you neglect to talk about the colonies… Why do you neglect the colonies, while capitalism uses them to support itself, defend itself, and fight you?” (cited in Duiker). Specifically pointing to the hypocrisy of the west European parties, he added: “As for our Communist Parties in Great Britain, Holland, Belgium and other countries – what have they done to cope with the colonial invasions perpetrated by the bourgeois class of their countries? What have they done from the day they accepted Lenin’s political programme to educate the working class of their countries in the spirit of just internationalism, and that of close contact with the working masses in the colonies? What our parties have done in this domain is almost worthless. As for me, I was born in a French colony, and am a member of the French Communist Party, and I am very sorry to say that our Communist Party has done hardly anything for the colonies.”

Throughout his life, Ho would struggle consistently against this weakness he saw in the western left: its adherence to a narrow, pre-Lenin, eurocentric version of Marxism that sees the world purely in terms of the battle between workers and capitalists in the west, ignoring the key questions of imperialism and national oppression. It’s worth pointing out that, sadly, this weakness is not some sort of historical relic, confined to the ‘bad old days’. Indeed it is still decidedly recognisable today, in an era when huge numbers of supposed socialists and communists in the west refuse to side with peoples under attack from the imperialist powers (Syria, Libya and Ukraine come to mind).

At the Comintern Congress, Ho Chi Minh also took the opportunity to highlight the revolutionary role that could and would be played by the peasantry in the colonies: “Famine is on the increase and so is the people’s hatred. The native peasants are ripe for insurrection. In many colonies, they have risen many times but their uprisings have all been drowned in blood. If at present the peasants still have a passive attitude, the reason is that they still lack organisation and leaders. The Communist International must help them to revolution and liberation.”

Towards the end of 1924, Ho left Moscow to work in China on behalf of the Comintern, on a mission to support the Chinese Communist Party. Based in Canton, he was able to link up with a number of young Vietnamese revolutionaries, many of whom continued to be part of the nucleus of Vietnam’s anti-colonial struggle for decades to come. In 1925, a small group called the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League was formed by Ho and a few of his comrades; this was the first Vietnamese communist organisation. Over the course of two years in Canton, Ho Chi Minh acted as teacher and organiser, making contact with as many Vietnamese revolutionaries as he could, and running a school for training them in ideology and organisational skills. “He taught his charges how to talk and behave in a morally upright manner (so as to do credit to the revolutionary cause), how to speak in public, how to address gatherings of workers, peasants, children, and women, how to emphasise the national cause as well as the need for a social revolution, how to behave without condescension to the poor and illiterate. He anxiously checked on their living and eating conditions to make sure that they were healthy and well cared for; when they were gloomy and despondent, he cheered them up. One ex-student recalled his incurable optimism. When students appeared discouraged at the petty corruption of Vietnamese mandarins and the general ignorance and lethargy of the village population, he replied, ‘It’s just these obstacles and social depravity that makes the revolution necessary. A revolutionary must above all be optimistic and believe in the final victory’” (Duiker).

Ho and his comrades in the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League set up a journal, Thanh Nien, which was issued weekly and sent into Vietnam by sea. Between 1925 and 1930, over 200 issues were published, allowing Ho Chi Minh to systematically agitate, educate and organise significant numbers of people inside Vietnam itself. By the late 1920s, the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League had around two thousand members inside Indochina, and more in China, France and elsewhere. In his period of editing Thanh Nien, Ho perfected his ability to communicate a version of revolutionary Marxism that was understandable and acceptable to ordinary Vietnamese peasants and workers. His style is simple but powerful, as can be seen from the following example:

The workers and peasants are the leading force of the revolution. This is because, first, the workers and farmers are more heavily oppressed; secondly, the workers and peasants are united and therefore possess the greatest strength; and thirdly, they are already poor; if defeated, they would only lose their miserable life; if they win, they would have the whole world. That is why the workers and farmers are the roots of the revolution, while the students, small merchants, and landowners, though oppressed, do not suffer as much as the workers and farmers, and that is why these three classes are only the revolutionary friends of the workers and farmers. (Ho Chi Minh – The Road to Revolution (1926))

The work in Canton was very fruitful, but it was brought to an abrupt end when Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek initiated his vicious purge in April 1927. Thousands of communists were rounded up and murdered in Shanghai and Canton, thus finishing off the Communist-Kuomintang alliance (until 1936, when Chiang was forced to cooperate again with the Communist Party in the war of resistance against Japan). Ho escaped Canton just hours before his office was raided, and made his way to Hong Kong. From there, he travelled to Paris, Brussels and Berlin for various conferences and consultations, before heading back to Asia. He arrived in Siam (now Thailand) in mid-1928, and began organising among the large Vietnamese exile community there.

Around a year later, he heard that the revolutionary movement in Vietnam was descending dangerously into sectarianism and internal conflict. He travelled immediately to Hong Kong, where he called together the competing factions, arbitrated the various disagreements, and called for the existing revolutionary organisations to be disbanded and replaced with a single new party: the Indochinese Communist Party. The inaugural meeting of the ICP took place on 3 February 1930, and agreed a ten-point programme calling for the complete overthrow of French imperialism, an end to Vietnamese feudalism, the confiscation of land from the colonisers and big landowners and its distribution to poor peasants, an eight-hour working day, universal education, and equality between men and women – a simple, profound revolutionary programme giving voice to the deepest aspirations of ordinary Vietnamese people. This is the party, later renamed as the Communist Party of Vietnam, that went on to lead the Vietnamese masses in the overthrow of imperialism and the pursuit of socialism, a task it remains engaged in to this day.

ho deskIn the following two months, acting under the instructions of the Comintern, Ho found time to preside over the establishment of the Siamese Communist Party and attend a meeting establishing the Malayan Communist Party. Meanwhile, the influence of the ICP was rapidly expanding, along with the militancy and self-confidence of the Vietnamese workers and peasants. Strikes were breaking out in all parts of the country, and in 1931 a series of insurrections led to the creation of the Nghe Tinh soviet in two provinces of central Vietnam, Nghe An and Ha Tinh (more details of this period can be found in the article Fight to Win: How the Vietnamese people rose up and defeated imperialism). As Ho later wrote, “although the movement was drowned by the imperialists in a sea of blood, it testified to the heroism and revolutionary power of the Vietnamese working masses. In spite of its failure, it forged the forces which were to ensure the triumph of the August Revolution.”

Ho continued in his role as the ICP’s chief strategist until he was arrested and imprisoned in Kowloon by the British colonial authorities – reporting to Ramsey MacDonald’s Labour government.

After a year and a half in prison, having successfully been defended by the British lawyer Denis Pritt (who later earned the honour of being expelled from the Labour Party on account of his pro-Soviet views), Ho was able to avoid extradition to France and to make his way instead back to the Soviet Union. In Moscow he was put in charge of the Vietnamese section of the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern, and he also enrolled in a course at the Lenin University. Nguyen Khanh Toan, who would later serve in various high-level governmental positions in Vietnam from 1945 until the 1980s, was one of the 150-ish Vietnamese students under Ho Chi Minh’s supervision at the time, and he gives a moving description of Ho’s interaction with the students:

“While studying at the Lenin University he kept in very close touch with the Vietnamese group. In the evenings he often came to talk to them about his experiences in revolutionary action, putting heavy emphasis on revolutionary morals, especially the sense of solidarity. Among the younger students there sometimes arose squabbles of mostly a personal character, and he had to arbitrate them. What he sought to combat among them was arrogance, egoism, indiscipline; he wanted them to be united and put the interest of the revolution above everything else. He often said to them: ‘If even this little group of ours cannot live in harmony and solidarity, how could we hope, once back in the country, to unite the people and rally the masses against the colonialists in order to save the nation?” (Reminiscences of Ho Chi Minh)

Leading Vietnam to victory

After a few relatively peaceful years studying and organising in the Soviet Union, Ho returned in 1938 to China, where he was appointed as a political commissar, working to educate troops at the Whampao Academy. In China, Ho was reunited with his closest allies, including Vo Nguyen Giap, Pham Van Dong and Truong Chinh. In 1940 they decided that the time was ripe to infiltrate themselves back into Vietnam with a view to organising a nationwide insurrection. In early February 1941, they made the short but difficult journey across the border from China into the northernmost part of Vietnam, establishing themselves in a cave near the village of Pac Bo, a small village in Cao Bang province, just the other side of the Chinese border. Duiker writes:

With the aid of a local sympathizer, the group established their accommodations in a cave known to the locals as Coc Bo (the Source) and situated behind a rock in the side of one of the local cliffs. About 140 feet below the mouth of the cave was a stream that Nguyen Ai Quoc named for his hero Lenin. Overlooking the site was a massive outgrowth that he dubbed Karl Marx Peak. From the cave, a secret path wound straight to the Chinese border, less than half a mile away. In later years, Nguyen Ai Quoc and his colleagues would remember their days at Pac Bo as among the most memorable in their lives. Yet conditions were harsh. They slept on a mat of branches, leaving them with bruised backs in the morning. The cave itself was cold and damp, so the occupants kept a small fire going all night. As was his habit, Nguyen Ai Quoc rose early, bathed in the stream, did his morning exercises, and then went to work on a rock at the edge of Lenin Stream. As always, he spent much of his time editing, this time working on the Party’s local newspaper, Viet Nam Doc Lap (Independent Vietnam), which was produced on a stone lithograph. Meals consisted of rice mixed with minced meat or with fish from the stream. In the evening, the group would gather at the edge of the cave, where Nguyen Ai Quoc lectured to his colleagues on world history and modern revolutions.

Later on, they were often forced to forage for food. It must have been extraordinarily tough for the veteran revolution, by now in his fifties, to endure the life of a mountain guerrilla. However, he did so without complaining. “When spirits flagged or enthusiasm grew to excess, he counseled his comrades: ‘Patience, calmness, and vigilance, those are the things that a revolutionary must never forget.’”

The key event from this period is the formation of the Viet Minh front on 19 May 1941, in the cave at Pac Bo. The Viet Minh was formed as an anti-imperialist front to unite all forces, communist and nationalist, in a single fighting organisation able to rid the country of colonial occupiers. In the space of a few years, its membership grew to over half a million (out of a total population of less then 25 million). A leaflet announcing the Viet Minh’s existence describes the broad class basis of the front, pointing out that, in the conditions then prevailing, maximum unity must be forged in order to defeat the French:

The problem of class struggle will continue to exist. But at the present time, the nation has prime importance, and all demands that are of benefit to a specific class but are harmful to the national interest must be subordinated to the survival of the nation. At this moment, if we do not resolve the problem of national liberation, and do not demand independence and freedom for the entire people, then not only will the entire people of our nation continue to live the life of beasts, but also the particular interests of individual social classes will not be achieved for thousands of years.

In August 1942, Ho made his way back over the border to China in a bid to shore up international support for the Vietnamese revolution. He didn’t get very far before he was captured by the Chinese authorities and placed in prison under suspicion of being a spy. After enduring horrific conditions for over a year (during which time he contracted tuberculosis), he was finally released in September 1943 on the condition that he coordinate with the Kuomintang.

Meanwhile events were proceeding at a fast pace inside Vietnam. A pamphlet distributed in early 1944 shows that the Viet Minh leadership had an extremely clear-sighted understanding of the local and international situation: “Zero hour is near. Germany is almost beaten, and her defeat will lead to Japan’s. Then the Americans and the Chinese will move into Indochina while the Gaullists rise against the Japanese. The latter may well topple the French fascists prior to this, and set up a military government… Indochina will be reduced to anarchy. We shall not even need to seize power, for there will be no power… Our impending uprising will be carried out in highly favourable conditions, without parallel in the history of our country. The occasion being propitious and the factors favourable, it would be unforgivable not to take advantage of them. It would be a crime against the history of our country.” (cited in Jean Lacouture, ‘Ho Chi Minh’)

With precisely such a power vacuum starting to emerge in late 1944, the Viet Minh started to expand its base outwards from Cao Bang, with units under the command of General Giap pushing further and further south, creating extensive liberated areas.

With the Japanese surrender of 15 August 1945, Viet Minh forces launched the August Revolution. On 17 August, Ho read out his appeal to the people of Vietnam to take power:

The decisive hour in the destiny of our people has struck. Let us stand up with all our strength to liberate ourselves! Many oppressed peoples the world over are vying with one another in the march to win back their independence. We cannot allow ourselves to lag behind. Forward! Forward! Under the banner of the Viet Minh Front, move forward courageously!

Two days later Hanoi was liberated, and within a few days the Viet Minh had established power throughout the country. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam was born. On 2 September, Ho Chi Minh read out the Declaration of Independence in the Ba Dinh square in Hanoi, to a crowd of over half a million ecstatic Vietnamese.

Immediately, the new government, led by President Ho Chi Minh, started to deal with the most pressing problems: eradicating famine, eradicating illiteracy, redistributing land, setting up a stable government, and organising local militia units across the country to defend the revolution from the combination of French, US, British and Chinese forces that would almost certainly seek to reverse it.

Just over a year later, in spite of the generous concessions offered by Ho’s negotiating team, France went to war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, in a bid to maintain its domination of the region. The Viet Minh returned to guerrilla warfare, and Vietnam’s president and the rest of the leadership returned to the northeastern mountains. Duiker writes: “With his return to the Viet Bac in late December 1946, Ho Chi Minh resumed the life that had appeared to come to an end with his election as president during the August Revolution of 1945. He arrived at the old base area with an entourage of eight men, comprising his personal bodyguard and those responsible for liaison with other units and for food preparation. The group erected a long hut built of bamboo and thatch that was divided into two rooms… To guard against wild animals, they obtained a shepherd dog, but it was soon killed and eaten by a tiger. Ho and his companions led a simple life. Their meals consisted of a little rice garnished with sautéed wild vegetables. On occasion, they were able to supplement their meager fare with small chunks of salted meat, thinly sliced and served with peppers. Ho laughingly described it as ‘conserves du Vietminh.’ Sometimes food was short, and all suffered from hunger… During the day, Ho worked on the ground floor, but at night he slept on the upper floor as protection against wild beasts and the humidity. His bedding consisted solely of a mosquito net and his clothing. When the group was compelled to move (by the end of the decade, Ho would live in at least twenty different houses as he continually escaped detection by the French), they were able to pack up and leave in minutes. Ho carried a few books and documents in a small bag, while his companions took charge of his typewriter.” 

Duiker adds some fascinating detail as to Ho’s role during the war: “In the liberated zone, Ho Chi Minh was highly visible, acting not only as a war strategist, but also as chief recruiter and cheerleader for the revolutionary cause. In February 1952, a released French POW reported that Ho was seen everywhere at the front, in the villages, in the rice fields, and at local cadre meetings. Dressed like a simple peasant, he moved tirelessly among his followers, cajoling his audiences and encouraging them to sacrifice all for the common objective. Although living conditions in the liberated zone were probably somewhat better than they had been during the final months of World War II, French bombing raids on the area were frequent and Ho continued to change his residence every three to five days to avoid detection or capture. Although he was now over sixty, Ho was still capable of walking thirty miles a day, a pack on his back, over twisting mountain trails. He arose early to do exercises. After the workday was over, he played volleyball or swam and read in the evening.”

From this point, the story of Ho Chi Minh’s life becomes one and the same as the history of the Vietnamese victory over France (1954), the building of socialism in the north, the support for guerrilla struggle in the south, and the era-defining war against US imperialism. More on all of this can be found in my recent article on the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Saigon.

Ho Chi Minh died on 2 September 1969, at the age of 79. Although he had played a reduced role in the last few years of his life (due to ill health), he remained a major contributor, particularly in negotiations and foreign relations. Eulogies flooded in for this outstanding leader of the global anti-imperialist movement – according to Duiker, the Hanoi authorities received more than 22,000 messages from 121 countries offering condolences to the Vietnamese people.

Ho’s legacy is as poweful and as relevant today as it ever was; his name remains synonymous with determined struggle for freedom, with the spirit of unity, with heroism, selflessness, perseverance, moral uprightness, and with the global fight against imperialism and for socialism. He was unquestionably one of the greatest leaders in the history of the anti-imperialist and communist movement.

homalcolmIt is particularly fitting that he shares a birthday with Malcolm X (who was born on 19 May 1925). The two are linked by more than the relative position of earth and sun at the time of their birth: they both made decisive contributions to the development of the worldwide struggle against imperialism. Ho Chi Minh was a communist and an atheist; Malcolm X was a black nationalist and a Muslim. But, in spite of differing ideological and spiritual traditions, they were absolutely on the same side in the “global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter”, to use Malcolm’s phrase.

Quotes

Unity

Unity is an extremely precious tradition of our Party and people. All comrades, from the Central Committee down to the cells, must preserve the unity and oneness of mind in the Party as the apple of their eye. (Source)

Without this unity we would be like an orchestra in which the drums play one way and the horns another. It would not be possible for us to lead the masses and make revolution. (Source)

Our people must learn the word ‘unity’: unity of spirit, unity of effort, unity of hearts, unity of action. (Source: Duiker)

The war against colonialism

We, a small nation, will have earned the signal honour of defeating, through heroic struggle, two big imperialisms – the French and the American – and of making a worthy contribution to the world national liberation movement. (Source)

[At Dien Bien Phu], for the first time in history a small colony had defeated a big colonial power. This was a victory not only of our people but also of the world forces of peace, democracy and socialism. (Source)

The Vietnamese people are waging the greatest war of resistance in their history. For the sake of the independence and freedom of the Fatherland, in the interest of the socialist camp, the oppressed peoples and progressive mankind, we are fighting and defeating the most cruel enemy of humanity. In our land a fierce struggle is taking place between justice and injustice, between civilisation and barbarity. The people of the brother socialist countries and progressive people all over the world are turning their eyes toward Viet Nam and warmly congratulating our compatriots and fighters. (Source)

Our people are very heroic. Our line is most correct. We have justice on our side. We are inspired by an unbending will and determination to fight and win. We have the invincible force of the unity of our entire people and enjoy the sympathy and support of all progressive mankind. The US imperialists are sure to be defeated! Our people are sure to be victorious! Compatriots and fighters in the whole country, march forward! (ibid)

Our resistance is by all the people and is in turn a people’s war. Thirty-one million compatriots in the two regions, irrespective of sex and age, must be thirty-one million heroic combatants to fight the US for national salvation … Unity, unity, great unity; success, success, great success. (Source)

Johnson and his clique should realize this: they may bring in half a million, a million or even more troops to step up their war of aggression in South Vietnam. They may use thousands of aircraft for intensified attacks against North Vietnam. But never will they be able to break the iron will of the heroic Vietnamese people, their determination to fight against American aggression, for national salvation. The more truculent they grow, the more serious their crimes. They war may last five, ten, twenty or more years; Hanoi, Haiphong and other cities and enterprises may be destroyed; but the Vietnamese people will not be intimidated! Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom. Once victory is won, our people will rebuild their country and make it even more prosperous and beautiful. (Source)

Our people are living a most glorious period of history. Our country has the great honour of being an outpost of the socialist camp and of the world’s peoples fighting against imperialism, colonialism and neocolonialism. Our people are fighting and making sacrifices not only for their own freedom and independence, but also for the freedom and independence of other peoples and for world peace. On the battlefront against the US imperialist aggressors, our people’s task is very heavy but also very glorious. (Source)

You must know of our resolution. Not even your nuclear weapons would force us to surrender after so long and violent a struggle for the independence of our country. (Source)

US imperialism is the main enemy of world peace, consequently we must concentrate our forces against it. (Source)

The Vietnamese people’s future is as bright as the sun in spring. Overjoyed at the radiance of the sun in spring, we shall struggle for the splendid future of Viet Nam, for the future of democracy, world peace and socialism. We triumph at the present time, we shall triumph in the future, because our path is enlightened by the great Marxist-Leninist doctrine. (Source)

Unity between the socialist and anti-imperialist movements

Lenin laid the basis for a new and truly revolutionary era in the colonies. He was the first to denounce resolutely all the prejudices which still persisted in the minds of many European and American revolutionaries… He was the first to realise and assess the full importance of drawing the colonial peoples into the revolutionary movement. He was the first to point out that, without the participation of the colonial peoples, the socialist revolution could not come about… Lenin’s strategy on this question has been applied by communist parties all over the world, and has won over the best and most active elements in the colonies to the communist movement. (Source)

Anti-war movement

To the American people who are courageously opposing the aggressive war waged by the US government, I convey my greetings on behalf of the Vietnamese people. Let them intensify their opposition to the US government’s aggressive war in Vietnam so as to prevent their sons and brothers from being use as cannon-fodder for the private interests of their oppressors and exploiters. Officers and soldiers of the United States and its satellites, who have been driven into this criminal war, listen to reason! There is no enmity between you and the Vietnamese people. The US imperialists are forcing you to serve as cannon-fodder and die in their place. They are doomed to defeat. Demand your repatriation so that you can be re-united with your parents, wives and children! The Vietnamese people will support your struggle. (Source)

Revolutionary morality

Ours is a party in power. Each Party member, each cadre must be deeply imbued with revolutionary morality, and show industry, thrift, integrity, uprightness, total dedication to the public interest and complete selflessness. Our Party should preserve absolute purity and prove worthy of its role as the leader and very loyal servant of the people. (Source)

To make the revolution, to transform the old society into a new one is a very glorious, but also extremely heavy task, a complex, protracted and hard struggle. Only a strong man can travel a long distance with a heavy load on his back. A revolutionary must have a solid foundation of revolutionary morality in order to fulfil his glorious revolutionary task. (Source)

Individualism is something very deceitful and perfidious, it skilfully induces one to backslide. And everybody knows that it is easier to backslide than to progress. That is why it is very dangerous. To shake off the bad vestiges of the old society and to cultivate revolutionary virtues, we must study hard, and educate and reform ourselves in order to progress continuously. Otherwise we shall retrogress and lag behind, and shall eventually be rejected by the forward-moving society. (ibid)

Separated from the Party and the class, no individual, however talented, can achieve anything. (ibid)

Revolutionary morality does not fall from the sky. It is developed and consolidated through persevering daily struggle and effort. Like jade, the more it is polished the more it shines. Like gold, it grows ever purer as it goes into the melting pot. What can be a greater source of happiness and glory than to cultivate one’s revolutionary morality so as to bring a worthy contribution to the building of socialism and the liberation of mankind! (ibid)

No system equals socialism and communism in showing respect for man, paying due attention to his legitimate individual interests and ensuring that they be satisfied. In a society ruled by the exploiting class only the individual interests of a few people belonging to this class are met, whereas those of the toiling masses are trampled underfoot. But in the socialist and communist systems, of which the labouring people are the masters, each man is a part of the collective, plays a definite role in it and contributes his part to society. That is why the interests of the individual lies within those of the collective and are part of them. Only when the latter are secured can the former be satisfied. (ibid)

Revolutionary ideology

At first, patriotism, not yet communism, led me to have confidence in Lenin, in the Third International. Step by step, along the struggle, by studying Marxism-Leninism parallel with participation in practical activities, I gradually came upon the fact that only socialism and communism can liberate the oppressed nations and the working people throughout the world from slavery. (Source)

All Party members should strive to study Marxism-Leninism, strengthen their proletarian class stand, grasp the laws of development of the Vietnamese revolution, elevate their revolutionary morality, vigorously combat individualism, foster proletarian collectivism, be industrious and thrifty in the work for national construction, build close contacts with the labouring masses, and struggle whole-heartedly for the interests of the revolution and the Fatherland. (Source)

Cultural imperialism

In the areas still under his temporary occupation, the enemy strives to disseminate a depraved culture and hooliganism in order to poison our people, especially our youth. He seeks to use religions to divide our people. (Source)

The split in the world communist movement

Being a man who has devoted his whole life to the revolution, the more proud I am of the growth of the international communist and workers’ movement, the more pained I am by the current discord among the fraternal Parties. I hope that our Party will do its best to contribute effectively to the restoration of unity among the fraternal Parties on the basis of Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism, in a way which conforms to both reason and sentiment. I am firmly confident that the fraternal Parties and countries will have to unite again. (Source)

We fully believe that the differences in the international communist movement will be resolved. Marxism-Leninism will certainly be victorious, the socialist camp and the international communist movement will grow ever more united and powerful. By giving a strong impetus to the revolutionary struggle of the working class and the world’s people they will win ever greater victories for peace, national independence, democracy and socialism. (Source)

Guerrilla warfare

What matters the most is that our armed forces, be they regulars, regional or guerrillas, must hold fast to the people; divorce from the latter will surely lead to defeat. To cling to the people means to win their hearts, gain their confidence and affection. This will allow us to overcome any difficulty and achieve sure success. (Source)

The aim of guerrilla warfare is not to wage large-scale battles and win big victories, but to nibble at the enemy, harass him in such a way that he can neither eat nor sleep in peace, to give him no respite, to wear him out physically and mentally, and finally to annihilate him. Wherever he goes, he should be attacked by our guerrillas, stumble on land mines or be greeted by sniper fire. (Source)

It will be a war between an elephant and a tiger. If the tiger ever stands still the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger does not stand still. He lurks in the jungle by day and emerges by night. He will leap upon the back of the elephant, tearing huge chunks from his hide, and then he will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death. That will be the war of Indochina. (Source)

Secrecy, always secrecy. Let the enemy think you’re to the west when you are in the east. Attack by surprise and retreat before the enemy can respond… Stealth, continual stealth. Never attack except by surprise. Retire before the enemy has a chance to strike back. (Source: Duiker)

Remember that the storm is a good opportunity for the pine and the cypress to show their strength and their stability. (Source)

Racism and the national question

It is well-known that the Black race is the most oppressed and the most exploited of the human family. It is well-known that the spread of capitalism and the discovery of the New World had as an immediate result the rebirth of slavery. What everyone does not perhaps know is that after sixty-five years of so-called emancipation, American Negroes still endure atrocious moral and material sufferings, of which the most cruel and horrible is the custom of lynching… Thanks to the slave traders, the Ku Klux Klan and other secret societies, the illegal and barbarous practice of lynching is spreading and continuing widely in the states of the American Union. It has become more inhuman since the emancipation of the Blacks, and is especially directed at the latter. The Negroes, having learned during the war that they are a force if united, are no longer allowing their kinsmen to be beaten or murdered with impunity. (Source)

All the martyrs of the working class, those in Lausanne like those in Paris, those in Le Havre like those in Martinique, are victims of the same murderer: international capitalism. And it is always in belief in the liberation of their oppressed brothers, without discrimination as to race or country, that the souls of these martyrs will find supreme consolation. (Source)

Our country is a united multi-national country. All nationalities living on Vietnamese territory are equal in rights and duties. All the nationalities in our country are fraternally bound together; they share a common territory and in the course of our long history have worked and fought side by side in order to build our beautiful Fatherland. (Source)

Imperialism and feudalism deliberately sought to undermine the solidarity and equality between the nationalities and to sow discord among them and carried out a “divide-and-rule” policy. Our Party and Government have constantly called on the nationalities to forget all enmities caused by imperialism and feudalism and to unite closely on the basis of equality in rights and duties. The minority nationalities have, side by side with their brothers of the majority nationality, fought against their common enemies, and brought the August Revolution and the war of resistance to success. Since the restoration of peace, our State has helped the brotherly nationalities to achieve further progress in the economic, cultural and social fields. (ibid)

The October Revolution and the socialist camp

Like the shining sun, the October Revolution illuminated the five continents, and awakened millions and millions of oppressed and exploited people. In human history, there had never been a revolution with such great and profound significance. (Source)

Our Party has matured and developed in the favourable international conditions created by the victory of the Russian Socialist October Revolution. All achievements of our Party and people are inseparable from the fraternal support of the Soviet Union, People’s China and the other socialist countries, the international Communist and workers’ movement and the national-liberation movement and the peace movement in the world. If we have been able to surmount all difficulties and lead our working class and people to the present glorious victories this is because the Party has coordinated the revolutionary movement in our country with the revolutionary movement of the world working class and the oppressed peoples. (Source)

After nearly half a century of struggle, the imperialist and feudal domination was not yet overthrown and our country was not yet independent. It was then that the Russian October Revolution broke out and won glorious victory. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was founded. The colonial system of imperialism began to collapse. The Soviet Union brought to the oppressed peoples a model of equal relationships between the nations. The oppressed peoples of the world saw that only by relying on socialist revolution and following the line of the working class was it possible to overthrow the imperialists, win back complete national independence and realize genuine equality among the nations. The Russian October Revolution welded the socialist revolutionary movement and the revolutionary movement for national liberation into an anti-imperialist front. (Source)

In the eyes of the peoples of the east, Lenin was not only a leader, a commander. He irresistibly attracted our hearts. Our respect for him was close to filial piety, one of the fundamental virtues in our country. For us, the victims of ill-treatment and humiliation, Lenin was the embodiment of human fraternity.” (Source: Yevgeny Kobelev – Ho Chi Minh)

Lenin is dead! This news struck people like a bolt from the blue. It spread to every corner of the fertile plains of Africa and the green fields of Asia. It is true that the black or yellow people do not yet know clearly who Lenin is or where Russia is… But all of them, from the Vietnamese peasants to the hunters in the Dahomey forests, have secretly learnt that in a faraway corner of the earth there is a nation that has succeeded in overthrowing its exploiters… They have also heard that that country is Russia, that there are courageous people there, and that the most courageous of them all was Lenin. (ibid)

Building socialism and educating the masses

The present society in the North is one of working people who are collective masters of the country and uphold the spirit of self reliance, industry and thrift in order to build socialism and a new life for themselves and for all generations to come. The present society in the North is a great family formed by all strata of the population, all fraternal nationalities, closely united and helping each other, sharing weal and woe and working for the common interests of the Fatherland. Our regime is a new regime; our people are cultivating new ethics; the socialist ethics of working people: “one for all and all for one.” (Source)

In simple terms, the aim of socialism is to free the working people from poverty, provide them with employment, make them happy and prosperous. (Source)

To defeat the imperialists and feudalists is relatively easy, but to do away with poverty and backwardness is much more difficult. (Source: Pham Van Dong – A Man, a Nation, an Age and a Cause)

To reap a return in ten years, plant trees. To reap a return in 100, cultivate the people.

Formerly, when they ruled over our country, the French colonialists carried out a policy of obscurantism. They limited the number of schools; they did not want us to get an education so that they could deceive and exploit us all the more easily. Ninety-five per cent of the total population received no schooling, which means that nearly all Vietnamese were illiterate. How could we have progressed in such conditions? Now that we have won back independence, one of the most urgent tasks at present is to raise the people’s cultural level. Every one of you must know his rights and duties. He must possess knowledge so as to be able to participate in the building of the country. First of all he must learn to read and write. Let the literates teach the illiterates; let them take part in mass education. Let the illiterates study hard. The husband will teach his wife, the elder brother his junior, the children their parents, the master his servants; the rich will open classes for illiterates in their own houses. The women should study even harder for up to now many obstacles have stood in their way. It is high time now for them to catch up with the men and be worthy of their status of citizens with full electoral rights. I hope that young people of both sexes will eagerly participate in this work. (Source)

Workers and peasants have a lot of work to do. If the method of teaching is not suitable to the learners, to their work and mode of life, if we expect classes provided with tables and benches, we cannot be successful. The organization of teaching should be in accordance with the living conditions of the learners, then the movement will last and bear good results. Our compatriots are still poor and cannot afford paper and pens, therefore a small pocket exercise-book is enough for each person. Reading and writing exercises can be done anywhere, using charcoal, the ground or banana leaves as pens and paper. Clandestine cadres had to teach and make one person literate every three months. At that time, there was no assistance from the Government, no Ministry, or department in charge of educational problems, but in such precarious conditions, the movement kept developing, like oil spreading, the literate teaching the illiterate. (Source)

The worker-peasant alliance

The victory of the proletarian revolution is impossible in rural and semirural countries if the revolutionary proletariat is not actively supported by the mass of the peasant population…. In China, in India, in Latin America, in many European countries (Balkan countries, Rumania, Poland, Italy, France, Spain, etc.) the decisive ally of the proletariat in the revolution will be the peasant population. Only if the revolutionary wave sets in motion the rural masses under the leadership of the proletariat, will the revolution be able to triumph. Hence the exceptional importance of Party agitation in the countryside. (Source: Duiker)

Revolutionary art

Literature and art are also a fighting front. You are fighters on this front. Like other fighters, you combatants on the artistic front have definite responsibilities: to serve the Resistance, the Fatherland and the people, first and foremost the workers, peasants and soldiers. To fulfil your tasks, you must have a firm political stand and a sound ideology; in short you must place the interests of the Resistance, the Fatherland and the people above all… Some of you may think: President Ho is trying to link art to politics. That is right. Culture and art, like all other activities, cannot stand aloof from economics and politics, but must be included in them. (Source)

Compromise

Lenin said that one should make a compromise even with bandits if it was advantageous to the revolution. We needed peace to build our country, and therefore we forced ourselves to make concessions in order to maintain peace. Although the French colonialists broke their word and unleashed war, nearly one year of temporary peace had given us time to build up our basic forces. (Source)

Manure is dirty; but if it’s good for the rice plants, would you refuse to use it? (Source: Duiker)

Some people, intoxicated with our repeated victories, want to fight on at all costs, to a finish; they see only the trees, not the whole forest; with their attention focused on the withdrawal of the French they fail to detect their schemes; they see the French but not the Americans; they are partial to military action and make light of diplomacy. They are unaware that we are struggling in international conferences as well as on the battlefields in order to attain our goal. They will oppose the new slogans, which they deem to be rightist manifestations and to imply too many concessions. They set forth excessive conditions unacceptable to the enemy. They want quick results, unaware that the struggle for peace is a hard and complex one. Leftist deviation will cause one to be isolated, alienated from one’s own people and those of the world, and suffer setbacks. Rightist deviation will lead to pessimism, inaction and unprincipled concessions. It causes one to lack confidence in the people’s strength and to blunt their combative spirit; to lose the power to endure hardships and to aspire only to a quiet and easy life. Leftist and rightist tendencies are both wrong. They will be exploited by the enemy; they will benefit them and harm us. (Source)

Towards a common ideology in the struggle against imperialism

This is an expanded version of a speech given by Carlos Martinez at the event ‘STRIKE THE EMPIRE BACK: legacies and examples of liberation from neo-colonialism and white supremacy’


As far as most people are concerned, ‘ideology’ is a term of abuse, an insult you fling around: we accuse people of being “too ideological”, of being bookworms, of dividing people with “isms and schisms”, of “thinking too much” (I have to say I’ve never in my life met anyone who actually thinks too much, but I’ve met plenty of people who don’t think enough!).

The Cult of Activism

There is this view that ideology divides us, that it gets in the way of working together, that it’s not really relevant, and that we need to focus purely on ‘action’, on practical activity, on campaigning. We don’t have need to inform our activism with analysis and understanding, we need to do like Nike: just do it. Pickets are good, placards are good, campaigns are good, petitions are good, demonstrations are good, fundraising is good, concerts are good; debate, books, history, study, analysis: not so much. Inasmuch as we need to occasionally need to spread ideas, we do it in cute 140-character slogans on Twitter, or Lord of the Rings memes on Instagram.

In part, this is a reaction to what’s called “ivory tower syndrome” – academics and intellectuals, sitting up in their ivory towers, writing beautiful words but having neither the intention nor the ability to put theory into practice. And even the beautiful ideas the generate are very flawed because they’re so divorced from reality and from the masses.

That is a genuine problem. However, as the saying goes, you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If I bite into an over-ripe strawberry and it tastes rotten, I don’t conclude from that experience that I’ll never eat a strawberry again. If there are ivory tower ideologues who are over-ripe and rotten, let’s ignore them and develop the ideology we need, the ideology that serves us.

The state of the movement

As it stands, we as a movement (inasmuch as there is a ‘movement’ – here I am using it as a general label for the various individuals and groups who oppose the status quo and who want to build an alternative) are quite active. There’s quite of lot of activism around, and yet, if we’re honest, we’re getting nowhere.

We’re no more united than we ever were – in fact we’re less united. We’re no more effective than we ever were – in fact we’re less effective. We have meetings, demonstrations, campaigns, pickets and so on, but almost never win anything, and we don’t really play to win; we’re just out there flying the flag.

And yet oppressed and working class people are under attack. In the course of the last three decades, the ruling class have managed to smash the majority of the unions and the community organisations. They’ve privatised everything. They’ve gone to war, killing our brothers and sisters in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya in the hundreds of thousands. Benefits are cut, jobs disappear, wages are reduced, zero-hour contracts are introduced, bedroom taxes are introduced, banks are bailed out, student fees keep on rising, people are thrown in prison for protesting. Racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia are still prevalent with the dominant culture.

Meanwhile our political representation gets worse and worse, as the whole mainstream spectrum shifts to the right – as evidenced by UKIP’s success at the European election, and by the increasingly blurred lines between Tory and Labour politics.

As for the ruling class, the elite, the government, the police, the corporations, the 1% – they know what situation we’re in and therefore they know they can get away with pretty much anything they want. They know we are not in a position to fight the fight. That’s one of the main reasons we have whatever democratic rights we do have; that’s one of the main reasons they let us have the vote; that’s one of the main reasons they allow some level of freedom of speech: because they know full well we won’t use it to achieve anything meaningful.

Our ‘activism’ hasn’t prevented any of this. In some situations it’s even made it worse. To give a (thankfully) extreme example: when NATO was gearing up for its regime change operation against Libya, a sovereign African state, quite a few well-known activists thought the best thing to do would be to occupy Saif Gaddafi’s house in London, thereby totally playing into the mainstream agenda of demonising a state that the west was about to bomb into the stone age. What a situation, where you have courageous, passionate, righteous people – activists, people who are supposed to be on our side – and the media is able to play them like puppets!

Ideology is nothing to be scared of

If we don’t want to be played like puppets, we need ideology, we need understanding. It’s nothing to be afraid of. An ideology is simply a system of ideas – a set of beliefs, goals and strategies in relation to society. I think this scary word, ideology, can be summed up by three simple questions:

  • What is the current situation of society?

  • What changes do we want to achieve?

  • How do we go about creating those changes?

If you look around the world, and you look into history, you see that every movement that ever achieved anything meaningful is or was built on some kind of ideology. For example:

  • Malcolm X had an ideology, which one could argue was a mix of black nationalism, anti-imperialism, global south unity, socialism and pan-africanism, with Islam providing a moral-spiritual basis.

  • The Black Panthers had an ideology, based in Marxism, Maoism, black nationalism.

  • Closer to home, Sinn Fein and the IRA – who fought the British state to a stalemate (I wish we could do that!) – have an ideology, grounded in Irish nationalism, anti-imperialism and socialism.

  • The leaders of the Iranian revolution had and have an ideology, based in radical Islam, anti-imperialism, anti-zionism and orientation towards the poor. You can say something similar about Hezbollah, the only fighting force in the world to have defeated the Israeli army in battle (#JustSayin).

  • The liberation struggles in Vietnam, South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Ghana, Kenya, Guinea Bissau, Zimbabwe, Palestine, Namibia, Algeria, Korea; the revolutions in Cuba, China, Russia, Grenada, Nicaragua: they all had/have an ideology, a system of ideas/beliefs/goals/strategies that people unite around.

These ideologies have plenty in common, particularly in terms of opposition to imperialism, opposition to colonialism, opposition to racism, and a general orientation in favour of the poor and marginalised. However, none of them are identical, and each reflects to some degree the history, traditions, culture and conditions of the people involved.

The President of the Cuban Parliament made an interesting self-criticism recently, when discussing the variations within the revolutionary process in Latin America:

“What characterises Latin America at the present moment is the fact that a number of countries, each in its own way, are constructing their own versions of socialism. For a long while now, one of the fundamental errors of socialist and revolutionary movements has been the belief that a socialist model exists. In reality, we should not be talking about socialism, but rather about socialisms in the plural. There is no socialism that is similar to another. As Mariátegui said, socialism is a ‘heroic creation’. If socialism is to be created, it must respond to realities, motivations, cultures, situations, contexts, all of which are objectives that are different from each other, not identical.”

There are theories that can point us in the right direction; there is history to learn from; but there’s no cookie-cutter that we can pick up to get rid of capitalism and imperialism.

What about us?

We too need an ideology. We need to work out a shared belief system, an agreed set of goals, an agreed set of strategies, that we can unite around and work together to create meaningful change. We need to answer those three questions: where are we at? Where do we need to be? How do we get there?

We will not agree on everything. There are a whole host of important issues that we have to be willing to agree to differ on. But I am convinced that there is space for a common platform.

Just look at the other side. The enemy has ideology. The elite, the rulers of society, the ultra-rich, the government, the state – they have an ideology. It’s imperialism and neoliberalism: the most brutal, the most harsh, the most ruthless form of capitalism, promoting nothing less than ‘freedom’ – total freedom for the rich to get ever richer.

Plus they’re so generous, they realise that the masses need an ideology too, so they create a ready-made ideology for us! The ideology they give us is: consumerism, individualism, diversions, divisions, racism, sexism, homophobia, selfies, twerking, porn, Call of Duty…

And we congratulate ourselves on all this freedom and democracy we’ve got! “It’s a free country”, we say. No! It’s not freedom, it’s not democracy. It’s bread and circuses. Give the masses cheap food and cheap entertainment, keep them divided, and you’ve got them under your control.

Minimum platform

What type of ideology do we need? Good question :-)

That’s the long conversation that we need to continue, in a spirit of inclusiveness, openness, comradeship, creativity and generosity. It’s going to take a while.

To me, in today’s world, perhaps the most relevant examples to look at can be found in Latin America, in particular in terms of the legacy of Hugo Chávez, may he rest in peace.

What does Chávez represent? The essence of ‘Chavismo’, I believe, is: 1) creative, non-dogmatic, up-to-date socialism; 2) consistent, militant anti-imperialism.

Socialism – there’s another scary word that isn’t really that scary. What is the socialism that is being pursued in Venezuela (and Cuba, and Nicaragua, and elsewhere)?

  • Adopting policies that favour the poor: pursuing redistributive economics and social programmes that aim to permanently raise the status and living conditions of those at the bottom of society.
  • Promoting the interests of the indigenous, the African, the worker, the woman. Protecting freedom of worship. Addressing discrimination on every dimension, in the interests of building unity and justice.
  • Attempting to break the power of the old elite, the rich, the right, who have held society in their grip for so many centuries.
  • Constructing a popular democracy, a state that is “for us, by us”.

As for Chávez’s legacy of anti-imperialism, that means consistently uniting with the widest possible forces against the main enemy. Chávez built solid, meaningful alliances with a very diverse range of states and movements, from Cuba to Brazil to China to Russia, Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Belarus, Gaddafi’s Libya, Angola, DPR Korea, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, and so on.

He wasn’t a gullible liberal or a radical fashionista; he didn’t disown his allies just because the western press was demonising them. He kept his eye on the prize of ending imperialist domination for once and for all and constructing a new, multipolar world where countries can develop in peace.

He always said that one should unite with anyone who had even the slightest chance of joining the fight against imperialism. I think that idea gives as a decent clue as to how we should move forward.

The Legacy of the Grenadian Revolution Lives On

“The Grenada Revolution was a grasp of joy … that life unfulfilled could and would change, be transformed for a people who had known 400 years of transportation, slavery, colonialism, neocolonial dictatorship and exportation to the cities of Europe and North America. Joy that the organised genius of ordinary people could at last be applied to develop their own resources for their own future. There was the joy of education, of seeing your children achieving free secondary schooling and your illiterate mother learning how to read and write, the joy of seeing wasted, unemployed youths forming cooperatives and planting the idle land.” (Chris Searle, Grenada Morning)

Thirty-five years ago today, on the morning of 13 March 1979, the defence wing of the New Jewel Movement successfully overthrew the much-despised government of Eric Gairy. This bloodless coup – conducted by no more than 46 lightly-armed cadres – was widely welcomed by the people of Grenada. Hugh O’Shaughnessy writes that “the coup was enormously popular with Grenadians and it seemed as if the whole of the island was coming out into the streets to celebrate.” English popular educator and internationalist Chris Searle (who spent several years in Grenada and was charged with running both the teacher training programme and the official publishing house) notes that “fishermen, nutmeg workers, unemployed youth, peasant farmers and agricultural workers came streaming from their houses and converged upon police stations all over the island, forcing the policemen to run up white flags.” (Grenada Morning)

It seemed that the smog of subjugation, oppression and backwardness was finally being lifted; that this small southern Caribbean nation would be given the chance it deserved to blossom, freed from the iron grip of the kleptocratic and ruthless Eric Gairy – whose record of repression, personal enrichment, neocolonial policy, and alignment with the most reactionary states in the region (most notably Chile under Pinochet and Haiti under Duvalier) had lost him the trust and respect of the people.

Dennis Bartholomew, who during the period of the revolution was a representative of the People’s Revolutionary Government at the Grenadian High Commission in London, talks of the significance of the ‘revo’:

“From being the descendants of slaves, from people who’d been colonised, from people who’d been tossed aside, we suddenly became the controllers of our own destiny. For 400 years, our forebears were enslaved. We suffered in order to produce Europe’s wealth. After slavery we were further enslaved under colonialism. But in 1979, with our own ability, by our own efforts, we changed our course. Yes, others helped, but it was us.” (phone interview)

Dennis points out that the sense of jubilation and pride generated by the revolution was not restricted to Grenada – it spread like wildfire within the Caribbean community in Britain:

The effect was absolutely electric in Britain. Grenadians had previously kept their heads down – working, sending money home and so on. All of a sudden we felt extremely proud. An energy was there that wasn’t felt before. For example, the High Commission and the Caribbean community worked together to put on an event at the Commonwealth Institute to mark the anniversary of the revo. We were expecting maybe 500 people, and in the end 5,000 turned up. When Maurice Bishop was in London it was phenomenal – you couldn’t get into the meeting because of the crowds. The attitude of Grenadians changed. People were walking around who hadn’t been political before, and they started speaking in public in defence of Grenada, such was the pride.

maurice-samoraThe excitement of the revo was felt all around the Caribbean, as well as in the Caribbean communities in Britain, the US and Canada. Grenada instantly became a pole of attraction for socialists, anti-imperialists and Black Power activists. The father or critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire, came to kick off the literacy campaign. Major figures from the US such as Angela Davis and Harry Belafonte visited Grenada and were deeply inspired. Cheddi Jagan, Michael Manley, Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro all spoke of the profound importance of the Grenada revolution. The legendary Mozambican freedom fighter (then President) Samora Machel visited the island to show his solidarity. Progressive politicians, educators, activists and writers from throughout the region came to work in Grenada – figures such as Richard Hart, Merle Hodge, Didacus Jules and George Lamming. The truth is that this peaceful revolution in a small Caribbean country (with a population of a shade over 100,000) was a landmark moment, and its effects were felt throughout the region, and indeed the world.

Maurice Bishop

muralThe most prominent leader of this revolution was a charismatic young lawyer by the name of Maurice Bishop. Bishop was a popular, creative and intelligent revolutionary with an intuitive grasp of where the masses were at. A brilliant communicator, his mutual empathy with the masses of the people was one of the major driving forces of the revolution – not unlike the relationship between Fidel Castro and the Cuban people, or between Hugo Chávez and Venezuelan people. Fidel saw him as a true brother and comrade, remarking that “Bishop was one of the political leaders best liked and most respected by our people because of his talent, modesty, sincerity, revolutionary honesty and proven friendship with our country”.

Recently-deceased and much-missed veteran of the Caribbean labour movement Richard Hart wrote:

“By any standards he was a remarkable man. A lawyer by profession from a comfortable middle class background, his sympathies were nevertheless with the underprivileged masses. The initial emotional stimulus which he had received from the Black Power movement of the 1960s had ripened and matured during the 1970s on a more secure intellectual basis as he familiarised himself with Marxist-Leninist theory. Sentiment, theory and practice had combined to mould him into a dedicated revolutionary. He possessed to an extraordinary degree the ability to articulate clearly the objectives of the Revolution and to inspire support for it internally and regionally. His analytical mind and capacity for simple explanation helped the people to understand and share his convictions. His personality was magnetic.” (In Nobody’s Backyard (Preface))

Much like Fidel and Chávez, Bishop was a brilliant orator, uniquely capable of voicing the needs and aspirations of his people. Searle comments: “His bearing, a deep, mellow voice and superb command of the English language together with a continuous propensity to resort to the Creole vernacular, combined with his skills of persuasive and sophisticated speech that he had developed as one of the Caribbean’s most successful barristers, all fused to give a many-sided articulacy to his public speaking… He had an outstanding ability to create this sense of joy among his listeners.” (Grenada Morning)

There were of course other very important leaders whose role was decisive, but it’s clear that Bishop’s personal role as the pre-eminent leader of the Grenadian masses cannot easily be overstated.

Achievements

revsolHaving captured power, the New Jewel Movement quickly got down to the serious work of improving the lives of Grenada’s long-suffering people. As Bishop said in his first broadcast on Radio Free Grenada after the capture of power on 13 March 1979:

This revolution is for work, for food, for decent housing and health services, and for a bright future for our children

Wendy Grenade, a Grenadian lecturer in Political Science at the University of the West Indies, enumerates the key areas of focus for the revo: “raising levels of social consciousness; building a national ethos that encouraged a sense of community; organising agrarian reform to benefit small farmers and farm workers; promoting literacy and adult education; fostering child and youth development; enacting legislation to promote gender justice; constructing low income housing and launching house repair programmes; improving physical infrastructure and in particular the construction of an international airport; providing an environment that encouraged popular democracy through Parish and Zonal Councils etc.” All in all, a very different focus to that of any previous Grenadian government, and to that of most other Caribbean states.

Pre-revolutionary Grenada suffered with unemployment levels upward of 50%. Through the development of cooperatives, the expansion of the industrial base, the diversification of agriculture, the expansion of the tourist industry, and the creation of massive public works programmes, unemployment dropped to 14%, and the percentage of food imports dropped from over 40% to 28% at a time when market prices for agricultural products were collapsing worldwide.”

Paulo Freire was invited to design and lead the implementation of a literacy programme, which was successful in all but wiping out illiteracy (the literacy rate increased from 85% to 98%). The leaders of the revo realised that an educational system must be established that broke away from the British colonial tradition and the inferiority complex that it sought to instil in its ‘subjects’. As Bishop elaborated: “The colonial masters recognised very early on that if you get a subject people to think like they, to forget their own history and their own culture, to develop a system of education that is going to have relevance to our outward needs and be almost entirely irrelevant to our internal needs, then they have already won the job of keeping us in perpetual domination and exploitation. Our educational process, therefore, was used mainly as a tool of the ruling elite.”

Searle observed an intense, widespread desire and demand for learning:

One of the first overwhelming truths and discoveries of the Revolution was that education was everywhere, it was irrepressible! It came at once from every side and at every moment. The dammed-up flood of four centuries of the people’s urge to know, to understand, to learn, to connect, to criticise, to express themselves, was unstoppable. At meetings, at rallies, at panel discussions, through songs, poems, plays and calypso, the message poured down upon the revolutionary leaders: Teach us, we want to know! Young and old, farmer and urban worker, fisherman and the woman cracking nutmegs, seamstresses and road-workers, all clamoured for more education, giving the cue for the slogan: Education is a must – from the cradle to the grave.

By 1983, 37% of the national budget was being spent on education and health. School fees were abolished; schools were repaired. “Free books, school uniforms and hot lunches were provided for the first time for the poor. Health care was made free and the number of doctors and dentists doubled.” (source)

ForwardEverBackwordNeverFor the first time, Grenadians had a very real say as to how public funds were allocated – via a People’s Budget that pre-empted the celebrated Porto Alegre participatory budget by more than a decade. Meanwhile, the economic growth rate averaged 10% during the years of the revolution. A World Bank memorandum on the Grenadian economy in 1982 stated: “The government which came to power in March 1979 inherited a deteriorating economy, and is now addressing the task of rehabilitation and of laying better foundations… Government objectives are centred on the critical development issues and touch on the country’s most promising development areas.” Hugh O’Shaughnessy notes that this was “as close to unstinted praise as that cautious institution was ever likely to come.”

Regarding agriculture, Searle writes that “there was increased enthusiasm to work on the land. The old pattern of the plantocratic estate, the hierarchical control of the expatriate landlord or the man in the ‘great house’ and the living death of laborious daily-paid work on land which was not theirs – all this was changing. The growth in cooperatives on the land and the collective stake in production and profit had brought many young people back to the land, and three farm training schools had been established to give these young farmers some basic expertise in agriculture and cooperative management techniques.”

The revo was strongly focused on women’s empowerment and participation. “We moved against sexual harassment, and we encouraged women to participate fully in the construction of a new Grenada, for example through the National Women’s Organisation” (Dennis Bartholomew phone interview). Indeed, the first decree of the revo was to outlaw sexual victimisation.

The changes in society were reflected by a massively invigorated national culture, expressed through calypso, poetry, dance and drama. “The shyness and reticence that characterised many of the Grenadian people before the Revolution, the self-consciousness of being a ‘small island’, second-rate or unnoticed was replaced by an explosion of national self-assertion through the revolutionary culture… More Grenadians were writing poetry and performing calypso than ever before, and receiving publication and air-play.” (Grenada Morning)

In terms of international relations, Grenada maintained friendly relations with all countries that were willing to treat it as an equal. Inevitably, this meant that its closest relations were with other nations within the socialist, progressive and non-aligned world, such as Cuba, (Sandinista) Nicaragua, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, East Germany, DPR Korea, Mozambique, Libya and Syria. Revolutionary Grenada was also a great friend to the forces fighting against South African apartheid and occupation, in particular the ANC and SWAPO.

We are a small country, we are a poor country, with a population of largely African descent, we are a part of the exploited Third World, and we definitely have a stake in seeking the creation of a new international economic order which would assist in ensuring economic justice for the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world, and in ensuring that the resources of the sea are used for the benefit of all the people of the world and not for a tiny minority of profiteers. Our aim, therefore, is to join all organisations and work with all countries that will help us to become more independent and more in control of our own resources. In this regard, nobody who understands present-day realities can seriously challenge our right to develop working relations with a variety of countries.

One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the revo was the construction of an international airport – the first airport to be built by a post-colonial Caribbean state. Bartholomew says with great pride: “The key step was building the international airport. It wasn’t built by the US or Cubans – we built it ourselves, with Cuban help. It was based on an old British plan. Money was raised internally by the raising of bonds, plus there was help from Libya, from Algeria, from Britain and elsewhere.”

Sadly, the revo didn’t live to reap the benefits of the airport, which wasn’t completed until 1984. In May 2009, the airport was finally renamed Maurice Bishop International Airport.

People’s Democracy

maurice-bishop-gen-h-austin-lt-george-cherubinRevolutionary Grenada came under criticism from many angles for not holding parliamentary elections – particularly since Bishop’s first broadcast after the seizure of power had promised the restoration of “all democratic freedoms, including freedom of elections.” This lack of elections was constantly used by the US and its regional proxies to besmirch the New Jewel government, and there are plenty of people – even those broadly sympathetic to the revolution – who feel that the whole experience was tainted through lack of democracy.

Why weren’t elections held? After all, there was never any doubt that the NJM would comfortably win at the polls. Bishop discussed this issue in an interview with New Internationalist in 1980:

We don’t believe that a parliamentary system is the most relevant in our situation. After all, we took power outside the ballot-box and we are trying to build our Revolution on the basis of a new form of democracy: grass­roots and democratic, creating mechanisms and institutions which really have relevance to the people, If we succeed it will bring in question this whole parliamentary approach to democracy which we regard as having failed in the region. We believe that elections could be important, but for us the question is one of timing. We don’t regard it now as a priority. We would much rather see elections come when the economy is more stable, when the Revolution is more consolidated. When more people have in fact had benefits brought to them. When more people are literate and able to understand what the meaning of a vote really is and what role they should have in building a genuine participatory democracy.

Speaking at an event to mark the first anniversary of the revolution – an event at which the guests included Daniel Ortega and Michael Manley – Bishop highlighted some of the obvious flaws of the Westminster system:

There are those (some of them our friends) who believe that you cannot have a democracy unless there is a situation where every five years, and for five seconds in those five years, a people are allowed to put an ‘X’ next to some candidate’s name, and for those five seconds in those five years they become democrats, and for the remainder of the time, four years and 364 days, they return to being non-people without the right to say anything to their government, without any right to be involved in running their country.

In place of a such a pseudo-democracy, there was set up a system of grassroots democracy that, by any reasonable standard, must be considered far more democratic than the pretend democracy in place in Britain and the US. Thirty-five years later, Chris Searle remains immensely enthusiastic about the breadth of popular participation during those years:

“A lot went right. There were some unique developments. The internal democracy – the local democracy at the village and town level – was quite remarkable. Parish councils were set up; the women’s movement and youth movement were extremely active. It was a genuine mass mobilisation of ordinary people at every level, from the elderly down to children. There was nothing forced about it; the democracy bubbled up from the people. It was incredible, really.” (phone interview)

Organs of power sprung up everywhere, and nearly everyone was involved in some level of organisation and decision-making, be it the Zonal Councils, the Workers’ Parish Councils, the Farmer Councils, the Youth Movement or the Women’s Movement, all of which met at least once a month. Free facilities were made available for all such meetings, and they were often attended by senior government figures, who would have to answer directly to the people.

Bartholomew describes the atmosphere:

The feeling was totally different. People were coming together and doing things. Nobody said “we can’t do it”; they were saying “how are we going to do it”? There was a definite spirit in the air.

In 1981, the People’s Revolutionary Government established a Ministry of National Mobilisation, headed up by senior NJM leader Selwyn Strachan. This was a whole government ministry dedicated to devising means of continually spreading and improving popular participation in the running of the country, and ensuring maximum levels of accountability for those in positions of power.

Searle points out that the army was expected to be at the service of the people, and was deeply involved in helping to carry out decisions made by the organs of popular power. He states: “The army was involved and was extremely popular. if repairs needed or houses build, soldiers would be there.” Quite a difference from the role of the army in a typical bourgeois democracy!

So while parliamentary elections were not held in the four and a half years of the revo, a far more meaningful democracy was constructed. This had the additional benefit of avoiding the ways in which international imperialism – with its vast networks of contacts, diplomats, agents, media sources, bribes, and so on – can use parliamentary politics to subvert real democracy. Bishop’s analysis of this process brings to mind the way the west has tried to (and continues to try to) destabilise progressive governments, with varying degrees of success, in Jamaica (under Manley), Chile (under Allende), Venezuela, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere.

“A part of that political tribalism, as used by the CIA, has been to get some of the parliamentarians to use the medium of parliament in such a way as to destabilise the country. Masterminded by their American puppeteers, they raise bogus concerns about the economy, they spread vicious propaganda from outside the country and seek to make the people lose faith and confidence in their revolutionary government, raising a million and one other such provocative matters through the medium of parliament – and thus claim to do it in that sense with a certain measure of legitimacy.” (Interview in mid-1983, contained in Grenada: The Struggle Against Destabilisation)

Destabilisation

Naturally, the revo was not too popular in the eyes of the politicians of the imperialist states. After all, Grenada was the first (and remains the only) English-speaking country in the Americas to have undergone a successful revolution of the oppressed. Moreover, it was a revolution led by the descendants of African slaves, and therefore was seen as a particularly dangerous example to the black population in North America. “The Grenada Revolution has a facility of speaking directly to the people of the USA, in particular the exploited majority. Then in the case of black Americans, meaning something like 27 million black people who are a part of the most rejected and oppressed section of the American population, US imperialism has a particular dread that they will develop an extra empathy and rapport with the Grenada Revolution, and from that point of view will pose a threat to their own continuing control and domination of blacks inside the US.” (interview, ibid)

On top of the bad example it was setting, Grenada was also considered a threat on account of its relations with countries on the wrong side of the ‘iron curtain’. Hugh O’Shaughnessy writes: “Washington’s rage reached paranoiac proportions when Grenada started close co-operation with Cuba and the USSR. Grenada’s action challenged the hegemony that Washington was expecting to extend throughout the Caribbean after the withdrawal of the British who had dominated it for two centuries.”

As can be seen from the example of so many states that have refused to go along with imperialist diktat – from Chile to Mozambique, from Cuba to Libya, from Venezuela to Syria – the west has a thousand different ways of creating instability. Grenada was no different. The US was able to mobilise elements within the Grenadian trade union movement to call strikes when the government was unable to meet their demands for enormous wage increases. There were boss-led lockouts. Production was sabotaged. Rallies were bombed. There were assassinations. A wide-ranging campaign was conducted in the ‘free’ (rich-white-owned) Caribbean press against the Grenadian revolution. In short, Grenada was subjected to every form of economic, political, paramilitary and media destabilisation. The revo was under constant threat.

We think of the scientific way in which they have evolved a new concept which they have called destabilisation: a concept aimed at creating political violence, economic sabotage; a concept which when it fails, eventually leads to terrorism. We think of the attempts to use local opportunists and counter-revolutionaries — people who try to build a popular base, people who fail in building that popular base, and people who as a result of having failed to fool the masses then turn to the last weapon they have in desperation: the weapon of open, naked, brutal and vulgar terror. Having given up all hope of winning the masses, these people now turn their revenge on the masses. They now seek to punish the masses, to murder them wholesale; to plant bombs in the midst of rallies; to try to break the back of the popular support of the Revolution; because imperialism was frightened and terrified by the Grenadian masses on March 13, 1980 when 30,000 of our people gathered in one spot to celebrate one year of People’s Victory, People’s Progress, People’s Benefits. They were terrified by that, and as a result they now seek to intimidate, to brow-beat, to frighten and terrorise the masses to get them to be afraid to assemble, to get them to be afraid to continue to build their own country in their own image and likeness.

In 1981, US President Reagan deployed over 120,000 troops, 250 warships and 1,000 aircraft to Vieques Island, near Puerto Rico, for a mock invasion. The operation was code-named ‘Amber and the Amberines’, in clear reference to Grenada and the Grenadines (which is Grenada’s full country name, as the state incorporates the two small islands of Carriacou and Petit Martinique). In this sinister war game, “the objective was to capture ‘Amber’, hold US-style elections and install a ‘government friendly to America’, keeping troops occupying the island until the elections were over.” (The Struggle Against Destabilisation). This was all too obviously an elaborate dress rehearsal for the US military invasion of Grenada.

Such is the dangerous and precarious context in which the revo existed.

Implosion and invasion

Constant destabilisation and psychological warfare had led to an atmosphere of fear, paranoia and mistrust among the leadership. Rumours were flying, tempers were frayed, emotions were running high, and people were feeling the sheer exhaustion of working day and night to build a new Grenada in the face of US threats and provocation. Searle writes that “if ever there was a time for forces hostile to the revolution to strike and mobilise themselves around the venomous use of rumours, this was the time. In the small islands of the Caribbean the rumour and the ‘bad talking’ are the deadliest of weapons, and during this time every rumour that moved from person to person, cadre to cadre and community to community contributed to the eventual destruction of the revolution.” (Grenada Morning)

Although the revo continued to make impressive gains, behind the scenes a factional dispute emerged within the New Jewel Movement in 1983, based primarily on a criticism of Maurice Bishop, who was accused of developing a personality cult and of succumbing to petit-bourgeois thinking. A parallel leadership started to emerge in the NJM Central Committee around Finance Minister Bernard Coard, one of the key figures of the revolution and its most respected theoretician.

How the divide degenerated to such an extent is, to this day, a matter of intense dispute. It seems that Bishop had initially agreed to a proposal for joint leadership of the revolution which was supported by a majority on the Central Committee. However, he came back from a trip to Hungary and Cuba in early October 1983 saying that he wasn’t sure about the workability of the plan and that he wanted to give it some more thought. This may have been a mistake on Bishop’s part, and the accusation that he was “in contempt of the party” may have been true. Nonetheless, the response of the Central Committee to place him under house arrest was indefensibly foolish. “On the Central Committee side there was a theoretical ‘purity’ which refused to compromise and seek a practical and creative solution… They knew Maurice had enormous popularity with the people and that to detain him in that sudden unexplained and provocative way would rile the support base of the revolution. To many thousands of people in Grenada, Maurice was the revolution.” (ibid)

Maurice Bishop was placed under house arrest on 13 October 1983. Once the word got out, rallies were held across the country demanding his release. Just a few days later, on 19 October, a demonstration of several thousand marched to his house and managed to free him. The situation was one of total chaos and confusion. The crowd marched to the military headquarters at Fort Rupert, where Bishop apparently believed they would be able to defend themselves and regain control of the country. Hundreds of Bishop supporters made their way to the fort, and army units under the command of General Hudson Austin – a longtime comrade of Bishop’s who was on the other side of the NJM dispute – came rushing to the scene.

Both sides claim that the other side fired the first shots. Fort Rupert came under heavy fire from the army. The first to fall dead was Vince Noel, one of the original 14 members of the Provisional Revolutionary Government. O’Shaughnessy writes that “the cry of panic and the groans of the dying and the wounded were almost effaced by the sound of hundreds of people rushing to escape wherever they could. Some ran down the incline back to town, others ran for cover in the General Hospital tucked below the fort, others threw themselves over the battlements to death or injury below, like so many lemmings… Within the operations room Bishop gave the order to stop any return fire on the attacking forces. In the last cry of anguish his followers were to hear, he moaned ‘Oh God, oh God, they turned their guns against the masses.'”

The army won control of the fort, and firing ceased. Those remaining in the fort were ordered to leave, with the exception of (Prime Minister) Maurice Bishop, (Minister of Education) Jacqueline Creft, (Foreign Minister) Unison Whiteman, (President of the Agricultural and General Workers Union) Fitzroy Bain, (Minister of Housing) Norris Bain, Keith Hayling, Evelyn Bullen and Cecil Evelyn Maitland. These eight were lined up facing a courtyard wall and executed by firing squad.

The army’s communique in the immediate aftermath struck a tone of curiously misplaced triumphalism: “All patriots and revolutionaries will never forget this day when … the friends of imperialism were crushed. This victory today will ensure that our glorious party the NJM will live on and grow from strength to strength leading and guiding the Armed Forces and the Revolution.”

The chaos – and the population’s shock at the sudden killing of the country’s leader and his closest comrades – created a favourable context for the US to enact its invasion plans, which had been “nursed in secret at the State Department and the Pentagon for four and a half years” (O’Shaughnessy). As the Cuban government’s statement the next day all-too-accurately predicted: “Now imperialism will try to use this tragedy and the serious mistakes made by the Grenadian revolutionaries to sweep away the revolutionary process in Grenada and place the country under imperial and neocolonialist rule once again.”

A week later, Reagan played out his ‘Amber and the Amberines’ war game in real life, sending tens of thousands of troops to ensure that the Grenadian Revolution was comprehensively wiped out. Thus was destroyed one of the most promising experiments in people’s power of the latter part of the 20th century.

There is much research still to be done in relation to the precipitous fall of Grenadian Revolution – the extent of CIA involvement, the details of the Bishop-Coard split, and so on. It’s almost impossible to understand how such a disaster could have happened, just as it’s almost impossible to understand how the Black Panthers and allied organisations in the US could have imploded so spectacularly. In the case of the Panthers, a great deal of research has been done over the decades, and we have an increasingly clear picture of the depth of the state’s sinister campaign of assassinations, imprisonment, psychological warfare, agents provocateurs, fake letters, rumour-mongering, and the infiltration of drugs. It would hardly be surprising if the US intelligence agencies turn out to have been heavily involved in the collapse of unity within the NJM.

Whatever the case, it’s difficult to disagree with Fidel’s assessment that “no doctrine, no principle or proclaimed revolutionary position and no internal division can justify atrocious acts such as the physical elimination of Bishop and the prominent group of honest and worthy leaders who died… Look at the history of the revolutionary movement, and you will find more than one connection between imperialism and those who take positions that appear to be on the extreme left.” The murder of Bishop and his comrades lost the NJM the trust and confidence of the people, and in so doing paved the way for US invasion.

Lessons and legacy

The great socialist former Prime Minister of Guyana, Cheddi Jagan, (himself the victim of imperialist destabilisation) spoke in 1981 of the inspiration that Grenada was giving to the whole Caribbean region:

“It is like a breath of fresh air, a tonic to the frayed nerves of a people long betrayed, battered and bruised … a monument to the Caribbean man’s courage and political will to stand up to imperialist diktat and blackmail.” (Grenada Morning)

It’s unfortunate that the Grenadian Revolution of 1979-1983 tends to be remembered only in terms of its tragic final days, because its first four and a half years were brilliant and unprecedented – an explosion of creativity, of culture, of vibrancy, of learning, of democracy, of freedom. The grandsons and grand-daughters of slaves wrested power and built a society on the basis of their own hopes and dreams. They began to write their own history.

The successes of the revo could continue to inspire progressive people around the world. The legacy of the New Jewel Movement should be kept alive, for how many other socialist movements in the English-speaking world have achieved so much? Dennis Bartholomew comments:

More than anything, we showed that if you have the will, and if you mobilise the people, you can change things. We were able to do remarkable things in spite of the fact that we started with a bankrupt economy and very little in the way of natural resources. But the people were mobilised. The memory hasn’t been totally wiped out. Thirty years later, we can make a clear comparison to help us understand what the revo did. In four and a half years of a progressive, independent, socialist-oriented model, look at what we achieved, and compare that with the achievements of 30 years of a US-backed capitalist model. Yes, the revo was tainted in the eyes of Grenadians as a result of the tragic events of 19 October, but the achievements can’t be forgotten. We shouldn’t forget the enormity of what we did.

Ultimately, the revo should not be seen as a failure. Do we consider the Paris Commune as a ‘failure’? The Soviet Union? The Haitian Revolution? Julien Fédon’s slave uprising in Grenada at the end of the 18th century? In the context of the broad historical epoch we are living through – the struggle to finally defeat colonialism, imperialism and racism, and to set the stage for the advance to socialism – such experiments cannot be considered as failures. Bishop himself put it well:

It took several hundred years for feudalism to be finally wiped out and capitalism to emerge as the new dominant mode of production, and it will take several hundred years for capitalism to be finally wiped out before socialism becomes the new dominant mode.

May the legacy of the Grenadian Revolution continue to inspire and educate.

Further study

  • In Nobody’s Backyard: Maurice Bishop’s Speeches
  • Maurice Bishop Speaks: Grenada Revolution, 1979-83
  • Chris Searle – Grenada Morning: A Memoir of the ‘Revo’
  • Hugh O’Shaughnessy – Grenada: Revolution, Invasion And Aftermath
  • Chris Searle – Grenada: The Struggle Against Destabilisation
  • Richard Hart – The Grenada Revolution: Setting the Record Straight
  • Merle Hodge – Is Freedom We Making: the New Democracy in Grenada
  • Chris Searle – Words Unchained: Language and Revolution in Grenada
  • Film: Forward Ever – The Killing of a Revolution