Important event on Saturday 26 June: China’s Path to Zero Poverty

Friends of Socialist China is organising its first webinar, co-sponsored by the Geopolitical Economy Research Group, on Saturday 26 June, 9am US Eastern / 2pm Britain / 9pm China.

You can register for the Zoom event on Eventbrite.


Details

On 1 July 2021, the Communist Party of China celebrates the 100th anniversary of its founding. Of all the CPC has accomplished in that period, the elimination of extreme poverty is unquestionably among its most impressive and historically significant achievements.

In this webinar, academics, politicians, journalists and campaigners from around the world will explore how China has been able to carry out the most extensive poverty alleviation program in history, and what lessons there are for humanity.

Speakers

  • Senator Mushahid Hussain (Chairman, Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and Pakistan-China Institute, Pakistan)
  • Li Jingjing (Reporter for CGTN, China)
  • Utsa Patnaik (Marxist economist, India)
  • Ovigwe Eguegu (Columnist for the China Africa Project, Nigeria)
  • Camila Escalante (Broadcast journalist, producer, presenter for Kawsachun News, Bolivia)
  • Roland Boer (Professor of Marxist philosophy in the School of Marxism at Dalian University of Technology, China)
  • Mick Dunford (Emeritus Professor, University of Sussex, Visiting Professor, Chinese Academy of Sciences)
  • John Ross (Senior Fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China)
  • Qiao Collective (Collective of diaspora Chinese challenging US aggression on China)
  • Tings Chak (Lead Designer/Researcher at Tricontinental Institute and Dongsheng News)
  • Chair: Radhika Desai (Professor of Political Studies, University of Manitoba, Director, Geopolitical Economy Research Group)

About the organisers

Friends of Socialist China is a new platform based on supporting the People’s Republic of China and promoting understanding of Chinese socialism. Its website (edited by Danny Haiphong, Keith Bennett and Carlos Martinez) aims to consolidate the best articles and videos related to China and Chinese socialism, along with original analysis.

The Geopolitical Economy Research Group is a policy institute based at the University of Manitoba and run by Radhika Desai and Alan Freeman. It analyses and proposes policy alternatives for managing the interaction of national economies and states to promote human development and mutual benefit in today’s multipolar world.

Karl Marx in Wuhan: how Chinese socialism is defeating COVID-19

The initial outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) took place in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, in early January 2020. The epidemic was limited almost entirely to China until a month later, when it flared up in Iran, South Korea, Japan and Italy. By 11 March, it was clear that sustained community-level transmission of the virus was occurring in multiple regions of the world, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it a pandemic. With the virus spreading throughout Europe and North America, there is now a serious possibility that COVID-19 will infect a large proportion of the global population and cause the early death of millions of people. It is a global health emergency of almost unprecedented proportions.

China’s successes containing the virus

In the absence of a vaccine or cure, the only way to defeat a viral epidemic is to drastically reduce contagion, and this is achieved through rigorous testing, contact tracing, isolation of patients, and social distancing for the wider population.

Once it understood the nature and scope of the crisis, the Chinese government took swift, uncompromising action. A total lockdown was imposed in Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak, on 23 January, at which point there were around 800 confirmed cases. Tens of millions of people were required to stay indoors. Schools and workplaces were closed, and sporting and cultural events were cancelled. In the words of Bruce Aylward, epidemiologist and senior advisor to the Director General of WHO, “old-fashioned public health tools” were deployed “with a rigour and innovation of approach on a scale that we’ve never seen in history.”

The report of the WHO-China Joint Mission, conducted in late February, concluded that “in the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history.” The report noted that up-to-date public health information was regularly and widely distributed through multiple channels; there was a coordinated nationwide effort to get sufficient medical supplies to Hubei; and local authorities worked to ensure a stable supply of basic goods and to prevent speculation and hoarding.

The government announced immediately that testing and treatment – including expensive and sophisticated techniques such as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation – would be free to all, and it immediately introduced various measures to mitigate the effect on people’s daily lives (for example pausing mortgage and credit card payments, and providing subsidies to ensure continued payment of wages). Food shopping moved completely online, and provincial authorities and Communist Party of China (CPC) local branches coordinated to ensure every home received food packages and that people on medication received their prescriptions.

More than 30,000 doctors and nurses were sent to Wuhan from across China. Forty-five hospitals were designated as COVID-19 treatment centres, 12 temporary hospitals were converted from exhibition centres and similar buildings, and two brand new hospitals (with a capacity of 1,000 and 1,300 beds) were constructed from the ground up in a matter of days. The health system prioritised keeping people alive, scaling up the production of ventilators and adding capacity across the range of treatment and detection options. Dr Aylward remarked: “the Chinese are really good at keeping people alive with this disease.”

Public health officials attempted to trace every single confirmed case, and then tested everyone that had come into contact with the infected person, in line with the WHO’s clear message to “test, test, test”.

China’s containment effort has been facilitated by the extensive use of advanced technology. Temperature checking stations have been set up throughout the country, and people have been asked to install a smartphone app that provides information, allows users to check and report symptoms, and enables the health authorities to monitor the spread of the disease.

Artificial intelligence is being widely deployed; for example a prediction model “is helping health care authorities in Chongqing and Shenzhen predict outbreaks ahead of time with accuracy rates of more than 90 per cent.” Meanwhile Chinese tech giants have made crucial services available for the fight against COVID-19. “Alibaba Cloud has offered AI computing capabilities to public research institutions for free to support virus gene sequencing, new drug R&D and protein screenings. Baidu has opened up LinearFold, its RNA prediction algorithm, to genetic testing agencies, epidemic prevention centres and research institutes around the world. Neusoft Medical donated high-end CT scanners, AI medical imaging, cloud platform and remote advanced post-processing software to hospitals in Wuhan.”

Robots have been put to use delivering meals to people under quarantine. Huawei and China Telecom worked together to set up a 5G-enabled remote video diagnostic centre, enabling medical staff to conduct remote online consultations.

In a clear sign of its commitment to international cooperation to contain the virus, the Chinese Centre for Disease Control sequenced the entire COVID-19 genome and published it within a few days of the virus being identified. By comparison, it took two months for the genome to be sequenced during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

China’s “incredibly difficult measures” were recognised by the WHO as having probably prevented hundreds of thousands of cases. The crisis reached its peak in early February, when new confirmed cases were increasing at a rate of around 3,000 per day. The curve started to flatten in mid-February, and was almost completely flat by the beginning of March: in the first three weeks of March, case numbers increased from 80,026 to 81,008, and at the time of writing (in late March), almost all new cases in China are imported rather than domestically transmitted.

Containment measures successfully prevented any really serious outbreak in China outside Hubei. The worst affected province after Hubei has been Guangdong, a vast province of 113 million people in Southern China, where by late March there had been around 1,400 confirmed cases and just eight deaths. At the time of writing, two of the provinces neighbouring Hubei, Hunan and Anhui, have zero active confirmed cases.

With the outbreak clearly under control in China, lockdown measures are being eased and people are starting to return to normal life, while remaining vigilant to the possibility of a resurgence of the virus. China’s extraordinary response to COVID-19, although it came at significant economic and human cost, has provided an indispensable lesson to the rest of the world in how to tackle this pandemic. An epidemiological analysis in The Lancet stated: “What has happened in China shows that quarantine, social distancing, and isolation of infected populations can contain the epidemic. This impact of the COVID-19 response in China is encouraging for the many countries where COVID-19 is beginning to spread.”

Continue reading Karl Marx in Wuhan: how Chinese socialism is defeating COVID-19

Building solidarity and friendship with China: notes on a trip to the People’s Republic

Between 27 December and 7 January, I joined a China Silk Road Tour led by former US congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and organised by Chinese-American activist Lee Siu Hin. There were various strands of political ideology to be found among the 20 delegates, but we were united in our opposition to the growing US-led Cold War, which is directed primarily at China and which seeks to prevent the emergence of a multipolar world.

We spent around three days each in Beijing, Xi’an (capital of Shaanxi province, and one of the oldest cities in China), Dunhuang (a small oasis city that served as an important stop on the ancient Silk Road) and Ürümqi (capital of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region). China is enormous, but this itinerary – stretching across the north of the country – allowed us to develop some understanding of its diversity.

Housing

Walking around in Beijing, Xi’an, Dunhuang and Ürümqi, one thing that immediately strikes you is how clean, modern, safe and well-organised Chinese cities are. The metro is cheap, extensive, efficient, and easy to navigate. There are public toilets everywhere. The streets are spotless. People come across as friendly and confident. Remarkably, you don’t see beggars or people sleeping on the street. Those in the delegation who live in London or New York all commented on the contrast.

In meetings with the Chinese Academy of Marxism and the Beijing People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, we were able to find out more about the housing situation in China. Around 90 percent of Chinese families own their own homes (and the majority of these homes are owned outright, without a mortgage). The remaining 10 percent live in heavily subsidised social housing, or in accommodation provided to migrant workers by their employers. The latter group – migrant workers from rural areas – also benefit from the fact that the Chinese Revolution wiped out feudalism and the landlord system in the countryside, so if work dries up in the city, migrant workers have the option of going back to their land. As a result, there are none of the urban slums that are so commonplace in a lot of Asian countries.

The housing situation is by no means perfect – significant inequality has opened up, particularly between urban residents (who were able to buy their apartments at very low cost during the first phase of housing reform) and villagers and migrants; however, the government is working hard to resolve various housing-related problems: preventing speculation, liberalising the hukuo (household registration) system, building millions of units of low-cost social housing, and investing heavily in the development of smaller inland cities so as to even out the imbalance between the big East Coast cities and the rest of the country.

To basically solve the problem of homelessness in an enormous Asian country of 1.3 billion people is a remarkable accomplishment. It’s extremely difficult for most other countries in Asia and Africa – those that didn’t have thoroughgoing land revolutions – to meaningfully tackle homelessness. Meanwhile in the developed capitalist countries, the resources exist to address the problem, but the political system is built around the needs of the rich and therefore homelessness is simply never a priority. In short, it’s one of the huge socio-economic problems that only socialism has solved.

Addressing inequality

Housing inequality is connected to the broader issue of inequality between urban and rural areas, between coastal and inland zones, and between city residents and migrant workers. The Chinese development model in the 1980s and 1990s was based on allowing the major trading cities on the south-eastern coast to develop first, attracting foreign capital and new technology by offering a huge pool of low-cost, well-educated and diligent workers. Many of these workers were migrants – typically people in their 20s – who would come from the countryside because they could earn more in low-paid factory work than they could from their land (with 20 percent of the world’s population but only 6 percent of its arable land, overpopulation of the countryside has been an intractable problem in China for many centuries).

The migrant worker system is particularly attractive for foreign capital, because it means companies can base their pay scales on the costs of a single worker rather than a whole family, and because it’s consistent with seasonal or casual work (since migrant workers simply go back to the village when labour supply exceeds demand).

The Chinese government recognises that this system has fomented inequality and that the millions of migrant workers have benefitted far less from China’s rapid growth than most of the rest of the population. However, in a situation where it had practically zero capital and desperately needed to attract investment to develop its technology and integrate into the global economy, China had little choice but to implement pro-capital policies. From the late 1990s, China has had the material base to deliver much improved living conditions for all workers.

In terms of protecting the rights of migrant workers in the big cities, the two major policy strands are to mandate higher pay and better conditions, and to gradually replace the hukuo system with a residency permit that will allow long-term migrant workers access to the full range of rights and services provided to city residents.

The government is also pursuing a broader rebalancing strategy, promoting the development of smaller cities in the west, north and centre of the country. Towards this aim, there has been incredible infrastructure development over the last decade. The whole country is connected via high-speed rail and road. Modern energy is available everywhere, and internet access is practically universal. Although Xinjiang has historically been the poorest region of the country, we found it to be almost as modern and developed as Beijing, with good quality roads, 4G internet, plentiful housing, and a newly-opened metro system.

In Dunhuang, a small city of around 180,000 people, we travelled on the local network of electric buses, which run regularly through the city. We also happened upon the Gansu Dunhuang Solar Park, one of the big new industries in the area. It’s utterly enormous, with an annual net energy output of around 80 GWh. China was responsible for 32 percent of global renewable energy investment last year, and is increasingly recognised as the world leader in preventing climate catastrophe. Its move to green development fits perfectly with its rebalancing strategy, and solar parks and other alternative energy plants are being set up throughout the country.

We took the high-speed train from Beijing to Xi’an, and from Liuyuan (Gansu) to Ürümqi. The Beijing-Xi’an journey was cheap, comfortable and fast, taking a little over four hours to cover a distance approximately equal to that between New York City and Chicago – which journey would take at least 19 hours by train and cost several times more. China’s state-owned high speed rail network is by far the largest in the world; in fact it accounts for two-thirds of global HSR capacity. CRRC, the state-owned train manufacturer, is currently working on magnetic levitation trains that will travel at 600km/h – approximately twice the speed of current HSR.

China’s vision for the coming 20-30 years focuses on continuing this process of rebalancing, spreading prosperity throughout the country, and moving to a model of development that’s highly innovative, technological, ecological, localised and networked.

Air pollution

Many people associate China with terrifying levels of pollution. Our experience was that the air pollution in Beijing is noticeable but not terrible. Residents all say it’s improved massively in recent years. We learned at the Beijing People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries that the current mayor of Beijing, Chen Jining, is an environmental engineer who got his PhD at Imperial College London and who was China’s environment minister from 2015 to 2017. He has been strongly focused on reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and establishing Beijing as a global innovator in the fight against environmental catastrophe. One recent innovation has been to ban the purchase of internal combustion-based cars – that is, if you buy a new car, it has to run on new energy.

Similar processes are taking place throughout China, as the government tries to simultaneously tackle air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Although China’s rapid economic growth has been based in no small part on its abundant supply of cheap coal, coal takes up an ever-decreasing share of its energy mix (down from 80 percent to 60 percent in the last decade), and China is by far the biggest investor and innovator in solar and wind energy.

Mistreatment of Muslims

Western media has built a powerful narrative of Chinese oppression of its Muslim minority. Most notably, we’re told of the existence of ‘concentration camps’ in Xinjiang, where millions of people are denied their religious and human rights. The US House of Representatives recently passed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, calling for sanctions to be imposed against China because of the alleged detention of millions of Uighur Muslims.

Urumqi skyline

Our delegation wasn’t a fact-finding mission; we didn’t have a specific aim to verify the truth of these various allegations. We did however walk freely around Ürümqi and the Muslim quarter in Xi’an, and failed to see any evidence of religious or ethnic oppression. In Ürümqi one sees mosques everywhere; indeed Xinjiang has one of the highest number of mosques per capita in the world. Walking well off the beaten track, we saw hundreds of Chinese Muslims, wearing their distinctive Uighur dress (including headscarves for many women) and going about their lives without any indication that they were living in fear of persecution. We ate in Uighur restaurants, in which halal food was served and alcohol wasn’t available.

What’s true is that the levels of security in Ürümqi are much higher than the other places we visited – you walk through metal detectors and have your bag x-rayed when going into any tourist spot, train station or major shopping area. This is a response to a wave of terrorist attacks conducted by al Qaeda-aligned groups since the 1990s. China has attempted to tackle terrorism through a holistic approach involving security, poverty alleviation and education. It is the latter part which has been most controversial within the western human rights community. Where China is attempting to tackle religious extremism with what it considers to be a fairly soft touch – requiring people to attend courses on religious tolerance (as opposed to, say, holding people captive for years on Guantanamo and subjecting them to vicious torture) – this has been portrayed as a system of arbitrary mass incarceration. Such far-fetched Cold War propaganda has been helpfully debunked by investigative journalists Ajit Singh and Max Blumenthal. The success of the anti-terrorism campaign is indicated by the fact that there hasn’t been a terror attack in Xinjiang for the last three years.

Dancing in the main square in Urumqi

Human rights

Soon after the end of our trip, the news came out that Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth had been denied entry to Hong Kong, where he was planning to release a report “spotlighting Beijing’s deepening assault on international efforts to uphold human rights”. This led to a chorus of protests in the media about Chinese abuse of human rights.

One thing that’s fairly obvious as you travel around China and talk to ordinary Chinese people is that the Chinese government is very much focused on human rights. First and foremost among these is the right to life: to eat, to work, to get an education, to receive good quality healthcare, to live in a secure home, to enjoy leisure time, to pursue one’s interests. In terms of these crucial rights, no state in history has made as powerful a contribution as that of the People’s Republic of China – no state in history has lifted so many out of poverty, or provided education and housing for so many, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion and income level. The enormous popularity of the Chinese government within China is down to its record in delivering on people’s needs. Meanwhile there’s very little demand for a western-style parliamentary system, because the particular configuration of political forces that prefigured the parliamentary system in the early days of European capitalism doesn’t prevail in China.

The activities of Human Rights Watch in relation to China must be considered in terms of the overall geopolitical situation. US capital is leading a ‘full-court press’ against China, with the aim of preventing (or at least decelerating) its rise. Ultimately the western capitalist countries would like to see the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party government and its replacement with a regime that’s willing to put the Chinese people and resources at the service of multinational capital. They want a neo-colonial relationship with China, which ultimately would constitute a disastrous blow of untold proportions for the human rights of the Chinese people. This is the context of the ‘Pivot to Asia’, of Trump’s trade war, of the media frenzy about Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and of the endless reports issued by the likes of Kenneth Roth.

Say no to the New Cold War

While our delegation was in Gansu, on 3 January, we received the news that Iranian general Qasem Soleimani had been murdered by US forces in Iraq. This reckless and illegal act marks a significant escalation against Iran. It’s almost certainly not a coincidence that, just a few days previously, Iran, China and Russia launched their first joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman. An alliance of China, Russia and Iran – working closely with progressive Latin America, South Africa, Vietnam, Syria, Iraq, Belarus and others – is a real threat to US attempts to reassert its global dominance. Trump’s murder of Soleimani should therefore be seen not only as an attack on the people of Iran but on the entire multipolar project, on the right of nations to determine their own development paths.

With the new Cold Warriors going all out to demonise and undermine China, it’s more important than ever to build solidarity and friendship with the People’s Republic.

Why Labour lost the elections, and where we go from here

This article was also published by Telesur English on 21 December, 2019.


The UK parliamentary election of 12 December was a disaster for the working class and for oppressed communities; a defeat for the young, the elderly, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, women, LGBT+ people, migrants and Muslims; a defeat for a planet that needs rescuing from climate catastrophe; a defeat for a world crying out for an end to imperialist warmongering and aggression.

Labour went into the election with a powerful manifesto – a set of commitments that would have made life significantly better for millions of people, a platform from which to develop a peace-oriented multilateral foreign policy, a Green New Deal that could turn Britain into a trailblazer in the global fight against climate breakdown. Had Labour emerged victorious from the elections, the British government would have been led by some of the most consistent socialists in the country’s history; people who have fought against all types of discrimination and injustice their whole lives; people who taken the side of the oppressed and challenged the elite; people who have stood in solidarity with Palestine, Ireland, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia.

Tragically, Labour lost 60 seats and the Conservatives ended up with an overall majority of 80 seats (in spite of only having increased its vote share by 1.2 percent). This gives the Tories a commanding position from which to deepen austerity, deepen the racist ‘hostile environment’, form a comprehensive economic/political/military alignment with Trump’s US, and push through a neoliberal Brexit that impoverishes the many and enriches the few.

Did we go wrong over Brexit?

It’s only natural that Labour members and supporters now embark on a period of reflection and soul-searching. Why did we lose so badly, in spite of our great policies and in spite of how close we came to winning power at the last election in 2017? In spite of the energetic campaigning of thousands of activists around the country; in spite of ringing endorsements from the the likes of Stormzy, Akala, Brian Eno, Rob Delaney, Benjamin Zephaniah and Ronan Bennett?

One explanation that’s proving popular within the socialist left is that it was a fatal error to adopt a position of negotiating a new Brexit deal and then putting that to a referendum. The logic goes that, in 2017, we went into the election having promised to honour the results of the Brexit referendum, and we performed well. In 2019, we went into the election committed to a second referendum, and we did badly, ergo we should have stuck to our previous position on Brexit.

If only politics were so simple. The first rule of statistical analysis is that correlation isn’t causation. Labour’s Brexit policy changed and we performed poorly in the election, but there are many other moving parts to consider. We could just as factually state that in 2017 we went into the election without a commitment to free broadband, and we did well. In 2019, we had a policy of free broadband, and we did badly. Should we therefore deduce that our refusal to engage with voters’ concerns over fibre-optic technology was the cause of our defeat?

What’s true is that, although Labour lost far more votes to pro-Remain parties than pro-Leave parties, the bulk of the seats that were lost were in majority Leave-voting constituencies, particularly in the Midlands and the North. It’s possible that some of these could have been saved if we’d had a clearly pro-Brexit position, but only possible. We don’t know if voters would have supported a ‘Labour Brexit’ which sought to somewhat mitigate the racism and free market fundamentalism of the Tory Brexit project (albeit still pandering to xenophobia by seeking to end EU freedom of movement). The right-wing press would certainly have found ways to present this as a ‘sell-out’ and to insist that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Then there’s the awkward fact that, even though the overall electorate in these constituencies voted to leave the EU, the majority of Labour voters favour remaining.

Plus it’s clear there were other factors in these constituencies’ desertion of Labour. Labour has been losing support in these areas for the best part of two decades, the result of general disillusionment with the status quo, the declining influence of trade unions (along with declining industries), some anaemic or downright reactionary MPs, ambivalent councils, a feeling that “Labour has taken us for granted for too long”, and a rising tide of xenophobic propaganda that has sought to blame immigrants for decaying living standards.

Another factor to consider is that there are dozens of marginals that could easily have been lost if Labour had a more pro-Brexit position, and indeed dozens of marginals that might have been won if Labour had a more anti-Brexit position. After all, for 28 percent of Labour voters, “stopping Brexit” was one of their top three reasons for voting Labour.

The polling trajectory throughout 2019 certainly doesn’t correspond with the hypothesis that Labour would have won the election had it adopted a more pro-Brexit position: from a high of 37 percent at the beginning of the year, Labour’s share went into decline as the original date for departing the EU – 29 March – approached. Labour received a pitiful 13 percent of the vote in the EU elections in May, and Labour’s general election polling reached its nadir of 25 percent during the period it was in talks with the Tories to try and reach some agreement over Brexit. Labour’s share started to increase after the party conference in September (at which the final position on Brexit was agreed) and then rose rapidly during the campaign, reaching 33 percent. This increase came specifically at the cost of the Liberal Democrats, whose vote share fell from 21 percent to 12 percent over the course of the campaign. Obviously this transfer of votes from Lib Dems to Labour wouldn’t have taken place if Labour had gone into the election with an unambiguously pro-Brexit stance.

Labour’s policy of negotiating a ‘soft’ Brexit deal (that retained Customs Union membership and protected workers’ rights) and subjecting that deal to a referendum was a mature and reasonable position for a party whose membership and voters are pro-Remain by a significant margin. In a situation where there are bitter divisions over Brexit throughout the Labour Party and the country as a whole, Labour’s position paved a road to unity and compromise. It took a damaging neoliberal Tory Brexit off the table, but it didn’t follow the flagrantly undemocratic Liberal Democrat pledge to scrap the original referendum altogether. Although the media tried to portray the policy as confusing and complicated, in reality it was perfectly simple, albeit without the vacuous soundbite quality of ‘Get Brexit Done’.

Not every battle is winnable. The election was called specifically to resolve the issue of Brexit, which is something that divides Labour’s support base and that doesn’t meaningfully divide the Tory support base. Boris Johnson used his first months in office to impose pro-Brexit message discipline on his MPs; he then called an election knowing full well that Labour’s support would be split, that Labour’s unifying policy hadn’t had long enough to gain broad support, and that the chillingly mendacious message of ‘Get Brexit Done’ would resonate with a significant part of the public that’s sick to the back teeth with endless parliamentary dilly-dallying. In that sense, Britain leaving the EU has acquired a symbolic power not unlike Donald Trump’s border wall.

Could Labour have won the election?

In these elections the ruling class employed a much more systematic and sophisticated approach to ensuring defeat for the Labour left. This approach had two main aspects: electoral strategy and media bias.

The success of the ruling class’s electoral strategy can be seen by the fact that the Tory vote only increased by 1.2 percent, but their share of parliamentary seats increased by 15 percent (from 317 to 365). Boris Johnson’s campaign team clearly targeted its energies and advertising spend in certain key constituencies. In this the Tories received enormous help from Nigel Farage, whose Brexit Party didn’t target any Conservative-held seats and instead focused on driving Labour’s vote down in marginals with a significant number of pro-Brexit Labour voters. The Brexit Party won a similar proportion of the vote to UKIP in 2017, but this time its strategy was carefully calculated to help secure a Boris Johnson majority, as instructed by Donald Trump.

Meanwhile the Lib Dems and Greens stood against Labour in lots of marginals, although the Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru agreed not to stand against each other in 60 seats. The first Labour loss announced on election night was Blyth Valley, where the Green vote of 1,146 was larger than the difference between the Tory and Labour votes. In Kensington, Emma Dent Coad – one of the best Labour MPs – was defeated by a margin of 150, with the Greens taking 535 votes and the Lib Dems running a very high profile campaign, again with the result of gifting the seat to the Tories.

It’s obviously the case that Jeremy Corbyn is unacceptable to a British ruling class that wants to continue austerity, that doesn’t want to see a meaningful redistribution of wealth, and that does want to continue fighting imperialist wars. That class identified Corbynism as an existential threat and, as the oldest and most experienced ruling class in history (albeit now showing signs of senile decay) went all out to stop it, using all the tricks in their book, their spooks, the right-wing press and the Chief Rabbi, not to mention the right wing of the Labour Party itself.

The media campaign against Corbyn was utterly vicious and relentless. In the words of the journalist and historian Mark Curtis, it “went far beyond anything against any previous Labour leader. It was surely the biggest propaganda campaign in UK history.” Shadow transport minister Andy McDonald stated that “never in my lifetime have I known any single individual so demonised and vilified, so grotesquely and so unfairly.” Corbyn was relentlessly slandered as an anti-semite and a ‘terrorist sympathiser’, constantly described as weak, wavering, vacillating, uncharismatic, unpatriotic. Unquestionably this hate campaign – which wasn’t by any means limited to the Tory press, but also reared its ugly head in the Guardian, the Independent and the New Statesman – had an impact.

Labour’s position certainly hasn’t been improved by the state of the parliamentary party, with so many MPs devoting the last four years to desperately trying to undermine Corbyn and oppose the shift to the left that has taken place under his leadership. This created a sense of chaos and disunity that was very easy for the media to leverage. This is very much the case in some Labour ‘heartlands’ seats like Barrow-in-Furness, where John Woodcock claimed that Corbyn “would pose a clear risk to UK national security as prime minister.” In Bassetlaw, John Mann – before resigning from the party and being made a baron – continuously called on Corbyn to step down. The outgoing MP for Dudley North, Ian Austin, called for a vote for the Tories. Needless to say, these three seats were all lost to the Tories.

In an election that was timed carefully to leverage ‘Brexit fatigue’, with a relentless propaganda campaign across the board, and with a hard-right Conservative Party that has been able to consolidate all public opinion from centre-right to all-out fascist, it was incredibly difficult for Labour to do well. We were up against the nexus of money and power, and the balance of forces didn’t allow us to break it.

Consolidating the left

All progressive opinion in this country has coalesced around the left Labour project led by Jeremy Corbyn. All reactionary opinion has coalesced around a hard right Conservative project inspired by Donald Trump.

Corbynism has put Labour back on the map as a meaningful political force, at a time when left-of-centre parties are in decline throughout most of Europe. The Corbyn leadership has uniquely combined a radical domestic economic policy with an internationalist, anti-war and anti-racist agenda. This agenda has proven hugely popular, as shown by the 2017 election results. The latest election is a significant setback, but that setback has taken place in specific circumstances that we need to understand.

Needless to say it hasn’t taken Tony Blair long to offer his opinion as to how Labour’s fortunes can be improved: “The takeover of the Labour party by the far left turned it into a glorified protest movement with cult trimmings, utterly incapable of being a credible government… Corbyn personified politically an idea, a brand, of quasi-revolutionary socialism, mixing far-left economic policy with deep hostility to western foreign policy. This never has appealed to traditional Labour voters, never will appeal to them, and represented for them a combination of misguided ideology and terminal ineptitude that they found insulting.”

Blair thinks that the situation demands a return to Blairism – quelle surprise. Yet this message won’t resonate with Labour’s membership, most of which joined the party after Corbyn’s emergence as front-runner for party leader in 2015. The problem with Blair’s take is that it’s a wilful misrepresentation of the facts. The policies of this “glorified protest movement” are both popular and credible. What kind of idiot wouldn’t support ending austerity, introducing a £10 per hour minimum wage, ending zero-hour contracts, reversing the privatisation of the NHS, nationalising water and energy, investing properly in healthcare and education, building hundreds of thousands of council homes, and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in green energy and environmental conservation? To reverse Labour’s shift to the left in favour of pallid centrism would be to commit political suicide.

More insidious is the emerging ‘Blue Labour’ trend that is broadly accepting of an economic struggle against neoliberalism but that wants to push the party towards social conservatism and British nationalism. This narrative is exemplified by defeated Don Valley MP Caroline Flint’s complaint that the voters consider Jeremy Corbyn to be “too leftwing, unpatriotic, against the armed forces.” Blue Labour want to see the party drinking once more from Controls on Immigration mugs, rejecting internationalism, joyously waving the Union Jack and watching the Queen’s Christmas speech at 3pm on the dot.

This force says that Corbynism can’t win in the North and the Midlands because it’s too London-centric, too focused on ‘metropolitan’ values. This is a dog whistle. It means the Labour left is resolute in its fight against racism, xenophobia, sexism and homophobia; it means that Corbynism is internationalist and anti-war; it means that the current generation of Labour leadership isn’t willing to scapegoat immigrants, nor does it have fond feelings of nostalgia for the British Empire. It is precisely this profoundly important shift that has won Labour a wider support base than it has ever had, particularly among oppressed communities.

There’s been a loud chorus of voices, both on the left and right of the Labour Party, for Labour to reorient itself back to its ‘heartlands’ in the Midlands and North, for it to more specifically address the needs of the industrial (or post-industrial) working class outside the big cities. These workers are based in towns where manufacturing has largely collapsed and where reasonably well-paying and stable jobs in industry have been replaced by call centres, Amazon warehouses and Universal Credit. They’re often particularly susceptible to anti-immigration arguments because of the scarcity of dignified work (and often a lack of exposure to actual minority communities); that is, capitalist economics makes people more susceptible to capitalist propaganda. Many such towns have traditionally had relatively large numbers of young people in the armed forces (also related to the scarcity of dignified work), and therefore Jeremy Corbyn’s consistent opposition to Britain’s imperial adventures doesn’t go down well.

As history has shown time and time again, you don’t defeat backward ideas by pandering to them. In truth, Labour under Corbyn has already started to address the needs of these communities, most importantly pledging to end austerity, build council housing, reverse privatisation, invest in healthcare and education, and create hundreds of thousands of dignified jobs in the green energy sector. That platform represents a huge ‘reorientation’ to the needs of the entire working class. With time and patient work, and in an election that wasn’t fought almost exclusively over Brexit, that reorientation should win support. What Labour mustn’t do is to abandon those progressive parts of Corbynism that are supposedly toxic to the stereotyped Workington Man. Corbynism differs from ‘Old Labour’ specifically in its internationalism, in its opposition to wars, in its rejection of empire nostalgia, and in its consistent fight against racism, sexism and homophobia. This is what makes Labour in its current incarnation qualitatively different; this is what has mobilised the most progressive sections of the working class; this is what inspires people like Stormzy or Akala to vote for the first time in their lives. For those of us seeking to build a socialist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist mass movement, protecting and developing Corbynism is essential.

There are many thousands of people that campaigned for a Corbyn-led government, and millions of people that voted for it. We hoped we’d be able to fight for desperately-needed change with the help of a radical Labour government led by longstanding comrades of the left, anti-war, anti-austerity and anti-racist movements. That dream has died for the foreseeable future, but the struggle hasn’t; the main focus simply shifts back to the streets, communities and workplaces. What we’ve built is a radical movement of almost unprecedented scale in Britain: hundreds of thousands of people united around a platform that’s anti-neoliberal, anti-war, anti-racist and pro-planet. We must now engage in the campaigning, grassroots activism and political education we need to move forward. Consolidating this movement is the key question for now, as we prepare to resist a period of deep reaction.

The Tories have the parliamentary majority they require to deliver a hard Brexit and to comprehensively align Britain with US economic and military policy. There are massive fights ahead in relation to workers’ rights, protecting the planet, and resisting the racist divide and rule strategy that will inevitably accompany the general attack on the working class. Our movement must bounce back from the blow it’s suffered, and must put its experience and talents at the service of this struggle.

China leads the way in tackling climate breakdown

We must strike a balance between economic growth and environmental protection. We will be more conscientious in promoting green, circular, and low-carbon development. We will never again seek economic growth at the cost of the environment. (Xi Jinping)1

The cost of development

Few events in human history have resonated throughout the world as profoundly as the Chinese revolution. Standing in Tiananmen Square on 1 October 1949, pronouncing the birth of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong said “the Chinese people have stood up”. In standing up, in building a modern socialist society and throwing off the shackles of feudalism, colonialism, backwardness, illiteracy and grinding poverty, China has blazed a trail for the entire Global South. Lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty has been described even by ardent capitalists as “the greatest leap to overcome poverty in history”.2

On all key indicators, China has made extraordinary progress since 1949, and its performance has far outstripped other developing countries. Life expectancy now exceeds 76,3 more than double what it was in 1949.4 Adult literacy stands at 97 percent (for 15-24 year olds it’s 100 percent).5 The UN’s World Food Programme website states: “By lifting millions out of hunger, the country met its Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of hungry people by 2015 and reduced the global hunger rate by two thirds.”6 China is on the cusp of having completely eradicated extreme poverty.7 One hundred percent of the population has access to electricity.8 The UN Development Programme (UNDP) describes China’s development as having generated “the most rapid decline in absolute poverty ever witnessed”.9 The scale of these achievements can perhaps be best understood by comparison with India – a neighbouring country with a similar population size and at an equivalent stage of development in 1949. India currently has a life expectancy of 69, a literacy rate of 74 percent, and an electricity access rate of 85 percent.

But in environmental terms, this progress has come at a cost. Just as economic development in Europe and the Americas was fuelled by the voracious burning of fossil fuels, China’s development has been built to a significant degree on ‘Old King Coal’, the most polluting and emissions-intensive of the fossil fuels. In 2010, coal made up around 80 percent of China’s energy mix. Environmental law expert Barbara Finamore notes that “coal, plentiful and cheap, was the energy source of choice, not just for power plants, but also for direct combustion by heavy industry and for heating and cooking in people’s homes.”10

The choice to use coal was not a simple case of ignorance or lack of responsibility; it was a matter of development by any means necessary. China has been able to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty whilst simultaneously establishing itself as a global leader in science and technology. This process required vast energy consumption at minimal expenditure. Schools, hospitals, roads, trains, factories and laboratories all need energy to build and operate. Chinese people now have energy in their homes, powering fridges, lights and washing machines – indispensable components of modern life.

Furthermore, China’s ability to attract foreign investment and learn from US, European and Japanese technology was in no small measure based on turning itself into a manufacturing hub to which the advanced capitalist countries exported their production processes. Martin Jacques observes that “40 per cent of China’s energy goes into producing exports for Western markets, in other words, the source [of China’s greenhouse gas emissions] is multinationals rather than Chinese firms. The West has, in effect, exported part of its own greenhouse emissions to China.”11 The developed countries have been able to “socialise and export the costs of environmental destruction”,12 reducing domestic pollution and emissions whilst maintaining unsustainable levels of consumption.

The choice facing China in the last decades of the 20th century was between economic development with environmental degradation, or underdevelopment with environmental conservation. Western environmentalists can’t reasonably complain about the Chinese people opting for the former. Development is recognised by the UN as a human right.13 Advanced countries fuelled their own industrial revolutions with coal and oil; they bear responsibility for the bulk of currently existing atmospheric greenhouse gases (the US and Europe have contributed to just over half the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions since 1850).14 It would be hypocritical in the extreme for these countries to tell poor countries that they don’t have the right to develop, to feed, clothe, house and educate people. If advanced countries want developing countries to leapfrog fossil fuel-based development, the primary responsibility is on them to provide the technology and the finance – which principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” is recognised in the various international agreements on limiting climate change, but which has yet to manifest itself in reality.

Continue reading China leads the way in tackling climate breakdown

Book review: Samir Amin – The Long Revolution of the Global South

A slightly modified version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star on 25 June 2019.

The first volume of Samir Amin’s memoirs, A Life Looking Forward: Memoirs of an Independent Marxist, was first published over a decade ago, in 2006. It dealt primarily with his early life and the experiences that contributed to his intellectual formation and the major ideas with which he is associated: the critique of Eurocentrism; the notion of the ‘long transition to socialism’; and his insistence on ‘delinking’ from the imperialist triad of the US, Europe and Japan.

This second (and final) instalment, published now a few months after his death, combines a reiteration of Amin’s key political ideas with a whirlwind tour of the dozens of countries he visited – from Algeria to Zambia, and including many places one doesn’t hear about often enough: Mauritania, Benin, Mali, Senegal, Western Sahara, Peru, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Madagascar, Mongolia, Niger, Nepal and East Timor.

Sometimes an advisor to the government, sometimes a guest lecturer, and sometimes just visiting friends, Amin always sought out the local movements working for progressive change, be they part of socialist or radical nationalist states or underground groups fighting for liberation. As such, the reader is introduced to a dizzying array of fascinating people and important ideas from around the world. The book gives a flavour of the state of politics across the continents (with a particular focus on Africa, Asia and Latin America). In particular, the reader gets a feel for the innumerable challenges and contradictions involved in the process of building towards socialism in a hostile world.

A recurring theme in the the book is the idea of responding to capitalist globalisation with a globalisation of struggle. This concept is all the more urgent in a context where long-established networks of solidarity are being (or have been) broken down, the result of fragmentation of production, sustained attacks on unions, casualisation of labour, and the replacement of certain branches of productive labour by automated processes. Amin calls on the global progressive movement to take on board the Occupy movement’s slogan of “We, the 99 percent”, recognising both the diversity and common fundamental interests of “the new generalised proletariat” in order to unite a broad array of forces: workers (including ‘informal’ ones), peasants, critical intelligentsia, and the progressive elements among the middle classes.

Amin notes that Latin America – led by Cuba and Venezuela – has taken the lead in this project. “The movements that have mobilised there are not small, marginal organisations or movements limited to the middle classes. There are large, popular (in the good sense of the term) movements, leading into action masses of people counted in the millions. That is what I call a revolutionary advance.”

Amin also reminds us of the number one priority for progressive forces throughout the world: “defeating the US project for military control of the planet.” This project of US global hegemony specifically aims to divide and rule those countries outside the imperialist triad. All the more important therefore that we promote the closest possible coordination between China, Vietnam, Russia, India, and the progressive states of Africa and Latin America. Writing elsewhere, Amin puts forward a straightforward proposal: “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.”

Having witnessed the radical nationalist projects in both Egypt (in the Nasser era) and Algeria at close quarters, and seen their successes and weaknesses, Amin proposes ‘democratisation’ as a key measure for sustaining progressive projects and allowing them to develop in a socialist direction. This democratisation means constantly pushing to engage more people in the organisation of society; it means constantly struggling against corruption, alienation and bureaucratisation; it means serving the masses and putting their needs first. Amin distinguishes democratisation, a continuous and complex process, from the simplistic idea of democracy that’s promoted by the major capitalist countries: a plutocratic “low-intensity democracy” where multiple parties represent the same (capitalist) class interests. This all too easily “turns into farce and runs a serious risk that the struggle for democracy will lose legitimacy.”

The Long Revolution of the Global South is a captivating and endearing read that will spark the interest of all those interested in the worldwide struggle for socialism.

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 

Book review: Victor Grossman – A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee

This article first appeared in the Morning Star on 15 April 2019.

In the popular imagination, the German Democratic Republic is indelibly linked with ideas of authoritarianism, poverty, secret police, stuffy bureaucracy and a generalised absence of democracy.

Victor Grossman is uniquely well placed to challenge this McCartheyite narrative. Born in New York in 1928, he joined the Communist Party while studying at Harvard in the late 1940s. He was drafted into the army and, while stationed in Austria, defected to the GDR. Marrying a German woman, studying and working, raising children and grandchildren, he lived in East Germany until its 1990 absorption into the Federal German Republic, and indeed still lives in Germany today.

‘A Socialist Defector’ is thus able to offer a nuanced and realistic account of life in the GDR. Although Grossman doesn’t shy away from criticising the assorted failings, mistakes and excesses of the East German socialist experiment, his account is very different from the standard Cold War nonsense. Comparing his experiences of German socialism with his experiences living in the capitalist world, he finds that the socialist model was superior in several important ways.

Although the GDR was certainly poorer than the US or the FRG, it emphasised social justice and equality. Exotic foodstuffs and nice consumer goods were often difficult to come by, but nobody went hungry. Everybody had a roof over their head, and rent was always at an affordable level (typically between 5 to 10 percent of income). Evictions were prohibited by law. Homelessness was non-existent.

Education was free at every level, from kindergarten to university. Much like in Cuba today, western sanctions meant a shortage of some medicines, but the healthcare system was comprehensive, free, and of excellent quality. A ten percent social insurance contribution bought you access to “a full protective umbrella”. Even in modern Britain, with our magnificent NHS, it’s difficult to imagine the sense of freedom and security that come with a comprehensive welfare state and guaranteed full employment.

There was no organised crime scene, no drug addiction, no prostitution. Women had full economic and legal equality in the GDR long before they did in West Germany. In 1968, the old German law against homosexuals – already ignored – was annulled. It wasn’t until 1994 that West Germany caught up.

While the West German state was packed with former Nazis, the GDR was from the start an unambiguously anti-fascist state. The leading politicians had fought against fascism in Spain and Germany. Former Nazis were removed from positions of influence, and new teachers, lawyers and judges were trained from among the ranks of the working class, with a clear anti-fascist ethic.

This was combined with a profound internationalism. The GDR gave practical, financial and moral support to the freedom fighters of South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Angola and Vietnam; it gave crucial support to Cuba and Nicaragua; it stood in solidarity with the Allende government in Chile. “All this time rulers in Washington and Bonn supported every fascistic dictator from Haiti or Guatemala to Chile!”

Grossman notes the generation gap that developed between the leadership and those that hadn’t directly experienced the war or the anti-fascist struggle, and he criticises the leadership for its excessive caution and secrecy, which led to dissatisfaction and disengagement. As such, the book offers some valuable insights into why the GDR wasn’t in the final analysis able to withstand the extraordinary pressure it faced as a socialist state in an imperialist world.

While mourning the loss of so much of the socialist world, ‘A Socialist Defector’ is ultimately a story of hope, encouraging us to learn from the successes and failures of German socialism in the 20th century, and to take these forward in the struggle for a better world in the 21st century. Grossman takes heart from a renewed radicalism among young people, highlighting the Black Lives Matter movement, Occupy Wall Street, the Oxi fight in Greece, and the resurgent Labour left under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. He ends by urging us to unite our struggles and fight as one against a merciless, militaristic, neoliberal capitalism.

‘A Socialist Defector’ is a hugely interesting, accessible and endearing political memoir that deserves to be widely read. Those looking to explore the GDR’s history further are also recommended to read ‘Stasi State or Socialist Paradise?: The German Democratic Republic and What Became of It’ by Bruni de la Motte and John Green.

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