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Nigel Harris

Imperialism and Revolution in South Asia

(February 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.66, February 1974, pp.31-32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Imperialism and Revolution in South Asia
edited by Kathleen Gough and Hari P. Sharma
Monthly Review, £6.45.

The Soviet Union in Asia
Geoffrey Jukes
Angus and Robertson, £2.95.

MONTHLY REVIEW is possibly the best known marxist journal in the world. It has been published regularly since the late forties. All through the dark ages of the Cold War, this American publication, edited by Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman, tried to keep alive the spark of marxist analysis.

They did it partly by being the most sophisticated exponents of a kind of Stalinism, far more sophisticated than anything coming out of the Eastern Bloc itself. The Cuban revolution made the two editors mild Fidelistas and the break between Russia and China, mild Maoists. But they always tried to retain their independence from organised politics and their isolation from both activity and workers. Because there was no organised movement in the United States, it became possible for them to be both isolated and significant.

Monthly Review attracted over the years a whole galaxy of names, ranging from US New Deal radicals, the ex-Communist intellectuals of the thirties, Labour Party lefts, technocrats, but above all independent intellectuals. The journal, mercifully free of the fads of the New Left, provided a bridge to cross the abyss between the forties and the sixties. But, despite occasional brilliance and virtuosity, the journal remained trapped in that fellow-travelling parasitism which is the enemy alike of theory and practice. The bridge was there, but on the other side they offered no guide, no maps.

Monthly Review is not an organisation and does not have a party line. It is an umbrella to many different views, provided that it remains possible to rationalise the Eastern Bloc, China or Cuba as somewhere – whatever the distortions – socialist. Because, over the years, few of the people involved around the journal were actually engaged in struggles, the differences between them were of no great importance – mere matters of opinion rather than questions of doing something different.

Imperialism and Revolution in South Asia is a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of the Monthly Review intellectuals today. The editors intend the book, they say, ‘for general readers in Western countries and for students in the early stages of South Asian studies’ because of the deficiencies of ‘American social science research on South Asia’. The recipe cuts out most of us. The task is for the ‘general reader’ to understand the world, not to change it.

It is difficult to know what the ‘general reader’ will make of it, since most of it assumes he is already convinced that socialism is the only answer. There are 18 pieces in the book, all previously published elsewhere, and some irritatingly out-of-date. The best contributions are undoubtedly the most academic – Bagchi on foreign capital, Alavi on the state and on peasants, Gough’s introductory essay. But the more the other writers claim to be actually making the revolution, the more windy the rhetoric, the more fancy language is submitted for thought (what about ‘synergetic structural matrix’?) the fewer facts and more mistakes: verbal gestures become all.

Nevertheless, they share a common argument which runs something like this. All would be well in India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Bangladesh if only foreign capital and influence could be expelled, industry nationalised and planning introduced. China has shown it can be done. The peasants, or the people, or the peasants and workers, or ‘the masses’, want to transform the country but somehow their leaders let them down.

The limitations of this argument are ignored. The expulsion of foreign capital may get a temporary breathing space, but it neither conquers poverty nor defeats imperialism. Planning and nationalisation without workers’ power are instruments for increasing exploitation, not ending it. Only one group of people are ‘emancipated’ in these circumstances: those who form the new ruling class. Even then they remain overshadowed by the power of imperialism in the world. Far from China showing it can be done, it shows exactly the intractability of the central problem – ground between the poverty of agriculture at home and the intercontinental missile abroad, what surplus there is must, go to nuclear arms.

It is only with workers’ power that the. revolution at home looks different, for then planning and nationalisation can create a base for the workers’ revolution to spread abroad and subvert imperialism from within. The survival of a workers’ regime depends, not on its nuclear missiles, but on its appeai to an international working class; not on ‘building socialism’ in conditions of the gravest poverty, but in conquering the riches abroad with which to make socialism possible on a world scale.

The book never says who is to make the revolution. The failures of leaders are recognised, but the lessons drawn are so shallow as to be unhelpful. When Kathleen Gough tries to explain why the left leadership has so far failed, she says it lacks ‘elan’ (spirit) that the left has failed to build a serious worker revolutionary leadership, and that it has failed to do so precisely because it remains wedded to just that heady populist Stalinism which infects this book. For Gough, there are still ‘socialist states’ out there somewhere, whatever their warts. For Sharma, India is a watermelon – ‘Whether the watermelon rots and eventually bursts with all the redness (inside) wasted, or whether it is cut at the appropriate time, depends upon effective left leadership, the prospects for which do not seem very promising at the moment’. That is his last sentence. So what do we do, Mr Sharma?

If the writers have no clear view as to who will make the revolution, they are restricted to hoping, wishing, observing. As a result also, they have no view of the world outside South Asia. They attack imperialism.

but do not see it as a world system that clasps both South Asia and the United States simultaneously, and goes through clearly determined phases which make and unmake the possibility of revolution. Their perspective is nationalist, and takes as its standpoint – consciously or not – the view of those who want to inherit the national state, not of those who belong to no state but to an international class.

The mixture produces wild over-optimism about sudden popular explosions and over-pessimism because, at the end of the day, the writer is waiting for someone else to do the job, to build the party that makes a popular movement a threat to existing power. Analysis is all, and is rendered ‘marxist’ by emotionalism.

Without a view of what is to be done here and now, anything goes. Everyone dutifully bashes being involved in parliaments, but at the end of the day that – along with rural guerrilla warfare, provided someone will undertake it – is all that remains. These are the only means open to solitary outsiders to be ‘political’, without displacing themselves with a real class movement from below.

At the end, we remain exactly where we were before. Although the left has failed, this must be a moral failure, an accident The new left will be better but essentially doing the same as before-preserving their separateness from the anonymous ‘masses’ and keeping to the perspective of a national revolution through which they will become the ruling class.

Of course, the writers in this book are not in practice going to rule anywhere. But the policies they put forward – as with Communist Parties throughout Asia – are appropriate to the people who think they can. Except that that phase of history is already past. There may be accidents, but in general the development of imperialism has made capital accumulation on a separate national basis impossible. The economic basis for the class these politics represent has disappeared. The reformist perspective has exhausted itself.

Mr Jukes’ book is altogether different. He has amassed a heap of information – most of it readily available elsewhere – on Soviet foreign policy aims and involvement in Asia so that the Australian government will understand it. There is no argument nor original view he wishes to demonstrate. If you are the Australian government, perhaps you should read it, but it won’t tell you what to do, and anyway, you ought to know most of it already.

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