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Jack Brad & Henry Judd

Asia Enters World History

New Forces Challenge the Old Problems of the East

(July 1950)

From The New International, Vol. XVI No. 4, July–August 1950, pp. 205–210.
Transcribed by & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

It is commonplace knowledge that the Asiatic world, with its countless masses, has undergone a most profound transformation since the Second World War. Just as acceptable is the proposition that this transformation will continue into the indefinite future and the fluidity of the Asiatic world will remain. With varying degrees of skill, a dozen authors, journalists and historians have furnished the details of this historic change and described the men and forces at work. It is no longer possible, however, to refer simply to a “state of flux,” and let matters go at that, as so many have done.

Whatever validity there may have been to former concepts of the timeless and all-absorbing Asia, which occupied the role of static subject in world history, it is no longer possible to accept such premises. The only possible approach to a re-understanding of the Asiatic and colonial world is the concept of an Asia now, for the first time, entering world history as a positive factor. Otherwise, the new driving forces which have arisen in post-war Asia cannot be understood. Much more than Japanese occupation and colonial rule has been cast aside in the great revolt that has disturbed the East since the end of the war. All traditional concepts of Asia have been violently overthrown and a number of new concepts, proposed in place of the old, now struggle for authority and power. These new and unexpected forces demand critical examination. They are responsible for the fluid situation in which, at best, one can point to certain tendencies and directions, without the possibility of stating with any degree of certainty or accuracy what ultimate form that may settle down to.

Nationalist India, finally freed from British rule, and Stalinist China, ruled by a new conqueror and a new social force, represent the two clearest paths yet to be seen in the entangled Asiatic world. Both have emerged, after long gestation, as expressions of revolt against Western imperialism. But both have absorbed so much of what was backward in the old Asia and so much of what is backward in the world as a whole, with its drift toward totalitarian decay, that – in different ways to be sure – Nehru’s India and Mao Tse-tung’s China must be considered deformations of the freedom and social resurrection so desired by the Asiatic masses.

The wide and sweeping torrent of the Asiatic freedom movement has been diverted and divided into rival channels; Indian capitalism, largely influenced by both Britain and America; and Chinese Stalinism, largely dominated by the Stalinism of Russia. Neither can be instruments for Asiatic self-realization and liberation.

If the significance of the struggles of the colonial peoples may be given a single and central objective, we would describe it as the desire to create a democratic and radical society, moving toward socialism and vigorously attacking the thick crust of accumulated backwardness and social misery. They desire the application of the most advanced social theories to meet the needs and desires of a billion colonial people. The central problem of Asia is still the problem of land relationships, the peasantry, of agrarian economic and social relations.

For widely divergent reasons, which require separate and distinct analysis, neither Nehru nor Mao Tse-tung can offer a rounded and consistent solution to the agrarian revolution. Further, such problems as industrialization, trade and commerce, the formation of fresh capital, social emancipation and education, have different meanings to different social orders. It cannot simply be said that Asia must catch up with a Western world now in decline and in chronic distress any more than the example of Russia, whose totalitarian form becomes ever clearer, can be held up as a model.

In this sense, both Chinese Stalinism and Indian national capitalism are reactionary solutions for Asia. Both are as much products of a general world decline, and the specific evils this decline has produced in Asia itself, as they are products of national movements for liberation from Western domination. It would be more accurate to say that both are distortions of the Asiatic freedom movements.

Given their present regimes, democratic socialism cannot hope for a bright future in either China or India. Those who divorce the sweeping social upheaval in China from its actual Stalinist leadership are in serious error, for the ruling Stalinist class, limited though it may be by the concrete material circumstances, represents a power conscious of its objectives and capable of manipulating the raw material it controls. Aside from their vastly different social and historic origins, both regimes have bureaucratic ideologies, reject democratic approaches and solutions and tend toward employment of totalitarian and authoritarian methodologies.

In India, this has been most clearly illustrated in dealings with other nations and peoples (Pakistan, Hyderabad, Kashmir, etc.); in China, by internal economic and social practices of the regime in relationship to the peasantry and working class. Reactionary and tyrannical practices, originating in the deep past of an Asia that has been feudal or semi-feudal within and ruled by imperialism from without, may easily be found in both lands. Similar tendencies may be found in all the newly-awakened lands of Asia: Indonesia, Viet Nam, Korea, etc.

Each country of Asia has broken sharply with its historic past, but all to one or another extent – are threatened with the same crisis and decline so familiar in European and Western history. To this must be added the threat of national-Stalinist regimes, a recognized trend in world decline. This truth is basic for understanding the circumstances surrounding Asia’s entrance into world history.

Marxism is obligated to examine carefully the basic reasons for this unexpected outcome to the collapse of Western rule over Asia. It must examine, in detail, why the end of imperialism has not ushered in the glorious Asiatic renaissance so desired by supporters of the colonial freedom movements. This is a task for extensive research and analysis, but we should like to suggest, in summary form, some basic reasons for this situation:

  1. Liberation has been interpreted by bourgeois-nationalist, Stalinist and non-socialist forces alike, as being synonymous with nationalism at a time when the nation, considered as a progressive concept, has already had its day. The act of becoming a nation is, for a colonial land, filled with revolutionary content. But subsequent stabilization and consolidation, under the type of regime represented in China or India, or any of the reactionary forms of present society, quickly drains this revolutionary content away. Instead the birth of the nation degenerates into tragedy, and progress is halted.
  2. The decline of Western imperialism and Western empire has occurred in an unforeseen manner. As a corollary to this, the effort of world Stalinism to fill this gap was not expected. The conflict between Russia and the United States has created a new framework which acts as a vise strangling the entire world, including those colonial areas already free and those still struggling for freedom. Although the “cold war” offers no possible benefit to the people of Asia, it tends to subordinate their own needs to the struggle; it narrows down world development and makes it possible for Asia to break out into world history only under most unfavorable circumstances.
  3. The specific and peculiar manner in which the British Empire exploded, expressed by the sudden relaxation of its hold over huge colonial areas and the creation of working agreements with the native bourgeoisie in India, Ceylon, Burma, etc., had the effect of decreasing the power of the colonial people to struggle independently on their own behalf since little or no popular mobilization was required. By the same token, the dependency of colonial landlord and capitalist classes, particularly in the case of India, upon their own masses lessened considerably, in proportion with the catastrophic tempo of British decline. This same national ruling class, shifting steadily to the right, unexpectedly received the welcome gift of political and social power, which it now employs against its own masses, as it fell heir to the retreating English.
  4. In the past, a deceptive and misleading force, but one of powerful magnetic attraction, existed in Russia. Today, this force has been largely replaced by that of Stalinist China, whose upheaval and appeal directed to impoverished and backward masses has an even more dynamic attractive power than that of Russia, the world power. It is perhaps correct to state that the Asiatic world now sees Russia through the China of Mao Tse-tung, where the universally hated regime of Kuomintangism has been destroyed. It is worthy of note that the attitude of Asiatic socialists and revolutionaries who are highly critical of the Stalin regime is considerably softer and more sympathetic toward that of Peiping.
  5. Democratic socialism, independent of foreign influence and acting as a genuine expression of popular needs, has as yet failed to develop as a serious force in any Asiatic or colonial land. Together with this, the fact that the working class has nowhere played a specific or leading role has contributed to a situation in which Marxist theory and practice have failed to advance or to challenge Stalinist leadership anywhere.

The end of colonial empire is now a well advanced process. The question is, what shall take its place? It is most unlikely that the United States will be able to re-establish a new empire system, either on a colonial basis or through the medium of sweeping economic domination. If we leave aside those areas in Asia which border directly upon Russia, it would appear equally impossible for that country to summon up the required strength to create its own, specifically Russia, Asiatic empire.

Thus the end of empire leaves the whole question of Asia unresolved. It likewise places a question mark over that sector of world economy represented by Western Europe, which became the most powerful concentration of world economy because of its orientation toward, and relationship with non-capitalist, undeveloped areas. Those nations constituting the imperialist sector of world economy now have the problem of existing in a world in which their economy and technology have lost both meaning and purport. How shall France, England, Holland, Belgium, Italy, etc., reorient their empire- founded economies? Again we see the link between Eastern and Western worlds, in terms of historic perspective.

This same problem of economic orientation is crucial for the colonial world. How shall the dependent colonial economies exist in this new world without their old supports? The answer to such questions will determine the basis of Asia’s future political divisions. In China alone the problem is somewhat different since Stalinism has had a relatively independent development and its actual relationship with Russia is far from determined. In every other part of Asia where it has acquired political power (Manchuria, Korea, etc.), Stalinism has wholly and directly been dependent upon Russian power.

Of the capitalist powers still involved in Asiatic affairs, only the future of the United States is not yet determined. The British cling to Malaya and the island rock of Hong Kong, but these are, at best, last outposts on the continent. The U.S. White Paper on China is a relevant case history of our relations with all of Asia and, examined from this standpoint, we see how the U.S.’s prime concern with strategic considerations resulted in an essentially negative and self-defeating policy. The Point Four proposal of President Truman, still in an anaemic form, deserves to be analyzed as an example of both the difficulties inherent in establishing imperial power today, and the state- directed character of modern ventures into colonial development. But all this together hardly makes a vigorous or clear-cut policy!

Within the nationalist movements throughout Southeast Asia we see today the creation of a new and dynamic force in the form of popular socialist parties. Its hostility toward both its own national rulers and toward Asiatic Stalinism is a distinguishing feature of this movement, which is both democratic and socialist in origin. Is this the true heir of militant, revolutionary nationalism? Does this force perhaps presage an all-Asia political development historically somewhat akin to the Labor and Social-Democratic movement in Europe and the Western world?

While it is true that a reformist movement in the classic European sense is unlikely (this would contradict our viewpoint that Asiatic capitalism has a dim and crisis-ridden perspective), it would be a gross error, in our opinion, to deny the possibility of a mass, popular movement in Southeast Asia bearing many resemblances to European Social Democracy. We know how powerfully European reformism came back in postwar Europe, despite the absence of what had generally been considered economic prerequisites. Its revival, although temporary and already past its peak, fulfilled a political need, created by the absence of a mass revolutionary movement and the presence of the Stalinist movement. Essentially the same kind of vacuum now exists in Southeast Asia, with the additional factor that such a movement would necessarily rise on a program much to the left of its European counterpart because of the fact that the bourgeois- democratic revolution is not completed in the Southeastern Asiatic lands.

Such a development would be highly welcome to revolutionary socialists for obvious reasons. It would revive the flagging spirits of broad masses who are beginning to succumb to the same lethargy-producing confusion so clear in Europe. It would provide a “new way” to those who spurn both the Stalinist and pro-American paths. Yet it would be premature at this time to predict confidently such a formation, and it would further conceal the fact that these democratic, socialist groups (the Socialist Party of India is the leading element of such a tendency) have nowhere reached full maturity. They must fight for their life against persistent Stalinist penetration, while conducting an equally bitter struggle against reactionary and conservative nationalism. It must also be pointed out that the acquisition of national independence more or less by default, without any decisive struggle, as in the case of India, has meant that great masses of people have still to become involved in some kind of fresh and current public action, the only experience capable of developing a spirit of initiative and autonomy.

Thus an Asiatic expression of social democracy or democratic socialism runs the risk of being born without wide mass support. Of necessity it must create such support. Its test will be its attitude toward the social questions and the practical solutions it proposes; together with its attitude toward the struggle of the “cold war.” With understandable, realistic and drastic answers, the submerged peoples of Asia will remain indifferent and political struggles will continue to have their present abstract character of maneuvers among top leaders; not to mention the attractive force Stalinist China will exert on Southeast Asia.

From an international point of view, and just as decisively from an internal standpoint, we thus discover three forces at work in the struggle for mastery of the Asiatic world: expanding Russian and world Stalinist power; expanding American economic and strategic power, allied with conservative and reactionary nationalist classes (Philippines, India, Korea, etc.) whose stated objective it is to form a Pacific counterpart of the North Atlantic bloc; and, finally, loosely organized socialist and democratic movements, as well as militant nationalist forces, which, in a timid and hesitant fashion, project the concept of an independent South Asiatic Federation of Peoples, free from Russian, American and imperialist influence.

Just as the slogan of an independent Western European Federation could, if correctly applied, advance the socialist and democratic cause in Europe, so it is our opinion that the concept of a Southeast Asiatic Union (India, Ceylon, Indonesia, Burma, etc.) could serve socialist and revolutionary objectives throughout all of Asia. Here again we see that intimate tie-up of world problems, serving as further evidence of Asia’s lasting involvement in world history. The conference organized in 1949 by Nehru did not advance the cause of Asiatic unification, but rather pushed it back. Nehru and his equivalent in other countries conceive of such a union only in terms of American organization and backing, something for which they are not yet prepared to commit themselves openly. When socialists speak of such a union, they place emphasis upon its independence and self-reliance.

Basically, all the arguments advanced for the concept of an independent Western Union apply to an independent Southeast Asia Union. This idea must be developed and elaborated by the socialists and democratic elements of Asia itself, so that it becomes a living part of their program, as well as a living counter-slogan to the Stalinist program of unification under Russian-Stalinist domination. It would appear of vital urgency for independent revolutionists in Asia to discuss this question if they are not to be swamped between the American and Stalinist waves.

To conclude then, the continent of Asia is in a highly fluid state and no one can foresee what ultimate forms the present transition will lead to. We must examine, analyze and describe, but understand that as yet no fixed or determined direction can be seen. Old states and old ruling classes, as in the rest of the world, have been upset, together with old social forms.

But the revolt of Asia is part of a world process and must be viewed as such. For the first time in many hundreds of years, Asia has re-entered the main stream of world history. It can now help in determining the future, and no one would dare attempt to calculate the future without giving Asia a major place in his calculations. For the moment, large sections of Asia remain outside of the political and social battleground on which the “cold war” between Russia and America is being waged, although the latest example of Viet Nam indicates how this “war” is spreading and devouring everything.

Nevertheless, there is a respite for Asia. It is Asia’s opportunity.

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