The contentious language of “Left” and “Empire”

In 1917 the Bolsheviks overthrew the monarchy in Russia and set up the world’s first Marxist regime. One important effect of it was on the term "Left" in political terminology. Let us take just one example. Public ownership of the means of production is not exclusive to the Marxist Left. It is also as one of the political axioms of Social Democracy of the kind practiced in, for example, Sweden or Norway. The significant distinction between the two is that in the Soviet “model”[i] political power at the state level is exercised by the working classes, which is not the case in the Scandinavian countries.

The above logic also applies to the term “Empire”.  Empire cannot be reduced to the rule of global corporations - as contended by certain sections of the European Left. Empire has a political as well as economic dimension. Take today’s Venezuela, for instance. For sure, its major resource – oil – is still effectively controlled, directly or indirectly, by global capital and marketing network. But that is not enough for US Imperialism to control Venezuela.  The Empire is trying to enter the political sphere to impose its stooge Juan Guaidó on the people of Venezuela.  However, Nicolás Maduro has strong backing of the working classes and the rural poor against imperialist forces. Venezuela shows that whilst in the long run, economics determine the instruments of governance, in the short run, politics are in command.

Marxism, abstracted from reality, falls in the trap of intellectualism

This is one of the problems with mainstream Western Marxism, some of whose adherents are embedded in our universities in Africa, and some are also in state power in our countries. Marxism is an ideology, of course. Left as an abstract ideology, it is prone to intellectualism. However, when it is applied to the existential reality of our times - in other words not abstracted from the extant reality on the ground - then it becomes a weapon in the hands of the people to struggle against exploitation and oppression.  The workers and peasants in Africa are exploited by capital, but our nations are oppressed by the Empire. We are exploited and oppressed nations. The struggle for national liberation is still on the political agenda of our people. Alas, many of our leaders have the illusion that our countries are “liberated” from imperialism. Their vision is clouded by the wealth they have accumulated using state power and their material relations with global capital.

Nyerere as a visionary leader

Not all political leaders in Africa are corrupted by the imperial system, the temptation to accumulate wealth, or confused by the “left” talk.

Nyerere is one of these.  He is often described in the West as a “Christian socialist”. This is a typical tendency for the West to take ownership of the ideas of African leaders. In their view, Nyerere must have been the product of Western thinking. Let us face the facts. Nyerere, like all of us, was of course influenced by ideas coming from the West. But he was essentially a nationalist and a visionary pan-Africanist. That is what he was passionate about, not “Christian Socialism”. In the 1980s, he chaired the South Commission set up by the developing countries. The rationale behind the South Commission was succinctly summarised by him in five headings. [ii]

1. Development shall be people centered.

2. Pursue a policy of maximum national self-reliance.

3. Supplement that with a policy of maximum collective South-South self-reliance.

4. Build maximum South-South solidarity in your relations with the North.

5. Develop science and technology.

Let us read the five points again. They contain the quint-essence of the Left strategy for Africa and the global South.

Two Outstanding African Marxists: Dani Nabudere and Samir Amin

Nabudere was not just an academic but revolutionary activist. For nearly fifty years (1964 - 2013) he was leader of a revolutionary underground movement actively involved in the struggle for the liberation of Uganda. He was also a prolific writer.

In his The Political Economy of Imperialism (1977) he traces the history of Capitalism from its early stage of primitive accumulation; through its mercantile period and "free trade imperialism". In his Rise and fall of Money Capital (1990) he traces the history of money (as distinct from capital), and critically assesses the contributions made by, among others, Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, neo-classical economists, Keynes, and neo-Keynesians like Nobel Laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman.

The other outstanding African Marxist was Samir Amin. He wrote close to fifty books over a period of sixty years. I cite here just two of these, both written in 2011. In his View from the South Amin offers a useful modification of the crude periodisation of world history by European Marxists into "five universal stages". In his Eurocentrism he traces its emergence since the European Renaissance.  Both these books contain great insights into the remarkable development of the productive resources (including science and technology) in the ancient world, and in particular China and India. "Europe", he writes, "did not participate in the general development of the pre-modern system until very late, after the year 1000. Up until then it had remained a backward and barbarous periphery." This is not to discount the contribution made by the West; it is to locate it within a corrected historical perspective. 

Revolutions come from below not from above

Coming back to Uganda, I was part of the underground movement (led by Dani Nabudere) against regimes installed by Imperialist forces. In 1972 the first President, Milton Obote, was ousted by a regime change led by Britain and Israel who installed Iddi Amin as President. In 1980, Obote came back to power, this time with the help of imperialist forces. We went underground to fight these regimes installed by the Empire.

In 1980-81 we had a small guerrilla force in the mountains bordering Uganda and Kenya. We soon discovered that the poor peasants were so much preoccupied with simply trying to exist that they did not see the point of the presence of our guerrillas. We therefore had to dismantle our guerrilla force. We were not anywhere near where the peasants in China were during the Mao-led revolution, or where the Cuban peasants were during the Castro-led revolution.

The important lesson we learnt from our experience is that we need first to develop the political consciousness of the masses before launching a revolution. Revolutions may be led by a vanguard leadership, but they can only be sustained by the conscious support of the masses. Revolutions come from below not from above.

Challenges for the progressive left in Africa

There are of course many challenges we face, but I shall mention the following drawn from the above analysis.

1.      To be on constant vigilance against getting sidetracked by the academic “left” discourse and political practice that is not rooted in the existential reality on the ground.

2.      To build maximum South-South solidarity in our relations with the North, as Nyerere advised us.

3.      To develop science and technology, also as advised by Nyerere. The West is determined to maintain its monopoly of this knowledge. China has partly challenged West’s dominance in this area. The latest example of this is China’s G5 wireless which, with faster speeds while using less power, could outpace the West.

4.      To face the reality of globalisation which started with the West, but is now spearheaded by China at least in the area of trade and investments. Whilst we join China in confronting the hegemony of the West, we must be able to negotiate with China on the basis of maintaining our own independence and national interest.

5.      To fight against the rise of fascist-like backward nationalism and populism which have nothing in common with Africa’s nationalism.  Our struggle is against imperialism and for democracy that is rooted in the consciousness and practice of our working classes – poor peasants and the industrial workers. 

Today we stand on the cusp of a new era. We must understand its challenges and its opportunities.

Yash Tandon

 15 June, 2019


[i] I use the word “model” in inverted commas because no country, not even China under Mao, provides a “model”. Each nation has to build its own system of political-economic governance.

[ii] I have dealt with this issue at great length in my Ending Aid Dependence,2008, Geneva, South Centre. For the  points made by Nyerere, see page 16