The New Vanguard: Challenges for the Left in Asia and Africa

The ever intensifying calls for the building of a ‘21st-century socialism’ spearheaded by Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales mark another phase in the stunning resurrection of the global left. Comprehensively different from its cold war predecessor it may be, but the defining characteristic of today’s left is still its unflinching opposition to global capitalism. Driven by a much more diverse -– some would say fragmented -– group of interests as compared to the traditional working-class movements of the 20th century, today’s radical left necessarily espouses new hopes and aspirations, but also presents many more unanswered questions.

Among the more important of the immediate questions that the left in the periphery faces is how it will deal with the challenge of possessing state power in a period of unbridled neoliberal hegemony, which, by its very nature, has arguably even more stultifying effects on peripheral economies than was the case during the cold war when capitalist imperialism was still facing the challenge -– however flawed –- of Sovietism. But perhaps the most compelling question at the present conjuncture is why the ‘global’ left’s resurrection is almost completely confined to Latin America. After all, even though there is widespread resentment to neoliberal capitalism around the world, it is only in Latin America that this resentment has taken concrete political shape.

In much of post-colonial Asia and Africa, not only is the left not in a position to capture state power, it is in fact a negligible political force. Instead forces on the right –- often religious -– are taking advantage of the polarisations to which neoliberal radicalism is giving rise. Many of these regressive forces -– particularly in the Muslim world – have become ever more powerful through systematic political collaboration with ruling classes and imperialism over the past two or three decades, and this should not be forgotten when trying to identify the causes of the left’s weakness in these contexts. However, it is also essential to consider long-term structural factors that have combined with more immediate subjective factors to consign the left to its present quandary.

The New Vanguard

In the first instance, as is well known, the social structure of much of modern Latin America -– as indeed of the New World as a whole -– is entirely different from that which the European colonisers inherited at the end of the 15th century. In other words, the colonial encounter led to a virtual annihilation of pre-colonial eco-systems. The New World settler colonies were distinguished from the vast majority of Old World colonies in that the latter did not experience to the same extent the social and cultural upheavals that come with mass immigration. To be sure, the impact of colonialism on Asia and Africa1 was no less acute than in the New World; nor was European settlement exclusive to the Americas, Australasia and the Caribbean – as is proven by Southern, Northern and Eastern Africa. However what can be said unequivocally is that the nature of the colonial encounter in the New World was qualitatively different than in the Old World, and this difference necessarily engendered significant divergence between these regions in the long run.

The most obvious long-term result of the unique colonial experiment2 in the New World has been the emergence of race as the major fault line of difference in the Americas. More specifically, white Europeans –- or to a lesser extent mestizos -– have clearly constituted the ruling group whereas indigenous peoples and the descendants of African slaves have never extricated themselves from their position of subjugation. That being said, there remain considerable differences within Latin America itself in terms of the racial composition and balance of power within individual states. Demographically, Argentina and Uruguay resemble Australia and New Zealand, in that the large majority of the working class shares European origins with the ruling class. While the trajectory of racialism has been different in each distinct social formation in the Americas, there is little doubt that race has been, and continues to be, a major political identity, if not the most important.

On the other hand, class in Latin America has also been expressed in much more coherent and politically tangible terms than in most post-colonial Asian or African states –- at least those where decolonisation occurred without a revolutionary process. This is also at least partially a function of the differential impact of European colonialism. More specifically, in Latin America propertied classes that came to dominate the colonial and post-colonial social formations and the subordinate classes that they exploited were unambiguously constituted as subjects of an unprecedented project of social engineering, albeit within the confines of an emergent world system centred in Europe. In contrast, the colonial and post-colonial conjunctures in much of the Old World were characterised by considerable remnants of pre-colonial social formations in the economic, political and cultural spheres. Consequently, the antagonistic classes were not as clearly constituted as in Latin America; pre-existing structures of power were not eradicated; and the state was far more ‘alien’ to the host society, tending to represent the particular interests of those controlling the administrative levers of power rather than the general interests of the propertied classes. As a result social conflict took many forms, with class not as salient a factor as in the Americas.

Race and class in the Americas have a symbiotic relationship. This is apparent in the long history of anti-imperialist struggle in Latin America, which has been characterised by an overt celebration of the oppressed indigenous culture, as personified by figures like Zapata and Sandino and as expressed polemically in the works of José Carlos Mariátegui and Ernesto Cardenal.3 Yet the historic subjugation of the racial majorities in Latin America did not constitute as central a place in the analyses and agenda of the Latin American left during the cold war as it should have. The recent more overt appeals to racial majorities in the context of the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ in Venezuela and the upheaval in Bolivia have in part plugged this gap. Without subsuming cultural identity under the cloak of class, they have nonetheless retained a strong anti-capitalist thrust.

Of course, it would make no sense for them to marginalise class, given capital’s insatiable appetite to reproduce itself. Yet the experience of actually existing socialism in the 20th century has bequeathed many lessons for the global left, foremost being the recognition that culture, and the differences it entails, cannot and need not be relegated to the status of epiphenomena with no relevance in a materialist schema. It is therefore high time that racism as a systematic ideology of subjugation is addressed.

That genuine steps in this direction are being made in Latin America is a basic premise of this exposition. However, it should be debated long and hard whether the more expansive politics of today’s Latin American left can take forward a genuinely revolutionary political project that is wholly committed to a viable 21st-century post-capitalist alternative, because there can be little doubt that the post-structuralist fashions that have been the intellectual bedrock of neoliberalism4 will continue to be employed to de-radicalise any meaningful political challenge to capitalism. In other words, even though, as suggested above, a symbiotic relationship exists between race and class, racial/cultural essentialism is not the solution to the lack of emphasis on race and culture in the past. Given that Latin America has at present become the vanguard of the global left, it is here that the danger of post-structuralist reductionism must be averted at all costs.

In particular, post-structuralists will be keen to criticise the inherent tendency of Latin America’s new breed of populist leaders -– some may call them revolutionaries –- to tread the same path of their 20th-century predecessors by coopting the radicalism that is found in the popular movements through a tried and failed form of statism. To the extent that the widespread organic political activism that has fuelled the rise to power of individuals like Chávez and Morales is undermined by the bureaucratic state machineries that still exist in their respective countries, such fears are well founded.5 Indeed, the current wave of populism will only continue to be a challenge to capitalism if the people’s movement that gave it political life continues to sustain it.

However, post-structuralists typically transform this problem into a more debilitating one by suggesting that there can be no meaningful systemic alternative to capitalism. Rather in this day and age, it is better -– so they argue -– to focus on and celebrate the ‘multitude’, or in other words the limitless possibilities of global resistance to capitalism.6 As suggested at the outset, given past experiences and the manner of evolution of global capitalism, there is a need to consider the relationship between radical transformative projects and state power.7 However, the one undeniable principle guiding any such project, whether inspired by Marxist dialectical ideas or not, is that no attempt should be made to enforce adherence to any uniform trajectory, a disease that afflicted many 20th-century experiences. In other words, the situation in Venezuela and Bolivia at the present time is not dissimilar to a revolutionary one in that the possibilities exist for substantive change, but the realisation of these possibilities depends on the degree of support gained by revolutionary forces in their struggle against the old guard. Condemning these forces because they espouse the ‘grand narratives’ of socialism only serves the interests of the established order.

The Rest of the World?

Perhaps the best way to defend against poststructuralist-inspired criticisms is if the left in the rest of the world experiences a similar resurgence to that currently occurring in Latin America. But how can it do this? As suggested above, the majority of post-colonial African and Asian societies lack tangible ideologies of subjugation like that of race which suggest clear fault-lines along which a collective consciousness of working people can be cultivated. One might argue that the caste-divisions of Indian society point in such a direction, and that the relationship between caste and class in India is as symbiotic as the relationship between race and class in Latin America. Generally speaking, however, such reasoning is ahistorical, overlooking the fact that caste-stratification preceded British colonial rule and India’s integration into the capitalist world economy. Furthermore, the Indian caste system is far more complex than a simple reflection of an oppressed-oppressor relationship.8 In any case, caste has been a major political identity in India for most of its post-colonial history and has been shorn of its potentially revolutionary edge.

That European colonial powers employed the infamous method of indirect rule to administer most of their Asian and African possessions has been exhaustively documented.9 This process entailed preserving much of a pre-colonial political culture -– something far from immutable –- that was heavily dominated by extra-economic dynamics, while prying open the colonised society to the rigours of the international market. The colonialists ensured the political servitude of local propertied classes -– in many cases actually giving them unprecedented rights to private property by introducing bourgeois legal and political structures –- while condemning the majority of the colonised peoples to severe subordination as they became more and more vulnerable to the vagaries of the international market while still subject to the social power of local overlords.

So for example, notwithstanding the significant debates and contradictory impulses within the colonial state, the British in India were keen not to disturb the power structure that they encountered at the local level, even as they rapidly accelerated the insertion of the entire Indian social formation into the capitalist world economy. Thus the organic changes that such dramatic economic shocks were bound to give rise to were tempered by the deliberate efforts of the state to reify certain social ‘categories’ including caste, tribe, and religion, in the interests of maintaining stable rule.10 Similar processes of reification of identities and perceived ‘traditions’ took place in Africa, even if they produced contradictory results. For example, the colonial authorities insisted on the need to codify customary law and to ensure that it guided the state’s dealings with the ‘natives’. However, this customary law was not necessarily a true expression of pre-colonial custom, and in many cases native populations had to adjust themselves so as to conform to their supposed traditions.11

In other words, in the case of most African and Asian colonies, colonialism neither retained pre-colonial structures nor imposed entirely new ones. Instead it evolved complex structures that mimicked neither those in the metropolitan countries nor what the colonizers had initially stumbled upon in the colonies. Even the colonial state machinery, despite all pretensions to being modeled on an impersonal Weberian rationality, was undeniably and indelibly colored by the specific and unique forms of social interaction that existed in the host society. It is important to reiterate that these incoherencies in the colonial project did not necessarily undermine its ultimate objective, which was to forcibly integrate the colonised regions into a burgeoning world economy. To this extent, at least, the post-colonial conjunctures in Asia, Africa and Latin America shared a very basic ‘outer constraint’.

This is not to deny that substantial changes have occurred in the post-colonial world over the past few decades, or that these changes have had dramatic impacts on the political, economic and cultural component parts of the social structure. In particular, urbanisation has meant a steady weakening of the social bases of power that existed under colonial rule, where the state focussed mainly on reinforcing the structures of power in rural areas.

Learning Lessons

To restate the original contention: in contrast to the social structure left behind in Latin America, European colonialism’s legacy in much of Asia and Africa is far more variegated and complex. In much the same way as was suggested above in the case of the Latin American left during the cold war, the left in many parts of Asia and Africa has not been cognizant of the complexities of the societies in which it has attempted to foment change, which explains at least some of its failings.

This is not to suggest that there have been no innovations to classical radical scholarship in the post-colonial world. In the radical heyday of the 1960s and ‘70s, there were numerous attempts to theorise the exact nature of the projects of capitalist modernity that were created by colonialism. Theories on the ‘colonial mode of production’ and ‘overdeveloped post-colonial states’ were the vogue for many years, and made bold and novel attempts to adapt classical Marxist critiques.12

However, in retrospect –- and not in any way because of the tasteless post-modern polemic that was at the forefront of the attack on the Marxist academy –- many of these seminal theoretical formulations have proven to be inadequate in explaining the complexity of the post-colonial situation. For example, for far too long, there was an unwillingness amongst Marxist scholars in the post-colonial world to conceive of change in their own societies as being qualitatively different from the European model in which organic economic changes in society propelled the formation of the modern capitalist state and corresponding forms of impersonalisation. In fact it is quite clear that the need to understand the ‘political’ and ‘cultural’ realms in post-colonial Africa and Asia, and for that matter Latin America, is more acute given the colonial experience. Even so, the political, cultural and economic components of social structure must still be conceived of as a dialectical unity.

In general over the past couple of decades Marxist scholarship has learned that there is a need to attribute far greater autonomy to the cultural and political realms, and to be much more dynamic in theorising about historical change. This is clearly a lesson that the Latin American left has taken to heart,13 and it is important that left forces in Asia and Africa also make that leap. In particular, more attention needs to be paid to the dynamics of politics and the logic of cultural practice in each individual Asian and African society.

For example, in the Muslim countries, it seems natural to ask whether Islam can be the foundation of a liberationist anti-imperialist politics like that of Liberation Theology in Latin America in the 1970s. Following the historic victory of the Lebanese resistance to Israeli imperialist aggression, there has been a revival of talk about the potentially progressive role of ‘Islamist’ movements. In the first instance, it is important to bear in mind that there is no one monolithic ‘Islam’ that may be projected as a basis for anti-imperialist resistance. Perhaps more importantly, if there is an ‘Islamic’ politics at the present time, its roots can be traced back to the attempts of reactionary pro-imperialist regimes in the Muslim world to counter leftist currents in decades past. Many ‘Islamists’ of the present day were within recent memory unashamed allies of imperialism, such as those that fought in the Afghan jihad against the ‘godless’ Soviets, whom Ronald Reagan famously described as the ‘moral equivalents of our founding fathers’.14

Nonetheless, the possibilities for some Islamic movements to evolve into genuinely anti-imperialist popular struggles should be considered. For example, Hezbollah’s surge in popularity across the Muslim world may be the basis for its political maturation. However, this will require it to acknowledge its politics to date -– including its rather conservative positions in the Lebanese parliament -– and outline a coherent strategy for its future. In general, the left must be cognizant of the history of Islamist politics and make alliances with care.15 In any case, the lesson offered by the current conjuncture in Latin America is that any genuinely popular and principled revolutionary politics must evolve through the people, and this means a different idiom in each different context, even within the Muslim world.

The Way Forward?

It is true that many African and Asian post-colonial states wield overbearing authority and accordingly extract massive amounts of surplus from society at large. Furthermore, the administrative branch of the post-colonial state dominates over its far less developed legislative and judicial arms and indeed over society at large. To the extent that colonialism left behind an ‘overdeveloped’ administrative state, neo-Marxist theories such as Alavi’s about the unique post-colonial conjuncture provide invaluable insight into the post-colonial condition. But it is highly inaccurate to view politics in either the colonial or the post-colonial period as simply reflective of some changes (or lack thereof) in the economic realm. By drawing upon and reinforcing many political and cultural peculiarities that it encountered, colonialism gave rise to a structural logic that is far more complex than the impersonal exchange relationship that characterises modern capitalist society.

In the post-colonial conjuncture, the state has been penetrated by society at large in that there is no longer a strict separation between a white state and a native society. As dominant groups -– and even low and mid level state functionaries –- now have access to state resources, and given that the state directly or indirectly controls such a significant proportion of resources in post-colonial societies, a very complex political sphere has evolved. The operative feature of politics is patronage, yet this is far more complex than simple corruption, and needs to be understood as such.16 While the more obvious and decadent manifestation of ‘corruption’ is indeed attributable to dominant classes, it also represents a strategy of political engagement of the subordinate classes that reflects their inherent vulnerability to the whims of the state and propertied classes.

There are of course innumerable examples of an expansive revolutionary politics in Asia and Africa in which subordinate classes have transcended this designated political sphere and courageously attempted to bring about structural change. And in many such cases, revolutionary politics has been inspired by ideas and values typically characterised as ‘traditional’. A case in point is that of Nepal, where the recent ‘people’s revolution’ was suffused with forms of expression deeply rooted in local culture. Poetry, song, and dance were commonplace throughout the uprising and gave the street mobilisations an almost festive feel. While the movement was demanding political enfranchisement, it was not afraid to invoke mystic and other cultural symbols associated with the past. Something similar was evident in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. In other words, it is simply fallacious to unequivocally assert that ‘tradition’ is inimical to efforts at fomenting change. After all, at least part of the explanation for the failures of the cold war left in post-colonial Asia and Africa was that it tended to dismiss all such political and cultural specificities as ‘feudal’ or ‘backward’. Meanwhile many leftists were unable to stay aloof from the politics of patronage, a fact reflecting not so much their personal failings as their position in that society.

Studies of patron-client relationships were common in mainstream anthropology in the post-war years and were typically associated with ‘traditional’ societies. Most Marxist structural analyses did not adequately deal with the static dichotomy of traditional and modern; the most significant attempt was made in the idea of articulation of modes of production, in which it was postulated that elements of different modes could –- and in the real world did –- co-exist. However, this notion still attributed far too much causality to the economic realm without considering that the political and cultural realms were extremely complex and had a dynamic of their own.

As the capitalist mode has become more and more dominant in the post-colonial world at large, politics and culture have remained highly enigmatic, and are far from simply reflecting the encroachments of capital. Indeed, as the Latin American example proves, so-called ‘pre-capitalist’ culture becomes a potent form of resistance even as it evolves dialectically with the cultural forms coeval with the new relations of production that are the inevitable consequence of capital’s ever intensifying encroachment on social life.

In Asia and Africa too, the most vibrant examples of resistance to the ravages of neoliberalism in recent decades have at some basic level been celebrations of culture, expressions of politics both wedded to the practices of the past and trying to break the shackles of domination by the state and propertied classes. For instance there are the numerous struggles of indigenous communities against big dams all over the world, most notably in India. Unfortunately many organised left parties have been unwilling and/or unable to make meaningful links with such movements, while the movements themselves have often represented a clear and tangible attempt to defy the orthodoxy of the traditional left. Both sides need to recognise the futility of trying to go it alone, although the greater onus falls on those who overtly refer to themselves as the ‘left’ to really meet the challenge of eschewing ahistoricity and pre-conceived notions.

In some ways this lack of communication between new forms of resistance and the ‘old’ left reflects the fact that ‘indigenous’ concerns remain peripheral to the outlook of most established leftist discourse, primarily because the left too tends to fall into the trap of associating ‘traditional’ concerns, attitudes, and society at large to the realm of ‘backward’ whereas ‘modern’ development represents the solution to the deprivation and exclusion of working people. Consequently there is still a tendency amongst established left organisations to focus on the struggles of the industrial working class and what are considered more radical autonomous groupings within the peasantry rather than look in the direction of groups such as indigenous displaced communities, fisher folk and communities dependent on forest resources that have generally remained outside the ambit of left politics.

This is not to suggest that one should romanticise ‘tradition’; the forms of oppression that existed in pre-colonial societies must be challenged. For example it is under the guise of ‘nativist’ pretensions that women are subjugated in many Islamic societies.17 The point, however, is that the notion of a rigid modern-traditional binary often obfuscates more than it illuminates. In particular, cultural and political forms of the present period, in all post-colonial contexts, need to be analysed with more sophistication than is the case when they are viewed through the static lens of modern vs. traditional.

To some extent the resurgence of the left in Latin America reflects a willingness to break with obsolete methods and analyses. Perhaps more importantly, the teleological understanding of historical change that has afflicted too many Marxisms in too many parts of the world has been rejected. Across the periphery, politics and culture -– of both the status quo and the revolutionary kind –- have to be considered in a much more sophisticated manner in which the generic objective of ‘development’ –- or the victory of the so-called modern over the traditional –- is not prescribed uncritically. Indeed, indigenous culture -– both political and otherwise -– is far from static and unchanging. It has maintained a meaningful place in post-colonial social formations, and remains a potent form of progressive and, as the current spate of movements in Latin America suggests, potentially revolutionary change.


1. There were also substantive differences between colonialism in Asia and in Africa, and, for that matter, between different colonies within either continent. For instance it can be argued that the large-scale kidnapping of African populations for purposes of enslavement and the quite arbitrary imposition of national boundaries in Africa meant that the colonial impact was more devastating than in Asia.

2. This experiment could just as well be termed genocide given the virtual annihilation of pre-colonial eco and cultural systems by the conquistadores.

3. See José Carlos Mariátegui, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality [1928]. Trans. Marjory Urquidi (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971); Ernesto Cardenal, Homage to the American Indians. Trans. Monique & Carlos Altschul (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).

4. For a discussion of the relationship between post-structuralism and neoliberalism see John Sanbonmatsu, “Postmodernism and the Corruption of the Academic Intelligentsia,” in Leo Panitch & Colin Leys, eds., Telling the Truth: Socialist Register 2006 (London: Merlin Press, 2005).

5. See for example Marta Harnecker, Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2005).

6. See the exposition of this point of view in Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005). See also the critique of this position presented by Marcella Bencivenni in S&D 40 (March 2006).

7. Or indeed the prospect of such transformation not requiring state power at all; see John Holloway, Change the World without Taking Power (London: Pluto, 2002).

8. For a relatively comprehensive analysis of caste in India, see Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

9. This is not to discount the experience of more ‘directly’ administered colonies, or even to understate the changes in colonial governance practices over time. For example, the British reconsidered the very premises of their rule in India following the 1857 revolt. See for example David Gilmartin, Empire and Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

10. See for example Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

11. See for example Sara Berry, “Hegemony on a Shoestring: Indirect Rule and Access to Agricultural Land,” Africa 62 (3), 1992.

12. See Hamza Alavi, “India: Transition from Feudalism to Colonial Capitalism,” Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 10, No. 4, 1980; Hamza Alavi, “The State in Post-Colonial Societies: Pakistan and Bangladesh,” New Left Review, 74, July-August 1972.

13. See for example the movements discussed in Gerardo Rénique, ed., The Reawakening of Revolution in Latin America, S&D 39 (November 2005).

14. See for example Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Root of the War on Terror (New York: Pantheon Books, 2004).

15. See the argument made by Fred Halliday, “The Left and the Jihad,” OpenDemocracy, Sept. 8, 2006 (

16. See J.F. Bayart, The State in Africa: The Politics of the Belly (London: Longman, 1993).

17. See Mustapha Kamal Pasha, “‘Hyper-Extended’ State: Civil Society and Democracy,” in Rasul Bakhsh Rais, ed., State, Society and Democratic Change in Pakistan (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1997).

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