Academic meetings are characterized by panels of three or four panelists, each presenting a paper, providing an oral summary of the paper in ten or fifteen minutes. There often is a discussant, who ought to have received the full papers in advance, and who provides a critical analysis of the papers presented. Generally, there are two or three such sessions of two hours concurrently, combined with a few plenary sessions that does not have to compete with other concurrent sessions. Many academic meetings make a determined effort to ensure that there are thirty minutes to an hour dedicated to questions and comments from the audience, with the panelists given an opportunity to respond. It is a tedious structure, too much for most participants to take in for eight hours each day. But it has the advantage that all participants has an opportunity to present, however briefly, there ongoing work.
The presentations and commentaries during the proceedings of the 2017 ISA Global South Workshop in Havana revealed the limitations of those employed as professors in the English-speaking universities of the Global North. These limitations include a disconnection from Latin American perspectives; an insufficient knowledge of critical political actors in Latin American today, namely, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States; and an insufficient critical analysis of the epistemological assumptions that ground the rules of the bureaucratized university of the North.
There was in evidence at the meetings a tendency to view certain governments, repeatedly labeled as “regimes,” as repressive. Such supposedly repressive governments include China, Russia, Venezuela, and to a certain extent, Cuba. Inasmuch as a solid understanding of the dynamics in these nations was not demonstrated, I assume that the participants had been influenced by the demonizing distortions of these governments in the major international news media.
In addition, there was the frequently expressed view that Chinese foreign policy is imperialist, and in this regard, the participants in the conference were standing against the prevailing view in Cuba and the Latin American Left in general. A notable exception to the prevailing anti-China view at the conference was a paper presented by Dr. Betty Sedoc-Dahlberg, an independent scholar from Suriname. Dr. Sedoc-Dahlberg maintains that, because of the more just trade that China accepts with her commercial partners, the nations of the Third World will be increasingly oriented to trade with China during the next twenty years, establishing the dominance of the Chinese approach in international affairs. Casting aside the prevailing cynicism that distrusts the motives of any major global actor, she discerns the wisdom of the Chinese approach, inasmuch as mutually beneficial trade is in the common interest of humanity, and as such, it establishes the possibility for a future stable international relations and a multicultural global civilization.
Dr. Sedoc-Dahlberg’s conclusion points to a more hopeful possibility for humanity than what can be projected on the basis of the current dynamics of the world-system. But the rules of academia do not permit the optimistic approval of a particular political project. They require a detached neutrality, in which the researcher does not take sides. The embracing of proclamations by revolutionary leaders (like “A better world is possible,” “We are making real the dreams of Bolívar and Martí,” and “We can save humanity”) is not permitted. Scholars are expected by their publishers and universities to find fault with popular social movements and progressive governments. Of course, critical analysis is necessary, but what is expected is not a constructive critique that could possibly help find the road to human emancipation, but a destructive critique that discredits. Because in the final analysis, the rules and structures of higher education in the North are designed to reaffirm the status quo by discrediting all proposed alternatives that cannot be coopted.
I observed with sympathy the efforts of scholars of the South who are working in the universities and research centers of the North. Some were asking the right questions and were seeking to develop scholarship characterized by fidelity to their national and cultural roots. But they seemed a little lost, disconnected from historic popular struggles. In Cuba, one hears constant reference to the heroes that formed and led the struggle since 1968. But the outstanding leaders and intellectuals of the African world and the African diaspora were for the most part absent in the reflections at the conference, and not present as a point of departure and as a source of inspiration. At the same time, the participants were disconnected from the alternative world projected in theory and practice in Latin America today, from which principles and possible strategies could be discerned.
Above all, what is needed is a connection between the English-speaking academics of the North and the revolutionary theory and practice of Latin America today. Since the time of Marx, it has been possible for us to see that the most advanced understanding of human social dynamics emerges from connection to the revolutionary movements from below. Today, in the context of the sustained crisis of the world-system, the Latin American popular revolutions have reached an advanced stage, and they constitute a source for our inspiration in the North.