Socialist revolutions did not triumph in the advanced industrialized nations of the North, as Marx, Engels, and Lenin had anticipated. Rather, when they triumphed, it was in the neocolonies of the world. Of particular importance with respect to the above-mentioned post on “Exploitation in Cuba,” the great majority of the people in the neocolonies suffered not only exploitation, but also superexploitation. That is, the people endured not only being paid less than the value of what they produce (exploitation), but also earning less than what is necessary for purchase of the minimal necessities of life (superexploitation). In the North, superexploitation exists, but it has pertained to the minority of workers, and it often is transitional. But it is more pervasive and more systemic in the South, because the superexploitation of workers in semi-peripheral and peripheral zones is central to the core-peripheral relation of the world-economy, and the structures of the world-system are designed to guarantee its preservation.
Not only did the revolutions triumph in places not anticipated; they also assumed characteristics not anticipated by classical Marxist theory. The revolutions of the neocolonies were not precisely proletarian revolutions against the capitalist class; rather, they were popular revolutions in opposition to the national bourgeoisie and in opposition to the imperialist powers to which the national bourgeoisie was subordinate. Further, when these revolutions triumphed, they faced conditions of underdevelopment, and they found that the sovereignty of their nations was curtailed by colonial economic structures and by the actions of the imperialist powers. In this context, the popular revolutions in semi-peripheral and peripheral zones reformulated the concepts and the goals of classical Marxism, even as they appropriated from the socialist revolutions of the North in imagining and forging a reformulation from the Third World.
Marx and Engels had formulated their understanding in a particular historical and social context defined by the awakening of a proletarian revolution in the context of bourgeois dominated political-economic systems in the core zone of the developing capitalist world-economy. From that vantage point, Marx interpreted human history as the history of class struggles, a story reaching culmination with the triumphant proletarian revolution.
But the proletarian revolution did not triumph. The bourgeoisie was able to contain the proletarian revolutions of the core through reformist concessions, made possible by wealth attained on the foundation of colonial and semi-colonial domination of vast regions of the world; and through political repression and ideological manipulation. During the course of the twentieth century, the proletarian movements of the core evolved from revolution to reform, and revolutionary thought became increasingly alienated from revolutionary practice.
At the time of Marx, the popular revolutions in the colonized regions were still in an early stage. Most of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in America had become independent. But with the popular revolutionary impulse contained, the Latin American republics settled into a semi-colonial relation with Great Britain, an expanding colonial power. Marx insightfully discerned some of the implications of all of this, but he was not in a social situation that would enable him to apply these insights consistently to a formulation of the meaning of human history. Lenin began to see the future importance of the popular struggles in the colonized regions of the world, but like Marx, he was not socially positioned to fully grasp its implications.
During the course of the twentieth century, the full implications of the early projections of classical Marxist theory were developed on the foundation of the revolutions in the colonies and semi-colonies. In China, Mao drew upon nationalist resentment toward the unequal treaties imposed by the Western imperialist powers to forge an adaptation of Marxism-Leninism to Chinese conditions. In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh synthesized the anti-French nationalism of Confucian scholars with Marxism-Leninism. In Latin America, anti-imperialist popular movements influenced by Marxism-Leninism evolved during the course of the twentieth century, receiving its most advanced formulation in Fidel’s synthesis of the Cuban revolutionary nationalism of José Martí with Marxism-Leninism. In the Arab World, Nasser’s nationalist vision of Arab secular republics expressed anti-imperialist hopes for the region. In Africa, Kwame Nkrumah sought to establish the unity of the newly independent states as a counter to the economic stranglehold in which they found themselves in the neocolonial stage; while Julius Nyerere sought to synthesize modern socialism with traditional African values.
The epicenter of the global socialist revolution had shifted from Europe to the region of the world that called itself the Third World, implying a political realignment beyond the Cold War, and implying a Marxist theoretical formulation that went beyond Marx. In his time, Marx went to the places where the emerging proletarian revolution was expressing itself, and from that vantage point of the worker, he analyzed the capitalist economy, previously analyzed from a bourgeois point of view. And from that vantage point of the worker, he grasped the importance class division, seeing the struggle between classes as the primary dynamic in human history.
If we were to follow the example of Marx, we would go to the epicenter of the global revolution today, and we would allow the formulations of today’s revolutionary subjects to shape our own understanding. If we do not do so, we become dependent on concepts that have ossified, because they were formulated in an earlier revolutionary moment. They have not been nourished by continued revolutionary practice, inasmuch as the revolutionary force of the North has been overwhelmed by a confused and divided mix of revolution and reform.
But if, like Marx, we were to go to the epicenter of the popular and socialist revolution, and we were to take seriously what they are thinking and doing in that revolutionary climate, we would reformulate our understanding. We would see that human history is indeed the history of class struggle, but it is, more fully, the history of domination. Looking at human history from the vantage point of today’s conquered and colonized, we would see that conquest and domination is the basis of empires and civilizations in human history. And we would see that it must come to an end, because the neocolonial world-system has reached the geographical limits of the earth and overextended its ecological limits, and thus it is neither politically nor ecologically sustainable.
Not that the dimension of class would be absent. Taking into account and reflecting on Marx’s insight, we would see that class is a dimension of conquest. On the one hand, when the conquered people is assimilated in an expanding kingdom, it is incorporated as a marginalized lower class, thus integrating in practice the theoretical constructs of race/ethnicity and class. On the other hand, in cases in which the conquered nation is permitted a degree of autonomy in the empire, the upper class of the conquered nation is subordinated to the imperial power; it receives material rewards for representing imperialist interests, thus accentuating class divisions with the conquered society.
But personal encounter with today’s epicenter of the global revolution implies an alternative frame of reference, different from the frame of classical Marxism, even though it has appropriated from the insights of classical Marxism. Central to the narrative from the Third World is not class exploitation but colonial and neocolonial domination, even though class exploitation is a component of the dynamic of domination. And the primary expression of abuse is not exploitation but superexploitation, and it is the latter becomes the central motif of emancipatory projects. In accordance with this alternative frame of reference, political projects emerge that demand national liberation and sovereignty against neocolonial political and economic structures, and that demand the right of sovereign states to take decisive action in defense of the social and economic rights of the people, standing against a legacy of superexploitation.
In addition, central to the Third World reformulation of Marxism is the concept of the nation. It has maintained that, with respect to the regions of the world that had been colonized, the structures of the neocolonial world-system negate in practice the principle of the sovereignty of nations. It proclaims that Third World states, as sovereign states, have a right to act decisively as the regulator and principal subject in their economies, in order to strengthen capacity to provide for the needs of their peoples in such areas as education, health, housing, and nutrition. Accordingly, the Third World reformulation reflects a quest for both national liberation, standing for sovereignty and against imperialism; and for social liberation, seeking to overcome the legacy of underdevelopment and superexploitation. The revolutionary Third World project is a project of national and social liberation.
In addition, the Third World revolution in defense of the nation and in defense of the social and economic rights of the people is a popular revolution, that is, a revolution of the people, and not only workers, or workers aided by peasants, or workers plus other sectors. It is a popular revolution against the national bourgeoisie and against the imperialist powers to which the national bourgeoisie is subordinate; it seeks the sovereignty of the nation, in order to protect the social and economic rights of the people. There is evident here a reformulation of the classic Marxist narrative.
The Third World revolutionary project of national and social liberation, therefore, has formulated a series of principles, which have been disseminated in popular movements today in the Third World. Central to these principles is the nation: the right of the nation to be sovereign, to create an alternative political system that responds to the persistent hopeful voice of the people; and to construct an autonomous economic system, in which the state is the regulator and principle actor, and which responds above all to the material needs of the people. In forging these principles, the Third World project has been pushing forward an evolution of understanding in the concepts of Marxism-Leninism, and on the basis of revolutionary practice. Unlike the nations in the core, the leaders and intellectuals in the Third World have not been trying to understand things in a social and political context removed from revolutionary practice.
Any Marxist from the North who listens to and reads what Third World leaders and intellectuals have been saying and writing could not fail to notice: (1) the consensual basic understanding in the various regions of the Third World, in spite of differences in particularities; and (2) the difference of this consensual understanding from the classic formulation of Marx and Engels. The centrality of the nation is primary, inviting the formulation of national narratives that place the struggle of the people(s) in the nation in a world historical context. That world-historical narrative does not see exactly a history of class conflict, but a history of conquest and domination as the foundation of human advances in knowledge and culture, with class divisions understood as integral to this dynamic of domination. It calls not the proletariat to revolution, but the people, all of the sectors of the people: workers, peasants, students, women, professionals, and ethnic minorities. It calls the people to unity, standing against the national political-economic elite that is subordinate to foreign interests; it teaches that unity is the key to establishing the dignity of the nation. It does not focus on exploitation, as defined by Marx, but on superexploitation, defined as working for less than what is necessary to live. Inasmuch as the majority of the people work in various economic sectors in conditions of superexploitation, attention to their human needs is the highest priority: housing, nutrition, health care, and education.
The revolutionary leaders of the Third World have dominated the art of politics, focusing on strategies that would lead the people to the taking of political power. Once in power, they have taken decisive steps in defense of the people’s needs, showing the people that the delivery on promises by leaders with political power is within the realm of human possibilities, if the leaders owe their power to the support and action of the people and not to the support of wealthy interests. The leaders continually exhort, calling the people to a secular and inclusive society with full equality for all. But they know the people intimately, and they understand that its characteristics have been formed by centuries of abuse and exclusion; the people cannot be transformed in a day. Revolutionary leaders in power take measures designed to teach the people its own capacities, but they understand that only the people themselves can construct the new society they envision; it cannot be imposed. If some of the people want to indulge in a level of frivolous consumerism, if some want to become small-scale entrepreneurs, if some display religious objects to protect themselves from evil spirts, let them be, at least for the present historic moment. This is politically intelligent: the people must be kept on board in a unified resistance against the powerful world actors that have declared their intention to destroy the unfolding revolution; they cannot become divided within, arguing about issues that in the current historic moment are of secondary concern.
For those of us who are Marxists from the North, our basic premise has to be that we have much to learn from the unfolding popular revolutions in the Third World. We have been shaped in a social context not of revolution but of reform. Understanding emerges in the context of revolutionary practice, and our revolutionary practice has been limited. We have not yet learned what revolution is, and our activists often seem to think those most dedicated to social change are those who shout the loudest, who express frustrations without editing, and/or make the most extreme proposals, without evaluating their impact on the people, to whom all that we propose and do must be explained.
We ought to go to any of the innumerable social spaces of the world where the Third World revolutionary process is unfolding. We must go not to educate, to analyze, or to evaluate on the basis of concepts that we have learned in our context of limited revolutionary understanding. We must go to listen and learn. Of course, we are all human, and we will have some tendency to say, “Listen, you are proposing thus and so, and I am not sure I am in agreement with that, because . . .”. But our basic orientation has to be to listen and learn, permitting their understanding to shape our own, because Third World leaders and intellectuals have been formed in a context of sustained revolutionary practice, and we have not.
On the foundation of our more universal understanding formed on a foundation of encounter with the Third World revolution, we can return to our own nations, critically reflecting on our own reformist and revolutionary popular movements, discerning their limitations, and discerning the steps that must be taken from here and now. Something like this would be necessary, if we are to become revolutionary subjects acting in solidarity with the revolutionary movements of humanity, which have been emerging in an historic moment in which the capitalist world-economy is demonstrating its unsustainability.
We are speaking here of the need for a horizon shift, a shift in the basic assumptions, concepts, and narratives of the nations of the North. Only the Left in the North has the possibility of formulating it, because of its legacy of Marxism, progressivism, and commitment to social justice. However, the Left itself would have to undergo horizon shift, reformulating its understanding through cross-horizon encounter with the movements of the Third World. And it has to combine the reformulation with political intelligence, effectively educating and organizing the peoples of the nations of the North, leading them to the taking of political power. With the recognition that, once in power, the revolution would begin in earnest, as the revolution would use its base in executive and legislative political power to forge a process of political-economic-cultural systemic change. Integral to this change would be the destruction of global neocolonial structures, so that the nations of the North can move beyond their colonial heritage and cooperate with the nations and peoples of the world in the development of a just, democratic, and sustainable world-system, constructing the alternative world-system on the foundation of the established world-system, rebuilding it step-by-step.