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This essay was first written in the Fall of 2010. Thanks to the prodding emails of readers, I have decided to revisit this section and publish it. [alex]

Why Marxism Has Failed, and Why Zombie-Marxism Cannot Die
Part 3.2 – Marx and Colonialism

by Alex Knight,

[Click here for Part 1 (Intro), Part 2 (What Marx Got Right), and Part 3.1 (Linear March of History)]

Image by Germ Ross,

“Do not terms such as ‘preindustrial’ and ‘precapitalist’ infest the marxian vernacular whenever analysis of noneuropean – that is, ‘undeveloped,’ ‘backward,’ or ‘primitive’ – societies is at hand? What possible purpose does the qualifier ‘pre’ – as opposed to say, ‘non’ – serve in this connection other than to argue that such societies are in the process of becoming capitalist? And is this not simply another way of stating that we are lagging behind those societies which have already become industrialized? Or, to take another example, to what end do marxists habitually refer to those societies which have ‘failed’ (refused) to enter a productive progression as being ‘ahistorical’ or ‘outside of history’? Is this to suggest that such cultures have no history,[i] or is it to say that they have the wrong kind of history, that only a certain (marxian) sort of history can be ‘real’?” – Ward Churchill, “False Promises: An Indigenist Examination of Marxist Theory and Practice” (Acts of Rebellion 233).

Marx’s linear march of history, as critiqued in the last section, leads him to deeply problematic conclusions about Europe’s relationship to the rest of the world. If capitalist Europe has attained the “highest” stage of social development, then everyone else is expected to follow in its footsteps to achieve liberation. Marx repeatedly characterized Europe as the most “advanced” or “civilized” continent (and within it England as the most advanced nation) as opposed to the “stagnation” of the “Asiatic” mode of production.

As we’ll see, he also held the dubious position that European colonialism was a necessary evil – simultaneously condemning its brutality while praising it as a progressive step in historical development. Such thinking implicitly marginalizes anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle as secondary to that of the industrial proletariat. At worst, some Marxists have even followed this logic to condemn anti-colonial struggle as reactionary because it seeks to “roll back the wheel of history.”

This essay is not about labeling Marx a racist; it is a critique of how Eurocentrism impedes the project of self-determination for peoples around the globe. For example, now that Europe’s colonies have given way to home-grown governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America, must these nations “Westernize” in order to “develop” their economies, or is there a road to freedom that doesn’t pass through capitalism? This remains a relevant question from Bolivia to China, and wherever self-identified Marxist regimes confront the twin problems of social inequality and ecological devastation.

European Superiority?

Kwame Turé (Stokely Carmichael)

The first time I ever questioned the correctness of Marx’s views was through reading Kwame Turé’s (Stokely Carmichael’s) autobiography, Ready for Revolution. Turé, an Afro-Trinidadian immigrant to New York, was a major figure in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a youth organization at the forefront of the U.S. civil rights movement. As Stokely Carmichael, he made headlines in 1966 when he first raised the call of “Black Power!” In his later years he left the United States for West Africa, living at the side of African liberationist leaders Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Touré.

In Ready for Revolution, Turé reflects on a rocky relationship with Marxism which connects with my own. As a youth in the Bronx he got involved with young (white) Marxist organizers, and being very smart he quickly grasped the Marxist theories of historical materialism, dialectics, socialism and communism.

“For the first time I encountered a systematic radical analysis, a critical context and vocabulary that made sense of history. It explained the inequities and injustice I’d long been conscious of in the society around me and prescribed (even predicted) revolutionary solutions. That was wondrously exciting intellectually” (92).[ii]

Yet, he recalls that as a black man there was something that didn’t sit right about Marx’s focus on Europe as the model for progress. “The words Eurocentric and hegemonistic were not then in my vocabulary or consciousness. I never overtly or consciously thought about the curious fact that all these revolutionary thinkers were European or that all their theoretical models were fashioned out of European historical experience. I accepted them as ‘universal.’ At first” (94).

After witnessing the “Harlem stepladder orators” speak about Pan-Africanism, and organizing with other black radicals at Howard University for civil rights, Stokely realized that Marx hadn’t been speaking to him as a black man. Marx was speaking to Europe. “I could sense that something was missing from this seamless, ‘universal’ system. Somehow it did not seem to take into serious account the rhythms and historical presence of my people” (104).

In the vast majority of his writings, Marx did not take life outside of Europe into account. The few times he did write about non-European societies are seldom studied today, but as we’ll see, are deeply problematic. Read the rest of this entry »

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