Is Socialism Eurocentric?

Both capitalist exploitation and workers' resistance look fundamentally similar all over the world. Within the West and outside of it, socialism speaks to those experiences.

A worker at a Bangladeshi garment factory. Asian Development Bank / Flickr

Last year, Jacobin published The ABCs of Socialism, designed to answer the most common and most important questions about the history and practice of socialist ideas.

Jacobin and Verso Books hosted a series of talks with authors from the book at the Verso offices in Brooklyn. One of those speakers was Nivedita Majumdar, who spoke on the question of whether socialism is Eurocentric. An edited transcript of her speech is below. You can also listen to a podcast of her talk here.

To coincide with our second printing of the book, Jacobin recently hosted a series of talks with ABCs contributors. You can buy a copy of the book for $5 here.

The best way to talk about socialism is to start with capitalism. Capitalism, as we all know, is a system that is fundamentally driven by the profit motive. That is at the heart of capitalism. All the ills of capitalism that we know of — low wages, poor work conditions, loss of workers’ autonomy, retaliation against organizers — all of this come from the profit drive. Capitalists want to make profit; everything follows from that fundamental drive.

Socialism emerges as a response to this fundamentally unjust nature of capitalism. If capitalism is rooted in the profit motive, socialism is rooted in the drive to fight for fairness and justice. Workers, against all odds, always fight back. Socialism is about that fight, and about the vision of a just order, free of oppression and domination, that animates that fight.

The question for us is, do these oppositional forces of capitalist exploitation and socialist resistance look different in different parts of the world?

There was a garment factory accident that happened in 2013 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where 1,100 workers lost their lives when the walls collapsed on them. It was a very avoidable tragedy. Management knew that the building was crumbling, but they forced the workers to go work anyway.

Even though the incident drew global attention, work conditions in the garment industry remain dismal. But workers in Dhaka have continued to organize for better wages and better conditions. The retaliation against them has been brutal. In December 2016, several thousand Bangladeshi workers participated in a wildcat strike. Consequently, over the last two months, dozens of organizers have been arrested on trumped-up criminal charges; more than 1,500 have lost their jobs, and on the factory floor, workers face routine verbal and physical retaliation and union busting.

There’s no doubt that that the Bangladeshi story resonates with workers in Mexico, in Indonesia, in Brazil, and elsewhere. Earlier this year, in India, for instance, the courts subjected thirteen people in a multinational auto factory to life sentence in prison and several others to smaller sentences. Their crime: organizing. There is the Marikana miners’ massacre in South Africa, in which thirty-four miners were shot and killed. These examples abound.

The question is, do these things in the Global South look any different than what we see over here?.

During the recent Senate hearings of Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, the case of the truck driver, Alphonse Maddin, received national attention. Maddin was driving a trailer truck in sub-zero temperatures when the brakes of his trailer failed. He called for a rescue truck, and after waiting for several hours without heat, he decided to unhitch the trailer and drive to safety.

For that decision, Maddin lost his job.

Maddin, like the Bangladeshi garment workers, was forced to choose between his life and livelihood. And again, here in the US, like anywhere else in the world, when workers organize against such brutal work conditions and for better wages, they encounter retaliation.

In 2015, Walmart closed five of its offices and 2,200 workers lost their jobs, all under the pretext of plumbing repairs in the stores — but the closings were clearly union-busting measures. The retaliation may not be as naked, as brutal, over here, but that’s only because they can get away with it in that part of the world, and here they can’t.

The drive, however, is the same. There is no difference in what’s driving the capitalists — or what’s driving workers.

The charge that socialism is Western assumes that because of socialism’s place of origin, the West, it loses relevance in the non-Western world. But workers are subjected to the very same forces of exploitative work conditions regardless of where they are. They work for bosses who are solely driven by the profit motive and have little incentive to address their needs.

And workers everywhere also realize that their only option is to struggle if they want improved conditions. Thus, against all odds, they fight back.

Always Internationalist

Since its inception, socialism has been fundamentally internationalist in both its conceptualization and reach.

This is the idea of socialism that animated Frantz Fanon in his battle against French colonialism, the communist Chris Hani in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, Amílcar Cabral as he fought the Portuguese, Walter Rodney in his activism for the disenfranchised across the Caribbean, Che Guevara in Cuba and Latin America. For them and countless others, socialism was a theory and philosophy no less relevant to their reality than it was to the reality of British or American trade unionists.

Think of MN Roy. He was born in the late-nineteenth century in a village in Bengal. He was radicalized in the Indian independence movement, and in his twenties, Roy left India to raise funds for an armed insurrection against the British. He traveled from Indonesia to China, to Japan, then the United States — all the time dodging authorities, making political connections, trying to raise arms and money, and traveling in disguise for the most part.

He could not stay for very long in the United States because he was being followed. He ended up in Mexico, where he got involved with organized workers and founded what is today the Communist Party of Mexico in 1919. Vladimir Lenin entrusted Roy to work on the colonial question, and Roy famously debated Lenin on the role of the national bourgeoisie in colonial nations.

In 1920, Roy was also one of the founding members, in Tashkent, of the Communist Party of India. In his later life, he went back to India and was jailed in horrific conditions, where he kept writing.

Now imagine the absurdity of the question of whether socialism is Eurocentric when posed in the context of the life of a revolutionary like MN Roy from the Global South, who founded not one, but two Communist Parties.

So the question really is, why has this question of whether socialism is Western or Eurocentric gained currency at this time?

A Product of Defeat

A perspective like this gains resonance only at a time of defeat. Four decades of unremitting neoliberal onslaught on the poor and working people, on wages, on the kind of public funding of basic necessities like housing, health care, and education that makes a decent life possible, and the decimation of unions and working class power in general, has resulted in an eviscerated Left unsure of its own legacy.

So the question emerges from an academic left, a Left that has been devoid of the lifeblood of movements, and the understanding of power and solidarity that movements bring into the larger culture.

Without movements, there is not very much awareness of what animates the working class. If you are not a working-class person; if you’re a middle- or upper-middle-class person, you will not naturally gravitate towards the needs and interests of the working class unless there are movements. This is why movements in many ways changed the landscape of this country, especially that of universities,  in the 1960s and 1970s. But since then there’s been a long period of drought.

So in academia today, we have a well-off class which has no reason to gravitate towards working class politics. They do have an interest, however, in retaining their class privileges.

The notion that socialism is Western emerges from this quarter. It takes the form of a radicalism that claims to speak for the Global South, and declares that socialism is unsuited for the realities of that part of the world. Western ideas like socialism, they argue, do not address the cultural experiences of the non-West.

Notice how such a position discredits socialism. It’s creating a rift within the Left, such as it is, but it is not a position that’s threatening to the power structures. And yet, it appears radical because it claims to speak for an authentic non-West. Pretty clever.

This position is also part of a larger trend in academia often turned towards issues of colonialism, race, gender, sexuality, and such. There’s nothing wrong with this at all. You cannot be a socialist if you’re not an anti-racist, a feminist — someone who’s against every form of discrimination and indignity.

The problem is somewhat different. It’s that analyses of these issues have been largely divorced from the logic of capital and class struggle.

A Toothless Radicalism

What we get today is the anti-racism of the privileged, an anti-racism that is both un-threatening to power and disengaged with the actual sufferings of the poor and of minorities.

The Left critique of Bernie Sanders’ presidential run reflected a lot of this position. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, critiqued Bernie for his championing of race-blind structural transformations like minimum wage or free college. Coates argued that those kind of universal programs end up primarily benefiting whites.

What such anti-racism ignores is the fact that the large majority of workers who would be lifted out of poverty by raising the minimum wage would be people of color. Or that the benefits of free college would be enormous and weighted overwhelmingly towards working-class blacks.

I teach at CUNY, a university which is 75 percent minority students. More than half of our students have an annual family income of less than $30,000. My students did not need any training in intersectional thought to understand that free college is in their interest.

Why, then, this opposition to universal programs aimed at transforming structural inequities — precisely the inequities that sustain racism? It’s an anti-racism that refuses to see capitalism as the primary driver of inequality — and an anti-racism that actually enjoys huge popularity in this era. As a result, it’s an anti-racism that does not speak to the needs and interests of working-class minorities. It’s the anti-racism of a privileged class.

If you believe that universal economic policies are not particularly beneficial to poor people of color within the country, then you would be similarly critical of socialist politics internationally. If socialist politics do not speak to the experiences of US racial minorities, the argument goes, it is also foreign to the cultural reality of non-Western countries.

It’s a radicalism that in both cases undermines certain fundamental needs and drives of exploited people in the name of culture.

Some of the same forces have been at work in the Global South, which has similarly witnessed a reign of unchecked neoliberal growth. There too, with the weakening of organized left resistance, socialist ideas of economic transformation and universal rights are increasingly under attack.

I was in the student left in India, and we were fighting, as students everywhere fight, for quality and accessible education for everyone. We were also very active in other, larger, social and political causes. I was lucky to be part of the Left in a country where it does enjoy, unlike in the United States, a much larger resonance both culturally and electorally.

Do I remember being charged with the idea that our fight for educational justice and workers’ rights, was Western? That we were somehow duped by Western thought in following that line? Yes, I do remember. And that charge came from the Right.

The cultural right was fine with capitalism, but socialism was Western. As was feminism, for that matter. Sound familiar?

Now, the de-legitimization of socialism as Western by a nationalist right in the Global South is of course understandable. What is curious is the resurgence of the same idea, that socialism is Eurocentric and unsuited to the lived experience of the non-West, in the Western left largely based in academia.

Think about what this position means.

It means that a Bangladeshi woman, in a garment factory, organizing despite the risk of getting fired and physical retaliation of different kinds — that a woman like this, who’s getting together with others, trying to organize, trying to form a union, has a vision of what it would be to work under conditions that are not as coercive, wages with which she can feed her family, might even have a decent life — that such a woman is duped.

It means that she is not in tune with authentic Bangladeshi culture, where people do not perceive oppressive work conditions as injustice, and if they do, they’re not supposed to fight against such conditions. That Bangladeshi people do not experience freedom from coercion as a fundamental need.

This worker has supposedly been duped into socialist thought; she’s functioning in a way that’s disconnected from her culture. That’s the charge we are talking about.

A Universal Fight

We should be clear: a radicalism that believes that socialism is a foreign idea in the non-West is one that denies the fundamental human response of fighting against oppression to workers in that part of the world. It is saying that non-Western people are incapable of envisioning a just and free society.

So when US radicals claim that socialism is Western, they are joining forces with the Right the world over.

To embrace the universality of socialism is not to deny cultural specificities. People everywhere live and flourish in their immediate and broader cultures and communities. But human beings cannot fully thrive in any culture as long as capitalism continues to generate deprivation and powerlessness.

Socialism is about the drive to fight against a dehumanized social order, and create the conditions for human flourishing. It is a universal drive.