Sunday, August 13, 2017

Letter: Does Everywhere Have To Pass Through Capitalism? (1994)

Letter to the Editors from the July 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

Peter Newell’s informative account of the history surrounding recent events in Chiapas, Mexico (Socialist Standard, February) started me thinking about the different political responses to this indigenous uprising. In Vancouver where I live, these ranged from the predictable bandwagon-jumping escapades of various Leninist sects to a more interesting - but equally flawed - attempt to create an alliance of "leftist" inspired groups with the aim of supporting the Zapatista-led rebellion primarily by drawing links with "democratic struggles" here in Canada. The latter response, while moving beyond the insulting vanguardism of many groups on the left, was nevertheless typical of the kind of political strategy endorsed by many self-styled "post-Marxist" intellectuals currently resident in University departments. While the democratic decision-making processes of such alliances are, in my view, to be applauded, this post-Marxist political strategy remains mired in the rhetoric of failed projects of social democracy. Instead of challenging the profit-system in its entirety, the talk here is largely of smoothing the rough edges of capitalism by supporting social and environmental, justice and human rights incentives as ends in themselves.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that Peter Newell’s conclusions to his otherwise excellent article takes us a great deal further. According to him the uprisings were based on "backward-looking" ideas which "can achieve nothing of value, neither in the short nor the long run". This euro-centric view ignores the fact that for generations of First Nations’ peoples "violent rebelling" has been pretty much the only course of action available to them in the face of Euro-sponsored slavery and genocide. To sit back and regard their conversion into good little proletarians as somehow inevitable is to be complicit in their extinction. It also forgets that what is at stake for indigenous peoples is not simply higher wages or better working conditions but whole civilizations and ways of life. Do we really want one day to inherit a border-less world with a homogenous global culture where indigenous cultures have been reduced to quaint museum relics or trendy clothing styles for white people?

Part of the problem, I would argue, lies in the apparent unwillingness of many contemporary socialists to move beyond the sterile orthodox Marxist analysis of the effects of global capitalism on First Nations’ peoples. While there is nothing inherently euro-centric about socialism — there are countless historical examples of people the world over who have rejected wage labour and capital in favour of a cooperative, needs-based economy — there is clearly the need for contemporary socialists to be aware of the ways in which commitment to the goals of "scientific socialism", "reason", and the "positive aspects of capitalist development", contributes to the silencing and continued suffering of non-Western peoples. Even Marx himself acknowledged the extent to which capitalism was built on the oppression, slavery, and genocide of people of colour. It would seem to make sense, then, to see the abolition of capitalism as tied up with the overturning of euro-centrism, the elimination of white privilege and continuing opposition to newly emerging forms of colonialism and slavery.

For those socialists who would dismiss this as reformist and nationalist nonsense, I would ask you to consider what the Zapatistas of Chiapas, the Mohawks of Kahnesatake, or the East Timorese are fighting for. For the most part these autonomous struggles are anti-Statist, grass-roots and non-hierarchical movements calling for the return of communal land holdings. They have involved degrees of active participation by women on a scale that puts socialist parties to shame. Furthermore, are there not parallels to be drawn between the struggles of First Nations’ peoples for self-determination, and the economic and political struggles of wage-workers in the West?

Showing critical support for the Zapatista rebels does not imply a step-backwards for socialists; it merely acknowledges the extent to which the abolition of wage-slavery and the emergence of a world community of different cultures is inextricably linked to the self-determination of indigenous people worldwide.
Julian Prior, 

Julian Prior makes a number of interesting points, many of which I do not dispute. Nevertheless, I did not say that the uprisings in Chiapas, at the beginning of this year, were based upon "backwardlooking" ideas, which "can achieve nothing of value, neither in the short nor long run"; although, earlier in the article, I did suggest that, if he was anything, Emiliano Zapata, some 80 years’ ago, "was a rather backward-looking utopian communist".

What I did say was that such a movement will fail against the power of a modern state which, I should think, is obvious (I encountered units of the Mexican army when they were mopping-up the remnants of the "party of the poor" in the state of Guerrero); and that violent rebelling against such a state can achieve nothing of value (to the oppressed Indians) neither in the short nor the long run, although I did comment that it is not surprising that some of the Indians rebelled. Indeed, it is true that, over the last 90 years, almost all struggles and land occupations in Mexico, and elsewhere in Latin America, began peacefully and only became violent following state intervention and repression. Recent reports from Chiapas appear to confirm my view that the Indian masses of Chiapas will have achieved no more, and probably less, than if they had used various forms of non-violent strikes, and non-cooperation, against the large cattle ranchers and the pro-government village bosses.

Julian Prior seems to imply that socialists "sit back", and regard the conversion of the Indians "into good little proletarians as somehow inevitable". We do not, of course, sit back, but actively encourage people — all people — in London, Vancouver and Chiapas, to strive for a socialist world, not of conformity and uniformity, but of diversity. Sadly, or otherwise, it is more than true that capitalism is rapidly destroying pre-capitalist culture, some of which, at least in part, may well have been worth preserving — although we should not idealise some of their practices and mores.

Lastly, I agree with Julian Prior that both the original, and the recent Zapatista, movements have involved degrees of "active participation by women that puts socialist parties to shame". Hopefully, however, this is beginning to change.
Peter E. Newell

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