Marxism and the third world

10 October 2022
Duncan Hart

The majority of the world’s population live in so-called developing states, in a condition of shameful economic degradation and inequality.

The usual solutions presented to global inequality emphasise global aid and the work of humanitarian agencies, whether it be bodies of the United Nations or charities such as World Vision or the International Red Cross. The assumption is that the world’s poorest states can be uplifted by following paths of capitalist development, and with a slightly more “charitable” mindset from the wealthy countries.

The reality is that nothing less than a revolutionary transformation of the social structure based on the private ownership of the means of production and the exploitation of the world’s workers, can remedy the entrenched poverty and oppression that predominate. In a word, socialism is the solution.

This revolutionary imperative has been apparent to the people of the underdeveloped world more than any other population. Inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution, millions of workers and peasants in the colonised and sub-colonial states joined Communist parties. Some of the world’s biggest communist movements were established in Indonesia, India and China, among other poor states—movements that have continued to influence the left in subsequent decades.

In just the last few years, there has been a wave of mass struggle across much of the underdeveloped world, with revolutionary movements in Algeria and Sudan and mass strikes in Colombia, Ecuador and Myanmar. Mass protest movements for democratic reforms have erupted in Thailand and most recently in Sri Lanka. These mass struggles have pointed towards the revolutionary strategy necessary to overthrow the rotten regimes and poverty that prevail across much of the underdeveloped states.

While the typical image of the underdeveloped world is that its populations are hapless victims, increasingly with globalisation it is the site of some of the planet’s most strategically placed sectors of workers. The factory cities of China have become modern symbols of working-class exploitation. China is the source of much of the world’s steel, cars, toys, computers and phones among many, many other manufactured products. All of the world’s ten busiest ports are in Asia, and six of those (not including Hong Kong) are in China. These ports reflect the immensely centralised production hubs in which Chinese workers labour: cities with more than 10 million inhabitants include Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu and Tianjin.

The incipient economic power of the Chinese working class is indicated by the level of economic disruption that has occurred to global supply chains during the pandemic-induced lockdowns. While China leads the world in this respect, other states have carved out their own economic niches. Bangladesh and Vietnam have become global manufacturing hubs for ready-made garments, while India is the world leader in vaccine production and export, accounting for 40 percent of global production.

This impressionistic review touches on the fundamental transformation of the economies of the underdeveloped world to create a massive, dispossessed working class. This working class, defined as those people who possess no means of subsistence besides selling their ability to labour, is now a majority in practically every society. Only fifteen states remain in which the majority of the labour force is employed in agriculture, where a large peasantry could be said to exist. Even this overstates the economic significance of agriculture. Only Sierra Leone in Africa still relies on agriculture for most of its annual gross domestic product.

The character of this working class is extremely diverse both across and within countries, but it is clear that the majority of people in the underdeveloped states are employed in what is termed the “informal sector”. The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines informal workers as “not subject to national labour legislation, income taxation, social protection or entitlement to certain employment benefits” and estimates that 70 percent of the labour force in the underdeveloped states are in this category. Workers in this sector are typically employed in workplaces of fewer than five people, or are self-employed in similar circumstances, with little or no capital investment. A 2018 ILO report estimated that 98 percent of people working informally in the underdeveloped states were either employees or working on their own account.

Discussions of this group typically emphasise the precarity, poverty and lack of collective power of these billions of workers. However, recent revolts in Myanmar and Sudan illustrate how this group is far from powerless, and that it can be mobilised in collective, revolutionary struggle.

The revolution in Sudan (2019 to the present) was initially led by the Sudanese Professionals’ Association, a union confederation organising doctors, teachers, journalists and lawyers, among others. But the mobilisation they led encompassed the majority of the population in Sudan, including oppressed national minorities, women and millions of informal workers. The leadership of the struggle has since moved to neighbourhood Resistance Committees, grassroots and democratic bodies that have sprung up in hundreds of forms all over the country.

Centred in the vast urban sprawl that is the Khartoum-Omdurman-Bahri metropolis of 6 million people, the Resistance Committees have proven themselves capable of mobilising largely informal workers consistently under the slogan of “no compromise” with the ruling military.

As reported in the Sudan Tribune, the Khartoum Resistance Committees recently dismissed a representative who met with pro-military forces, with a spokesperson of the committees reiterating that “if the army really wants to step down from the political scene, it must hand over all of its companies to the civilian government, with the dissolution of the [pro-regime militia] and its merger with the national army”. Only the destruction of the “socioeconomic structure of the state” will enable the construction of “a state that is more just and inclusive to all the people of Sudan”.

The movement for democracy in Myanmar and to resist the military coup of early 2021 was sparked by the most organised sections of the working class, providing a lead to the masses of informal workers. As a seafarer described to Rob Narai in Marxist Left Review, “the nurses and civil servants are the true heroes of democracy since they are the ones who started” the civil disobedience movement, which rapidly brought workers on the railways, in the banks and in the large textile sector and other factories into action in a general strike.

This action also resulted in “the sight of these day labourers arriving in downtown Yangon. These workers are very, very poor ... If they stop work, they may not be able to eat the next day ... when I see them there in the streets of Yangon, I think to myself: how brave and heroic these people are!” The typical representatives of the informal sector, the day labourers, showed their capacity to struggle and sacrifice during the general strike.

Both of these examples from the past few years illustrate a crucial element of the revolutionary strategy that Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin expounded, which was that the working class, particularly its most organised sections, could act as the “tribune of the people”—as the class that has both the material interest and the social power to fight for the total liberation of all the oppressed.

Georg Lukacs, in his 1924 summary of Lenin’s thought, explained that it was the class consciousness of workers and their “position within the capitalist process of production” that made them “capable of leading all the exploited and oppressed elements of bourgeois society in common struggle”. As the classic example of the 1917 Russian Revolution showed, it was not so much a question of the numerical strength of the working class being the precondition for a successful socialist revolution, but the strength of revolutionary organisation that was oriented towards workers as the revolutionary class.

In Russia, the consistently revolutionary and democratic class politics outlined by Lenin’s Bolsheviks enabled them to lead a working-class insurrection in the cities that could unleash an “elemental explosion of the enslaved and impoverished millions” of peasants and the nationally oppressed peoples, which could shatter once and for all the thousand-year empire of the tsars. If the Russian workers, a tiny minority of a still largely feudal absolutist empire, could lead such a “revolutionary alliance of the oppressed” in 1917, the capacity for such working-class leadership today in the underdeveloped world is even more pronounced.

Despite the socialist hopes of millions of communists and their supporters who have been active in these countries, tragically most of the socialist parties built in these states, from the mid-1920s onwards, were dominated by various forms of Stalinist politics. These politics discounted the revolutionary potential of workers by prioritising some class-collaborationist “democratic” or national independence struggle that cast socialism into the indeterminate future.

A rediscovery of the genuine revolutionary working-class tradition of the early years of the Communist International and the Russian Revolution is one of the most important preconditions for a victorious socialist revolution in the underdeveloped states. Such a politics could truly build on the immense possibilities indicated by the revolutionary mass struggles that have shaken many states in recent times and awaken the sleeping giant that is the million-headed mass of the workers of the world working class.

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