“Is Socialism Just a Western, Eurocentric Concept?” with Nivedita Majumdar
The third Jacobin and Verso sponsored lecture on The ABCs of Socialism addressed the charge that Socialism is a Western phenomenon that does not apply to the developing world. The lecturer was Nivedita Majumdar, an Indian English Professor in NYC and the secretary of the CUNY staff and faculty union. She posits that her experience as a young leftist organizer in India, and the experiences of all Socialist organizers throughout the world, discredit the idea that Socialism is a Eurocentric ideology.
Majumdar first argued that capitalism creates the same problems across the world. The difference between the brutal crackdowns on labor organizers in the global south and the more nuanced relationships between industrialists and legislators that keep wages low in America, is that people can get away with violence in the developing world. The motivation of a laborer, a manager, or a capitalist from the global North or South is the same. Laborers want to be fairly compensated and treated with dignity. Managers and capitalists want to make profit, which requires paying laborers the lowest wages possible.
Socialism replaces the drive for profit with the drive to create a society that is fair and just for all. It relies on the fact that workers, when pushed, will fight for fair treatment and compensation. And it envisions the creation of a new order free of oppression and domination, built on the struggle of the exploited labor class.
A 2013 factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh highlights her point. Over 1,100 workers died when the walls of the garment factory employing them collapsed. The factory owner ignored cracks that appeared in the walls and ordered the workers to return to work, despite the closure of the commercial properties in the building. In the trial it turned out the building violated codes, and that three floors were added to it without approval.
Workers in Dhaka continued to organize for better working conditions and wages after the collapse. In 2016 they organized a wildcat strike with thousands of workers. The local government responded by charging hundreds of them with unrelated crimes. Dramas like the workers’ fight in Dhaka are repeated around the world constantly. In 2012 South African authorities murdered 44 striking miners in an incident known as the Marikana Massacre. In another story from this month, March 2017, 13 Indian factory workers were given life sentences for union organizing.
Majumdar argued that the only differences between these anti-labor actions and Western anti-labor actions was the methods used. She discussed an action taken by Walmart in 2016. The mega-retailer closed five offices for plumbing repair. But, according to this LA Times story, they did not request permits to do any plumbing work, their employees were blindsided by the shutdowns, and the stores they closed were connected to the OUR Walmart strike movement. The closures cost 22,000 jobs. Majumdar explained these actions as subtle, legalistic union busting efforts that punished those asking for fair treatment.
Her point is that workers everywhere are subjected to the same brutal logic of capitalism. The exploitation and subjugation inherent to capitalist market relationships affect workers everywhere. To believe that people in the developing world are not culturally suited to struggle for a better life is to judge those people as less intellectually capable. Socialism itself is Internationalist. When Frantz Fanon fought the French in the Caribbean he was fighting for a fairer world. Ditto Chris Hani fighting against South African apartheid, Amilcar Cabral against the Portuguese colonialists, Che Guevara fighting American puppet-governments.
M. N. Roy was Majundar’s exemplar of Socialism. He left India in his 20s, at the turn of the century, to raise funds and support for an armed insurrection against the British. While travelling he helped found the Mexican Communist Party in 1919, and the Indian Communist Party in 1920. Roy spent years in Indian jails but continued his Socialist writings.
Her next question was, since Socialism has a rich history in developed and developing countries alike, where does the charge that it is a solely Western idea come from? She responds to this question by discussing the State of the American academic Left.
The onslaught of neoliberalism, she argued, crippled the academic Left. Establishment attacks on labor and access to healthcare, housing, and education have weakened genuinely Socialist voices. The academic Left has also stopped taking part in movements, and this disconnects well-off members of the academic left from working class problems. She discussed the civil rights movement as a time when a movement helped activate the academic Left.
Well-off Leftists are disconnected from working class problems but they hold an interest in maintaining their comfortable status in American society. This undermines their formerly radical position. Majundar described their new radicalism as a, “defanged radicalism unthreatening to power structures”, she also calls it an anti-racism of the privileged. They claim Socialism is characteristic of the West and not transferable to the developing world. Socialists are, by definition, against all forms of discrimination. Their problem with the identity politics of the mainstream Left is that these analyses are devoid of class analysis. They attempt to redirect responsibility for inequality toward issues of identity, without considering the role of capitalist exploitation. Her example of this class blindness was in the Left’s attacks on the universal social programs prescribed by Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
She brought up a Ta-Nehisi Coates argument that Sanders’ universal programs would fail to meet the needs of black Americans in his article, Why Precisely is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?. Sanders argued that reparations would not pass through Congress and that the American poor would get more from massive infrastructure investment and universal programs. So, while attacking Sanders for not being radical enough on race, he also denigrates his ambitious plans for social investment. He eventually attacks Socialism as being racist, because it is “class-first”. Although, I note that Coates also endorsed Sanders in the Primary. His argument, she responded, fails to recognize that these universal programs would help working class people of color. Other more open attacks from the Left come from Paul Krugman and Vox.
The academic Left oppose universal social programs, she argued, because they have a worldview which refuses to see capitalism as the primary driver of inequality. They use issues of identity to shield capitalism from criticism. This class-blindness is the driver of the Democrats’ continuing electoral defeat. Their politics is not rooted in the needs of the working class, so they cannot rally the working class to vote for them. The GOP, on the other hand, has won working class votes by claiming to represent their religious morality.
She ended the talk by discussing her activism in India as a young woman. She said that the conservatives would say that these activists were just useful idiots for the West, bringing in Western ideas. They did not consider Capitalism a Western idea. She understood why the Indian Right would attack labor organizing but the question she leaves listeners with is, Why would liberals want to claim Socialism is not suited to the global South? This tells a woman attempting to organize for a better life in the developing world that she has just been duped by the West. “[It] denies the fundamental human response to fight unjust conditions.” It says that non-Westerners are incapable of envisioning a better world, and it is incorrect. The most important revolutions to come will be born from the billions of exploited people in the developing world.
Watch the full lecture plus a question time below.