The Colonial Paths of Transition to Capitalism & Reactionary Anti-Imperialism

by Taimur Rahman

In order to understand the dynamics between authoritarianism and bourgeois-democracy, let us briefly look at the economic imperative for the development of bourgeois-democracy in capitalism.

Capitalist society is based on the general recognition of private property. Capitalism begins where the money capital of the bourgeois meets with the labour-power of the wage worker. This exchange is premised on the dual recognition of the private property of both parties – capital of the bourgeois and labour-power of the working-person. Thus, in capitalist society the working-person is also recognized as a property owner – the property of the working-person is labour-power. This mutual recognition of property does not distinguish the social conditions that allow one class the social power to buy labour-power and the other the conditions that compel them to sell labour-power. In relation to the market the buyer and seller of labour-power are both commodity owners and the social conditions that make one the buyer and the other the seller of labour-power do not impact the mutual recognition of the two parties as owners of property. In sum, under capitalism there is an economic imperative to recognize the labourer as a property owner.

However, does capitalist society automatically accept the working-person as a free and equal citizen on the basis of the recognition of the working-person as the owner of the commodity labour-power? On the contrary, for capitalist society to translate the economic recognition of the free labourer into the political recognition of a free citizen requires a historical process of class struggle.

For instance, take the development of civil society in Europe. Marx demonstrated that the central tenants of civil society—equality, liberty, security, and freedom of belief, association, and expression as enunciated by the Declaration of the Rights of Man 1791, 1793, and the American Constitution of 1795—were theoretically derived from the central right of private property: Security consists in the protection afforded by society to each of its members for the conservation of his person and property; liberty consists in the right of utilizing one’s property in anyway within the law; equality before the law excludes class equality and so on (Marx, 1843). However the general recognition of these rights was only won as a result of social struggle – the French revolution, the American war of independence. Similarly, the right of freedom of association with respect to the working class (that is the formation of trade unions) can be theoretically derived from the recognition of labour-power as a commodity – since all owners of property have the right to protect and command the best possible price for their respective commodities, the owners of labour-power also have the right to form associations to command the best possible conditions of sale for labour-power. However, the social recognition of the right to form trade unions required a long and protracted social struggle by workers.

The fact is that while the principles of bourgeois-democracy can be theoretically derived from capitalist property relations, the political hegemony of these principles can only come about through social struggle. The necessity of social struggle implies that the theoretical principles are not necessarily ascendant in all forms of capitalism. Thus, the rights afforded by society in any given historical situation are contingent, not merely on the economic relations of production, but also on social struggles and the path of historical development. In other words, the form and development of the class struggle mediates the development of democratic rights.

Societies that travel the road of the colonial path have to contend not with one but with two powerful social forces against democratic development. Firstly, societies of the colonial path must contend with the surviving remnants of pre-capitalist forms of unfree labour. In third world countries millions of workers continue to be enslaved through various pre-capitalist forms of unfree labour. They are still engaged in the struggle to gain bourgeois freedom; that is, the recognition of their labour-power as their individual private property. Naturally, the exploiting classes associated with these pre-capitalist relations are powerful fetters on democratic development. This feature is, however, common to the Junkers and colonial path. Secondly, and more importantly, countries that travel the road of the colonial path must not only challenge these surviving pre-capitalist forms of bondage but must also contend with the undemocratic institutions, relations, and cultural practices of the colonial state. The colonial state, as explained previously, was set up for the extraction of surplus from the colony and in its neo-colonial form continues to act as an obstacle to democracy. Thus, the forces of democracy in colonial countries today must contend not only with pre-capitalist social forces but also with imperialism.

We see then that the configuration of class forces in colonial societies is different either from countries that of the republican or Junkers path. In the first path the bourgeoisie overthrew the feudal lords through a popular revolution (France, USA, Britain) and in the second, the feudal lords slowly transformed into capitalists (Prussia, Austo-Hungary). However, in the countries that travelled the colonial path the capitalist transformation of the state occurred under the colonial regime: That is, the colonial bourgeoisie defeated, militarily or economically, pre-capitalist social forces and captured state power. Although the colonial state is planted on pre-capitalist forms of unfree labour, it is nonetheless a capitalist state because it principally represents the social forces of the dominant foreign colonial bourgeoisie. However, the colonial state, built on the economic foundation of colonial monopoly, cannot be democratic. Thus, the democratic transition of the colonial societies is premised on decolonization and the democratic transformation of the post-colonial state. In conclusion, the democratic transition of colonial countries, ironically, occurs in struggle by indigenous bourgeois-democratic forces against an advanced foreign imperial bourgeoisie. The fact that the democratic revolution in colonial countries requires a struggle against another bourgeois class is unique to the colonial path.

The spread of markets, free labour-power, secular government, foreign capital, commoditisation, consumerism, business culture and so on – in a word, the spread of the economic, political, and cultural values of bourgeois democracy – slowly undercuts and uproots pre-capitalist society. Thus, the way of life of pre-capitalist forces in colonial countries is ground down by the onslaught of colonial capitalism. These pre-capitalist forces, in order to maintain their pre-capitalist way of life, may also rise up, from time to time, against the foreign colonial rule. Significant sections of the working population disaffected by the destructive process of colonial capitalism may join their ranks. This rebellion by pre-capitalist classes against imperialism gives rise to the phenomenon of “reactionary anti-imperialism”. It is anti-imperialist in the sense that it seeks to liberate those societies from foreign conquest or to reverse the influence of foreigners in those societies. On the other hand, it is reactionary because it struggles against the foreigners in order to restore the way of life that existed before colonialism.

Thus, as opposed to the rather simple republican or Junkers path, the colonial path is complicated by the relationship between imperialism, reactionary forces, bourgeois forces, and working classes. The combined and uneven economic development of capitalism, the economic, political, military, strategic imperatives of empires, the degree of objective and subject development of modern and reactionary classes, all these and other factors contribute to sharpening or blurring the contradictions between these forces at different historical moments and societies. History shows that a variety of class alliances leading to very different outcomes are possible within countries that experience transformation through the colonial path. These are not the only possible outcomes but they are some of the outcomes that have been observed in the twentieth century.

Nationalist outcome:

Bourgeois-democratic anti-imperialism under the hegemony of the bourgeoisie

The nationalist outcome is the product of the anti-colonial struggle in countries with a well-developed bourgeoisie progressively radicalized by colonial discrimination together with an organized working class movement. In such cases, the bourgeoisie is able to win and maintain its hegemony over the anti-colonial movement. The main enemy of the nationalist bourgeoisie is colonialism. These nationalist movements do not seek an antagonistic confrontation with reactionary classes but work to win or neutralize them. The classic examples of this case are the anti-colonial struggle of the Congress against British rule, or the African National Congress against Apartheid. To some extent the Pan-Arab movement under Gamal Abdul Nassir can also be put into this category.

National Liberation outcome:


Bourgeois-democratic anti-imperialism under the hegemony of the workers and peasants

The national liberation outcome occurs when the bourgeoisie is unable to maintain the hegemony of the mass anti-colonial movement. It may begin the anti-imperialist struggle (for instance the Nationalists in China) but owing to various historical reasons is unable to maintain this hegemony. Communist parties win the hegemony of the anti-colonial movement and organize workers and peasants against imperialism and their domestic reactionary allies transforming the nationalist movement into a national-liberation struggle. National-liberation struggles are generally opposed not only to the colonial authority but also equally to their reactionary allies. Conversely, they do not seek an antagonistic confrontation with the indigenous bourgeoisie but work to win or neutralize them. The classic case of such national liberation struggles China and Vietnam during the periods of Mao and Ho Chi Minh respectively.

Reactionary Anti-Imperialist outcome:


Anti-imperialism under the hegemony of reactionary classes

The reactionary anti-imperialist outcome occurs when reactionary classes organize and lead the struggle against colonialism or imperialism. The bourgeoisie is either economically and politically weak or reconciled to imperialism. Similarly, working classes, especially those associated with modern capitalism, may be weak, disorganized, or simply unable to exercise significant hegemony or power over the anti-imperialist movement. Reactionary anti-imperialism often relies on the ideology of religious fundamentalism and they are also strongly opposed to independent working class or bourgeois-democratic forces. To such reactionary forces, bourgeois-democratic or socialist working class forces represent another aspect of “Westernisation”. The classic case of such reactionary anti-imperialism is Iran under Khomeni. One may also consider the Mahdi of Sudan, the Khilafat movement in British India , Hamas, and the Taliban in Afghanistan today in the same category.

While the first three are outcomes of anti-imperialist struggle, the following two outcomes are a product of a victorious imperialist strategy.

Reactionary Monarchist outcome:
Based on the class alliance of reaction with imperialism

The reactionary monarchist outcome occurs in instances where historical factors bring about a strong class alliance of reactionary classes and imperialism. Such an outcome is seen to occur in countries where the strategic objectives of imperialism are not to develop any trade or production but to monopolize certain key routes, resources, or territories. Imperialism will help to consolidate and strengthen pre-capitalist reactionary forces and the development of capitalism, in such instances, remains extremely weak. Whatever bourgeoisie develops is generally extremely weak and mostly reconciled to both imperialism and reaction. Other working classes associated with modern capitalism are also under-developed and unable to spark or lead a sustained anti-imperialist movement. Such states are often ‘rentier states’ with the ideology of religious traditionalism that, although aligned with imperialism, are strongly opposed to any independent working class or bourgeois-democratic forces. To such reactionary forces, bourgeois-democratic or socialist working class forces also represent another aspect of “Westernisation”. The classic cases of such reactionary monarchies are Saudi Arabia, Jordon, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and so on.

Bourgeois Reactionary outcome:
Based on the class alliance of the bourgeoisie, reaction, and imperialism

In certain instances the contradictions between reactionary classes, the bourgeoisie and imperialism do not develop into sustained antagonistic conflicts. This outcome is also possible in circumstances where imperialism is able to manage by force and accommodation, these contradictions and they remain within a certain limited framework.

This outcome may occur in a variety of countries ranging from moderate to relatively developed third world economies. The class alliance of imperialism, the bourgeois and reaction is able to overwhelm, in such a period, the forces of change (for instance workers and peasants). The classic cases of such reactionary states are South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Pakistan and so on. One could also argue that nationalist movements, national liberation movements, or reactionary anti-imperialist movements may capitulate to imperialism to leading to a bourgeois reactionary outcome.

We can see that there are sustained periods of both reconciliation and resistance between reactionary and bourgeois democratic forces in relation to imperialism. There are also periods where bourgeois-democratic and reactionary anti-imperialist trends may merge with each other, to some degree, thereby blurring the lines of distinction between the two. These five outcomes are by no means exhaustive. For instance, this admittedly simplistic model does not take into account a situation were bourgeois, reactionary, or working class forces are split along national or ethnic lines; it does not take into account independent action by other classes such as the petty-bourgeoisie, the nomads, or tribes; it does not take into account the results of inter-imperialist rivalry or rivalry between third world states; and so on. Nonetheless, despite the simplistic nature of the model that cannot do justice to the real history, it helps one appreciate that unlike European capitalist development, the colonial path is characterized by greater complexity and a variety of outcomes determined by the modalities of class formation and class struggle.

In sum, India and the region that constitutes Pakistan became capitalist through a ‘colonial path’ with the result that the social-economic formation retains significant features of pre-capitalist relations together with a colonial capitalism.

What we are witnessing in the phenomenon of fundamentalism is a form of reactionary anti-imperialism. We must reject this path of development in favour of the path to national liberation.

The author of the note is a member of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (CMKP) and pursuing his doctral degree at SOAS.

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