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Globalisation, Nationalism and the Revolutionary Left
Dipankar Bhattacharya

[This is based on a talk given by the author at an international conference on South Asia and South Asian communities held in London on 18-19 October, 1997. The theme of the conference, which was organised by South Asia Solidarity Group, was “Globalisation, Identity, Resistance.” This talk was delivered in the opening plenary session on “The State, Capitalism and Globalisation.”]

What is new in globalisation? Let us begin by asking this basic question. Some people say that there is nothing really new in globalisation except that capitalism is now reaching its most ideal phase. Capitalism, they say, was born with this globalising thrust. And Marx was, in fact, the original guru of globalisation! Did not he tell us wayback in 1848, “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” These days, economists of the World Bank and IMF have also started quoting from the Communist Manifesto!

There is another variant of this opinion which argues that globalisation is still largely a myth. Comparative figures are culled out to show that world trade was freer, and investment flows across countries and continents more unfettered, on the eve of the First World War, say between 1910 and 1913.

Such arguments are advanced primarily by the clever votaries of globalisation in a bid to be one up on their opponents and to mount greater pressure in favour of globalisation on a more sweeping scale and at a more frenetic pace. Ironically, one often sees sections of the Left and progressive camp too buying such arguments perhaps with the nostalgic hope of seeing a resurrection of the yesteryears of Soviet-style socialism or out of their stubborn belief that true globalisation cannot happen until a genuine global revolution has matured within its womb.

While acknowledging that the capitalist tendency of accumulation has congenitally had a globalising thrust, we would have to be blind not to be able to tell the present phase of world capitalism from its earlier phases. The new politico-military backdrop in the wake of the Soviet collapse and the end of the cold war has had a profound impact on the ongoing course of globalisation. The scale and scope of international economic integration has certainly assumed unprecedented proportions, the debates over the actual extent of such developments notwithstanding.

The rise of transnational corporations, a trend which began almost a century ago, has also entered a whole new phase. Recent figures have it that if countries and corporations are ranked together in a single list in terms of their annual GDP or turnover, then among the top 100 economies of the world, 51 are corporations and 49 are countries. The total turnover of the world’s top 200 corporations exceeds the total GDP of the world minus only the nine largest national economies.

Then there is this continuing development of science and technology which has been particularly astounding in the fields of electronics and information technology. The latter in turn has facilitated a massive mind-boggling explosion of finance capital. This explosion has not only been in quantitative terms, capital has become unprecedentedly mobile, volatile, it has become absolutely footloose. Finance capital, by definition, refers to the coalescence of bank capital and industrial capital. But today it has lost much of its earlier productive moorings and speculation has become a key mainline economic activity. The implications of such high-speed speculative volatility of finance capital are of course becoming clearer as the world economy has been tumbling from one major financial crisis to another. Since the 1987 great stock market crash through the Mexican meltdown to the ongoing East Asian currency turmoil, the last ten years have indeed been eye-openers for many.

The second major question we must ask ourselves concerns the nature of this globalisation. There can perhaps be little room for questioning the fact that the globalisation we are witnessing right in front of our eyes is capitalist globalisation. One had to say ‘perhaps’ because one is painfully aware that some of our erstwhile radical economists and social thinkers who till the other day were questioning the underlying assumptions and postulates of economic development have now gone so much overboard in defence of globalisation or been so overawed by the post-Soviet developments that they now feel it is time we discarded not only the notion of capitalism as a specific mode of production but the very concept of modes of production. The celebrated concept of development of underdevelopment has thus been reversed to give way to underdevelopment of development. History has become 5,000 years of one single integral continuous movement bereft of its breaks and leaps. This sounds like a teleological extension of Fukuyama’s end-of-history hypothesis, declaration of the end of history with retrospective effect since 3,000 B.C.! The authors of the Communist Manifesto would have perhaps called it an attempt to erase the entire pre-history of humankind!

To come back to history and globalisation. There is also perhaps little debate over the fact that actually existing socialism today, be it in China or Cuba, Vietnam or North Korea, is in no position to offer any effective economic alternative or challenge to the supremacy of capitalist globalisation. Yet the world over, globalisation is still at war with the idea of socialism, with whatever remains of the welfare state and the public sector!

And contrary to the widely marketed myth, especially in the developed industrialised world, globalisation is not marked by any single-minded drive to eliminate pre-capitalist survivals and relations from the face of the earth. The celebration of everything pre-modern, or what we may call the alliance of the post-modern and the pre-modern is perhaps most clearly manifest in the realm of culture and ideology, but a closer look at South Asian economies, and such examples possibly abound in large parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, would clearly reveal that pre-capitalist survivals are still very much alive and kicking. It is open knowledge that India’s economic liberalisers have been most cautious and hesitant in approaching the crucial agricultural sector and more importantly that land reforms is one subject which remains conspicuously absent in the entire discourse on economic liberalisation! In fact if it is discussed at all it is in terms of reversing whatever land reform was accomplished earlier.

And in spite of all that clamour for decent labour and environmental standards and development with a human face, it makes perfect sense for globalisers to work in connivance with the forces of pre-capitalist survivals. After all, perpetuation of institutionalised backwardness and bondage in the third world is still a must if metropolitan capital wants to assure itself of an uninterrupted supply of cheap labour and super profits. Mobility of capital and the whole logic of globalisation would lose all sense if it were to lead to any reasonably matching mobility of labour and to any kind or degree of convergence or equalisation of living and working conditions and levels of wages!

Let us now look at another major mischievous myth of our times: nation-states beating a universal retreat. For the over-enthusiastic retreatists, let us first point out that retreat is basically a military term which often means nothing more than a prelude to resurgence or advance! The theory of retreat of the state had surfaced with the advent of the Reagan-Thatcher period and it found a wider world market in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Apart from capturing and conveying the contemporary sense of aggressive euphoria of bourgeois triumphalism, it was meant to serve two basic purposes: forcing third world states to adopt increasingly liberal and generous approaches in accommodating the growing demands of metropolitan capital; and enabling developed countries to bury their so-called welfare states. But now confronted with the escalating cost of integrating the so-called transitional economies of East and Central Europe and the growing phenomenon of what they call the ‘failed states’, the high priests of neo-liberal orthodoxy have begun to hum a different tune. The accent now is on effective states and good governance, if only to facilitate implementation of the policies of liberalisation and globalisation.

Even if the hypothesis of retreat of nation-states is pegged on the reality of the phenomenal growth of transnational corporations, it does not really stand on any stronger wicket. Almost all TNCs continue to be firmly entrenched in and backed to the hilt by their home states. It is indeed naive to treat transnational corporations as mere wonders of capital and technology, they are nothing if not powerful weapons in the hands of individual powers in waging international trade and financial war.

And also, would it not be sheer economic determinism to try and build a whole theory of retreat or obsolescence of nation-states on the basis of a certain decline in or readjustment of the state’s direct economic role? If anything, the post-Soviet world has witnessed a dramatic resurgence of nationalism. Even in Britain, whether one likes it or not, the agenda set by the New Labour government is one of forging a new British identity.

Of course, nationalism still does have diametrically different connotations in Britain and in India, as it probably did a hundred years ago. And this brings us to the question of assessing the role of a certain nationalism in contrast to imperialism. Yes, understanding and fighting imperialism is still the most crucial key to understanding and changing the world. The end of the cold war and the accelerated pace of globalisation have not marked any end to imperialism. The features of imperialism which Lenin had so brilliantly analysed in the early years of this century are still essentially valid.

Imperialism still means rapacious loot and plunder of the weak nations. Fifty years of formal freedom later, the imperialist noose continues to stay tight around the necks of India and Pakistan. Imperialism still means cutthroat competition among different imperialist powers. Like other contradictions in real life, inter-imperialist contradiction too has its ups and downs, highs and lows. The level of contradiction witnessed in the periods of the two world wars is certainly not there, but let us not gloss over the numerous manifestations of real tussles between Japan, Europe and America, the shifting lines of alignments and realignments among these powers and their allies. And last but not the least, imperialism still means war, the continuation of imperialist politics by other means. The srongest military power of the day, the superpower survivor of the cold war has not wasted a day in identifying its new set of enemies and war priorities. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations with its clarion call for forging stronger unity between the European and American wings of the West to take on the much-dreaded Confucian-Islamic axis provides a graphic account of the foreign policy direction of the White House.

It is of course not true that nationalism in third world countries must necessarily play a progressive role against this imperialist offensive. In fact, official nationalism has played quite the opposite role in both India and Pakistan. Midnight’s merchants have gone bankrupt and turned traitors both in New Delhi and Islamabad. Nationalism in their hands has remained essentially communal, a weapon to be used either against each other or in crushing movements of the nationalities. But for the united and revolutionary might of a working people in a third world country, the nation state remains the most suitable terrain and vantage point to combat and contain the imperialist offensive of global capital. The national banner thus retains its great relevance for revolutionary movements in the former colonies of South Asia.

Such a progressive people’s nationalism must of course be seen in the wider context of proletarian internationalism. And here it is important to differentiate between the national-international and local-global lines of discourse. Nationalism can be progressive because and as long as it is pitted against imperialism; international can be positive because it presupposes and respects national and till it turns supra- or super-national. It is often forgotten that the Communist Manifesto while issuing the clarion call “Workers of the world, unite!” had also called upon the working class of every nation to first settle its scores with its own bourgeoisie and to emerge as the ruling class in its own national context. Without such an internationalist national assertion of the working class within every nation, internationalism is bound to remain an empty phrase and an excuse for political passivity. `Global’, on the other hand, is almost necessarily sweeping and dominating. Globalism has no extra-global `other’ as its primary point of departure, it is inward-looking but it is only invoked to gloss over the fundamental lines of division that run through the globe. `Global’ has a problem with the resisting and recalcitrant `national’ - for the `national’ is where political power resides, but it is only too happy to celebrate and coopt the odd and anachronistic but essentially depoliticised `local’.

The observations of Marx and Engels on the impact of colonialism in India were widely misunderstood. Without discounting the fact that their despatches on India were meant to be quick journalistic pieces addressed to a foreign audience and not thorough-going theoretical writings on the dynamics and consequences of colonial rule in India, it is simply not true that they ever harboured any illusion about the nature and content of colonialism. It is one thing to say a few words of praise for specific acts of the colonial administration like the laying of railway tracks, and quite another to certify colonialism as a vehicle of progress for the colonies. In this century, Lenin was next to none in recognising the tremendous revolutionary potential of the popular anti-colonial movements, in hailing an “Advanced Asia” vis-a-vis a “Backward Europe.” The shifting of the epicentre of revolution from the West to the East was one of the two fundamental modifications revolutionary Marxism underwent in the twentieth century, the other being the possibility of snapping the imperialist chain at its weakest link, the possibility of engaging in building socialism in a single country.

Vulgar Marxists are, however, once again only too eager to forge a progressive partnership with globalisation. Elaborate efforts are being made to present a depoliticised all-science-and-technology picture of globalisation, as a winnable game for all if only the rules are properly mastered. This attempt too comes with its teleological tailpiece: colonialism, we are informed, was an aberration in the history of capitalism, not an essential or integral part of it! The revolutionary communist movement in India has always rejected this vulgar interpretation of Marxism and tried to live up to the historic legacy of the Communist Manifesto: the working class in every nation must first settle scores with its own bourgeoisie, the working class must first emerge as the ruling class in its own national context. In our context, the class identity of the working class cannot be effectively protected or asserted without a revolutionary national vision.

Grasping this dialectical link between the class and the national is central to a revolutionary pursuit of Marxism. Marxists must not be dogmatists or chauvinists. The revolutionary Marxist understanding of class has been growing and expanding, and must continue to do so, to embrace the valid questions raised by the assertions of various identities. Similarly, Marxists have always stood in defence of the right of national self-determination. They have always recognised that any effective and dynamic national resistance can only stand on hundreds of live and powerful local actions and initiatives. But as Marxists we must stand firm against attempts to fragment the centrality or holistic vision of class into any number of disparate identities and diffuse or drown its national agenda into so-called autonomous local actions.

At fifty, freedom in India is looking for a new meaning, a new metaphor. The midnight’s merchants have gone bankrupt. A bunch of pseudo-nationalists with only a disgraceful history of collaboration with the colonial rulers are trying to usurp power with a blatantly communal fascist agenda. For the revolutionary communists and working people in India, the attempt to resist these traitors and fascists is also an attempt to free freedom from midnight’s vicious clutches and march collectively to a new and daring dawn.


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