London’s Marx Memorial Library hosted a hybrid launch for Capitalism, Coronavirus and War – A Geopolitical Economy, the latest book by Professor Radhika Desai, on Thursday April 27.
Professor Desai’s book investigates the decay of neoliberal financialized capitalism as revealed in the crisis that Covid-19 triggered but did not cause, a crisis that has been deepened by the conflict over Ukraine and its repercussions across the globe.
The author argues that the pandemic accelerated the imperial decline of the US-led capitalist world’s power, intensifying the tendency to lash out with aggression and militarism, as seen in the US-led West’s New Cold War against China and the proxy war against Russia over Ukraine. The geopolitical economy of the decay and crisis of this form of capitalism suggests that the struggle with socialism that has long shaped the fate of capitalism has reached a tipping point. She further argues that mainstream and even many progressive forces take capitalism’s longevity for granted, misunderstand its historical dynamics and deny its formative bond with imperialism. It contends that only by appreciating the seriousness of the crisis and rectifying our understanding of capitalism can progressive forces thwart a future of chaos and/or authoritarianism and begin the long task of building socialism.
Following an introduction by Radhika, who is a Professor in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba in Canada, the Convenor of the International Manifesto Group (IMG), and a member of the Friends of Socialist China (FOSC) advisory group, contributions were made by FOSC co-editors Keith Bennett and Carlos Martinez.
Noting that Xi Jinping always reminds us that we are currently seeing changes unseen in a century, Keith outlined Radhika’s conception of the unfolding of multipolarity, or pluripolarity, emphasizing the qualitative and fundamental change represented by the emergence of actually existing socialism following the 1917 October Revolution. He added that:
“Those socialist countries that survived – China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba – are precisely those that proceeded to the building of socialism via the anti-imperialist struggle for national liberation. And who see socialism, of course, as the universal cause and aspiration of working and oppressed people everywhere, but equally as being actually synonymous with their very national identity and existence.”
Carlos refuted the thesis of Francis Fukuyama that the setback experienced by socialism some three decades ago somehow represented the ‘end of history’. He counterposed this to the materialist approach of the Chinese communist leader Deng Xiaoping, who around the same time advised his comrades:
“Feudal society replaced slave society, capitalism supplanted feudalism, and, after a long time, socialism will necessarily supersede capitalism. This is an irreversible general trend of historical development, but the road has many twists and turns. Over the several centuries that it took for capitalism to replace feudalism, how many times were monarchies restored! So, in a sense, temporary restorations are usual and can hardly be avoided. So don’t panic, don’t think that Marxism has disappeared, that it’s not useful any more and that it has been defeated. Nothing of the sort!”
Carlos contrasted the sorry state of contemporary imperialism, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, lack of preparation for recent or future pandemics, inadequate and antiquated infrastructure, failure in the face of climate change, and the pursuit of war and sanctions, with the example set by China, which has ended absolute poverty, is developing green energy systems and protecting biodiversity, and promoting multipolarity, peace and equality in international relations.
Additional contributions were made by Marxist scholars and friends of China, Jenny Clegg, John Foster and John Ross, and the event was chaired by Marjorie Mayo.
We reprint below the remarks delivered by Keith and Carlos. The video of the proceedings is also embedded below.
As well as in printed format, the book is available in PDF format free from the publishers at their website.
Keith Bennett: Socialism is the universal cause and aspiration of working and oppressed people everywhere
Thank you, Radhika, and comrades.
It’s a pleasure for me to say a few words on this occasion.
To my mind, Radhika Desai is one of the most important, profound, innovative, and principled Marxist scholars and theoreticians presently writing in the English language.
And integral to why I say this is that she is also someone who is never afraid to put herself on the frontline. Never afraid of engaging with the really difficult issues. Her two recent visits to Russia alone attest to this. In a word, she passes Marx’s “the point is to change it” test with flying colours.
Building on her groundbreaking 2013 work, ‘Geopolitical Economy: After US hegemony, globalization and empire’, this latest book continues and deepens her theoretical trajectory and explorations, building on her previous work, but in the context of a rapidly developing and unfolding situation.
As Xi Jinping always reminds us, the world is experiencing changes unseen in a century. We have:
- A once in a century global pandemic, throwing into stark relief capitalist and socialist responses.
- An ever-deepening economic crisis in the capitalist world.
- Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine and US-led NATO’s proxy war against Russia.
Above all, the tectonic plates of the global balance of forces are shifting in a way not seen since perhaps 1492. Most especially, of course, we see the rise, or more accurately in world historic terms, the return of China.
Dedollarization must be kept in perspective, but it is real and it is happening. Look out for the ‘snowball effect’. China’s creative diplomacy is redrawing the geopolitical and geoeconomic map of the Middle East.
This shift in the global alignment and balance of forces is generally referred to as multipolarity. But additionally, Radhika has promoted Hugo Chavez’s concept of pluripolarity. To take account of the proliferation of forms and systems.
These concepts are of course controversial. And the subject of sometimes heated debates among Marxists.
Some say they neglect class struggle. And in my view some who use these concepts do indeed err in that direction.
Others claim they are a rehash of Kautsky’s theory of ultra imperialism.
Radhika’s great strength is that she uses what I’d call the dialectical method. What she often terms combined and uneven development.
She indeed locates the early stirrings of pluripolarity in inter-imperialist rivalry – as well as that between modern imperialism and such more traditional societal formations as the Tsarist, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.
But she recognizes the qualitative and fundamental change represented by the emergence of actually existing socialism with the October Revolution in 1917.
“All changed, changed utterly”, in the words of the poet William Butler Yeats, writing about events in Ireland the previous year.
And, in the wake of the October Revolution, and the development of the USSR, came the anti-fascist victory of 1945, the formation of the United Nations, the emergence of the socialist camp, the disintegration of the colonial empires, the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement, and so on.
Above all, of course, the historic return of China and the rise of a new socialist China.
All this runs like a red thread through Radhika’s work, meaning that she situates pluripolarity not as an end in itself, but rather as the essential pathway to socialism.
One of her key points is her insistence that not only classes, but nations, too, are pivotal in the global struggle for, and transition to, socialism.
Again, some Marxists, particularly in the Global North, may find this heretical.
However, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels said that the working class must first win the battle for democracy. Must constitute itself as the nation.
Radhika’s work proceeds from the premise that socialism did not perish with the events of 1989-91.
And those socialist countries that survived – China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba – are precisely those that proceeded to the building of socialism via the anti-imperialist struggle for national liberation. And who see socialism, of course, as the universal cause and aspiration of working and oppressed people everywhere, but equally as being actually synonymous with their very national identity and existence.
The same may also be said of those countries, like Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia, in particular, that presently seek to embark on a consciously socialist project.
Standing in, theorizing, and developing this understanding, without which, historical experience would tend to suggest, a viable and sustainable socialist project is not possible, is perhaps the greatest significance and contribution of Radhika’s work.
Carlos Martinez: The global transition from capitalism to socialism
I’m going to focus on one single theme of the book: humanity’s historical trajectory in the present era – what Samir Amin described as the long transition from capitalism to socialism.
Francis Fukuyama published ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ over thirty years ago, positing – as many of you will remember – that, in the light of the collapse of European socialism, so-called liberal capitalism (what Marxists call bourgeois democracy) had proven its superiority and should be considered a final destination for humanity.
Much of the Western left at least tacitly bought into these ideas. With the Soviet Union gone, and the West entering an age of debt-fuelled ostentatious consumerism and rampant individualism, the social democratic left applied a policy of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, epitomised in Britain by Blairism.
Meanwhile the Soviet-aligned far left suffered an understandable crisis of confidence.
Further East, you had the pursuit of socialism with Chinese characteristics. But that wasn’t something many people on this side of the planet were able to get their heads around or really take seriously.
It’s worth remembering that Fukuyama didn’t get a great deal of traction in China. In fact, just a few months before The End of History was published, Deng Xiaoping talked about the Soviet collapse and its relationship to humanity’s overall path towards socialism:
Feudal society replaced slave society, capitalism supplanted feudalism, and, after a long time, socialism will necessarily supersede capitalism. This is an irreversible general trend of historical development, but the road has many twists and turns. Over the several centuries that it took for capitalism to replace feudalism, how many times were monarchies restored! So, in a sense, temporary restorations are usual and can hardly be avoided. So don’t panic, don’t think that Marxism has disappeared, that it’s not useful any more and that it has been defeated. Nothing of the sort!
Radhika’s book brings an exceptional clarity to this question. She rigorously shows that the contradictions inherent in capitalism simply cannot be overcome in the long run. The fundamental contradiction between socialised production and private appropriation, identified by Marx over a century and a half ago, leads inexorably to crisis and collapse.
In the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, in the aftermath of WW1 and in the run-up to WW2, collapse felt imminent. The communist movement of the time talked in terms of the general crisis of capitalism, of capitalism having run out of steam in its ability to move human progress forward.
Our movement was thinking in terms of a very different ‘end of history’: the death of capitalism, the triumph of socialism, and a shared global multi-generational project towards a classless society.
In the event, following World War 2, capitalism was able to buy itself a reprieve, in no small part by borrowing tools from the socialist shed – nationalising, regulating, investing in social welfare systems, prioritising employment, and so on.
But there’s no Keynesian measure that can fix capitalism in the long term. The thirty-year boom wasn’t the new normal; it was an anomaly. And when that golden age came to an end in the 1970s, the Western ruling classes responded with a vicious systematic attack on the working class and the oppressed nations; an attack which continues to this day, and which is widely referred to as neoliberalism.
At a superficial level, this worked well, in that the rich got richer – approximately the whole point of the economic system. But the poor also got poorer – neoliberalism has never been a rising tide that lifts all boats. And in the long run it couldn’t make capitalism sustainable or viable.
Just look at the state of Western capitalism today, after decades of austerity, privatisation, deregulation, financialisation, casualisation and attacks on trade unions.
Just look at how ill-prepared we were for the pandemic. Just think about how badly we’d do with the next pandemic. Look at the state of our infrastructure. Our health systems. Look at how we’re failing in the face of climate change.
Look at how the US and its allies are pursuing wars, proxy wars, sanctions and destabilisation – as the principal means to try and retain their influence, and to boost profitability via the military-industrial complex.
Contrast that with China. What’s the big news coming out of China? Ending absolute poverty, handling the pandemic exceptionally well, developing green energy systems, protecting biodiversity. Promoting multipolarity. Promoting peace and equality in international relations.
While the US is playing divide and rule in the Middle East, China’s facilitating rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, pushing for peace in Yemen.
While the US and its allies are trying to turn the Ukraine crisis into a never-ending war – fighting to the last Ukrainian, as various people have commented – China is pushing heavily for negotiations towards a peace based on common security.
So what we see is this startling contrast between a decaying capitalism and a rising, diverse socialism – in a growing family of socialist and progressive countries – that’s blazing a trail for humanity.
And Radhika’s book situates that contrast within a historical trajectory from capitalism to socialism that started a long time ago, perhaps we can say with the Paris Commune of 1871.
In my view that’s a very important point, and it should give our movement confidence that history is on our side.
Overall, Radhika’s book is a crucial contribution to our collective understanding of the modern world. It really deserves to be widely read. Certainly anyone involved in progressive movements, anyone that considers themselves to be anti-capitalist or anti-imperialist, should read it, study it, engage with it, argue with it and discuss it.