It has become common in the West to question the relevance of Marxism to advanced capitalism, and to suggest that, as a theory, it is in “crisis” and requires substantial revision. Paradoxically, more orthodox versions of Marxist theory and politics seem to retain an appeal in the Third World. Since the end of World War II, nearly 20 countries have acquired governments professing adherence to Marxist ideas. Within the past decade alone, more than ten states have gone through social upheavals that have brought regimes of a Marxist orientation to power. As a force in world history, Marxism’s success in the Third World contrasts with its more checkered fate in the developed countries.

This was, in some respects, the reverse of what Marx himself predicted. He believed that the prospects for socialism were better in the more developed capitalist countries. For all his insights on Ireland, “Asiatic society” and the Russian mir, Marx did not address himself systematically to the issues raised by “dependent capitalism,” “developing countries” or the “Third World.” In fact, he stressed the progressive character of capitalist development in expanding the productive forces of societies in Asia and Africa. While he condemned the great power domination of European states, this was before the zenith of imperialism. Both Marx and Engels wrote little specifically about the Middle East, but the implications of what they wrote about other areas of the colonial world are evident enough. If capitalism was an historically progressive factor in India and China, there is no reason to doubt that it was equally so in Egypt and Syria.

Yet the spread of Marxist-inspired regimes in the Third World is no aberration of history. For Marxism, as a theory and as practice, contains elements that have proved of considerable relevance to the Third World in the epochal struggles of the twentieth century. Its emphasis on material causation, on class conflict as the motor force of history, and its totalizing theory of society have provided the intellectual underpinnings for a powerful moral philosophy advocating social justice, equality, and freedom from exploitation, both national and social. In the harsh conditions of the impoverished continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America, it is not difficult to understand the attractions of such ideas.

Equally important, Marxism provides a theory of the tensions and conflicts generated by capitalist development, and a radical critique of capitalism as an economic and social system. The rapid incorporation of the poorer areas of the world into this system has been achieved at a terrible cost, and accompanied by levels of human suffering far greater than those seen in Europe, North America and Japan during their processes of industrialization. Up to 800 million people in the Third World today live below minimum nutrition levels. Unemployment is massive. The infant mortality rate in Asia and Africa is at the level it was in Europe in 1570. It is hardly surprising that anti-capitalist sentiments are more easily aroused in these societies than in those where the longer term material benefits of the system have softened the impact of inequality and where class power is more subtly disguised.

Moreover, the forms of political practice advocated by Marxist and communist parties have been more successful in bringing about social revolution in the Third World than in the first. This is not just because of “objective conditions,” but because to a considerable extent these conditions were matched with appropriate forms of political practice. Most typical of a Marxist conception of politics is one aimed at bringing about revolutionary rather than incremental change. The combined agencies of vanguard party and mass mobilization attempt to overthrow ruling interests represented in the state, and to abolish capitalist social relations. Such a conception draws inspiration from the success of the Bolsheviks in 1917: Despite the adoption of more pragmatic models of political behavior by communist parties at various times, for reasons to do with the strategic considerations of the USSR, this has remained the model most identified with genuine revolutionary politics. Such a politics, conceived in the context of an unevenly developed society such as Russia on the eve of revolution, with no stable democratic traditions or institutions, was easily transposed to the Third World. There, authoritarian states and weak economies, corrupt politicians, extreme inequalities and social deprivation have offered little in the way of a moral, intellectual or, ultimately, military defense of the capitalist system.

The Middle East has seen a number of substantial communist parties and movements over the past half-century — in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Sudan. Yet, apart from South Yemen, these parties have not assumed power except as junior partners within nationalist coalitions in which non-Marxist and anti-communist rivals have held the upper hand. There are several reasons for this apparent inability of Marxist parties to assume political leadership amidst conditions of great social and national contradiction: the level of repression against the communists, the fanning of nationalist sentiments in the context of the Arab-Israeli dispute, pre-capitalist affiliations and the prevalence of reactionary religious sentiments at the mass level. Marxism has had to labor under more hostile conditions in the Middle East than in any other part of the Third World. Yet the ghastly legacy of its rivals — in terms of political dictatorship, religious fanaticism, nationalist demagogy and socioeconomic weakness in the face of imperialism — hardly diminish the relevance of Marxism to this pitifully divided and misled area of the post-colonial world.

Decolonization and Debate

The history of Marxism’s relations to the Third World has had two dimensions — the response of Western Marxists to the Third World, and the development of Marxism itself in the countries of the South. In discussing the spread of capitalism, Marx and Engels focused more on analytical than political issues, but by the first decade of this century the colonial question had acquired a prominent place in Marxist debate both within the communist movement and outside it. Opinion was divided over such questions as the role future socialist governments should play vis-a-vis their colonies. Theorists such as Lenin, Luxemburg and Hilferding sought to analyze imperialism in order to understand better the continued strength of capitalism and the new weaknesses to which imperialism exposed it. Strategic questions also played a part in this conjecture. When the Bolsheviks came to power, the poorer countries acquired an immediate and enduring relevance as an arena for undermining the imperialist foes of the Russian revolution. Yet despite many hopes of communist advance, the ferment following World War I produced only one ally of this kind — Outer Mongolia. In the Middle East, communist-led guerrilla movements in Iran and Turkey were crushed.

In the period of decolonization after World War II, however, the number of states professing adherence to Marxism and to the USSR has dramatically altered the global balance of power. In this later period, a central theoretical question debated by Marxists everywhere has been whether the oppressed countries are capable of industrialization under capitalism. The need to sustain the ethical critique of capitalism on both a national and an international level has been embodied in the theory of imperialism. Marx’s original belief that the Indian railways would help in transforming that country along Manchester’s lines seemed to have been disproved. More recently, though, the evidence of the past two decades suggests that very substantial industrialization has indeed taken place, in some countries of the Third World at least. This has undermined one of the central planks of the prevailing “neo-Marxist” view of the Third World, and has ironically restored to prominence Marx’s original belief in the transformative capacity and progressive character, economically if not socially, of Third World capitalism.

Marxists in the advanced countries have at the same time responded politically to the spread of insurrection and revolution in the Third World. The political turbulence in China, Persia and Egypt in the 1900s was a source of hope to the Russian Marxists, and in the course of this century Third World struggles have been supported enthusiastically by a broad spectrum of European socialists. This has been motivated partly out of solidarity and opposition to imperialism, and partly out of a belief that hopes for revolutionary socialism lay primarily with the Third World. This risks dangerous idealization of events and potential in the poor and beleaguered states of the Third World, and has often involved a strategic naivete about the power of the Third World states to stand alone against international capitalist opposition. Focusing on the Third World has also led many metropolitan Marxists to pay insufficient attention to political developments in their own countries. Rather than attempt to understand the tenacity and power of capitalist democracy, and construct a politics which could take this into account, many Marxist groups have been inspired by successes in the Third World to mimic these modes of political struggle, building Yenans in the heartlands of advanced capitalism and adopting the militaristic tactics of Latin American guerrillas. The examples of Cuba and Vietnam have also had a different, sobering, impact, reminding those living in the relatively tranquil West of the enduring ferocity of imperialism and of the need, and possibility, of collective political action to oppose it.

Marxist Thinkers

Marxism’s introduction into the Third World has come through a variety of channels. The greatest achievements were certainly the Chinese revolution of 1949 and the long campaign in Vietnam culminating in the victory of 1975. We should not forget, either, how much blood was spilled to keep communists from power elsewhere, in India, Chile and Malaya. The repressions in Iran, Iraq and the Sudan comprise the most notable Middle Eastern chapters in this murderous history.

Another element, often independent of this, has been the rise of Marxist thinkers in the Third World. The most influential, without doubt, was Mao. The success of his campaigns and the elliptical condensation of his writings have given him an international status in twentieth-century Marxism second only to Lenin. Mao’s contributions to revolutionary theory center on his analysis of the role of the peasantry, his theory of guerrilla struggle, his concept of the alliance between nationalists and revolutionaries and his analysis of the continuing tensions in post-revolutionary society. The disastrous impact of his later policies and their reversal by his successors need not obscure the historical importance of his influence.

A very different contribution was made by the outstanding Latin American Marxist, Jose Carlos Mariategui. A founder of the Peruvian Communist Party who died in 1930, Mariategui argued against the policy of alliance with nationalists. He realistically assessed the degree to which independence had not freed Latin American society from foreign domination, but he warned against the danger that nationalist opposition to foreign domination could involve a regression, a rejection of the positive liberal ideals embodied in the culture of the dominating power. Nowhere are Mariategui’s admonitions more relevant than in the Arab world, where chauvinism has served to reinforce dictatorship in many states. Many others have sought to apply Marxism to the concrete conditions of Third World societies, but the appeal of Marxism has also extended to those in conflict with the local exemplars of Muscovite orthodoxy. In Cuba, for example, left-wing nationalists eventually came to embrace Marxism under the pressure of events. A similar process has been evident in Africa, where “Afrocommunism” has spread to Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia and, increasingly, to Zimbabwe.

Marxism’s greatest triumph, by many accounts, has been the widespread acceptance of its theory of imperialism, with the result that many who would not proclaim themselves sympathetic to Marxism in any other way can be heard denouncing imperialism with the passionate tones of a Lenin. This has been a dubious achievement — all too often we are simply witnessing the appropriation of “anti-imperialism” by forces which are not anti-capitalist and which may, as Marx and Mariategui so clearly saw, represent net regressions from the achievements of capitalist development. The anti-imperialism of a Khomeini or a Hafiz al-Asad does not promise emancipation from capitalism but rather the replacement of rule by one capitalism with another — one possibly even less likely to develop the country’s resources than the original “comprador” variety.

Cramped Circumstances

Marxism in the Third World has therefore found itself with a conflict on two fronts: an overt struggle against capitalist and imperialist domination, and a hidden struggle against those who seek to appropriate revolutionary phraseology for their own purposes. These cramped political and intellectual circumstances have limited Marxist achievements to date, despite its impressive geographical spread.

This two-sided challenge is nowhere more evident than in the Middle East. This is clear from the analysis of the region produced both there and in anti-imperialist circles in the West. Marxists find little difficulty in opposing the manifold forms of external oppression visited upon the Arab, Israeli, Iranian, Turkish and Kurdish peoples. But Marxism is also at odds with the many forms of indigenous oppression and mystification which have arisen in the context of the anti-imperialist upheavals of the past decades, which seek to enlist the support of all opposed to imperialist domination. If the roles of the US, Britain and Israel are clearly inimical, so too are the Baath’s nationalist mystifications, Khomeini’s fanaticism, Qaddafi’s ranting inconsistencies, the confusions of a Fanon and accommodations of a Nasser. Recent writings have paid too little attention to this second front. We have allowed too much credence to the fallacious view that everything opposed to imperialism is thereby progressive. Marx and Engels consistently opposed efforts to confuse political and religious modes of analysis and opposition. They were militantly hostile to Christianity and Judaism, the two religions that, in the context of their lives, sought to mix the domains of the religious and the secular. “Socialist Islam,” as much as “socialist Zionism” and “social-imperialism” would have been anathema to them.

At the level of theory, despite some notable exceptions, Marxism in the Third World has shown little innovation. There has been debate, but it has been often ferociously sectarian. The application of Marxist theory to specific countries and to indigenous issues such as tribalism, ethnicity and the national question tended to be much more schematic and dogmatic than in the advanced countries. The denigration of liberalism, democracy, feminism and other supposedly bourgeois deviations has affected even those who were never formed in the traditions of the communist movement, so that they too deny the possibility of open debate. The Iranian Revolution has produced its own cruel variants on this theme. The Tudeh and the Fedayin-Majority were denouncing “liberalism” as a greater enemy than Khomeini at a time when the regime was preparing to destroy even these loyalist factions of the left, and in a situation where a period of bourgeois democracy would have been of far greater help to the left, and to the Iranian people as a whole, than the clerical tyranny now installed in Tehran.

The record of those Third World states which adhere officially to Marxism has been mixed. On the positive side, they have eroded many of the more extreme forms of exploitation along lines of class, sex, race and religion and they have substantially redistributed wealth. They have improved markedly over their predecessors in providing basic educational and welfare services. They have broken or considerably weakened the power of landlords and capitalists, as well as of foreign powers. The contrasts between Cuba and Jamaica, Mozambique and Zaire, Vietnam and Thailand, are evident.

Yet these states have also faced great problems which their leaders and their foreign admirers have too often understated. The ravages of revolution and post-revolutionary disorder have created additional burdens on economic planners — shortage of capital, flight of specialized cadres, persistence of internal divisions, not to mention sabotage and harassment from outside. Forced by international pressures to find external support, these states have had to rely on backing from the USSR. Military assistance from this quarter has been vital to their survival, but Soviet economic aid has been deficient, and the USSR has provided a political model that has compounded the tendencies of these countries toward dictatorship.

These dilemmas are starkly evident in the one Arab state that has established a regime that has gone beyond capitalism, namely South Yemen. Its achievements in the field of social equality, women’s emancipation, eradication of tribalism and corruption, provision of welfare and maximization of domestic economic resources are impressive. The vicious entwining of traditional pre-capitalist and contemporary oil-based capitalist forms of oppression seen elsewhere in the peninsula is not evident here. It has set an example of sustained revolutionary internationalism that few other modern revolutions can equal. Yet it remains subject to harassment — economic, military, political — from the other states of the region, and it has been driven to reproduce forms of centralized control on a Soviet model that preclude the development of democratic political norms.

Potential for Democracy

The inability to develop democratic forms of government and party is a problem to which there are few easy answers. Democratic forms do not enjoy respect in Marxist political parties or programs in the Third World. Where democracy has been tried, as in Chile under Allende’s government of Popular Unity, the lessons drawn have not increased that respect. For all the historical and contemporary reasons for this, there remains a tenuous link between the political ideologies of revolutionaries both in and out of power. True, the capitalist Third World states, with the few exceptions of India and some Latin American and African states, have nothing to boast of here. Ultimately, though, the success of revolutionary socialism in the Third World will rest not solely on the development of new theories, nor on the historical achievements of overthrowing a pre-existing dictatorship, nor on effective redistribution of wealth. All these are necessary, but they will only constitute progress in socialist terms if the new regimes win the consent of the population. That is an issue on which the already existing socialist countries have set a poor example, and have provided unconvincing arguments to justify their practices. Given the economic poverty of the Marxist states of the Third World and the pressures they confront, it is important to remember Marx’s pertinent observation that socialism in the less developed parts of the world depends on its fate in the more advanced countries.

An emphasis on democracy and on the potential of social forces in addition to the working class — women, blacks, urban squatter and anti-nuclear movements — has accompanied Western socialists’ attempts to rethink orthodox Marxism. There are signs that this is shared by at least some of their Third World counterparts, especially in the more developed countries of Latin America. It would give further life to Marx’s predictions if the decline of orthodox Marxism together with the development of capitalist economies and state forms in the Third World were to become the preconditions for the development of socialist democracy in our time. Beyond mutual support and the assault upon common foes, the essence of internationalism lies in this political and critical enriching between movements in imperialist and Third World countries which has underlain the fate of Marxism in the Third World to date.

How to cite this article:

Maxine Molyneux, Fred Halliday "Marxism, the Third World and the Middle East," Middle East Report 120 (January/February 1984).
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