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The Parameters of Resistance

Amiya Kumar Bagchi is director of the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata, and is the author of Capital and Labour Redefined (Anthem Press, 2002), and The Political Economy of Underdevelopment (Cambridge University Press, 1982).

This is written as a very meager tribute to the work done by the Monthly Review group led by Paul Sweezy, Leo Huberman, Harry Magdoff, Harry Braverman and all their colleagues to alert us during the last half century and more about the dangers posed by rampant capital to freedom in every region of the world. Namaste, sentinels of freedom at Monthly Review.

As imperialism spirals out of control, and as the manifestations of its wickedness penetrate every pore of human existence everywhere, the resistance against it also has emerged from every cell of social and political organization, taking many diverse forms that defy easy encapsulation. As the forms of protest and resistance have multiplied, the problem of choosing an appropriate political strategy has become that much more difficult. Is the resistance to be mounted only globally? Are we to fight only licentious finance and the greed of marauding transnational corporations and leave everything else to be settled after that global fight is won? Or are we to fight every little tyranny everywhere—the corruption of municipal officials, the arrogance of party bosses seeking to control local democracy, and the callousness of public hospital authorities? And are we to treat as enemies every political formation that provides succor and comfort to such petty tyrants and overweening bureaucrats?*

In much of the third world, including the subcontinent of South Asia, a line seems to divide the anti-systemic or anti-imperialist struggles into two groups. On the one hand, there are those who believe in the necessity of squaring up for battle against global transnational capital and fighting to reverse the policies that have allowed it to subvert and control all major governments. The adherents of this view think that long-term strategies for capturing state power have to be pursued toward that end. On the other hand, there are others who are convinced that the fight against tyrannies that are crippling the lives of people has to be conducted here and now.

In fact, the political activists, if that is a name we can give to the first group, have to deal with local issues—and they have to prove their sincerity and competence in dealing with them. Such constructive engagements are necessary, in addition to their ideology, for them to build their base of support and strengthen popular resistance against the oppression of capital and the state apparatus. There are also some among the moral resisters, to give a name to the other group, who are not averse to seeking the help of the state apparatus to right the wrongs they are fighting against. But there are some moral resisters who think that the state, as such, is an evil institution and its embrace is to be avoided at all cost.

This division, however blurred at the edges, between the political activists and the moral resisters has often made it difficult for resistance movements to unify in the past. The division has generally been described as one between those movements whose ideologies focus on the control of state power and those that often seek to remedy evils without bothering about who controls the state. By and large, so-called neutral academics have approved of the moral resisters in preference to those they see as seeking power. The division has also been described as a divide between the communist or socialist view of resistance movements and the Foucauldian view, with its focus on the cellular nature of oppressive structures and their inevitable appearance under any state, however benignly it may try to operate.

I have never been able to accept this dichotomy as a valid representation of today’s resistance to imperialist capitalism, that is, the actual capitalism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The fight against imperialism must encompass all aspects of life including the forms of ideology, the state apparatus, and the so-called civil society as well. That fight has to be fought by uniting all genuine anti-imperialist formations. The immense diversity of human existence, and the many different ways oppression burdens that existence, must be part of our understanding of why different forms of resistance will arise in different contexts.

Divisions among the anti-imperialist forces, caused partly by the lack of such an appreciation, have helped sustain and expand imperialism throughout its history. The greatest damage to the international socialist movement in the twentieth century was caused by the Sino-Soviet rift of 1960. One major cause of the rift was the failure of the Soviet leadership to appreciate that socialism might develop along different paths in different historical settings. The congealing of the dictatorship of the proletariat into the dictatorship of the party bureaucracy also made the actually existing socialism impervious to the specific demands of peoples with different histories and different trajectories. The fight with capitalist-imperialist forces exhausted the Soviet regime and gave a handle to the imperialist forces to incite nationalities and ethnic groups against the groups supported by the Soviet Bloc. This history has left many genuine antisystemic movements suspicious of all formations that support any party holding power in however subordinate a fashion.

On the other hand, the overwhelming nature of the onslaught of imperialism in its latest incarnation has convinced many in the social movements that it is not enough to fight local tyrannies and local oppression. Instead, it is necessary to seek allies who are prepared to fight the system in all its ramifications attacking the taproot of imperialism. The ecological movement in India, for example, which began as a protest against the indiscriminate felling of trees by timber merchants, endangering the livelihood and water resources of the people and women in particular, was then taken up by all left-oriented groups resisting the environmental devastation by profit-hunting capital. The ecological movements were present in strength in the recent Asian Social Forum held in Hyderabad, India.

One of the unfortunate legacies of the actually existing socialism, and the political parties associated with it, was a fascination with big factories, big dams, and big projects in general. They symbolized for them, and for many noncommunist nationalists, the drive of all oppressed people towards industrialization and their search for freedom from degrading poverty. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, who shared some of the values of the global socialist movement, famously called these dams and factories the temples of modern India. However, many of the factories and dams were located in sites that had provided shelter and livelihood to the peasants and forest-users of interior India; those people were displaced and derived few benefits from the projects that destroyed their homes. Various groups gave voice to the discontent and desperation of the displaced, but there was a tendency among organized communist movements to look upon these protests with suspicion. However, when the Silent Valley in Kerala, one of the richest habitats of subtropical flora and fauna in the world, was threatened by a hydroelectric power project, the movement to protect it was spearheaded by the Kerala Sahitya Shastra Parishad. The latter was a body, organized chiefly by communist activists, which sought to spread literacy and raise the awareness of science and health care among ordinary people. Because of the protests, the project for generating hydroelectricity was dropped by the government and the Silent Valley was saved.

The movement against big dams came to a head, attracting global attention, with the movement against the construction of a dam across the Narmada River in western India; the movement was known as Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada). However, despite a protest movement lasting over a decade, a big dam was constructed across the Narmada. It has already displaced thousands of Adivasis (that is, indigenous peoples) and non-Adivasi peasants in the catchment area of the river. The gigantic project is economically unsound, and it may fail to achieve its original political rationale, to deliver water to the rich farmers in Gujarat. The main leaders of the protest movement, Medha Patekar and Baba Amte, have built around it the National Alliance for People’s Movements (NAPM). There was mutual suspicion between the NAPM and the organized left parties in the beginning, but fortunately, in the face of the common enemy of unbridled globalization by the rich, of the rich, and for the rich, they are now fighting shoulder to shoulder against the WTO and the structural adjustment and privatization programs of the central government in India. Similar movements were mounted against the privatization of the Bharat Aluminium Company (BALCO), which is located on Adivasi land in today’s Chhattisgarh in central India. That land was taken over by the government on the explicit understanding that it would be used only for public purposes. The sale of the company to a blacklisted private enterprise at an absurdly low price and the endangerment of the workers’ jobs led to a joint protest by the Adivasi residents and the workers of the affected company. The protesters took their grievance to the Supreme Court. The latter, however, treated the valuation of BALCO by the government-appointed firm as valid and dismissed the case. Class-biased judgments are common in India as in the United States, after all. Again, the ubiquitous influence of capitalist values was demonstrated. However, neither the Narmada Bachao Andolan, nor the protest against the privatization of BALCO have disappeared from people’s memory and they continue to figure regularly in the repertoire of ecological movements and the movements orchestrated by left parties. The Foucauldian movements and the Marxist political parties can come together after all.

South Asia, along with West Asia, and several countries of East and Southeast Asia, remain bastions of male chauvinism. A principal marker of religious and ethnic fundamentalisms is their tendency to revere women as icons while oppressing them as human beings. One of the most hopeful signs of the unfolding of people’s consciousness of their rights as human beings in South Asia during the closing decades of the twentieth century has been the growth of the women’s movement against gender, class, and state oppression, and exploitation based on women’s seclusion at home. The women’s movement has been active in demanding stringent measures against domestic violence, the enormous incidence of female feticide carried out with the help of modern reproductive technology, and the murders of women for dowry and in the pursuit of more lucrative wives. Women have also protested against the use of many birth control technologies that endanger the health of women but are profitable for transnational companies and the aid agencies colluding with them. The movement has demanded the reservation of positions for women in local governments, in state assemblies, and the central parliament.

In Gujarat, perhaps the most developed capitalist state in India, beginning in February 2002, Hindutva-based fascism used the state apparatus to orchestrate a genocide of Muslims. These fascist forces perpetrated unheard of brutalities against men, women, and children (including those in the womb). Protests were mounted against that genocide all over India; women’s organizations and organizations led by women spearheaded the protest activities at national, regional, and international levels. It is recognized that fascism in India as in Bosnia and Kosovo uses the bodies of women as the markers of ethnicized “honor” and as targets of attack on enemy territory. In India, even though most of the left political formations are still dominated by men, they have had to recognize the struggle for equal rights for women as an integral part of the people’s struggles for equality and justice.

All over the third world, people are fighting for their rights over water, land, forests, and livelihood, and local organizations are often born out of their need to carry the fight further. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, workers won a famous fight to prevent a transnational corporation from usurping all the rights of the local residents to water—water for irrigation, water for sanitation, and water for drinking. In India, fishermen have won the right to fish in the Ganga against waterlords trying to monopolize the fishing facilities in that river. In struggles scattered across India, many local groups have demanded and obtained the right to govern themselves in most areas of life. In India, a structure of local governance had been in partial operation through a system of municipal corporations and village panchayats. But in most states, with the exception of Kerala, Tripura, and West Bengal in which left parties have continuously or intermittently formed the government, the elections to the panchayats and other local bodies of self-governance were held very irregularly. In fact, in some states they were never held, the bodies being administered by appointees of constituent state governments. The seventy-third and seventy-fourth amendments to the Indian constitution have mandated elections to those bodies and endowed them with extensive powers of local administration, including the planning and implementation of development projects. In Kerala, Tripura, and West Bengal, these bodies have given a new sense of self-government to the local people.

However, just as most states of the third world have been rendered powerless by ensnaring them in debt bondage, structural adjustment, and privatization programs, so also these local bodies are being penetrated by the forces of imperialism. The architecture of financial domination by big capital erected by the transnational corporations, the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and G7 powers often remains invisible to grassroots workers, until they are hit by the kiloton bombs of the stealth bombers and their lives are totally destroyed. There is an illusion among some activists that the disempowering of the national state is always a good thing. However, in poor countries, it is ultimately only the state which can provide universal primary education, primary healthcare, basic sanitation, and food security for the poor, and protect common property resources. Getting the state to make these provisions is part of the democratic struggle throughout the world.

This public provisioning function requires the state to have adequate financial and administrative resources. Most nation-states have been deprived of all financial clout as a result of their indebtedness. Their powers of recovery have been destroyed because creating state enterprises, interfering in markets or taxing the rich are actions considered, by global capital and its henchmen, beyond the bounds of their legitimate authority. In countries in which the states still have adequate financial resources for making the required public provisions, the monetary and fiscal authorities treat all such ventures as criminal waste, so that local bodies are increasingly deprived of the funds needed to look after the basic human needs of people under their jurisdiction. With increasing debt burdens and depleting disposable revenues, they must then turn to aid agencies such as the World Bank and its many satraps, the U.S. Agency for International Development or Britain’s Department for International Development for funding projects. As they take up these projects, they inevitably get entangled in their conditionalities and thus many a left-oriented political authority begins objectively to act as an agent of transnational corporations. The proliferation of foreign-funded NGOs also hastens this development.

Hence the resistance against the forces of global capital and imperialism needs to be both local and global. People must agitate against the activities of transnational and domestic big capital, against the strengthening of repression and the deliberate exacerbation of regional armed conflicts in the name of defense, and against the operation of undemocratic organizations such as the IMF, World Bank, and the WTO. At the same time, the anti-imperialist workers must struggle to establish the rights of fishermen to fish in rivers and coastal waters, of Adivasis to the use of water, plant and animal resources in their locality, of town dwellers to clean water and air, and of children to grow up as fully competent world citizens.

The state-sponsored genocide in Gujarat and the unprovoked, criminal aggression against Iraq by U.S. and British forces have demonstrated that capital will not hesitate to use the entire armory of fascism for achieving its ends and that raising the slogan of “free markets” is no better than calling the aggression against the people of Iraq “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” These onslaughts of capitalism gone fascist have also demonstrated that the battle, as it ever was, is for the minds of men and women, as well as for control over the means of coercion. Bush and Blair have used the disarray among the governments of developing countries, and especially the disunity among the governments of West Asia and North Africa, to mount their war. In Gujarat, the enfeebling of the workers’ struggle in the towns and workplaces provided an opportunity for the Hindutva formations to recruit the poorest and most disadvantaged of the workers into their campaign of extermination against Muslims. Not only have wrongs committed more than a thousand years ago by one particular invader with a professed faith in Islam been invoked by the Hindutva forces, but the actual events in that ancient feud have been embellished, manipulated, and falsified to poison the minds of the Adivasis as well as those of caste Hindus and Dalits. Similarly, in the build-up to the criminal acts of the U.S. and British governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been echoes of the crusades of the Christians against Muslims and the branding of all Muslims as terrorists.

Fortunately, in India, although some of the established media parroted the Bush-Blair propaganda and the Hindutva lies, there were other major channels which tried to portray the reality belying that propaganda. Alongside the media cacophony, protests against the Gujarat genocide and the carnage in Afghanistan and Iraq have resounded across most cities and regions of India and other countries of South Asia as well. More people are aware than ever before that freedom is endangered by the fascist forces in the United States, Canada, and Britain and their supporters in old imperialist countries such as Portugal and Spain, as well as by those operating in India, and that we have to work very hard to prevent the victory of these forces and preserve the dignity of human beings as creatures with the ability to reason and choose. Resistance lives! As we say in India, Inqilab Zindabad!


* Here I examine the possibility of anti-imperialist struggles from the perspective of the peoples of the third world. Yet, in the age of imperialism, all local struggles have an international dimension. The recovery of the dignity of labor as part of human freedom by the workers of the first world is also an integral part of that struggle. Solidarity with genuine anti-imperialist movements across the globe is absolutely essential.