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Marxism and the global south

This article is over 15 years, 7 months old
Jonathan Maunder asks whether Marx’s theory, born in 19th century Europe, can help explain the modern world?
Issue 2005

In 1848 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “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.”

The development of capitalism over the past 150 years has shown this statement to be true. Capitalism has become a global economic order.

The current neo-liberal phase of capitalism has in the past few years led to large scale social struggles across the world. Some of the most impressive struggles have been situated in the “Global South” – Asia, Africa, the Middle East and, in particular, Latin America.

These movements are serious about their attempts to change the world, but many of those involved would explicitly reject Marxism as being in some way “Eurocentric”. So Felipe Quispe, leader of the peasants’ confederation in Bolivia, has attacked Marxism for being a product of European and white thought.

The country’s recently elected vice president, Alvaro Garcia Linera, has argued, “Socialism is not a viable project in Bolivia, because it can only be built by a strong working class base… You can’t build socialism where 95 percent of the rural population live in traditional communal economies.”

In Mexico, Subcommandante Marcos and other leaders of the Zapatista movement have adopted a vision of struggle inspired by the indigenous culture of the Chiapas region.

As one leading Zapatista said, “Our square conception of the world and of revolution was badly dented in the confrontation with the indigenous realities of Chiapas.”

Some European activists have adopted similar views. The writer and campaigner George Monbiot accuses Marx and Engels of almost genocidal intentions towards non-workers: “The peasants, aristocrats, artisans and shopkeepers… like everyone else who did not fit conveniently into the industrial proletariat, had to be eliminated as they interfered with the theoretical system Marx had imposed on society.

“Marx, who described them as ‘reactionaries’ trying ‘to roll back the wheel of history’, might have approved of their extermination. The ‘social scum’… which came to include indigenous people, had to be disposed of just as hastily in case they became, as Marx warned, ‘the bribed tool of reactionary intrigue’.”


How should Marxists respond to these arguments? Crucially we need to grasp why the experience of the working class occupies such a central place in Marxist theory.

At the time Marx was writing, the world described in the Communist Manifesto existed only in a few areas of north west Europe and the east coast of the US. The industrial working class was confined to a tiny number of cities within these areas.

Marx’s writings were not a description of Europe. They were a description of a system of production, capitalism, that was still being born and which Marx believed could spread globally.

Capitalism has created a working class, drawn largely from the local population, and exploited by capitalists. These workers are often drawn together in large workplaces and urban centres.

They have great power because they produce the vast wealth of capitalist society. Moreover, to protect their interests workers are forced to fight back in new ways.

While previous oppressed classes, such as the peasantry, could rise up, seize control of the land and divide it among themselves, workers cannot divide a factory, hospital or supermarket.

If workers seize control of these things they can only run them collectively. Their struggles have a democratic logic that can lay the basis for a different way of running society.

There is nothing specifically European about these arguments.

Today every country has both a capitalist elite and a working class whose day to day labour is responsible for the functioning of key industries that are crucial to that country’s economy.

One recent study estimated that, out of a global population of about six billion, 880 million people work for a wage. The wider working class, including children and non-employed partners of these employees, comprises up to two billion people – and the figure is rising.

A similar number of people are partially dependent on a wage – they earn some of their livelihood in a capitalist way. And the world is now urbanised as never before. Approximately three billion people live in towns and cities.

The massive expansion of the working class has seen the expansion of the forms of struggle associated with capitalism. Mass strikes are no longer a purely European phenomenon – they have occurred in every continent in the world in recent times.

In the past couple of weeks alone Socialist Worker has reported on mass strikes in South Africa and Bangladesh.

Of course these struggles are not a carbon copy of earlier battles in 19th century Europe. Marx could not foresee exactly how successive waves of globalisation would take place.

Nor is Marxism a dogma or a set of eternal, iron laws. It provides a set of tools for analysing the world and ­guiding interventions in struggles. It took a later generation of Marxists to develop these tools and apply them to a world in which capitalism had become global.

Marxists such as the Russian revolutionaries Trotsky and Lenin, were confronted with societies in which the working class was in a minority.

Most people were poor peasants who worked on the land and looked primarily to their own culture and religion – a situation that still exists in much of the Global South today.


The great insight of this generation of Marxists was that “late developing” capitalism would not simply follow the path of the corner of Europe in which the system first developed. The integration of new regions of the world into the system could be a traumatic and uneven process.

Nations such as Russia that wanted to compete on the world stage could swiftly adopt new technologies and methods of production that had taken centuries to develop in Western Europe.

The most advanced factories and workplaces coexisted with much earlier customs and forms of production. Trotsky called this process “uneven and combined development”.

Uneven because different areas moved towards capitalism at different rates and at different times. Combined because, as Trotsky wrote, there was a “drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms”.

So while Russia was a country in which the vast majority lived on the land, a young and militant working class existed in key urban centres.

In 1917, the economic power of the Russian working class enabled them to seize power in the cities. By liberating themselves, albeit for a few short years, they broke the log jam holding back all the other oppressed groups in society.

Peasants were able to boot out their landlords and take control of their land, religious minorities were granted the freedom to practice their beliefs and the nations oppressed by the Russian empire were granted independence.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 still holds important lessons for countries such as Bolivia today.

The point is not that the fight against the oppression of peasants or indigenous people should be submerged within the working class struggle.

The point is that the working class (and in Bolivia the majority of workers are indigenous) is the only force ultimately capable of destroying the economic and state system responsible for maintaining that oppression.

It’s hard to see how Bolivian peasants’ leader Felipe Quispe’s proposal for a separate nation for the indigenous Aymaran people can really deliver true liberation. Indigenous people face two key problems – a lack of resources and attacks by the state.

Creating an Aymaran nation separate from Bolivian capitalism is not viable because it would mean leaving behind the vast wealth created by indigenous workers and peasants.

And the Bolivian ruling class, like any ruling class, would use their power and organisation to crush such an attempt to create a space liberated from their rule.

Working class struggle can solve these problems – by seizing hold of the wealth of capitalism and by providing a power strong enough to decisively challenge the ruling elite.

But such a struggle could not be confined to a single country. It is not just that the international working class lays the basis for international socialism. Such internationalism is a crucial precondition for socialism.

To return to Linera’s argument, a seizure of power by the Bolivian working class in isolation would not be a viable road to socialism in the long term.

But the effects such a development would have on the rest of the Latin American movement would be absolutely electrifying, and would come at a time when there are vibrant left wing movements across much of the continent. The regional context makes socialism a real possibility.

This is not just true of Latin America. A revolutionary transformation of a European country such as Britain would have to rapidly spread or it would be encircled and strangled by other capitalist powers. This was the tragedy that ultimately befell the Russian revolution of 1917.

It has often been said that Marxism is a science and an art – it seeks both to understand society and to creatively apply that understanding to real struggle for change.

Today an analysis of global capitalism shows that it has brought into existence a truly international working class, which has the power to bring that system to a grinding halt.

The art is for Marxists to carry this argument into the movements around the world and win people to it, while maintaining a common struggle with all those fighting the system in different ways.

The best of the Marxist tradition has always been absolutely clear that there can be no socialism without the liberation of oppressed groups, and no liberation for the oppressed without socialism.

“There is room for all at the rendez-vous of victory,” wrote the Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire. Marxists believe this too when we talk about socialism. There is room for all – except the exploiters and oppressors of this world.


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