Maoism in the Global South

This article is based on a presentation by the author at Socialism 2012 conference in Chicago.

MAOISTS ARE back in the news. In Nepal, after many years of guerrilla war, they are now the ruling party of government. They won an overwhelming majority of the popular vote in 2008 due to their firm stance on social justice issues. In India, they have been waging a war against the combined forces of the Indian state, private armies, and corporate muscle. The Indian state has identified the Maoist challenge as India’s “most serious security problem,” and has outlawed the Maoists as a “terrorist group.” Similarly, the Peruvian Maoist organization, Shining Path, is on the terrorist list of the US State Department, Canada, and the European Union. There can thus be no doubt that the Maoists are back in the news and by all accounts they are fighting against all the right people.

As revolutionary socialists we need to take a serious look at this resurgence of Maoism, particularly in the Global South. Why are so many ordinary people supporting, joining, or voting for the Maoists? There are, in the main, three interrelated reasons for this:

  1. Maoists often offer real protection to the oppressed: The vicious nature of global capitalism in its neoliberal phase is driving more and more people, especially in the Global South, to unprecedented levels of immiseration. For example, neoliberal policies in India accounted for a rising GDP that propelled the country from its twelfth position globally to the tenth in absolute terms, and from the ninth to the fourth position in purchasing-power parity terms. The fruits of this “growth,” however, were not distributed equally and today more than 400 million Indians consume fewer “calories than needed to keep body and soul together.”1 In large tracts of the country, an armed Maoist guerrilla is the only shield people have between orchestrated state violence and survival.
  2. Maoists provide a militant critique of current conditions: No one who has watched the footage of Pakistani children being killed by US drones will need to be convinced that imperialism remains a potent threat in our world. Take the case of Nepal, where the Maoists are the most popular political option. Nepal is one of the world’s poorest nations, with a Human Development Index of 0.458 placing it at 157 out of 187 countries. Eighty-four percent of Nepalese people depend on agriculture. But most of the arable land was held by the royal family while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) strove to ban agricultural subsidies. The Maoists fought a guerrilla war for ten years to forcibly redistribute land to the peasants and when elected in power re-established farming subsidies in direct defiance of the IMF.
  3. Immediate survival as the only radical option: All bourgeois parties in the  Global South are enthusiastic cheerleaders of capitalist “development.” For most ordinary people, this development means large mining corporations or power companies uprooting them from their homes and robbing them of their traditional livelihoods. People are forcibly cleared from their land by both the public arms of the state (police, armies) and the private thugs of the multinationals and their local agents. The only political options on offer here are: vote for bourgeois parties, all of whom offer some brand of the same “development” model; or, seek immediate extra-parliamentary “protection” from the armed Maoists who seem to be mounting an open resistance to the armed might of capitalist development.

In all these cases it is clear that Maoists are fighting against the combined might of state and capital. But is this a fight they can win? To answer that question we need to take a hard look at the politics of Maoism and whether it is the right set of politics for getting rid of capitalism.

Maoism as the Marxism of the Global South
Mao is credited with developing a strategy for revolution in non-European societies. There are four fundamental features to his strategic thinking:

  1. Underdeveloped societies have a large peasantry and a small industrial working class. They also have a long history of colonial rule in various forms. The social formation, then, can be characterized not as capitalist but as semifeudal and semicolonial.
  2. It follows from above that the revolution cannot be led by the working class alone but by an alliance between workers, peasants, and the progressive section of the anticolonial bourgeoisie.
  3. The revolution itself must be in two stages: in its first stage it must be a bourgeois democratic revolution to get rid of the feudal and colonial features, and then it can proceed to its socialist stage.
  4. Guerilla warfare is for Maoism the single most important revolutionary strategy. This war is to begin in the countryside with a peasant army that will create red bases or liberated zones and eventually advance on towns to take power.

There is nothing wrong with developing Marxist theory in new directions to explain changing historical contexts. Marxism after all is a method not a set of canonical texts to be ritually recited every morning. But development is not the same as departure. If one had to choose the single inviolable principle at the heart of Marxism it would be that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class, not the task of guerrilla outfits who fight on their behalf, no matter how bravely. The above Maoist formulations have nothing to do with the Marxist method, and everything to do with a contingent nationalist theory developed in the crucible of defeat of the Chinese working class. Indeed, it is this defeat of the Chinese working class between 1925 and 1927 and the persecution of Communists in its aftermath that explains the fundamental features of Mao Zedong’s “new” theory.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 was an important inspiration for the newly formed Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921. By that time the Chinese working class numbered more than eleven million and by 1926, three million of them were organized in trade unions.

Contrary to later Maoists’ idea of a small, hence ineffective, working class, the Chinese working class was a leading force in the struggles that erupted between 1925 and 1927.

The focus of the struggle was at the outset a nationalist one: to establish a strong nationalist government which could expel Western and Japanese imperialism from their treaty ports and “concessions.” And it was the Guomindang, the Nationalist Party, which came to dominate the struggle.

Yet the power of the Guomindang was built on the basis of workers’ struggles. It was the mass strikes and boycotts launched by the CCP-led trade unions, culminating in a 12-month general strike in Hong Kong, which enabled the Guomindang to establish its first power-base in Guangdong province. And when in 1926 they launched the Northern Expedition to conquer the rest of China it was peasants’ struggles in the villages which enabled the army to advance so rapidly across southern China.

As the struggles deepened, so their scope widened far beyond the bounds set by the Guomindang. Workers’ militias patrolled the streets of Guangzhou (Canton) and blockaded Hong Kong. Strikes over wages, hours and conditions spread to workers employed by Chinese capitalists. The nationalist revolution was becoming a workers’ revolution.2

Initially, the relationship between the nationalists and the Communists followed the revolutionary tradition best outlined by Lenin at the Second Congress of the Comintern (1920). Communists, Lenin urged:

must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement even if it is in its most embryonic form.3

But the Stalinization of the Comintern through the 1920s transformed it from a center of revolutionary strategy to a think tank of Soviet foreign policy. The Chinese workers were among the first victims of this tragic change. Stalin ordered the Chinese Communists to dissolve themselves uncritically into the nationalist Guomindang. This disastrous policy allowed Chiang Kai-shek, the nationalist leader, two simultaneous maneuvers: first, he used the militant workers and peasants as a stage army to gain power in strategic parts of the nation, and second, he proceeded to butcher the Communists and crush the revolutionary process.

Over 230,000 people were killed the year that Chiang Kai-shek came to power in China. A CCP circular admitted in 1928, “our union organizations have been reduced to a minimum, our party units in the cities have been pulverized and isolated. Nowhere in China can we find one solid industrial cell.”4

The strategy of moving to the countryside that Mao Zedong allegedly created anew was then not new at all but a consequence of the defeat and routing of the Communists from the cities. Mao fled with a ragtag army of fewer than 1,000 men into the Jinggang Mountains, a wild and backward area on the border of Hunan and Jiangxi. In May 1928, Zhu De, leading another 1,000 men joined them. These tiny forces were all that was left of the CCP, which would become from 1928 onward, a party of guerrilla fighters, composed mainly of displaced peasants and led by middle-class intellectuals. From this time Mao built up his famous “red bases” in the countryside, which in the words of British socialist Charlie Hore were essentially “a benevolent military dictatorship, welcomed by the local peasants because it placed some restrictions on the powers of the local landlords.”5

In the next twenty years this strategy of guerrilla warfare that began as a contingent tactic fuelled by defeat, became a matter of policy and principle—ultimately a “theory” to be followed by other countries. It was an immensely useful tactic to win an armed war of national liberation against Japanese and Western imperialism. The Guomindang was rendered incapable of establishing national hegemony due to endemic corruption and sectarian strife, and in its place the Communist Party led by Mao, with their long experience of military warfare in the countryside, led China to an anti-imperialist victory in 1949.

Maoism outside China
The reason Maoism as a doctrine exists is because Maoism worked in China in 1949. If Mao’s strategy had failed to take power in 1949, guerrilla warfare in the Global South would still exist but would perhaps not see itself aligned to the doctrinal uniformity of a “Maoism.” The Palestine Liberation Organization and Ireland’s Sinn Fein did not see themselves as sharing a common set of doctrinal texts even though they often shared similar political tactics.

Maoism worked in China because the goal the Maoists set for themselves was a nationalist and not a socialist one. The tools, guerilla warfare and military strategizing, were appropriate and essential for the task at hand—which was the overthrow of imperialist rule and the establishment of a strong and independent national economy.

Maoism also worked because it rode on the waves of a serious mass anti-imperialist movement. Workers and students in towns and peasants in the countryside were key to fighting against Japanese forces and the army of the corrupt Guomindang.

Let us see if similar conditions existed in places where Maoism was used as a doctrine and strategy.

The first major application of Maoist strategy that grabbed the ruling class’s attention was in India. In 1967, dissident members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), without the authority of the party leadership, began to agitate for the peasant seizure of land in a small hamlet in north Bengal, Naxalbari. The Communist Party from which the rebels broke off was at the time a partner in government. The peasants led by the Communist rebels first fought off the local police. But state power does not declare defeat over a single conflict. So in a subsequent confrontation, the Communist-led government mounted a brutal fightback and killed eleven peasants, including children. The Naxalite movement had begun.

Charu Mazumdar, the leader of the dissident Communists, formed his own organization the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), the CPI (ML), in 1969. He argued from the Maoist position that India was semifeudal and semicolonial and hence the first step was to expropriate the feudal forces in the countryside; all trade unions were revisionist and conservative, so the urban worker would be radicalized and mass mobilization would take take place only after the countryside had encircled the city. But while the urban worker was deemed reformist, great premium was put on the urban youth or students.

Thus, Mazumdar urged students to leave their bourgeois educational institutions and go into the countryside and build red bases. He also asked them to attack symbols of bourgeois learning such as the statues of nationalist writers and poets. For anyone who thinks smashing a Starbucks window by the Black Bloc during a demonstration does not help to build a mass movement, the 1970s slogan by Mazumdar should be of particular interest. In 1970, Charu Mazumdar announced his “annihilation of the class enemy” perspective for the Indian revolution. According to this strategy, the cadre was asked to go into the countryside and literally kill the class enemy. Mazumdar famously said, “He who has not dipped his hand in the blood of class enemies can hardly be called a communist.” The Naxalites argued for a permanent boycott of all legal forms of struggle, thus making secret guerrilla war the only form of political action.

The result was a bloodbath for a whole generation of urban youth and students. Within a year, hundreds of young men and women had been shot dead in fake “encounters” with the police, thousands more tortured in secret police hideouts. Women CPI (ML) members were subjected to brutally innovative forms of sexual torture, and certain police officers earned their name by “specializing” in such methods. College campuses became war zones for CPI (ML) cadres with homemade explosives and guns fighting the organized and well-equipped violence of the Indian state. The total illegality of the party’s activities forced it to work in conditions of extreme secrecy, which blurred the distinction between the party and ordinary criminals, thus limiting its appeal with the rural poor. When party members fled to the villages, even sympathetic peasants often refused to give them shelter because housing a Naxalite would be an open invitation to the police to come and brutalize them and their family.

India in the 1970s was not China in 1930, 1937, or 1949. There was no Japanese invasion that paralyzed the Guomingdang government and allowed the building of the red base in Yenan. Forces of the Indian state could reach any part of the country very easily in a way that the Guomindang could not. There were no local warlords jeopardizing the power of the national government. Most CPI (ML) leaders were either arrested or killed. Char Mazumdar himself was captured from a hideout in Calcutta, a broken man with practically no organization to speak of, wracked by cardiac asthma, probably betrayed by a comrade or police infiltrator. He died in police custody, possibly killed.

Is history repeating itself?
Having listed the tragic disasters of Maoist strategy in 1960s India, one would think that we were done with that set of politics. But Maoism has come back full force to South Asia, particularly in India and Nepal. Naxalites have once more become a household term. In 2005, the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh claimed that the Maoist challenge was India’s “most serious security problem.”

Maoists started to build their organizational strength in some of the most depressed regions of India in the late 1990s and reversed decades of fragmentation and organizational infighting. Similarly in Nepal, they started a protracted guerrilla war from 1996 onwards creating red bases in some of the most backward regions of our planet. In the words of their most ardent supporter, the novelist Arundhati Roy:

Each time, it seemed as though the Maoists (or their previous avatars) had been not just defeated, but literally, physically exterminated. Each time, they have re-emerged, more organised, more determined and more influential than ever. Today once again the insurrection has spread through the mineral-rich forests of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal—homeland to millions of India’s tribal people, dreamland to the corporate world.6

And herein lies the mystery of Maoist resurgence. The common sense assumption about Maoism, one repeated by both their enemies and allies is that Maoism emerges due to conditions of brutal underdevelopment. For instance in 2006, the Indian prime minister admitted that “exploitation, artificially depressed wages, iniquitous socio-political circumstances, inadequate employment opportunities, lack of access to resources, underdeveloped agriculture, geographical isolation and lack of land reforms contributed to the growth” of the Naxalite movement.

I am going to argue a counterintuitive position. It is not underdevelopment but the advancement of the most sophisticated and highly developed aspects of capitalism that is creating the ground for Maoist renewal, and it is precisely because of this that the Maoist strategy is completely inadequate to fight this onslaught.

Consider the 1990s, the period that the Maoists regrouped all over India and Nepal. This is precisely the period of the neoliberal offensive when the Indian state, at the behest of the World Bank and IMF, began to systematically dismantle what little existed of the public sector and safety nets for the most impoverished. Trade barriers were torn down and the economy opened up to global capital regardless of the costs this would inflict on people. Most importantly for our purposes, there were massive infrastructural development projects undertaken by private multinational capital in hitherto untouched parts of the country. The American equivalent would be the westward expansion, and it has had similar consequences.

Take the case of mining. India has the fifth highest bauxite reserves in the world—about 2.3 billion tons. Bauxite is a primary mineral ingredient for making aluminum. Most of this bauxite lies in the mountains and forests of the eastern states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The financial value of the bauxite deposit of Orissa alone is $2.27 trillion, twice India’s gross domestic product. The corporate mouthpiece, The Economic Times, literally salivated when it called this resource a “game changer” for India. The only problem is that this region is home to about 7 million indigenous people, or adivasis.7 Nearly 86 percent of the adivasis survive on a family income of less than $120 per year. Nearly 66 percent of them are illiterate.8 These are the people who are inconveniently sitting atop one of richest mineral reserves of the world!

When the economy of India was liberalized in the 1990s, the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was then the finance minister. He revised the national mineral policy in 1993 and immediately the share of foreign direct investment in mining ventures rose from 26 percent to 74 percent. This is deemed too little by the corporations and lobbyists who want this raised to a full 100 percent.

An exact pattern can be followed for the high-quality iron ore in Chattisgarh and Jharkhand, two other serious Maoist bases, and twenty-eight other minerals in adjoining areas. We are talking about capital’s need to extract these resources from their origin, which in terms of technology also means massive development of infrastructure. Thus, these regions are experiencing an explosion of power plants, dams, highways, steel and cement factories, aluminum smelters, and all the other accoutrements of forcible “development” without minimal consent from the inhabitants or regard for the environment.

So let me go back to my original point. The commonsensical trope of poor adivasis trapped in eternal, ahistorical poverty is actually completely false and is part of the disastrous assessment of the Indian economy as “semifeudal.” The poverty is the result of penetration of the most advanced aspects of capitalism into these areas. The world’s biggest mining and steel companies are the players in this game. In a 2010 article in Foreign Policy magazine, Jason Miklian and Scott Carney state, “if you were to lay a map of today’s Maoist insurgency over a map of the mining activity powering India’s boom, the two would line up almost perfectly.”9 And as Arundhati Roy poetically puts it, “There’s an MoU [Memorandum of Understanding] on every mountain, river and forest glade.”10

Form of protest: Maoist versus indigenous
As I mentioned at the very beginning, sometimes an armed Maoist guerrilla fighter is all that stands between the people in these regions and capital’s vicious onslaught.  For instance, one of the crucial reasons why the Maoists became popular in Andhra Pradesh was because here they forced a substantial increase in wages paid by local contractors and forcibly put an end to harassment that the adivasis routinely suffered in the hands of forest officials and police. Similarly, according to one report from a lower caste village, most Dalits “wanted the Maoist armed squads to remain in the area as they feared that the landlords would re-establish their dominance” if the Maoists left.11

But in Maoist politics there is a dangerous conflation between protest by the people and protest on behalf of or for the people. It is politics that is structurally dependent on military power, and not on workers’ power or workers’ self-emancipation. As Mao himself said it best (or worst):

Every Communist must grasp the truth, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party. Yet, having guns, we can create Party organizations.… We can also create cadres, create schools, create culture, create mass movements. Everything in Yenan has been created by having guns. All things grow out of the barrel of a gun.12

The Indian Maoists in the eighties actually built an impressive mass base with an innovative combination of illegal and legal political work. But their commitment to this kind of ultraleft tactics of winning power through the gun eventually drove them underground, because in such a conflict between a guerrilla army and a fully functioning state, it is not a mystery who will win. This has forced the Maoists into their current location, the adivasi belt, and they are now trapped in an expanding culture of militarized conflict with thousands of civilians caught between them.

In 2009 the government of India launched Operation Green Hunt—a highly militarized “search and comb” operation in the Chhattisgarh and Dantewada region in which the federal paramilitary forces and state police battled Maoist forces. The state even trained and armed people from the adivasi communities in a brutal paramilitary armed unit called the Salwa Judum, literally meaning Purification Hunt. According to official estimates, between 2002 and 2007, 5,440 people lost their lives in “Naxalite” violence in India. Nearly 6 percent of these deaths were civilian fatalities, not Naxalite or police. It is perhaps not welcome news for civilians in these regions that India has recently signed a $2.7 billion arms deal with Russia and Israel to equip itself specifically against the Maoist insurgency.

The Maoists and their advocates are not the only ones who benefit from this substitution of the party for a mass movement. The powers of the state are perfectly happy to “clear” indigenous people from their lands on behalf of corporations with the excuse that they are all Maoists.

In 2006 in the Jajpur district of Orissa, the police opened fire on a nonviolent, unarmed protest of indigenous people. The people had blocked the main state highway for twenty-three days to protest the taking over of their farmlands by the leading steel company of India, TISCO (Tata Iron and Steel Company), for their $12 million steel project. The police, claiming this was a Maoist demonstration, “cleared” the highway by killing fourteen people and injuring many more—all of them unarmed. Many of these people were shot in the back as they had attempted to run away. They were not spared in death. The police performed a thorough operation on the corpses to teach a lesson to the living. When the bodies of the deceased were returned, family members found that their loved ones had their hands chopped off, along with men’s genitals and women’s breasts.

The most tragic and disastrous example of Maoist politics in recent times is perhaps Lalgarh in West Bengal. When the chief minister of West Bengal came to Lalgarh in 2008 to inaugurate a SEZ steel plant, the Maoist squads bombed his car. They missed the target but the state government ordered night raids in all the adjoining villages. The night raids on tribal villages by police have a long history of brutality and intimidation since colonial times. But this time police repression ignited a massive uprising of the people. The Santhals were the main force in the uprising but other communities like Mundas and Mahatos also joined in a successful united front composed of many radical forces. The movement spread and grew so strong that the administration had to withdraw all eight police camps from the sensitive areas within a month. It was a great victory.

But the Maoists had different plans. When some of the prominent leaders of the mass movement declared that they ought to intervene in local elections the Maoists had one of them killed as a revisionist class enemy. After this they systematically banned all mass organizations and demobilized all mass action at gunpoint. Armed Maoist squads ruled the villages for six months until the state government, looking for precisely this opportunity, called in federal forces and routed the Maoists. Now Lalgarh is a celebration of capitalist triumph as the SEZ plant is declared to be a great model for “development” in Lalgarh.

Maoism is a form of radical nationalism
The problem with Maoism is both its analysis of the nature of global capitalism and its identification of the agent for change. It is a political tendency committed to the armed overthrow of a state that is both independent (not “semicolonial”) and democratic. There is no doubt as to the limited nature of a bourgeois democracy but to dismiss it as a puppet state in the hands of foreign capital as the Maoists do, is a serious mistake as millions of ordinary people in India still have immense faith in democracy, despite the ravages of capitalism.

This nationalist analysis of global capital is not unique to Maoists. The bulk of the Indian Left responds to “globalization” through a rhetoric of strengthening the national economy of India. As a recent revolutionary analysis put it:

This is not peculiar to the M-L groups—but a soft nationalism shared by the entire Left spectrum in India and stems from the inability to imagine a politics that is both anti-capitalist and internationalist in more than purely rhetorical ways. The rhetoric of anti-globalization, which opposes the reintegration of India back into the world economy, forms the lowest common denominator of the Left in India. The Indian Left conceives revolutionary politics within a framework of national isolationism, thereby reducing every political project to defending national sovereignty against the forces of international capitalism. 13

The nature of global capitalism is such that even though it appears formally to be a simple collection of discrete nationalist economies, its real function and method of operation is exactly the reverse. As Jairus Banaji succinctly put it: “‘organic integration’ between capitals across national boundaries is precisely what defines capitalism, unless one is going to see the latter as an aggregation of national economies.”14 Which means internationalism is not an option, but a central element in both analyzing and consequently fighting global capital.

There is a reason why Maoists argue for a stagist theory of revolution. It is because they see the revolution halted at the point of bourgeois revolution, after which they can get on with the real task of building a strong nationalist economy. In one of his first public statements upon taking state power in Nepal, the Nepalese Maoist leader Prachanda declared without a hint of irony that since globalization was unavoidable, his party’s goal was to turn Nepal into the “Switzerland of Asia” and encourage tourism. Similarly, the Indian Maoists operating in the mineral-rich zones, have repeatedly stated that they were not against mining corporations but simply wanted them to behave in a more equitable manner toward the people.

Maoism, unlike revolutionary socialism, is a doctrine that thrives in scarcity. Whereas democracy, freedom of the press, and a strong, confident working class are the fertile ground for socialist ideas, being the self-proclaimed vanguard of the most depressed classes, usually living under the most undemocratic conditions, is the recruiting ground for Maoism. This is because Maoists do not believe that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class. The revolution for the Maoist is made by a dedicated team of guerrilla warriors, not the masses of people led by workers.

Maoist organizing, in effect, implies that only the poorest are the most revolutionary. This in practice means that the Maoists routinely exclude organized workers—those who have a little better pay or working conditions. It would be hard for Maoists to make sense of recent research that shows that the bulk of overseas investment by capitalists has been to industrially advanced countries of the Global North—to North America, Japan, and Europe. In other words, the rate of exploitation of the worker in the Global North may be higher than the indigenous peasant of Orissa. This in no way denies the terrible conditions of the peasant, but Marxist analysis is not a competitive sport about various hierarchies of suffering, but a guide to ending it.

Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development and his theory of permanent revolution are just such guides to understanding the current nature of global capital and identifying the agents who can defeat it. Poverty or backwardness of an economy, Trotsky argued, could not be judged formally but have to be seen as part of a whole. The most concentrated industry in Europe, Trotsky wrote of Russia, was based on the most backward agriculture in Europe.

Recently British socialist Neil Davidson has done a detailed analysis of this and shown how the uneven development of the capitalist system worldwide leads to unique combinations where advanced and archaic forms interact with each other within the same terrain. Simply put, if a particular national economy looks mainly agrarian, it does not mean it is feudal and we need a Wat Tyler15 leading the charge. It means that there might exist the most backward forms of caste violence that seems feudal alongside the most sophisticated aluminum smelting factory. Indeed, in the case of India, the owner of the factory in all likelihood will be the perpetrator of the caste violence. Capital is perfectly happy to allow precapitalist forms to survive as long as it does not impede or can assist in its drive for profit.

But let’s say, as in the case of Nepal, there is a king in power and the working class is minuscule? For Trotsky, under roughly similar conditions, the answer still was the working class. For him, the problems facing Tsarist Russia—the land question for a vast peasantry, the overthrow of the Tsar, a small but significant working class, introduction of democracy—were still problems that could only be solved by workers. Because the workers leading the revolution would never stop at the purely “democratic” or “bourgeois” tasks, instead they would use their power to overthrow the old ruling class completely, thus making the revolution socialist and “permanent.” Once this was achieved in a backward country, however, the revolution had to become permanent in another sense—it would have to internationalize and spread, because a tiny working class under backward economic conditions could not build a society of abundance that was socialism.

India today, however, has a vast and potentially extremely powerful working class. Even the indigenous people that the Maoists fetishize are not some exotic forest dwellers protecting some eternal lifestyle, but a people struggling to survive an extraordinary mix of livelihood strategies in which farming is supplemented with non-agrarian work—usually as manual laborers in construction, forest product collection and sale, and sometimes small businesses like renting out jeeps or running small tea stalls. While the majority of workers are unorganized and there is more push from the neoliberals to attack the organized sector, the fact still remains that tens of millions of Indian workers are still in organized trade unions and are capable of fighting back. One only needs to remember the massive general strike in early 2012 when millions of workers took part in a general strike, the largest of its kind since independence. There was nothing remotely semifeudal about the scenes on the streets of all the major urban centers where workers marched against privatization and for higher wages.

In conclusion, I would like to say something about the function of sensational violence of the Maoist kind. Both the Maoists and the Indian state would like us to think that the most urgent conflict in India today is Maoist violence. Just as here in the United States the corporate media tend to ignore a mass demonstration and focus on one smashed Starbucks window by a “brave” man in a bandana. But there are developments in India and the Global South that are far more threatening to the health of capitalism which it chooses wisely not to draw attention to. For instance, in India there has been a rapid growth in new independent trade unions such as the National Trade Union Initiative and also a growth in new forms of mass struggles that can be called neo-Gandhian, such as Narmada Bachao Andolan. These come with their own limitations, but they are certainly organizations and movements of ordinary workers who are trying to figure out the best way forward.

  1. Praful Bidwai, “Two Decades of Neo-Liberalism in India,” Daily Star, August 4, 2011,
  2. Charlie Hore, “China: Whose Revolution? 1949 and the Road to Power,”
  3. V. I. Lenin, “Draft Theses on the National and Colonial Questions for the Second Congress of the Communist International,” June 5, 1920,
  4. Harrison Salisbury, The Long March (London: Pan, 1986), 10–12.
  5. Hore.
  6. Arundhati Roy, “Walking with the Comrades,” Outlook India, March 29, 2010,
  7. Orissa has one of the largest concentrations of tribal population in the whole country, 22.13 percent according to the 1991 census.
  9. Jason Miklian and Scott Carney, “Fire in the Hole,” Foreign Policy, Sept.–Oct. 2010.
  10. Roy, Walking with Comrades, 25.
  11. Jairus Banaji, “The Ironies of Indian Maoism,” International ­Socialism, Issue 128, October 14, 2010.
  12. Mao Tse-Tung, “Problems of War and Strategy,” November 6, 1938,
  13. Kunal Chattopadhyay, “The Path of Naxalbari: An Appraisal,” Radical Socialist, September 20, 2010,
  14. Banaji.
  15. Wat Tylor was a leader of the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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