CORRECTION: The book was not republished jointly by AK Press and Kersplebedeb, but as a joint project of the Kalikot Book Series and Kersplebedeb. AK Press only distributed it. The Kalikot Book Series and Kersplebedeb also published Zak Cope’s “Divided Class, Divided World,” JMP’s “The Communist Necessity,” and is publishing a new book on China as an imperialist country (forthcoming).
As my first blog entry, I’m posting a review of Robert Biel’s Eurocentrism in the Communist Movement.
As indicated in the title, Biel’s work was intended to challenge a racist and chauvinistic current within the official communist movement led by the Soviet Union and communist parties in the imperialist countries (i.e Western Europe and North America). The book is based on the research conducted in the 1980s by the Political Economy Study Group (PESG) of the Revolutionary Communist League of Britain (RCLB) and was originally published as a pamphlet.
The document was recently re-published as a book under Biel’s name, with new footnotes and a chapter bringing the book’s content up to date. Biel does not discuss the gendered aspect of capitalism extensively in Eurocentrism, but he seems to draw more attention to the issue vis-à-vis the super-exploitation of women and oppressed nations in two books that followed (New Imperialism and Entropy of Capitalism) both of which I have not yet read.
In any case, Biel’s primary purpose in this book is to demonstrate the necessary connection between Eurocentrism within the communist movement and its degeneration into reformism, and subsequent co-optation by global capitalism. Revolutionary communists often describe this current as “revisionism,” comprising of communists who abandon the Marxist principle of class struggle in favour of “peaceful transition to socialism,” and appropriate the Marxist discourse to serve their reformist if not overtly capitalist goals, against the interests of working-class and oppressed peoples whom they claim to serve.
Biel argues that this revisionist turn in the communist movement was characterized by the revisionists’ abandonment of dialectical materialism as a philosophical framework. Dialectical materialists see the world as full of contradictions and in constant flux (dialectical) and subsequently see class conflict as the mover of history (materialism). However, in place of dialectical materialism, the revisionists adapt a mechanical and linear view of history in which development of capitalism is seen as natural and inevitable. Biel argues that this theoretical orientation has shaped the movement’s Eurocentric view and its relationship with, and attitude towards anti-colonial struggles in Third World.
The defining characteristic of this view is to see capitalism as progressive in destroying Indigenous modes of production, bringing the colonial and semi-colonial peoples up to par with the proletarians in the industrialized Global North, hence increasing the possibility of revolution. It accordingly frames Europe as the centre of social progress and the European working-class as the sole driver of world history, while sidelining the struggle of colonized peoples and framing them as the receiving end of revolution, rather than active participants. Marx and Engels infamously adapted this view in their analysis of British colonialism in India.
Unlike the popular criticism of revisionism which often associates its rise to the theories of Karl Kautsky, and later the post-Stalin Soviet and policies of Nikita Khruschev, Biel goes back all the way to Marx and Engels. According to Biel, both men gradually developed more sophisticated anti-colonial analysis and sympathy with the struggles of colonized peoples. However, they remained trapped in the racist ideology of their time, characterized by their view of history as linear progress passing through stages. They did not try hard enough to move beyond it, though he acknowledges that Marx went further than Engels did.
Lenin significantly transcended Marx and Engels’s Eurocentric limits by acknowledging the agency of colonized peoples and their increasingly active role in the making of world history, but he did not criticize the shortcomings of Marx and Engels. In addition, he still saw non-European societies as stagnant, seeing their struggle as something new, rather than dating back to early days of capitalism.
Despite Lenin’s contributions to the development of anti-colonialism within Marxism, his death led to its weakening and the deepening of Eurocentrism within the communist movement. During the period of Third International (Comintern) in the 1930s, creative ideas of participating Third World communists and other communists of colour were ignored and marginalized. The interests of anti-colonial struggles were subordinated to the anti-fascist Popular Front strategy formulated in the industrialized centre.
In such a climate, the Chinese Revolution was a great accomplishment, not only to the Chinese masses but to Marxism, the communist movement, and anti-colonial struggles around the world, proving that non-European peoples can make revolution on their own terms. However, Biel does not spare his criticism for the Chinese communists either, pointing out the weakness of their political economy and dogmatism during the Cultural Revolution.
Throughout the book, Biel is acutely aware of the danger of anti-revisionism in which the ruthless criticism of revisionism could lapse into dogmatism. Nonetheless, as a dialectical materialist, he is also cognizant of the contradictory nature of everything and contributions made by each Marxist in developing the revolutionary theory, in spite of their shortcomings.
There are very notable strengths in Biel’s work. For one, it challenges what many postmodern and liberal theorists see in Marxism; the Eurocentrism in Marxism as the defining characteristic of Marxism, as an undifferentiated and homogenous theory (which is ironic given their obsession with diversity and differences). He skilfully demonstrates the usefulness and effectiveness of Marxism in correcting its own errors and the fact that many anti-colonial struggles have taken up Marxism as a tool of liberation in places like Asia, Africa, Latin America, and North America as exemplified by Black and Red Power movements in the late 1960s and 70s. The places that were hitherto seen as “periphery” became the forefront of revolutionary movement.
In a similar vein, Biel criticizes reactionary elements within anti-colonial movements that see class differences as a foreign import, just like they see feminism as a sign of colonization on part of Indigenous women. However, the book is not an attempt to superimpose class-based analysis on Indigenous movements. Rather, it is an attempt to re-conceptualize class in a way that takes the specificity of colonial oppression into consideration.
Another significant aspect of the book is that its intended audience is not the colonized peoples per se, but the leftists in the imperialist countries and for them to challenge Eurocentrism within their own ranks, and stand in solidarity with anti-colonial struggles. This reflects Biel’s awareness that the people in the North do have a role to play in making revolution on the global scale, unlike what the advocates of Third Worldism believe.
Despite these strengths, there are some weaknesses in Biel’s analysis. As Biel focuses his effort on criticizing revisionism essentially as an Eurocentric ideology, he does not pay much attention to Trotskyism and its own Eurocentrism, aside from few comments on Trotsky’s disdain of peasantry and the national question. This is despite the fact that (as JMP shows), many Trotskyist organizations, particularly orthodox ones like the Spartacist League, still see the industrial working-class as the sole leading class of world revolution.
Another weakness of the book is unfortunately what many other Marxist studies of colonialism have not done. While Biel’s analysis of migration in Chapter 9 is one of the most progressive, the general focus of his work is on Third World and the North/South contradiction. As a result, the question of internal colonies (or “Fourth World” as coined by George Manuel) and the struggle of Indigenous Peoples within settler-colonies are not explicitly addressed and only mentioned in passing.
This may be partially excusable as Biel is based in the U.K. Still, he could have done better in bringing in concrete examples of struggle in North America and particularly Canada, a British colony! But this is partially due to the fact that Marxists have historically had very little to say about Indigenous Peoples in North America, aside from Marx and Engels’ work on the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and perhaps the negative encounter between Russell Means and the RCP-USA in the 1980s.
This weakness could nonetheless be counteracted by Biel’s claim that Marxism is not at all antagonistic to Indigenous modes of production. In some cases, it has recognized that capitalism preserves non-capitalist modes of production (i.e feudalism) to accumulate profit more effectively. In other cases, it has seen the co-operative manner in which many non-capitalist societies are organized as a a model for a new socialist society. While the latter view could be seen as romantic and implicitly subscribing to the discourse of “Noble Savage”, Biel’s anti-colonial politics is by no means anti-development and rather defined by his unqualified support for the right of colonized peoples to self-determination and direct their own future.
Glen Coulthard has provided much needed Indigenous voice to this matter in his recent book Red Skin, White Mask: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Despite the significance of Coulthard’s work, however, his analysis of Marxism is solely based on Marx and his theory of primitive accumulation, rather than contributions made by later Marxists that Biel highlights (i.e Lenin and Mao). Coulthard subsequently conflates Eurocentrism in Marxism with Marxism as such and subscribes to the view that Marxism is inherently Eurocentric.
Finally but not least, as much as I would like to recommend this book to everyone who is interested in Marxism, it assumes that the readers already know certain Marxist terminologies and gist of historical events that took place in the theory’s development. The book subsequently limits the audience to those already well-versed in Marxism, which is unfortunate considering the book’s practical implications for activists and organizers on the ground. In spite of these shortcomings, I highly recommend Robert Biel’s Eurocentrism in the Communist Movement for those who want to renew their understanding of Marxism and anti-colonial politics.