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The Emerging Left in the "Emerging" World | Four part article by Jayati Ghosh

10 October 2013

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Four articles below that appeared in TripleCrisis were originally delivered in 2012 as part of the Ralph Miliband Lecture Series at the London School of Economics.

The Emerging Left in the "Emerging" World [Part 1]

by Jayati Ghosh

Editors’ note: Back in May 2012, economist and founding Triple Crisis contributor Jayati Ghosh delivered, as part of the Ralph Miliband Lecture Series at the London School of Economics, a lecture titled "The Emerging Left in the ’Emerging’ World." In it, she highlights the ways in which a new and varied "emerging" left across the so-called developing world is departing from some of the tenets of 20th century socialism (in both its social democratic and state socialist forms), as well as elements of continuity with the past. The combination of the new and the old represent an appealing vision of socialism - and one that is much better than anything simply dreamed up by a lone thinker, since it is something really happening in the world today.

We are happy to be able to present an edited version of the lecture, serialized in four parts, today and each of the following three Wednesdays, and hope that it will provoke lively discussion.


The global left is much more dynamic, especially in the South, than most people perceive. Many left movements - in Latin America, Africa, and developing Asia - are proceeding from a rejection of capitalism to imagining alternatives. As their views about what constitutes a desirable alternative to capitalism have shifted, they have come to question several key aspects of 20th century socialist orthodoxy. Here, we look at seven features of emerging left movements that suggest a move away from traditional socialist ideas, plus two important areas of continuity with the leftist thinking of the past.

Of course, there is not just one single "emerging left," even in any single world region. Left politics and left positions have always been extremely diverse, all the more so now.

For much of the 20th century, it was easier to talk about an overarching socialist framework, a "grand vision" within which more specific debates were conducted. While there were many strands of socialism, with fierce and sometimes violent conflicts between them, they shared a common fundamental vision. At the risk of oversimplification, they all saw the working class as the fundamental agent of positive change, capable (once organized) of transforming not only existing economic relations but also the wider society and culture.

More recently, the very idea of a grand vision has been in retreat, battered first by the failings of "actually existing socialism" in various incarnations, and more lately by the ferocious triumphalism of an unfettered "free market" capitalism. Indeed, the only grand vision that dominated the late 20th century was that of the market as a self-regulating and supremely efficient mechanism for organizing economic life.

Despite the "anti-government" rhetoric associated with it, "free market" or "neoliberal" capitalism was never really about reducing the role of the state in economic life. Rather, it was about changing the nature of state intervention - away from its ameliorative and regulatory functions (as exemplified, in the global North, by the U.S. "New Deal" and western European social democracy), and towards an open defense of the interests of large capital. The "close partnership of capital and the capitalist state," to quote the great Marxist theorist of the state, Ralph Miliband, was never really all that disguised. With the government responses to the global crises of the last half decade, however, it has become too overwhelming to conceal. The supposed ideology of free markets has been laid bare for all to see as a cover for the ever-greater concentration of capital, and the use of the state to accelerate that process.

In much of the developing world, and in parts of Europe and North America, the majority are no longer willing to quietly accept the unevenly shared burdens of the capitalist crisis. Even as resistance to global capitalism builds up in both South and North, however, it tends to be accompanied by the gloomy perception that grand socialist visions of the future are no longer possible. A basic lack of confidence in any other way of organizing economic life still permeates mass protests in Europe and especially the United States. Indeed, much of the popular protest across the world today is still essentially about "resistance" rather than "transformation." It is engaged primarily in a rearguard action to restrain the worst excesses of current capitalism-to act as a civilizing and moderating force-rather than conceiving and putting in place alternative systems.

Elsewhere, in Asia, Latin America. and Africa, the discourse of left movements is becoming quite different. The new left movements often do not formulate their views in clear theoretical terms, nor as part of a consistent and holistic analytical structure. Nonetheless, they tend to share in common a break with the traditional (20th century) socialist vision of centralized government control over an undifferentiated mass of workers. They are placing more explicit emphasis on the rights and concerns of women, ethnic minorities, tribal communities, and other marginalized groups, as well as a recognition of ecological constraints and the imperative of respect for nature. These concerns are rendered explicitly, for example, in the new constitutions promulgated by left governments in Bolivia and Ecuador. But they are also increasingly articulated by groups as diverse as trade unions in southern Africa, "New Left" intellectuals in China, and social movements in India.

The Emerging Left in the "Emerging" World: Seven Common Threads [Part 2]

by Jayati Ghosh

Editors’ note: This is the second part (of four) of "The Emerging Left in the ’Emerging’ World," by Triple Crisis founding contributor Jayati Ghosh, originally delivered in 2012 as part of the Ralph Miliband Lecture Series at the London School of Economics. We posted the introduction last week (here). In this second part of the lecture, Ghosh presents the first two of "seven common threads" shared by the emerging left: democracy and scale.

What I call "the emerging Left" shares seven common threads that appear in otherwise very distinct political formations and in very different socioeconomic contexts. These are not always "new ideas" - in fact they are more often than not old ideas that appear new because of the changing context and the collective failure of memory, even within the left itself. Still, these seven threads - new attitudes toward democracy, scale and centralization, private property, the discourse of rights, class and other identities, women and gender, and the environment-all represent breaks from 20th century socialist orthodoxy.

On Democracy

In contrast to some earlier socialist approaches, in which the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat was misinterpreted (often willfully) to suppress procedural democracy, there is much greater willingness of the emerging left to engage with and even rely upon formal democratic processes associated with "bourgeois democracy": elections; referenda; legal rights, judicial proceedings, etc. Even as left movements and parties recognize the limitations of electoral democracy-especially the effective takeover of democratic institutions by money power and corporate media-they have come to rely more and more on formal democratic institutions. The radical governments in Latin America (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, etc.) derive their legitimacy from the ballot box. In other countries, the emerging left is the greatest champion of democratic and pluralist institutions-as well as the most concerned about their corruption and manipulation by entrenched interests and corporate power.

This stands in sharp contrast from many 20th century socialist movements, which viewed all institutions of the bourgeois state as inherently tainted, incapable of reform, and impossible to use to bring about positive change. As a result, they often rejected formal democracy and pluralism even after attaining government power themselves.

Within emerging left groups today, there is increasingly a trend towards the rejection of top-down models of party organization (such as were exemplified in the practice of "democratic centralism" in the official communist parties). Instead, left movements are moving towards more open, democratic party structures, the embrace of a plurality of opinions, and experiments in alternative systems of decision-making (deliberation, consensus-building, etc.).

On Largeness and Scale

The second relatively "new" feature is the rejection of over-centralization. The centralizing, homogenizing state was a central element of "actually existing socialism" throughout much of the 20th century. Even today, it remains embedded deep in the consciousness of many self-identified socialists. In the classical Marxist view, the trend within capitalism toward production at larger and larger scales was seen, paradoxically, as having a positive side. Though it went hand in hand with the centralization of capital in fewer and fewer hands, it also brought together ever-larger groups of workers, who could (if organized) use their collective power to radically alter production relations. In power, many self-described socialist parties made large-scale production a fetish. This tendency reached an extreme in the Soviet Union, where party leaders and economic planners strove to build the world’s largest factories, dams, and so on-sometimes as ends in themselves.

Still, there were some good reasons for the socialist celebration of largeness, which remain valid. Economic development requires large-scale investment that must be centrally planned, at least to some degree, to be successful. Decisions about some of the most important economic issues-the direction of investment, the production of socially desirable goods and services, and the distribution of income and wealth-necessarily require not just some but often very substantial degrees of centralization. This means that even the emerging left should not engage in a simplistic celebration of everything "small."

Nonetheless, most tendencies in this newer left emphasize the importance of developing small-scale production. This reflects a strong move, also for good reasons, away from past attempts to centralize control over all aspects of material life, which have been characterized by extreme rigidity, hierarchy, and lack of accountability.

The turn away from largeness towards smaller-scale organization is also a reaction to two features of contemporary capitalist economies. First, there is the recent experience of the downsides of largeness-banks that are too big to fail, giant multinationals that are unaccountable and cannot be taxed, and so on. Second, technology - especially the convergence of new information, communications, and energy technologies - is opening up new possibilities for decentralized production, and suggests the possibilities for a new, locally managed, decentralized, but globally connected economy.

So emerging left movements and the governments they lead do not insist on centralized ownership and control over all economic activities. They recognize small-scale producers as worthy of both direct state support and more general "enabling conditions" necessary for their continued existence and vitality. Where there are significant economies of scale, left movements are exploring organizational forms, like cooperatives, that avoid the rigidity and authoritarianism of past models. The aim is to find a proper balance between large and small, which will obviously vary depending on context.

The Emerging Left in the "Emerging" World: More Threads [Part 3]

by Jayati Ghosh

On Private Property

Earlier models of socialism, such as Soviet style "state socialism", did away with private property in the means of production, only recognizing private rights over personal belongings. The new leftist thinking is more ambivalent about private property - disliking it when it is seen as monopolizing or highly concentrated (for example in the form of multinational corporations) but otherwise not just accepting of it, but even (as in the case of small producers) actively encouraging it. Increasingly, left movements and governments have recognized the value of other kinds of property rights as well, particularly communal property associated with traditional indigenous communities. Again, this runs strongly counter to earlier centralizing and "modernizing" models of socialism, which derided these communities and their communal property forms as premodern relics that had to be done away with.

On ’Rights’

Just as the emerging left tendencies engage more positively with formal democratic institutions, they also tend to speak more and more in the language of "rights." They do not, however, see rights exclusively or primarily in the individualistic or "libertarian" sense of so-called "negative rights" or "freedom from" some form of intrusion. Rather, they define rights more broadly in terms of "positive rights" or "freedom to" of various kinds, as well as recognizing the need for social and political voice not just of individual citizens, but also of communities and groups. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be interpreted as a socialist manifesto, since it calls for the recognition of this wide variety of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. In practice, left governments and political groups have pressed citizens’ or groups’ demands for rights or entitlements on the state. Left groups have, recently, recognized more explicitly the rights of indigenous peoples, communities and even "nations" within a country, as well as of the elderly, the young, and persons with disabilities. This reflects the emerging left’s wider and more diverse definition of the groups it identifies as exploited, which in turn requires new forms of organization and mass mobilization.

On Class and Identities

The standard socialist paradigm that emerged in the 19th century and developed in the 20th saw class as the fundamental contradiction within each society, with imperialism as the defining feature of relations between countries. This paradigm ignored other cultural attributes or treated them as subordinate to class. Other forms of domination or oppression were transient tendencies-premodern or semi-feudal relics-which would be destroyed by the expansion of market forces and capitalism generally. These supposed "relics," like gender and ethnic oppression, however, have proved extremely durable and resilient. The capitalist system, meanwhile, has shown a remarkable ability to absorb and make use of various "precapitalist" forms of social exclusion and discrimination (as in labor markets "segmented" along ethnic or gender lines). This has forced a realization, on the part of the left, that it is not enough to address issues in class terms alone. Many strands of the emerging left are now much more explicitly (even dominantly) concerned with inequalities, oppression, and exploitation that are not easily reducible to "class" in the traditional socialist understanding. It is a separate question whether this shift in focus (at least in its most dramatic forms) is always justified, especially as class and imperialism still remain such powerful determining forces in the world today.

On Gender

A changed attitude to the "woman question"-and a more complex understanding of the nature and locations of exploitation-are features of many emerging left movements. Of course, women have been part of the working class since the beginning of capitalism, even when they have not been widely acknowledged, even by the labor movement and the left, as workers in their own right. Their contribution to social reproduction, always essential to the functioning of the system and almost always unpaid, also went largely unrecognized. For more than a century, trade unions and other worker organizations tended to be male preserves, based on the "male breadwinner" model of the household in which the husband/father worked outside to earn money, while the wife/mother handled domestic work.

It has taken prolonged struggle, especially by working-class women, to gain greater social recognition for both women’s wage work and their unpaid household and community-based work. This is not to say that patriarchy has suddenly disappeared from the ranks of leftist organizations and movements - this is, unfortunately, a longer struggle.

On the Environment

Traditional Marxists tended to glory in the development of productive forces as an expression of the forward march of history. This does not necessarily require an exploitative and aggressive attitude to nature, but in actual practice this was the case only too often. The requirements of an organic and sustainable attitude to nature were rarely factored into left movements’ and governments’ discussions about accumulation and economic growth. All this has changed quite dramatically in recent years. Among the primary contradictions of contemporary capitalism are the ways it collides with ecological and resource limits-as evidenced by pollution, over-extraction, and other forms of degradation of the natural environment. Capitalism’s unsustainable patterns of production, consumption, and accumulation are generating open conflicts over resources and forcing societies to change, often in undesired ways. Visions for more humane and just societies therefore have to incorporate these critical concerns.

Today, many self-described socialists see environmental conservation, the protection of ecosystems and biodiversity, and the recovery of degraded natural spaces as matters of primary public interest. Some recent constitutions (of Ecuador and Bolivia, for example) explicitly grant rights to nature independent of people.

The Emerging Left in the "Emerging" World: Two Areas of Continuity [Part 4]

by Jayati Ghosh

Editors’ note: This is the fourth and final part of "The Emerging Left in the ’Emerging’ World," by Triple Crisis founding contributor Jayati Ghosh, originally delivered in 2012 as part of the Ralph Miliband Lecture Series at the London School of Economics. Find the first three parts of the lecture here, here, and here. In this week’s post, Ghosh discusses two areas of "strong continuity" between the traditional left and the emerging left: "the attitude toward the significance of the nation state and the attitude toward imperialism."

None of these emerging left positions [the "seven common threads"] is completely new. There are many strands of earlier leftist thought that contain some of these features. The concern with women’s rights and the recognition of other forms of oppression, for example, can be found in the writings of Marx and Engels, as well as other socialist thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Still, the features outlined above do represent significant departures from the traditional left paradigm.

Meanwhile, there are two crucial features of strong continuity between the traditional and the emerging left: the attitude towards the significance of the nation state and the attitude towards imperialism.

On the Nation State

At one level, the need to focus on the nation state is obvious: demands for rights, whether for individuals or communities or even nature, must be defined in relation to some means to achieve these rights. The nation state remains the basic location for such demands and negotiation. The demands pressed by left movements today require state intervention in all sorts of ways: reining in finance, determining how nature can be used, redistributing income and wealth, and so on. How leftists engage with the state, even when they recognize it as "the executive arm of the bourgeoisie" (to quote Miliband again), is a constant tightrope act. Left movements tread a fine line between a too-easy compromise that thwarts progressive objectives, and a rigid insistence on "purity" that can render left forces irrelevant. The movements of the emerging left recognize the need to transform the state, much like the traditional left, though the former has adopted a much wider range of strategies than were available to the left during much of the 20th century.

On Imperialism

The "cosmopolitan" character of capitalist production and accumulation has never been more evident. Capitalism spills across all national borders. The concern of the emerging left in the "emerging world" with imperialism - in the broad sense of large capital’s use of the state as a means to control economic territory (land, labor, markets, knowledge, etc.) - is its second major continuity with the traditional left. The emerging left in the global South, on this score, actually resembles the traditional left more than it does many recent left tendencies in developed countries that increasingly tend to view imperialism as an outdated concept, rendered irrelevant by globalization. But the struggle over economic territory of different kinds is as significant as ever. Indeed, the relative decline of the only current superpower has further accentuated it. The left in the emerging world, unlike its northern counterparts, has to confront imperialism as a daily reality, which includes not just naked military aggression but also newer instruments such as privatized intellectual property rights and new "economic partnership agreements" guarding the interests of large capital (especially that of the world’s most powerful nations).

In the North

In recent years, the global South has been the epicenter of alternative progressive visions for the future organization of economies and societies. Recent happenings in Europe and the United States suggest, however, a more complex reality in the North as well. As the "Occupy" movement in the United States, the Indignados (indignant) of Spain, and other left political movements show, more and more people in the North are recognizing how the current economic system is fundamentally inimical to their interests. This realization is beginning to spur a search for economic alternatives.

The fundamental premises of the socialist project - the unequal, exploitative and oppressive nature of capitalism; the capacity of human beings to change society and thereby alter their own futures; and the necessity of collective organization to do so - remain as valid as ever. The fecundity of the socialist alternatives cropping up in different parts of the world suggests that - even in what are otherwise depressing times - the project is still very dynamic and full of promise.


The above 4 part article from Triple crisis is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use.